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Flip the Script Friday: Lorraine Hansberry, Les Blancs

Really disliking these blocks on WordPress. They just make everything so clunky and hard to edit. I found time this week to read at least part of a script. It was quite interesting, especially since its playwright didn’t live to see its completion.

That’s So Jacob Presents: Flip the Script Friday

Episode #45: Lorraine Hansberry, Les Blancs

Image Credit: Amazon.com

The Basics

Les Blancs premiered on 15 November 2007 at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre. It was produced by Konrad Matthaei. The final text was finished from Hansberry’s notes by Robert Nemiroff. Notable actors in the premiere production included James Earl Jones as Tshembe and Earle Hyman as Abioseh.

Characters

  • Dr. Marta Gotterling – young doctor, white, of Scandinavian origin
  • Peter – young African servant
  • Charlie Morris – young reporter from America
  • Dr. Willy DeKoven – older doctor, from the Netherlands
  • Major George Rice – older man, American, major in the US Army
  • Madame Neilsen – elderly woman of Scandinavian origin, wife of the unseen Reverend Neilsen
  • Eric – young African man who works at the compound
  • Tshembe Matoseh – brother of Eric who has just returned from studying in Europe and America
  • Abioseh Matoseh – brother of Eric and Tshembe who is more traditional.
  • Ngago
  • Other minor characters including Drummers, The Woman, African Child, Soldier, Prisoner, African villagers.

Setting/Plot

“Yesterday/today/tomorrow – but not very long after that.” A mission compound and a tribal hut in an unnamed African country. An extensive opening sequence leads us to the compound, where reporter Charlie Morris arrives just as Dr. Marta Gotterling is finishing with a patient. Charlie then meets the rest of the staff and residents of the compound – DeKoven, Rice, and Madame Neilsen, as well as Eric, a servant. Upon hearing drumming, DeKoven and Rice bring up terrorism, but Madame Neilsen determines that it is just ritual funerary drumming. We learn this to be true, as the father of the Matoseh brothers – Eric, Tshembe (recently returned from a trip around the world where he has become a Christian) and Abioseh (who is more into traditional tribal beliefs). Despite a curfew, Tshembe shows up at the compound to check in with Madame Neilsen and the rest, only to be admonished and castigated publicly by Rice for not observing the curfew. This is followed by a conversation between Charlie and Tshembe, each trying to figure out the real story of the other.

Major Themes

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

I know that the description was borderline confusing, but the play was borderline confusing. A lot of key details are only referred to and not seen onstage. This includes Kevin being beat up by Merv and his gang and the wedding of Jamie and Krista. I suppose this adds to the element of mystery and is due to the fact that we can’t include literally everything that happens to these characters onstage, but I felt like the details pertaining to who exactly Merv is (other than, as they refer to him once or twice “Merv the perv”) and what his deal is with Jamie and Kevin, why they’re enemies. We also don’t see too much of Chicky’s backstory. She’s a badass who has dealt with a lot, from unwanted advances from basically every male except Jamie, which includes her father, Clarence, and Kevin, who may or may not be related to her, as we find out. Instead, we hear a lot about it, and at times it feels like Chicky’s giving us a lot more than we are seeing, and we have to just hope that she is reliable in what she is saying. The scene between her and Clarence attests to the fact that she is probably telling the truth, but it’s almost as if she reveals too much information as there’s not as much visual context.

Waiting For…

This brings me to my next point, which is the obvious presence of absent characters. Some are ostensibly absent, like Travis, who is dead, and Chicky’s mother, who has abandoned the family. However, we also don’t see Earl, the boss, or the infamous Merv. Most notably, we hear a lot about a certain character who never shows up but clearly has quite an impact on one of the onstage characters; Reg, an older, married man, who employs Robby and has been involved with Chicky ever since her early teens, almost as young as Lissa. Chicky is so headstrong, and despite teasing Jamie, is his mother figure, and is protective of the younger and more vulnerable characters, showing sisterhood to Krista (even when she is being a bridezilla), civility and attention to Robby, and being a safety guard for the young and impressionable Lissa. Chicky can be a smart-aleck but she seems to know more than anyone else, and is the most down-to-earth and practical…yet her dreams and aspirations are viewed as a joke by everyone else. This is exacerbated at the not one, but two scenes where she is waiting for Reg, who of course, does not show up. Her fatal flaw is that she is attracted to a man who, despite what he says about his marriage, is not going to leave his wife and be with her. Unlike all the other characters, she does not know that waiting for him is useless because he will never show up.

