Saturday, June 30, 2007

happy birthday mom!

06-30-07 – Happy Birthday Mom!!
It has been quit the long while since I have posted on this blog. It is not to say, however, that I have been lazily mulling around Africa without much to say. I have simply been living on and off busses for the past three weeks. Nearly three weeks ago I quit Ouaga to make my slow crawl across Burkina and mali to reach my final destination of Timbuktu (Tomboktou in French).

My first destination after leaving Ouaga was a small town called reo. Enroute my nike hiking sandals, which have served me so faithfully for these past four years, finally wore through the sole of the shoe, popping the air sacs inside. I found it necessary to seek out some new sandals and once more I stubbornly selected a pair of sandals that to me represent the best of Africa: tire sandals. These are sandals that have their own origins in those worn tires that traverse Africa. They are a hallmark of African ingenuity and resourcefulness. Indeed, it is examples like this that put our own recycling efforts to shame. While we would be more inclined to expending the effort to reduce an object back to its basic materials, so as to be reformed into a similar object, the African (and I do speak in a general sense as I have found this to be true across the 6 countries in the 3 corners of Africa that I have visited) will use and reuse every aspect of an object to make things completely new and unintentioned by the original fashioner of an object. Take the case of tires. Tires are cut apart, stripped and used to make harnesses, water pouches, any number of cords, and, of course, sandals. I often get told that these are the shoes that last. In the US, when buying any shoe, it is always good to take some time to break them in. Unfortunately with tire sandals, they tend to break you in before you break them in. I have been hobbling around for the past two weeks, and even had blisters on top of blisters at one point. I hope at some point my feet will forgive me for my follies.
In this small town of Reo, I had a chance to meet abbe Nicholas, who is an older retired priest who once taught moral theology at the catholic university of west Africa in Abdijan. He reminded me of the essential place that a prophetic voice with regards to injustice has within inculturation.

My interview with him was preceded by quite a long conversation with three high school teachers around issues of religion and the catholic church. It became a little more volatile than I would have cared for, and I later realized that one of the conversation contributors was the local catechist, but it was refreshing to have such conversations over a few beers. One of the teachers is the brother of a priest friend of mine in Ouaga. He offered to drive me around on his moto to get between the bus stop and this small village, and by and large, this voyage was only really possible because of him. If there is one thing that can be said about this region is that it is dusty. I would take a tissue paper and wipe down my face and it would come away red from the dust.
Moving on from Reo to Bobo, I entered a lush countryside that simply oozed with fertility. One could buy 5 mangos for the equivalent of 10 cents! Mango is quite an amazing fruit. If you cook with an unripe mango, you could make a great apple pie. If you use a ripe mango, you can get a great peach cobbler.
Arriving in Bobo, I made my first destination to be the cathedral. From the outside, this church looks like an oversized airplane hangar. Entering later in the week, however, I realized that this was perhaps one of the most beautiful churches I have visited all year. The stained glass windows and carved pews are stunning.
Marching past the market, I collected the attention that one typical gets as a backpacker, namely I became hounded by guides. One in particular started falling me, named ya-ya, and indeed we became friends over our trip, despite the persistent feeling that he would try and squeeze as much money out of me as he could. I guess that is the African market place. I have been here long enough to learn to encourage with words rather than with funds.
I had quite the strange experience as I was invited by one of the guards at the catholic mission to visit the sacred fish pools. It is indeed here where the sacrifices are made to the sacred protector of the land.



Sick again
If there is one obvious lesson that can be learned from reading the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it would be that we really shouldn’t use our own bodies as science experiments.
Sitting around with the seminarians, I asked them if the water was filtered. The cook had already said no, but they retorted saying that of course it was filtered and claimed that the cook didn’t know what he was talking about. I should have known better, and trusted him who was closest to the source, but I decided to test it myself. 2 hrs later as I sat in church the stomach cramps began. I fasted the whole day following as I bussed to Bamako just to be ensure a safe and more comfortable, if hungry, ride.

