Category Archives: love

Thunder and Lightning Nights: The Rainy Season has Arrived

It’s a really good thing that I have (mostly) gotten over my terror of thunderstorms. I no longer go diving under the closest bed at the slightest rumble of thunder, and can even appreciate the beauty of a uniquely great storm. Most of my evening yesterday was spent securing down items in my apartment (papers, books, lamps, rugs..) that otherwise would have flown away like Mary Poppins, but with much less grace. No measurement of how strong the winds were or how much rain we actually got, but it definitely ranked among the top five I think I’ve experienced. I live on the second floor of a building, and my front “patio” was flooded from rain coming in, and is still wet almost 24 hours later.

When it rains here, contrary to intuition, I open all the windows. The crosswind is amazing, and the temperature drop is a godsend. I guess that can get categorized under “habits I’ve picked up in Africa that will most likely get left behind”. (Along with: using my freezer as a pantry for dry goods, sleeping in DEET, and showering more than three times a day. Two is highly sufficient.)

sitting in front of the Niger River

Saturday, Bamako celebrated fête de la musique – one of the (rare positive) traditions passed down from ye olde French coloniser. Music emanates from every street corner. This is the third time I’ve celebrated fête de la musique in a francophone country, and I must say, France has got nothing on Malian music.  We went to Palais de la Culture to listen to a bunch of different groups play, see the Niger River by night, and inevitably, get rained on. The thunder and lightning started at around midnight, right as Amazones de la Guinée were finishing up, and the skies finally opened up for real an hour or so later.

What happened next was a chaotic mass exodus of thousands of people, all trying to get in their cars and on their Chinese “djakarta” motos at the same time. Classic Bamako style, everyone became a traffic director, shouting and waving in different directions, only adding to the chaos. After sitting in a quickly flooding parking lot (read: mudlot), we ended up at Amandine, a Lebanese-run 24-hour resto/bar/club with hot beverages, hamburgers (West Africa style : fried egg, fries, the works..) and mussed up hair. Not a bad way to spend the fête.

it's like the pac-man of burgers

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The Complementarity of Culture

Hip-hop is blasting rhythmically out my neighbors windows – Jay-Z to be exact – and the slow, droning, melody of the 7 o’clock call to prayer emanates from the mosque about a block from my apartment. If only I could blog in sound. Reminds me of the scene from La Haine, a film by Matthieu Kassovitz, where Edith Piaf gets mashed up with KRS-One. Brilliance.

The Politics of Food and How to Ask Questions

Yesterday, 5:30pm. I found myself sitting in a stuffed leather chair, lit cigar in one hand and a glass of rum in the other, freshly brewed espresso (and the rest of the bottle of rum) on the table in front of me. With the purchase of the cigar you get the accompaniments gratuit. Ad libitum. This Senegalese-owned haven is most likely either run by drug money or mafia money. Or both. Either way, it was the unlikely (if slightly unfitting) site for a conversation that I’ve had many times in different iterations and permutations over the last months and years, and to which there are few (if any) answers.

The politics of food in any given place, be it Mali or your grandmother’s living room, plays a huge role in peoples’ interactions. The way they are treated and treat other people, they way they perceive and are perceived, the ways they show and accept love and care, how they feel about themselves and how they identify themselves. A peace corps volunteer I know here told me how she had stuffed herself full of about two days worth of food over the course of an hour while visiting a family that had hosted her for a month; it was simply not ok to say no. After the welcoming ‘snacks’, they all sat down to dinner. In the village she lives in now, she vacillates between not wanting to eat the entire (enormous) quantity of rice and sauce put on her plate so that the kids in the family could eat a bit more, and not wanting to offend the woman who cooks. At the risk of seeming ungrateful, it’s sometimes easier to just eat.

salade is délicieuse

I remember having this problem when I lived in Dakar. Not only was I vegetarian, but I simply couldn’t eat an entire plate filled with rice and mafé (tomato peanut sauce), no matter how delicious. Binta – a rather corpulent woman herself – always scolded me for not eating enough, if a bit jovially, but the message was clear: my not eating to her heart’s desire, was a direct insult. Not eating (enough) at dinner was offensive; eating food without sharing with anyone present was rude; eating with your left hand was unheard of; eating from a shared platter that which was not situated directly in front of you was gourmande. Rules about food and eating are not unique to Senegal or West Africa. (Don’t talk with your mouth full; you must ask to be excused; wait until everyone is served; make sure to eat Aunt _____’s casserole so she won’t be offended; and you get the point.)

