On belonging

Green tracts freckled with white sheep surround the roads, the pastures like a patchwork quilt divided by short stone walls, textured with lichen. Down in the south of England, the daffodils have already come and gone, withered to crinkled brown tissue. They remain hearty here in the Midlands, gathered in sprays that line the roads, buttery or white with soft baby yellow and mandarin trumpets.

I am with a carful of friends in the Peak District; for our spring break, we are visiting great houses and putting to good use our National Trust memberships. We’ve had blue skies each day – Carolina blue, mostly, sometimes clotted with clouds that cast shadows and drop the temperature by ten degrees. Claire is driving; many of the roads are single-lane, made myopic with hairpin turns and rock walls that threaten to scrape the car doors. But it is continually pleasant: we wind through grey stone villages laced with purple hyacinth, past parish churches with graveyards full of tilted headstones, through steam emanating from the occasional industrial blight. Mostly, though, it is green pastures and sheep – lambs tottering on new legs, nosing at their mothers. Today we are headed for our premier stop, one I’ve been waiting to see for years.

The vast spread of the manor holdings become apparent even before the sat nav tells us where to turn off the main road: the house is further ahead, but all around us, all of a sudden, the grassland is not mown but certainly manicured – planned, purposeful grass. Knobbled rock walls are replaced with lines of trees. We pass the manor’s farm shop – ‘the best in England,’ the sign claims – and edge of a golf course that abuts the road. Claire takes a left turn onto smooth pavement; a quarter mile and then, there it is.

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First we see only a fountain spray, a perpendicular column of water shooting heavenward, then a great house that unfurls before us, honeyed stone made golden in the early afternoon sun. Later, we will go close enough to see the details that glint in the spring light: gilded window frames, Cavendo tutus (‘safe through caution’) in serif capitals along the edge of the roof, all situated within the pleasing harmony of Capability Brown’s un-engineered gardening: Chatsworth House. Our chatter comes to a standstill as we drive past.

This is a massive stately home in Derbyshire, seat of the Earls – and then Dukes – of Devonshire and part of the Cavendish family for nearly 500 years; Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned here, on and off. The first few centuries of the house are marked with immense wealth; today, like many similar manors, it is run by a charitable trust which protects and cares for the buildings and the many works of art and treasures housed within. You can look at this house and shake your head at the opulence: 126 rooms, with only a fifth open to the public, the others occupied (when he’s there) by the 12th Duke of Devonshire and his family.

This house appears in literature – Jane Austen mentions it as one of the Peak District houses visited by Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. This legacy is carried into film – it appeared as Pemberley in the 2005 adaptation, the contested version which shoehorned a three-hundred-page novel into 120 minutes. Kiera Knightly is Elizabeth and Matthew Mcfayden is Darcy; Chatsworth nods at this with a bust of Macfayden’s head in the gift shop marked with a sign that says ‘please do not kiss.’ Beyond this, it takes on whatever form the reader’s imagination requires.

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Tour signs guide us from the entrance, a dark, simply adorned space that smells heavily of fire logs, and through to the Painted Hall, where the ceilings sweep up and nearly every inch is gilded or covered in oil paints depicting the life of Julius Cesar. It seems to situate the family, the residents of this house, within a lineage of Western history, within a lineage of culture, power, sophistication, enlightenment. These paintings and statues – classical tradition, sure, but also an argument for inheritance, pointing back at the founding of Rome as if to say, this is where we began.

Perhaps this is why Americans like me drift back towards the place of our ancestors – instead of murals and statues, we throw parades and festivals and special days that celebrate Irish, Scottish, German, Polish, Japanese, Hmong heritage. And then we come back to the motherland, awed by the ancient found in everyday life. But I see it as something similar – looking for connection, looking for belonging within the broader sweep of human history, as our family histories are so often cleaved by the oceans and ancestors with their eyes focused on the future.

For me personally, the history of my family, outside of living memory, is patchy – most of it learned from a late-night climb up the Ancestry.com tree with some occasional stories from parents or grandparents, but only about their immediate relatives. Even then, there’s so much that disappears when the person dies. One of my grandfathers had a child outside of his marriages, someone I’ve never met, meaning I’ve got a mysterious uncle floating around LA somewhere. We often pass on myth and legend; someone back in the lineage somewhere said that we might be related to Thomas Jefferson or Lady Godiva; this comes up when I ask questions. Even if that were true, we are so far removed that it confers no greater understanding of the place of either side of my family in history; it informs me little about myself.

My parents’ sense of belonging is found in their chosen religious tradition, one that eschews the pomp of church history – their sanctuary is purposefully stark white; there is no incense or robes or any of the trappings of ecclesiastical faith. Their purity in the pursuit of Truth has caused a deep rift, one that untethers me from the moorings that parents typically offer.

But this is also very much the story of the United States. America has always presented itself as a stage for reinvention, to create yourself. We go hard into what we do: the pursuit of money, the exercise of religiosity, speculation, fundamentalism – big, bold, brash. The dogma of individualism convinces us that we don’t need others and we certainly don’t need the past – reinvention is far easier when your past doesn’t stare you in the face on a daily basis. It can breed showmanship, posturing, bloated confidence, or, conversely, introspection, self-awareness, caution. Maya Angelou once stated, ‘You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.’

