Life And Afterlife in Benin (Benin)

Ephoto of 2 men in handcuffsdited by Alex Van Gelder, published by Phaidon
Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

This is a picture-book, of black and white photographs of citizens of Benin in the 1960s, before I was born, and the 1970s, when I was a middle-class American child without a clue about where Benin (then the Republic of Dahomey) was on my father’s high-school globe. But it would be a mistake to dismiss this picture-book as simplistic, or as easily read. The editors, a mix of white foreigners and black Beninite photographers, did not make the mistake so many other similar books have made, of giving no context. There is a preface, and an afterword, of some length.

The work consists of portraits and candid snaps taken by 8 Benin photographers, one of whom is a woman. They have captured a great contrast in the lives of the people of this African nation–black and white is high contrast by definition, so tres apropos.

Voodoo Priestess

Voodoo Priestess (Camera flash is mine, not the original photog’s.)

They’ve collected photos of weddings, deathbed portraits, police photographs, erotica (I was not very fond of these photos), first communions, Voodoo priestesses and studio portraits that the subjects commissioned. Voodoo, by the way, did not start in Haiti. It started in Benin. I did not know this.

The Photographers

  • Benoit Adjovi
  • Jean Agbetagbo
  • Joseph Moise Agbodjelou
  • Bouraima Akodja
  • Leono Ayekoni
  • Christophe Mahoukpe
  • Sebastien Mehinto (a.k.a. “Pigeon”)
  • Edouard Mehome
  • Camille Tchawlassou (the female photographer)

The Subjects

Old woman

This woman appears to be yelling at the camera.

The people in these photographs rarely look pleased. All right, never. They stare into the camera with a variety of expressions that I, with my Western outlook, tacted as sulky, worried, suspicious, sad, angry, and sometimes downright pissed. Some appear to be ashamed of having terrible teeth. It is good to remember that not all cultures expect that you will beam a giant white corn-fed smile into the camera, American style.

I remember that when I first landed in Japan, and was floating my resume around, a picture of my smiling face attached with a paperclip, a more knowledgeable expat predicted total failure. Why? Japanese employers think if you’re smiling you’re not serious, he explained. I had to have another photo taken in which I stared seriously into the camera!

A man and his family, says the caption on this photo

A man and his family, says the caption on this photo. That tells me a lot about the photographer. Why not, a woman and HER family? Or, a family? I love the way the dog is part of the family. And of course, the doll.

I was interested in the contrasts between various photos in this book. Obviously the men (and it was always men) in the police photographs are not happy. They’re in handcuffs. But some of them radiate righteous outrage, while some just look scared and defeated. One has been arrested by barefoot policemen who suspect him of grave-robbing. He’s been made to pose with a skull. But I wondered about others. Could they have been arrested for protesting against an unjust government, like some of the “Mau Mau” in Kenya, who were then sent to British-run concentration camps? Were some of them innocent?

I didn’t expect the parents and loved ones posing in the deathbed portraits to look happy either. But the brides…that was a shock. Were these arranged marriages? One photo appears to be of children dressed in a groom’s suit and bride’s dress. They don’t look like they’re even 12 years old.

Possible child bride and child groom

Are these children?

Some of the photos  show Beninites in Western dress or with Western props such as transistor radios, while others show people in traditional costume doing traditional things. Some are posed together, creating an inner tension and reflecting the changing times in the country. There are photographs of Voodoo priestesses in traditional paint, next to Catholic schoolgirls in their white communion dresses.

What We Take Away, And What We Bring

In graduate school, my thoughtful professor Greg S. told us that all readers bring their own experience to a narrative, and interpret it thereby. The same can be said of these photographs and how I have interpreted them. I wanted to read at least one picture-book on a (to me) foreign country, because I thought a simple, unfiltered picture would be worth a thousand words, and would place less of the writers’ own interpretations on my views. That I could get closer to the subjects. And while this is true, it is also true that how I see these faces, this body language, etc. is largely a product of my own culture and experience.

Tradition meets change.

Tradition meets change.

For example, in some African and Asian cultures, people shake their  heads to mean Yes, and nod their heads to mean No. You can just imagine how confusing this is to people from the West, and visa-versa.

Life and Afterlife

I’m sure some of the people in this book have since passed away, so being pictured here is a sort of afterlife for them. Since some Dahomey people believed that photographs stole a person’s soul and kept them trapped in the pages, that’s another sort of afterlife, albeit a seemingly unhappy one. But the deathbed photos were commissioned on purpose by the families, who wanted some sort of resemblance of their loved ones to live on. They have, and they do. Caveat: I could have done without the really disturbing erotica in this book, which looked to my eyes like underage kids in bothersome poses sometimes with adults. UGH UGH UGH

Three white Communion gloves.

