Thursday, March 24, 2011

Monday, March 21, 2011

foreign shoes

The kid is a magnet to foreign shoes
He picks them up, shakes them, and teethes.
He doesn’t mess with the “Smaltos,” the “Abibis”
and the other fake, plastic Chinese varieties
He quickly picks through those and crawls over them to inspect the finer varieties.
The adults are inside at the meeting,
All eyes and ears focused on money
but thanks to mother’s milk he’s full of energy, and kicking
So the kid’s been placed out on the veranda for the moment - out of sight, out of mind -
Where he has full range of the colorful, door-framing array
In his shoe heaven.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

One presence, in passing

The ancient woman
Hobbles up the road
Carefully placing each step
And pausing every three
She greets and is greeted at every courtyard
She’s given life and gained respect
Her robes are long, draping and colorful –
Like layers of experience
I look in her eyes as we pass
Her gaze is soft and airy
She smiles as if I’m a long-lost friend
A refreshing welcome, in contrast to a face hardened and calloused by age
We exchange greetings and smiles and part
One presence, in passing, can change the day
I’d like to think her steps are lighter as she continues on.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ode to the Mamba

The kids scream ‘snake’
and we run closer to investigate, as they scatter
our curiosity is hidden behind rocks
we wait, and go back to resting on the trees.
“Snake” the kids scream again
and we arrive at the scene quicker,
to no avail
our friend is a master of the nooks and crannies
but at last we spot him,
and how could we have missed?
flamboyant lime green ribbon, snaking through the undergrowth
the kids stand high and far, and we approach
the green mamba is captivating and beautiful
yet we are warned to stay back.
sliding along on his own path, not bothering those at play,
gracefully, slowly, back forth back forth-
he then turns and looks
what does he smell, what does he see? I want to ask
but it’s too late.
I protest the barrage of rocks, but the kids have taken matters into their own hands
Relieving us needlessly of another one of nature’s innocents.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

creative afternoons

An afternoon of fabric dying, batik with wax stamped patterns.  Mariam brought over the paraphernalia of supplies stacked on her head:  wax, white blazen cloth, two different chemical substances for fixing the color, the dyes, wooden stamps, plastic to cover the table, pots, tubs, wood, and a big stick to stir…..I didn’t realize it would be this intensive!  We set about covering the table with plastic (so the stamps come through and don’t run) and heat the wax in a metal rustic pan over the wood fire.  We built this fire on the clay tiles in my courtyard – “for art’s sake” I will say if the director comes and asks what the hell I am doing making a mess in the courtyard (no one asks though). I am partial to the pineapple stamp and the one with the woman with a baby tied on her back, pounding millet.  Once the wax was hot and the first fabric in place on the table we began stamping.  I’m not sure it if has something to do with the physics of melting wax on a large, rustic wooden stamp, but, I observe that its real hard to get the stamped impressions to come out more than blobs.  However, with a little finesse we finally get some to come out a bit more recognizable than the others.  I had the idea to get Qtips and start painting with the hot wax on a few of the cloths that were a bit ‘messed up’ already – therefore I could do no more damage.  This seemed to be a good idea (and in retrospect I think I will do it all this way next time…much more creative and individualistic too). 
            Meanwhile, Mariam continued stamping and a stream of neighbors came into the courtyard to draw water and crows have perched on the roof to take in the action too. What a circus.  Once we had all the clothes stamped, we mixed the blue dye. Unfortunately, it was not natural indigo but some chemical shit – never again, what a smell! What a violation of nature! Ok, earlier Mariam had lit our fire with a piece of plastic from a broken bucket, also the melting wax had been giving off its own fumes, and now this chemical dye – too much for me!  The white substances we poured in to fix the colors gave off fumes that smelled so bad. I instinctively jumped back away from the vapors and felt my stomach about to retch.  Mariam, used to this work, wore no mask and continued stirring.  I told her breathing these vapors can’t be good. She shrugged knowingly, pride in her work kept her from any criticism.  We laid the wet, dyed fabrics out on the tile to set – which takes mere minutes. Then we had to boil off the wax.  Stirring with a big stick in the cauldron we plopped the fabric in one at a time and dowsed it in cool water from the well.  Now we had before us our finished products.  We hung them to dry on a line out in the sun and watched their bright colors flap in the breeze. I will say the blue-dyed fabric was radiant – but at what cost? I had voiced my environmental concern before she even bought the materials, but she said it wasn’t a toxic process. There really isn’t the concept here that some products can be harmful to health. People do not question the negative impact of products (that applies not just to chemicals but added sugars and fats in foods too). Next time I am determined to look for someone specialized in the 100% natural dying process.    