My not eating the chicken at dinner the other night when I was invited by a colleague to his childhood friend’s house, while not hugely problematic, didn’t synch well with the Malian tradition of offering a chicken to a guest to welcome them. I accepted the chicken thigh on my plate as a garniture. And snuck it to Bourama’s plate the first chance I got.

It goes beyond “food as love”. Women are caregivers, men are the money makers. If a man has a maraîchage, a market garden, I’ve been told that most of the produce he grows is sold for profit, rather than used to feed his family. A woman’s garden is first and foremost a source of nutrition for her family, and secondarily a source of income. Women are most often responsible for feeding their families, and men are responsible for making money. Both of these roles, however, ultimately aim to care for the family. It would follow logically, then, for a garden to be used as both a source of nutrition and a source of income – whether owned by the man or the woman. A simple economic cost-benefit analysis would most likely show that, over time, the improved nutrition of the family would obviate the need for other medical expenses.

I am in no way positioned to lecture on a subject for which I have only a cursory and surface level understanding. Food and nutrition are complicated subjects and rooted in much more than just gender. Politics, sociology, economics, history, geography, meteorology… the list goes on. I know my understanding of these issues will broaden over time; maybe I’ll look back and read this a few months down the road and think about how naïve it all sounds.

Which brings me to the second theme of our smoky and slightly (both caffeine- and alcohol-) buzzed conversation. How To Ask Questions. I am currently grappling with how to frame a research project on urban agriculture in Bamako. Having read a lot on urban ag and the urbanization of African cities and cities elsewhere, I feel like I should have a ready-made question right there in front of me. But I don’t. I walk around and talk to people – like Aoua Coulibaly, who has been tenant cropping next door to my apartment since the 1940s, but a series of anecdotes and experiences of a few individuals dotted across the city does not a research project make.

growing sweet potatoes for over half a century

How do you frame a question so that the answer will be worth something? Even in asking that, I am assuming a certain audience or target group for the ‘worth something’ part. What am I aiming to achieve? I am obviously not going to write my doctoral dissertation over the next five months, but I also don’t want to just have a digital collection of photos and a legal pad full of notes. I want my question to somehow contribute to something. It’s the “somehow” and the “something” that I’m stuck on.

In the meantime, cigars and rum and espresso might just have to be the muse for my (lack of) brilliance. Not only do Cubans make excellent cigars (and rum), but urban agriculture is flourishing and vibrant in Cuban cities. So who knows, maybe the answer to my question – or the question to get my answers – lies somewhere between a glass of rum and a lit Montecristo.

90 degrees at 9pm

It’s hard to believe that I am now sitting about 4000 miles away where I was just 36 hours ago. And that when someone says it’s 32 degrees outside, it’s hot enough to walk around in next to nothing.

As the plane was landing in Bamako, I watched the small screen on the back of the seat in front of me that tracks the flight and tells you the temperature and how much farther you have to go. I watched as the temperature went up from 21 degrees Celcius (71-ish degrees Fahrenheit) when we were at 7ooo feet, to 31 degrees Celcius (about 88 degrees Fahrenheit) on the ground. At 9 0’clock at night. Stripping off most of the layers I had been wearing all day, I stepped out of the plane and down the stairs, and it all came back. The reasons I am here and the reasons I know I will love it. The smell of the hot desert air felt like coming home; it made all my tension go away, and, as I breathed out again, made me realize exactly how perfect these next six months will be.

