Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mama Africa

Three weeks ago, I woke up feeling very edgy and unhappy. All morning, a cloud seemed to cling to my spirit and I couldn't shake it. Then I saw the day's headlines. I understood. Miriam was gone. Miriam Zenzi Makeba died of a heart attack on November 10 after a concert performance outside of Naples, Italy. To her fans she was Mama Africa and the Empress of African Song, an icon of African political activism and the high-flying spirit of African music. To me, she was a comforting , lyrical presence throughout my life.

Miriam Makeba started performing in the 50s but a lot of younger Americans were first introduced to her in the 80s, when she appeared on an episode of the Cosby Show. I had the good fortune of experiencing a live Miriam concert before the Cosby episode and that performance will stay with me for the rest of my life. Her voice was at once overwhelming with a range that swooped from the sky and back, as well as intimate and soothing, scatting and swirling with a rich and melodious tone. She sang in her native Xhosa as well as Zulu, Swahili, English, Portuguese and Yiddish. Miriam truly represented global awareness before the term was even created. Her most famous tunes are "The Click Song" and the rollicking "Pata Pata" but the songs that touched me were the gentle love song "Malaika" and "Mbube," a traditional Zulu song which was adapted by Pete Seeger and popularized by the Tokens as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

During my wedding ceremony, I walked down the aisle to "Malaika." When my daughter was born in a cozy birthing room with low lighting and music, it was Miriam's "Sangoma" that was playing. My daughter came out smiling, with her thumb in her mouth. I'm convinced that being greeted with Miriam's caressing vocals had something to do with this. Whenever I'm feeling excited or introspective, I reach for a CD by Miriam. Her music has provided the soundtrack for most of my life.

A lot has been written about Miriam Makeba over the last three weeks. It's taken me all this time to absorb the cultural loss. As a music critic, I know that Miriam holds a significant place in music history. She was the first African woman to win a Grammy. She performed at Kennedy's famous birthday celebration in 1962. She was the only performer invited by Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie to sing at the inauguration of the Organization of African Unity in 1963. She also sang at several marches for Martin Luther King Jr. There are few contemporary r&b singers that I've interviewed, from Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, to Les Nubians and Zap Mama, that don't cite Miriam as an influence.

But her impact stretches much further than music. Although she always insisted that she was not a political activist, her very life was a work in political activism. She was exiled from her South Africa home for 30 years because she spoke of the brutality and injustice of apartheid. She never recorded a protest song technically but her refusal to abandon her culture and her attention to traditional African folk singing, supplied enough protest. Her songs were banned in South Africa and she became the voice and the personification, along with Nelson Mandela and Stephen Biko, of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

Fittingly, Miriam's last concert was also an act of political protest. She was performing at a concert in Southern Italy in tribute to six Ghanaian immigrants who had been murdered in the region in September. The mafia is accused of carrying out the killings and the concert was to promote anti-racism and anti-mafia activity. She collapsed after performing her signature "Pata Pata" tune. She died as she lived, protesting injustice and spreading the joy of African music. Miriam Makeba is gone but her spirit lives on.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thankfulness and Passports With A Purpose

Thanksgiving always helps me remember how fortunate I am. My life has been graced with much joy and opportunity, qualities that may be fleeting for people struggling for daily survival. Although I don't always remember to be grateful for every benefit I'm granted, this year has been a magical time of mind-blowing accomplishments and fulfilled dreams for so many. It makes me believe that despite the economy and the wars and the suffering, the world will get better.

An example of this rush to kindness and hope is Passports With A Purpose. Last month, four Seattle travel bloggers decided to organize a fundraiser for Heifer International. As travel bloggers, we often witness the crushing inequities of poverty around the world. Heifer International is an inspiring charity that helps to end hunger and poverty while caring for the earth. The organization provides livestock and sound agricultural training in 57 countries, including the U.S. Their programs develop self-sufficiency for families, through food and income from livestock products. I'm honored to join this wonderful cause and spread the love. The raffle prize that I'm offering are two tickets for the culturally and gastronomically filling Taste of Harlem food and culture tour. Anyone living (that means you Wendy and Anja) or visiting New York in the next year should consider buying a $10 raffle ticket for this rich experience. I'll post the specific details for the fundraiser and raffle on December 1. The raffle runs through December 30 so please keep it in mind during the holiday season.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Flying Fish, Saltfish Soup and Kingfish Ceviche

