Saturday, January 29, 2011

Then and then and then

The other morning I woke up wondering how much a visit to a hypnotist would cost. Because I can't remember what phrase William, my guide in Kakuma, said to mean "no problem." He said it so often and it was so him that I assumed I would have written it down. But it's not in my notes. Apparently he said it so often and it was so him that I thought I wouldn't have to write it down.

So, while writing about Kakuma, I had to decide whether it was important enough to follow up on. I decided it is. It matters. I'll have to send an email and ask, What is it that you say again? That means no problem?

Then I started to write a description of a coffee shop in Kakuma and I discovered that my notes on this, surprisingly, are pretty good. I've even got the color of the u-shaped platform seating--Caribbean blue. But when I started writing about that I discovered this detail didn't really matter.

(It does to me. I find it ironic that there's so much Caribbean blue in the desert, but when I tried to write that I found myself so lost in the Tangled Woods of Digression that I had to drop it. Ditto for the Splash Motel in Lodwar.)

Then I read a note from someone in my book club. This person said that she didn't finish last month's book (a memoir) because she heard the author say that in recreating a childhood scene she (the author) had made up the color of a dress. It was an easy memoir to put down, so there's that. But of course she made it up.

Anyone who has written or tried to write a memoir knows you have to find your own line in the sand: on this side, things that matter; on that side, things that don't matter. On the side of things that don't matter you might make up a color or a name or even a time of day. On the side of things that matter, you try to be truthful and hope for the best.

And yet the woman in my book club is very smart. Her opinion is probably shared by the majority. So it seems there's a disconnect between writers and readers.

Then, while I was pondering all this, a single scrap of paper, amidst all the detritus on my desk, floated to the top. It says: "Our literary opinions are so tangled with our emotions that your relationship with a particular book is a lot like your relationship with a sibling. It depends on what and how much you are willing to forgive." (I don't know where this quote is from, but it seems to be from a review of some sort.)

Then, while I was pondering that, I started wondering if you could substitute cultural for literary and whether or not it would still be true. I was wondering this because I was just involved in an unpleasant incident with a Somali parent, an incident much like the many incidents that I hear about shortly after someone has told me they hate Somalis and I ask why.

Then I decided that, when it comes to memoirs and Somalis, I am willing to forgive quite a lot but not everything.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Conversation With My Father About True Grit

I'm on the phone with my father, who has just seen True Grit.

Did it hold up? I ask.

We both like the old John Wayne movie, if only for the line That's bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.

Yeah, he says, pretty much. The spy played a better part than the musician.

The spy? I say. We seem to be crossing genres.

I don't know, he says. You know. The guy who's best friend is Africa.

Huh. I try to make the necessary intuitive leaps.

Then I get it. Ohhhh, I say.

Matt Damon, who plays a spy in the Bourne movies, and whose best friend is Ben Affleck, is better than Glen Campbell, the singer, who played the same part in the original. Is that it?


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

When I read Lydia Davis

When I read Lydia Davis I start to think like Lydia Davis. Or, to be more exact, I start to think that I think like Lydia Davis. How could I really know how Lydia Davis thinks? It's true, she has published several hundred stories in which her mind is on display, but I have read somewhat less than several hundred. I have met Lydia Davis, though, on two occasions. The first time we met was in Florida, and I took her to see some alligators that lived in a sinkhole. She was fascinated in an appealingly childlike way. She was also fascinated, again in an appealingly childlike way, by the moss in a nearby tree. In fact, she collected some to take home with her, although I warned her this would also mean she was taking home the chiggers in the moss.

The second time I met Lydia Davis she did not remember me. But when I reminded her of the alligators, she remembered them. So I am less memorable than an alligator.

Now I wonder what she would have said if I had mentioned the moss. Am I also less memorable than a chigger? 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Confetti from a Giant's Wedding

I am currently reading Richard Dowden's Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles. It's a great book with some of the most insightful thoughts about Africa, Somalia and Somalis that I've read in a long time. He's also a good writer.

Tonight I was struck by his fanciful description of the landscape as he is driving south from Hargeisa, Somalia, "into a world of sand, rock, thorn trees and plastic bags [italics mine]. Given away free in markets, millions of blue and pink thin plastic bags blow across Somalia like confetti from a giant's wedding."

This is just as true in the desert in Northwest Kenya. Littering is not a concept that holds any sway there.