Sunday, March 13, 2011

what lessons have we really learned?

Forgive me for making comparisons:
As we sit in this village meeting, I look round at all these people and faces in such a small space.  Who chose to meet here, and like this??! We’re crammed into this box room, its heating up, and there are so many people that wall and floor have disappeared and I resort to looking at the ceiling.  I’m somehow led to think of the diagrams of the slave ships, with all the bodies crammed together.  Didn’t we get past this stage in history? Really?! There isn’t much difference in the configuration here, just the context has changed – and this one is self-imposed!  Similarly, I’m sure if you diagramed a ‘typical’ African bus or taxi nowadays, some people would be even more appalled at the tight, stifling conditions:  bodies sitting on-top of each other, sideways, and the like, for hours, and sometimes days on end --  Allah, Jesus, the great spirits, somebody help us! The conditions humans can consent to live with.  Hmmm….anyway, back to this meeting.

T-shirts from America

T-shirts from America
dropped by container at the shore
sold en gros and shipped out –
sold as dead white man’s clothes.
In market, women in bright pagnas and
shirts with phrases like, “Johnson Reunion,” “Copperhill Little League,” and “I’m like you, Only Better!”
sort through the piles laid out on sturdy tarps (courtesy of aid organizations come and gone)
the keepers are soon gotten –
but there are mountains more where what came from.
Ironically I once even saw someone wearing my Alma matter.
How far it and I have come in the unpredictable transformations of life.
A man walks round with jeans folded on his head,
 and men’s shirts dangling on hangers in his hands -
Any takers?
A woman holds a bucket stacked like a giant Christmas tree of layered, flopped over socks –
 the world’s repository for missing socks?
Mobiles of sneakers,
hung by their laces from the tin ceiling,
decorate one shack - and another two doors down.
Articles of clothing, used, discarded, and forgotten
have found new, extended life on African shores.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

you can only say so much

you can only say so much
the rest comes out in the silence
a life searching and questioning
evolves to watching and knowing
but nothing happens before the time
many people are lazy
assuming falsely their knowledge
and sit, command, and defend their falsehoods
poison is fear and the unexamined
it happens everyday, usually slowly
the wise look for it in other forms
light dances for fun and to trick
know the difference
otherwise you are lost
like a leaf in the current.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Mouse