Caribbean cuisine is one of my favorites. I love spicy flavors, exotic combinations and anything accented with tropical fruit. Most island dishes offer that and more. So I was looking forward to sampling Bajan food, to say the least. I did have a fleeting experience with the Bajan staple flying fish, years ago. My former mother-in-law, a Tobago matriarch, enthralled by the recent popularity of the fish in Tobago, insisted that I smuggle frozen flying fish in my luggage on the eight-hour flight back to Chicago. But that's another story. Barbados is called "land of the flying fish" for good reason. They are everywhere. Popping up on little pectoral fins in the harbors, decorating Bajan coins and the coat of arms, flying fish are part of Bajan life. And they are truly a part of the daily cuisine. The national dish is flying fish and cou cou, which is a cornmeal side dish called fungi on other islands and polenta in Italy. Succulent and slightly oily, flying fish was featured at every restaurant and every event that I attended. I ate it fried, steamed and baked. It was offered at breakfast, lunch and dinner. I estimate that I ate flying fish at least two times a day during my Barbados stay. The fish is tasty and highly flavorful but if I never have it again, I won't be upset.

Besides the flying fish, I discovered that Bajan cuisine can be innovative. At the Waterfront Cafe, nestled along the Bridgetown marina, I sampled a tasty saltfish soup. Saltfish or salted cod, is another Caribbean mainstay that I love but I had never seen it featured in a soup. It was rich and only slightly salty. I preferred it to the king fish ceviche which was heavy on innovation as well as lime. The acid from the limes and vinegar made it hard to stomach after awhile. At Brown Sugar, a landmark Bajan restaurant, I tried the popular lunch buffet amid a gurgling fountain and lush greenery. The buffet provided other popular Bajan dishes like macaroni pie, lamb stew, banana salad and of course, flying fish stewed and fried.

For me, local cuisine represents an important part of the travel experience. It gives you insight into the culture. So I typically ignore any element of fast food or Americanized offerings like pizza, burgers or hot dogs. But Barbados has it's own fast food eatery that's as much a part of the culture as McDonald's is part of American culture. The purple and yellow sign for Chefette greeted me in every Bajan town that I journeyed to. I saw one in the airport, I observed one in downtown Bridgetown, one across from the famous Oistin's fish fry and they were always crowded. So I ventured in to see if it was different from American fast food places. Aside from the British reference of chips for fries, I saw the familiar fried chicken, burgers and chicken nuggets. On closer inspection, I found that roti, with "genuine curry directly from India" was prominently displayed on the menu. Roti is a popular tortilla-like wrap of curried chicken and potatoes brought with the Indian workers that flooded British Caribbean colonies after slavery was abolished. I also spotted mauby, a bitter drink made from tree bark and herbs that's another Caribbean staple. Even with fast food, the innovative Bajan flavor remains.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Barbados Chattel Houses

Barbados was settled by the same gentleman planters who settled the colony of South Carolina. A lot of connections exist between these two places, from the Bajan dialect that bears a close resemblance to the South Carolina Gullah dialect, to farming practices that were developed in Barbados and transferred to South Carolina plantations. But the most visible is the similarity in architecture. The jalousie windows and sweeping verandas that grace grand old South Carolina houses also decorate many Bajan homes. Georgian and Victorian style great houses line streets in Bridgetown and Charleston. However,the most distinctive Bajan architecture is purely Caribbean.

The chattel house is basically an old school mobile home. Simple wooden houses placed on limestone blocks, chattel houses are designed to be taken apart in a day. The term comes from the days when plantation workers journeyed from different estates, working the fields and leasing the land that they lived on. Their movable possessions or chattel, were their houses and these had to be easily moved in case of landlord disputes or the end of a growing season. Although I've heard the term chattel house in Trinidad and Jamaica, I'd never seen one until I visited Barbados. These houses make up an important part of Bajan history and I saw them everywhere.

