April 06, 2010
April 03, 2010
Direct to you from the men's room wall in the Thunderbird Cafe, Austin TX:
November 29, 2009
My Kinyarwanda Glossary (with some Swahili)
beete = hi*
nibgeza = response to "beete"
amakuru? = how are you?*
meza = I'm good*
sawa = I'm good* (Swahili)
mwatamutse = good morning
murakoze = thank you*
namway = you're welcome* (colloquial)
karibu = You are welcome* (to my home, etc) (Swahili)
Seka! = "Smile!"* (for the camera)
mumuji = downtown*
umusoze = a mountain
imisoze = plural mountains
umuduri = traditional stringed instrument; sounds like an Irish fiddle
umupira wo kwambara = T-shirt
umupira gukina = soccer ball
ambara = to wear
umwembe = mango
safari = trip, journey* (Swahili)
safari njema = have a good trip (Swahili)
inga = cow
ikiyoni = crow
ignoko = chicken
koko = really
ariko - but
amahoro* = peace
ikyayi = tea
itasi = cup
and of course...
mzungu = white person* (Swahili)
They sell sweatshirts with that word on them in the Nairobi airport. I didn't buy one.
November 27, 2009
Well, back at my desk I find I have relatively little new to say, old chums, except that I'd like to get out of here again. You know, I work in the same place I live -- in the same room I sleep -- and it surprises me, or not, to discover, after half a century, that being inside for too long drives me flukin STIR-CRAZY. Has this been the problem all along?
I have an absolute need for breezes, just as I do for solitude and for daily exposure to good prose.
In addition, within 24 hours of the heat coming on I start getting congested and unless I get out of there fast I cough all winter.
There are several places I'd like to drive or fly in the near future.
Meanwhile,I have belatedly discovered the secret method of leaving the house: open the door!
I do, however, have a lot of paying work in December to keep me sitting but not awakened, so I'm thinking I probably won't post very much this coming month. I type too much already.
November 18, 2009
Photos You Can Hear
The woman in purple was totally, I mean totally. I wanted to either marry her or steal her life force, assuming those are two different things. The woman in glasses next to her is her sister, and also a rocker.
I sometimes think that if you knew you'd be singing this music at the end of the week, you could stand almost anything during the six days prior. Plus there are rehearsals.
A singer in the choir, she just walked to the front and did that once in a while. Wait, what do I mean walked to the front?
It was a privilege to be there.
Okay, here are some more. I took these.
waiting for church
Christina outside church (Paige in foreground)
November 15, 2009
Murambi Genocide Memorial Center; Church of Ste. Famille
The classroom buildings are now a memorial -- room after room of skeletons. The perpetrators doused the bodies with lime immediately after killing, to hasten disintegration, but the skeletons remain and some of them have patches of black hair on their heads, and even shreds of clothing.
The memorial rooms stink of death, still. On the pelvis of each skeleton there are two or three camphor balls to ameliorate the smell.
I'm including as few details as I can. I feel it is important to give you a glimpse.
Below, a mother holding her child. The red ribbon was placed there by a visiting relative.
The man below lives at the Murambi site and serves as an unofficial guide. He is standing outside the building where we saw the skeletons of his wife and five children. He does not leave the site. On the left side of his bald head you can see a round indentation where a bullet struck him but did not penetrate.
French soldiers used bulldozers to cover the mass graves at Murambi, then built volleyball courts on top. The French had commercial interests with the Hutu leaders at the time.
It's a pretty country.
Below, the church of Ste. Famille, the Holy Family, in downtown Kigali, the national capital. Many Catholic churches were genocide sites. Authorities, in more than a few cases priests, deliberately deceived the victims into thinking they would find sanctuary in a church. Thousands at a time were crammed into the small spaces: 20,000 in this one, which sounds impossible, but the perpetrators were experts at making use of space. Typically the victims were kept inside without food or water for up to two weeks, then shot or slashed. According to Costa, who stands in the foreground of the photo, the churchyard was filled with dead bodies when he arrived with the Tutsi militia on their revenge mission.
I promise, the rest of the Rwanda posts will be cheerful ones.
November 14, 2009
The Masked Neocolonialist
The mask is a public-health measure designed to protect the population, and ourselves, from flu. When we arrived, there had been one confirmed case of H1N1 in the entire country, and a few days later, there were three more, all of them in our little compound. While we were in Muhanga, an hour from the capital, a couple of us felt sick and went to the central hospital in Kigali for tests, which came out positive. A third tested positive shortly afterward, and the public health officials told us to wear masks (we informed them that masks had been shown to be of zero value, but they weren't listening). I kept my mask on for about two minutes, not long enough to learn to put it on properly.