My apartment is incredible. Like I told my colleagues when they dropped me off there last night, ‘je suis trop gâtée’ – I’m way spoiled, to be living there. Two bedrooms, a kitchen, a huge living room, and a bathroom. My room even has AC, which is absolutely ridiculous.

mes valises

I unpacked everything (wondering both why I brought about 15 pairs of socks and how/where I possibly could have left my iPod), arranged my clothes in the armoir, stacked my books on the shelf, did a few stretches to undo the last 24 hours stuck in an airplane or an airport, and passed out on my queen-sized extra firm mattress, flicking away the occasional mosquito as I fell asleep. One light sheet on top of me was almost too much.

mes livres

In the morning, realizing I had barely eaten or drank anything over the past day, save for some Glenlivet in the Air France lounge and a few roasted hazelnuts, and simultaneously realizing I didn’t have any bottled water, I walked toward the kitchen to boil some water to sterilize it. Wearing nothing more than a tank top undershirt and the thong I had worn to bed (day-glo yellow, incidentally), and passing by the curtains in front of my front gate to get to the kitchen, I see a woman standing there who turned around and, in turn, sees me. One thing to know: in a very conservative Muslim West African country, a woman’s legs are the most sexual of body parts. Now here I am, I’ve just moved in, and I’m already parading around like the neighborhood whore. I quickly threw on a skirt which would cover my knees, and returned to the kitchen. Turns out this woman is the femme de ménage who will come every Monday to clean my apartment. I’m sure she has already told everyone that she’s working for a foreign hussie without even the courtesy to wear clothes in the presence of others. Bon.

I drank some tea, took a sponge bath, put on my linen pants and a light tank top and a scarf to cover my shoulders, and walked downstairs just as my colleague Bourama was arriving to pick me up for work. The first day is always kind of funny: trying to figure out exactly where I fit in, to listen as much as possible and absorb everything, to watch the interactions between other people in the office.  I have a basic idea of what I will be doing, but still nothing concrete. Tomorrow I will learn more, and the next day and the next after that. Already, though, I feel completely welcome here, and am basking in the warmth of this country. Literally and figuratively.

Having lived in Senegal, I was somewhat confident that I would at least have something of a cultural understanding of Mali. I had no idea just how many little ‘points de repères’, reference points or things that are familiar, there would actually be. The oranges with green skin that people suck on for their juice; drinking attaya (sweet tea that is also incredibly bitter) after lunch; saying “Bissimilah” to welcome someone; a genuine niceness that seems to pervade everyone. It’s comforting in a certain sense.

Anyway, I am going to drink my second round of attaya, (and pray that the third round is as démodée – out of style – in Bamako, as it was in Dakar), look through some documents to bring me up to speed, and try to wrap my brain around the fact that this is all really happening.

retrospective no. 5: banks, art, fashion.

There is something very powerful about the ability to express oneself through aesthetic means. Everywhere I’ve been in Congo, there have been statues, paintings, sculptures; stone, metal, wood, oil, acrylic, colored sand, cloth, any medium you could imagine.

mask, Goma, Congo

It doesn’t matter how poor or rich a place is, there will always be art, music, culture.  The cultural outputs of a place or a people that is most often seen as destitute are some of the most vibrant and beautiful that I’ve come across.

One of the biggest banks in Congo, TMB, has more art on the walls of its Kinshasa office than any other bank I’ve seen. Beautiful murals and paintings from several different Congolese artists. One of them (whose name I’ve regrettably forgotten) has sworn to sign his name upside-down on any ‘oeuvre’ he produces, until the situation in the Congo rights itself up. Apparently there was a period of about a year when he was signing his name right-side-up in the mid-2000s. This is no longer the case.

The bank also has an art gallery that hosts some of the most beautiful Congolese art I’ve ever seen. And c’est pas donné non plus.  Paintings go for thousands of US dollars; the artists are known for their particular style and genre, having really made a name for themselves. One of my favorite artists has this amazingly vibrant style using some of the brightest colors in a sort of abstract way, and then also incorporating metal or wooden statues into his works. I’m trying to find a picture of one of his paintings that I can post. The originals go for about $10K, so when the kitchen counter change jar is full, I’ll be right on my way to buying one of those…

Across the street from this branch of the bank is one of the biggest houses of haute-couture in Kinshasa: Vlisco. Incidentally, a Dutch brand, but the super-wax they sell and their clothing design is unmatched by any other.