I Guess This is Growing Up

My final major theme is that of growing up, or lack thereof. It’s obvious that Chicky has been thrust into the role of parent, basically raising her younger half-brother Jamie, and that Krista, who dreams of being Jamie’s wife, is more into playing at being an adult than actually being one, leaving Jamie somewhere in between. With his desire to clone Travis and somehow eliminate the future “new Travis’s” brain tumor, Clarence is holding on to a memory and acting like the very child he lost and is obsessed with. Lissa, the youngest character in the play, is entranced by adulthood in two ways: by Krista, only three years older than her but already a bride, and by Kevin, who makes romantic advances on her. Even though Kevin stops before he does anything immoral or regretful, getting up off of Lissa and sending her home before they do anything, Lissa is smitten with him, which she shows in the monologue section of the photo session scene, with her monologue that is basically all of her thoughts about sex. When Jamie and Chicky piece together what Clarence has been doing, they confront him, telling him to grow up and act like the father he should be, and on the flip side, Chicky emphasizes to Kevin that Lissa is still a child, and even though she and Reg have had a physical relationship since her early teens, that Lissa, being “slow,” is way more vulnerable than she was, and warns him not to engage with her, at the risk of giving her signals she does not understand which could lead Lissa to a dangerous place.

My Thoughts

As much as parts of it confused me – for instance, the scene where Jamie and Kevin are putting on dresses and makeup for a stag party, and the sexual aspects of Merv and his “gang” – I kept reading just to see how this gritty Gothic tale would turn out. I kept thinking of a combination of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Naomi Wallace’s The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek; the former, because of a main character living in his own world, contemplating moving across the country, and the chopping down of trees, and the latter, with the country aesthetics and father/son relationships, as well as the railroad which dominates the landscape. Also, my current read is John Green’s Looking for Alaska, and though I’m only about a quarter of the way through, I am picturing the gang in that book as similar to the unseen Merv and his gang.

How I’d Flip It

Much like the cover of the book, I’m seeing some sort of tree design, maybe with moveable flats in front of a backdrop that looks like the sun in the sky, but is really the eye of an eagle, symbolizing both endangerment of the environment, and the eagle Jamie nurses back to health and releases into the wild. A lot of what I saw in various production photos included wood or faux-wood logs and stumps as furniture. I’m not sure I would make it super “campfire” but I would definitely accent everything in wood.

For costumes/appearance, I’m thinking a lot of earth tones in sepia and tan, and navy blue. Much of the colors are described by Banks in the text, but one thing I would definitely avoid would be camo; just too stereotypical. I picture Clarence and possibly Jamie in plaid; Chicky in typical “woodsy girl” attire with a t-shirt and jeans; and Krista in some kind of short-sleeve baseball tee with cutoffs. For Kevin, I picture a lot of solid navy blue, and for Robby, a slightly more formal outfit in forest green. Lissa is harder to pin down; in various production photos, she was in a dress and pigtails, but I see her in something a little less frilly, like denim overalls and a pink short, with glasses. The women’s hairstyles are really clear in my mind. I see Chicky with a bleached blond, sculptured buzz cut; Krista in long brown curls, with an updo for the wedding scene; and Lissa with a short bob, almost making a mullet at her ears.

For the wedding scene, obviously the men’s outfits and Krista’s wedding dress are what they are. However, I would see a change for the other two women. The playwright indicates that their dresses are fuchsia, but I would incorporate a different style for each. For Lissa, I would give her more of a little girl look, with a flouncy skirt and a little jacket, as if she is playing dress up, and for Chicky, I see her in an uncharacteristically feminine outfit that is an extreme contrast to her normal attire, with a sweetheart neckline and a structured bodice, but a length that is short enough for her to rock some black biker-y boots. Something to accentuate the fact that even though she is rough, she isn’t one of the guys and is feminine in more than a motherly way.

And finally, as I was reading, the song “Gives You Hell” by All-American Rejects was reverberating in my head, possibly for a video teaser or to appear somewhere in the production.

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10

Masterpiece YouTube: “Pot Belly,” Freshlyground

Today was a completely lazy day, so I thought I’d do some justice to this video.

