About All Those Guns, Here’s An Idea

Last Saturday, I’d planned to spend the day cleaning the apartment while listening to TV coverage of the March to Save Lives. I hadn’t so much as picked up a dust rag before the action on the screen caught my attention and held me transfixed for the rest of the day. Also in several instances, brought me to tears. It was such an impressive display by young people — teenagers and younger — brought together from all over the country, from inner cities and affluent suburbs, and places in between, representing different races and ethnicities, all united in the common conviction that gun violence must stop. They give hope for the future.

In the days after the March, praise was effusive for the young organizers and guarded optimism expressed that at long last some changes could possibly come about. I thought about all that lethal hardware, more than enough to arm every man, woman and child in the nation, with plenty left over to inflict on other countries. What could be done with it all?

And then I remembered the Flame of Peace Monument I saw in Timbuctu. It had been erected to mark the end of the Tuareg uprising in the 1990s. The Tuareg are descendants of nomadic  Berber camel drivers and traders who once roamed the Sahara and the Sahel, that great swath of Africa between the Sahara Desert and the green and forested areas to the south. They are dark-skinned with Caucasian features and frequently dress in long robes, called boubous, and with distinctive turbans that wind around the head and include a veil, called a tagelmoust that extends to cover the rest of the face. (I assumed the head-and-face-covering was designed as protection against the swirling desert sand, but research informed me that there was much more to it. Presumably, it also accommodates the social requirement of not showing one’s face to a person of higher rank.)

In the 1970s and ’80s, extended droughts caused huge losses of livestock among the Tuaregs who felt the national government was not doing enough to help their area of Mali. Civil war was averted when the Tuaregs were given more prominence in government and civil service positions. A ceremonial burning took place of 3,000 weapons, many of which are incorporated into the peace monument.

So what about that? Let the peaceful gun owners keep their firearms (properly purchased and licensed by those of an agreed-upon age) for hunting, target shooting, trap and skeet competitions, and for  those who feel the need, protection for themselves and their families. Consign the weapons of war to the military. And all others? Follow the Tauregs’ example: Destroy them or turn them into art.


Note: You can read about my entire trip to Timbuctu in African Tales on this website.

Sorrowing for Burkina Faso

Things were looking hopeful for the West African country of Burkina Faso. Since gaining independence in 1960, the former French colony was ruled primarily by the military and experienced several coups. Last year, the 27-year rule of a former president ended after a mass uprising and protests, and a democratically elected president was inaugurated on December 29.

And then, on January 15, terrorists attacked a hotel and café, setting off explosions and targeting guests and employees. In all, 20 people were killed and dozens more wounded. The North African Branch of Al Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for the attack, is the same group that held 170 people hostage and killed 22 at a hotel in Bamako, Mali in November.

Along with the rest of the world, I mourn the senseless loss of those lives, but I also feel such profound sadness for the people of those desperately poor countries trying to build lives for themselves. The New York Times explains that while tourists and business people who escaped last week’s carnage can hurry away on the first available plane, the workers who are lucky enough to hold such jobs can’t consider leaving no matter how frightening the situation becomes. “There aren’t many jobs here,” one employee observed.

Formerly known as Upper Volta, Burkina Faso’s name means Land of Incorruptible People. Since meeting some of those people during a 14-day visit to the country in 2004, I have been pulling for them from afar and rejoicing with each new development. And now this. So very sad.

African Tales, the compilation of stories from the six African countries I visited with my cousin, Dorothy Woodson, retired curator of African collections at Yale, is progressing distressingly slowly on this website. But with recent news events taking me back to those wonderful experiences, I was re-inspired to write more about the Land of Incorruptible People. The latest addition, about Burkina Faso, is “The Festival of the Masks.”

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Rhythms of Senegal

Doudou N’diaye Rose, a world renowned drummer from Senegal died recently, and reading Doudou Rose 2about him in The New York Times took me back to a visit to that country that my cousin Dorothy Woodson and I made in 2004. As curator at the time of African collections in the Yale University library, Dorothy was on an acquisitions trip; I was just tagging along.

All three of the West African countries we visited on that trip – Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso — have vibrant and thriving performance traditions but I’m afraid we did not take advantage of their offerings. Hot humid days traveling from one non-governmental agency to another and one bookstore to another, frequently needing to return to an ATM for the cash that all enterprises required, and lugging stacks of books and periodicals to DHL for shipping back to New Haven left us in no condition for an evening on the town. Besides, as middle-aged women traveling alone we hesitated to venture very far unaccompanied into dark, dusty streets. And it was after all a business trip. So we’d drink some wine, eat some dinner and rest up for the next day.