I checked my weight last week and I was hanging around 76 K. I just came from checking my weight at another place and it claimed I was at 66 K. I hope that it was wrong for the sake of my health. Perhaps it is once more time to visit a doctor.
I tested once more…. 70 K…. still disconcerting.

I arrived in Bamako around 1:30 in the morning. It was far to late to lodge at the sisters, so I engaged in what I deemed to be a prime African experience at the time, and I slept at the bus station. Not a terribly comfortable experience, but I slept in solidarity, if uncomfortably, with my other travelers. All to save a buck or two. Although, arriving in a new city, it is not in ones safest interest to just hop into town after the midnight hour.

Bamako is a city where one can easily see the old touches of colonialism. Old decaying, yet still beautiful buildings mark the city. Walking around with some Italians that I met, we discussed the irony of these buildings. So many of them are owned by the government, and they will not sell them off to someone who might be interested in restoring them. Instead, they stand symbolically, falling into ruin. Is this a symbol, however, of the passing one ancient evil, or is it merely a symbol of the weaknesses of the current one.

Going to the national museum, I walked, for perhaps the first time in 11 months, through well groomed green grass, which is there for the explicit purpose of looking nice. It may have seemed to a be a slight luxury seeing the sprinkler system shoot water across this small park, but it did cause me to pine for home.

Leaving Bamako, I caught a night bus on to Djenne. Well, that was the original plan. I accidentally slept through the djenne stop and only woke an hour after we had passed it. Arriving at 5 am, I checked into the nearest hotel and crashed. The town of mopti itself is quite pleasant. With another traveler, I arranged a trip into Dogon for the following day, and I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to take care of my shoe situation.

Dogon country is listed as being one of the top ten places you have to visit before you die. While I found the area interesting enough, I think that would be a bit of an exaggeration. Perhaps if I had been able to visit there during a festival of one sort or another, but otherwise, you just are hiking through village life. It doesn’t help that heat, illness and dehydration pretty much sapped my energy. Our guide for the trekking was name hamedou. Humuorous guy, but the experience was lacking in the depth that I desired

Sunday was our last day in Dogon country. By this point I had formed and broken through and least 6 blisters. I was able to repair my tire sandals the first day on the hike, thus allowing me to set aside the Chinese imitation pumas that had a sole about as thick and supportive as a piece of paper. My feet looked a total wreck, as I wrapped them in Kleenex and electrical tape to keep up the pressure, and down the pain. The worst experiences were likely when I got sand in the open blister wounds.

My feet hated me.

On Sunday, we arrived at our final village on the plateau. That same morning there had been baptisms (one finds with the most recent animist groups, far more converts to Christianity than in any other area of the country.) The drums started pounding and within seconds, I saw three old women, run into the center of the circle and start dancing.
This was a cause for celebration, and we spent the next two hours witnessing superb local dancing. I even put my own right foot in and shook it all about, as I participated in the energetic dancing.

My feet hated me all the more

Leaving dogon country on Monday morning, we caught a bush taxi directly to Djenne, an ancient city that has still managed to maintain a continuous tradition of bangko (mud) architecture. We were heading there for market day. I can’t even begin to describe the hodgepodge group of travelers who were in the back of the pick up heading there. We had everything from the 10 day traveler, to the 3 month volunteer, to the five month roughin it travel and the 5 year seeker. But those stories will have to come another time. I better go put on some pounds, so, as promised, to be continued….

early afternoon sacrifice

6-16
Today….

Waking up this morning, and heading off to mass, I don’t think I ever had the intention of later seeing a chickens throat slit and dripped all on my behalf towards the protector of this land. Benjamin, one of the guards at the catholic guest house, had offered to show me some interesting things today if I wanted to, as he had the day off. He seemed like a pleasant guy and while I figured I would have to give him money, he didn’t need to share with me some byline of friendship lasting while money leaves, as a segue for cheating me out of some money later on. The two that have been running across peoples lips lately have been “l’argent parte, mais l’amitie dure” and the other is “il mange pour aujourdhui, mais il ne mange pas pour demain.” Everyone needs to make a buck, and I certainly have been meeting quite a few people who are trying to make it off of me. If it is a mutually beneficial relationship, not a problem. If it is like this very nice guide who asked me for upwards thirty dollars for two hours, it doesn’t work.