That’s So Jacob Presents

Masterpiece YouTube

Episode 19: “Pot Belly,” Freshlyground.

We start with Freshlyground’s frontman (frontwoman?) Zolani Mahola in a completely green house, brushing her teeth and going through her morning routine alongside some random white guy. They seem to be complete opposites; he drinks coffee, she eats cereal. He plays chess, she reads and eats green jelly beans that must’ve taken hours to pick out of the bag. She finds an odd red one, and flicks it off like nobody’s business. Outside, he gardens and she launders, and they play some flirty hide-and-seek. She holds a mysterious green box, which he excitedly opens to find a bright green shirt. Zolani opens her door to find some red roses. They’re both overjoyed, until they realize that their items just don’t fit in; the guy wears the green shirt but gets so uncomfortable in it that he has to cover it with a red jacket and scarf, and she almost has a panic attack until she puts the roses behind a curtain. At sunset, they sadly take back their gifts, and for some reason, Zolani is wearing a khaki-looking trenchcoat, unless it’s actually a pale green and either my monitor or my eyes are deceiving me, and they go off their separate ways and go to sleep in their respective homes.

The next morning, Zolani sees a red flower petal on her bed and she snaps to attention, repainting her entire house red and replacing every single thing in it with something red, including her jellybeans, her outfit, and even her makeup, even though, ironically, she puts on red lipstick though she never had green lipstick on.

She opens the door, and lo and behold, her neighbor is standing there in a green suit, just for her. So then, they compromise, and the camera fast-forwards to them in her bed, only with a red and green striped blanket, as well as red and green pajamas on him and the room now decked out in bicolor decor. Oh, and take notice of the bottom left corner; he brought his chessboard over to her place and must’ve dug up some green pieces. Nothing could be cuter.

Oh wait, it could. We close on their toothbrushes in the same cup. All is well.

I like this video because it teaches us that people should look past each other’s color and love one another. Also, the song is pretty dope and it has nothing to do with the video and vice versa which is kinda cool.

 This episode of Masterpiece YouTube was brought to you by tolerance, tiredness, and Jelly Belly.

14

The Safe House, Zap Mama, and Friends

I actually had a great post prepared for yesterday, but I decided to go to visit WeKache in Milwaukee for the weekend, so that never got done.

So, yesterday was Valentine’s Day. I’ve never been a huge Valentine’s Day person, but I acknowledge its existence, and it seems like most of the world does the same. This year, however, everyone went batshit insane over Valentine’s Day. On Friday, one of my classmates said that he and his wife had booked dinner for Valentine’s Day over a month in advance. I thought he was just being silly, but oh my lord, there was absolutely nowhere to eat dinner that night. I think that coupled with a weekend, especially a Saturday night, made people more susceptible to eating out. After we called a few places that ended up having two-hour-long waits, we decided to go a nearby mall and try our luck. It was already 9:30 PM, and PF Chang’s had a 90 minute wait. They did say that bar seating was open, first come first serve. Stupidly, we didn’t wait nor put down our names, and went to try Maggiano’s at the other end of the mall instead, to find the exact same story, minus the bar seating. WeKache wanted to phone it in and just go home and cook something, but I wanted to go back to PF Chang’s and try for bar seating. We got back and the wait was still that long, but eventually we got a table and a more-than-decent meal. The only thing they were out of was the banana spring rolls, so we went for chocolate cake for dessert instead. We shared tofu lettuce wraps that were to die for, I had the Hunan fish, and WeKache had the beef and broccoli. Adding a coconut cooler (for him) and a sangria (for me) led to a ridiculous check of $60, but we tipped generously since our poor waiter had been dealing with a crazy crowd and the food was good and didn’t take that long to arrive, comparatively.

Today, we slept in, had brunch at WeKache’s place, then headed out through the snow (yes, it snowed) to Starbucks to get some work done, after which we would get dinner. After reading 120 pages for Indian Theatre, I was checking my email and suddenly realized that I had bought tickets for Zap Mama at Memorial Union, for tonight at 8.

It was 5.

Whoops.

After a minor freak-out on my part, we packed up, jumped in the car, and went to one of the restaurants we called the night before, a place I have been dying to go to, called The Safe House. They were considerably less busy than the previous night when we called, and we were only 12 minutes away, so we went.

