Category Archives: travel

TIA : This Is Africa (a post about candy)

I went to the bank this morning to close my account. Absolutely brilliant. I had 150 646 fcfa in the account (thanks to an awkward interest payment), and there was a frais de fermeture of 5 750 fcfa, leaving the total at 144 896 francs. This begs the obvious question: how the hell are they going to pay me 144 896 fcfa, when there’s no such thing as one franc, and only rumors of the existence of a 5 franc piece. So, I’ll tell you. I walked out of the bank with 100 000 in tens, 40 000 in fives, 4 000 in ones, and 895 francs (a 500, a 25, and two 10 franc pieces) and the bank still owes me a franc. They couldn’t have just given me 900 francs and called it a day. Nope. They had to give me the most awkward coins ever, that I can basically only use to buy candy. I guess I’ll go buy some candy.

spiciest best candy EVER. thanks, bank!


Conversations with Men : a pas de deux quotidien (or, gender roles à la malienne)

“C’est madame ou bien c’est mademoiselle?” is most often the first question I am asked when I get into a taxi. Madame or mademoiselle? Are you married and if no, why not? (If you are, where is your husband and why isn’t he here with you?) At market last week, in my (very) broken Bambara, I explained to the inquiring woman that my husband was at home. Because her question didn’t allow for the possibility that I don’t have one.

Every afternoon I get a phone call in my office from Lala, the accountant, telling me that lunch is here. I grab whatever I’ve brought for the day (usually some sort of avocado mixture); the rest of the staff orders food from a local resto. We all settle in and Lala serves it up. There is a kind of dance in the daily lunch-time ritual, which extends beyond the walls of the office, and reflects (pretty accurately) on the relationships between men and women in this country in general.

tôh - classic malian dish of millet and okra

The men come downstairs at their leisure, wash up in the kitchen, and sit down around the table. The women (I don’t know how things would work if a woman weren’t around, because my presence always obviates that situation..) serve out plates of rice and sauce, themselves last. We all dig in. And then the women clean up, clear the dishes, wipe down the table, take care of the leftovers, and organize the kitchen a bit before the femme de ménage comes to clean.

The past couple of weeks at work, I’ve been feeling a little snarky. That’s not to say I want to pick fights, but, ok, I’ve sort of been picking fights. The conversation about men and women and the role of each one in the house is a delicate one. I don’t really know how to have a discussion about gender roles with someone who probably thinks it’s ok to beat his wife, or wives. And was raised in a culture where maybe 95% of his male counterparts are of the same mind.

I don’t know how to address an audience of men, one of whom has two wives, and another who insists he is going to take Lala as his second wife. In a country where a man has the right to up to four if he can afford it, it’s hard to talk about consensual relationships of mutual respect – monogamous or not. The choice to marry is more a cultural one than anything else, and a woman without a husband is like a car without wheels.

one month old baby and back to work

One of my colleagues (admittedly one of the more chauvinist men I’ve ever met) insists that, because he is the one who brings home the paycheck, his wife’s contribution to their household is nil. I asked Bourama how he would qualify the work she does in the house – taking care of their child, cooking, cleaning, shopping – and he intoned that this was not real work, and that she spent most of her time at school anyway. I asked how much it would cost if they were to hire someone to do all that work for them – a cook, a housekeeper, a full-time babysitter – and was told that to hire a bonne* in Bamako only costs 7 500fca (about $16US) per month. Granted, most people acknowledge that this is exploitation bordering on slave labor. But I was not winning this argument.

