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I joined Twitter because of frequent flyer miles.

No really.  It’s true.

I kept trying to use my miles and failing, due to blackout dates or not having enough points to go where I needed to. The use-em-or-lose-em deadline came up on one particular airline, so I accepted an offer to sign up for some magazines. In addition to a hefty increase in junk mail, I began receiving Wired Magazine – and my synapses started firing at a million miles per hour.

This was around 2006. I’d find myself suddenly having breathless conversations with the few people around who would listen about technology and the science of networks and other similarly nerdy stuff. This really wasn’t like me, but then, I was late to the game for a couple of reasons: for one, I spent the 1990’s in El Salvador and there was not much Internet or Wired magazine available there at the time. Secondly, I’d always been much more of an alternative music/ development/ social sciences geek than a computer / video game geek.

But something had changed since high school and college. There was Radiohead for starters… but on top of that, it became strikingly clear to me that things were aligning in a way I hadn’t seen before. Tech could really have a social purpose.

In Wired, I started reading about the idea that the Internet was horizontal, that things could be free, that people could collaborate in self-organized nodes, that social media could bypass ‘official’ pronouncements and allow alternative voices and ‘citizen journalists’ to be heard. I started thinking about how many of the principles and philosophies behind social media networks were closely aligned with those underpinning participatory approaches to development:  self-organizing, community-led processes and self-management, accountability and transparency, ownership, learning by doing, building on local knowledge and localized expertise. I got hooked on trying to link some of the ideas that were fueling social media and online networking with the work that the organization that had been employing me for several years (Plan) was facilitating with young people and communities. I started reading blogs about technology and aid, and I began writing one too.

Over time, my initial interest broadened to how new technologies — not only social media networks, but also new tools like mobile phones and GPS units and digital maps and all kinds of other new tools and platforms – could be put at the service of community development.

In large part, the reason for the branching out and wider perspective was that in December 2008, a couple of development and technology leaders/ bloggers/ mentors (Ken Banks and Erik Hersman) gave me a suggestion. “Get on Twitter,” they said,” if you really want to keep up with what is happening.”  I was wary of the platform, so instead of my real name, I used the name of a kitten we used to have – @meowtree  - also a bit of a play on my last name.

Quickly I realized there was nothing to fear. Twitter opened up a whole world at the professional and personal level. I found all kinds of people from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds who were discussing, debating, trying, failing, learning, blogging, and collaborating on a variety of projects related to technology, human rights, global development, community work and other fields I am very interested in.

Joining Twitter was like signing up to get an online degree in a very specialized field, where everyone was both teacher and learner. The quantity of information and knowledge shared among practitioners and theoreticians in my field and related areas was infinite, as were the ranges of opinions.

Through Twitter I’ve had the opportunity to work on voluntary side projects and connect with experts and practitioners for research and professional or personal advice. Sometimes a number of us join together to get across a certain point that we feel strongly about, and it ends up getting to the ears of someone who’s making major decisions or it gets brought up by individuals in personal conversation, spreading the ideas offline. A group of Twitter folks who are part of the ‘Smart Aid’ collaborative recently conducted a survey to find out more about who reads aid and development blogs, for example, and what they do with the information there.

Not just a news and professional education platform, Twitter is also a friend and colleague network. Over the past 3 years, I’ve met a few hundred new people in real life that I initially connected with on Twitter.

It’s a great feeling when you are chatting with someone at a conference, and they look down at your name tag (where you’ve penned in your Twitter handle with a Sharpie) and exclaim “Wait! You’re @meowtree!? I’m @so-and-so!” You’ve only just met, but because you’ve connected on Twitter, you already feel like old friends. You can immediately jump into a conversation and continue on with a topic you’d been batting around on Twitter or make plans to partner up on a work-related initiative or simply discuss the fact that you both like the same kind of beer.

Last week a colleague alerted me (via Twitter, naturally) that I’d been named by the Guardian as one of the “20 Global Development Twitterati” to follow. It was unexpected, and I’m hugely honored.  The Guardian’s Global Development team does fantastic and highly credible work facilitating forward-thinking debates and discussions around development. Being listed alongside the 19 other “Twitterati” is indeed a privilege, as they are some of the leading voices in the aid and development debate.

So if you have an interest in development and/or new technology, you can either accumulate a ton of unusable frequent flyer miles and follow my convoluted path, or you can skip all that in-between and simply “Get on Twitter!” Once you do, be sure to follow the Guardian’s list of 20 Global Development Twitterati. But don’t stop there – the Twitterverse is full of brilliant minds and voices that you won’t want to miss if you are serious about engaging in a stimulating global development conversation.

Note: this post originally appears on PlanUSA’s blog.

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My experience trying to get to and from beautiful and restful Costa Rica for a family holiday using Orbitz has been entirely depressing. Flying these days is akin to trudging across a barren desert full of rattlesnakes and mirages, only made mentally and emotionally possible by holding firmly in your mind the hope that you might finally reach your destination. It didn’t used to be this way.

What used to be the ‘friendly skies’ is now more commonly referred to by most of my peers and colleagues as ‘airport purgatory’. I can remember back when you were treated like a paying customer. Nowadays once you enter airport purgatory you’re treated like a potential criminal/potential terrorist and a burden that needs to be schlepped from one side of the world to the other as cheaply as possible without much regard to your own comfort. It’s sad. If I could get to where I need to go by horseback, train, bus, bicycle, boat or foot in a reasonable time I certainly would.

Before entering airport purgatory, you have to spend some time in the ‘antechamber of airport purgatory’: purchasing tickets. Oftentimes, due to weather or some other issue, you have to make changes to the ticket, and you go swiftly from the antechamber, to airport purgatory, to full on travel hell where you have to deal with ‘customer service’. You wish you could stab yourself in the eyes with a corkscrew rather than be held there listening to hideous music, pre-recorded messages, attempts to up-sell you something, and travel hell agents who don’t really help you with anything.

For the past 10 years or so, I’ve allowed Orbitz to guide me through the antechamber of airport purgatory. I’ve gotten my tickets through them. It’s been fine as long as nothing out of the ordinary happens — eg, if the weather is fine, there are no delays, plans don’t change, and I don’t miss any connections. Unfortunately, things out of the ordinary do happen, and increasingly it seems I’m spending a lot of time with Orbitz in travel hell. That’s what happened on this last trip.

I can only remember 2 other instances that I’ve felt as dis-empowered and pent-up angry as I did when dealing with Orbitz this time around:  1) when visiting someone in prison and 2) when working with immigration officials in a country under a military dictatorship. (Coming in a close third is being on the phone with Dell’s customer service about a faulty computer….)

