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.


Peoples of Southern Africa (Part 2)

Read Part 1

Ndebele housesNdebele and Matabele

It is thought that these people arrived in Southern Africa around 200 years after the death of Christ. They are descended from the Nguni, a Bantu-speaking people. Ndebele women have become famous for their mural art, which is traditionally applied to the walls of their houses in geometric patterns. Initially the paint was made from clay, ahs, and dung plus natural pigments, but today, brightly-colored commercially-produced paints are used.


The Ovambo are a matriarchal society. Interestingly, they have a proverb that states: “the family does not come from the penis.” Hmmm!

Ovambo people used to make strings of Omakipa, or ivory buttons. A groom would give them to his bride on their wedding day, and add to her collection after that. Nowadays, hunting elephants for ivory is illegal.


the Great Zimbabwe ruins

the Great Zimbabwe ruins

The Shona people built the Great Zimbabwe, which European anthropologists refused to believe, due to a racist conviction that such primitive people could not possibly have constructed such a thing. The Great Zimbabwe is the largest collection of ruins in Southern Africa, and was built between the 11th and 15th centuries.

The Shona language is spoken by many other people in Southern Africa as a second language.


These Bantu-speaking ancestors of the Sotho originated in present-day eastern Nigeria. By about 10000 they had settled in Southern Africa and set about absorbing the indigenous population, the Khoisan. The Sotho are horse people. The Basotho pony is one of the world’s toughest breeds. It originated in the Cape horses brought to Lesotho by Chief Moshoeshoe in 1828.

book coverThe Sotho have professional alternative medical practitioners who employ a wide range of herbal medicines and rituals to cure disease, bring good luck and fertility and protect people from misfortune. In South Africa, since the fall of apartheid, the government has tried to incorporate these people into the official health system at the community level.

Easter Island (Easter Island)

Easter Islandby Jennifer Vanderbes

Parallel stories aren’t always equally compelling. (And don’t get me started on Game of Thrones.) But the women narrators in this novel are; Elsa who is young in 1913 and Greer, who is young in the mid-1970s. (No relation to each other, except perhaps in the scientific and artistic spirit.) I sighed each time the story left one to flip through time to the other, but within sentences I was enthralled again.

This author is just that good.

Get caught up in the all-consuming quest for the first angiosperm (flowering tree); the mystery of the Rapa Nui statues and their destruction, the storyboards with no Rosetta Stone. The mysterious destruction of an orphaned German fleet after the outbreak of WWI. The politics of the Chilean government toward the indigenous people of Easter Island.

There are betrayals–plenty. There is a simpleminded sister (what would you diagnose her with today that she wouldn’t have been medicated for in 1913?) There is an uneasy romance and an equally uneasy marriage of convenience.

People, living their lives as vicariously as they can, despite everything fate does to hurl its daggers at them.

In another book I read for this blog, a character who is supposed to be Austrian refers to her childhood Christmas tree as a “Weihnachtsbaum”. This made me choke on my coffee. Well yes, Weihnacht is the literal translation of Chirstmas, but a Christmas tree is always a “Tannenbaum,” as far as I know. Epic Babblefish fail. I thought for a paragraph or two this author had made the same sort of not-a-native-German-speaker-nor-do-I-know-any mistake…but she was actually revealing a particularly poignant plot twist which blew my mind. Do watch for that if you speak German. It’s just fun.

Five colossal moai statues!

The Fingersmith (Wales)

book cover The Fingersmithby Sarah Waters

What, you ask, is a fingersmith? The heroine in this novel is asking herself the same question. Who am I? What should I do with my life? Will I be hanged for a crime, like my mother? And the answers keep changing as her world gets dumped on its head.

I loved, loved, loved this book. It was like sipping a hot steaming Smoking Bishop while esconsed in a velvet Victorian armchair in my knitted slippers and my smoking jacket. It was fabulous!

Ye Old Curiosity Plot

The story opens in a den of thieves where Susan Trinder’s one constant is the love of Mrs. Sucksby, the orphan farmer. But now that she’s growing up, Susan must navigate increasingly murky waters. Author Waters (ha ha) is an expert at setting up expectations and then turning them on their heads. There are 3 or 4 plot twists that will blow your mind.

Waters tips her hat to Dickens as the story opens with young Sue being taking begging at a play (Oliver Twist). She is intensely frightened by the cruel Bill Sykes. Later Sue encounters her own Bill Skyes in the form of Richard Rivers, a seedy nobleman who plots to cheat one Lady Maud out of her fortune. When “Gentleman” cons Sue into helping him, the game is on!

Water’s use of period slang is masterful. It transported me to the world of the novel. It felt like magic.I do not know if Wales is as proud of Sarah Waters as it is of Dylan Thomas and other famous Welsh writers, but it should be.