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Statue of the veiled vestal virgin, light of Rome in her hands

The house tour weaves through to a landing in a yellow room, brightened by skylights in a dome above. Arranged on the wall, two floors tall, is the family gallery, preserved in oil – portraits of the succession of dukes, sisters painted by John Singer Sargent as Gibson girls in white gowns and striped sashes, men in fluffy wigs, pointed chins, posh eyes.

For these people, to belong is something decided at birth. Social capital and connections are forged through boarding school, small elite college membership, the dense network of interrelated families and influence; to walk into places and feel that you belong, that you are not an interloper or obvious guest. I often wonder how this feels, for family and upbringing and education to decide your place and who you are, to begin your life in the world with the privilege – and the prison – of not having to be your own entrepreneur. This privilege means that other entire communities exist; this group or tribe once enjoyed exclusive access to things of beauty created by artisans working at the behest and sponsorship of such patrons: a carved pianoforte inlayed with pearl, the Rembrandt with its burst of light upon the subject’s face, the vast library of history and poetry and literature, wrapped in leather and stamped in gold.

So we don’t belong to this as we amble through their home; and yet, it is through those books that we can find a toehold, an edge of connection – not to belong to this elite class, but in human lineage. We find ourselves in literature – the continuity of thought, emotion, ideas, what makes us human. We feel related to characters, story arcs, lines of poetry –  it’s been a hard month, and I recite lines from Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese’ as a form of CBT.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

Wild geese, books, maybe a belonging that we engineer. We move on to the next room, the sun streaming into the courtyard outside and the illuminating the painted wallpaper.

 

 

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The Road South

There aren’t many bus journeys in Rwanda that culminate in ice cream, but this one does. It’s a bright, clear Thursday, and I’m on the bus to Huye. This city in the Southern Province, along with being the home of the national university and the intellectual heart of the country, features the best ice cream [possibly] in East Africa. There’s a new gelato place in Kigali’s slick new mall, Kigali Heights, but I haven’t been there yet and I want to believe that this is still the best place, so I’ll hold onto it for the moment.

But it’s been a slow ride. I scheduled a meeting for mid-afternoon, and planned my journey time specifically around the promise of ice cream. But it’s been a slow journey; an extended police checkpoint stop, an expanse of unpaved road clotted with traffic, and the steady pace of the bus are whittling away my ice cream time. The speed thing is new; I was told by a few Rwandans right after arriving that the government recently introduced speed governors. When I first heard about this, I pictured a new class of police officers, the Speed Governors, out on the roads near the cops with the hairdryer-shaped speed guns. But the Governors would be more resplendently attired, perhaps in capes crisscrossed with traditional back and white beading, like the fantastic designs coming out of local Rwandan ateliers.  But alas, speed governors are simply devices which prevent the bus from traveling over 60km/hour, instituted to curb the reckless driving of national bus companies looking to increase the number of trips and thus their earnings. The result is basically a one-third increase in travel time, but also a more enjoyable journey with fewer panicked reverse-fantasies of buses plunging off winding mountain roads and subsequent death. Now, the buses chug pleasantly along, occasionally gathering enough speed to pass a fume-belching construction truck.

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This is what we bus for… well, among other things

To take buses through Rwanda, especially the Southern Province, is to wind through the reality of ordinary people outside of the capital. Rwandan roads are used by all, not just those in cars or buses. You will see men pushing bicycles like beasts of burden, loaded with lumpy white woven bags, probably cassava or carrots or potatoes for market. Occasional motos zip past, especially when we get closer to cities, their drivers wearing blue or red or high vis green pinnies marked with the names of their moto taxi cooperative. There are always police, dressed in navy uniforms with shiny lug-sole boots, and sometimes military (RPF) vehicles, immediately apparent by their particular shade of green. SUVs blaze up and down the roads, some with radio antenna that bob along with the car as it speeds past our slow boat, almost all bearing logos or signage from some NGO or another. We’re overtaken by battered Toyota Carreras, sleek Prados with black-tinted windows, and RPF-green military Corollas. I’ve said it before, but this continent runs on AKs, Blue Band margarine, and Toyota.

We pass one of my favorite buildings: a square, cement mosque just past Muhanga with a misshapen dome, which I appreciate not for its beauty but it’s vibrant robin’s egg, almost Tiffany Blue color. Mosques are easy to identify – there are often no minarets but diminutive crescent moons atop their roofs. Other buildings are similarly identifiable: the road to Huye has at least four significant genocide memorial sites. They are recognizable by their common design: there are often wide cement slab placed over mass graves, and bricked, open-air patios with walls inscribed with victims’ names. Sometimes you will also see gated cemeteries, individual graves built up with platforms of white tile and wide, standing crosses. While the start of the genocide and the week of commemoration come early in April, beginning on the 7th, the months of April, May, and June are part of the memorial period, and nearly every organization, business, and school is slung with a commemoration banner inscribed with the kwibuka flame and the line “remember, unite, renew.” They are everywhere, and especially evident on this road: banners in pale gray with the unmistakable flame.