This recent experience in full on travel hell with Orbitz, combined with lesser annoyances throughout the past couple years has me so totally done with the airline system and its intermediaries that I do anything in my power not to fly. Unfortunately that impacts on my ability to do my job so I’m not always successful at avoiding it. Not even the environmental movement has been able to move me as emotionally far towards flight avoidance as the airline system and all its corollary parts.

Since I’m still really pissed off at being royally screwed by Orbitz, I thought I’d write down a few things that I wish I had done to avoid the pain of travel booking with them. I just sent off a long email to Orbitz and will be contacting them on paper too, so I will spare you the details. It’s probably not productive anyway to re-hash it all. I’d rather try to make something positive out of this to add this to my ‘Travel Tips for my Female Friends‘ post as an additional tip from someone who spends a lot of time traveling and arranging travel logistics.

The problem with Orbitz:

1) Orbitz doesn’t seem to keep any record of their interactions with customers. This means that every time you call, you have to re-explain your whole story. I used to work in customer service and we had a system where we stored notes and details on each call so that if a person called a second or third time, there was a record on file and anyone on the team could help. I’m blown away that each time I called Orbitz, they said they had no record of anything and I had to start over explaining from zero.

2) Orbitz treats the customer as if the customer is always wrong. They try to make it seem as if they are actually helping you on the phone, when in actuality you could do the same thing for yourself by calling the airlines directly. In the process, they keep saying they are ‘very sorry’ but never actually resolve anything for you. If you press them, they actually become rude. When I worked in customer service, and even back in high school when I was working retail at the mall, we were not allowed to deal in a less than friendly way with customers unless they were yelling or swearing at us. It’s bad for business. We were trained to be calm and polite. Not the case with Orbitz. I was not yelling or swearing or being unreasonable, and I spent no less than 14 hours on the phone with them in the past few months trying to resolve different aspects of the same tickets (not to mention time on emails, time wasted in airports and the night my kids and I slept on the cold floor at the entrance of the San Jose airport). That plus the fact that I have had an Orbitz account for over 10 years and I book tickets through them several times a year should flag me as a customer to treat with care. Apparently none of that matters to Orbitz. They were still rude to me.

Prepare for my trip? You mean the one that was cancelled back in October?

3) Orbitz’ systems are not synced with what is actually happening with your tickets and the airlines. With this one trip from Boston to Costa Rica, lack of synchronization caused me major problems and ended up quadrupling the cost of my trip – something I was not prepared for but didn’t have any way around by the time I was stuck with 2 kids in San Jose on New Year’s Day. First, I was informed by automated email repeatedly in August and September that my tickets were being refunded due to an airline going out of business. Each time I called customer service about it I was told that only one leg of my trip was being cancelled and refunded and not to be concerned with the other portion, it was still good. I was advised to purchase a one-way ticket to make up for the portion from the airlines that went bankrupt. This in the end was not true, the round trip ticket had actually been cancelled and refunded, and I ended up with the 3 one-way return tickets I had purchased and no outbound flights [Note: this happened while the tickets were under the auspices of http://www.cheaptickets.com. I found out, after going up the 'customer service' ladder and being referred over to Orbitz, they are owned by and share 'customer service' with Orbitz]. Orbitz subsequently seemed to get this all worked out. But then they continued to send “Prepare for your Trip” emails for cancelled tickets on the same flight path, same date and same airline as my valid tickets, causing confusion over what our actual flight time was. Due to this confusion, we showed up at the airport for a flight that had been cancelled and refunded months ago instead of for the earlier flight we were supposed to be on, and Orbitz was not willing to do anything to help us get on another flight unless we bore the total cost and waited up to 3 days for available flights on the original airline.

My recommendations of how to avoid getting screwed by Orbitz:

1) Don’t ever try to fix anything via Orbitz after you buy your ticket. You will call Orbitz expecting them to help you since you paid them a fee already for booking. They will put you on hold and call the airline and tell you the same thing the airline would. Sometimes the airline can actually do something for you that Orbitz can’t. So just book directly with the airline and deal with the airline directly. You may not get any better service but at least you are working directly with the company not an intermediary. Don’t bother with Orbitz. Be sure to have the international number of the airline with you when you travel.

2) Use Orbitz to find flights but never book via Orbitz. Once you book, Orbitz will pass everything over to the airline anyway, but then the airline can blame Orbitz for screw ups, Orbitz blames the airline, and you get stuck in the middle. It’s probably better to deal directly with the airlines as they have more information anyway about their own flights, and may want to retain you as a customer.

3) Just skip Orbitz altogether and find flights on Kayak, then book directly with the airline or via a real live travel agent in your area who you can hold accountable. Pay the travel agent the $30 instead of Orbitz. You’ll be helping the local economy and you know who they are when things go screwy. It kills me to say that since I do everything online and it’s so easy to find a ticket and click “purchase” but I’m realizing it’s worth the extra time at the beginning to save the time and increased costs later.

4) If you ever have a question or a claim for Orbitz, talk to them by chat and save a copy of the chat session. Then when they tell you something different each time, you can let them know that you actually have a copy of what was discussed as backup, and that you’re happy to share it with them to prove your point. This has gotten me further than working by phone where you have no way to keep a record of what they are telling you.

In the end, air travel will probably continue to be some variation of hell. The ticket wars are heating up lately as Delta and American Airlines are pulling their flights off of sites like Orbitz, and Expedia has fought back by allegedly making American flights difficult to find on their site.  They all purport to be ‘thinking of consumers,’ but that seems like a load of bull to me. They are thinking of their own piece of the pie. Maybe they could think about offering a decent experience to travelers and drawing in customers that way?

In 2011, I predict that purchasing airline tickets and getting to your destination will continue to suck. But maybe you can make it a little better by taking a few of the precautionary steps above.

Update: Ahhh, wonderful response from Orbitz to my lengthy email and a generous $50 voucher for my troubles. They say that I contacted the airlines directly (not true) and that “Orbitz was never notified of these cancellations, and therefore, was unaware.” That’s funny, considering the email below:

Uh huh... "Orbitz was never notified of these cancellations, and therefore, was unaware."

Update #2: Ah lovely lovely Orbitz. After appearing that they were going to help me and getting my hopes up, they’ve come back now and “for my confusion” they are giving me three $100 vouchers to use on, yes you guessed it, Orbitz. They “deeply regret each of my disappointing experiences.” I feel oh so much better. Not.

Related post on Wait… What?