The Safe House is a spy-themed restaurant in a building called “International Exports Ltd.” After parking and saying “heyyy!” to the sculpture of The Fonz on the nearby Riverwalk, we headed inside a tiny room, where a woman asked us for the password. I gave it my best shot, but of course I was wrong, so she told us to put our backs against the wall. Fortunately, at that moment, a handyman walked in, and the woman pressed a button, opening a swinging bookcase that led to the entrance. Ever the rule-breaker, WeKache walked in behind him even though he wasn’t supposed to, while I stayed and answered the woman’s question of when the Berlin Wall was built (1961, on my third try, which impressed her) and she opened the bookcase for me. Behind the bookcase was a short mirrored hall, at the end of which, a wall opened, revealing the interior of the restaurant.

The restaurant itself was a feat of architecture. After we were seated and had ordered, we were encouraged to look around. There was tons of spy memorabilia, from James Bond posters to a Checkpoint Charlie sign, and several hidden doors, behind one of which was a phone booth. Each little area had a different spy-related theme, from the KGB to the German Underground, and it was pretty awesome. The food was a bit on the small and overpriced side, but service was quick and the atmosphere was worth it. The waitress even got into it, calling us “spies” rather than customers. I checked my geocaching app for some reason, and it turned out there was a geocache inside the restaurant! So, I went to the bartender, and she pulled it out: an ammo box full of goodies that has been there since 2002. 

We finished our meal, but then realized…we didn’t know how to get out. We certainly couldn’t go the way we came, so we asked a waitress, who responded, “Go find the phone booth and put in a quarter.”

So we did, and as I picked up the phone, a message played, with a number combination. Once I dialed the number, the wall opened up to a cold underground tunnel, which led us to the exit. What a crazy experience.

After I got all my stuff from WeKache’s apartment, I said goodbye and drove my snow-covered car back to Madison. According to my GPS, I was due to make it home at 8:11, eleven minutes after the beginning of the concert.

Shit, shit shit.

Nevertheless, I pressed on, and once in the car, flew down the road, despite being dead tired. I made it home at 8:05 and walked into the Union at about 8:12. Fortunately, my ticket was still there and the show had just barely started, so I headed in. And I wasn’t the only one who was late – a huge group of at least 10 people walked in behind me – so I didn’t feel so bad as I headed to my seat in the first row of the mezzanine.

I actually came across Zap Mama randomly while doing research for a paper on Ruined by Lynn Nottage (ironically, what my parents were watching at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore at that very moment) and found some songs on YouTube which I liked. The group is headed up by the incredibly talented and energetic Marie Daulne who was just as gorgeous onstage in her black dress as she is on her album cover. Hailing from Belgium and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zap Mama has sung their “polyphonic urban African hip-hop” since 1991, on albums and in movies like Tortilla Soup and Mission Impossible II.

Marie Daulne of Zap Mama

I was not as familiar with their set list, or with their co-musical act Antibalas, but the sheer joy of Daulne and her backup singers made up for that. The only song I recognized was “African Sunset,” originally done by Miriam Makeba. In the middle of the show, Zap Mama left the stage and Antibalas performed, but they came back for a funky Afro-inspired rendition of Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me,” which I couldn’t help but sing along to. As the concert progressed, more and more people got up and danced, and by the last song, I was one of them. I danced until the end of the encore, which was at 10:30, making it one hell of a concert. For most of the concert though, I was in my seat dancing like this:

anigif_cb9f70e8f74c9915958356e3585dceff-0

And now I am back home.

All in all, I had a great weekend, productive and fun, the kind that my younger self always wanted to have: dinner with friends at a funky restaurant, some fun driving, a concert at night, the real ideal “twenty-something” life.

Oh, and according to my statistics, yesterday I was visited by my 100th unique country of the year, Hungary, so there’s that to celebrate.

 

6

The Little Red Book of Mau Mau

I am officially ahead of last semester in terms of books finished for pleasure. This brings my total up to three, which is actually kind of sad. But I did finish it, and not a moment too soon, since I have had it out on InterLibrary Loan from Northwestern University since last November. Fortunately, they let me return it a day late, otherwise I would have not been able to finish it. The book? Mau Mau’s Children: The Makings of Kenya’s Postcolonial Elite by David P. Sandgren.