But most of the time, it’s a road ping-pong between rural areas and short stretches of strip-mall-like shops, some raw concrete gray, others painted bright blue, yellow, red, green. The colors are shorthand for the sponsoring company: they provide the paint, slap on a large logo, and your shop gets an upgrade. You learn quickly to recognize the color and the sponsoring company: MTN mobile’s unmistakable, Africa-wide sunshine mustard yellow, bright cobalt for Primus, a regional beer company, red for Airtel, another airtime and internet provider. There’s not much variation in the shops that pass the window, and while English might be the language of academic instruction, shop signage remains consistently French: paperterie for all of your paper needs, salons and coiffeur decorated with painted pictures of hair braiding and trim and fade services, a multitude of Chezs – Chez Jean, Chez Dieu – usually small cafes and buffets or guesthouses.

Sometimes the bus will stop, often to pick up more passengers or let a few off. It’s slow going outside of Muhanga, where over and over again a passenger will knock on a window or tap a coin against the chassis of the bus, alerting the driver to let them off. When we make “official” stops, sometimes just on the side of the road near an outlet for the bus company, young men and woman come to the bus, pulling open the windows, and showing off their wares: clear plastic buckets filled with small bags of groundnuts, milk in liter jugs shaped like jerry cans, loaves of bread wrapped in white wax paper, water, Fanta, glutenous biscuits. But nothing can compare to the thought of ice cream and I attempt to send impatient vibes to the driver: come on, mate, let’s get this show on the road.

But there’s no changing it: the speed governor means you can’t go any faster, and as usual, I am often the only one in a hurry. So maybe there’s the lesson: chill out, Leanne, relax, enjoy the scenery. We pull back onto the main road and quickly find ourselves behind a dump truck slowing to a crawl as we reach the section of road under construction. The pavement turns quickly to red dirt and clouds of dust mean that the passengers pull the windows closed. Outside, a brave cyclist, clad in the sponsored spandex that indicates his place as a Team Rwanda rider, maneuvers the bumps of the dirt road.

Almost there, I tell myself. Ice cream awaits.

A Trip Takes Us

“I know I like to dream a lot, and think of other worlds that are not.”

Lou Reed, “Who Am I (Tripitena’s Song)”

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Twelve years ago, almost to the day, I boarded a similar flight at San Francisco International Airport, clutching a passport that was empty save for a pre-issued visa for the United Kingdom, heart hammering with anticipation and anxiety at the thought of the first international flight of my life. I can imagine how I must have looked to other passengers: a small person trying to make herself smaller, watching carefully to understand how others behaved, how they opened their passports and handed over their boarding passes. Not wanting to seem green or stick out, to seem awkward or ignorant in the procedures of international air travel – learning, ultimately, to fly, metaphorically and practically. I took a similar position, as a cautious observer, for the next few months living in London: my first stint of life as a foreigner and outsider.

Very soon, I will be back to the same airport, bound yet again for the United Kingdom. My passport is hardly empty, but contains similar clearance for study in the UK, this time for four years of the British PhD and not a few months of study abroad. Now, I have equal parts swagger and languidness in passing through security and navigating the terminal; it’s the fruit of those twelve years, four continents, more than thirty countries – those statistics stamped into my passport, emblematic of experiences that have grown me and directed the course of my life, up to this very moment.

But the anticipation and anxiety still hammer in my chest, coupled with “hot palms and the lurch of stomach high up under the rib cage,” as Steinbeck once wrote in describing the preparation stages of travel at the start of Travels with Charley“A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has a personality, a temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safe-guards, policing and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” 

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James Town, Accra, Ghana

A trip takes us – there is some comfort in leaning into that lack of control. We can plan, we can state our purpose from the beginning. But ultimately, we have to give over control. The start of each adventure is the start of a new chapter of life: knowing that you will change not only your personal geography, but how you see the world and how you see yourself. Today, though, this journey feels less like the start of something and more like the close, the end of an era, turning the page not on a chapter but an entire section of a book: returning to the first country I visited beyond my own, British bookends sealing in one section of my life.

In the past twelve years, I’ve traveled for many reasons: work, school, research, service, love. Did I ever really know what each of those journeys would bring, outside of those clear, guiding goals? I look back at that girl, 19 and terrified (though she would never admit it), and I wonder who she would be without London, Windhoek, Ferrara, Kielce, Port-au-Prince, Taipei, Musanze, Kigali. Travel is powerful for so many reasons. For me, one is that it creates those memorable blocs – instead of a inky, run-together year, it has a clear start and finish – clear in that you get on a plane and go, and get on a plane and return. Those are dividers in my head, like chapters. But what you learned often comes later, how you grew becomes evident in later chapters of life. 

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Facing east to the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar, Tanzania

I can look back at my experiences in the past twelve years and see the bigger picture, the parts of me that have changed with each trip. I can see how I’ve developed confidence, maturity, intelligence, empathy. Responsibility toward others and not only my nation and my social group. Possessions have become less valuable and people have become more. How authenticity – relationships built on honesty and care – is vital.  How travel brings out the best and worst of you, quickly moving you towards those moments of honesty. How I’ve grown to deal with loss and heartbreak and pain; how I can better weather life’s challenges.

I know my stated goal in traveling today, in this new section of life a few days from my 32nd birthday. I’m more purposeful with this start of an intensive degree program; I’m more knowledgeable and less apprehensive. I know what piece of paper I want to hold in four years – but what flights, what experiences, what growth will happen between now and then – that’s for the trip to decide.


Steinbeck, J. (1961). Travels with Charley. New York: Penguin.