Head Cook at Weddings And Funerals And Other Stories of Doukhobor Life (Canada)

book coverby Vi Plotnikoff

Normally, I don’t enjoy short story collections from the same, unknown-to-me author. But this linked collection of short stories was a treat. It felt like curling up on the green ceramic stove I saw in the Doukhobor Discovery Centre near Castlegar, B.C., (in Grand Forks) and smelling the home-baked bread and borscht, which they call borsh. The author is a Canadian woman of Doukhobor descent, and the stories are all set just north of the border near my Spokane home.

Language Note: I’m currently studying Russian with the Rosetta Stone, and I could recognize many of the foreign words in this book…barely. Obviously the Dukohobors spoke some kind of dialect. If I remember my geography correctly, they were from an area in the Ukraine so perhaps that is why.

Most of the stories are set in the 1950s and center around young Ana, just as the times are changing and tradition is being challenged. Rebellious Doukhobor girls  are starting to run off to Vancouver to sing in cafes rather than continue milking, plowing, and planting as their mothers and grandmothers did.

Some stories flash back to the youth of Ana’s mother and baba (grandmother). Ana’s babushka came to Canada when she was four years old, after the great persecution of the Doukhobors back in Russia.

The Peaceniks

I knew, of course, that the Doubkhobors broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1700s. I knew that they had a big bonfire and burned all their weapons and refused to fight for the Czar. I knew they were persecuted for it, and that the author Leo Tolstoy donated the profits from his last novel to help thousands of them resettle in Canada.

women in traditional costumeI did not know that in Canada, they refused to join the Canadian military or to take a loyalty oath to the Canadian government. But it makes sense. They felt their duty to God came before any duty to Queen or Country. That is why many of them moved from Saskatchewan, where they first settled, to B.C., where many remain today. I didn’t know that Doukhobors parents refused to allow their boys to march in parades or in gym class – “Doukhobors don’t march”, says the book. It’s too militant.

The stories deal with all the issues that Ana has growing up:

1) Being one of a majority sect in which the minority have become terrorists. (It must have felt a bit like being Muslim today.)

newspaperSons of Freedom

The Sons of Freedom is a Doukhobor sect which eschewed peace (in other words, everything that made them Doukhobor in the first place and brought them to Canada). They started bombing things and people and gave the rest of the Doukhobors a bad name. Ugh. In retaliation, the Canadian government sent Mounties into their villages, rounded up their under-age children, and took them away to be locked behind barbed wire in boarding schools where they were only allowed to see their families once every two weeks. They were forcibly taught to read and write, against the parents’ wishes.

2) Being a girl in a religious sect where men have all the power.

One heart-breaking story in the book involves Ana finding a long braid with pretty ribbons tucked away in a box. It is her baba’s.

“Why did you cut your hair, Bab?”
“Because I had to.”

We learn that the young Natasha was very proud of her beautiful hair. One day the newlywed hears her mother-in-law and young sisters-in-law crying. She’s terrified that her Dmitri, away working on the railway, has been in an accident. No. The religious leader of the Doukhobors far away has pronounced a new edict. Long hair, he says, is unsanitary. It’s too much trouble when the women have all this other work to do. All Doukhobor women are to chop their hair off short – immediately.

Talk about men controlling women’s bodies. Talk about abuse of power. UGH

Tolstoy StatueNatasha thinks about running and hiding, or going to her mother’s village. But all the women in her mother’s village are under the same edict. Soon there is a knock on the door and the village barber appears, clippers in hand.

Without her glorious head of hair, Natasha thinks her thin face looks like a rodent’s. Like any modern woman with a bad haircut, she wonders if the way she looks will make her husband stop loving her. She never truly feels beautiful again.

The Immigrant Story

3) Finally,  there is the tension that all immigrants and emigrants face: Being Canadian and Duokhobor at the same time, with the prejudices each has against the other. Being poor. Wanting to fit in. Each new generation gets closer to the new country’s customs and attitudes and further from the old. The grandparents and grandchildren no longer speak the same language. The old customs, the group memory starts to die.

I am fascinated by the immigrant story. It is my story too.  Four short generations ago, my mother’s people lived in Denmark and spoke Danish. Generations before that they lived in Ireland – as did my father’s people – and spoke Gaelic. Now we are Americans. For how long, I wonder? And what language will my descendants speak? Would they recognize the themes of my life? Will they face the same challenges?

Five pirogis for this book.

I Dreamed of Africa (Kenya)

I Dreamed of AfricaAround 1942, while Kenneth Carr was showing his African slides to Americans, helping Great Britain’s war effort as requested, Kuki Galman was toddling around her native Italy without a father. She had not yet met her dad, as he was living in the hills with the partisans, fighting Germans.

Like Land of a Thousand Hills, this memoir is the story of a white woman running a ranch in Africa, but it is a very different book.

