Archive for April, 2010


April 30, 2010

Hard to pack sadness, anger and unbelief in black on white.  She was a young, happy go lucky pre-school teacher with extra long necklaces and cute hats worn every other day, a French accent reminiscent of that France she knew as a child, who spoke fast, laughed a lot, smiled most of the time, full of emotions, fun to be around and much more.  She died the day before yesterday in a hospital bed before sunset, in the company of three lady visitors, of unknown reasons, or maybe just reasons one may never know.

All she needed to do, some thought, was to go on a serious diet for her own good, but with asthma and other health problems only her doctor father knew, she managed to live a simple life alone, with an old aunt or a cousin close by.   The bus rides early in the morning and the long waiting hours at the bus station in the evenings were added aggravations. The three-year olds loved her as she taught them mornings and afternoons, helped them during their  lunchtime meals and kept an eye on them during noon naps.

The day she passed away she was told to go in a cab somewhere in town for further tests.  Rudimentary hospital conditions with crowded shared rooms, which included simple beds with no sheets and two fans probably brought in by family members to help her breathe, made it impossible to receive the medical attention some would expect, including access to oxygen around the clock, and instant intensive care if needed.  

Was it because of the busyness of the place, the scarcity of health care staff, the rudimentary state of things, misdiagnosis or neglect that she lost her life?  Be that as it may, you do want to cross your fingers and pray God not to be seriously ill when you have to fight for your life, alone, with very modest means, in the middle of a no-woman’s land.

As the days of mourning continue, and the plastic chairs often placed in the street across the humble shared dwellings welcome hundreds of friends and colleagues who spend long nights to the sounds of religious songs, chatting and reminiscing until the buses come for the procession to her resting place, I find it hard to pack collective sadness, and the “wish things had turned out so differently if we just knew something awful was in the making” into this last paragraph.


She is a Yansi, he is a Pende

April 29, 2010

What to make of tribes and tribalism in the 21st century when living in Africa and witnessing on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays nepotism, tribalism, genocide and non-stop misery, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, art, music, dance, laughter and joy, and religious worship of many hues.  And, are we not forgetting, Saturday marriages within the tribe and across tribes, as the days of crossing boundaries no longer attract the thunder of the heavens.

The good and the bad, heaven and hell, the coin principle.  The good side of the tribal coin is the tradition that lets you know your roots and gives you the sounds and the inimitable accents of a language that no other can easily master.  The other side of the coin, the bad side of things tribal,  is the engraved mask of things unseen, those that bring havoc through the nepotism that kills.  

The 14-month daughter of the lady from the Yansi tribe and the gentleman from the Pende tribe (by the way, these two tribes happen to be within the same province of the former Zaire, known as Bandundu) says three words that show her personal triangle of attachment.  Father is papa, mother is mama and anyone else for that matter taller than her is yaya.  We trust that as chips becomes tinier and computers continue to link all on earth one at a time, that people’s minds will continue to expand, and hearts continue to see the light. Let us be like 14-month old children. We got to love all of our “yayas”and then we shall all be home free. 

The funny thing about discussions that deal with tribal identities and issues is that they tend to dance on a slippery racial discourse. But that need not be so.  Africans who know their roots and see others through the tribal prism need not be anything but proud and humble, even if that prism identifies, as a any good GPS would, your tribal identity that defines ancestry through your name, dialect and the accent of your voice.  

She is a Yansi, he is a Pende. Great. And that is the way it is. And as we celebrate vows on Saturdays, and build bonds and alliances, the awkward tribal note in this discourse for many is that in marrying far from their own land they discover a week later that it is a risky proposition since ” I am displeasing my people as the lucky one I married can barely cook what we are accustomed to put on the table”. So start cooking for yourself when nostalgic and everything will be just dandy!

So, as simplistic as it sounds, food preferences and dietary customs could lead to war or peace. It would be preferable then that the “I seek my kind” motto of the proud member of a tribe, or the “I shall seek far off the one I love” spirit of an adventurous member of that same tribe, could one day lead, through the sacrifice of dietary inclinations, to the construction of a better and just society, free from the bad kind of tribalism, even if culinary incompatibility remains a bone of contention.

