Friday, December 31, 2010


A lot of people have asked about Kakuma, what it was like. As with my recent accident, I don't have the words. I met a lot of beautiful people in the camp, and in the surrounding Turkana region. Survivors.

It was hard to get through the day there. Accept your condition, William, my friend and guide, said to me.

That's how it's done.

The Drug of Choice

What you see here are crewmembers chewing qat (as it is called in Somalia) or mirra (as it is called in Kenya). Mirra is or is not a drug, depending on who you're talking with. In any case, it's legal in Kenya and the attitude towards it is extremely accepting, even among highly religious people. It seems to viewed as something as harmless as, say, a shot of espresso.

Mirra comes from a slow-growing tree or shrub that grows well in Northern Kenya. Its use is pervasive in Kenya, Yemen and Somalia. Consumption causes mild euphoria and excitement.

In Lamu I was told that nearly all the men partake (the estimate 90% was tossed out) and that this is why the town is so sleepy in the morning. The plane with the mirra doesn't arrive until 10-11am. Our guide told us that when journalists are arranging interviews, he always tells them to wait until around 11. Then the subjects will be very talkative.

In Kakuma refugee camp, I saw women and men relaxing with a bag of stems during the long hot afternoon.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Obama Street

This photo was taken in the Ethiopian section of Kakuma refugee camp. On Obama Street there is also an Obama Restaurant ("Yes We Can").

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of Obama as a symbol of hope, status and recognition for the people of Kenya and all of Africa. It was the first thing that people said to me when they learned that I was from America--Oh, Obama!--and sometimes the only thing they wanted to talk about. On elevators. On the street. In taxis. In the refugee camp.

On Lamu Island, one of the elders said: We have a Luo [Obama's father's tribe] in the White House. Now if only we could get a Massai prime minister in the UK, things might finally change ...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Images of Kenya

Here is a little video with some of my favorite images from Kenya. My camera, damaged in the car accident (see previous post), functioned pretty well with some fiddling.

The women with the bead necklaces are Turkana, the tribe that lives around Kakuma refugee camp. Married women have a metal band around the neck, in addition to the beads, that serves as a wedding ring.

The town with stone buildings and very narrow pedestrian streets is Lamu. It's an island and that's where the water shots were taken.

I only took two photographs in the refugee camp. Those photos will be in separate posts, along with more about my wonderful Turkana guides, William and Peter. And Paul, who rescued me when I flew into the wrong airport.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Open Mic without the Mic

Last night I was too sick to go to the open mic reading that is part of the Kwani Litfest here. But I heard that the government yanked the permit to use a mic at the last minute. Dangerous minds at work, I guess. The readings went on as scheduled, they were just very hard to hear.

It has been good to see many exiled writers come back safely to read at these events. And yet there is still some nervousness about how free the Kenyan writers living in Kenya really are. Now I see why.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Price of Things in Nairobi

Saline solution: $15
Cell phone time: pennies/minute

I have a cold, which is very bad timing as I leave for Kakuma refugee camp tomorrow.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Conversation with a Kenyan "Freelance Guide" About the Weather

I am walking into town. A black man falls into step beside me.

Karibu! he says. Welcome to Kenya. Where are you from?

The U.S., I say.

Oh, he says. You do not look like an American. I thought Australia. Where in the U.S.?


Ohio, he says. A very important state. You voted for Obama.

Yes, I say. We did.

Do you like him?

Yes, I still do. But change has been slow.

Yes, yes, he says. Change is slow.

What about you? Do you like Kibaki? I ask, referring to the Kenyan president who also ran as an agent of change.

Mmmm, he says. Change is slow.

We walk in silence for a while. After a while he asks brightly, What is the weather like in Ohio?

Cold. I hear it's snowing.

Snow! he exclaims. It is always warm here. Do you know what I saw? In the airport a man was crying because he had to go home. He said he was sad to leave our climate. Can you believe that? A man! Crying!

Yes, I say, I can believe that.

This snow, he asks. I don't understand. Once, I went up Mt. Kenya. My hands, they went like this. He shows me his hands, like a claw. Is it always like that?

Yes, I say. It is.

What do you do then?

We stay inside. In our houses.

Inside! he says. That is bad.

Now you understand why that man was crying, I say.

Yes, yes, he says. It is because he has no freedom.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


About this I don't have much to say
Except: We walked away
Relatively okay.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Better Mousetrap

Yesterday I had one of those days of paralyzing fear. The blank page looked so white. And empty. So I decided it was time to buy a rat trap.

We've had a rat in our back courtyard for some months now. At first he wasn't very reliable--there were weeks between sightings. But a few days ago he moved into a little hole under the air conditioning unit and now he scampers from one bush to the next all day long.