Home Is

Wildfires in the further reaches of El Dorado county mean that the sky is dusty, with the mountains of the Sierra Nevada obscured; so the beginning and end of each day are a symphony of watercolor. John Muir described this range as “so luminous, it seems to be not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city” (p 35). I wake up early each morning, often with the sun, a layered pastel sunrise over the Range of Light, far in the distance, as my jetlagged brain bolts awake. It’s usually an hour of reverie before my nephew wakes up, sometimes just a pitter-patter beeline to his parents’ room; other times he snuggles next to me on the sofa and I read to him, usually mixing up words and receiving his corrections. After nearly two years in Rwanda, I’m home, and not sure when I’ll be back in the Land of a Thousand [Much Greener] Hills.

Home is a strange word for me to process. I’ve never lived in my brother and sister-in-law’s foothill house, where I’m currently staying – for my purposes here, I would define “lived” as a place where I’ve passed a definitive period of time. I spent two weeks on this sofa in December, but they had only been in the house for a short time at that point, having moved here a week before I left last year for my second stint in East Africa. Thus, stay is more apropos than live for my current existence as a middle-class vagabond. When you ask Rwandans, and indeed many other Africans, where they live, they often respond with stay – “I stay in Kimihurura.” I grew up in another town, a vastly different environment an hour away, but it’s a place that now tends to feel like anything but home; so, I stay here.

Home isn’t adventurous, but home is good. It’s mornings with my sister-in-law and the kids, watching my niece feed milky Cheerios to the dog. I argue with my brother on the porch, drinking Sierra Nevada pale ales to an evening cicada chorus. Janice and I talk ad nauseam about Myers Briggs; Alex and I get Thai food and he explains Pokemon Go and Snapchat; Janette knows to buy Mission tortilla chips and nuclear orange nacho cheese sauce; my grandmother hugs me with tears in the inner corners of her eyes. Home for me is people – a small group of them, a weirdly constructed tribe. It’s no longer a place.

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I can already feel the creep of wanderlust to go back out, coupled in the exact instant with intense relief to be home again.”No one had forewarned me, however, that if you live abroad for any good while, the notion of home is permanently compromised. You will always be missing another place, and no national logic will ever again seem fully obvious to you” (Solomon, 2016, p 15).  It’s a contradiction of sorts, that I can both miss being in Rwanda and be relieved to be free of the experience.

And maybe this is an essential step in the travel experience, the final step: going home after rewriting who you are, what you know, what you think, even what you believe, based on what you have undergone while outside of your literal and geographic comfort zones. “Travel is an exercise in partly broadening yourself and partly in defining your own limits. Travel distills you to a decontextualized existence. You never see yourself more clearly than when immersed in an entirely foreign place” (p 20). And coming home makes all of this obvious, slams you in the face with reverse culture shock and a churning mass of emotions that I can’t pick apart. In equal measure, it allows distance so you can start to process, to pick apart, to better understand.

Andrew Solomon, in his recent book recounting twenty-five years travelling as a writer focused on art and culture, struggled with this idea of change, preferring to believe that travel hadn’t shifted his values, but made him hone in more vividly on those he found to be the most meaningful: “travel taught me how to relate to disparate people with incongruent values, and, thereby, how to be contradictory myself” (p. 33).

It’s hard to explain all of this to people at home; it’s even harder to answer questions about your experience. It’s impossible to refine months or even years of life to a few sentences, especially for me, long-winded, overly reliant on dry history, and not always able to tell if I’m being asked questions out of interest or obligation. You realize too that people often don’t know what questions to ask you – a shared awkwardness that seems to often result in people saying, “so, how was Africa” and my response being clipped into platitudes – because how do you respond? Maybe this is the aspect that can become the most separating and alienating – most dramatically in the first weeks after you get home, before you’ve again acclimated. To see your country, your home from outside: and then return and be among people who haven’t necessarily had that privilege (and I do think it is a privilege). You coil back into the comfort of communicating with people who understand your experience: what Solomon terms displacement, the “forgiving homeland, a thing held in common with others” who understand your personal contradictions (p. 11).

Muir advocated a different form of travel – through mountain passes, rather than foreign countries, claiming rocky corridors and “mountain mansions” will cure whatever ails you as they “kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.” He dramatically claims that “few places in this world are more dangerous than home” (p.113). While I understand his point – that we can become complacent, remaining only in our homes and never venturing forth – I can’t quite agree. True, after traveling, to come back and expect that who you as left is what you return as – ultimately, this can’t be possible. But to see yourself, and see how you’ve changed, I would argue that you must come home to see yourself back in your initial context. Live large, Muir – let those of us who can’t process in the moment some time to process on a porch in your mountain proximity.

Whatever it is, whatever I’ve become, whatever I’ve lost, whatever I’ve learned, it is good to be home. Because when I travel, I find more value for what my home is and who my home is: defining it more specifically and allowing those details like images to lodge in my brain for recall on future adventures.

 

Muir, J. (1985). The mountains of California (originally published 1893). New York: Penguin.

Solomon, A. (2016). Far and away: Reporting from the brink of change: Seven continents, twenty-five years. New York: Scribner.