And so we never experienced an evening of Senegalese drumming such as that performed by Mr. Rose, named a “living human treasure” by the United Nations Educational. Scientific and Cultural Organization. The Times called him “the country’s chief drum major, a kind of Pied Piper of Senegalese drumming culture and literally the father of its continuing prominence.” In addition to fostering the tradition at home, he also performed around the world, appearing “onstage or on the bill with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gilespie, the Rolling Stones and Peter Gabriel.”

The closest we came to live musical entertainment in Senegal was the kora, a twenty-four 123-2350_IMGstringed instrument made from a large casaba rind, that was played by a cheerful man in a restaurant we frequented. Our repeated visits to the restaurant taught us that the preferred method for tipping this musician was to drop coins into the hole in the back of the instrument.

The full extent of our experiences in Senegal can be seen in my book, African Tales, on this website.

Photos: lemonde.fr;p.nieder

Do Not Feed the Baboons!

It’s the first of the month and as I turn the page on The Nature Conservancy’s wall calendar, I see them: three baboons. Just like the ones I did not see in South Africa. These guys, photographed in western Tanzania, appear to be working at opening some sort of shellfish from Lake Tanganyika, which the caption tells me is the world’s longest lake, holding “17 percent of our planet’s fresh water and (boasting) more than 300 fish species.” Lucky baboons.baboon in grass

At the Cape of Good Hope, which I visited with my cousin Dorothy, the warning signs were everywhere — “Baboons are Dangerous and Attracted by Food.” I’d seen similar signs atop Table Mountain towering 3,000 feet above Cape Town where we’d gone earlier in the week — traveling in a rotating gondola named The Flying Dutchman, me seated on a central perch, white-knuckled hands gripping a metal post and eyes tightly shut; I understand the view is magnificent.

Dorothy had told me of picnicking on the beach with her daughters when they lived in Cape Town and being watched by baboons hovering nearby. I was intrigued and wanted to see the animals myself. So everywhere we went in Table Mountain National Park, I kept hoping to catch a glimpse of a baboon and lamenting the fact that the closest I was coming to one was the ubiquitous signs. In the gift shop I even bought a refrigerator magnet that reads “Beware Baboons. Do Not Feed.” I guess I was being annoying, voicing my fear that I’d have to add baboons to my list of Animals I Never Saw in Africa because my cousin finally ducked into the gift shop and emerged with a small baboon figurine which she presented to me – “So you’ll finally shut up about baboons.”

South Africa 0052In the park flyer I read that baboons on the Cape Peninsula are protected, the only ones with that designation in all of Africa. You are warned to keep a safe distance from the animals, move away slowly if one approaches you, and hide your food. Feeding a baboon will get you fined. All of this information proved to be moot as I never did see one. And I thought I never had seen one anywhere ever until my daughter remembered that baboons had swarmed over our car as we drove through a wild animal park in New Jersey many years ago, defecating all over the car windshield. That memory removed any intrigue that might have existed before.

Dorothy confirmed that baboons are not very nice animals. But then this picture showed up in my e-mail. Go figure.

baboon on a bike

The Last Time I Was in Ouagadougou…

Well actually, it was the only time. But how many times in my life will I get the chance to say those words? Between Ouaga as it’s called for short and Bobo-Dioulasso, I was in the country of Burkina Faso a total of 14 days. You can read about why by hopping over to my book, African Tales. This blog post is a shameless attempt to get you to do just that.

I bring up Ouagadougou because it’s in the news today. The New York Times has a piece about “tens of thousands” marching through Burkina Faso’s capital city yesterday demonstrating against a proposed change to the West African country’s constitution that would allow President Blaise Compaoré to run again next year. He’s already been in power 27 years, and the people are saying “enough is enough.” Some people threw rocks. The police fired tear gas. See how similar all our countries are?

Our own country went through a similar controversy over presidential term limits back in 1944 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to a fourth term. Afterward, our country also said “enough is enough” and in 1951 passed the 22nd Amendment barring a president from serving more than two full terms. I was alive then but not paying attention to such things. These days, both the country and the president seem grateful to have the four or eight years come to a conclusion.

Burkina Faso is a usually peaceful place with friendly people who have lived since 1991 under a constitutional democracy “in theory at least,” as one writer put it, “if not always effectively in practice.” The nation, formerly known as Upper Volta, experienced a number of military coups following independence from France, the most recent of which put the current president in power.

Africa On My Mind

The world lurches from one crisis to another. The media struggles to continue keeping us informed. And in the process, ongoing coverage of particular news stories drops from view. In my case, it’s been news about Mali and especially Timbuktu, so that is why The Guardian’s photo essay by Sean Smith and accompanying stories by Alex Duval Smith was such a welcome addition to my inbox.