The F’ing mouse.  He kept me up half the night with his shuffling and squeaking and the moment I’d get up to investigate he’d disappear.  Of course, hunting a mouse out at 2am with a headlamp isn’t the easiest of tasks.  I gave up and fell back into bed, resolved to think of pleasant things and try to drift asleep amidst the squeaking. 
            After my morning run however, I make it my mission to hunt him out.  I approach the closet, cautiously.  I pull open the drawer that holds my be-your-own-doctor-when-your-way-the-hell-in-the-middle-of-nowhere first-aid kit and – AHAH! The little brown mouse with big black eyes is there in the midst of gauze pads and bandages looking up at me, feet braced askance, as this menacing figure is looking down at him.  We’re in a face-off. Yes, he’d be cute if he wasn’t such a nuisance – but, think of all those lost hours of sleep!  And now that I see he was in my medical kit….what?! Little mouse tweekn out, overdosing on meds, pulln an all nighter.  Thanks little dude.  This business has to be stopped.  I think fast and pull out the drawer with him in it and shove it out into our hall and slam my door (shared living at its finest).  I beckon one of the guys on staff to come take my friend outside; but when gets to the drawer he tells me the mouse isn’t there – he’s escaped somewhere en route!  I better not find the little furry one eating my cookies tonight; otherwise they’ll be trouble (I say this loud enough for him to hear if he’s still cowering in a wall or nook nearby).
            I head out of the house (for obvious reasons) and head down to the drum school.  There’s a funeral going on next door so class has been cancelled (music isn’t appropriate next to the deceased , nor on Friday because it’s the holy day when everyone’s supposed to go to Mosque).  With no class, I find myself by default heading down to the abandoned bar on the river, where there’s always a breeze and time to think.  The side of the bar has faded paintings of Disney characters which I find rather funny for an adult hang-out.  Most of the paint is peeled off now though and moss has filled in.  A few guys are along the bank going at it, making beats and belting songs out into the wind (this is the practice spot).  A little boy is out in the muck looking for wood.  Fishermen untangle their nets and glace over ever so often to see what’s up.  The hiphop crew of guys just shows up.  They start breakn it down in warm-ups, tanks and plastic flip-flops (the sneaker faze hasn’t taken effect here yet). I look up and see two hawks fly by overhead - maybe they are looking for my mouse!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


        I've just finished my run, and am in the street in front of my house, all sweaty. A farmer walks by on his way to the fields with his cap on and rusty blade in hand and says, "Good morning, my wife," as if it's the most casual greeting in the world. "Eh?  Really?" I harp back.  What do i say to this? He seems to have woken up on the good side of the bed and is all coy first thing in the morning. I let him continue on down the road and assume whatever he wants to assume.
     I visit the drum and dance school and the kids are in full swing.  Yaya (the main teacher) is getting perturbed that the kids cant fall into line on cue, and he breaks out a cigarette in class as a last resort to his sanity.  He puffs out orders along with the smoke.  The kids dont seem phased, nevertheless, I step aside to avoid the fumes and stay away from the line of fire. the performance is definitely coming together though.  My critique is:  make sure the kids know which foot/arm to start out on, otherwise the crazy dance looks even more untamed (arms and legs going every which way.....and there's always one kid thats off and that's all it takes to throw the whole thing!).  I love to watch the little boy in back, as he swings wildly at his drums, does some on-the-spot-dancing and still manages to keep the beat. He's so animated - quite the character.  the girl to his left has new purple, crimpy bob hair-do.  Purple and bright red hair is big now for ladies (does the Rhianna video have something to do with it??)
      We go outside and the kids start their normal antics. The local sheep come up the road, leading themselves of course.  I see thier favorite blue car is parked out front and i'm waiting for them to notice it and go up and rub up against it and give it some lovin.  Nothing like a good skratch on the car.
       After practice, i pass by the normal chill spot on my ride back into village, but nobodys there - odd.  so I cruise over to my tailors - but she's at the hospital.  I'm told not to deliver her baby though - odd again.  I swear she's 11mo and rivaling the size of a pregnant hippo - time to come, baby ?! I talk with the girl tennants (students) at her house.  They in jeans and bras, their mid-day around the house attire.  One of the young girls sweeps and her boobs are hanging in funny positions almost popping out of her shirt, so that when she stands up their squished up and almost out of her shirt but she doesn’t seem to mind.  Breasts are not a scene in Africa; covered, uncovered, partially sticking out of shirts, see through shirts, it’s up to the preference of the woman.  I watch two guys across the way take turns pounding grain with a wooded pestle.  As I leave the tailor’s and start riding up the street, a goat does a jump dance as he comes down the hill - ha! so hilarious. And no, I’m not seeing things in midday heat.  I ride by the gendarme and about 20 guys are sitting around doing absolutely nothing (as they were 30min ago when I first rode by).  A few of them are lounging across cars opposite from their compound – next to the fine collection of crashed demolition vehicles (like a museum exhibit of bad accidents).  I ride by the favorite ‘chill spot’ again and this time I’m overrun by young guys.  Too much dude energy.  I take my guitar and head to the river and sit on the roots of the giant Baobab.  Groups of kids playing come by in waves, a few sit down to listen and one lays down on the fishermen’s nets and takes in the sounds, then they all run off and play again.  I enjoy my respectful audience of petites. I continue to sit and play, the breeze comes, and the afternoon passes. 
            At 5, I ride along the main road out of Dubreka to Mr. Yaya’s house for tea.  I’m not really sure exactly where his house is but it’s on the main road and sure enough he flags me down when I ride by as I was focused on the road and not the scenery - busy trying not to hit any potholes head-on!  A gang of youth is occupying all available seating.  One’s even sitting in the car, windows down, not going anywhere just the best place for him to take in the conversation.  Two guys are sitting opposite me on a bench, facing each other, involved in an eternal match of some French board game with colored pieces and dice ( someone tells me it’s called ‘Nido’ but this is also the name for the popular powdered milk here, so I’m not sure about this).   I bet if I came here tomorrow at 6am they’d still be at it.  Cars and trucks whiz by on the main road.  We have front row seats to all that passes – and Yaya makes use of this by shouting out intermittently to people he knows in passing (even though I don’t think either party can fully understand what the other’s saying due to speed and other noise interference, nevertheless they make up for it with even louder voice and enthusiasm). A guy runs by, strong build, looks like a professional footballer, outfit and all, high socks and then I look down and see he’s running in jellies (of course!). A van rips by and teeters down the road laden with a 10story stack what looks like mattresses stuffed with hay (basically as villagey as you get).  I definitely wouldn’t want to be riding behind them if that all fell.  I turn and see the girl to my right has a tube of ‘cole-minute’ (like superglue) and is turning it around and playing with it like one would a pen – not the wisest lady.  The ‘premier,’ the first cup of tea (as opposed to the weaker 2nd and 3rd brews), is poured and I’m handed one with a high hat of foam.  I know they just put a bag of sugar in the brew but the tea is still so bitter it makes me feel nauseous. I sip slowly yet even still this shot glass of tea never seems to end. Everyone’s having a heated debate in Susu. I feel a bit left out and I don’t want to wait around for the 2nd round of tea, so I decide to take my leave. I huff up the hill and head back to the chill corner.  University students have started to come out of the woodwork – I make a mental note of all the new faces.  It seems like no one ever has any work to do – neither homework, nor job work.  Youth is passed not really applying oneself; hours are spent talking and dreaming but not doing.
            The market at night is lit by little camping sized Kerosene burners and with candles – how romantic.  I stroll over and get some salad.  It’s so easy to get sick from salad here so I find myself praying that I’m served well.  I take my chances and live to write another tale, “Dieu Merci” (as seen written on the passing shared-taxi-bus, “Thank God,” yes, damn right).     