I never developed any symptoms, owing in part to the fact that I belong to the least susceptible age group of Americans, in part to having drunk about a gallon of black elder berry extract over the past weeks, and in part to not giving a shit. I've made friends with my inner germ, and if it wants me it knows where to find me. Otherwise it can go bother someone else.
Most of my colleagues remained under house arrest while Pamela (the other uninfected mzungu) and I traveled north to see some mountain gorillas. In Muhanga, a sound truck cruised the streets announcing that Americans had brought disease, and to keep away from us. When we walked through the streets, children covered their noses and mouths and turned away. The Rwandan newspaper New Times had an article about us.
It was Columbus and the Indians all over again. We came to serve, and wound up bringing a new disease. Except that in this case, we apparently managed to keep the bug away from the natives: Costa was flu-free, and our houseman Gigy, a hip young guy about whom more needs to be said at some point, tested negative despite wandering around in an enervated red-eyed funk, mask securely fastened.
November 13, 2009
Rwanda photo 1
Thanks to all of you who commented on or read my posts from the road, and it's especially nice to get comments from a few new names. Just to repeat for the latter: I went to Rwanda to see a dear friend, Costa, and meet his family, and do some volunteer work having to do with rebuilding traditional mud brick houses and facilitating a self-help inquiry method called The Work of Byron Katie. Costa and his activities are supported by Groundwork Opportunities, a small new nonprofit org whose founders I've met. They're young, hard-working, committed, and knowledgable. A higher percentage of their donations go directly to their projects than just about any foundation's, and they've received funds from the Bill Gates Foundation and elsewhere.
Taken in the front yard of Costa's house in Kigali. Clockwise from top left: Pamela, Isabelle, Denise, Richard, Brenda, Bernadette (Costa's wife), Yves, Gentil, Queen (on lap), Costa (our leader; my brother), Christina, Jon.
I did stick my hand in my wallet pocket, NY style, when in crowds, but the precaution was unnecessary. I have never felt so safe or so welcome. I had no jet lag, no intestinal problems, no flu (though a couple of us had flu or flulike symptoms), no mosquito bites. Just the time of my life.
November 07, 2009
Gorillas in the Mist, H1N1 in the Guest House, Heaven in the Church, Mud Against the Wall
1. I previously opined that the church service was disappointing, but the following Sunday we all went to another one, at the same church, that knocked our socks off. We'd come too late for the choir the first time, but on Sunday we were fully present and armed with the spirit. They sang beautiful African gospel harmonies, dancing to the music, passing the microphone from one section of the choir to the other; and two or three of the women, including a pair of knockout fortyish sisters (alas, I did not get their phone numbers), were possessed with the greatest joy, hopping up and down, pointing ecstatically to the congregation, and had voices to match. The visiting preacher was a visiting bishop from Kenya who oversees 500 churches, and not only the power, but the benignity, of his preaching was beautiful.
2. We went to work on finishing two traditional houses made of mud brick, funded by Groundwork Opportunities, a nonprofit that helps fund our host Costa's work. No time to link now - I'll do it in future posts so you can donate! What we did was pick up handfuls of coarse wet mud that were poured onto the ground in heaps, and sling them hard against the handmade bricks of the wall. The mud gets smoothed down with a long horizontal stick, and after drying, is stuccoed. The owners of the two neighboring houses are families that were on opposite sides of the genocide and are now close friends. They are delighted with their new homes, into which they invited us with the greatest kindness. Among them was a six-month-old girl, Giselle, who loved to chew my index finger and thumb.
3. A member of our group and I rode four buses and a moto (motorcycle taxi) through rain and mist and bad roads from Kigali in the center of the country to Volcanoes National Park in the north to visit the world's last remaining mountain gorillas. The population is a bit over 700 and gradually rising. It costs $500 a person for admission (mostly applied to conservation and community projects), up to $50 for a guest house room, and $80 for a short jeep ride to the park, and it's worth every penny. We hiked up through the rain forest for about an hour, then reached the area where the trackers said the gorillas were. (There are several gorilla troops, and small groups of up to 8 tourists are assigned to each.) Our first contact was when the silverback rose up before us at a distance of about four feet to check us out. Our lead guide went into a crouch of submission, lowering his head and covering it with his hands, showing the boss that we meant no harm. We spent an hour with our gorilla friends, who included five females and five children as well as Mr. Big. Hundreds of photos were taken; locations were carefully shifted with those of the gorilla troop; the scientifically recommended distance of 7m was maintained. It was one of the highs of a lifetime.