I said I wouldn’t roll down the streets of Kinshasa in Jean-Paul Gaulthier, but if someone were to offer me a Vlisco gown, you’d have a hard time getting me out of it.

The défilées must be positively blinding; a super-saturation of color and shapes the likes of which Bryant Park has probably never seen.

Mind you, the super wax in this store goes for about $100 for a bolt of fabric (six yards) and the dresses they have on display are not priced.  That’s probably for good reason.  The wealth in Kinshasa can be just as blinding as the colors of the fashion, so I am sure there is no lack of clientele.  But the difference in price between a Vlisco gown and a tailored dress made by a street tailor has got to be about as striking as the contrast between apartments lining the Grand Boulevard and those in the outlying communes.

I leave you with a sunset.  Just because.

éblouissant

retrospective no. 2: where are you, goma?

In a meeting this morning with two colleagues and the “chef d’agence adjoint” of one of the biggest Congolese banks, we were talking about the different branches they’ve established across the country. They’re present in almost all the provinces (of which there are, at least for the moment, ten), and have several branches in Katanga, the mining capital of the country. This in and of itself is pretty amazing, considering that the country in question has been steeped in war and conflict arguably since 1960, and even things as simple as constant electricity or running water are not to be taken for granted. Currently with 29 branches – with two more opening before the end of the year – TMB has managed to make of itself a credible and credit-worthy institution. But that’s not what this story is about.

Sitting in the second-floor, floor-to-ceiling-windowed office of the deputy director, sipping on bottled water, almost chilly from the air conditioning (I said almost), overlooking what seemed more like the first class lounge of a European airport than a bank in downtown Kinshasa, the thing that struck me the most was the nostalgia that hit me like a ten-ton truck the instant he mentioned the branch in Goma.

I don’t know what it is about that place, but the instant the plane landed there last November, I was amoureuse. Something about Goma, about Lake Kivu, about the entire place, crawled right under my skin and has yet to leave me alone.

le lac, vue de l'hôtel

The first time I was in Goma, I spent about 10 days there working at a workshop with leaders from the Masisi region. I remember talking to one of the old “chefs de la région” about both the big volcano that threatens to erupt again the way it did in 2002, leaving a third of the city under lava (and eating away a third of the runway at the airport), and, to the other side of us, of le lac Kivu, which sits on top of an enormous reserve of methane gas that threatens to burp up at any moment and suffocate the entire population of the region.

le volcan: mont nyiragongo

The striking beauty of the volcano – the pink hue in the sky at night, the constant stream of smoke that climbs towards the sky, the throne of lush greenery it seems to sit on – masks only in part the latent danger both of eruption, and of what that could mean for the lake, strikingly beautiful in its own right, and yet dubbed an “exploding lake” for the ganger it poses.

We spoke in metaphor about the natural wonders in front of and behind us; quite clearly the situation in Nord Kivu was the question sous la main, and the potential for positive, should the leaders work together, as well as for negative, should the war re-erupt. Goma, one of the most idyllic places I have ever seen, is wrought with conflict – both latent and manifest – that keeps the enormous potential of this area very much at bay. The beauty of Goma reminds me of the myth of Medusa: a beautiful woman turned into the ugliest of creatures only by the jealousy and wrath of another.

I won’t pretend to be able to explain the conflicts in Nord/Sud Kivu or the Eastern Congo in general because I have yet to scratch more than the surface of an understanding of what is arguably one of the most complicated conflicts in modern history. Let’s just say that with nine countries bordering the Congo, each one with its own history of conflict, problems with governance, resources, migration and immigration..I could go on..

The point isn’t that Goma is foutu – pardon my French – but that it has captured a part of me.

how could you not tombe amoureuse?

With unmatched intensity, this city sitting between the lake the the volcano – promising to erupt, in one sense or another – is paradise on earth, the geographical love of my life.