Travel tips for my female friends

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Clare and I

14 years ago today it was a chilly December morning in Barrio Candelaria, San Salvador. I’d spent the night before doing something mundane yet extraordinary… giving birth to a baby girl. She was still a little blue that morning, having had a tough time making it through to the light of day. Being born when you weigh 10.5 pounds is not an easy thing for a baby, or for a mother. But she was nursing and we had her wrapped up in a warm blanket and a little hat.

Niña Lita, my elderly midwife, stopped by around 7 a.m. that morning to bathe the baby, Clare, in the customary rose and rue to ward off any evil spirits or bad vibes.  She had come back early in the morning rather than waiting till later because she was concerned about us. The night before she was worried that neither of us would survive. She didn’t say so of course, but it was clear from her eyes and the lines of concern on her face as she helped us through the short, 4 hour labor.

I had gone to work on the 13th, the last day before Christmas break. My stomach was so big it was hard to eat or breathe. The baby was taking up all the possible space in my abdomen. I grabbed the bus home as usual, made dinner, read my son his bedtime story, and got ready to sleep. Around 11 I felt the first labor pains and called Niña Lita. She had attended me with my son Daniel (see my 18 years post) and had been coming around every month to ‘sobar‘ me – massage my stomach – and check in on how I was doing. I’d been to the ‘real’ doctor a few times also, but the pervasive medical approach in El Salvador at the time was a mix of fear and pharmaceuticals and that wasn’t my thing. So my pre-natal care was pretty infrequent and I was mostly just going through the motions.

As with Daniel’s birth almost 5 years earlier, I had decided to have my baby at home in the small room attached to our bedroom. We didn’t have the money for me to go to a private hospital, and the public hospital horror stories had me turned off. I wanted a natural birth with my family nearby. I wanted to breastfeed immediately and keep the baby close at all times – things that the public hospitals didn’t promote at the time.

Niña Lita arrived around midnight with her daughter A., a registered nurse who owned a hair salon down the street (and who had a mafioso for a husband – I learned last time I was in El Salvador that A. and her husband are in prison.) She made me some cinnamon tea to help speed up the labor, and I promptly threw it up. It was freezing in the house and the power was being funky so we relied on the flickering lightbulb and kept the candles handy. My mother-in-law was next door, I later found out, awake and vigilant, lighting candles to la Virgen and on her knees praying for a safe birth. She later said she’d had a bad feeling. My husband and Daniel were in the next room, dozing off and waiting.

Labor came hard and fast, but then the pains stopped despite the fact that the baby hadn’t arrived. She had crowned but she was stuck. I looked at Niña Lita, in pain and wondering what was happening. What was I supposed to do now? I wanted her to fix something, to make it better. She worked her calm magic, carefully reaching inside and untangling the baby’s umbilical cord from around her eyes and her neck. Random and harried thoughts marched through my head as I waited. Wondered. Time stopped and everything was silent. Then she gave me a penetrating look. ‘Tenés que empujar mamita. You have to push, mama.’No puedo, I can’t.’ ‘You must.’ There were no longer any labor pains to help me out but I managed. Finally the baby was born and relief set in – until I propped myself up a little more and looked down between my legs. A big baby. A girl. Her chubby body from the neck down was a beautiful rosy pink…. but she was still. Her entire head was bluish purple, her eyes swollen and puffed closed. Oh God. She’s dead.

Not possible. Not happening. Why? Why am I so stupid and stubborn? Why did I insist on having a baby at home?! This can’t be happening.

A. stepped back from attending me. Niña Lita bent down somberly. She rolled the baby onto her side and tapped her back gently while she murmured some prayers. The baby started to cry. ‘Una niña,‘ said Niña Lita with her crinkly smile. ‘Una bebecita gordita. Ay, que hermosura, que hermosura. What a beauty.’

A. cradled the baby while they cut the cord and cleaned her up. She was a bit scary looking, with her blue face and head attached to a chubby, healthy, pink body. Niña Lita put a little white hat on her and swaddled her up and gave her to me. She immediately started nursing and the fear left me. I knew she would be OK, despite her funny looking blue head…. it was about 5 a.m. and the sky was just starting to lighten.

My husband had come in from the bedroom to see the baby and pay the midwife. He had no idea of the tragedy we had just avoided. I heated up some water and took a bucket bath – I was exhausted and shaky. I crawled into bed with him and my son and Clarita, relieved.

My parents-in-law came over early to see the new baby and word spread quickly through the Barrio. My mother-in-law held her and gave thanks to la Virgen Maria. The night before she had promised that the baby would be a child of la Virgen, and that she would keep the tradition of celebrating the 12th of December – the feast day of La Virgen de Guadalupe. The visit to bathe Clarita left Niña Lita feeling relieved also. ‘Estaba bien preocupadita mamita,’ she said, ‘I was very, very worried.’ We got the scale from the corner store: 10.5 pounds. No wonder, we all thought. No wonder.

Clare and her dad

The following day we took Clarita over to get her first vaccines and her foot prints at the local health unit. ‘Where was the baby born?’ ‘At home.’ ‘En casa? ohh.’ ‘And how old is the baby?’ ’2 days.’ ’2 months you mean?’ ‘No, 2 days.’ ‘A baby of this size? Are you sure? Let’s weigh her. 5 kilos?’ They looked at me suspiciously. They looked at each other. Clarita was big, healthy, pink and strong. I was in good shape with no belly sticking out. I wasn’t wearing socks and didn’t have cotton in my ears as would a normal Salvadoran woman who had just given birth. I was very obviously a white woman. The baby looked very Salvadoran. ‘Would you like to have an exam?’ ‘No.’ ‘I think we should examine you. We need to examine you.’ they insisted. I realized they didn’t believe this was my baby. I agreed to the exam… certainly I didn’t want anyone accusing me of child trafficking. I passed the exam and went home for my 40 days of rest…. Well, actually I didn’t get that, but that’s another story.

Birth was only my first big scare with Clare. There were a couple other times that I thought I was going to lose her.

When she was 9 months old I took her to the clinic to get her MMR vaccine. I was walking home with her, and after a couple blocks her skin began to mottle. Then she fainted. I rushed back to the clinic with her, knowing that she was having a bad reaction. The doctors were nowhere to be found. The nurses were slow and bored. They thought I was overreacting. ‘She probably was scared of the vaccine.’ ‘No, this is something else. She didn’t even cry when she got the vaccine. She’s having an allergic reaction. Please can you do something?’ ‘The doctor isn’t here yet. Sit there and he’ll be in.’ ‘No I need something now. Do you see her? She needs something now.’ Eventually one of the nurses took us into an examination room and gave her some Benedryl while they searched for a doctor. Luckily the Benedryl worked, and she was fine. It felt surreal walking out of the clinic into the warm sunshine, birds singing.