This became clear to me one day when I was walking through the streets of Kakuma and my backpack fell open. Peter, my guide, stooped down to help me retrieve the things that had fallen out. He put my camera and water bottles back in my pack, then he showed me a phone card.

Has this been used? he asked.

Yes, I said.

He zipped up my backpack and dropped the phone card on the ground.

I was shocked. I wanted to pick the phone card back up and put it in my pocket, but all I had to do was look around in order to see how pointless that would be. Water bottles, plastic bags, paper, cans, feedbags. Junk everywhere.

I remembered someone telling me that plastic bags were going to be banned in Kenya. At the time, I thought it was ridiculous. With all that corruption, they're going to worry about plastic bags? I thought. But then I saw how bad the problem was .... and I thought, Well at least they're doing something.

So I asked Peter, What about the plastic bags? Is it true they're going to be against the law?

He seemed puzzled. How can they be against the law? he asked. If you are moving from one house to another house, where would you put your clothes?

NOTE: The ban was enacted on January 6th of this year. And there must be something about plastic bags that brings out the poetry in people. Here's what the National Environment Management Authority's Acting Director General said in his statement:

“Our country has many colours and when God was creating the world, he only allowed plants to give us flowers, so when our landscape becomes flooded with many artificial flowers of varied colours due to poor management of plastic bags and wrappers, then it becomes a problem."

Nicely put.

O'Connor v. O'Connor

Last night I watched an episode of a TV show in which a sixteen-year-old girl gets pregnant and tries to decide whether to have an abortion.

Then I went to sleep and dreamed a Flannery O'Connor story. It was beautiful, brutal and brilliant. It confronted the human condition, all our hypocrisy and selfishness. It was a masterpiece--I wish I could tell you more. I couldn't believe I'd never read it before.

There were discussion questions following the story:

1. O'Connor was devoutly Catholic. What elements of this story are Christian?
2. How does this story shed light on O'Connor's decision as Supreme Court Justice?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Chance Meeting in Which I Find Out About the Sudan Scholarship Fund

I am finally feeling somewhat back to normal--I flipped the calendar from November to January!--and now I'm ready to talk about one of the more heartening experiences I had in Kakuma. While I was waiting in Lodwar for the plane to Nairobi, I chatted with a gentleman--a former Lost Boy who is now a U.S. citizen--who travels around to test students in refugee camps. The high performers, he told me, are given scholarships to Nairobi University.

This is his wonderful blog (I am the woman he mentions, who took a shower four time a day!) ... please check it out:

I had, in fact, met one of the scholarship students at a restaurant in the camp. My friend and guide, William, can and did talk to anyone about anything, and he struck up a conversation with some Sudanese young men who were sitting at the table next to us. The conversation was mainly about this week's referendum, in which the South is voting whether or not to declare independence from the North. I was stunned by how articulate and informed the young men were. The conversation took place in English and Sudanese and I sometimes had trouble following it, but what I did determine was there is hope for South Sudan if these are its potential leaders.

Will you go back to Sudan after the referendum? my guide, William, asked.

East west ... one of the young men replied.

Home's best, William said, completing his sentence.

My chance meeting with Daniel at the airstrip was also heartening for another reason. Misery loves company. We talked a little about the conditions in Kakuma and agreed that it was hot.

He had been staying at the Guest House too and had seen me going to the shower several times a day to wet myself down.

I had a little trouble with the heat, I admitted.

You could die in heat like this, he said kindly.

I know, I said, because I think I almost did.

It meant a lot to me that someone who had lived in the camp for several years agreed that conditions there are tough. It didn't make me any less plump, white and Midwestern, but it helped.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Freedom of the Press and the Kindle

Bear with me as I try to connect these two subjects. I've been wanting to talk about my experience with the Kindle while I was in Africa and news of Okey Ndibe's arrest is the prompt.

My thinking is rarely linear.

I read today that Nigerian writer Okey Ndibe was arrested at an airport in Lagos and questioned for several hours. His passports--U.S. and Nigerian--were seized. He has been a person of interest to the Nigerian government since he spoke out about elections there.

I had the privilege of hearing Mr. Ndibe in Kenya, at the Kwaani Literary Festival. He is, quite simply, one of the most charming men on the planet. I developed quite a crush. He's also a great writer.