The tank and the jeep

April 28, 2010

Vague memories of small wars (VMSW) (part I)

In the heart of continent A. where a cool collected country lies, with a big river, with a bend in it, running along part of its border, there was a time in an earlier century when for weeks on end the constant firing of bullets (as heard from the balcony of the former embassy of a former eastern country known for its well-placed r) sounded like supersonic birds.

Most left fast.  When the last tank came by, on its way to the landing strip, the last two members of the last family on the last street by the cathedral, rushed through the black gate to enter the tank (the one with the invisible hexagon on a piece of metal) through its back hatch. The birds on that day kept singing as bullets of all sizes kept up the persistent tensions of little known small wars.

Within days a jeep with a tiny invisible pentagon glued to a side door came to collect the neighbor’s papers and asked the remaining inhabitant (“come this is going to be long”) to join them in an honest retreat.  All he could tell the nice folk armed to the teeth dressed to kill “I am a poor fellow holding the fort with scared Irish setters, could you hand me over the remaining canned meat balls so I could count them and cut them in four pieces as long as the excitement lasts”.

The young night watchman sensing that all hell was being unleashed took the running shoes of the gone young inhabitant and some of his music and left through the same black metal gate to meet a fate unknown (is he still singing in an unknown band dreaming of spending his life in Paris sur Seine?)

All the poor fellow could think of was how to be and behave in unexpected times of upheaval even when forced to count meat balls by their fourths.  And all the setters could do, after the tank and the jeep had disappeared at the end of the semi-palatial dirt road, was to walk up and down the phony marble stairs of a former embassy, incapable or ashamed of barking at youngsters with guns in a town with no hope.

And this “triste” vignette ends in a “foot” note.  If we dare borrow their “vignettes” they borrow our “foot” (the owners of Versailles that is).  In lonely days of dangerous fireworks with no “foot” (football to the French, soccer that is) “loot” instead became that summer the sport of the day.  So from more than one balcony across a no man’s land, a witness could hear hammers hammering walls, thus kicking days of happy loot.

The Irish plastic chair

April 27, 2010

Ireland 1985

Snap shots of Ireland won’t tell the story.  Lush, green, pristine, welcoming, ethereal and the music, all is a good thing.  Yet lands, languages and customs evolve, nothing stays static, never been back since then, my loss!  But back in 1985 four memories crystallized Ireland in one man’s mind. 

Forget airport landing in Shanon a year thereafter.  There was a ferry linking the suburb of Goodwick in Fishguard, Wales, to Rosslare in Ireland.  In Rosslare there was a “wooden” train (or was it?) that took you to Waterford, where famous crystals are made.  The train and the crystal were entry points into the perceived Irish spirit. 

But then came the dog show.

Before technology entered into lands and lives, there were dogs being celebrated in Irish fields.

Contests of large and small canine creatures, groomed and trained before proud owners and fair judges, were taking place in a verdant suburb.  Such a display of beauty and agility was something to behold.

And yet the most amazing thing, irrelevant to the festivities, was the light rain, the first of the repeated drizzles that punctuate daily life.  All the reserved white plastic chairs were wet. Nowhere to sit for unexpected “guests” .  And out of nowhere a little girl in a white dress accompanied by her parents came up to me, as she noticed a puzzled and lost look in my face and said in the language of poets of yesteryear: “May I wipe the chair for you”. 

Of all the little girls in the whole wide world, how many little girls, do you know, would have said those seven basic words? It may be unfair to state, simplified to the extreme, but that scene, to me, is part of the soul of Ireland.

The sorcerer

April 26, 2010

The gentle man was born, raised and learned a trade in the Bas-Congo province, known earlier as Bas-Zaire.  From one Congo to the other Congo, he said as he crossed the majestic river, before mobile phones brought everything together with an added budget line.