When the conversation turns to women in the workforce, there are certain jobs that a woman just can’t do. And certain things that a man won’t do either. A man doesn’t answer phones. A woman doesn’t drive a taxi. (Granted, that’s pretty rare in the States too, but there has only been one female taxi driver in Mali since independence. And I think she was Lebanese.) It is inconceivable that a woman be the primary breadwinner for the family, because the man would be completely emasculated. In conversations with female cooperatives, where women are ostensibly the decision makers and running their own business, it is often some man (perhaps the husband of one of the women, or a member of another co-op) that does most, if not all, of the talking.

gender mainstreaming training

Bara, another male colleague of mine, had my back. His wife and children live in Mopti, about a ten-hour drive north of Bamako. He sends money to the family, but all of the responsibilities of ‘running’ a household fall on her. She’s the chef de famille, as opposed to most families where it is incontrovertibly the man who is the haut responsable. He argued that things are changing – slowly, indeed, but undeniably. The cost of living is going up in Bamako, less families can afford a bonne, more women are working, and the chores of the household will inevitably fall on men as well.

When talk of change – or dare I say revolution – in Mali was on the table, Bourama said that he welcomed change. As long as it was nice and slow. I retorted that most people who insist on change being slow don’t really want things to change at all. His response was that he would be happy to “allow” his wife to work, and that he always plays with his son when he gets home from the office. (So I can’t say he doesn’t help around the house.)

Alas, catalyzing a shift in mentality might take more than a couple of lunchtime conversations.

 

*Possibly derogatory term to refer to the (usually very) young girl who keeps house for a family. In most cases, she lives and eats with the family she works for.

The Quest for a Waterfall (and the Source of Life)

Saturday night – or, more properly speaking, Sunday morning, I dragged my sorry butt into bed at around 3am after some excellent live music at the Savana club in downtown Bamako. (At least, the closest thing resembling a downtown.) Sunday morning, 8:30am, I get a cheeky text, “You awake?” which I know comes with a chuckle and the certainty that, no, I am not truly awake. A few minutes later, I climb into the back of the 4×4 pickup, squeezed in between an agriculturalist from Borko (Dogon Country, Mali), a jewelry maker cum tour-guide from about the same region, and an animal scientist from Kenya.

We set out for Siby, about 45km from Bamako, with the promise of waterfalls and beautiful rock formations, and the certainty of a lot of interesting conversation. Hiding behind my sunglasses, I quickly realized that sleep was by no means in the cards. Instead, I got a history lesson in both the official sense and in the mythological sense.

about 1/2 way to Siby, still on good roads

In Mali in particular, and in West Africa in general, there is something that not-so-secretly rules over the relationships between people – politically, culturally, socially, romantically. Referred to as cousinages de plaisanterie, it means that one person, based on their ethnic group or last name, has the right (even the obligation) to tease, mock and harass another person of a different group or name. À titre d’exemple: in Senegal, an Ndiaye can come across a Diop and call him a thief, claim him as his slave, or tell him he’s nothing but a bean eater, and no one would be shocked. It’s all just part of the relationship.

The most well known example of this ‘joking relationship’ in Mali is between the Dogon and the Bozo, two ethnic groups towards the north of the country. Bara, the director of the program I work with here, told a story that sheds a bit of light on the origins of this relationship.

A long time ago, there were two brothers who went hunting to find food for their families. After days with no success, the older brother began to worry about his younger brother, noticing that he was quite hungry and becoming weak. Because it’s traditionally the responsibility of older people to take care of the young, the brother knew he had to find a way to feed his younger sibling. Slipping off into the woods, he decided to cut out a piece of the meat on his thigh to cook for his brother. Totally famished, the younger brother didn’t ask where the meat came from, and ate to his satisfaction. It wasn’t until later that he noticed a trickle of blood on his brother’s leg, and realized that the meat he had eaten was his brother’s own flesh. The younger brother, realizing what a dire situation the two found themselves in, decides that they should go their own ways, and see if survival wasn’t easier on their own. The one brother went deep into the woods and began to work the land, becoming an agriculturalist and the first of the Dogon people. The other eventually found the Niger river, settled there as a fisher, and so began the ethnic group Bozo.