I will say this about rats: they are industrious. I am not, as you will discover.

My father suggested I use one of those have-a-heart traps. But when I told Sam that was my plan, he talked me out of having a heart. Where was I going to release the rat? he wanted to know. There are no vast, anonymous woods around here anymore, so basically I'd just be dumping my rat into someone else's backyard.

So I bought a springloaded trap for $3.

And then $30 worth of cheese.

And then a bottle of wine.

And that put an end to writing for the day.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


The movie Dad wanted to see was Hereafter. I was a little worried about this choice--he only moved into the "home" (as he likes to call it) two weeks ago. The next step doesn't have to be  death. But, it turns out, his reason for picking this movie had more to do with the director, Clint Eastwood. He's a fan.

I'm not so much, but I do appreciate Eastwood's straightforward style of storytelling. Nothing fancy. Just story and character. And since there don't seem to be that many directors with the clout to make movies like that, more power to him.

The theater was almost empty. We waited for the six other people to leave so that Dad could hobble up the aisle with his cane. Then, while getting lost on our way to Applebees, we talked about the movie.

I thought Damien played a good part, Dad said, by way of opening salvo. All those meals alone. You don't know what that's like.

Zing. Aimed at me, or my mother, who divorced him three years ago?

Everyone knows what that's like, I said. Loneliness is the human condition. But yeah, okay, I though Matt Damon was fine, just a little predictable.

Dad doesn't like anyone to criticize Damien. He's also a big fan of the Bourne movies.

Everyone with new ideas is shunned, Dad said defensively. I think that's what the movie was trying to say.

But his ideas weren't that new, I countered. Which is a problem for a movie that's more about ideas than story. 

Movies can be about ideas, Dad said. Look at two-oh-one.


Yeah, the spaceship. The baby. You know.

No, I don't know.

Yeah you do. It starts with apes and ends with a baby ...

2001? I asked.

That's it. I was abbreviating. I can't believe you couldn't follow that. What's the matter with you today?

I was making my second u-turn and thinking about the comparison between Eastwood's Hereafter and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's an interesting match-up. Two directors. One a storyteller; the other an artist (or, that label I really hate: auteur). I didn't love 2001, but if the subject is ideas my money is on Kubrick.

Huh? I said. I guess I'm off my game.

Dad crossed his arms and looked out the window. You sure are, he said.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sometimes I Wish

I'm taking a photography class, and so yesterday, during a lull in my father's move to "the home" (as he likes to call it), I thought I would take some pictures of multicultural Columbus. Aren't interesting storefronts and doors the standard photography tropes? 

Well, I got run off. On my first stop. By some very polite but stern Somali men.

And I'm not so happy about it. I spend a good bit of time defending the Somalis. I'm happy they're here. My relationships with them have enriched my life immeasurably. But sometimes I see what people mean.

I wish they weren't so defensive.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Other Entrance

Once, in my ESL class, one of our handouts had this question: What is your favorite restaurant?

Some of my students had an answer, but not many. Ahmed explained why.

Our women, he said, don't eat out.

I knew if I parsed his statement too closely I would get offended, so I let it pass. I love Ahmed.

Shortly after that, I visited the zoo with a Somali friend and her son. I paid for the zoo, so she wanted to buy dinner. The problem was, she'd only eaten in a restaurant once in her life. And she didn't enjoy it.

In the spirit of adventure, though, she took me to a Somali restaurant with a separate women's dining room. (The door is pictured above.) She said she would feel more comfortable there. And it was lovely dinner. The staff couldn't have been more friendly and welcoming. But I couldn't help wondering what was happening in the other room, the one where we weren't allowed.

So I peeked in. It was nothing special.

I pass by this door every day on my way to work. I still don't like it, but now I try to think of it as "restaurant training wheels". Maybe in time, it won't be necessary.

Friday, October 15, 2010

No, It's Not a Mug Shot

This is Sahra. She became a U.S. citizen yesterday. (And she was feeling a little silly--the sunglasses were her idea.)

The way her husband told it, she went into the courtroom hobbling like an old lady (he bent over and shuffled across the room) ... and came out strutting (he stood up straight and strode purposefully across the room). Sahra couldn't stop grinning.

45 people from close to 30 different countries were sworn in yesterday.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Conversation with Two Somali Girls About My Clothes

Ubah wants to know where I bought my shoes.

(Ubah loves clothes and jewelry and always notices whenever I wear something new or different. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen all that often--I wear pants and a tee-shirt almost every day--so sometimes she has to resort to making requests. Wear your beach rock necklace tomorrow, she'll say. And your silver earrings. I want to see how they look together.)