They boast gable roofs created from iron to withstand the heavy winds and rain of hurricane season. Chattel houses often have shutters to keep out the heat and interior walls with spaces at the top to catch every breeze. They are reported to be much cooler than regular houses. Although it's not a common housing choice anymore, people still live in chattel houses either handed down through the family or freshly built on undeveloped land. I was happy to discover that there's a movement to restore and preserve Barbados chattel houses. I think they serve as a colorful example of Bajan character and innovation.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Passion Fruit and Passion Flowers

I have always loved everything and anything tropical. Although I grew up in the arctic climate of Chicago, I never enjoyed any of the classic Midwestern bounty. Apples? I don't think so. Peaches"? Please. Mulberries? Try again. I only eat pineapple, papaya, coconut and my all time favorite, passion fruit. I drink passion fruit juice like most people sip lattes and passion flower tea crowds my cabinet next to the chai. Imagine my wonder when I kept noticing this lush bush of little green fruit. I asked my South Carolina friends what the fruit was but they could only guess. Lime? Unripe lemons? I knew better but I couldn't quite figure out why. Finally, our Bajan guide handed one to me. As soon as it hit my hand, I knew. Passion fruit! All those years of gobbling it in dozens of forms, I had never seen the actual fruit. I felt like I had rejoined a long-lost part of myself.

These bushes line the path going up to St. Nicholas Abbey in Northern Barbados. Although the passion fruit won most of my attention, St. Nicholas is actually quite notable. It's a four story plantation house that stands as one of the last authentic 17th century houses of the new world. Built in 1658 of limestone and brick, it's one of only three existing Jacobean houses in the Western Hemisphere. Another one, Drax Hall is also in Barbados and the other is Bacon's Castle in Virginia. St. Nicholas was never an abbey, it's thought to be named after St. Nicholas parish near Bristol and the nearby Bath Abbey where the British owners used to live. The original owner, Benjamin Berringer and his wife Margaret are famous for reasons other than St. Nicholas Abbey. It seems that Margaret had an affair with their neighbor John Yeamans. Berringer challenged Yeamans to a duel and wound up dead, either from a bullet or poison, depending on which story is being told. Yeamans married Margaret and took over the plantation. The courts eventually returned the estate to the Berringer children and Yeamans and Margaret left Barbados to help settle South Carolina, where he became govenor in 1672. Margaret married a third time after Yeamans died. It makes me think that maybe there is something to all those passion fruits lining the estate...

Monday, November 10, 2008

Bloggers Unite For Refugees (Rwanda)

linocuts by Duhirwe Rushemeza

Today, Bloggers Unite focuses on the plight of refugees. The organization offers lots of links and groups to spread awareness about refugees but I decided to share my personal experience with Rwandan refugees. Two years ago, I was assigned a story on Rwandan refugees in Chicago. Although I specialize in African and Caribbean culture and travel, locating recent Rwanda refugees in the maze of shadowy and hesitant new immigrant culture truly tested my reporting skills. The first thing that I discovered is that despite media pronunciations, the country is called Wanda, with a silent R, by Rwandans. It wouldn't be my only lesson in the yawning gap between media portrayals of Africa and the reality. When I finally found Claude, a soft-spoken Rwandan, almost a month later, he wasn't even living in Chicago but a distant, rural enclave of the city.

Although I had seen and cried through Hotel Rwanda, hearing Claude's personal account is an experience I will never forget. Ever. I also interviewed Duhirwe Rushemeza, a talented Rwandan artist who memorializes Rwandan orphans with stunning linocuts, which are displayed throughout this post. I learned a lot that movies can't tell you. I witnessed the Rwandan spiritual strength first hand. I gazed into eyes that will always be haunted. I felt the hope that only unfaltering faith can bring. According to the BBC, 3.2 million Rwandan refugees returned home after the genocide. But thousands are still hesitant and fearful. There are 34,017 Rwandan refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo and 20,952 in Uganda. Here's an excerpt from my story:

Claude Munyankindi speaks with a gentle, softly modulated voice. He stretches his long legs out and cradles his bare foot, much like a child who's been made to sit too long. But there's nothing child-like about Munyankindi. At 24, he's still a young man, eagerly anticipating his graduation from Trinity Christian College and the start of a medical career. As biology major, he studies long hours with rare moments of leisure. This is not what makes him seem older than his years. Nor is it the beard, mustache and receding hairline. It's his eyes, round and fawn-colored, that speak a thousand words about things no human should ever witness. He may be only 24 but Munyankindi’s eyes reflect decades of a nation’s sad and tormented history.