As the story goes, because the older had sacrificed so much for the younger brother, the two ethnic groups Bozo and Dogon have sworn to never harm one another. If a Bozo somehow injures or harms a Dogon, or vice versa, the repercussions are endless. Marriage is also strictly forbidden between the two – the ties are so close, that it’s almost seen as an incestuous relationship.

my backseat companions, we haven't yet found the waterfall

At this point, we’re in the middle of the woods, passing by Foulani cow herders and wild zaban trees (strangest fruit ever that tastes exactly like a Lemonhead), two hours in to what should have been a 30 minute drive to the waterfall. Barry, our ‘guide’ admits that he hasn’t been to the waterfall in over six years, and we turn the truck around.

The ‘road’ is basically just a semi-cleared path between trees, over rocks and dried stream beds, and I am sure we are going to pop a tire. Dieu merci for Bourey, our driver, who never broke a sweat.

false alarm: we thought we had found it.

In Kenya, there are forty-two tribes that populate the country – only one of which, incidentally, is known for its running capabilities. Our animal scientist consultant, Charles, is from the Luo tribe. He was charged with telling the creation myth of all forty-two tribes (I think we knew we were in for a lonnng ride) but we only got as far as a story about the Kikuyu and the Luo.

The Kikuyu originated from the north, settling around Mt. Kenya, but spreading out around the country eventually to become several distinct ethnic groups. The ‘Adam and Eve’ of what are today known as Kikuyu – Gikuyu, and his wife, Mumbi – lived in a place called Mukurue wa Gathanga (very loosely translated as the Kikuyu Garden of Eden) and had nine daughters. Gikuyu was upset at not having any sons, and pleaded with the god, Mbai, who presented him with nine men to marry his daughters. The daughters married and had children, and thus became the nine clans of the Kikuyu tribe. As the story goes, the Kikuyu were originally a matriarchal people, with these nine women reigning over all of society. As time went on, the women became more dominant and the men were less than ok with that. They plotted to get their wives pregnant at exactly the same time and take over control of society. From that point on, the Kikuyu became a polygamous society characterized by one man with several wives rather than one woman with several husbands.

Apparently the myth continues that if you so choose, by walking around Mt. Kenya seven times a man becomes a woman and a woman becomes a man. According to Charles, this is an early example of a democratic society; if you aren’t satisfied with your lot in life, you can elect to change it.

The Luo story is more one of treachery and intrigue:

Luanda Magere was a great warrior who lived on the shores of Lake Victoria. He was extremely powerful and strong, and it was said that he could not be killed – that his flesh was in fact made of stone. The traditional enemy of the Luo, the Nandi, had had enough of being slaughtered by Magere and his people, and plotted a way to infiltrate into the ranks of the Luo. The elders of the Nandi conspired to give the prettiest Nandi girl to Luanda to marry, claiming it to be a peace offering, but with the real intention that she discover a way to defeat him. They married, despite the warnings of the Luo elders. After many years of marriage, the girl had still not discovered his secret. One day, however, Luanda Magere fell ill, and needed medicine. He instructed his wife to cut his shadow in order to administer the medicine. In following his instructions, she noticed that his shadow bled when she cut it. That night, she ran back to her Nandi village and told the elders of Magere’s vulnerability – that it was his shadow that was made of flesh. The next battle between the Luo and the Nandi was a bloody one. Luanda alone killed many Nandi, and they were forced to retreat. As they were retreating, however, one soldier remembered what had been said about Luanda’s shadow, and threw his spear into the shadow. Luanda – true to the rumor  – fell and died, turning into a stone. This stone still stands in Kenya along the river Nyando.

finally!

At this point in the story, I won’t keep you in suspense any more. We finally found the waterfall. Two hours and seventeen kilometers later, we tumbled out of the 4×4, and stumbled down the rocks to see the waterfall.

Maybe it’s because I haven’t really seen water in five months, or maybe it was the journey that made it so good, but it was worth it. Arguably one of the most secluded, serene, beautiful spots I’ve ever seen. I think we were all surprised that there was actually water there, given that it hasn’t rained here since last October, but lo and behold, la chute d’eau.

