Uniting Power of Hate – Ouagadougou to Timbuktu

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When I was an insolent adolescent, my father, in a period of midlife-crisis-enlightenment-seeking, went through a New Age phase, in which he adopted a New Age guru who walked him through past life regressions, chakra balancing and, perhaps his favorite activity of all, chanting. It was an awkward and transitional time, probably for everyone involved. During this hazy period, my father decided to try to address my permanent “Oscar the Grouch” take on life:

Dad: “Erika, why are you so hateful?”
Me: (rolling eyes, sarcastic tone) “Gee, I don’t know”
Dad: (enlightened tone) “Well, your mother and I could teach you some neat things.”
Me: (rolling eyes again) “Like?”
Dad: (even more enlightened) “Like… how to chant!
RAHHHHH-OHHHHHHM!

Check it out – “Nasty Dan” from Johnny Cash visiting my dear Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street! “Say, aren’t you Johnny Trash?” “Cash. – Have a rotten day.” “Wow, there goes my kinda guy.”

So, the hateful thing goes back a ways. While I won’t go so far as to say that I seriously hate anyone or anything, I readily admit that I am easily annoyed and enjoy sarcasm and complaint a great deal. I derive joy from this kind of casual and idle hatred and dismay/disdain. It is not often that I meet kindred hating spirits in the world; that is, people with sour attitudes who find something to dislike about almost everything but who still actually are quite sweet people who find a lot of things to like and even love as well.

I don’t look at my attitude as sheer, unproductive negativity the way many do – I think of myself as a realist and sometimes a pessimist. It’s hard to live in the world and see reality without rose-colored glasses and not be a bit pessimistic at times, even if there are always rays of bright sunlight here and there. This approach and attitude has been polarizing and divisive at times and has brought about the demise of a few friendships (and I won’t pretend that that didn’t hurt).

On rare occasions I met up with people with almost as dark a view on the world, with as many complaints and who reveled in sharing complaints, with similar dark senses of humor, with similar misanthropic and impatient tendencies. But I had never quite met my match until now. My heart – be still, dear heart – has been stolen by someone who told me that he makes mental lists of all the things he hates while he is walking to work.

Sigh.

I once advised a girl who had had rather iffy relationships and made iffy relationship choices to stop accepting and settling for stale crumbs and to only accept the “the whole cake”. I knew I had my whole cake already – but when I heard about this hate list – and knew that the person behind it could also laugh about all the annoyances on the list, I knew I had the icing on the cake as well.

All this is not to say that I think real, visceral hatred and anger is healthy. I don’t like to waste energy or in-depth thought on any of it, which is why I think it’s great to make a mental list or voice the little complaints here and there – it is a means of just letting them go and moving forward. Save the real anger and hatred for bigger stuff – the major injustices in the world. The sexism, racism, abuse and all the other real travesties. I mean, yes, a group of people walking side-by-side taking up the entire width of a sidewalk is really damn annoying and virtually impossible to get around without running into road traffic, but it’s not the end of the world or particularly destructive.

It’s a pick-your-battle kind of war, really. One man in my … sphere of influence (haha – I make myself sound so mesmerizing!) complained heartily about racism and racial stereotypes, and how he is so tired of them he might just move back to Africa one day so as to not hear these things any longer. And I thought, yeah, but I suspect you will hear different stupid things in Africa and maybe get Ebola. Okay. Probably not – that’s just one of my ignorant attempts at being funny. (I had been watching the news and saw that Guinea is facing its first-ever Ebola outbreak.) My serious point was that it makes little sense to abandon an otherwise comfortable life just because you don’t want to hear things that are unpleasant to live a less comfortable life and probably just hear a different set of annoying generalizations. Of course, I don’t have to bear the weight of racist (inadvertent or otherwise) commentary all the time, and it may well feel much more powerful and daunting than just being “unpleasant” to someone exposed to it all the time.