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The Tsar of Love and Techno (Chechnya)

book coverby Anthony Marra

Spokane is Reading book for November, 2016

Every November in Spokane, the public library partners with Auntie’s Bookstore to bring the entire city together to share the experience of reading the same book. So my book group read this book in November, and here I am posting about it in February.

It’s a collection of linked short stories in which the same characters weave (some drunkenly) throughout.

What’s Your Fave?

I think my favorite short story was the one narrated by a group of village girls telling the story of one of them, Galya (Galina) who had succeeded in her career as a ballerina, become the lover of a mobster, and become a superstar. Of course, she came to a sticky end.

Mountains Or maybe my favorite story was the first one, that of an art restorer whose job is to edit historical photographs for the communist regime and make disgraced party officials disappear. He has betrayed his own brother in order to get ahead, and to punish himself (and the regime) he secretly adds his brother to every photograph he works on. Of course, he in his turn is betrayed.

Or maybe my favorite story was the one about the two soldiers who get captured by an old man, who treats them more kindly than their own regiment, and makes them go down a well and pretend to be mistreated whenever their former officer swings by. Of course, one of them steps on a land mine and blows himself sky high just as it seems he is about to be happy.

map of the countryThere are no happy endings here. I did not particularly enjoy the book–nor, I think, did anyone else–but as so often happens in book group, it made for a great discussion. And I emerged at the end happy that I had read the book, and thinking more highly of it than I had when I finished it.

I like Chechnya and Chechynians. I just didn’t care for this book. I’m not keen on short stories and I don’t like Oprah Book Club-esque depressing tales. So, I’m only going to give this book two white towers.

men of the countryThe two towers that loom ominously over all these characters, a reminder of Chernobyl and the unspeakable pollution of our planet. The End.

Mixed Reviews
PS–Someone in my book group said there is a mixed tape (like the one of the book cover) that the author made while writing the book. You can listen to the selections on You Tube I think. They listened to it while reading the book and felt it added to the experience.

Black and Blues (Barbados)

Barbados Mapbook coverby Kamau Brathwaite

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

It’s a good thing that this volume of poetry from “Barbadian Troubadour” Brathwaite is slim, because these poems are rich. He’s very good at using the language as a song, but it is like he can sing harmony and melody at the same time. Listen to the lines in Schooner, for example:

Schooner

A toss night between us
high seas
and then in the morning
sails slack
rope flacking the rigging
your schooner comes in

Barbados boatsOn the deck. buttress
w/mango boxes
chicken coops. crocus rice bags I see you
older than I wd wish you
more tatter than my pride
cd stand

you see me
movin reluctant to the quai-
site. stiff as you know me
too full of pride
but you had travel brave
the big wave and

the bilge swishin stomache
climb the tall seas
to come to me

ship was too early
or was I too late

beach hut(That’s only half the poem, btw but you get the idea. Quai=English quay. Wharf, in American. It turns out the languages spoken in Barbados are French, English, Spanish and Creole, hence various spellings. Unfortunately the indigenous language/s seem to have been wiped out, although a revitalization effort for Kalinago speakers is underway.)

This isn’t dead language though. Brathwaite’s English is full of the blues–pain, outrage, history, sweetness. It’s like the words just jump off the page to light you on fire. Here is the beginning of Glass:

Glass

the author

Portrait of the Poet as a Man

Through corneas of glass I see my people
black
I see them homeless still and shift
less. Slack
& hungry. white
lipped. ray mouthed
beggar at the corners
bugged. drugged
crying out to the enemy for bread…

Even the titles of the poems are resonant of island history: Starvation, Manchile, Moor, Caliban (the demonized Black in Shakespeare’s play of the same name)…

A common word that’s heard, no that rings throughout this collection is REVOLUTION and the need for it, even now, even after hundreds or even a thousand years.

Goodness, I feel that reading these poems have made my voice more poetic, even if it is temporary, I feel grateful. (Great, and full?) But sad and angry too. Hot under the collar, hot like roasting in a tropical sun, burning with injustice like chili peppers or whatever sort of spicyness grows in the Bahamas.

Sunsong is about “the great Ahanamanta comet of that year:

Sunsong

ackee rice and salt cod

“Ackee, rice, salt fish on ice and the rum is fine anytime of year…” –Kingston Trio

The sun has dried my tropic
my mellow suns
my fat banana green
termites wings visit me
spindles of tamarind leaves
falling through the yellow light…

Here are the last lines of this poem, which appear in a bigger, louder, dancier font: (notice how he keeps splitting lines to get a double meaning from the words?)

storm-
tossed. oludumare’s con-
flagration. i wd speak twinkle

As I’m always saying, one of the great pleasures of reading is learning. Well, I Googled “Ahanamanta comet” and got only ONE website…and it is in Spanish, which I do not speak. So if anybody knows about this, please comment. Oludumare, I learned is the Supreme God in the Yoruba pantheon.