Monday, February 21, 2011


On the subject of ringtones: 
I would say about 98% of Africans these days have a cell phone, if not two, or at least 2 or 3 sim cards in order to call people on multiple networks (or to keep certain numbers private (wife number one, wife number two) or what have you).  However, I would say that about 90% of the ring tones used are irritating to the point of comparing them to the grating, out of tune noises heard by department store mechanical elves at Christmas time.  And to make matters worse, people will let their phone ring at least for 5min before picking up – as if to let other people know, ‘hey look, I’m important, I’m getting a phone call.’  Furthermore, some people here even have Xmas music as there ring tone, even though their Muslim and have no clue the connotation of the music.  For instance, one day I’m walking past huts in the village, women are out pounding millet and a guy in a Bubu is leading a goat down the dirt road.  Im enjoying my walk when I hear the unmistakable tone of ‘Deck the Halls’ ringing from the guy’s pocket – a villager in oblivious Christmas spirit - he pulls out his cell phone and continues to walk with his goat. Scenes like this strike me as a bit incongruous, no? You can picture chuckling thinking this is the positive change of development and globalization.  Well, I still haven’t heard a Barry Manilow or a Rod Stewart ringtone so I guess there’s still hope.  A director to one of my partner NGOs has ‘Dance of the Sugarplum Ferries’ as his tone though, this is pretty funny to me (a joke that doesn’t get old either, I laugh every time I hear it).  ‘In the Hall of the Mountain Kings’ is also very popular tone for people here, which rings out at 19x the prescribed maximum volume for hand-held devices (I might just break someone’s phone one day, really...... ‘Hmmm, no I haven’t seen your phone lately. Oh? It’s out the window? How did that happen? (Dream scenario)). But, I don’t mind the ringtones with African music; in fact sometimes you might even catch me dancing to one –locals get a kick out of this.  My all-time favorite ring tone however, was one I heard on the phone of a government minister.  I was in a meeting with this government big-shot, a big serious guy, with a James Earl Jones voice, when his phone went off to the tune of:  ‘Lets get it on.”  Not sure if he was trying to send any innuendos or what.  I think I might have to ask him to transfer that one to my phone. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

