0

Ghost Fleet? Spooky!

(in case you doesn’t get that joke, just listen to the bonus track on the [title of show] album)

HI.

So.

I actually finished a book the other day. Despite today being the last day of September, I think it was just the second or third book I finished. I found it on the Maryland shelf in the Wisconsin Historical Society library stacks, and it’s actually inspired me to want to a) read more books on the history of my home state and b) maybe even read a nonfiction book on the history of every state.

More on that later, but first, a recap of the adventure that lies within the pages of Donald H. Shomette’s Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay.

In a nutshell, Ghost Fleet explores a small part of the Chesapeake Bay near the town of Nanjemoy, Maryland, which is home to an inordinate number of shipwrecks at a remarkably easy-to-access location. The chapters go between various topics. My favorites were Shomette’s fascinating descriptions of the contents of the sunken ships, the ways that current Americans were mapping the ships on the sea floor, and his unexpectedly humorous interactions with former Maryland governor William Donald Schaefer AKA “Willie Don” on a guided tour of the area of the shipwrecks. Schaefer ended up being so fascinated that he practically catapulted money towards ship preservation in Maryland, which came as a surprise.

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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).

 

0

A Tisket, A Tasket, A Sto:lo Story-Basket

At long last, I have actually finished reading a book. Yes, really. And not even one for school, which is all I seem to be reading lately, well given the fact that I’m in grad school, it’s kind of inevitable. But today, at Michelangelo’s Coffeehouse on State Street, the book was indeed finished, a feat several weeks in the making. In a turn towards nonfiction, I present to you my review of Indigenous Storywork: Education the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit by Jo-ann Archibald aka Q’um Q’um Xiiem.

Also, in an effort to bring more international culture into my life, I’m officially counting this as the first country in the ever-popular Read A Book from Every Country contest that probably exists but I just made up. This book represents Canada, and the Sto:lo Nation.

Indigenous Storywork is not a book of stories. It incorporates a few stories, such as two involving the character of Coyote, among others, but is more focus on Archibald’s process of developing a technique for storytelling,

A symbol for the Sto:lo Nation

from start to finish. On page 11, Archibald provides a helpful chart of her context for all Indigenous storywork. The four concentric circles represent the four levels involved in identity and in the germination of the story. The outermost circle is the nation, and continuing inward, we see the community, the family, and finally, the self. At compass rose points are each of the elements of the human that are in play when telling the story: intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Discovering the stories is an exciting process, where she realizes the power of the characters and how they can touch lives from young to old, and how they can be used effectively as teaching tools to keep First Nations traditions alive as well as impart valuable lessons. She encounters many roadblocks, though; she deals with the issue of language, translation, and preserving content; intellectual property rights (who do the stories belong to?); focusing on individual/tribal experiences rather than lumping her work into just “First Nations” scholarship; and the ever-present dilemma of keeping the stories faithful and sacred to the storytellers, possibly risking their extinction, and passing them on, which preserves the stories but puts them in the hands of those who may not use them properly, and for whom the meaning may get twisted. At the end of the book, Archibald compares her work thus far to a “story-basket,” citing the Sto:lo tradition of a basket weaver giving her very first basket to someone who needs it. As the “story-basket” is presented to the reader, it leaves her book open-ended, as if this is just the beginning.

For a book, it was pretty dull, but as a monograph, it was quite lively. Archibald writes, as others have noted, without jargon, and it is easy to identify with her feelings and emotions as she tracks down various elders and experiments with educational programs. As far as actually telling the stories, Archibald has basically described a more theatrical approach to storytelling, using things like sense-memory rather than rote reading. She also talks about the relationships between the elders, the words of the stories, herself as researcher and herself as storyteller, and makes it clear that each have a different role with one another and all are important in the storywork process; it is a venture that requires collaboration, which in turn requires trust.