4. We returned to a guest house increasingly full of sick muzungus wearing useless but bureaucratically required surgical masks. Step by step the situation became a farce. A doctor with his driver drove an hour from Kigali to swab-test the First World visitors; shortly afterward, an ambulance with another doctor drove up to the community center where we were doing The Work of Byron Katie with a group of HIV-infected women. The second doctor didn't believe in the existence of the first doctor, but they were put into telephone contact after much crosstalk among many interested parties. Upshot: we do have two confirmed cases of H1N1, but no severe symptoms, and some of us may have other viruses instead. Costa, Pamela, Brenda, and I have no symptoms, and quickly tossed away the surgical masks that were presented to us as solemn necessities when we returned to our home guest house. The crucial goal now is to be declared uninfected so that one can be put back on the plane on Tuesday instead of having to spend seven days in quarantine. We'll see!
November 03, 2009
We're finally getting down to some serious work here, which may make me feel less like I'm sponging off people. We were supposed to do the Work of Byron Katie at the prison yesterday but the warden was away and couldn't arrange security for us. Then we were supposed to assist in mud-brick house construction in the afternoon, but we had a downpour so we sat at a protected outdoor terrace for a long time having good conversation, assorted brochettes, and the by-now-expectable great, homemade fries. In the afternoon, as a group, we did The Work with five HIV-positive Rwandan women of various ages, perhaps helping open their minds to new, less painful ways of seeing their lives, and it was moving experience -- clearly difficult for the women to think about their pain, and they expressed gratitude afterward.
Today we're booked to work with prisoners again and do the house construction. It feels as if my experience is shifting from travel exploration into community service, and that feels exciting and a little scary.
I haven't had many opportunities to sit quietly in places where there's been Internet access, and at times I've been borrowing other people's paid online minutes, so I don't think I'll be able to post more frequently than I have been, but I wanted to say hello and tell you that everything's fine. Did I mention that there's wonderful camaraderie among the seven of us? I've taken lots of photos and written lots of journal notes, so when I get back to the States I'll winnow through them and post them and give you a much more detailed and thought-out picture of this experience, which I consider to be one of the privileges of my lifetime.
October 31, 2009
National Work Day
Meanwhile, I, the muzungu (white person), am sitting in the living room drinking excellent Rwandan mountain tea and eating chappatis and typing. Eveywhere I go, children call out, "Muzungu!" and say things like "Hello" or "How are you?" and shake my hand. The other day we walked past a long line of prisoners in orange jumpsuits -- these are men who have admited their role in the genocide and are being rehabilitated -- and a couple called out "muzungu" and I gave them the peace sign and they cheered. Have had experiences similar in the big open-air market and on the streets.
Last night I attended a charismatic church service at my hosts' chuch. I'd seen them often on TV but never in person, and I found that in person they're just like on TV! A portly, sweaty guest preacher bounced from one end of the stage to another proclaiming that nothing had given him satisfaction like God, telling us that in order to reach Canaan land you have to go through pain (the Bible text was a passage from Joshua about how God commanded the children of Israel to be circumcized again before they could enter the Promised Land). Mic'd, it was as loud as a rock concert in the 300-person room. There was singing and dancing afterward to a drum and organ accompaniment, and I was shocked to find that the Africans clapped on one and three instead of two and four! Neither was the dancing marked by any particularly magical looseness of limb, imaginative improvisation, or the like.
Yesterday was spent pleasantly sitting in a bare undecorated restaurant in the town of Muhunga, where I ate cooked cassava root and brochettes of goat meat and goat liver and, not least, some very good french fries. (There's a good beer here, BTW, called Primus, light and tangy with a slight sweetness, made from sorghum. There's also banana-based beer, which I hope to try later.)It rained briefly and hard and we went inside from the cafe terrace to watch, with a couple of new friends with whom we practiced three different languages. One was a geography teacher in secondary school, who teaches in English, a language of which he could trade only a very few phrases with me. I drew him a map of the US -- assuring hiim beforehand in French that I was the world's greatest artist -- and it was all new to him.
The schoolkids have just gotten thrugh a national exam that lasts, I think, two days. They all dress in clean outfits and wait tensely for the results. Acccording to Costa, private schools in Rwanda are good but expensive and the free public schools are overcrowded and not good. Oddly, Protestant schools here have a good reputation but Catholic schools do not.