Anyways, I went to the museum in the morning and told the other guards to let ben know where I was located. When ben arrived, we had to make our way back to the hotel, because I was wearing a red shirt. This is forbidden in the vicinity. The worker cleaning the room next door asked if I was going to have a sacrifice made so I could become president of the USA. I told him, I would far prefer a less stressful job like being ambassador. It did plant the seed in my mind of seeing this interesting cultural act. Just one minute away from the house, I asked ben to turn around so I could grab my camcorder. We set off then for his house, where we picked up so local beer. I also met his sister, who greeted me by calling me her husband, as her brother promised to bring home a white for her to marry. She was cute and I didn’t object to that, but told her, I couldn’t marry a woman who was already married (she was carrying a child on her back). We picked up the local beer, and headed off. The road was rough going on our little moto, but it was nice getting out of the city and into the landscape. As we arrived closer, we were stopped by a farmer. He was wearing a tattered shirt and pants that were rolled up to his shins. He also had flip flops on. Salif looked like he could have been 32 yrs old. We sat discussing for a long time what would happen next. He said that he had a chicken which could be sacrificed for us for 750 cfa. It was the filming that would be the issue. I had wanted to film in the first place because I thought I could film the sacrifice. What better way to remember Africa, eh? I made the mistake of offering quite a paltry contribution of 500 cfa to begin with, which put me out of the runnings for even making a discussion. I would have been better off to have had said something more reasonable like 3000 cfa. He finally settled on 10000 cfa, a considerable sum out here.

We set off, with him holding a young chicken in his hand. The landscape was beautiful. We had arrived at the top of a hill and were making our way down. There were stone chimneys dotting the land from former volcanic activity, and we passed numerous people returning from their own sacrifices. It was a problem at first that I was only coming with a chicken, for typically the first visit necessitates the sacrifice of a sheep. That would have been a little too much for me anyways, and I would have simply enjoyed seeing the fish. After about 20 minutes of walking, we finally started descending into a gully. The vegetation grew up around us and it became much darker. We entered a flat spread out area, that was bordered at the far end with a stream. There were men sitting across the far end in a line, and there was chicken feathers plucked and strewn about the ground and a small fire was in the middle for cooking the sacrifice.
This was a place of death.
Looking to my left, I could see that two trees that were covered with the skins of sheep who had been sacrificed here.
I was told to take of my shoes, and we waited there while salif found a calabash and began sharing the homebrew beer with a few in the crowd. I was then invited to come out for the sacrifice. We greeted each of the older men along the way, and I tried to be as amiable as possible, so as to be sure that should any toes be stepped on, I would at least look like an ignorant tourist and not an disrespectful one.
We approached near the water and were led over to the far canyon wall. All the sudden flies filled the air, as we approached the altar of sacrifice. The altar was set on the wall and by all means, but for the flies, the feathers and the dried bood, it could have just been a normal outcropping of the rock. There were bending tree trunks growing out of the ground, and I stepped on these to get to the place of sacrifice so as to avoid touching anything wet. It could afterall, be blood, and with open blisters on my feet, I wasn not interested in exposing them to the blood of dead animals. The altar itself was covered in feathers, and flies surrounded the whole thing. Not one flew towards me. They were feasting.
As we approached the altar, salif explained that it is here where I speak. Benjamin said that it is at this point that I ask for anything that I want, whether it be work or money or a wife. It would seem this sacrifice really was there for the most individual of needs. I asked whether I should say it in English or French, and they said it didn’t matter. Following my own little rant, which was more like a prayer than anything else (as you can understand I was a little weirded out by the whole thing and my involvement in it), Salif turned towards the wall, prayed in the local language with another man standing there who also poured milk over the altar, and salif took the knife and cut the throat of the chicken, dripping its blood across the altar. It was squawking still until he cut what seemed to be its voicebox. He plucked a handful of feathers off of it and strewed it also across the altar. He then tossed the chicken down to the ground and we looked at it. It fell and then throbbed onto its back. Salif told Ben, who translated for me, that this is a good sign that means that all that I asked for will happen, and I will live for a long time.
At this point, I am wondering what the heck I was thinking coming out here…
We then took the chicken and crossed back across the group of older men and down into the gulch were there is the sacred pools. These sacred pools are filled with giant cat fish. It was only at this point that I was allowed to bring out my camera and record. These fish were quite large, as one might understand since they are fed meat and milk almost every day. Salif further cleaned the chicken, yanking out its entrails and inner organs. He took the entrails and dangled them before the fish, who rose out of the water to eat them.