On a macro level, Archibald is dealing with issues that are present in so many cultural contexts, especially the debate of keeping things sacred by holding them close, or sharing them and guaranteeing preservation but risking defilement, a pretty basic colonial/postcolonial issue. This is where I have not so much a disagreement with the author, but sort of a suggestion/solution. In one chapter (actually, in two) Archibald talks about the search for a story about plants, and getting shut down by the elders due to concerns of mentioning the names of sacred plants and their usage, and the harmful effect that the stories might have on children. For me, this is an example of self-censoring. Surely, the elders know what is and is not appropriate, and by volunteering the information, they themselves are choosing what to share, with the knowledge not that it can or may be shared, but that it will be shared. Archibald also mentions the cycle of tracking down elders and asking for permission, a practice that seemed necessary for the edification of the user but a nuisance for the elder who told the story. I mean, could you imagine calling an author, editor, and publisher, every time you wanted to cite something or use it in the classroom? Archibald does consider this, but is hesitant to accept it. My argument: reality check, look at the big picture. No one is going to be around forever, and even though it’s lovely to keep people involved as they’re still living, there must be some contingency plans laid for when the storytellers eventually leave this earth. Recording the story via text, audio, and video, signing an agreement, and seeing that it’s properly archived should be enough to eliminate at least one, if not all, of the middle-men, and expedite the process. Yes, a story is special, but that’s why there is an agreement in place, as a precautionary measure, to give the story the rights to assert itself, which is basically what Archibald wants. It would eliminate a quarter of the book, at least, but it seems like the only viable option.

The most notable sections of the book for me were when the author, instead of questioning herself, interacted with elders from various First Nations and engaged in dialogue with them. On page 50, Archibald gleaned a lesson in reciprocity from elder Vincent Stogan aka Tsimilano, one which she calls “hands backward, hands forward” teaching. This lovely passage encapsulates what she means.

My dear ones,

Form a circle and join hands in prayer. In joining hands, hold your left palm upward to reach bask to grasp the teachings of the ancestors. Put these teachings into your everyday life and pass them on. Hold your right palm downward to pass these teachings onto the younger generation. In this way, the teaching and knowledge of the ancestors continue, and the circle of human understanding and caring grows stronger. (Archibald 50)

Here, Archibald encourages symbiosis, in which the student is also the teacher. Every word heard from the ancestors will be passed on; at least someone in the circle will relate their experiences, even if just to one another, continuing the cycle of learning. Tsimilano’s performative act of embodiment makes the student a vessel for information, a conduit between past and future. This inspired Archibold to pay more attention, and to tell stories in short spurts of comfort rather than in their completion, which is discussed in later sections of the book. Overall, Archibold relays to the reader a sense of giving and receiving, and that storywork is as much about speaking as it is about listening.

In the spirit of collaboration and listening, don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what Jo-ann Archibald has to say:

 

Oh, and apropos, not only was this the first day in the recent past where my blog views have gone up rather than down, it’s also the first day for visitors from Norway (velkommen!), Serbia (добродошли!), and Bosnia & Herzegovina (dobrodosli!) as well as visitors from 30 countries. Keep on coming, write a comment or give me follow?

Works Cited

Archibald, Jo-ann (Q’um Q’um Xiiem). Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit. Vancouver: UBCP, 2008.

2

Is This Covered By My HMO?

In the past few super-packed days, I’ve actually managed to finish not one but two books. The first I finished on Thursday while riding in the passenger seat of the car, somewhere in Ohio, and the second, earlier tonight. It’s been two days since I finished it, but it won’t be hard to recall my thoughts on Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection by A. J. Jacobs.

This isn’t the first book I’ve read by A. J. Jacobs. I read his first book, where he read the complete Encyclopedia Britannica, hoping to become the world’s smartest man. I thought it was interesting and hysterical. His second book, detailing a year of living according to the Bible, was one that I decided I could pass on. This third book was on my maybe list, but I found a copy at Book Thing so I thought I’d take a chance.

I normally shy away from self-help/health-and-fitness books, because they seem to always contradict themselves. This one was no different, but Jacobs made the meta-contradictions  even funnier in his quest. A recurring character throughout the story was Jacobs’ “eccentric Aunt Marti“, sweeping in with phone calls and emails bearing advice about natural foods and the latest cocktail of deadly germs and toxins in our daily environment. She even makes an appearance in one chapter to help cleanse Jacobs’ New York City apartment, which she does to the nth degree. I’m not going to say what happens to her, but suffice it to say she had it coming.

Jacobs breaks the book down into chapters, each based on a body part; twenty-six of them, corresponding to the months he spent doing research, providing regular updates with his weight, workout regimen, and other details such as number of bowls of steel-cut oats consumed, or number of miles walked on at his homemade treadmill desk – actually, a nifty way to get some exercise and be productive at the same time (provided your speed is low enough to allow you to type, think, and take strides at the same time). Details on this and some of his other fitness/health/nutrition tips appear in several appendices.