Mau Mau’s Children is a memoir/revisiting of the years author David P. Sandgren spent as a teacher at the Giakanja Secondary School in Nyeri, Kenya. A newly-minted university graduate from Minnesota, Sandgren had no experience in Africa when he went to teach there, in the era of independence. Specific stories about his time there are few, but he does mention the roles that his students played in the Mau Mau Rebellion and how it affected them. Many lost family members and homes. Sandgren doesn’t dwell on that, however; he writes about the Kenyan school system and how, though Giakanja was a new type of school, a day school (most high schools in Kenya are boarding schools), it presented its own set of challenges, but quickly rose in reputation, especially when Sandgren caught up with his former students several decades later, which is the majority of the content of the book. Even the weaker students, those who failed exams, went on to become a “new elite” in Kenya, having received a high standard of higher education. Sandgren’s students’ occupations ranged from lawyers to postal workers, railroad executives to bank managers. Above all, they were (and are) able to provide a better future for their children due in part to the education they received at Giakanja.

Another important factor of note was that all the students were from the Gikuyu ethnic group. Also known as the Kikuyu, they are the largest ethnic group in Kenya. They lived in the central highlands of Kenya during the colonial era, placing them in a central part of the conflict between Kenya and Britain, its colonizer. Although they count many powerful and influential people among their ranks, the man who led Kenya for the bulk of its life as an independent nation was not one of them. There was some commentary in the book about the Gikuyu and politics, especially under the reign of president Daniel arap Moi, a member of the Kalenjin people.

I know this is kind of a simplistic review, but it was a good, solid book, and not too long, at under 200 pages. Sandgren also provided an appendix of the activities of the students he mentions the most, although he interviewed at least a hundred people, including siblings, parents, and wives.

Probably one of the most interesting parts in the book were the pages about the CE, or Comprehensive Exam. As Kenyan education was modeled after the British system, the curriculum was largely Eurocentric. When the exams came around, Sandgren’s students found themselves answering questions and writing essays about people and events that happened for all intents and purposes on another planet, far away in England. The only mentions of Africa didn’t even include Kenya; those mostly pertained to African geography, or questions such as “how the annexation of Northern Rhodesia benefited the British Empire.” Kind of an interesting reflective mirror effect; citizens of an independent nation, yet still subjects of the crown according to their schoolbooks.

This week has been incredibly tiring, hence the lack of blog posts, but I’m still here, come visit, stay awhile. And thanks for another six-continent day despite waning traffic. As usual, shoutouts to North America (USA and Canada), South America (Brazil and Bolivia), Europe (Germany, Czech Republic, and the UK), Africa (Ghana), Asia (Kuwait), and Oceania (Papua New Guinea).

 

1

Le pouvoir se mange entier

My computer’s being extremely finicky today, so I hope that this post goes through, but if it does not, I can assure you that it was epic.

I mentioned the other day that I finished two books. I reviewed one, so now here’s a review of the other. It’s slightly older (1990), but still a good read: Johannes Fabian’s Power and Performance: Ethnographic Explorations through Proverbial Wisdom and Theater in Shaba, Zaire.

Flag of Zaire

lubumbashi-drc-map-final1

The cover of the book is actually quite boring, so instead, I put these flags and this map of the country, where someone conveniently circled Lubumbashi in red. Thanks, Internet!

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.svg

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While doing research for my master’s thesis, I came across a book that cited something that I liked that came from this book, and the title itself hooked me in. Ethnography, performance, power structure – what’s not to like?

To briefly summarize, Fabian went to Elisabethville, Shaba, Zaire (now Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1986 to do some delicious fieldwork with locals, creating a performance piece that ended up involving an entire town and even some higher-ups. It is pretty evenly split between theory and practical information; the first part details the events leading up to and surrounding the rehearsals and performances, and the nuances and situations that came up, and the second part is more or less a rudimentary script of the piece. Fabian writes the Swahili versions of the scene first, following it up with one or more English translations. I didn’t even bother reading the Swahili or the notes on the Swahili parts and just flipped to the English. Part of me is thankful that I got several respites, but a part of me might have put the Swahili script together, and the English script after, or vice versa, as new characters kept getting introduced, and by the time I picked the book back up again after a break from reading and wading through the footnotes, I had to go back and refresh myself on what was going on.