When they say that travel broadens a person, I guess it means that it expands your interest and understanding of a place and its people. If you were lucky enough to actually meet people in another country, as opposed to just glimpsing them from the window of a tour bus, the experience stays with you forever. And even if you didn’t maintain contact with those people, your concern for them and hope for their well-being remains.

When rebel jihadists invaded Mali’s northern desert region and fundamentalist Islamists announced their intention to impose Sharia law, one of my first thoughts was for the cute and giggly teenage girls who walked along Timbuktu’s dusty main street with my cousin and me. What would become of them and other women and girls we met? The fact that the militants have been routed and peace somewhat restored is only partly comforting because you know it could happen all over again when the French and United Nations troops depart.

When I read about militants seizing and destroying ancient documents I thought of the earnest young man at the Ahmed Baba Center for Historical Research who described the library’s efforts to preserve brittle manuscripts written in various languages and convert their contents to digital and other formats. They were hoping to obtain a university internship in the west for an African student to learn about modern preservation techniques. How horrible it must have been for scholars to see those precious materials, to which they’d devoted their lives, being carried off. But then I read later how not just librarians but ordinary citizens of Timbuktu took it upon themselves to hide documents, even burying some in the ground during the uprising, to save them. Stories like that came afterward and were inspiring, as are The Guardian’s depictions of a people persevering against unimaginable challenges.

Returning from five weeks in three west African countries and later, from three weeks in southern Africa, I wrote stories about my experiences because that’s what writers do. But, much as it would have pleased me to see these stories in a published book, I did not feel I had the right to do so. I was not presented as a writer to the people I met and photographed. I was just “Dorothy’s cousin” who was along for the experiences. So I’m putting the stories here on this website of unpublished material, having started with Timbuktu, with more to follow. I hope you enjoy reading them and find the experience “broadening.”

Nelson Mandela 1918-2013

nelson mandelaThe world is celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, who died at age 95 in South Africa, and I am remembering a wonderful week I had in Cape Town in 2009. It was June – autumn in that part of the globe – and the choppy water in Table Bay caused cancellation again and again of the scheduled boat to Robben Island. It took four tries, but on the last day before my departure, I was able to get there and stand in the same prison cell where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years’ incarceration.

This was my second trip to Africa with my cousin, Dorothy Woodson, who is curator of the African Collection at Yale University Library. In 1994, she had been a Fulbright Fellow in Cape Town, charged with sorting through and archiving voluminous boxes of written materials of Mandela and other political prisoners from Robben Island. She described the experience this week in the Yale News as follows:

“What a heady task this was. Reading messages written on little pieces of toilet paper that the members of the African National Congress ‘High Command’ wrote to each other, revealed rich insights into the daily lives of this most unusual gathering of men…(Mandela’s) leadership, even under prison conditions and restrictions, was clearly evident as he encouraged his colleagues to pursue further education in the form of correspondence courses and guided their political education by the reading of scholarly works. ‘Robben Island University’, as it was called, created a new cadre of intellectuals subscribing to Mandela’s goal of creating a non-racial South Africa.”

In the course of her project, Dorothy had spent great deal of time on the island or traveling back and forth between the island and the mainland. It was understandable that she had no interest this time in accompanying me on my one and only visit there. Besides, she was in Cape Town to attend a book fair. I tagged along with her to several sessions there and elsewhere, including several social occasions where her large circle of friends and associates were anxious to see and entertain her.

Everywhere I went I marveled at the diverse mixture of people and thought how well Mandela’s hopes were being realized. It is a work in progress of course, and I was not brave enough to face a visit to any of the all black townships where people still live in poverty. I glimpsed a vast expanse of slums with their shacks and shanties from the roadway, and while a tour such as the guidebook suggested would bring needed funds to the area, I could not do it. I did, however, buy intricate beadwork done by women in the townships and sold for them by a non-profit organization. One piece, of which I bought several, was a magnetized portrait of Barack Obama. Afterward, I entered a nearby shop where the shopkeeper announced almost immediately, “I LOVE your President!” “Yes,” I said, “so do a great many of us. Also his wife, Michelle.” “Oh, I don’t care about her,” she said. “But him I love.” I laughed and showed her my bead portraits, one of which remains on our refrigerator door.

Both the President and Mrs. Obama will be in South Africa for Mandela’s funeral services. I hope that shopkeeper gets a glimpse of them, if only on TV.

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[Photos: top –  plus.google.com; bottom – Mr. Apartheid Puppet created by a German anti-apartheid organization, on display at Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island]