Once she was feverish and dehydrated and the hospitals were closed. We had to wait until the next day to take her in. Meanwhile my mother-in-law took her to a traditional healer. Trying to leave for the doctor, then, we had a huge family fight because my in-laws said the healer said that Clarita had to stay inside because any air blowing on her would kill her. My husband and I wanted to get her medical attention as soon as possible. It escalated into a rift that was difficult to subsequently repair between my husband and my father-in-law. An argument of tradition vs ‘modernity’. Quien crees que sos, con tu esposa chelita y tu título de bachiller? Who do you think you are with your white wife and your high school degree? Crees que sabes mejor que tus padres? Do you think you know more than your parents?

My mother-in-law always counted on la Virgen to keep Clare safe and sound, and though I am not religious, I’ve always taken great comfort in her ability to pray.

14 years later Clare is still a survivor. She’s smart, strong, independent and beautiful. Beginnings always shape things and Clare’s beginnings shaped her. They shaped me. They shaped all of us.

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Praia Vermelha, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

I’m on vacation for a week. In Rio de Janeiro. On a supposed social media break. But I’m on-line right now instead of on-thebeach; in stealth mode, secretly reading Tweets and Google Reader over morning coffee while my fellow vacationers sleep on and sun pours in the huge open window in the apartment we’re sharing in Copacabana.

I was supposed to quit social media and email for the week, but I’m at that point where I question whether I really wanted to go offline at all, and why…. being addicted to Twitter isn’t really a bad thing, is it? If you’ve ever tried to quit smoking or go on a diet and failed, you’ve been here.

I’m sneaking peaks, but not conversing and sharing. Pretending I’m not online, because supposedly I need a social media break (and because being addicted is somewhat embarrassing). But the truth is that my vacation is awesome and I enjoy being online, probably similar to how some people enjoy reading the Sunday paper.

Some highlights I discovered and didn’t share during last week’s feigned Twitter hiatus…

Aid and development

Loved @lrakoto’s great piece on some of the current big dilemmas/discussions in aid…. Aid is about the people, right?

Read @morealtitude’s intense and harrowing World Humanitarian Day series part 1part 2, and part 3. Wow. Watched OCHA’s beautifully done world humanitarian day video (and couldn’t help but wonder how much it cost to make it). Felt sad that humanitarian aid needs so much marketing lately to be seen as good. Went back and forth as usual, reading this week’s pros and cons of how humanitarian/international aid work needs a total overhaul and how it’s vital work in many places.

Saw Pakistan continue to get less attention than Haiti even as the situation gets worse and worse. Read an interesting piece from a colleague on how women and girls and culture are being impacted by the floods. Saw another colleague, @warisara, (experienced communicator who worked on the ground during the Asian tsunami and who’s now arrived to Pakistan) questioning why aid organizations have to keep showing graphic, horrifying visual images in order to draw any attention to a crisis, and wondering if each disaster has to be worse than the last in order to get the public to care. What an unfortunate dilemma — how to avoid undignified, disrespectful images and still manage to raise any funds.

Saw a sad exchange after my employer posted an appeal for Pakistan… Someone argued that we should not help Pakistanis because ‘they wish to see us dead’. They based their reasoning on ‘Christian principles’. What was heartening at least were all the other comments arguing against that view, arguing for helping Pakistan after the devastating floods, and seeing past religions and hatred and fundamentalist behavior.

Was flattered to get listed in the Activist Writer’s top 10 blogs along with aid bloggers I really admire. Discovered @aaronausland’s blog Staying for Tea.

ICT4D and m4D

Enjoyed the debate started by @Kiwanja on the need for an active mobile community for addressing fundamental, deep questions and thinking, and bridging the gap between development folks and technology folks. (Something I encounter and write about often, such as here and here). Liked this Venn Diagram on the intersection of m4D, apps4D and ICT4D.

Noticed that @mambenanje got himself a copy of an article about him in Brussels Airlines in-flight mag (also incuded Erik Hersman, Ethan Zuckerman). Remembered how cool it was being on that flight to Kenya, opening up the in-flight magazine, and seeing names of people I know.

Saw that @wayan_vota has a beautiful new baby girl.  And that miraculously he’s been able to re-follow me on Twitter after months of his account auto-unfollowing me time and time again (though he’s explained it also happens when he tries to follow @billeasterly…. weird – and really not sure what I have in common with the esteemed Professor that makes Wayan’s account consistently unfollow us both….).

Pakistan and the ‘Ground Zero mosque’

Due to my self-imposed Twitter ban and bet with @ernstsuur that I could really stay off Twitter for a week, I reverted to posting on Facebook and managed to upset the good folks back home in the heartland (Indiana) when I posted a link about the so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque’. Normally I don’t post political stuff on FB because of the variety of people that I’m connected to there — it’s hard to not offend at least someone. Facebook has become everything and nothing, pretty much.  I also re-posted an article on the ‘mosque’ and elitism (and thought it would be pretty fun to see Palin and @talesfromthhood debating elitism) and a link to the Daily Show giving it to Fox News. This provoked pretty emotional and strong comments (see below) from someone I was very good friends with in high school, but who’s gone down quite a different path than I have… eg, the military:

“So lets encourage all of our moderate Muslim friends to fulfill their religious duty. If they beleive (sic) that the extremist versions of Jihad and Sharia are incongruent with the teachings of Mohammed, then it is their responsibility to wage Jihad (lets let them pick the definition) against the extremists. When have created a predominantly tolerant Islam, I will finance a Catholic church in Saudi Arabia and will bless the establishment of a mosque anywhere in the U.S.

Until then, me and others like me will continue to spread AND DEFEND the basic rights that everyone in America, including the Muslim Americans who want to build this Mosque, enjoy. I invite all do-gooders everywhere to stand shoulder to should with me and my Soldiers in those countries where Muslims are not tolerant under Sharia……Saudi Arabi, Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria (Muslim areas), Egypt, Buhrain, Azerbaijan, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Algeria, Mauritania, Somalia, etc., etc. “

Rather than get into a debate, I went with that whole “let’s agree to disagree” thing.  But seriously.  I can’t wait to get back to Twitter.

Pao de Azucar, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

Rio de Janeiro

Luckily I’m not actually spending all my time in front of my computer. I’m mixing in a lot of other good stuff, like deep philosophical conversations with my 18 year old son, capoeira with him at Grupo Capoeira Senzala Cultural Center in Bairro Botafogo, naps, beach, pictures from the top of Pao de Azucar, and late night samba and caipirinhas at Rio Scenarium and other great places with good friends, old and new….