I won’t belabour the trip back to Bamako; suffice it to say, my bed greeted me with open arms upon my return.

bko, you got nothin on this.

sunugaal (our boat) or where it’s less hot than mali.

After four months in Mali and living through the apex of the hot season (read: 105 degrees or more every day), I could not have been happier to board a plane to Senegal. Five days of temperate, ocean weather, amazing food, old friends and colleagues, and my family! Perfection embodied.

Senegal, especially Dakar, is not exactly what might come to mind when you think of vacation destinations, but it is one of the more beautiful places I’ve been. It’s also still very much lacking on the development scale. So when you plunk a group of foreigners in the middle of the city, you create an instant target for anyone who has anything to sell (which, in Dakar, is everyone.)

artisan talent on Gorée

On our first full day we went to the island of Gorée, which is the old historic slave departure island, but also home to a small community of artisans. The artwork is beautiful – if a little bit overpriced – and the intensity of entrepreneurial sweet talk is impressive. At least three women made friends with us on the boat over, ending the conversation by making us promise to visit their boutiques, which we were more or less forced to do. S’ok, though, Mom and I got some really pretty earrings, and we bought a batik table cloth to serve as a beach blanket for the rest of the trip.

I had promised my brother giant mangoes – and actually lugged three of them with me because Mali is rather famous for the size of its mangoes – so we feasted on mangoes and avocados, delicious Lebanese food, and some of the best ceebu jën, mafé and yassa I’ve had in a long time.

i'm not mad, i promise.

The Marché Sandaga delivered on everything it is known for: guys who follow you and guide you around for no other reason than boredom and the vague hope you will buy something from their boutique (or their father’s/cousin’s/aunt’s boutique); music blaring from CD (and cassette) shops; people shouting left and right; buses running down the narrow streets constantly threatening to run you over; back alleys filled with beautiful artwork and anything else you could ever think of. As annoying as it can be, and as much as I know we paid too much for most things, there is a big part of me that was so nostalgic for it, that it was nice. The little bit of Wolof I know got put to good use, much to the amusement of anyone within earshot, and joking around with the Dakarois about the differences between Senegal and Mali was hilarious – mostly because the insults are the same from both sides of the border. A few small paintings, six yards of cloth, a t-shirt and a few statues later, we were all so exhausted, we went back to the hotel and didn’t reemerge until dinner.

We visited the Renaissance Africaine monument (absolutely ridiculous), ate dinner with my Senegalese family (absolutely delicious), went to a few different beaches, and admired the sheer beauty and color of Dakar and the people that live there. Not to generalize, but Senegalese – and especially Dakarois – are some of the best and most colorfully dressed people I’ve ever seen.

35% of the ticket sales go directly to President Wade

Although I hadn’t been there since 2008, it was like I had never left. Dakar has changed a lot over the past few years, and parts of it weren’t even recognizable, but walking around felt sort of like going back home, and seeing old friends and family was wonderful. I think it was a bit overwhelming for my family, but hopefully the delicious food and beautiful beaches made up for it a little. My mom is already talking about our next vacation somewhere in Africa; I am dreaming up something involving gorillas, the Eastern Congo, and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

karl and khadija eating binta's best!

On Monday morning I got back to my apartment in Bamako after only 4 hours of sleep, losing my favorite ring down the drain at the hotel, and being ripped off by the cabbie on the way back from the airport. I was greeted by 100 degree weather coupled with the humidity from the previous week’s rains, and a hamper full of dirty laundry. Awesome.

So today I skipped work, went to the market, talked to a jeweler about making me a new ring, bought some avocados and mangoes, and tried to ignore the sweat running down my back…

Hotter, sweatier, dirtier, prettier.