Final Comments

I don’t normally enjoy poetry for a variety of reasons. I did enjoy this. I think you would have to be dead not to. Five tamarind leaves! (Oh, and a 1994 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.)

 

Legends, Traditions, and Tales of Nauru (Nauru)

Nauru Mapby Timothy Detudamo

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

In 1938, just as WWII was heating up around the globe, in a tiny island nation to the northeast of Australia, Nauru Head Chief Timothy Detudamo became concerned that the traditional oral stories of his people would be lost. Did he know his home island was about to be overrun by invading Japanese? This slim volume doesn’t say.

It does, however preserve the knowledge. As the title suggests, the book is split into 3 sections:

Legends

book coverThis section gives what could be read as creation myths or literal truth (religion), depending on your viewpoint. They include the origins of Nauru and the South Pacific, how the world was created by 7 giants out of a giant bivalve; how tribal divisions happened, how the first canoe and the first coconut tree were born, etc.

I particularly enjoyed the legend of the coconut, which concludes:

“Since the appearance of this strange tree on Nauru, its fruit, the coconut, has become the elixir of life. Coconut should be eaten at least twice a day, and it has always been recommended that it should be either taken or mixed with other food such as edano, etam, ebaba, edeto, and fish.”

Something to ponder, as I have a lot of health problems–is it because I am deprived of the elixir of life? I certainly don’t eat coconut twice a day. Maybe I should. And what are these Polynesian-language foods that aren’t translated in the book? (The publishers at the University of the South Pacific, publishing this book in English, should have known better.) Ironically, if you Google “edano”, you will get pages of results for Yukio Edano, a Japanese politician.

Traditional Culture of Nauru

Photo of island from the oceanThis section is non-fiction about the lifestyles of the Nauruans–appearances and dress, food storage, fighting, leadership, fishing, houses, childbirth, death, etc.

It was in this section that I learned that edano is a food made from pounded pandanus root. The pandanus tree is apparently very useful for fibers…it makes clothing and huts and weapons and all sorts of things. I still have no idea what it tastes like, although I’m imagining it as maybe a bit like the poi that native Hawaiians make from the taro root?

Asian websites (pandanus is popular in Southeast Asia as well) have this to say: It is:

  • the Asian vanilla
  • similar to coconuts
  • tastes like sugar cane/mango if you suck on the raw stalk
  • kinda banana-leafy, sorta grassy, a little bit nutty, and a lot like Jasmine rice–all at the same time

Confused yet?

Tales of Nauru

Pandanus fruitI’m not sure why this is a separate section, since these tales seem no different in story content or purpose from the first section, Legends. Some appear to be teaching tales, like The Clumsy Father Crab, in which a crab and a rat have a human baby. The rat goes off to gather women’s things and leaves the crab and the baby alone on the beach. The crab attempts to play with the baby, but in trying to pick her up, cuts off all her fingers with his pincers. The mother rat comes back and scolds him and he never touches the baby again.

I know I was supposed to learn something there, but I wasn’t sure what it was. Was this a tale to explain child abuse? That, to borrow a Western concept, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions? That men should listen to their wives, the dummies? That mixed marriages are hard on the kids? I just don’t know.

Another tale, Bagewa, is subtitled “How the Lizards, Insects and Fish Came to Nauru”–again, very similar to the first section in which we learn how many other animals came to Nauru (though not the crabs nor the rats).

It is interesting to me as a pet-rat fancier, how Nauru apparently had indigenous rats, unlike Hawaii, where they were introduced by white men and their ships.

Constructive Criticism

Chief Timothy on a Nauru stampThis book most definitely could have used an introduction. Context required, if you aren’t from Nauru. Maps, drawings, photographs, and an improved Glossary and footnotes would also have been nice.

Despite my slight puzzlement, in fact my sometimes utter bafflement, upon reading these stories, I’m glad I did. This is important cultural knowledge from the smallest island nation on earth (and the 3rd smallest nation period, if you count Vatican City as a nation, which I don’t, and Monaco, which I do). Thank you Chief Detudamo, for making sure it would not be lost.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go eat my daily coconut. Elixir of life, you know!

Extras

To read more about Nauruan history, it is currently being used as a shameful off-shore warehouse for refugees from countries like Iran, who are trying to get to Australia.

Also, check out the wonderful blog by a Hungarian writer, whose concept is similar to mine, and who also reviewed this book. Their blog concept is “Following Folktales Around the World.”