Naturally all of this made me think once more of the elusive idea of “Africa”. Mostly because I talked to someone about African place names that sound foreign to our western ears, and for example, as children, we scarcely know that they are real places – they sound so exotic that they could be figments of someone’s phonetically rich imagination. Timbuktu came up a lot when I was a kid – and when I ask people these days what they associate with the word “Timbuktu” now, they rarely name a place, mention Africa or – heaven forbid – mention the country of which it is actually a part (Mali). Same goes for Ouagadougou (capital of Burkina Faso). When I mentioned “Burkina Faso” to my mother, she too just said, “I don’t know what that is.”

Africa 101: Togolese radio, stereotypes and Africa in small doses

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“What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?”

-Countee Cullen – “Heritage

Like many “westerners” (or whatever you want to call us – which is a group of mixed, all-over-the-place folks), I never used to give much thought to the specifics of the African continent. It was some “other place” I had not seen, dreamt of or had feelings about one way or the other. It was not really included in any appreciable way in my education, and I did not know anyone from Africa or who had been to Africa. Thus, it was a nebulous concept – just “Africa” without subtlety and nuance. It was not unlike the application of this blanket term “westerners”. What does it even mean?

Of course when I got older, it dawned on me that Africa is a vast place and the diversity was something I could not even begin to fathom. If each state of the American union, sharing a common language and currency, can each be as different as they tend to be, then the countries and regions of Africa would have to dwarf American diversity in some ways (although of course America is a land of immigration, making it a strange concoction as well. In fact most western countries, through years and years of immigration activity, have become their own strange concoctions).

Still, despite the few little tidbits of specific information I gathered haphazardly – nothing systematic about it – Africa was still just a jumble of faces in magazines or on tv, stereotypes, unusual names, places with ever-changing borders, names and leaders but nothing cohesive.

I could swear I had written about this “incremental introduction to Africa” in a previous blog entry before but cannot find any evidence of it now. All I can find is someplace that I wrote: “It seems that it does not matter how much one protests that Africa (especially sub-Saharan Africa) is not just one monolithic entity. Most will continue to treat this massive and diverse continent as though one remedy, one answer, one strategy works for the entire place.” Not that I was ever that different before really giving it some thought and consideration and a lot of time learning.

Where did all the questioning start? I cannot pinpoint an exact moment. In elementary school, when I was a child, I had absolutely no exposure to Africa or anything of direct African origin, other than some carved wooden turtle knick-knacks my grandmother gave me. They were “made in Kenya”, which she informed me was a country in Africa. It sounded so far off and exotic – very hard to comprehend. Later, in elementary school, our social studies textbook mentioned “Mba, Aubame and Bongo” – the only thing I learned about Africa in my entire public school education. The fact that I remembered only their names and a picture but nothing about where they came from shows only how disconnected this piece of information was from anything else. It was as though the textbook creators wanted to mention Africa but did not really have anything to say about it. (Later, of course, with these disconnected names floating around in my head, I checked into it to discover that these men were figures in la politique gabonaise.)

Later, as late as university, I felt a real elevation in my consciousness about this idea of “Africa” as a monolithic entity. A musician from Ghana, Obo Addy (RIP, 2012), came to my university and lectured about this topic – and it was, even though obvious, as though a light came on. The light of ignorance versus stupidity. Haha. No, I wasn’t stupid – I just didn’t know and, like most people, had no reason to think about these things. How did Ghana differ, I started thinking, from Nigeria, or from Gabon? How, even, did North Africa differ from sub-Saharan Africa? As ridiculously surface-level and limited as this sounds now, for 17-year-old me, it was all new. Meanwhile many of my classmates had spent parts of their lives in places like Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire (I want an Ivorian passport – it has an elephant on the front!) and thus had this air of experience and of being cosmopolitan. They had such a different worldview – or seemed like it – and I had no reason or circumstance to know more than I had before this point in time. I suppose this is partly what filled me with an awkwardness and feeling of inadequacy – that my life then was so sheltered and limited in scope. Even my aspirations, reflecting on it, were so puny and plodding. In a comparative light, my experience, despite being mine, just felt like nothingness. My closest encounters with Abidjan were little French-language profiles in my high school French-language text when we were optimistically introduced to all kinds of characters in le monde francophone. (Naturally I also enjoyed our little vignettes of the Swiss, Canadian, Tahitian and Martinique francophones!) To this day, it is hard to imagine spending part of childhood in some part of Africa (again, high school viewing of the Claire Denis film Chocolat should fill that gap in some one-dimensional, take-a-quick bite kind of way).