Overall, I must admit that I was shocked into inaction by the whole event. My own superstitious and catholic guilt ridden mind played tricks on me later through the day as I rested back in the room. Was what I just did a sin? Was it simply improper. These thoughts did not plague me so, but as I began to feel sick once more later that day, I did begin to wonder.

It is amazing to think of how mechanically the whole act was done. I shouldn’t be surprised, however, for killing a chicken is an everyday affair here. It is no more bizarre than peeling potatoes or boiling water at home. The prayers of the sacrifice, said in local tongue were beyond my comprehension, and ben was reluctant to explain in full as we went along. I guess one thing I can take away from the experience is a continued sense of confoundment of this whole African religious affair. I can see why a church could take the easier path of condemnation rather than exploration.

guides on the street

6-15

I spent a good amount of yesterday just sitting around. I made the cd for Ya-Ya that I offered gratuitously. After having spent a good two hours at the market collecting ancient colonial coins, I made my way to the interent café with the intention of calling yaya from there. I spotted his friend who repaired my shoes\ I purchased some air time to try and call yaya, but to no avail. I was quite knackered myself, so I pressed to find some espresso. Yaya’s friend, who had made a preventative adjustment to my sandal at no cost the day before, asked if I would return the favor with a cadeaux today. I offered him an espresso and we sought on for a hotel that would offer one. Cady (prounced Cah-dee), a friend of Ya-ya’s who had already made some blunt overtures, strung along and here I found myself footing the bills. The espresso wasn’t bad, but I had to make the mistake of asking if people wanted a second round. What I got in tow was a heavy bill as he ordered a flag beer and she ordered a soda. The beer set me back by about two dollars, which is no large sum, but frustrating when it was not intentioned. I let it slide however. We then set out to find yaya so I could get him this cd. All the activity ensuite, however unplanned, was quite interesting. Yaya lives in the old quarter, which is next to the ancient mosque. As we walked to there, I was able to get some photos of the mosque, and while they were hoping for me to take a tour, I diverted them, with honest intentions, to another day. I was on a mission to find yaya. I had, afterall, spent the last 2 hours entertaining his friends in an effort to give him this cd.

We entered the old quarter, without having purchased a ticket, as we were on a mission and not set for tourism. This tourist quarter was quite similar to the slums that I had seen in Uganda. The difference here is that the houses were traditionally built. Yaya proved not to be at his house, so I left the cd with his brother. We set off to the cabare to find him. As we were walking along I came across a traditional music group practicing away. I pulled out my recorder to capture the moment with their permission.
Having left our well dreaded musicians, we came across a courtyard where they made traditional beer. Omar repaid my previous beer with this much cheaper, local one. It was quite enjoyable. I offered my first tast to the mama who made the beer, and she crossed herself before sipping. I showed her my cross, which she quite enjoyed.
Finally yaya arrived on the scene, acting like we were best friends. Having been searching for him all afternoon, I did feel to some degree that this sentiment was mutual. We did have a slight falling out later that night as he told me that his price for guiding through the mosque and the old town was 15,000. No thank you. We hit the music scene later that night, enjoying both traditional djembe music, as well as funky blues and jazz.
Heading back finally from the club around 12:30, I joined the guards outside the hostel, who offered me some of the bat that they were cooking. I took some nibblings, but couldn’t bring myself to dive head on into it.
6-14

