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).

 

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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

100th Post!

I never thought I’d make it this far – I thought I’d lose interest within a week – but my 100th post is here. I hope you’ve been enjoying my random ramblings up to now, and there will be more rambles, rants, reviews, and random memories to come.

Now, apropos, I’d like to comment on an interesting news story I read about recently.

On December 2, NPR correspondents Gregory Warner and David Kestenbaum published a piece on the afterlife of American clothing, which you can read here. Apparently, Africa is where America’s donated t-shirts go to die. Warner and Kestenbaum’s travels took them to Africa, where they ended up in a Kenyan clothing market. The t-shirt section, as one might suppose, is massive, considering the amount of custom-made t-shirts Americans distribute for film festivals, family reunions, and 5k runs, that usually end up either in the back of a messy closet or, as these were, donated to Goodwill and then sent over to Africa. That sentence had an inordinate amount of clauses.

One of the shirts they found was this gem from 1993, the classic “I [verbed] at [Jewish first name]’s [Bar/Bat] Mitzvah.”

Clearly, this Kenyan danced the night away in celebration of Jennifer becoming a woman.

Ah yes, the bar/bat mitzvah t-shirt. The shirt that you gladly took pictures in that night but never saw the light of day again. The bane of every laundress mother’s existence, especially for those mothers who had more than one kid attend the event, or, even worse, multiple children attending multiple different b’nei mitzvah circuits, thereby increasing the number and variety of garments, making it nearly impossible to sort after a particularly large load. “Which of you kids got slashed and burned at Jimmy and Kimmy’s eco-themed double-mitzvah?”

Upon reading the story and seeing the picture of the smiling Kenyan showing off the shirt, on December 10, Jillian Scheinfeld of Kveller.com set out to see if she could find the mysterious Jennifer. The only clues available were the date, November 20, 1993, and a tag sewn into the back bearing the name “Rachel Williams.” Armed with this info, Scheinfeld appealed to the Internet, and because this is 2013, the bat mitzvah girl was located exactly one day later. Thanks to the initiative and Facebook skills of Aaron Soclof from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the t-shirt’s owner, Rachel Williams (now Rachel Aaronson) was alerted to the presence of her discarded swag in a marketplace in Kenya and on computer screens across the Jewish world. Aaronson gladly consented to being interviewed, and at the end, gave Soclof the final piece of the puzzle: the identity of one Jennifer Slaim, now Rasansky, a Hebrew school friend at whose bat mitzvah Rachel Williams danced with the toons in Troy, Michigan in 1993. Aaron Soclof published the results of his search and interviews with the girls (who are still friends!) here. To bring the story full circle, Kestenbaum and Goldstein, our friends from NPR, published this follow-up which features a picture of Jennifer, all grown up, posing with the same shirt.

All in a day’s work.

This story takes me back to my own bar mitzvah. As the youngest in my class (and the least popular) my parents wanted my bar mitzvah party to be extra special, in contrast to all the Saturday night Beth El auditorium dances I’d been regularly attending for the past year of my life. It just so happened that earlier in the year, they had taken a ride on the now-defunct Liberty Limited, a dinner train that ran from New Freedom to York in southern Pennsylvania, and pitched it to me for a possible bar mitzvah venue. I probably mumbled something like “I don’t care,” but I ended up going with them toNew Freedom to see the train and figure out if it was financially feasible. As it turned out, the cost of renting three train cars for the afternoon (a car with chairs/tables for myself and my friends, a car with chairs/tables for all the adults, which included a “sky car” covered with a glass dome, and a big, open “dance car” to run around which came with a DJ who played me and my sister’s CDs) was less than that of a fancy party hall and hired DJ/ professional entertainment. My parents were thrilled with the idea that they’d come up with and at how cooperative the train company were. When I asked about having some sort of entertainment on the train, my parents set out to get that taken care of as well, hiring five local actors to act out a murder mystery on the train for my guests to solve.

The big day came, and honestly, I wasn’t too excited to attend. The only friends I had were a handful of people from my grade who’d bit the bullet to attend their 139th bar mitzvah that year, and a few from my synagogue, and even so, most of them were really my sister’s friends, going along for the ride to make me feel like I actually had friends. We met in the parking lot of my middle school and boarded a coach bus for the hourlong ride to the New Freedom train station, where we would board the train. At some point during the day I realized that my entire party would be in motion, and I couldn’t decide whether that was cool or nauseating. Since it was a Sunday morning, clothes were casual and food was of the breakfast variety, consisting of Goldberg’s bagels and donuts from the kosher Krispy Kreme – choices that I later discovered my friends appreciated, both in terms of eating familiar foods and for the girls who happily showed up in sweatshirts and jeans rather than the tiresome teenage excuse for an evening gown. As the day went on, I actually started to enjoy myself. We had a bunch of disposable cameras, and I remember taking lots of pictures of people (but not being in them myself), playing with my younger cousins, running around the train, and even going up to the front to honk the horn, something which I initially had no interest in doing, but…YOLO, you know? Plus, it was November in the beautiful Pennsylvania Dutch country, providing interesting vistas that changed throughout the party.

The party ended with little fanfare – we got back to New Freedom and back on the bus to Baltimore. I didn’t think much of it until I heard a few people still talking about it a few weeks later, with comments on how interesting and different it was. My favorite review came from my mother’s friend Denise, who was also mother of my friend Robin who had attended the party (names have been changed to protect the innocent). According to Denise: “Robin came home, threw up from motion sickness, and said she’d had the time of her life.”

That’s what I’m talking about.

Oh, and to answer the big question: yes, I had a t-shirt at my bar mitzvah. Since it was a mystery party, it was black, had a magnifying glass, and proudly proclaimed that the wearer had “solved the mystery at Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah.” I designed it myself, and I thought it was pretty slick. I still have mine, and I even wear it sometimes. I will not show you a picture of the shirt, so here’s this one instead:

Works Cited:

Kestenbaum, David and Jacob Goldstein. <http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2013/12/11/250200378/we-found-this-20-year-old-t-shirt-in-kenya-the-internet-found-the-original-owner>.

Scheinfeld, Jillian. “Let’s Help NPR Find the Owner of this Bat Mitzvah Shirt from 1993.” Kveller.com. 10 December 2013. <http://www.kveller.com/blog/parenting/lets-help-npr-find-the-owner-of-this-bat-mitzvah-t-shirt-from-1993/>.

Scheinfeld, Jillian. “Mystery Solved.” Kveller.com. 11 December 2013.< http://www.kveller.com/blog/parenting/jennifers-1993-bat-mitzvah-t-shirt-mystery-solved/>.

Soclof, Adam. “How Jennifer’s bat mitzvah t-shirt wound up in Africa.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 10 December 2013. <http://www.jta.org/2013/12/10/news-opinion/how-jennifers-bat-mitzvah-t-shirt-wound-up-in-africa>.

Warner, Gregory and David Kestenbaum. “The Afterlife of American Clothes.” National Public Radio. 10 December 2013. <http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2013/12/10/247362140/the-afterlife-of-american-clothes>