But then, all my knowledge about “African things” comes from “take-a-quick bite”, almost accidental approaches. From the strange trend in my life of meeting a string of strange men from Gambia (either in the Turkish fruit-and-veg store I frequented in Oslo to being seated next to a Gambian on an Icelandair flight) to the unusual way that Congo (formerly Zaire) keeps popping up in my life (watching When We Were Kings, reading a book about Congo that I found in Trondheim, Norway, seeing a film about Patrice Lumumba and thinking that maybe – just maybe – there was a mention of Lumumba in a schoolbook in my childhood, but that might just be wishful thinking. It’s hard to resist a story with names like Lumumba, Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu Sese Seko), it is as though I am meant to absorb Africa in small doses.

There was the strange flood of postal letters in both English and French that I received from misguided but hopeful suitors from Togo that put Togo on the map (quite literally) for me. Years ago when I was very active in the postal pen pal community, I used to exchange “friendship books” – small, decorated little booklets one might make for herself or a friend that included some info on interests and the postal address. You would send this to a pen pal, who would include his/her information and forward it to another of their pen pals and so on, until theoretically, this little booklet would be full of decorated pages and addresses of new potential friends. Occasionally these booklets would make their way, somehow, to African destinations. Normally this resulted only in a few unwanted letters (many people actually made a point of specifying on their friendship book pages: “No Africans!” – it still strikes me as kind of a horrible generalization but I imagine people had their reasons). In many cases – and very likely for a good many others – it resulted in a few weeks of receiving 50+ letters, daily, from men in Togo who were, according to their letters, “very excited for our marital relations to begin”.

I had no idea who these men were – where were they getting my address? Eventually one of the letters explained that they had heard an ad on the radio – someone was selling the addresses of women in the once-again-undefinable “west” seeking African husbands. All these guys had paid some undetermined amount of money to get their hands on addresses of women who had no interest whatsoever in an African husband. I imagine some enterprising, entrepreneurial type got his hands on one of these friendship books and used it to make a bit of cash. (Advertising on the radio seems a bit weird, but then I don’t have a clue if the radio in Togo is a normal means of advertising.) After seeing probably 400 or more letters come to my postbox, I really could not take it anymore. I just started throwing them away without opening them. Receiving the letters suddenly felt at once creepy and sad.

But I had my little slice of Togo and took in information I would not otherwise have had.

I met a French guy who had African parents (from Ghana and Benin); I knew quite a bit about Ghana by that time, but Benin was a bit mysterious. I managed to learn that Benin is the only country in the world (or at least at that time) which counts voodoo among its state religions. Voodoo, widely associated with Haiti, is only so associated because of the slave trade. It actually came from places like Benin.

I worked with a guy who was part Tanzanian, part Norwegian, who remarked on the “personal space bubble” of northern Europe. If you were to get on a bus, for example, in Tanzania and sit alone, the next person who got on the bus would sit down next to you – somehow being alone or perceived as lonely or wanting personal space is not perceived as “normal”. Life is much more about being a part of a community.

Eventually getting into development studies, Africa is often at the core of this discipline. My studies have taken me (virtually) to Mali (warfare and the films of Malian-Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako – such as Bamako, which was a film I watched several times for its multilayered commentary). My obsession with news and tendency to watch AlJazeera English (which focuses a lot of attention on Asia, Latin America and Africa – all under-reported on American news channels) has given me insight into Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Nigeria, Mali – among a million other things, including France’s continued influence in the African sphere, as evidenced by its eagerness to jump into military conflicts and/or peacekeeping (most recently in Mali and CAR).