There's much more ethnology around, much more than can fit here. Just wanted to tell you that everything's going well. Next week should be more serious for us -- doing The Work of Byron Katie with prisoners and other traumatized people. We've done a little of that so far, and it honestly seemed to have led some shut-off genocide survivors to open up. I've seen people smile who, according to my host, have not done so in years, and cry at confronting things that they had hid from for even longer.
October 28, 2009
Fourth Morning in Rwanda
The floors have been mopped and the front and back patios dusted, as on every morning. Yesterday my clothes were not only wash by hand but ironed, an experience most of them had never had before. Breakfast will be fresh, thick, soft Senegalese-style chappatis, sweet rolls, and Rwandan coffee or tea. Today Costa, our German friend Christina, and I will be taking a bus to the southern region of the country, about an hour away, to meet Costa's mom, who wants to give Costa her expert instructions on how to take care of Queen's convalescence.
Over the past couple of days we've been to two different genocide memorials, one, on the outskirts of town, a very suitably gruesome setup in a church where 5,000 Tutsis were rounded up and killed in one day. On a platform, hundreds of skulls are displayed; on the platform below it, countless leg bones; across the room, a collection of rusted machetes and clubs.
The other memorial, in town, was erected by the Belgian government in honor of ten Belgian soldiers who were killed trying to protect the opposition party leader on the day the genocide began. Ten simple memorial columns in the yard; educational posters in the now-empty rooms where the soldiers took their stand; grenade fragments and bloodstains on the interior walls; fist-size bullet holes all over the exterior walls.
It's hard to imagine a nation that is more constructively aware of its problems or facing them more honestly and progressively. And not just the genocide: a nationwide anti-litter campaign has been very successful, HIV awareness is all over the media (there's one TV station, government-owned, and seven radio stations, some of them foreign), and Rwanda, with the highest population density in sub-Saharan Africa, has the second lowest malaria rate, largely due to educational programs such as the Bill and Melinda Gates' foundation's work in promulgating mosquito netting. In addition, Rwanda's parliament is 55% female, the electorate having recoiled from the violent governments that produced periodic genocides and massacres from 1959 to 1995. Rwanda has received a fair amount of international aid in the past fifteen years and has used it well. To me it appears that if the average American were as aware of our nation's problems, and as committed to solving them, as the average Rwandan is for Rwanda, in a decade and a half our inner-city schools would be graduating masses of literate, ambitious, responsible adolescents, the problems of gang violence and drugs would disappear, our health care system would care for all Americans equally, and our government would mobilize a nationwide environmental cleanup and infrastructural upgrade. In other words, we would be the nation we ought to be. A much, much poorer nation than ours is accomplishing equivalent goals. We could even do it without the need for genocide memorials.
October 25, 2009
Where Am I?
I've even now heard stories which are too chilling, sobering, to tell here in a rush. They require books.
Two more weeks -- how will I be different at the end? This afternoon I'm going to church, an English-language service, with Costa. I thnk I'm also scheduled to accompany him to talk to a woman who has HIV as a result of the genocide.If I can't describe such things fully yet, I hope that time will allow me to.
Costa's year-old daughter went to the hospital last night, a problem with digesting breast milk. She's okay now.
Amid all this, things like not shaving and showering,and wake-sleep shedules, and brushing teeth from a half-glass of boiled water, seem of minimal import.
The completely ordinary, and the worldwide problems of economics, coexist here with the unimaginable. Will I be able imagine it after I've heard it? If so, there's the danger of it becoming ordinary: "Oh yes, you told me that story before." A defense mechanism to keep it at safe distance.
Meanwhile, there's fun! Meeting delightful individuals, immediate friends; talking a mix of English and French, and building affection through the effort; drinking East African coffee and tea, among the world's best. Watching TV, which is just like all TV but in a different language. Saw a good Congolese movie last night, though, a somwhat realistic romance-melodrama featuring famous regional musicians and actors.
Fifteen more nights under a moquito net, in a shared hot room where no mosquitoes are seen. Playing with 5-year-old Gentil, who can count to 1,000 in English and taught me how to fold a paper boat and blow bubbles.
See you later! Forgive me if I don't answer comments while I'm here. Later there will be photos and more time to write at length.
October 22, 2009
Ready to Go
Today it's the Minneapolis airport for five hours, which may be the most boring part of the trip. I chose a long layover rather than a 45-minute one, thinking that the latter was too risky for an international flight. Overnight to Amsterdam where my layover is long enough so that I hope to get out into the city for a walk and lunch. Then on to Kigali, Rwanda, via the Nairobi airport, which I've read is neither as bad nor as good as it could be.