 

Brazier on the Floor: Mekelle, Ethiopia

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Brizaf

Brizaf isn’t home when we arrive at the compound: an oblong-shaped courtyard with rooms that open onto a grapevine and brick pile, a cooker for injera housed in a sheltered corner. Hannah is greeted by Meron with a bright, luminous face and twin braids that begin at her widow’s peak and wind back around her scalp. It has been months – Hannah has been in another part of Ethiopia, and her Mekelle family has missed her dearly. We take a seat in the house – one room, but not so cramped – and wait for Brizaf to arrive.

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Meron fanning the flames of the brazier, gomen (cabbage) cooking 

This is my second trip to Ethiopia this year; the first was for the Fellow program’s midyear conference held in Addis Ababa in March. This time, I’m on Hannah’s farewell tour, saying goodbye to the disparate places where she worked during the 2014-2016 fellowship cycles. First to Arba Minch, found in Ethiopia’s deep southlands, green crags of the Western edge of the Great Rift Valley; followed by a night in Addis and a flight to the opposite pole of the country, Mekelle (also spelled Makele or Mek’ele, among others) far closer to the contentious border with Eritrea, once unioned with Ethiopia.

Brizaf has come back home, her son Unael beside her. She greets Hannah with effusive hugs and kisses, shakes my hand and kisses me four times – double the Italian style – and forces me into a seat on the sofa. We are banned from any form of work to help her in preparing the food: thus, today is a lesson in Ethiopian cooking and hospitality, to watch the food that I’ve eaten for a week be prepared in front of me, with the loving cook squatting in front of a charcoal brazier on the house floor.

We brought cabbage, tomatoes, onions, and potatoes – the base of the cuisine. Meron works from a cutting board, a worn object with a deep center divot, chopping the cabbage into strips, her knees on either side. On the brazier, a two-tiered cooker with fire in the lower cavern heating an open, upper bowl where a pot is nestled among black and grey charcoal chips, everything is smoldering. In the pot, an inch of oil bubbles with pinches of chopped garlic, tomato, and onion – Brizaf, the overseeing chef, checks Meron’s work and stirs in the gomen (cabbage), settles the lid on top, and sets her daughter to the task of fanning the brazier fire.

In Ethiopian cooking, there seem to be two primary spice foundations – red or yellow. It reminds me of New Mexico roadtrips, where every dish ordered requires either red or green peppers, and waiter follow your request with that question, “red or green?” For today’s gomen, the base will be yellow: alicha, a mix of tumeric, cumin, and ginger, enflamed as needed with hot peppers.

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Alicha, a spice blend of tumeric, cumin, and ginger

The second base – red – is found in another dish for today’s lunch: silsi, an oily, oniony fire blended with pulped tomato, garlic, and Ethiopian magic. The red is berbere, a mix of spices that lies at the root of nearly every dish. Each cook has his or her own berbere blend, consisting of dried and ground chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and basil, and a collection of spices local to the Horn: korarima, rue, nigella, and fenugreek.

Today’s meal could be a fasting one – in Ethiopia, fasting refers to vegan food, instead of absolute abstinence. Sudan might be the most Muslim place I have visited, but Ethiopia is the most Christian – practiced in the orthodox variety, with dogma infiltrating everyday aspects of life (the definition, after all, of Orthodoxy). Menus list “fasting” items separate – always the vegan accommodation. When the gomen is finished, Brizaf starts the shiro, spooning the ochre-colored powder from a Quaker oats can. Shiro is ground chickpea and spices, a powder mixed with water and oil and sometimes, if you have the means, onions and tomatoes. She mixes it slowly with oil and berbere, scrapping the powder from the edges of the pot as it boils and bubbles, thickening like like an orange edible lava. Americans, sometimes we forget – oil is not just for taste but needed calories, especially when your diet consists of injera and gomen and berbere. In my photographs, the finished shiro comes out smooth, silken, deep orange.

 

I follow Hannah to arrange my plate: unroll injera, the bread base. Injera is made from tef, a local grain, mixed with water and allowed to ferment for a period before being cooked on a smooth, hot surface – the cooker from the yard, with a space beneath the griddle surface for open flame. The result is a vehicle for both arranging food and a getting that food to your mouth – no utensils, just torn strips of injera to pick up gomen and shiro.

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Lunch plate: injera base, with shiro, gomen, and silsi, clockwise from 12

 

Brizaf continues her hospitable chores as we eat. She is a woman of the village, now settled in one of the largest Ethiopian cities. Her forehead sweeps back from her brows, crossed by a thread-like braid, Tigryan style. A chain from one side of her forehead to the other, gathered at the middle, demonstrates her status as a married woman. She is tattooed as well: a faint circle between her brows and spaced chains on her neck. Meron makes a plate to split with her brother, and gives the first bite – a pocket of injera with shiro, silsi, and gomen in a happy mass – to her mother. Brizaf’s hands are busy – she’s begun the coffee ceremony, roasting green and pale brown coffee beans in a small pot. She shakes them like popcorn, popping and darkening and calls after her daughter, who roots through the curio cabinet for fancier cups – a  prerogative for guests.
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Coffee ceremony, beans roasting

As with Ethiopian coffee tradition, a full spread is laid: beans roasting in a pot on the brazier, a smaller incense burner pipping with charcoal and a stick of incense, small china cups and saucers that resemble espresso cups. Coffee is an ancient ceremony in Ethiopia, outpacing the Italian occupation and the West’s obsession with the beans. She shakes the smoking pot, beans now roasted black, for us to smell – the beans almost oiled black and deep brown. She puts the jebena – the round bottom traditional coffee pot – onto the brazier coals as we finish our lunch, the oil of silsi coating our fingers.