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Capoeira is ‘the Brazilian martial art of dance fighting’ if you believe Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie Meet the Parents. That’s one way of putting it, I suppose. But the old masters of capoeira describe it a bit differently…

Capoeira is everything the mouth eats.  ~Mestre Pastinha

Capoeira is a game, it is dance, it is fight, it is of war and it is of peace, it is of culture, of music, it is a piece of things. ~Mestre Suassuna

The impossibility of one person completely capturing capoeira, yet its potential to be touched by anyone are part of the balance of power and beauty of this magical art. ~Mestre Acordeon

Capoeira has always been rich and beautiful. We find everything in capoeira: life philosophy, self-defense, art and culture. We find part of religion in capoeira if we seek it. The word religion means ‘to re-link oneself,’ so everything to which we link ourselves would be a religion. We shouldn’t learn capoeira in order to cause trouble with it, but instead use it in the hour of defense when necessary. After all, in its life philosophy capoeira is love, celebration, and also joy. ~Joao Pequeno

For about 5 years now, I’ve been playing capoeira. I even have a capoeira name: Jaguatirica, which means ocelot. I’m not great at it, but I keep training faithfully and improve little by little. Training is about the only time that everything leaves my head and I live right in the moment. It’s my meditation, my yoga. So in spite of capoeira being challenging and demanding, it’s also the one thing that frees my mind.

I train 3 times a week when I’m not traveling. We train as a class, and training involves a combination of exercises to improve strength, balance, flexibility, playfulness, precision and control. It also involves playing the pandeiro (tambourine), the berimbau (a bow-like instrument) and the atabaque (drum) and singing in Portuguese. Capoeira music is one of the main things that drew me in.

berimbau

What I love about capoeira is its mix of music, history, strategy, gaming, balance, strength, flexibility, creativity, daring, control, spirituality and community. Playing capoeira you learn to better understand where you begin and end. You learn how to interact with people in a physical and mental conversation that happens inside the roda (the circle) while the rest of your capoeira community claps and sings beautiful songs, building a ring of energy around you. There are different games within capoeira – some slow and beautiful, some fast and aggressive, and some devious and tricky. Each capoeira group has its own look and style within the different games of capoeira.

my son Daniel (aka 'Moska' meaning 'fly') is a quick and graceful capoeirista

My  18 year old son plays capoeira too. He started a couple years after I did, and plays a million times better than I do. It is one of the things that binds us, something that we do together, and a place where we share experiences and friends. So capoeira has become a part of our family and community life as well.

The history of capoeira is a bit fuzzy.  Some say that it was how the chained slaves taken to Brazil from Africa fought their masters.  Other say it was how slaves trained in secret to overthrow their masters – they disguised their fighting as a dance. Yet others say that the game came from Africa to Brazil and morphed there as a result of the many cultures and traditions that were mixing and mingling, including the native populations of the area.

Capoeira was an underground thing until the 1920s. It was outlawed and people were imprisoned, whipped or beaten for practicing it. Now things are quite a bit different. Capoeira is Brazil’s national sport and people of every social class and color play, in about every country of the world.

There’s a beautifully thorough and interesting book (if you’re into history) called Capoeira: the Jogo de Angola from Luanda to Cyberspace by Gerard Taylor. It traces the roots of capoeira from various countries in Africa through the slave trade to Brazil and onward. Not enough is yet known and proven about where capoeira actually comes from and how it changed over time to the game it is today.

There is some thought that the game comes from Angola. There is a traditional dance there called N’golo that has some of the same characteristics. There are words used in capoeira such as mandinga that can be traced back to northern Africa, and which were originally used to describe magic and magicians. In capoeira mandinga is the magic and craftiness that a player brings to the game. There are similar yet distinct games found in Cuba and Cape Verde. There are still questions about where the instruments used for capoeira come from and at what point each instrument became part of the capoeira orchestra that we use today.

I do quite a lot of traveling in different parts of Africa, and I’m always on the look-out for pieces of capoeira. In Togo, I saw Evala, where young men wrestle and women sing and egg them on. I wondered if there was any connection. In Togo and Benin I heard about voudoun, the basis for condomble, the religion that many of the early (and some current) capoeiristas practice(d) in Brazil.

kashishis in Ndop...

Last week I was out in Ndop, Cameroon, with a group of local kids who are working on an arts and media project. They were filming a local pottery business. I was wandering in the craft shop, and what do I see but a bunch of little hand rattles. I recognized this hand rattle as a caxixi from capoeira. There was tag on a group of them saying ‘hand rattle kashishi’. These kashishis are made in exactly the same style as the caxixis that we use in capoeira when playing the berimbau, and we always get them in Brazil, and I don’t remember ever hearing about any strong connection between Cameroon and capoeira.

I see drums all the time when traveling, and I’ve seen different musical bows, but to now I hadn’t seen a caxixi.

So now I’m wondering. How did the kashishi get to Cameroon and when?  And who took it to Brazil? Was it people living in what’s now Cameroon or Nigeria during the days of the transatlantic slave trade? Or was it the Portuguese moving back and forth in African countries who passed the kashishi around in Africa and then in Brazil?

I suppose I’ll have to do a little research now, and maybe I’ll never know, but it felt like a little piece of home, seeing those caxixis there on the shelf of the craft store, all the way out along a back road in Cameroon. It made the world seem a little smaller and connected. It made me homesick for capoeira.

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That thing you said I’d get

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HSBC Ad Campaign

If you’ve done any international travel lately, you’ll likely have seen the HSBC Ad Campaign on the walkway as you get on your plane. You know the one. It has 3 identical photos, each with one word or phrase written on it, showing different perspectives.

Well, last week in Ndop, Cameroon, I had a random and cool experience that I was a tiny bit hesitant to post about.  But thanks to HSBC Advertisements, I figured something out. (Note, I still really don’t know who HBSC is or what in particular they do nor do I have any intention of using their bank).

I was with some of the youth participating in the YETAM project, filming at a local craft shop called PresPot. When we’d finished filming, we walked down the road towards the local Fon’s (King’s) Palace to meet another group that was filming there. The plan was to eat our packed lunch together.

There were more people than normal out on the road we were walking on, so it seemed to me that something was up. Then one of the kids pointed down the road to show the reason why.

The Ndobo were coming. ‘Ndobo?’ I asked? I could make out what looked like small group of people, some of them dressed in brown grass skirts.