"I was 13-years-old in 1994," he says matter-of-factly. That particular year holds significance because as a Rwandan, he will always remember 1994 as the year that he was prematurely forced to become a man. It was the year of the Rwandan genocide. Munyankindi's father was killed, as well as his mother’s entire family. Their house and everything they owned except the clothes on their backs, was burned to the ground. Miraculously, he and his immediate household of eight people managed to escape the brutal killings. Nevertheless, Munyankindi and his family were the exceptions to a very bloody rule.

From the night of April 6, 1994 through mid July, 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of just 100 days. According to the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), it was the largest and most ruthless genocide Africa had witnessed during modern times. Located in central Africa, Rwanda is a small country, the size of Maryland. The nation is the most densely populated in the world and among the poorest. Rwanda’s three ethnic groups, the Tutsi, Hutu and Twa, boasted a history of cooperation and interconnection until the Belgian colonialists arrived in 1916. Declaring the Tutsi minority superior, the Belgians set them up for greater education, employment and leadership opportunities. They also ordered all Rwandans to carry identity cards, ensuring that ethnic differences would always be at the forefront of the people’s awareness.

Resentment against Tutsi privilege simmered for decades until a civil war in 1959 claimed an estimated 20,000 Tutsi lives. Many more fled to neighboring Burundi. Just before relinquishing power, the Belgians switched their allegiance and when Rwanda gained independence in 1962, it was under a Hutu government. Tutsi’s continued to be treated as scapegoats however, and they experienced massacres of several hundred people during the early 90s.

But nothing could prepare anyone for 1994. Tutsi refugees in Uganda had formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and had established a dramatic military advance in 1993, demanding a peace settlement and shared power from Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimani. On his way back from signing the treaty in Tanzania on April 6, 1994, Habyarimani’s plane was shot down. Slaughter of Tutsi’s and moderate Hutus started that night and didn’t end until an estimated 800,000 were hacked with machetes, bludgeoned with clubs or shot.

"We knew it was coming because of all the years of civil war," recalls Munyakindi. "After the president got killed it all went down hill. The capitol (Kigali) was under siege and it took three weeks for the army to reach our region in Butare. The soldiers had a list of all the people targeted. Our family was on that list."

Somber faced and resigned to the facts, Munyakindi can’t conjure up words to describe the fear that he and his family were feeling. His eyes cloud over with melancholy as he flatly recites his experience. "They went from house to house, shooting people. My dad was an agricultural engineer and a high school teacher. He tried to negotiate and protect us. But they threw grenades on the top of our house. It blew away half of the house but nobody was hurt. My mom has headaches to this day because of that.”

After that, the family decided to try to escape. Munyankindi's father insisted on staying behind to negotiate the family’s safety, promising to meet up with them later. "We waited for our dad. He didn’t come. We went to the next city and waited in the refugee camp but we never heard from our dad. We later heard that he had been killed the same day we left.”

The family's ordeal was just beginning, however. For four months, they stayed in a refugee camp in the Congo with the threat of death constantly hovering around them. "We prayed a lot. There were so many days of close calls. We had documents but they knew we weren’t telling them something. We didn’t look like everybody else. We fit the stature of Tutsi people, tall and slim. We kept lying. My sister said our dad was an officer in the government army and he’d be back to get us. They would take people out and kill them everyday." Shaking his head with bewilderment, Munyakindi acknowledges that they were the lucky ones. "Our whole family, all eight of us, except my dad, got out by the grace of God. Most people lost everybody."

Indeed, there are currently more than 600,000 orphans in Rwanda, according to PBS. An estimated 200,000 of those were orphaned because of AIDS. During the genocide, men known to be infected with HIV raped women rather than killing them on the spot. This fact, coupled with the rampant killings meant that the odds for a Tutsi family’s survival were very slim. These odds are not lost on Chicago-based Rwandan artist Duhirwe Rufhemena. "70 percent of Tutsis were killed. My mom lost over 70 members of her immediate family. The odds were not in our favor, I don’t think I would have survived and it’s rare for an entire family to make it," she says. Born into a diplomat’s family in Kigali in 1977, Rufhemena ‘s family had been living in the Ivory Coast but was preparing to move back to Rwanda in 1991, when the civil war was starting. “It was a very dangerous time so we didn’t go. That’s what saved us."