MMM fresh Bread....

I enjoy my morning stop at my local bakers, in fact, I look forward to it.  It’s all of one block down the road from the place I work – so even if I’m late I can still stop in!  I tap on the metal door to enter, and in the cool morning air the hot delicious smelling air of the oven is heavenly.  The first time I stepped in I couldn’t get over the size of the brick oven – it’s huge!  It monopolizes the whole room.  The bakery is in essence, the huge oven, with a few benches on the side.  Fresh bread is placed in piles on the floor, bread yet to be put in the oven waits on a high counter on the far wall.  Everything is coated with flour, to the point that I think twice about putting my bag down or even touching the walls.  It’s a family business, but one young guy seems to be responsible for the baking.  All night and early morning he works diligently, lining up dough on his flat wooden paddle, and transforming them into fresh baked baguettes.  He has a flashlight jerry-rigged to the side of his head like he’s going to explore a cave – this is so he can see inside the oven.  I choose a loaf and happily bite off one end as a taste test – yep, good just like last week, and the week before (really an unnecessary step, but so satisfying).  The baker confides in me that he’s making a special batch of his ‘pan d’or’ (literally, gold bread – he puts egg in it, some kind of Lebanese recipe I’ve been told) today and to come back at noon.  I arrive on the dot, and he gives me 2 of the round flatbreads to take home, curtsey of the house.  I think he enjoys having a foreigner as his daily clientele (most likely his first) as much as I enjoy his bread, so it’s a win-win situation.    

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Weavers

The shuttle glides back and forth
one string falls on top of the other:
A pattern emerges.
Single threads are becoming something greater than themselves -
a new fabric in time.
The weaver at his rustic wooden loom
Works both hands and feet -
A concentrated dance of creation.
This skill passed down from father and grandfather to son.

A length of fabric appears before him like a road he’s walking on
the faster he works the faster it comes -
Yet progress is relative,
he rolls it in and continues.
The trailing string draws closer
Leaving its trace in the dirt -
evidence of a long day’s labor.
as the sun sets, he delicately winds up the rest
in an elegant, criss-crossed pattern, the weaver knows his art
At sunrise the next morning
he sets about sweeping and laying the path again
as it has been laid for generations.

An Earthy Place

Red soil stains bodies, plants, people, buildings
even the sky
the contrast between the green foliage and red earth is striking.
Thatch roofs snow red dust when the wind blows
a young girl spreads herself out on a hammock,
and stares ambivalently upon her red courtyard.
Villagers are digging in the manioc fields,
covered with sweat and dust
only the highest palms can keep their green leaves.
Women with baskets on their heads
walk-shimmy single-file along the path
Their colorful pangas tinged red
The village huts are all created out of this same soil-
An earthier place, I know not.

Clouds and the Moon

Clouds formed like leopard spots
the moon, a blazing eye
i am in this jungle
walking at night
lost, if not for this
the heart, the strongest of all weapons.

The Bridge of Branches and sticks..

The bridge of branches and sticks
carries us across the crags and water
along the rock canyon covered in lush Medusa-hair vines
to the sandy beach.
we undress
and plunge into the cool pool at the base of the waterfall
its tranquil waters lure us in
The journey has never been sweeter.