I'm not bringing my computer, but there are internet cafes in Kigali so I hope to drop a few posts in here during my stay. I might save the photos for after I return -- there's a learning curve involved, I just bought a camera last night.
Stop by once in a while and see what's happening!
October 20, 2009
Bumper Sticker Patrol, Installment 7
Attack from the Distaff Side
It's the story of my life.
October 17, 2009
What Are They Reading in 1960?
A. The Light in the Piazza, by Elizabeth Spencer (1921- ), a literary bestseller by a genteel Southern quarterly doyenne, author of 38 books, five-time O. Henry Award recipient.
The Reader's Digest intro says, “This is a story of how the sensual beauty and warm summer sun of Florence worked their strange alchemy in the life of a lovely American girl – a story to which each reader will imagine his own sequel.”
I love the “his own sequel.” Ninety percent of the audience must have been female.
The opening sentence:
“On a June afternoon at sunset, an American woman and her daughter fended their way along a crowded street in Florence and entered with relief the spacious Piazza del Signoria.”
In other words, the nth dilution of Henry James’ Daisy Miller.
“This little book is a gem…one of the four best novels of 1960.” Orville Prescott, New York Time
But scoffers beware! This book was made into a 1962 movie (Olivia de Havilland-Rossano Brazzi-Yvette Mimieux-George Hamilton) and a well-received, innovative 2005 musical that ran for 504 performances at Lincoln Center and is regularly performed around the world, sometimes in opera houses.
B. Half Angel, by Barbara Jefferis. Lonely young Australian boy finds a mysterious cat with a jeweled collar. Problems arise! I never heard of it, though this was the height of my passion for the New York Times Book Review: I was eight.
C. A Sense of Values, by Sloan Wilson, author of the iconic 1950's executive-suite novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (reprinted in 2002 with a foreword by Jonathan Franzen)and A Summer Place, both hit movies (Gregory Peck-Jennifer Jones, Ricard Egan-Dorothy McGuire), the latter the provenance of the great song "Theme from A Summer Place." A well-known cartoonist (good choice!) grapples with the problems of success, a cold wife, a troubled son, inherited “melancholia” (a much better word for it than what we use now), and alcoholism. Flashbacks to noncombat WWII. Readably written in an intelligent middlebrow style that appeals to Connecticut residents who wish Salinger were more prolific, and which, lamentably, isn’t seen much anymore on the bestseller lists. Contains a lecture by the protagonist’s wise mentor on the dangers of success -– not original but a knowledgeable summary. Undoubtedly Wilson needed to write this after his big bestseller.
Random sentence: “Before going to New Haven that fall, I stopped at the sanitarium and visited my mother.”
D. "Warpath" “A crucial episode from Kenneth Roberts' monumental novel of Colonial history, Northwest Passage….Kenneth Roberts brings alive a little-known incident from the American past in a manner that makes it vital and exciting reading for today.”
This was an oldie even then, first published 1937, source for the 1940 movie with Spencer Tracy and for...yes, the 1958-1959 Buddy Ebsen NBC series (the latter must be why they republished it in 1960). During his lifetime Roberts (“for some time after graduating from Cornell in 1903…not until 1928 did he begin to write the great historical novels which won him a lasting fame…”) received five honorary doctorates and a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize committee “for his historical novels which have long contributed to the creation of greater interest in our early American history.”
Sample sentence: “’I’ve often seen you,’ the man said, swallowing.”
C. Marnie, by Winston Graham: source for the 1964 Hitchcock movie, by the author of forty novels including the Poldark series, which was made into a hit BBC series. When you’ve got the touch, you’ve got the touch.
From the intro:
“What were the compelling forces that drove twenty-three-year-old Marnie Elmer from job to job, changing her identity each time….From the first moment his saw this strange and beautiful girl, Mark Rutland was intrigued. When her secret burst upon him with the impact of a thunderbolt, he could not follow the dictates of reason…. How Mark leads Marnie to find the key to the inner prison in which she has locked herself makes a taut, exciting story, full of suspense and sharp compassion.”
Sorry, you’re still not hitting the male audience. But to your credit, you don’t use “impact” as a verb. Today they’d write, “When her secret impacted him like a thunderbolt…” And that’s the sum total of the development of American literacy in forty-nine years.
This volume of the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, one of ten on the café shelves, contains by far the most enduring novels in the group.
October 16, 2009
It feels utterly cool...
Six more days.