Ndobo

As they got closer, I remembered a blog post (perhaps ScarlettLion’s or maybe a link she posted?) a few months back, where someone had taken shots of people in different places – I think mostly in Africa and in Haiti – wearing similar types of costumes to the ones the Ndobo were wearing. In any case, the Ndobo were definitely something to behold, and since I’d seen that post, they were now sitting within some kind of broader framework for me.

[Update: Thanks to Meghan for her comment below, with this link to the blog post I am referring to with the stunning photos. They are by Phyllis Galembo and on exhibit at the Tang Museum: "These portraits of masqueraders build on Galembo's work of the past twenty years photographing the rituals and religious culture in Nigeria, Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica and Haiti, as well as the homegrown custom of Halloween in the United States. Organized by Ian Berry, Malloy Curator of the Tang Museum, in collaboration with the artist.”]

‘So what are we supposed to do?’ I asked.  ‘Are the Ndobo scary? Are we supposed to run away? Stay here? Get off the road? Bow down?’

‘Just watch them when they come,’ one of the girls told me. ‘They will ask you for some coins and you just give them some.’ ‘Are we allowed to film?’ I asked. ‘Yes, once you give them some coins they will be happy and you can film.’  I dug around in my bag to find some coins.

There were about 6 Ndobo, all teen-aged boys and young men, and a bunch of excited younger boys with them.  They moved in a way that was part stealth, part walking and part dancing as they approached. Someone played flutes as they moved along.

‘Why are they here? Why today? Who are they? What do they represent?’ I wanted to know. The kids had all kinds of different answers. ‘They come out to announce the corn harvest season is here.’ ‘They are just looking for money, so they make those shirts and clothing at home, and then they become Ndobo.’

‘In my village,’ said one of my co-trainers, ‘only certain of the young men are allowed to be Ndobos.’ ‘No,’ said one of the girls. ‘here any boy who wants to can just make his clothing and go out. My brother, when he became that age, he made that clothing and went out just to get some coins.’ Another of the kids said ‘They come out when there is a town hall meeting to ask for money.’ ‘Ha, it’s an income generation project for the youth,’ said one of the other co-trainers.

Meanwhile the Ndobo were approaching, and everyone was waiting and kind of excited to see what they would do. It was one of those amazing and random moments that make me love life. It was not scheduled purposely so that a white person could see some ‘local traditions’. It was not a tourist show. There were no tables with locals performing for respected visitors. It would have happened regardless of me being there or not. In my line of work, those moments can be rare and I was savoring this one.

We stood off the road in a clearing, and watched the Ndobo arrive, their entourage of overexcited sparkly eyed young boys with them watching us from a distance, flicking their eyes at me regularly. Maybe they wanted to know what I was going to do also, how I was going to react to the Ndobo and vice versa. I wondered also if it was going to be somehow weird because I was there. I was thinking how surreal it was, and how cool their ‘costumes’ were, remembering that blog post about young men in similar dress with photos that seemed to be from some kind of museum exhibit… thinking that this was real life, not a museum…. Then thinking about how in museums things from Africa are often called ‘handicrafts’ or ‘anthropological exhibits’ whereas things from Europe are called art…. Wondering what the difference really is.

The Ndobo  took their stance for a moment in front of us. They were carrying little sticks and whips made of grass and palm. They surrounded us and started lightly thrashing me and my colleague Georges with their sticks and whips in a vaguely threatening way, but not one that caused any fear. The feeling was someplace between theater and in-your-face reality. I found my coins again, and several hands came forward to collect them. The kids with us were watching and laughing, the little boys accompanying the Ndobo were giggling.

After I’d given out my coins I looked behind me and saw that one of the Ndobo had a stick against the back of Georges’ neck and another was holding his grass whip against Georges’ shins. Georges rolled his eyes and dug around to find some coins for them, also laughing. He dropped the coins into the outstretched hands and the Ndobo let him go. One of them stood in front of us to get his picture taken, and then they moved off down the road. We carried on towards the Fon palace.

When we arrived to the Fon palace, the other group of youth asked ‘did you see the Ndobo?! They came here and danced right in front of us! We took pictures and films!’  They were pretty animated too, so I felt less like a silly foreigner, getting excited about seeing ‘local tradition’.

We sat on the steps of the local council’s building and started in on lunch – boiled plantains and koki bean. The rest of the day, all the kids could talk about was the Ndobo. I kept thinking that the Ndobo reminded me of Halloween… harvest time festival, costumes to hide your identity, playing tricks and asking for treats.

I posted a picture of the Ndobo on Twitter. But I hesitated before doing it. A colleague saw it and said something about Africa stereotyping. So she had the same reservations.

I held off on the blog post… but then HSBC came to the rescue.

African Tradition

African Stereotype

African Entrepreneur

It’s interesting how uncomfortable ‘Africa’ can make us. But I guess so can anything, anyone or anyplace that is complex and involves human behavior and culture… I guess you could say the Ndobo are a small piece of a much larger ball of string, just like high heeled shoes, plastic surgery, tattoos and henna, and shaved heads. Ask HSBC.

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PresPot

While I was in Cameroon last week, I had a chance to go out to film with one of the youth groups. Earlier in the week they had worked together to map out their community and look at local resources, and one of those resources was PresPot, a local business that makes different types of clay products. It’s part of a larger initiative, supported by Presbyterians (get it? PresPot?).

the road to PresPot

The PresPot is a pretty cool place.  It’s located down one of the roads leading off the highway near Ndop, the main town in the area of Bamenda where we were working.

PresPot Manager

The kids had their storyboard and their interview already prepared, and they got going by first asking the manager for permission and his consent to film and do some interviews. They explained that they were not doing a film for commercial purposes but as part of a project they were working on.

The manager gave them an overview of the work area, gave staff permission to be interviewed, and then went through the shop where they sell their things, explaining each product in detail.

Clay waiting to be formed into something

The clay used comes from the area nearby, It’s one of the highest quality clays. A ton of different items are made here out of the clay.

Builds up some nice arm and back muscles

Making zebras for a Noah's Ark

There’s everything from tiny trinkets, carved by hand to big pots using the potters wheel. One guy explained that he was making a lot of Noah’s Arks. He was carving little zebras using a knife.

Spinning by foot and making a pot

I watched another guy spinning a pot. He uses his foot to spin the wheel. He mentioned that PresPot also has a guest house, and that lots of foreigners come to visit and rest there. I asked if they also do pottery classes but he didn’t seem to get what I meant.

(I know some people who would love to go to the beautiful mountains of Ndop, and spend a week learning to throw pottery….)

The workshop gets really warm with the ovens going

After the pieces dry, they are fired.  It was pretty hot in there.