bus- koudougo to Bobo
at the end of yesterdays journal, my ride arrived, and within 2 hrs I was on a bus once more. I had scored a fancy seat next to the second door in the back. If we were to go off road, this would mean a more bump ride, but the creative opportunities for leg space just could not be passed up.
I have just had a morning filled with an informal conversation regarding inculturation. I don’t want to commercialize my experience, but I do wish I could just record this at times. One of the great lines I heard was, pour former, on doit deformer. This was in reference to education, but it came up many times. It reminded me of what gaetano and I were talking about. He was saying that all forms of education is a form of alienation. While I can agree with that, the degree to which one becomes alienated is diffretn and should perhaps be laden with value judgments.
I have had some more near misses with fans. They are metal here as well, and it would hurt.

Now that I am here in bobo, I plan on trying to arrange my visit with the archbishop. As I am so close to vacation and in a new city, I am also allowing myself to take some tiem to relax, visit some of the historical cultural sites

An interesting question that will be running through my mind as I go to mali, would be what would it mean to have Christianity in this context. It goes back to a question that came in one of the One magazines: Could one be a follow of Christ while also still being a muslim? it asked it in a far more eloquent manner. Islam is embedded and intertwined with Arabic culture. Were one to become a Christian, would it mean an alienation from this? In the Egyptian context it is quite interesting, because there has been an arabization of the Christians without an islamization.
blog 6-13 – on

It would seem that I have taken some serious time away from blogging. It was probably the inspiration of bob, the 6 year traveling Australian which inspired me to take up again. Besides, I have long had the desire, but not had the energy or the privacy.

So it is important, I guess, to bring myself up to date.

I moved to Burkina faso 2 weeks ago. I took it very very easy at first. I think it was the seduction of family, and the desire to chill out after traveling so much. I spent a good amount of time just chatting with gaetano, and enjoying, for the first time in a long time, some one on one mentoring. After a week of that, with some scattered research stabs, I was antsy to put the pen down and set off on interviews once again.

The week that gaetano went off to benin, afforded me the opportunity to get out of the house, go to late night events, see the town, and overall be free. Now that didn’t necessarily lead to me meeting many people. One day walking along, however, I noticed this white guy wandering along. I was making my way in that direction, towards the taxi stand, having just come from swimming with Leone, a French girl I had met when watching the emperors weekly fake departure ritual. He turned the corner. When I reached the other end, he was coming back again, however, and I greeted him with a bonjour. He responded, however ,with a “hello, how are you.” I swiveled around right away. An Anglophone! I am not language prejudiced, but in the same way that skin color or nationality create these little forums for connection, so does language. This is mostly true, however, in a situation where you are the minority. I told him I would be at the concert downtown later that night, and he agreed to meet me there.

I arrived around 8:10. Later than my intention, but I have perhaps become a little too accustomed to African time.
He had met another local who spoke English and invited him in with us. Now, I, unfortunately, do get very suspicious of locals who you meet just on the street, because it can be a signal that they are looking for something more. I have this particular prejudice for those people who you meet in a context that would not necessarily be considered typical in the US, i.e. someone just approaches you in the street. While for the young traveler, it is exciting to have a chance to talk to a “local”, the strings typically attached to these hungry friends can become a little too much. All the same, his friend, while eating on our ticket, didn’t ask for anything else. Perhaps that was already too much, however. Maybe I should just do it the African way, order my own food, and then say to the person there, you’re invited. This typically leads to them graciously declining, but with such gentlemen, it would probably backfire however.
It was great to have a chance meeting that led to great conversation touching everything from religion to traveling etc. Bob has been traveling for the past 6 yrs. I later found out that this was sparked by a brain aneurysm which left him in the hospital for 8 months. He is a budget traveler, and uses the money earned from renting his apt out in Sydney to pay for his travels. Incredible. Both the simplicity and vivacity with which he travels is inspirational. We were out till 1 am or so, the latest, in fact, I had been out since I arrived in Burkina.
I was feeling the lack of sleep the next day, when I rose at 5:30 to head off to mass. Bob said that he might meet me there. I gave him the wrong info, so he showed up halfway through the service, but it was probably better that way, as I imagine he might not have wanted to sit through the whole 3 hrs. the mass was followed by a procession with the eucharist around the block, stopping twice to pray. I decided to have no shame, and moved about the event recording. Following the mass and the procession, bob and I sought out food. Having found ourselves omlettes and yogurt, I offered to show him around, and help buy him some pants. When we left later that afternoon, we said that we should try to get together again the next day, but I grabbed his email address all the same, just in case it didn’t work out. Little did I know that later that day I would be moving in next door to him.
Indeed, in the taxi on the way back, I got a call from gaetano saying they had gotten back. With one more guest already in the house, and one more on the way, it was time to move on. One has to be wary when one gets too comfortable in a living situation when on the road.