I look down at my shoes. These? I say. I'm not sure. They're pretty old.

When did you get them?

I don't know, I say. Maybe 2005.

She holds ten finger in front of her face and starts ticking them off.

Khadra, who is much better at subtraction, interrupts her. Five, she says. They're five years old.

Five! Ubah exclaims. Your shoes are five years old?

Um, I say, yeah.

What about your shirt? Ubah asks. How old is that?

About a year.

What about your pants?

About a year.

How about your necklace? Khadra asks. Is it old?

I touch the pendant I'm wearing. It was a gift. I know exactly when and where I got it.

Pretty old, I say. 2003.

2003! Ubah says. She starts ticking off digits again.

Seven, Khadra supplies.

I don't have anything that old, Ubah says.

And she probably doesn't: she's a refugee.

I consider telling the girls how old my underwear is, but decide against it.

What about your sweater? Khadra asks. When did you get that?

My sweater? I say, trying to remember. I don't know. Maybe 1990?

What! Ubah says. That means it's--

Twenty! Khadra says.

Ubah leans over and strokes my arm. 1990, she murmers.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Amy Casey

This print just came in the mail today. It’s by Amy Casey, “the most talked about Cleveland artist of her generation” according to Scene magazine. She and I both had a residency this summer (Thanks, Ohio Arts Council!) at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass.  Not that we saw much of each other--she works best during the wee hours and I work best in the post-wee hours. In other words, she was going to bed as I was getting up.
But I saw enough of her work to become intrigued. Her concern (the housing crisis in Cleveland) is also my concern, because my father still lives there. And I was also struck by how similarly we have been processing our unsettled-ness about the subject in general. This is from her artist’s statement:
For about eight years I've been experiencing a sporadically recurring dream about the end of the world. Animals stampeding and building falling into dust around me. ... My paintings reflect my view of the nervous state of affairs the world seems to be in. Inspired by natural and unnatural disasters, personal fiascos and the neverending stream of bad news from the media, the world inside my paintings has been turned (sometimes literally) upside down. The ground has crumbled underneath them and the sky is falling. In the wake of this, my created world bands together to come up with coping plans.
And this is the opening paragraph of my book-in-progress:
The subprime loan market has tanked. All day long the media bleats out words like meltdown, fallout, and crisis. Because the housing market appears so uncertain, Sam and I have abandoned any thought of buying a condo, or maybe a ranch-style house, and have settled into an apartment on the west side of Columbus. It seems possible, though, that we are both too old and set in our ways to live comfortably with someone else in such a small space. He snipes at me about filling our squat little apartment-sized refrigerator with what he calls “unnecessary backups.” An extra quart of milk. Dijon and regular yellow mustard. Thirty-two ounces—a three year supply, goddamit—of minced garlic. I wonder if we really have to have five effing remotes cluttering the coffee table. Some days it feels like every sentence is sharpened to a point. But the one thing we do agree on is that we like the quantity of light that fills our apartment, something you can’t take for granted in this gloomy city.

Visit Amy at

P.S. Check out her blog post "11:30 pm -- lets pretend its August." (As an English teacher I must point out to her that it's: "As do the paper towels.")

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Girl with the Purple Parrot

I just watched a really good movie, my dad said. The Girl with the Purple Parrot. You should rent it.

I cocked my head, thought a bit. You mean The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

Yeah, that's the one. Girl's a weirdo, but she can do anything with a computer. It's sort of mysterious. They don't explain how.

I know, I said. I read the book.

You always read the book.

Yup, I agreed, that's my thing.

Anyway, my dad continued, she went after this guy with a three-iron. Then she chased him on a motorcycle until he crashed, then she watched him burn. Then the guy asks, Did you see him die, and she says, Yeah. And then he says, I wouldn't have done that but I won't judge you.

We sat, my dad and I, and pondered vigilante justice for a minute.

So--my dad perks up--do you recognize the current event there? Ripped right from the headlines.

Motorcycles. A chase. Fatal crash. Princess Di? I asked.

What? No. He shakes his head, adds helpfully: Woman with a three-iron? A certain golfer who shall remain nameless?

Oh, I said. Duh.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

John Cusack's Hair

Regarding methods of procrastinations, I think I've hit an all-time low. I just spent 45 minutes surfing the web, to see if anyone else thinks John Cusack's hair is too dark these days. Apparently, this observation is not yet burning up the blogosphere. Maybe because we all like him too much?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Andy Fairweather Low

Why haven't I ever heard of this guy? Oh yeah, because I'm pretty out of it. But as I understand it, a lot of other people haven't heard of him either, people who should have. He's been a sideman for Clapton and George Harrison among others.