The subtext throughout the Kwaani Festival was the devastating impact a lack of free press/free speech has had on Africa's writers. Many of the writers who spoke there are in exile. Mr. Ndibe lives in the U.S.

Here's the pivot: In Kenya, it's hard to get your hands on a book called It's Our Turn to Eat by Michela Wrong. It's a lively, readable book about John Githongo, who blew the whistle on corruption in the Kibaki administration. In a final chapter of the current edition, Ms. Wrong writes about how copies of her book are being passed around as pdf files. "This greedy appropriation of more than three years' work dismays me, but perhaps there is something poetically fitting about a story of illicitly recorded confidences and website leaks being filched, in its turn, via the internet."

I downloaded it, while I was in Nairobi, onto my Kindle. I couldn't have easily obtained the book any other way. And I paid for it.

So, I wonder, what role might e-readers play in getting around government censorship?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

It Comes Down to a Cupholder?

In northwest Kenya, near Kakuma refugee camp, it's all about water. Children wave plastic yellow containters by the side of the road, begging for water.  Under the searing sun, I saw an emaciated man digging in a dry river bed, trying to find water. Around the camp, people carry plastic baggies filled with water rations.

Things are reduced to basics: water, food, toilets. I had a meltdown there, just trying to make it through the day.

In many parts of Africa, the short rains did not come this year. There have always been cyclical droughts, but climate change and deforestation have made the problem worse. It was very hard to see it first hand.

We all know, or should know by now, that the U.S. is, per capita, the second greatest emitter of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the least, but is among the areas feeling the greatest impact of climate change.

And so I've been carrying around a pain in my heart when I read, in the Columbus Dispatch, an article about how fuel efficiency is not driving auto sales: "You have about 5 percent of the market that is green and committed to fuel-efficiency," said Mike Jackson, chief executive of AutoNation, the largest auto retailer in the country. "But the other 95 percent will give up an extra 5 mpg in fuel economy for a better cupholder."

Monday, January 3, 2011

And Now I Know I'm Old

Telephone Booth Graveyard in Lamu

The day before Thanksgiving, we took our afterschool group of Somali children to COSI (the Center of Science and Industry) in downtown Columbus. I hadn't been there for years and was really looking forward to it. When I was a child, my girl scout troop went every year, and I still remember what fun I had there.

So I was anxious to hear what my group of eight-year-olds was looking forward to.

The first place I want to go is the 1980s, Yahye said.

Everyone agreed. Yes, they wanted to go to the 1980s.

Sure, why not, I thought. Big hair, big shoulder pads, Just Say No, AIDS, MTV, Pac Man ... That exhibit could be interesting.

But we couldn't find it. And nobody at the Information Desk could help.

There is no 1980s exhibit, the person behind the counter said. Are you sure the children aren't thinking about the 1890s? The Progress exhibit? Where, beginning in 1898, you travel through time with the people of a small midwestern town?

Maybe, I said.

I turned to Yahye. Do you mean the 1890s? The time travel exhibit?

He shrugged. Sure. Whatever.

And that was what the children wanted to see. And the thing in that multi-million dollar museum that most captivated their attention?

The phonebooth.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Favorite Books of 2010

I'm going to take a little break from the Africa posts to list my favorite books of 2010. Not all of these were published recently, but they were all read and enjoyed by me in the last year.

  1. Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment. This old couple and their dog won my heart. Simply charming.
  2. Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo. A big, challenging thriller centered around the dark side of the aid game in Africa.
  3. For Rouenna by Sigrid Nunez. So much is said here and yet the pages are few. A Vietnam book for people who don't like Vietnam books.
  4. The Year of Living Dangerously by C.J. Koch. A really great book that has been overshadowed by the film. Deals obliquely with the germs of genocide and makes sense of acts that are impossible to justify.
  5. Lit by Mary Karr. She's largely responsible for the memoir craze, and this last addition shows why.
  6. The Hungry Tide by Amitov Ghosh. A good story set in an exotic, fascinating location, the Sunderban archipelago.
  7. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. Beautiful and haunting from start to finish.
  8. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Plays with form, but there's substance here, too.
  9. American Rust by Philipp Meyer. A good old-fashioned sort of book, in the tradition of the great American novel.
  10. Notes from No Man's Land by Eula Biss. A collection of smart essays.
Oh, and two classics that held up:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Watership Down by Richard Adams