But it is still a slow and incremental learning process, especially because I am only doing it on screen or paper. I still have not travelled to Africa. But because Africa, African geography, African issues are all so distant and perceived as so esoteric, if you happen to know one or two facts about a given African country, people – sometimes even people from that country – imagine you are an expert. Comparatively speaking, maybe I have become a pseudo-expert – but I am still a novice with so little expertise or experience. After having eaten Ethiopian food perhaps once and knowing that the spongy bread is called injera and is made from teff flour, an Ethiopian guy decided I must know everything about Ethiopia (he was just impressed perhaps that I was not one among the multitudes of insensitive assholes who always reply to comments about Ethiopian food with, “I didn’t know Ethiopians had food.”)

Most recently, I watched a film, Rêves de poussière (Dreams of Dust), which was about a man from Niger who travels to Burkina Faso to try his luck as a gold miner in horrific and dangerous conditions. Cinematographically beautiful, all these films, I am still a geography dunce. I find – still – I always have to look at a map.

Random thoughts and cookie dough

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Grooving on loud music at 5 a.m. Hot Chocolate – Every 1s a Winner (not a whiner!)

I am going to make a bunch of cookie dough today and stick it in the freezer to bake next weekend. Time before the holidays is short. Must bake!

I am thinking about ways to give my 2014 the best possible chance for success, and more importantly, happiness and fulfillment. PLAY WITH BABY TIGERS! Build a treadmill desk! Knock down the superfluous upstairs walls! Fall in love with some lovely Parisian (even though s/he won’t have a Scottish accent!) and host next Thanksgiving in Paris! Go to more live shows – have more music in my life in general! Build my business up (either the web-based one or the bakery tank idea)! Find the perfect shade(s) of pink lipstick! (And I’m a sucker for the reds!) Learn more about wine! Finally take a real vacation somewhere far away that I often dream of! Get a Roomba! Take more walks in the forest, as gave me such joy two years ago! Enjoy every minute of being at home! When I worked at home, no matter how much I worked then, it always felt like I was on vacation – or at least that vacation did not matter. I was relaxed and organized. I miss that. I don’t know that all these things are possible, probable or even that they would contribute to elusive happiness. But they are fun ideas – it’s giving me some joy to think about it right now.

Soundtrack to giving in to the joy of now. Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

 “And one day we will die and our ashes will fly
From the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see
Love to be in the arms of all, I’m keepin’ here with me”

-Neutral Milk Hotel

More randomness

A friend posted an article on her Facebook wall that encouraged a return to some old-fashioned dating practices. When I reposted the article on my own Facebook wall, I stated that I might not need all the old-fashioned stuff (“I want all that stupid old shit, like letters and sodas…” Liz Phair, “Fuck and Run”), but one of the points touched a nerve – that we should call what we’re doing by what it is. Calling dating/courting/a relationship “hanging out” is an act of clinging to a juvenile and awkward period of not knowing who you are or what you want. I am almost 40. I might not want, as the letter says, to define a relationship as “exclusive” or a “Greg Brady-going steady” thing, but I am not “hanging out”. I don’t know when the shift happened between steps progressing into a relationship to this casual, non-committal, “we’re hanging out” vibe (and yes, it does seem like a “vibe” more than something grounded in reality).

As I lament the winding down of my vacation, I watched a handful of movies – mostly not memorable. But it was entertaining to rewatch a few – I am not normally someone who watches the same movies over and over, but I decided to watch Wall Street again after… 20+ years. Charlie Sheen had a sliver of talent then, beautiful, hopeful, full of vitality – all flushed away long ago to give way to the troll/demon he seems to have become. I loved all the “high-tech gadgets” that look so laughable now – the briefcase-sized cell phones and the two-inch-screen portable tv. Let’s not overlook Daryl Hannah’s ridiculous wardrobe or the unthinkable way she decorated the Sheen character’s apartment. Oh, the 80s.

A few weeks ago, a few women in my office and I took our young Spanish intern to lunch for his birthday. The women and I are all in the late-30s age bracket; the intern was turning 24. On our walk to the restaurant, the intern was questioning me about how I manage to walk around outside without covering my legs or wearing a real coat – +5C is cold for him. I don’t “winterize” until -20C. I did explain that I don’t keep my house like an icebox, saying, “In my house, the heat is on.” My three similarly aged female colleagues and I, in unison, burst into song, as if on cue, “The heat is on… it’s on the street…” Way to date ourselves, relics of a bygone era! The intern had never heard the song, apparently, but when we got back to the office, he wanted a full education in 80s music and all things American because I am, in his words, “his American bible”. Hmm.