The heart of Africa is full of half-standing forests (who is counting), traditions (thousands) and mysteries.  As a central African son he was a true and devoted believer.  He prayed every morning and every evening, and believed in God’s grace and mercy.

He was a fine tailor who took his time for every piece of work he did, asking for modest rewards for his skills.  He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He had a large family and reasonable domestic peace for the past twenty years spent in another land.

And for reasons unknown he lost his teenage son.

Death is part of the cycle of life everywhere, but in Africa things are explained in strange ways, and often discussed in hushed voices during days of mourning and nightlong wakes.  In his case the son had a pain on his side.  It affected one of his legs.  He heard from someone that his son had kidney problems, even kidney failure.  Instead of going to a hospital, the wife and her family decided to go through the traditional healing path. This time they took the young man to a “guerisseuse”, a woman healer.  No one knows what went wrong, but the son passed away.

For reasons that remain unclear, the wife blamed the husband.  He became in her eyes a sorcerer, who “swallowed” their son.  The so-called “sorcerer” had no arguments against the invisible “mob” surrounding the wife.

One fine evening not long ago, before dinner, the wife came home with three hoodlums and pointed a finger at the fine tailor saying:  here is the sorcerer.  The three men started beating him in the face and all over, till there was some bleeding as we could tell from his stained clothes.  When they were done with their deed they left with the wife.  She took the opportunity to take with her all her belongings.  Afraid to return to his house and continue to live with her, he too left, seeking a refuge and a clinic.  Then he too packed his things in a cab and left.   And the lodger within minutes found another family to replace them.

Twenty years of life shared, several children together, and with this death what appeared as a solid bond was shattered within seconds.  Beliefs of a complex nature are brought into play daily to explain or justify illnesses, and death.  Curses and mysterious traditions are the stuff of Africa, they explain a specificity to be reckoned with, what makes an African an African, even if foreigners try to explain the world and Africa in it, in scientific terms.

In the larger context of what is universal reality and what is truth, we are still confronted with ways of feeling and believing, manners of acting and reacting that are not easily grasped by many a mortal man.

Horn-honking days by the equator

April 25, 2010

(My little girl and my little boy have pushed me over the cliff of words.  Were it not for them, now serious adults living in airplanes, I would not have penned a word.  So in honor of my family, as a person over the hill, overlooking a cliff or two, I will be writing from time to time a bloggy, defined by no dictionary as a one paragraph blurb dealing with a point of no return)

During most hot Saturday afternoons in the rainy season along the main boulevard, every couple of hours, horn-honking cars drive away from the railway station with cameramen dangling from cab windows, towards expensive honky-tonks, in a noisy procession, to partake in elaborate wedding ceremonies, hours after official morning vows.  Years after bottles and gifts, horns never honk anywhere near honky-tonks when things get tough and the singers stop singing. By then the haves and the have-nots have long forgotten fidelity and have opted for multiplicity (these are exceptional cases mind you) as the surest means to enjoy the best remaining fruits that life has to offer (women were thus being pictured by eminent professors of business schools in an earlier century).


April 24, 2010

Three uncommon gems with roots and hearts linked to Persia, Africa and Ukraine (divine attachments if you ask me) were walking under the shade of an alley of ancient trees (oaks?) on their way to the neighborhood athenaeum discussing the days when Athena spoke to her friends about wisdom before people diluted the word, and about crafts when there were no factories, and they couldn’t stop laughing as they reminisced about the good old days.

All bloggers need an audience.  Within the immensity of the www world I, for one, am blessed.  Of all my southern commentators living in the great state of the redwoods, by the beach, and the home of funky coffee houses, three gems shine across the Atlantic.   The three by then had stopped for coffee after their visit to the neighborhood athenaeum.  Of course there are more gems, but how am I to know?

They are descendents of great heroines, humble in all dealings, and gifted in science, literature and art.  They will recognize themselves by the initials of their first names.  M, E and V spell medieval, vehement and Vermont, as they reflect history and strength, and are busy building the golden age. 