Remembering the Rwanda of her childhood, Rufhemena says that she was never aware of any ethnic differences. “We were really happy. We were never exposed to the ideas of separation of the ethnic groups although they were always there.” It wasn’t until she was a teen that Rufhemena’s parents explained the ethnic tensions that plagued Rwanda.

"When the war broke out in 1991, they explained to us why it was happening. They didn’t subscribe to those beliefs but many people did. That’s the first time I understood the difference between Tutsi, Hutu and Twa."

In 1997, at 20-years-old, Rufhemena returned to Rwanda. "I saw all these orphans and victims of the genocide, homeless and some were invalids. The Rwanda that I remember as a child, you didn’t see children on the street. You didn’t see children trying to hustle. I was very affected by this. I went back to Spelman (college) and I thought, ‘I want to do something to help the children’ but I didn’t know what."

After taking a printmaking class, Rufhrmena created prints of some of the children she saw, selling them for donations to send back to the children. For her senior thesis, she designed an installation that documented how the genocide had affected Rwandan children and how the rest of the world related to the tragedy. "I really wanted to let people know what happened and be a voice for these children," she says.

Today, Rufhrmena’s art still focuses on Rwandan genocide orphans but her perception of them has transformed. “I went back in 2002 and met a boy who changed the whole way I look at their situation,” she says. "He was only eight. He made an instrument and played it to earn money. He was really independent, going from town to town. I started to look at them less and victims and more as survivors. A lot of children didn’t give you a chance to feel sorry for them because they were too busy living. They were resilient and the war had made them tougher"

Despite the horrific details of the genocide, the aftermath has indeed demonstrated the strength of the Rwandan people. Although the country has the highest proportions of orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, the government has passed a national policy establishing a framework to protect them. School fees have been eliminated and primary school enrollment has grown to 75 percent. With women comprising almost 60 percent of the population 12 years after the genocide, they also hold 49 percent of Chamber of Deputy seats within the Rwandan government. As a result, this small African country surpasses Sweden as the country with the highest percentage of women in a house of parliament. In the shadows of the genocide, a new Rwanda is developing.

To help refugees please contact Refugees United.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A.O. (After Obama)

I'm still numb. I live in Chicago ,where I have seen Barack Obama many times before he started his presidential election campaign. I took my 12-year-old daughter and canvassed for him in Gary, Indiana, knocking on doors and venturing into trailer parks. By the end of October, I knew that he would win, if not just because people are suffering in this country in ways that they never have before. I walked into my polling area and was greeted with two different methods of voting--paper or electronic. I didn't take this lightly. I know of many places where the privilege of voting is not guaranteed and there are no such choices. But I hesitated. Which would be the most fool-proof? Which ballot would be guaranteed as counted? I did not take this lightly either. A poll watcher saw my hesitation and explained that both methods were backed up with an electronic disc. I chose electronic because I figured my photos would come out better.

I took a photo of my voting card.

I took a photo of the historic ballot.

After I cast my ballot and attached my "I voted" sticker, I drifted out of the polling place, dazed. A woman stopped to ask how long the lines were. She had voted early and waited for 3 hours. We talked for an hour about history, injustice and how change would have to come, one way or another. I feel the change already. People are smiling and giddy everywhere. I have received calls and congratulations from all over the world. It's like we all participated in a global push for change and it worked. It's here. It's just going to take a while for me to absorb it.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

21 Miles Long and A Smile Wide

That's how locals describe Barbados and I have to agree with them. It's not a big island, it's not a small island but you'll find something to make you smile, whether it's the weather, the landscape, the culture or the people. I did a lot of laughing and smiling while I was there, I think Bajans are very intriguing people. I heard loads of thought-provoking comments and discussions that I'll detail later. Going through my photos, I jogged through my memory to try and find the most memorable experience I had there. I'm still processing them (along with a cold I got from the combination of rainy season and air conditioning )but I did find a shot that counts as one of the most unforgettable scenes. On the northern side of Barbados, in the parish of St. Andrew,

Cherry Tree Hill Reserve boasts the most spectacular view on the island. Despite it's name, it's not cherry trees that fill the grove (they died a long time ago) but gorgeous mahogany trees. Looking over the hill at about 850 feet above sea level, beyond the sugarcane and majestic mahogany, a stunning view of the Atlantic coast fills your senses. Gazing out over that hill was one of the best sights I had while I was in Barbados.