As if it were not abundantly clear already, I am one of those nerds who holds on to details. While my colleagues could not remember who performed “The Heat is On”, I could immediately “(dis)credit” Glenn Frey and rattle off his career history with The Eagles (who blighted – yes, I exaggerate – 70s music about as much as Frey and his Eagle partner-in-crime Don Henley inflicted their solo careers on 80s music). I suppose “The Heat is On” was only as popular as it was because it was also associated with the Beverly Hills Cop film franchise, which is also a quintessential part of 80s pop culture. While schooling this intern in 80s horrors for the ears, I also managed to share the dubious 80s songs/hits of Starship while also sharing the history of how they came about – rising from the ashes of the drug-addled remnants of other related 60s and 70s has-been bands, much like a lot of the stuff that filled the 80s music charts. All supposedly reformed (in both senses of the word) and “Just Say No” – HA. (Starship managed also to supply one of the worst songs, as well as churning out mediocrity for much of the decade – for one of the era’s worst movies – “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from Mannequin – highlight of Andrew McCarthy or Kim Cattrall’s careers? Almost no 80s movie could have been complete without Andrew or James Spader, who was in both Mannequin and the aforementioned Wall Street. Both also figured prominently in the 80s classic, Less than Zero, which was also a very true-to-life vehicle for the then very messed up Robert Downey, Jr. And both McCarthy and Spader were in 80s teen favorite, Pretty in Pink – along with Jon Cryer – who has not done much other than that and, of course, the role of the aforementioned Charlie Sheen’s brother on the dismal and crass TV show, Two and a Half Men.)

Nothing can make someone feel old like imparting all this “popular culture” knowledge – when the “popular” culture her reference points are attached to were popular 20 or 30 years ago.

The same young intern came and said to me, “Did you know they had a war in Croatia not that long ago?” when we were talking about football (my beloved Iceland was playing Croatia for a chance to get into the World Cup at the time. They lost, but at least my Icelandic underdogs gave it a go). Yes, Croatia did have a war, young man, when you were in diapers and learning to walk. I was there (well, in Bosnia anyway) monitoring post-war elections.

I can forgive a young boy for not knowing “The Heat is On” – but a major war that took place in recent history within Europe…? God save the Spanish education system?!

Then again, that is what life is for – you do learn something new every day. Sometimes totally useless stuff. I, for example, learned that Liverpool named its airport after John Lennon. I sort of doubt Lennon would have liked that (not that I know what he would have liked). I wonder what Yoko thinks. (Yoko’s Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland somehow strikes me as something both of them would have approved of more than an international airport that seems to primarily take British tourists to get drunk and sunburned in Spain.)

Anyway, I started that tangent to say that I was watching movies. I rewatched Brokeback Mountain again – this is probably the third time I saw it, and I am still moved by Heath Ledger’s performance. Actually all the performances were outstanding, especially when contrasting it with Wall Street, which I watched immediately before. Even the secondary characters in Brokeback seem to have some depth and reality – you can feel for the wives of the two main characters. They are more than just one-dimensional props. The girlfriend and wife – all secondary characters – in Wall Street are hollow.

I went in an entirely different direction after that – watching Rêves de poussière, a film from Burkina Faso – the cinematography was beautiful, the story simple and arresting.

As the remaining minutes of vacation tick by, I do laundry, get middle-of-night, belligerent phone calls and wonder how a drunken person I have not seen in a decade or more (but have known now for 20 years) thinks he misses me. How do you miss someone you have not seen in more than ten years? Especially when that feeling has always been a one-way street. You don’t. You’re smoking nostalgia, you’re drinking a memory of something that never was. It’s imaginary.

“What a beautiful face I have found in this place
That is circling all ’round the sun and when we meet on a cloud
I’ll be laughing out loud, I’ll be laughing with everyone I see
Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all”

-Neutral Milk Hotel