Getting to Ségou was, in a word, insanity. Even thinking back on the bus ride there, it’s sort of hard to believe. Squeezed in amongst about 75 other people next to a woman with her baby on her lap and another woman sitting on the floor with a small girl sitting on her knees, the trip started out ok. En route out of Bamako, we made at least 10 stops to pick people up, let people off, pay tolls, and purchase provisions for the trip.

nothing cannot be bought roadside

Provisions, in this case, included everything from water, mangoes, and cakes, to live chickens, cassava root, and 50 kilo sacks of onions. The baby next to me shat his pants, the woman behind me couldn’t stop jabbing my back with her knees, the woman on my other side couldn’t keep her cassava root from flying all over the place, and the sweat was just dripping.

After five hours of stop and go, and we stepped off the bus into the chaos of the gare routière of Ségou. I quickly escaped to the shade of a tree to eat the mango I had been holding onto (after watching the woman sitting next to me eat five of them over the course of the trip.)

Once we arrived at our hotel, L’Auberge, I knew that the bus ride was worth it. Less than 200m from the Niger river, it was situated right in front of an (admittedly pretty touristy) artisan market, a few shady trees, and all the peace and quiet that Bamako is not. And everything was pretty. It contrasted so wonderfully with the place I call home these days.

le fleuve niger

We only had 24 hours in Ségou – two friends who are visiting are now heading out for a 5-day trek across Dogon country, and yours truly is back in the office tomorrow. Nevertheless, 24 hours in this sleepy little haven spent lazing about next to the river, walking along sandy paths amidst riverside gardens, visiting pottery and fabric artisan markets, and listening to excellent djembe music at a bar in town was exactly the recharge I needed.

working in the river

pottery and leaves

the hottest peppers you'll ever eat

 

hot, sweaty and dirty. (but ségou is pretty!)

Until the bus ride home. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, I asked Fouad, our hospitable Lebanese host at L’Auberge, which bus company he would recommend for my return trip. Confident that Somatra would be worlds better than Coulibaly Travel, I got myself to the bus station in town, said adieu to my friends headed north, bought a ticket, and sat down to wait for the bus that would be leaving “in just a minute”. Two hours later, I sit down in the hottest sauna of a vehicle I have ever experienced, and with a slightly panicky feeling, realized that the windows only cracked open about three inches at the top.

When the bus was moving, the breeze was a godsend. When it wasn’t, the temperature soared, the sweat flowed. Perhaps it’s testament to my relief at being seated next to only one person this time, and someone not likely to soil his diaper, but the chickens didn’t bother me, and the cassava root flying around was just amusing. I stepped off the bus at the gare routière in Bamako and got into a four-wheeled engine block masquerading as a taxi to head home to a long, cold, shower. Hotter, sweatier, and dirtier than ever.

Reference Points for Dirty Feet

The name Mali has its origins in an ancient language that roughly translates to, “perpetually filthy feet”. Maybe this has yet to be proven, but I’m developing a theory on the subject.

dirrrrty feet. pretty nailpolish as a diversion.

But this is not something that really bothers me. What irks me the most, is the inconsiderate cockroach that has decided to make a home out of the cabinet underneath my kitchen counter. I am not ok with a 3-inch cockroach who has nothing better to do than surprise me in his cheeky cockeyed way when all I want is a little snack before going to bed.

Alas.

Cockroaches (even a solitary one) in my kitchen isn’t something I want to get accustomed to. On the other hand, there are certain things that make me feel a sense of home or belonging wherever I am. No matter where I am, as long as the sky is clear I can always pick out Orion’s Belt in the sky at night.  Humor me here; I know it’s not the most difficult thing to be able locate three bright stars right in a row, but it has a soothing effect on me somehow. There are some things, all across the world, that remain the same. Orion’s belt is one of them.

my point de répère...