Forming the roof tiles

Out back, away from the firing ovens, one guy was making clay roof tiles. He said he makes 150 tile per day and they take 2 days to dry and then they fire them. He works Monday through Saturday.

Laying the tiles to dry

150 per day

Adding final touches

Another guy was adding little figures to the pots that the other guy was spinning. He was using glue to attach them.

and this guy finishes them up

And another one was finishing the pots up.

Final products

the PresPot Shop

The shop has all kinds of clay products as well as products that come from 2 other regions that work with wood and with fibers, bamboo and palm.

There is a shipping area where their items go out to the whole world.

I kept wondering if this little business was really sustainable, or if a Presbyterian NGO or church was supporting and it was barely profitable like many of the little craft businesses I’ve seen people try to fund.

The kids were doing the questioning, not me, and so I didn’t butt in to ask. It does seems like this small business is thriving. It’s nice to see that this exists in the community, and it will be cool to see the kids’ video on it.

I also think it’s interesting that the kids chose to show the PresPot as one of their community resources, but they didn’t mention any of the small business/ market sellers lining the streets of Ndop.

Walking down the main road in Ndop, there are people selling fresh boiled peanuts, roasted corn, and palm wine.  There are mechanic shops, and places to get your hair done and fabric shops. There are corner stores and taxis and bars.  Maybe the kids will do a piece on the market as the project goes on.

If you ever get out to the Bamenda area, I’d suggest checking out PresPot and maybe staying there to kick back for a couple days. Maybe they will teach you to throw some pots….

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I recently wrote about how difficult I find it to know what the etiquette is when riding in a car with a hired driver. So I was happy to see that the owner of this van, hired to take the youth out to film in Ndop, Cameroon, last week, had the good sense to clearly inform passengers of the rules.

No fighting.

Don't send your head or hands outside.

Sit down when the car is moving.

The driver is not responsible for any unpaid load.

No discussion with the driver when the car is moving.

No vomiting. No smoking.

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Bafut portraits

I’m traveling for about a month in Cameroon and Kenya with a couple days’ stop off in between in Amsterdam. Yesterday morning I got an email from my mom saying ‘For some funny reason I don’t feel like you are having a great African birthday. I hope I am wrong.’

Moms are funny, that way they can sense things. And when your birthday is on July 4 (US Independence Day) you grow accustomed to a lot of fanfare. I’m not into Americana but I like the familiarity of spending my birthday in humid Indiana summer, eating watermelon, home made potato salad and cook out food, having red-white-and-blue frosted birthday cake with sparklers instead of candles on top, and sitting out in lawn chairs on the grass in the front yard, watching fireworks and slapping mosquitoes…. When I spend my birthday out of the US, I feel like I am missing something more than just my birthday.

The day ended up being very cool though.

Bafut palace

Instead of eating cake and watching fireworks with my family, I spent the day in the Bafut palace (where the Fon of Bafut lives) with my colleagues Judith and Roland, and with Maa Rose, one of the Fon’s wives. A Fon is a traditional king, and this palace has been around since around 1300 AD. It’s about a 30 minute drive from Bamenda town. (See Fon of Bafut on Wikipedia).

The original palace buildings were made from bamboo and reed, but after the Germans arrived to Bafut, they were reinforced on the outside with burned bricks and tile roofs. The only truly original remaining part of the palace is the sacred place, the Achum (you can see it in the far back left side of the photo).

It was pouring rain when we arrived to the palace grounds. Roland, who was driving us, was in gorgeous all white traditional clothing. He hadn’t been to the Palace before, so he found an umbrella and went with us, holding his white pantlegs up the whole way to avoid getting them all wet and muddy.

Judith is married to a man from Bafut whose grandmother was a Bafut Queen. She was known as the ‘3 time wife of the Fon’ because her first Fon husband died, his son inherited her, he also died, and so his son inherited her and she stayed with him until her death. Judith’s 9 year old daughter is named after this grandmother and insists that she doesn’t want to be the wife of the Fon.

Wooden statue of a Bafut Queen

We arrived late afternoon and Maa Rose came out to meet us. She is the 4th wife of the current Fon, who’s been in power since 1968 when he was about 13. Having several wives is common for a Fon, but the current Fon is a modern kind of guy, educated at the University of Yaounde, and instead of taking 159 wives (or was if 152?) as his father did, he’s settled with 8. He ensures that they all are provided for and get their education.

Maa Rose showed us the old talking drum outside of the palace that calls the village when something important is happening.  She said she would tell us about the Bafut history, and that they worship their ancestors, ‘but we are Christians too.’

She shared the meaning of the waist-high stone pillars scattered around (they mark where the heads of those who have died in battle lie). She took us over to see a pair of large stones where adulterers were punished (they were tied to the stones and pieces of their bodies were chopped off until they expired, and if they were still alive in 7 days, boiling water was poured on them). She explained about the 2 forked sticks planted in the ground (they mark the place where children used to be sacrificed to ward of any deaths as people got crazy during the annual dance celebrations).

Maa Rose said it was the task of the notables (not the common people or prisoners as in some other cultures) to select and give up a child for sacrifice in the name of community safety. This act also allowed a notable to grow in stature. When the Germans came in the late 1800s, ‘they taught us that this was bad, so now goats are killed instead.’ The custom of tying adulterers to the stones has also been discontinued, and now they are simply exiled.

After we saw the exterior of the palace, we went into the courtyard ‘which is set up for our children to play’ and then saw the sacred place, the Achum, where the Fon goes to pray and to do things which are secret. The Achum was erected over a lake and has been there since the beginning of the Fon palace. (We saw pictures from the late 1800′s and the place looks almost the same; the Achum is on the list of the 100 most endangered world cultural heritage sites). Each year on grass-cutting day, everyone in the village gathers grass and makes bundles to repair the roof of the Achum.

After seeing the Achum (only from the outside) we followed Maa Rose through a meeting room. The children who live in the palace were watching a movie, and ‘The First Noel’ Christmas song was playing in the background. Maa Rose told us, ‘In the older times, decisions were only made by men, but now in these times, decisions cannot be made without women too. So this is the room where we meet to make decisions. If there are decisions that must be made without women, the Fon and his notables make them in a secret society.’

Maa Rose opening up the museum

From there, we visited the Bafut Museum, located in a big mansion that the former Fon lived in. The roof of the mansion was taken off, though, because the ancestors were not happy that he was living there, and he moved back to live in the Palace. The house has been restored and converted into a museum with German funding. Entrance fees are ‘sent to the German coffers’ to keep up the museum up.

Maa Rose took us through museum after hours as a favor to Judith (who has Bafut connections) and said she wasn’t sure how to turn on the lights. Unfortunately I forgot my camera with a flash and had to use my iPhone which doesn’t function well in the dark, plus we weren’t supposed to take photos she later told us.