baked beans

08/06/07
As I sit here, eating cold baked beans directly from a can, I come to realize how culinarly inept I am, or rather, allow myself to become. Even with my own earlier efforts at creativity, as I added Ginger and even cinnamon bark to my rice, the latter to no effect, I have somehow allowed dormant baking skills, present from the days of my first adding cinnamon to chocolate cookies or mint to my brownies to remain status quo: dormant. These past few days as I have been contemplating my choice between living in Oregon as a youth minister, or teaching English in france, I had decided on france for its opportunity to improve my language skills and reconnect with the French family. I even contemplated that with a little discipline, I could explore the vast world of francophone theology. Perhaps there is an even more pressing need, which will require perhaps even more discipline: learning how to actually cook. It is only fitting that I do this in france, as it remains, iconically, the center of the occidental culinary world.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Rainy days are here again

There is something strange that happens here, when it rains. The winds somce sweeping in, and the dry dust, whose presence is so often only evidenced by the subtle change of the color of your clothes, becomes swept up into the air. Should the gale prove strong enough, and the rain arrive late enough, day turns to night. Suddenly one feels thrust into an apocolypse, and a feeling far more primal takes over as the sun disappears, swallowed by the earth beneath our feet.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Long time no blog,
I have certainly been slacking of late with regards to this blog. I can’t say that I have any good reason for my absence. I’ve simply been busy. I moved to Ouagadougo, Burkina Faso a week and a half ago, and I have moved in with my French professor and his family, Gaetano Deleonibus, who have been here for the past month. It is the first time I have been in a “family situation” since I came to Africa. It can be a rewarding and consuming experience. Gaetano and Gina have twin girls nearing the age of 10 named sophie and Elena. They are quite the handful, particularly when you add in the Goat and the two chicks who have joined the family here in Burkina Faso. (I have wanted a goat since I came here, but with the constant bleating and pooping all over the place, I think my future backyard could do without it.) Living in a family again and sharing stimulating conversations with Gaetano and Gina has been a real blessing, and I have used this past week as an opportunity to take a breather as I finished up 2 months of irregular, but constant travel. Now, coffee table covered in Burkinabe French theology texts and each day set aside for interviews, I am back in action. Ouagadougo certainly isn’t the type of city that you fall in love with at first sight, but the people here continue to impress me with their openness and friendliness. Course, often if you encouter these sentiments in the street, then it typically has some sort of price tag attached. I think my favorite cry from the merchants is “C’est gratuit à voir”, which translates to, It’s free to look! I also enjoy the hawkers who try and stop me with niceties and small talk to look at their hand carried wares. I typically invite them to walk with me and ask them how their family, wife, kid, house and goat are. After a few blocks, they typically get the idea that I’m not in the market. I tell them right away, but it typically takes some time for them to get the picture.

I had a very humorous “cross cultural” experience the other day. Jumping from country to country, culture to culture, even being sensitive to local customs, one can make a wrong move. I had gone to mass at a church where a waiter I had met a few days earlier was a member of the choir. After the service, we went to his house, where I of course met his mother, grand niece, sister, brother’s wife, and his wife. We were sitting down and his wife came to me with a gourd bowl with water in it. I just stuck out my right hand and set it in the water to start washing it. This is a typical move in Ghana for when one eats. I noticed right away an odd look on their faces, and it was then that I realized that they were offering me water to drink, not to wash my hands with! Here, I can’t stop apologizing through