Friday night I went out with a couple of friends to a comedy club in my neighborhood. Over the course of the night, only two of the jokes were in French, so most of the humor was lost on me. (I was enjoying my Pastis enough to make up for it.) One of the jokes I actually could understand, though, was an Africanized version of this joke I had heard back home about different heads of state making phone calls to God (Allah, whomever) for advice, and the rates they’re charged for the phone calls. In this instance, the president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, is incensed by the fact that Obama and Sarkozy each paid hundreds of thousands of francs CFA to speak with God, while his call only cost 250F CFA. “What, just because we’re an underdeveloped country you think we need some sort of charity??” (Funny, because Wade probably would say something like that..)

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a comedian. The punch line is something about how it’s a local call and I know I’ve just totally killed the whole thing. But the part that’s really funny to me isn’t the joke itself, but the fact that I heard someone tell it about two months ago, while sitting at a friend’s house in DC. Only the heads of state were Obama, Mahmoud Abbas, and Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s kind of like how several civilizations across the entire world invented the wheel all around the same time, without ever being in contact with each other. A little bit less evolutionarily significant, but you get my point.

Sitting in that club, not understanding most of what was going on, I still had my Orion’s Belt. Everyone was laughing, and I knew that if Bambara was within my grasp, we’d all be laughing about the same thing.

Faces in the Crowd: A Field Visit in Sikasso

This week I spent four days on a field visit in the south in the region of Sikasso. We met with several different cooperatives – both women and men. I took pictures galore.

meeting with women's rice co-op

In the first village, there were over 200 people that came to the meeting.

one of the secretaries

I was seriously impressed by their organization and their eagerness to advance in all aspects: business management, agriculture techniques, commercialization, marketing…

notetaking

They talked about rice seed varieties and the need for more training on seed multiplication techniques.

kids are cute

Having already had training in packing and storage techniques, they store bags of rice for several months, presumably to sell on the market in the off-season when prices are higher. Excellent in theory, but good connections to markets and transportation are challenges.

There is also a desire for post-harvest processing capacity. Without the machine to ‘décortiquer’ – to hull – the rice, the women aren’t making nearly as much money as they could. There is solar power capacity in this village, currently being used to pump water into a water tower. This solar power could also be used to power a hulling machine – I mean, why not?

best rice i've ever eaten

We ate with them after the meeting: rice with a tomato sauce filled with onions, cabbage, locally grown eggplant, and some fish that I conveniently ignored.

the men of n'pegnéss0

The men in N’Pegnésso are involved in potato farming. A barrage – a dam – has already been constructed to allow for flood irrigation of about 30 hectares (out of 600) of the land.

cows get thirsty too

Rice is grown during l’hivernage – the rainy season, potatoes are grown during the dry season (which is now), and whole herds of cattle graze the land.

In Zoloko, the second village we visited that day, about 175 women were interested in starting a co-op with rice culture and maraîchage, market gardening. They are in the very beginning stages of starting this co-op, and to be honest, I left that village a little disheartened. Out of almost 200 women, not a one spoke up. One man spoke for them all. And only three people in the entire village had basic reading/writing skills. Can we empower women, teach people to read and write, impart leadership skills, *and* reinforce capacity on a business level, at the same time that we do agriculture extension and community building? Please.

where's the white girl?

I wonder sometimes if Mali’s current situation – very much at the bottom of the development totem pole – places it outside of practical agricultural development solutions. An irrigation system being implemented in Rwanda, for example, might not have any relevance here, simply because the costs for implementing it really outweigh the benefits. Or because the amount of water available during the rainy season doesn’t add up to what would make it a realistic installation. Just an example.

future rice and potato growers of mali

Anyway, the next day we visited another co-op of women – again rice culture and market gardening. A much more promising venture, and again, really encouraging to see the initiative and drive of so many women. I’m not sure what the point of this post was; to be honest, I think I just wanted an excuse to put up a bunch of pictures. So take from it what you will.

first to arrive, last to leave

No, I’m not going to Bali

Surrounded by tote bags full of clean laundry, bottles of vitamins, books that I hope I have the desire to read in three months, and a travel backpack stuffed with my yoga mat, sunscreen, and a first aid kit, among other things, it still hasn’t completely registered that I step on a plane in less than twenty-four hours.