We drink cups of coffee, three in total, stirred with sugar. Throughout, Hannah uses her Tigrinya and Brizaf speaks to us – sometimes through her older son, able to translate, often through smiles and phrases we cannot understand.

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Cup Number Three

There are moments, though, that we speak the same language. She laughs as Hannah takes photos of her son and shows them to him, his bashful smiles becoming peals of laughter. I show her pictures of my niece and nephew, 4 and 2, dressed in their Easter best and she smiles and kisses my phone. It’s the universality of the human experience, that we don’t always need the same language to communicate. She speaks to us with her food, we speak to her by our enjoyment of it: the heart of hospitality.

Much love to Hannah for always explaining Ethiopian ways to me.

Peace,

LC

 

In the Flicker: Nyiragongo, DRC

In the past few years, I’ve probably read a dozen books starring the Democratic Republic of Congo: King Leopold, Dancing in the Glory, Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, Stringer – and a dozen more where it features heavily in a supporting role. I joke that when I can’t handle reading about Rwanda and its accompanying canon of genocide reporting presented from a diversity of perspectives, I read about the DRC. It isn’t really true; there’s just much more on DRC, from a diversity of time periods, a diversity of places, and diversity of players. A country the size of Western Europe that looms over “Lilliputian” Rwanda’s western doorstep (Stearns, 2011, p. 148).

To write about the DRC and its history, whose “complexity has thwarted journalists and diplomats alike,” requires adherence to Jason Stearns’ (2011) warning: “beware of oversimplification, it will get you in trouble” (p. 16). It’s a country of incredible natural resources and an accompanying, convoluted history of double-crosses and dark players seeking the riches those resources bring. Kinshasa, the capital, is a long flight over jungle (amusing described as “broccoli fields” in the documentary Blood in the Mobile) from the east-bound Kivu provinces (Nord and Sud) which abut Lake Kivu, the divider between Rwanda and DRC. The east played host for Africa’s Great War, triggered by the Rwandan genocide in 1994, not simply one war “but at least forty or fifty different, interlocking wars” (Stearns, 2011, p. 100) which resulted in up to five million dead, depending on estimates. Without simplifying a decade-long conflict to a paragraph, today a shaky peace remains, which, “many diplomats and locals say, is more important than justice especially when the government is full of yesterday’s military leaders” (p. 146).

Today, Kivu’s unstable past is hardly a deterrent for those seeking minerals used throughout global industry. Within the past decade, rebel groups such as the Mai Mai, RCD-Goma, and FDLR (which are, by the way, Rwandan Hutu rebels) have been reported as controlling and “regulating” mining sectors within the region, skimming a revenue from the sale of the minerals and channeling that money back into the literal magazines of their causes. Blood in the Mobile (2010) purports that this mining for coltan, cassiterite, tin, and gold finds its way into “legitimate” supply chains; phone companies are reticent to admit that the admirable piece of technology, probably in your pocket or near you now, contains a little piece of Kivu.

Joseph Conrad, wrote in his seminal Heart of Darkness, “Like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker – may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling.” DRC: perhaps living in the flicker, or just outside it.

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Gran Barrier, Rwanda side

A thousand pages later, this past weekend, I crossed the border into DRC. My 24-hour trip, hardly a genuine attempt to experience the country, that began at the Gran Barrier. The barrier is the foot/auto border between Rubavu on the Rwandan side and Goma on the Congolese side, conjoined sister cities situated on the shores of placid Lake Kivu, sliced by the dividers of an international border and a vast economic divide. Even the developing world has these class divides: the reality for those who live on $4 a day, in relative stability and security (Rwanda) and those who survive, caught between rebels and resource pillagers, on $1.80 a day (DRC, both from UN Human Development Report, 2015).

On the DRC side, officials page through my passport and stamp my travel documents as I struggle through pidgin French, then point my friend and I to a closet of a room stuck to the side of the immigration building, where a nurse sits under a few Ebola and cholera posters pealing from the walls. We flash our yellow fever cards and the nurse uses an electronic thermometer held to our throats to take our temperature and then slowly copies our names, passport numbers, gender, and temperature into the ubiquitous graph-paged blue books, beloved by border guards this continent over. We are quickly released as legal entrants and climb into windowless Land Rovers, Indian Jones style, to wind through Goma proper and north of the city to our destination, settled in the heart of Virunga National Park: Nyiragongo volcano.

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Phone charge station: example of micro business at its finest

Writers love to anthropomorphize this country, with cities that become the humans they contain as they hum and throb and pulse. Sundaram (2013)  writes of his Kinshasa neighbourhood Victoire, at night, “the vitality would resurge…almost pure pleasure and excitement…dancers would move like water: slow hips, tempting” (p.9). Frenzy, chaos, humanity: from nearly two years in Rwanda, I can perceive the difference – disordered order, raw, open. Rwanda is a grid; Congo is a spiral, or ten spirals bouncing off each other, fractals spinning and churning.