In the realm of the spirit they move with the ease of angels in the firmament.  Their moves and their words are recorded by the eternal computer who never misses the least intention, nor the least heartbeat when spent in the kingdom of optimism. 

Lucky blogger he is, the one who is heard by kind minds, sincere hearts, and forgiving intellects.  And beyond the good fortune of one, doesn’t it strike you as odd and sad that with the millions of blogs and sites created out in space, and the billions of words written (and spoken) daily in dozens of tongues, that there can still be room for something other than non-stop celebrations of the human spirit?

The dog and the fox

April 23, 2010

If the old faithful beloved irish setters that said farewell one evening, one at a time, after going through a four-month civil war, were cousins of great horses (oh the color of the fur!), the new dog looks and acts like a fox.  His dark blond coat certifies it, with very white segments on all four legs, a white natural collar, and on the surface of a proud snout and around the eyes a pure white thinly coat resembling a venetian mask.

Wily and foxy the new dog keeps an alert eye on anyone coming through the swinging door.  We understand he needs a rest lying on the edge of a persian carpet in the living room, after a humid night spent outdoors in the company of sleepy guards.  Overworked he feels as he is tasked with keeping guards vigilant, potential robbers a hundred yards away, and small animals of the noisy kind anywhere but within his eyesight.  He has to put up with small burning fires (just leaves) in the middle of the concession to keep the guards warm and to chase nasty mosquitoes loaded with malaria and hungry for blood.

He doesn’t mind the cats.  He avoids them because they know better than to leave the rooftops and the walls all around just for a visit.  He decided early on in his life that to chase lizards during the weekends when no one is around is a worthy endeavor. Those poor lizards, the remaining members of the dinosaur family in central Africa, take chances and risk their lives if they take a quick nap when the fox is around.

You can’t teach a fox new tricks, but we tried anyway to teach him the rap songs of liquid parties famous in the west (close friends suggested classical opera) and he fell asleep.  We tried to sing him songs of peace but T. la flèche (arrow) nodded and kept quiet.  He kept dreaming of the playful moments when he keeps chewing on ankles and shoes of two-legged creatures as they go on their way, irritated and scared, out of his sight.

And when finally rid of curious and annoying strangers he reenters the house in search of his ancient rug, he dashes for any visible kitchen towel among the few chosen ones hidden in chosen spots, and walks into the living room proudly, unwilling to open his mouth to express his many other profound feelings.

Rosebank under African skies

April 22, 2010

(P. and K. will forgive me for the piece but I’ll be the first volunteer to live in outer space if the space station looks anything like Rosebank.  Actually if P. and K. were not around Rosebank, Rosebank will be neither as beautiful as a rose, nor as promising as a bank).

I may have made mention in past ages and past pages of the topic of addictions, however my attachment to Rosebank mall, more so actually than the larger Rosebank neighborhood within Sandton  (Johannesburg, South Africa), is an attachment of a specific nature, begging to be forgiven.

Malls are a reality that we all live with.  I’d rather walk a narrow tortuous street with side alleys, dark in some corners, with store windows of the movie-set sort, and mysterious boutiques driven by bored,impatient and colorful personalities, than to walk through a neon-lit complex larger than life with gigantic parking in the outskirts of most cities.  However when it comes to Rosebank, the mall that is, the force of habit has transfigured the place into something that it isn’t to most: a refuge,a home, and a park for business-lie strolls with built-in protection from would-be muggers.

This not being a travel guide I’ll risk your displeasure by being subjectively precise in some lines and vague and esoteric in others.   At point blank I will state that our beautiful dinosaur is a multi-faceted creature, with : 1 (the Zone), 2 (the Firs) 3 (a gallery) 4 (a large mall attachment) 5 (a walkway under the stars) and 6 (an African market that extends on weekends into a gigantic car park for its ritualistic Sunday market), six (at least) components or facets or faces that “look” nothing like each other.  Walking from 1 to 2, and 2 to 3 etc. is like walking from France to Germany, and from Germany to Luxembourg, or from Luxembourg to Switzerland assuming they had common borders (please check a map to correct me).