DC was hit with an ice storm earlier this week. The city woke up to a shiny (and rather beautiful) coating of frozen water over everything. Temperatures had been in the twenties, the wind wailed through the night, and I was woken at 5am by my (admittedly quite responsible) neighbor chopping and scraping away at the ice on the sidewalk. Next time this week, I will probably be praying for anything resembling ice; temperatures in the twenties – even centigrade – will seem cold and unusual. Par for the course.

Anyway, this week – my last in Washington – I’ve made a tetrus board out of my schedule in order to hang out with everyone I love, I’m running around getting all of my errands done, using up the miscellany of food cleaned out of my pantry (which, I should note, has been quite the success, if not the impetus behind some bizarre and inventive recipes!), and in general trying not to think about what next week’s meteorologic predictions mean. A month ago or so, I made a DC ‘bucket list’, to motivate me to do things in DC that maybe I wouldn’t do if my time here wasn’t so limited. Two Fridays ago I took a personal day from work and hung out at the National Gallery (an amazing place to wander around) and the Hirshhorn.

on a power box somewhere near logan sq

Monday I spent walking from Columbia Heights to Logan Circle to Dupont to Penn Quarter and back again. It’s been wonderful to have a few days to myself – it’s like winter vacation when I was in elementary school (minus the obligatory uniform of snowpants and mittens) – I finally have the time to explore the city I’ve lived in for almost three years!

cute little thing

It’s funny trying to pack and deciding what I will wear and use and hopefully need over the next several months. I got a two week free subscription to an audiobook website and downloaded The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith; books I might not have the time and/or impetus to read in print form.  Other books I am bringing with me include:

  • Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
  • Markets and States in Tropical Africa by Robert Bates
  • Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Morrison
  • What is the What by Dave Eggers
  • Teachings of Rumi by Rumi
  • The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Bhagavad Gita, the brilliantly insightful Indian scripture
  • La lenteur by Milan Kundera

I also fully plan on spending more money than is advisable in the Paris airport to buy a few more books to round out my stock. And maybe a trashy magazine or two.

Everyone keeps asking me if I’m excited. My response is, of course, ‘yes’, but to be honest, it’s hard to be excited about something that is completely unknown and somewhat abstract. I don’t know who my colleagues are; I don’t know what my office or apartment will look like; I have only a vague idea of what my daily work will consist of; I don’t even know what language I’ll be speaking on a regular basis. My excitement is completely abstract. I’m excited about the potential facing me, about learning and experiencing and seeing and doing things completely foreign to me.

I walked all around DC again on Wednesday – Columbia Heights to Foggy Bottom to Logan Circle and back up 18th St, taking pictures of the most random things, but things that seemed beautiful in the moment.

i love the texture of these

Moss growing on the walls of Malcolm X park; a puddle in the sidewalk reflecting the trees; a statue juxtaposed against a beautifully colorful mosaic; the fire escape of a building behind my brother’s apartment.

not so many puddles in Bamako

Nostalgia isn’t quite the right word since I’m still here – is there such a thing as anticipatory nostalgia?

 

retrospectives and moving forward.

Today is December 16. Thursday. It’s 27 degrees outside (Fahrenheit) and snowing. This is the warmest it’s been all week. I wore two coats to work, completed my outfit with leg warmers over my tights, and swathed myself in two scarves. Arguably, it’d unseasonably cold for DC for this time of year, but arguably again, I should at least be partly acclimated to this kind of weather, having grown up in Syracuse, NY. It’s practically Canada. The fact that since I left home when I was 18, I’ve spend more time on the Mediterranean and in Africa than I have back in Syracuse notwithstanding.

