Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Africa V: Benin

The seat of government of Benin Cotonou is slowly disappearing. The tide eats away at the coast and swallows the houses. Every year ten meters more. Porto Nove is the capital. On our one afternoon off we again with a few people traveled a bit. We came through a quaint village, a few market stalls, a café with cool Coke (no I am not paid by them, but it was often the only one could safely drink) and a bit further I saw a small boy, I guessed 7 years old, was walking with a monkey on a leash. I thought:"How cute, to have a monkey as a pet!" And smiled. Later in the evening on our way back we passed through the village again. I was fascinated by the lights, the fires in the woods. It was magic. We passed some more stall and on one of them a monkey slaughtered was hanging, bleeding out. With a shock I realized the small boy was not walking a pet, but protecting a meal or an income. Of course this is how ebola spreads, by eating bush meat. I was astonished that some colleagues would eat bush meat. Not realizing the risks.
So what I learned was that seeing with western eyes, one all too often misreads a situation. What I know is that I cannot be sure what I am seeing. So ask and check it out. And don't forget Benin was once the mighty Kingdom of Dahomey.

Africa IV: Gabon II

Gabon is also the home of the Albert Schweizer Hospital. 

It was quite an experience to go there, to see the result of one person trying to atone for the sins of the colonists in Africa, in a humanitarian way. It was spotless, a shrine, a place that made one think about inequality in the world. It is in a nice area near Lambaréné. He worked from a religious conviction translated into action. Yet I think one can do good as well from a non-religious grounded way of thinking. Afterwards we made a short boat trip on the river Ogooué. It was a motor boat and the only way to get on it was basically on all fours, one's butt to the quay. The comment by the guys on  the quay was: quel beau petit derrière... (What a nice little behind!) I had to laugh, it had never been called small before. So all is relative. That is something I had to learn over and over again in Africa. There are no absolutes. All is relative.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Africa III - Gabon

Gabon and its capital Libreville lay at the Bay of Guinea. Tourism seemed to be thriving, stands with good art work were everywhere. Yet the back streets and the open air market required a strong stomach. We were treated to an impressive cultural evening with wonderful and powerful dances. Even the President and his wife assisted. What I wondered about  were the huge hard wood trunks on the coast. Not standing trees but trunks breaking the waves. Probably as efficient as building a concrete defense against the rolling waves. It made the beaches look wonderful and provided a  natural playground for children. Yet I always wondered whether it was ecological a good choice to thin the  forest in this way. We were there on St Patrick's day and we had our one afternoon off. So once again we got into a taxi to drive to a not so local animal park. The taxi broke down, in a small village. They had cola cola and Guinness in the local bar. Since one has to avoid drinking water  that was a good thing. It took a while before with a few local guys the car was fixed. Life seemed good and peaceful. The Park wasn't much, but I loved the drive, seeing the shades of grays, feeling the gentle breeze. Seeing the food stands and hearing the language just made me feel good. There were problems in the country and rumors about a special collection the President cared for,  nothing substantial one can spot easily but people weren't quite willing to talk 'politics'. usually that is a bad sign since it points either to deep divisions in the country or a rather harsh regime which will not allow criticism. In asking about the health situation people spoke about Ebola. but at least 600 km away.Of course we had pens and pencils and empty books to write for the children. We alway collected quite a lot of stuff, also books in French or English depending on the country we went to. What I learned is that big corporation make money everywhere and that poor people can't afford their stuff. About the rampant corruption nobody spoke. Silence is meaningful and isn't hard to hear. That is what I learned.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Antwerp Jews II

Someone send a comment on  the old post with etchings of Antwerp Jews. And yes the assumption is right. It is one of four. And yes in January 1969 Tony and his family moved back from Antwerp to Los Angeles. I remember a name Jim Bradshaw. He might have been the gallery owner where the etching was bought. If ever the person who send the comment would like to see the other etchings, let me know. Some are like portraits. Tony was fascinated by the way they dressed, the curls, the hats, the long black coats and the little boys looking exactly the same as their grandfathers. He had live in the Lange Herentalse straat in Antwerp. That is near the City Park (Stadspark) and right in the Jewish section.  I now live at the edge of it and see the same images as on the etchings. The only color is when a little girl, dressed as precious princess walks along with her parents.

Thank you for your comment.

contact: fourthandplum(@)hotmamil.com

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

What I learned in Africa II

Two years after my first African experience I was send on a mission to Uganda. Nobody wanted to go, since during the gulf war the planes flew over the country. At least that was rumored among the colleagues. Anyway we were well protected, a machine gun armed soldier stood every 10 meters along the road from the hotel to the conference center and we were warned not to wander off. In the yard of the presidential palace there were vultures. I wondered about that and found out that Idi Amin used to torture wayward students and if they died the body was thrown in the yard to be eaten by the vultures. It was many years later, but the vultures still haunted the place and considered it their territory. As happens a bunch of us was free one afternoon. So we skipped lunch rented a taxi with four colleagues and took off to what was a National park in the making. There we met up with some people guarding cattle with riffles. I asked why they were armed. They spoke about armed thieves and poachers and such. A few weeks later in April from Uganda armed groups entered Rwanda participating in the 100 mad days when 1.000.000 people were killed. I realize how naive we were. On the way back to Kampala we ran into road blocks, had to buy illegal gas, saw eyes in the darkness of the forests. One of my friends asked: are you not afraid?  And there in the taxi I wrote the following poem:

Headlights light
up life
of those i can never know
in the deepest dark
i ever saw

Roadblocks everywhere
Stop control

am i afraid
i am afraid
i am not
the shepherds are armed here
just as i

(the road from Lake Mburo to Kampala-11PM)
1991 spring 

Of course during the week I managed to wander off: once to the market and once to a local bookshop where I bought some books by local poets . What I learned was that I was not afraid and took a new turn in my life.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Some essential stuff I learned in Africa I

My daughter and her husband are in Congo. Thus I started thinking about the missions to Africa I was lucky enough to do for my job. And I have realized a long time ago that each time I learned a valuable life lesson. My first trip was to Togo. In the hotel lobby I bought a map of the city. And walking I tried to find my way but got terribly confused. And suddenly I saw that there were no street names on the map. I ask about that in the shop. The young man replied: Well, every time there is a revolution they change the names of the streets. So we decided to just print the map without the names. So if ever a local would need a map, they would recognize the lay out of the city and know where to go. They would have a far better mental map. Another thing happened: I had decided on a free afternoon to take the 'taxi de brousse' and check out the next town Anexo. It was a nice clean van for about 15 people. There was a double row and a single row of chairs. I sat down in the single row behind an elderly, well groomed gentleman. Behind me two young man were discussing, almost getting into an argument. They spoke the local language but also parts in French. Suddenly one yells to the other "Mais vous, vous êtes un raciste!" (You, you are a racist!). The old gentleman turns towards me and says delicately: "On ne parle pas de vous Madame." (They are not speaking about you, Misses.) To think about the feelings of a perfect stranger and to put her at ease was a great gift for all the following Missions I did. I never was afraid and trusted in the general goodness of mankind. Well we took off to Anexo, I visited the local market and bought two simple but really pretty clay bowls., I heard the town cryer and happened on a fight. I kept my distance, didn't join the people watching. And then the long wait, darkness descending rapidly and not at all being sure I was at the right place to wait. The taxi came, well it was a pick up truck, loaded with women with chickens, with big bag of homemade soap, with a young man of the American peace corps. They all squeezed a bit more together and I was taken on board... Wonderful first experiences.