It would take a book to describe and narrate the dynamics of that world.  If distilled I come up with the comfort of a café lounge of a famous hotel where American celebrities spend time when visiting orphanages they sponsor with joy, to a falafel joint you chance upon on your way to either the “nouveau” film house with the intelligent flicks and architecture film festival and its cousins, or to the standard blockbuster theater that covers the rest of the world’s movie production, including Asian masterpieces for fans hungry for romance and blood.

The clothing and the shoes and the perfumes galore adorning dozens of boutiques, imports of the expensive kind, constitute the standard fare, but if you stick to south African creations you will have to continue shopping and window-shopping every hour on the hour, so colorful are the creations, till Sunday comes around (what breakfasts the country offers !) when everyone under the sun exhibits and sells in stalls of touching warmth, crafts, soaps, and wooden and metal marvels to decorate your abodes.

I for one love to walk for miles back and forth, sitting and sipping a coffee here and a tea there, and going from one movie to the next with transit time spent in the used bookstore, and the “exclusive” collection of books in two malls, with a stopover in the well-stocked camera shop before calling it quits in the school supply store honestly positioned in the first floor of the gallery or in the coin collector’s heaven a stone’s throw away. Sad indeed that everyone goes home early!

And whenever I have earned enough rands that year I may linger in front of the aristocratic jewelry displays of dozens of south African jewelers working in gold, silver, platinum and pearls, looking for an elusive bargain in the high end of her offerings, before I walk into the Australian leather goods store that is now memory as the Firs has received an expensive face lift and sent some poor souls to other space stations.

In no other space-station will you gaze on artists with painted faces frozen in poses moveable when a coin drops in a cash hat by the feet of the talented pantomimist. Nowhere else will you witness the “promeneurs” crisscrossing the mall in an endless celebration of the real fun of the mere luck of existing under African skies.

But the mall will remain an island within the larger picture of continental bleakness.

Things Italian beyond ravioli

April 21, 2010

After bongiorno and ciao, and the offspring of signori pasta, the obvious spaghetti, ravioli, pizza, tortellini, penne, lasagna, cannelloni, visitors to Italy look for things specifically Italian.  I for one in the last two years when entering by road felt “bienvenuti” in a dizzy way as I counted close to 200 tunnels from the French border to Genova, a freeway along the coast line. Dizzy from not always seeing the light at the end of the tunnels, but excited about the prospects of “being” in Italy.  Just pronouncing the name is enough.

I have always thought of Italy as a rather expensive land, judging by breakfast fare, at the time when the Lira was running the country.  Now with euros the whole continent may not be a bargain.  Beyond the cost of living for a visitor, “nationals” have no choice but to adapt of course, the interesting question, vis à vis France for instance, is what makes Italy different from France, aside from the language.  What is Italian about Italy.

The unmistakable European touch, still there always in spite of the  horrendous destruction of cities during the second world war, are its buildings, narrow streets (so one walks), smaller things (so you feel a certain coziness), tons of people (so you feel warm), public transportation (so you get rid of your car), and the togetherness of closely knit communities (so you are jealous).  From this perspective wherever you go in Europe you are basically in a “union” with the above traits, a common denominator, sharing coins and bills, and speaking very different languages.

The “American factor” kicks in though in most places because of the “landscaping” of all things modern, from the fast food joints, malls and other big commercial names, to the English as a language that most cherish for obvious reasons.

So back to Italy’s personality. What I cherish are the vivid conversations, the tightness of groups, the walking together in old streets, the gestures, the expressions, the off orange, off yellow façades of most “row” houses, the “duomo” which doesn’t sound like a cathedral but in fact it is, and all the elegant ladies riding their bikes casually in Parma at least. And the ham if you are not vegetarian. This not being a tourist guide will skip the thousands of monuments and sights that boggle the mind.

So what is left beyond warmth, togetherness, facades, duomos, elegance, bicycles and pasta? Probably the Italian language itself,  and world urbanization slowly replacing old structures, as the old fails to be saved.  I pray Venice never goes.