I just downloaded Sweet Soulful Music and it's my new favorite CD. His first in 26 years, so that predisposes me to like him. He works slower than I do.

Here's someone on Clapton's level without sounding quite as managed, a plus in my book. Only one song is a cover, and that includes an accordian. Gotta love that.

Oh how it makes my day when I unexpectedly come across a book or an album that I really love!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Worst Place in the World to be a School Child

When I stopped teaching adult ESL, one of the Somali men in my class asked if I had any lesson books I would be willing to donate to a school his friend was running in Mogadishu, Somalia. I did. I gave him a trunk-full, probably more than a hundred books. He was so excited! He was going to send them over a few at a time, with people who were traveling to that part of the world.

The next time I saw him, I asked him how it was going. Turns out, his friend had had to close the school because of ongoing violence. They weren't sure when he would be able to open it again.

I haven't talked to Ahmed recently, but those books are probably still sitting in his apartment.

Here are the facts, according to a report on the world's schools recently released by The Global Campaign for Education. No surprise: Somalia ranked dead last. In the world.

80% of Somalia's children do not receive primary school education. 93% do not receive secondary school eduction. And things are getting worse because of ongoing conflict. The most recent estimate is that only 10% of children are enrolled in primary school.

When you think about it, those are staggering numbers. Four-fifths (or more) of Somalia's children do not learn basic reading, writing and math skills. How do you lift yourself out of poverty under those circumstances?

See: Global Campaign for Education Report

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Conversation With Two Somali Girls About My Cellphone

Do you have a Blackberry? Ubah wants to know. (She's eight.)
I laugh: No.
What about an iPhone? asks Khadra. (She's nine.)
Uh, no.
Then what do you have?
I don't know, I say.
(I don't. Whatever it is, it's pay-as-you go and currently buried, uncharged, at the bottom of my handbag.)
Ubah tries another angle: What's your service? AT&T?
Verizon? asks Khadra.
Hmmm, Ubah says. Sprint?
They pause to consider.
Who made your phone? Khadra asks craftily.
I don't know.
I know, I know, says Ubah. Samsung!
I don't think so.
Well then, how big is it?
Pretty big, I say.
Ubah makes a square with her fingers, about two-and-a-half inches across. Bigger than that?
Really? she says.
Yeah. It's not a flip-phone.
It's not a flip-phone? they both ask, horrified.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bad News

Yesterday I found out that one of my favorite children--I'll call him Shafi--is not returning to our afterschool program. (I tutor at-risk Somali youth.) I've been worried about Shafi. He's dimpled and funny and a little bit lost. He tells knock-knock jokes that don't make a lot of sense. He's in the fourth grade this year.  Big for his grade, because he's been held back once. People make the mistake of thinking he's large and stupid, but last year he tested in the 90th percentile.

I wasn't surprised by this. He's a voracious reader and he's been contientious about his math facts. He would even stay in from recess to do flashcards. (Probably this was more about the extra attention.)

It was coming for him, though. The streets. I could see it last year when he was in the third grade. And now he's been suspended from our program because he broke into the facility. Twice.

What will happen to him, I wonder?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

It's Not Politics

When it comes to social media, you'll never see me linking to political organizations or parties or figureheads. The battle lines are already drawn and to quote Grace Paley, "I never argue where there's real disagreement."

So that's why I surprised even myself when I said something on facebook about the proposed Quran burning in Gainesville. I said something because I love Gainesville and I don't think that pastor is at all respresentative of the people who live there. And because, at least at first, it seemed that the media was not reporting how small that church's membership is. It's just a few individuals who kicked up all this dust.

And then I felt bad, because I violated my own neutrality policy.

And then I stopped feeling bad, because sometimes something should be said.

I live in Columbus, Ohio. There are a lot of Somalis living here. They're Muslims. A few of them are my friends. I've been out and about with those friends and there have been very few uncomfortable incidents. In general, Columbusites are relentlessly friendly. It's one of our best and worst traits. But one of the uncomfortable incidents was at a church.

I was teaching Nadifa to drive. Nadifa is in her late-fifties. She is well-educated in her own language, but her English is coming along very slowly. I was surprised when she said she wanted to learn to drive. Many of the women her age are reticent to leave their houses.

We needed a place to practice parking and so we found a very large church with a very large and empty parking lot. It was a weekday evening and no one was around. I set up cones in the corner of the parking lot. After about 45 minutes a woman came out of the building and asked us to leave in a not very friendly way. She said that children belonged to that church and that she couldn't let us on their property. It would be dangerous. Of course there were no children anywhere near us.