The play is actually not the focus of the work; it’s the theory that provides the most insightful information. In a rather unusual move, Fabian starts out with a criticism of himself and of “the field,” writing that “[a]lthough we do our field research on the premise of coevalness, of sharing time with our interlocutors on equal terms, we then go on to produce an allochronic discourse based on temporal distacing; we construct an Other whom we relegate to times other than our own” (4-5). I couldn’t have said it better myself; what Fabian is telling us here is that we put too much emphasis on comparison and judgment in ethnographic fieldwork that it can blur what’s going on in front of our faces.

Interesting thought.

Fabian also dips into the history of theatre in Lubumbashi, back when it was called Elisabethville in the mid-20th century. He talks about Bwana Cheko, giving a very detailed description of their performance practices and dramaturgy on pages 72-73. One of the main focuses of his discourse, though is a phrase he keeps returning to: le pouvoir se mange entier, which is a French phrase meaning “power is eaten whole.” Interestingly, this proverb is well-known in Shaba, where is has different associations with different stories in varying languages. As Zaire/DRC used to be Belgian Congo, it’s not surprising that a French phrase would be in the national consciousness, but to have it appear among a multilingual discourse and have it mean different things in each is something unique indeed. On page 73, however, Fabian points it out on a conducteur (mission statement) from Bwana Cheko that reads “MORAL: LE POUVOIR SE MANGE ENTIER, i.e., the chief is there for everyone and cannot take sides, he must serve his people as an equal but with authority” (73). This gives a new meaning to power, as does the play text that succeeds it, about a chief who exercises power, but in a different way than one would normally expect.

I could go on and on about the concepts and context, but it’s an incredibly dense text and I think either by this point you’ve clicked away or your eyes are closing, so I’ll wrap up with a takeaway thought from the author’s section entitled “Reflections and Afterthoughts”

Inasmuch as proverbs and plays are statements (which perhaps should be questioned), they need authors and audiences, positions to be made from and situations to be addressed to. As performances they need occasions and “repetitions.” As artistic creations they require material – shared experiences, habits, images – from which they can be construed and canons according to which they may be judged and appreciated. Propositional content, event, and rhetorical form are inextricably related; temporarily to focus on one of them does not constitute it as a distinct object of investigation. Literary deconstructivism may be an approach congenial to this view but does not have to be applied as doctrine. In my view, moving in several directions at once is the only realistic way to deal with the complex context from which le pouvoir se mange entier emerged (even though to invoke realism is certain to rub deconstructivists the wrong way) (Fabian 263).

Basically, parts of this text really got my rocks off, theory-wise. I can see myself reading more Fabian in the future and maybe even citing his work should I end up doing fieldwork in Africa – probably highly unlikely, but you never know.

On a different subject, thanks for another six-continent day, and oddly enough, Europe was the last continent to show up on my blog. So, hello to those from North America (Canada, USA, and Antigua & Barbuda), South America (Colombia and Chile), Europe (Ireland, Ukraine and Sweden), Africa (Ethiopia [welcome!] and South Africa), Asia (India, Pakistan, Philippines, Taiwan and Japan) and Oceania (Australia).


Works Cited

Fabian, Johannes. Power and Performance: Ethnographic Explorations through Proverbial Wisdom and Theater in Shaba, Zaire. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.

1

This Time for Africa

I decided that instead of “Book Review: Author, Title,” I’d adopt an actual title for all future book reviews, starting with this one. Today’s book review is Africa United by Steve Bloomfield. This copy has been traveling with me ever since I bought it at a Half-Price Books in Houston, and it’s been through about ten states and at least two plane rides, waiting for me to open it. I finished it last night just before drifting off to sleep.

In Africa United, Steve Bloomfield, a Kenya-based news correspondent, travels around Africa in search of connections between the continent of Africa and the world’s (except for the USA) favorite sport. The impetus for this book came about upon the announcement of South Africa as the host nation of the FIFA World Cup in 2010. After narrowly losing the bid for 2006, South Africa rallied to become the first African nation to host the World Cup, a feat for a continent which has yet to host a major international sporting event, such as the Olympics. This sparked a movement across South Africa and the rest of the continent as a “unified Africa,” fueling an already fervent love for the sport among Africans.

Steve Bloomfield starts from Egypt in his journey down the continent, through some of the “best and worst” teams in Africa – Sudan, Chad, Somalia, Kenya, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Cote D’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Zimbabwe – before arriving in South Africa at the beginning of the World Cup. Bloomfield notes that he couldn’t cover all the countries of Africa in his introduction, but oddly enough, his “best and worst” happened to omit three of the six African teams who qualified for the World Cup; Cameroon, Algeria, and Ghana, leaving me to question his judgment of “best and worst” – aren’t these three countries among the “best,” who qualified in the same way that Cote D’Ivoire and Nigeria did?