The Rover cuts quickly down the road, Goma flying past the open sides of the truck. I was struck by the darkness – not the people, not the buildings painted bright with jewel tones and murals, not even the landscape, electric green under a brilliant blue sky – but the amount of igneous rock present, as if the city was blanketed in a charcoal-coloured snow. In 2002, Nyiragongo erupted and two rivers of lava sluiced through the city, a blaze of destruction that hardened into the dark volcanic rock that now lines this place, darkening its color pallete. You see inhabitants’ ingenuity, co-opting the rock for fences, walls, or even just stacked up between houses and buildings to clear it from the roads and gardens. Though it’s been fourteen years since the eruption, it still lies in massive heaps, haphazard hills when not methodically stacked and woven into walls. It’s continued presence belays the hand-hewn reality of this place; I can’t imagine bulldozers doing this clearing; the lava flows were most certainly broken up and moved by hand, one irregular crenelated rock at a time.

And then, the city falls away and we are bordered by Virunga on my left side, the volcano emerging from behind a curtain of cloud. A park on the edge of this civilisation, fighting a different battle but with the same objective: survival.  Virunga National Park was established in 1925 under Belgian colonial rule and originally called Prince Albert’s Park. The park is one of only three places left in the world where mountain gorillas can be found in their natural habitat: the other two are Rwanda and Uganda, within this verdant triangle of forest area. The park’s cadre of Park Rangers protect these animals and other wildlife from poachers and violent conflict, and the edges of the park from the encroachment of groups who would seek to destroy its natural beauty and incredible biodiversity for the sake of oil, minerals, or land, illustrated in the 2014 Netflix documentary Virunga.

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Signs for the Nyiragongo trailhead: Prince Albert was the name under colonial rule (hence the bullet holes – opinions expressed in violent form) 

We – myself and sixteen others from the U.S., Canada, and parts of Europe – begin our trek with Virunga rangers at the front, middle, and end of the group. They are dressed in proud uniforms, emblazoned with the park logo, and are slung with packs on their backs and AK-47s across their chests. To hike with armed guards is standard this part of the world: here in DRC, it is to protect you from poachers and rebels.

They are very quiet and succinct in their directions to us. Only a week ago, two of their colleagues were brutally murdered in a conflict between the rangers and the Mai Mai rebel group: two rangers, Fidèle Mulonga Mulegalega and Venant Mumbler Muvesevese, were killed, and another is missing.

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One of our rangers, Kalashnikov in hand

But when you are in a group of peers, hiking toward an open lava lake that inspires a multitude of Lord of the Rings jokes (“to Mount Doom, Frodo!”), it’s easy to forget all of these layers of context – poverty, war, conflict minerals, poaching. It all disappears in the quiet of the place, only the laboured breathing of hikers, the igneous rocks crushing together as you move across them, the wind and later driving rain among the tree branches, the occasional far-off helicopter.

I’m no outdoors adventure writer and haven’t the skill to electrify the sweaty, rain-soaked, sometimes painful details of the hike (and sometimes full body clamber) to the top. The route was long – five hours, broken into five segments, each progressively more challenging with incline and condition of the path. The final segment, up the side of the volcano to the crater summit, was taken a few steps at a time, neck down and eyes constantly forced a step ahead, the sharp 45 degree angle of the mountain in the peripheral vision. But at the top, the moment of glory: freeing myself from my backpack, adding extra layers against the biting cold, and surveying the view from the edge of the crater.

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The crater with the lava lake in the middle 

Within the past month, reports came of a new vent in the crate – but no “lateral movement” of lava, meaning it isn’t looking to erupt yet. The lake is a depression within the crater’s ledge, and the new lava vents form pools (or so we can observe) on the higher ledge above the depression. They shift and change, the top cooling and then the edges lighting fire and churning, pulling the cooled sections back into the lava to reheat and recool again – fifth grade science, before our eyes. In photographs, it appears as a shimmering, neon red puddle that inhales and exhales, expands and decreases.

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Virunga Mist, a Rwandan beer, with a background of Virunga Smoke

We stayed the night and woke early to see the lake blaze in the dark, an epic campfire with the same mesmerising quality. From a bench on the edge of the crater, the cold permeating all of my layers, I watched the crust form and disintegrate, occasional flares and splashes of molten orange. The smoke rose above it, a ruby glow in the darkness. Behind our back, the sun rose over the mountain range, slowly unveiling the layers of mountaintops, the clouds forming a blanket and obscuring the valley below us. The lights of Goma and the edge of Kivu was visible, a sprinkling far in the distance.

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Before sunrise on Nyiragongo

An hour after sunrise, we begin the descent, a much quicker pace than the laborious climb. The impact of each downward step, across often loose volcanic rock, resonates in my knees and thighs. We move along the path from the open low scrub near the summit to the sparse cover of trees and bushes then finally the dense forest as the ground levels out. We are packed back into trucks, snaked again down dirt roads and through Goma, and deposited at our starting point: the Gran Barrier. No injuries, no eruptions, no attacks, nothing real to fear in the end.

Places like this, seeking an identity beyond the one that history has hoisted upon them, need tourists. Ultimately, you should visit this place. The danger risk for tourists is low – and perhaps more is at stake if the tourism dries up: if no one visits, if no one cares, is there a reason to live and die for the protection of this place?

The reward is high: to see the earth opened up, the stuff that is at the very centre of our world smoke in an open pit. To see this: another, brighter perspective on this wide, vast continent in itself, the DRC.