The Land Without Shadows (Djbouti)

book coverShort Stories by Abdourahman A. Waberi

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

First of all, I do not recommend reading this book without your smartphone or Oxford English Dictionary close at hand. For good or for ill, the English translator has faithfully followed the Francophone writer’s vocabulary choices. I do not think there is a “25-cent word” that the author doesn’t know and use. (It’s beautiful, but come on. Who are you trying to impress? Sometimes I liked it–I sure learned a lot! Sometimes I didn’t, when the elevated diction seemed at odds with the education and life experiences of the character who was supposedly speaking.)

The first story in the collection deals with the narrator’s father, who is well into the process of “zombification” brought about by chewing Khat. In the slums, even when a fire breaks out, the khat-chewers do not bestir themselves to save each other, or even their own lives. The firemen come too late. “Fire, that malicious Promethius, chews arrogantly upon the work of the city planners…”, though surely they didn’t plan for slums.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love The Bouti

map of countryThe second story in the collection tells how the country got its name. “First there was the ogress, the forgotten mother, the creature sprung from the swamps…” (I kept seeing Fiona and Shrek in my mind’s eye, but that isn’t what the author has in his mind. She seems a bit more like Kali the Destroyer or perhaps Baba Yaga.)

Hideously ugly, she is variously listed as “a Roman she-wolf…the accomplished predator of men…the mother who gives and takes away life…a cruel hairy creature…the nourishing mother…the patron saint, the cannibal godmother…the whale from the abyss with the unfathomable belly”.

menelik-squareDjbouti, it is said, comes from the Jab, or defeat, of Bouti the ogress. (The historian in me wonders if this actually describes the people abandoning an indigenous animist religion for Islam.)

Since Djbouti is a country filled with Muslim Somalis, I did wonder about all the Judeo-Christian references. It didn’t make sense to me until I learned that Islam contains many of the same scriptures and references, like Gehenna for hell, Jonah and the Whale, the Christ story, and more.

Things I Had to Have Explained to Me

Djbouti BeachThere is a very lengthy introduction to this book. I NEVER read the introductions until I have FINISHED the book, because I don’t want to be told what the book is about before I have read it. I don’t want others’ opinions and interpretations given to me. I want to form my own opinions as honestly and purely as I can.

Well, I broke my cardinal rule with this one. About halfway through, I realized I had NO idea what the author was talking about, so I read the intro. All 17 pages of it. It was then that I learned that:

  • The book is divided into two parts. The first part is before Independence and the second part is after.
  • Some of the stories speak to the civil war in Djbouti and the famine and civil war in Somalia. (I must have missed that due to the Bachelor being on.)
  • A story called “Nabsi” cites a story called “Harvest of Hate” by the Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka in what the intro calls “an overt comparison” of events in Somalia with those in the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. Wasn’t overt to me. (There’s a Nigerian Nobel Laureate?!)
  • Adoua refers to the “historic” defeat of Italy by Abyssianian emperor Menelik II. Yup, never heard of it. Thanks, World History class in high school. Now that I think about it, I don’t remember learning ANY African history there. Hmmmm…..

The Good, the Bad, and the Hideous: And No, It Isn’t the Ogress

Injera bread

I was excited to see this picture of traditional Djboutan food. Why? That’s Injera Bread serving as the platter…I ate it for the first time in a Somali restaurant here in Spokane called Queen of Sheba. It’s traditionally gluten free.

My favorite story was the one titled A Ferrous Tale, which describes the coming of the railroad, and how it changed ordinary Djboutians’ lives. The railroad is a character in the story with a birthday in 1897 and poetry written about it:

It will cross the real country,
It will cross the dream country

It is birthed by French engineers, Swiss planners, Afar sultans, Somali workers, Abyssianian soldiers…statistics are on its side. How many human lives lost? No one kept count.

People will come to auscultate it, (listen to its health as through a stethoscope) photograph it, ask its opinions on the psychology of the autochthonous (indigenous) peoples…(I’m telling you, vocabulary!)

One caveat: There was a story describing the indigenous tradition in a way that I can only see as rape culture, and it bothered me a great deal. This is my perspective as a white American, but also as a woman. Ugh.

Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot. The stories are gripping and they are short and beautifully written. I would give this book four camels and a half! (A baby camel that is.)

Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry (Status Update)

Dear blog fans and readers, I do apologize–I got sick and have been in the hospital and I see that the last time I posted on here was September. I don’t know what happened to October but November was Nanowrimo, of course I work retail so December flew by and then in January, ice and ICU. Awful.

Not to worry, I am back buying books and reading so will post another country soon, probably the island nation of Naru.