Despite this, Africa United takes no prisoners; as Bloomfield wends his way through the countries, he also gives us some insight into their history, geography, and politics in addition to their individual relationships with soccer. What I enjoyed the most were the chapters through nations we don’t see very often in literature, like Chad and Somalia. Somalia, in particular, poses quite the pickle regarding international team sports; its status as a failed state with no government leads to very little in the way of facilities and amenities, not to mention safety. Ergo, all their matches – even “home” matches – are played outside the country. Another factor that can lead African teams astray are due to politics and money; the chapter on DR Congo was enlightening in that respect, with prime minister vying for dominance via a bunch of guys just kicking around a ball. Local politics also play a part, establishing unification or establishment of difference. In Liberia, George Weah took his sport to the next level, running for president in his country’s first democratic election. Despite his popularity on the pitch, he lost out – but it would have been interesting to a sportsman of his caliber (who is also a college student in the USA) become the leader of an entire country. In Cote D’Ivoire, soccer filters down to the level of education, with some parents taking the money they would have spent on textbooks and school supplies for their sons and putting it towards expensive soccer clubs, thinking that their son will one day be as famous and wealthy as Didier Drogba, a footballer who made it in Europe and has become a cultural and national icon. The Zimbabwe chapter is by far the saddest, recapping a country once known as the “breadbasket of Africa” on its downfall to a dictator-led state with the world’s worst economy. Age fabrication is rampant, showing the even further lengths some countries will go to for just for the win. Some nations import players from Europe who were born or have ancestry in their countries; sometimes they arrive and change things, but more often they end up disappointing people, or not showing up at all. On the flip side, some countries’ entire teams skip town, as Bloomfield mentions in his epilogue of the Eritrean national team, who were no-shows for their return flight from a match against Kenya, opting instead to decamp in Nairobi and seek asylum there.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In the chapter on Nigeria, Bloomfield talks about how its national team and its purpose-built capital city of Abuja seemed to ease tensions and increase cooperation between the northern Muslim parts of the country and the Christians to the south. Whereas in Cote D’Ivoire, the provenance of players provided some much-needed kinship with its former enemy neighbor, Burkina Faso, where blurred geographic lines and movement resulted in some Burkina Faso players being Ivorian, and vice versa, leading both countries with someone to cheer for on either team.

Overall, I mostly enjoyed the book. Some of the transitions are a bit clunky, or as Julian Hall puts it in his review “jumpy yet urgent” of the author, imploring him to further express “a little more passion in his reportage” (Hall). Bloomfield has a habit of switching rapidly from fun sports to refugees and genocide, but I guess that’s part of the greater story of Africa, that pride comes through pain, and that sports and games have a habit of doing just what they were made to do: create distractions, rivalries, and fun.

I’m not so big on the whole sports thing, except rooting for the Orioles, the Ravens, and briefly pausing on the Olympics when flipping channels. So this book taught me something. In fact, while the World Cup was going on, all I knew was that if I tuned in, my ears would immediately be assaulted by the dreaded horn known as the vuvuzela, which has now been added to the dictionary. Oh, and the theme song for the games, which had a music video in which this happened:

Entitled “Waka Waka,” it was a good beat to dance to, but drew some criticism. First, its lyrics are kinda vapid and stupid. Second, it wasn’t even performed by an African – despite including some words in an African language, deriving from a Cameroonian tune, and backed by the South African band Freshlyground – it was non-African pop singer Shakira who got to take the lead vocals. This only contributed to “Americanized” feeling of the opening ceremony’s featured entertainment – a sentiment expressed by many South Africans who were disappointed at the lack of local performers – as she performed in a roster that included Alicia Keys and John Legend. For the record, Shakira isn’t even American; despite her success and popularity in the USA that doesn’t change the fact that she’s from Colombia. On the song’s Wikipedia page, Shakira declared the song “multinational,” using African, South American, and Afro-Caribbean rhythms to create the song. Again, the lyrics and the insipid chorus leave something to be desired, owing to English not being Shakira’s first language. She probably hasn’t gained much of a fan base in Africa, but since’s she’s an otherwise beautiful, successful, fabulously awkward and delightfully Hispanic singer who gets away with doing things with her voice that would cause most other peoples’ vocal chords to explode, she’d probably give her haters something like this:

Even though Shakira does acknowledge Africa in her song, addressing some of the cultural appropriation that it utilized, she completely and woefully ignores the culture of the real coiner of the catchphrase that made her song famous:

facepalm (217) Animated Gif on Giphy

Tsamina mina zangalewa: no love for Fozzie Bear.