Sources/Stuff Worth Watching

Blood in the Mobile: Danish 2010 documentary on the connections between smartphones and the conflict minerals sourced from East DRC.

Stearns, J. (2011) Dancing in the glory of monsters: The collapse of the Congo and the great war of Africa. New York: Public Affairs.

Sundaram, A. (2013) Stringer: A reporter’s journey in the Congo. New York: Doubleday.

Virunga: British 2014 documentary available through Netflix which details Virunga National Park’s conservation efforts in the face of continued rebel violence and exploitation by Western oil companies.

Ghana: A Few Frames

Mid-June, I had finished all of my projects and classes; grades were assigned, logged, and submitted; house was packed and I was ready to go home. For a few days before my departure from the African continent (at least for a few months), my housemate Annie and I decided to take a brief sojourn to the Western swath of the continent: Ghana. We found a direct flight from Kigali to Accra, booked a few hotels, and jetted off for five days to experience the Gold Coast: Ghana, the first African country to win independence from their colonial overlords. With plans of more posts to come, here are a few frames of a few days spent up and down Ghana’s Atlantic coast.

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Cape Coast Castle, a few hours West of Accra on a coastal road, was constructed by the Swedish (begin in the seventeeth century) and British. During the British slave trading years, even after the slave trade was abolished in the colonies, slaves stayed here for 3 weeks to three months during the centuries of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, forced into prison-cell dungeons with little light, air, or food: the cruel beginning of a live to be spent in slavery. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visited in 2009 as Michelle has been able to trace her family history back to the region. 

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The Cape Coast Castle courtyard from above: a line of cannons to protect the fort (and it’s slave-trading interests) from competing European powers.

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Elmina Castle, built by the Portuguese before Columbus sailed for the new world. Originally titled Castelo de São Jorge da Mina. “Elmina,” the name of the city, is the local pronunciation of the word “el mina,” Portuguese for the mine: the Gold Coast received its name from the rich gold deposits that bloated the coffers of European powers including Portugal, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, and, of course, Great Britain. 

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The Door of No Return: not even tall enough for me to enter without ducking my head. This opening in the stone was the last station a slave would pass before being packed onto a ship and sent to the colonies in the New World. This would be their last glimpse of their lands. The exit was made intentionally small to control the flow of slaves out of the castle and allow the slavers to count each one.

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We were fortunate to be able to witness a performance art piece staged at Elmina Castle during our stay in the area. A group of volunteer artists recreated twelve hours in the life of a slave imprisoned in the castle, dressed in the scant clothes afforded to captured Africans. They spent a cold night on the stone dungeon floors without access to food, toilets, or the needed mosquito nets and bug spray that protect us from malaria and mosquito bites. Here, they line up with candles before entering the dungeon. 

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In the dungeon, clutching the bars, the scrapping of chains on lime-covered stone. It’s as if we were transported back three hundred years: an African, dressed in rags and imprisoned against his will. Me, white and of European descent, free to observe his captivity and exploitation. It was powerful reminder to me, personally, of the privilege that I enjoy, my citizenship as an American. 

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In Accra: colonial legacy in architecture. After the end of the slave trade and later freedom of slaves throughout the colonies, the British remained in the region, claiming the region as the Gold Coast colony. Ghana is significant as it was the first colony to gain independence from the ruling colonial power, which came for the nation in 1957.

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Ghana’s leader in the transition years and after independence was Kwame Nkrumah. We visited his mausoleum and museum, near the seaside in Accra. Statues of horn-blowers announce the presence of the leader.  

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Statue of Nkrumah with the mausoleum in the background.

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Black Star Gate in Accra, built in honor of the 1957 independence and founding of Ghana. The Black Star, found on the flag, is the national symbol 

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Kente weaving: fabric that is made of strips that are handwoven and joined together. Each pattern and color choice has meaning and tells a story. This piece is found at the National Museum in Accra.

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Kente weaving in progress: one strip on the loom

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Accra’s architecture is a spattering of colonial British, mid-century modern and today’s Chinese-built glass/cement monsters. Here is a gorgeous angle of the National Theatre in Accra. 

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#TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou – Jamestown lighthouse in the Jamestown fishing village, southwest Accra

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Kakum National Forrest, a few hours west from Accra: a lush jungle with a walkway that takes you through the canopy. 

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Annie and I on the canopy walkway, Kakum National Forrest

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Annie and a massive onyina tree, probably thirty feet WIDE: behind her is the trunk of the tree

Ghana: A Few Details 

Travel in Africa is often a challenge in the planning stages- guidebooks go out of date quickly and few sites have websites that give prices. Thus, here are a few details from our 30 June-5 July 2015 trip for anyone interested in Gold Coast exploration:

Accra Museums and Sites: We went to the National Museum (40 GH₵), Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum and Memorial Park (10GH₵), and National Museum of Science and Technology (first two floors were free for an art exhibition).

Castles: Cape Coast Castle (40 GH₵) and Elmina (St. George) Castle (40 GH₵)

Transport: A bus from Accra (Kaneshie Bus Terminal) to Cape Coast (14-15 GH₵ each way), exclusive taxi from Cape Coast to Elmina (20 GH₵), shared taxi from Elmina to Cape Coast (3 GH₵).

Kakum National Forrest: Park entrance (2 GH₵), canopy walkway tour (40 GH₵), nature hike (40 GH₵)

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Happy adventuring!