I flagged so many pages of the book for new vocab words and funny ideas, as well as a few that I could implement in my own life. Some of Jacobs’ findings, however, are painfully basic, like in his chapter on the stomach, where a doctor whose expertise is in “orthorexia,” or a condition involving an unhealthy obsession with health food. As someone who is constantly between a multitude of eating plans, from “you only live once, so enjoy as much Nutella and Twizzlers as possible” to “if I can’t force myself to eat healthy food, then I’m not going to eat at all” to “yeah, I’m eating healthy…because I can’t put forth the effort to actually make food” to “I had fruit for breakfast so I can have pizza for lunch” and everywhere in between, the nutrition sections were of interest to me. On page 89, Jacobs is incredulous at the nonchalant response he gets of “don’t get fat and get your vitamins” which is like the kindergarten equivalent of basic nutrition advice. But this doctor also suggested to not smoke, drink sparingly, avoid pollution and get some exercise once in a while. I do all those things! Next time I’m feeling down on my body image, I can at least tell myself that I didn’t have a cigarette (26 years clean!) and I walked to State Street (to get a croissant and a cappuccino).

Speaking of food, I will never look at graham crackers the same way again: apparently, their inventor, Sylvester Graham, believed that masturbation led to “insanity, weakness, and death” (101) so he invented a treat to lower the libido. He could’ve just gone with baklava; just as good and just as unattractive. I don’t think I’ve ever had a baklava that turned me on.

In chapter nine, Jacobs explores the world of the lower intestine by visiting Dr. Lester Gottesman, who does a type of plastic surgery to make peoples’ farts smell better (I am not making this up), admitting that it has no health benefits and is purely cosmetic, in a sense. On page 133, Jacobs toots out this vignette:

I’m not a big scatology fan, unlike my sons, who can amuse themselves for an entire afternoon by repeating the phrase “crocodile fart.” So I’ll spare you from an overabundance of detail in this chapter. This chapter will be somewhat soft focus, like the TV camera in a Barbra Streisand interview…I found Dr. Gottesman because he’s been included on New York magazine’s Best Doctors list for the last eight years and has written, in his words, a “shitload” of academic articles.

And this one, on page 151, where he aspires to lower stress by petting strangers’ pets:

The evidence is solid that pets are good for humans’ health. A study by the Mayo Medical Center found that dog owners had significantly lower cholesterol. A study by the Minnesota Stroke Institute said that people who owned cats were 30 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack (though 40 percent more likely engage in scrapbooking).

My favorite parts were the appendices. They greeted me like friendly pats on the shoulder, telling me that I’m doing okay in my own life and providing some tips on the easy side, like drinking more water, increasing chewing during meals, and to stop eating in front of the TV. Avoiding all the toxins and constructing a treadmill desk is a bit much for me, but keeping myself in check about eating healthy things and excising stress through meditation, relaxation, and speaking/writing my worries is something I could handle.

Now for the negative criticism. In his first book, A. J. Jacobs came off as an ingenue, someone who just had a crazy idea and executed it in a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants manner, making discoveries along the way and injecting personal anecdotes. There was a certain amount of innocence in his writing and a humility to his personality. The A. J. Jacobs I saw in this book put himself on a bit of a pedestal. Granted, getting healthy is more expensive than reading, but the lengths he goes to for learning are extreme, both in approach and in price. His adventures take him to quirky doctors, insanely expensive fitness classes, and technological gadgets that, if/when they didn’t work, would probably be hard to get rid of on Craigslist. I get that he’s doing the work so we don’t have to, but seriously…some of this stuff? They’re not about getting healthy and attaining physical perfection, they’re more like “look at how much my publisher gave me for this advance, so I blew it on a bunch of infomercial-type products that I’m going to test out for your amusement.”

But seriously, the amount of doctors he goes to for procedures, tests, or chatting? I’d love to read some sort of follow-up chapter cataloging and analyzing all the unusual and/or decrepit waiting-room magazines he encountered. Seeing as the author is pretty obsessive about, well, everything, I’m sure he already has some detailed raw material hiding in a treadmill-typed document or spreadsheet.

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