In less than forty days, at 4:30pm, I’ll be sitting on a plane headed in the direction of Bamako, Mali. I sat down to write this in the spirit of the other posts I’ve written: that’s to say, a sort of retrospective. Because I’ve done this a lot, left from wherever it is I’m calling “home” to go live somewhere else. Every time I leave, I go through a similar cycle of neurosis. My head is overrun by questions and self-analysis; the perfect excuse for a mini-existential crisis. (and I don’t use that term flippantly.) This time in particular, not only am I moving across the world, but I’m quitting my job (which might not be the most fiscally sound decision I could make) to work for an agricultural development project for a few months and then embark on a (7-year) path toward three little letters called P, H and D.

In 2003, as a freshly minted highschool graduate, I left my mother’s nest to go to Marseille, France and then to Hamburg, Germany.

best friend in Marseille

In 2006, it was Berlin for three months. Technomusik, Tanzparties, turkische Pizzas… the summer of fun.

Wir Sind Park: weekend long park parties

In 2007, Dakar. The place where feet are never clean.

verrrry dirty Dakar feet

In between there’s been a lot of travelling, visiting family, friends, cities, volcanoes. I should have started planting trees years ago because my carbon footprint from nothing but the flights I’ve been on is enough to rival that of a small nation.

All this to say that I am used to leaving. I’m not used to coming back, however. I don’t know how to come back. Someone once said to me that even when (if) you are promised to return to the same life (friends, loves, work, whatever), the question then begs itself whether or not that will be enough. Leaving now, and setting myself on this trajectory of 95 degree weather, sand storms, farms and farmers, Joloff rice, Sékou Touré and Amadou and Miriam, will I be able to come back? Can I reinsert myself into a life I’ve left? But perhaps more importantly, will I want to come back, so-to-speak, to a life that I am making a conscious decision to leave?

I’m used to leaving but I also don’t know how to leave behind. People, places, faces, familiarities: do we lose our aptitude to reacclimate at a certain point? Does age prevent us from the flexibility to recreate our lives in a different setting? Every time I do this, I question myself more and more. Every time I leave friends, loves, work, whatever, it feels like I also leave a part of myself behind. Maybe that’s true, and inevitable; maybe it’s how we leave our mark on others. Eventually, I am going to have to stay in one place and keep the people I love around me in a tight squeeze. My bank account certainly isn’t thickly padded enough to bring all of them with me.

Coming back to leaving. I know it’s the right thing to do, and don’t have reservations, just a lot of esoteric musings. That mixture of fear and excitement – stepping into the unknown – makes it clear to me that it’s the right next step. A friend who’s been living in East Africa for the last year and a half and is back visiting for a few days said to me today that it feels “safe” being back. Safe and predictable. Things always go how you think they will. It’s the known variable, it’s easy.

I’m not saying that I searching for something difficult. I’m not sure that’s even the opposite. But there’s something about stepping outside life’s norm, creating a different box to put around yourself, living a life that isn’t always comfortable. Anyway, I leave in thirty-seven days. I come back in thirty-seven days and (about) six months. I don’t know what either of those statements mean. All I know is that it’s the unknown variable, and it’s scary and it’s exciting.

retrospective no. 4: getting there.

I love Congolese fashion.

sapeur congolais

From their style alone, to the stark contrast with the surrounding. Bright colors against the dusty roads.

mec du bas congo

Somehow, no matter what, it works. There’s no real taboos, nothing is out of line. That’s not to say I’d walk down the street all got up in Jean-Paul Gaultier, but à 95%, anything goes. Especially when jackets are coordinated with the burnt ochre of the road.

red on red

red shirt, pink shoes

It doesn’t really matter if it matches or not. Those standards – set by I’m not even sure who – don’t apply. Sometimes there’s a statement, but to be honest I can’t always tell what it is.Kinois fashion is something all on it’s own. Kinshasa, like most capital cities, has it’s haute couture and has those who strut the streets looking straight up fly. As Ghostface Killah so aptly tweeted: “You can take the wackest gear but make sure that gear, that K-Mart gear, whatever you wearing, you official wit it.”

word.