She gave us a full-on explanation for each of the items in the museum, starting with the carved statues of the first German to arrive in Bafut and his wife. The coolest thing about these statues to me is that they represent Germans, but the Germans are dressed and portrayed in old Bafut style — naked and with traditional jewelry and ornaments. Maa Rose said that of course the Germans weren’t naked in those times, and that the Bafut had just carved them in their own style.

wooden statues of first Germans to arrive to Bafut

We moved along to a carved statue of a Bafut Queen. In the past, said Maa Rose, ‘Our queens were na-ked!’ They wore cowry shells to show that they were a Fon’s wife here, around the waist.’ The cowry shells on the statue dangle in front of the pubic area. ‘Today of course a Fon’s wife is not naked, ha! So if I would wear my cowry there, no one could see them. So we wear them here around the wrist.’

The cowry shells are a sign of Fon royalty.  ‘The Fon, if needed, can turn himself into an animal, like a bull or an elephant, and escape into the bush. You will see his cowry shells though. So if a hunter tries to kill him, he will just bow like this, and you will see the shells, and you will know it is a Fon and you cannot kill him.’

In addition to a lot of amazing wooden statues, rooms with old Fon royalty items, including the last elephant to be killed in the area (over 200 years ago — his foot, tusks and skull are in the museum) we saw a lot of gorgeous masks. ‘Before cameras, if you really loved someone, you could ask someone to make a carving of them.’

In the room made to look like a traditional Fon’s room, there was a bed with a lion skin on it and elephant tusks on the floor. Maa Rose said that before the Germans came, it was tradition that a Fon’s feet could never touch the floor, so he would wake up and stand on top of a person. ‘The Germans taught us that it is not right to treat a human like that, so now the Fon does not do that.’

In the museum there are also weapons that had been given to the different Fons by the Germans who were colonizing, and we heard the story of the Fon’s grandfather (the one who was married to Judith’s husband’s grandmother) who spent 1 year in jail in Limbe for refusing to surrender to the Germans.

There is also a case with some common looking German porcelaine. ‘This is the slavery room,’ Maa Rose told us. ‘It is said that for one of these, you could get two slaves. The Fons did slavery before.’ In the slavery room there are also beaded calabazas and a pair of beaded shoes that are said to have belonged to the first German to arrive to Bafut, and which were given to the Fon. ‘This German wore eye glasses, and people thought they were his actual eyes. He used to take them off and set them down, and the people would work hard there because they thought his eyes were still there, watching them.’

The Fons loved to fight, she said. ‘They would go to fight in the very front with their notables.’ (Wish we had that going on today in more places, things would likely be quite different). We saw the room of a former Fon Queen with all her things. A basket for going to farm, her cooking utensils, her bed. I like the idea of the queens cooking and farming. Judith told me later that the current Fon also has a farm, and he takes his children there with him to farm. The Fon’s current wives, also queens, nowadays have jobs. Maa Rose is a teacher.

We saw statues of ghosts. Maa Rose said that it is believed that the ancestors come to visit the current Fon to tell him what to do or how to behave. When they are upset, they come in a certain form and you know that everything is not OK. The former Fon used to beat his wives, for example. ‘Even the wives that he inherited from his father.’ So the father who was missing (‘we don’t like to say a Fon is ‘dead’ we only say he is missing’) came to tell him to stop beating his wives, and that if he didn’t stop he would be really sorry.  The cane he used to use to beat his wives is there in the museum.

When a Fon goes missing, there will be those wearing a particular mask and dress that go around to all the villages to advise them that something has happened. They will know then that they must go to prepare their things, because when it is announced that the Fon has gone missing, they will not be able to do anything for 2 months. The cannot collect wood or visit their farms. So they have to prepare.

By the time we finished our tour of the dark museum, the sun was setting.  Maa Rose invited us over to her small house within the palace complex to see her handicrafts. ‘Here we sell these small things to buy whatever the Fon can’t buy us, like our little soaps and oils and things.’ I bought a bamboo salt shaker and a wind chime, and paid a small sum for the museum and Maa Rose’s wonderful historical orientation.

She asked us to come meet 7 of her 9 children (the other 2, her eldest girls, are away at university). They were all sitting around the fire, in the small kitchen across from where we’d looked at the handicrafts, getting the oil fried to start cooking their dinner.

The kitchen is cozy and simple, with blackened walls from fire smoke. Some guinea pigs were skittering around in one corner and chickens were roosting in another. In the rafters, above the cooking fire, there were some tiny onions, strung on thin sticks, drying and smoking to be added to food later on.

Maa Rose said that next time we should come much earlier, so that we could share a meal and talk more.  She apologized for the rain and mud and that she couldn’t get the lights on in the museum or in her house so we could see things better.

I left feeling pretty sure that Maa Rose is the most beautiful Queen I’ll ever meet.

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Bamenda, Cameroon

Based on my last couple of posts, apparently this week I’m a little hung up on privilege and position.

I’m in Cameroon to support staff and partners with some training. Today we drove from Bamenda out to the community where we’ll be working. We needed to do the last bit of the arrangements, greet the community notables and school principal, and see the center where we would be having the training to get a sense of how we would set things up for Monday.

Ride out to the community, near Bamenda Town

The community is about an hour’s drive out on roads that curve through green mountains that cover over with clouds and fog from dusk until the sun burns them off mid morning. This part of Cameroon has got to be one of the richest, most fertile places I’ve ever been to.

Our meeting was at the school, and I knew once we drove up and I got a peek through the school windows, that I was going to have to sit up front on the stage at the important people’s table and give a speech. Damn. There was no way around it.

This is what it feels like when you have to sit up there:

On the plus side, experience tells me that after a couple days at the training it will feel more like this:

The kids and the community are super excited about the workshop.  The youth sang a choir style welcome song that gave me chills. It took me back to the days when I used to spend a lot of time accompanying foreign delegations to communities. This welcome was one of the finest. It’s easy to see why visitors feel so special when they go to communities in places like Cameroon.

On the drive back we stopped along the road, near the palm wine huts and kola nut sellers, for fresh boiled peanuts in the shell and roasted corn. The sun set and the fog settled in for the night as we carefully made our way back to Bamenda in near zero visibility.

I can’t wait till Monday when we move from town out to stay in the community at the training center.

On days like today I wonder what, exactly, we are talking about when we say ‘development’.

On the surface it sure seems like people up in these mountains have it pretty good.

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Shotgun

Privilege

It’s not a black and white photo

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