That may very well be that church's policy. It's plausible. But I suspected it wasn't true. I suspected she saw Nadifa's hijab and didn't want her there. And I could tell by the look on Nadifa's face that she didn't just suspect this, she knew it. She didn't understand the exchange between me and the church lady, but she heard the tone of voice.

Now the woman from the church was African American, and there's no love lost here between the African Americans and the Somalis. So the subtext is complicated. But the results of incidents like that really aren't. How eager is Nadifa going to be, the next time someone suggests she leave the little Somali enclave?

And pundits will continue to write op-eds about how the Somalis do not assimilate, and how they do not leave their "ghetto."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Maud Newton: An Appreciation

Over the years I've often visited Maud Newton's blog. It has been the place to go for smart talk about books. Well-thought-out interviews and reviews. A spot of literary gossip. News about Maud's own writing.

She's been silent all summer and I got out of the habit of checking in. But yesterday I did and discovered a new post that explains her absence. Her father-in-law died and she has been grieving. He was, in fact, more than her father-in-law--(that's painful enough)--he was also her long-distance writing partner. He died without having finished his book.

It might creep her out to know this--(we've never met; she has no idea who I am)--but I've felt connected to Maud in many ways. She went to the University of Florida and studied creative writing there. So did I. She loves books passionately. So do I. She's been deeply wounded by Christian fundamentalism. So have I. She's struggled to juggle a job, a relationship, a difficult cast of family characters, and her writing ambition. So have I. And because of some of that, or all of that, she has had a perennial novel-in-progress. Me too.

Like Maud, I also have writing partners. We talk a lot about our work. We encourage one another. We commisserate when things aren't going well. We compare methods of procrastination. We bounce ideas off one another. But we're not getting it done. Or done fast enough.

Maud writes that now "it’s impossible to imagine ever returning to a life in which I treat my writing like a frivolous hobby or prioritize writing about other people’s novels over working on my own."

I want her wake-up call to be my wake-up call. Our wake-up call.

Godspeed, Maud.

Monday, September 6, 2010


I just opened a library book and found someone else's grocery list: milk, bread, noodles, broth, spinach, pink stuff, fruit.

Pink stuff? What could that be? Grapefruit juice? Pink lemonade? Fruit loops?

How much time am I going to waste today, trying to figure this out?


Yes, this time of year I obsessively check the National Hurricane Center's website. Tropical storm Hermine just formed and will travel north through Texas, they say. This reminds me of a favorite S. story.

He was a little late to the Harry Potter party, but when he did read them he read the whole series straight through. Then we rented the first movie. After it was over I asked him what he thought.

"Pretty good," he said. "But I hated the way they pronounced Hermeeonee's name."

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat

The reports on Hurricane Earl have had me thinking about an odd thing that happened in the aftermath of Katrina. Then this morning I read a review of the new book about animal ethics, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. The two seem connected. Here's what I've been thinking about:

I was working with an animal rescue organization in New Orleans. It was almost Halloween. There weren't very many animals left to be saved by then. There was a lot of spraypainted graffiti on the fronts of houses, documenting deaths, human and otherwise. We were working from a list of animals who had been reported, through a website, to have been left behind. By this time, though, they would have been rescued if not for an address problem. It was a list filled with typos. We drove aimlessly through what looked like a war zone. It was eerie. Packs of now-wild dogs roamed the streets. Cars were upended. There was wreckage as far as the eye could see.

We finally found a house on our list. There wasn't any problem letting ourselves in. All of the doors hung open. Inside, furniture was piled willy-nilly. The floor, the walls were coated with slime. We were wearing masks, but the chemical smell was still dizzying. And there, on the second floor, we found two goldfish! They were alive! How did they live for so long without food, we wondered?

I was the one who cradled them on my lap in the backseat of the van all the way to site where the rescued animals were being cared for. I did that, but I wouldn't have rescued them in the first place. I was there for the cats and the dogs. But I couldn't argue with the others' logic. Who was I to choose between species?

That's the image in my head: carrying that goldfish bowl through the rubble.

As it turns out, the reason the fish had lived was because their owners had been checking on them periodically. They had to drive 50 miles to pick them up and bring them home again.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The American

I went to see this with my father today. When it was over, Dad said, "It felt like an old-time movie." By which, I think, he meant the 70s. It's uncompromising. It demands a lot from the viewer. I loved it. So did Dad. Over a salad at Wendy's--(his new place)--we discussed.

"It was almost as good as Clooney's other movie," he said. "The one with the one-word title."

"Michael Clayton?" I said.

"Yeah, that's the one."