Works Cited:

Bloomfield, Steve. Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics and the First World Cup in Africa.” New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Hall, Julian. “Africa United: How Football Explains Africa, By Steve Bloomfield.” The Independent. 6 June 2010. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/africa-united-how-football-explains-africa-by-steve-bloomfield-1989567.html

2

Book Review: Mary Russell, The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt

Greetings from Munster, Indiana, where I am on the first leg of my trip back home, hopefully arriving tomorrow evening. I drove myself and my dad three hours and ten minutes to this Hampton Inn in the Indiana-based suburbs of Chicago. 10-11 hours to go tomorrow, and I hope I get to relax for most of it.

What do you know, I finished a book. I initially got it for a project and it came all the way from UW-Milwaukee. Since it’s due in January, before I get back, if I wanted to read it for pleasure I either had to a) hurry it up and read it in one day, or b) return it to the library, sadly never to reenter my hands, a title forgotten among the legions of books I have yet to read.

So in a turn toward the nonfiction market, I present The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt, by Mary Russell.

Cover of "The Blessings of a Good Thick S...

The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt‘s interesting and unusual title comes from a quote from Mary Kingsley, a nineteenth-century woman traveler to Africa. It is quite appropriate, given that the book is about female adventurers. I’m not talking about suffragettes – these were women who risked their reputations and their lives to pursue their dreams of travel and exploration, most of them doing so in a time when it was not considered ladylike to travel unaccompanied, without a man. There are an immense number of women travelers mentioned, but I’ll give you the highlights:

The book begins with the story of Egeria, a fourth-century pilgrim to Jerusalem. The theme of women exploring in the name of religion comes up a lot, with the great Hester Stanhope coming to mind, traveling through the Middle East dressed as a man. Over in Tibet, you had Annie Taylor who just wanted to live her life cloistered away in a city where she could just be religious and not have to worry about anything else, and the sad story of Susie Rijnhart, a Canadian adventurer who lost everything in Tibet, including her husband and son, but found her way back home to Canada and then had the courage to go back AGAIN – and of course, she didn’t make it this time. These were the first two Western women to see Tibet, a feat in and of itself.

The only sections I didn’t care for were the ones on mountain climbers and on more contemporary women, women that the author knew personally when she wrote the book in 1986. It just didn’t seem fair to group her friends with the likes of Mary Kingsley and Hester Stanhope.

What I always find interesting are not the women who survived the dangers, but the women who died exploring, making them legends up until the moment of her death. Everyone knows about Amelia Earhart and her fateful round-the-world journey, but few know of her frenemy Amy “Johnnie” Johnson (not to be confused with the original Pink Ranger, Amy Jo Johnson) who set some flying records of her own. Later, her plane crashed into the Thames Estuary in England under mysterious circumstances and her body was never recovered. Alexine Tinne, who did some crazy exploration in Africa, getting further than anyone of her time, dragged her mother, her aunt, and two maids along with her – all of whom died somewhere along the way. Stupidly brave Alexine went back to Europe, and, nonplussed, moved on to her next mission: crossing the Sahara. As the story goes, she was killed by a Tuareg member of her party, stabbed in several places, and left to die in the desert. Her body was never found. Mary Kingsley was buried at sea, in the South African waters on which she died. Therein lies the lesson I took from the book. You get the feeling that these women didn’t do it just for the fame, the money, the notoriety – but because they were passionate about the world around them, and because “it was there.”

But then, there’s Sophie Heath, a flash-in-the-pan aviatrix from the 1920s who survived risky flights and stunts only to die of injuries she sustained after falling down the stairs of a bus in London.

Oh well. Stabbings in the Sahara, somersaults on an airplane wing, slippery steps on a bus – we all gotta go sometime.

But if that last thing happens, make sure my obituary includes all my adventures, and make some up to impress the world. It doesn’t matter what they are, as long as they’re earth-shattering. Surprise me.