I often wonder if wanderlust, the impulse ascribed to me once by an ex-fiancé as “having restless feet” is a byproduct of nature or nurture. Kuki Galman received a healthy dose of both. After her hero father returned from the war he became fascinated with Saharan Africa. He took his daughter on trips to meet the Tuareg and their camels in the desert – but she says that was not her Africa. She wanted giraffes and gazelles.

She Dreamed of Kenya

Kuki arrives in Kenya for good in 1970, ten years after the country’s independence. Times are not as troubled for her as they were for the Carrs, a few decades earlier and a few countries away in Ruanda and the Congo. Unfortunately, fate has a whole truckload of personal heartbreak waiting for Kuki. Africa is just the backdrop for the last two tragedies.

The first occurs in the opening chapter of the book, in which she and a group of friends are driving to a new fish restaurant in the Italian province in which they live. A lorry causes a terrible car accident, which kills the driver’s wife and cripples Kuki.

Indian lorry which has crashedA Word About Lorries

A lorry causes the second tragedy three short years later and I do not think this is random. Lorries all over the world, but especially in Italy, India, and I surmise, Africa, are dangerous. Drivers are often half-trained, sleep-deprived, daredevils hopped up on speed. (It was a lorry performing an illegal U-turn on the northern Italian Autobahn in the early 1990s which caused the horrific car accident which left my friend K. with a permanent and her friend Thomas dead. For three days, K. lay unconscious in an Italian hospital as a Jane Doe – her parents in Germany were frantic. Lorries are a menace. Something needs to be done.)

So it takes eight months for Kuki to walk again, but one leg is now permanently shorter than the other. Like my friend K., she has acquired a permanent limp in her early 20s. The driver in the accident, Paolo, visits her faithfully in the hospital. They fall in love. He longs to get back to Africa – his first wife did not like it there, preferring Milan – and it’s music to Kuki’s ears. She too longs for a fresh start. They pack up her small son from a first marriage, his two motherless daughters, and fly to Africa.

By the way, from the descriptions of people being flung from the car during the accident, they weren’t wearing seatbelts. I know, it was the 1960s. People, please: Wear your damn seatbelt.


Giraffes and gazelles

Photo courtesy of Hiral Chauhan

Viktor Frankl, the concentration camp survivor and psychologist who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, says that the difference between those who made it and those who died often depended on finding a reason to live. To find meaning. To fight despair.

What I liked about this book – and it’s a tearjerker – is how Kuki emergences from the cocoon of pain and grief where she could quite easily have stayed. She looks up. She looks around and sees that Africans are losing their heritage – their connection with nature and with tradition. She sees that the old healers who use jungle plants to cure disease are dying out and that no new students are coming to take their place, much like the Mayan healer Don Elijo laments around the same time period, in Belize.

(*To see more amazing Kenyan wildlife photos check out Hiral’s blog at DreamWorld.)

RhinosKuki sees the ancient safari paths of the elephants disappearing beneath concrete and crap shopping malls faster than the wise old animals can adapt. She sees the rhinos disappearing. But she notices that many seem to come to her ranch for shelter. And she thinks…I am still alive. The animals are still alive. I can do something. I have to do something. So she takes her cattle ranch on the edge of the Great Rift Valley and turns it into a Rhino Sanctuary and Nature Conservatory, in memory of her loved ones.

The Dream Crushers

I am always surprised by the people who tell you that you can’t. What has made these people the way they are? Once, while camping in India, my friends and I met an obnoxious Indian lawyer who kept repeating the phrase “You’ll never make it over those hills to Jaipur.” (He also insisted that there were two religions in America: Protestant and Catholic. Which one are you? He refused to believe me when I said “Neither.”)

my painting of an Indian elephant

My guache of an Indian elephant by Jaipur

We cycled easily to Jaipur the next day. And ever since, I have regarded naysayers with more than a little skepticism. Kuki too had her naysayers – from a  teacher who scolded her for writing about wanting to go to Africa when she grew up (Why don’t you write about something normal, like becoming a mother or a teacher, she was told…) to a friend who sent her a postcard saying Africa had taken so much from her, why not cut her losses and come home to Italy.

But Kuki was made of sterner stuff. No way was she abandoning her graves. Kuki Gallmann is a five-times best-selling author. Chances are you’ve never heard her name, thanks to the Ameri-centric publishing industry. Oh wait, there was a movie with Kim Basinger. I bet the book is better.

Newspaper clippingAmong Kuki’s accomplishments:

  • Archaeological sites have been discovered on Ol Ari Nyiro (her former cattle ranch) – this is a happy echo of her childhood in which she and her father would find old Roman coins in plowed fields
  • Her Black Rhino Sanctuary supports the largest-known undisturbed population of endangered black rhinos outside Kenya’s national parks, and is a refuge for over 450 elephants, 4,000 buffalo, zebra, cheetah, and leopard. This includes melanistic leopards, lions, gazelles and antelopes.
  • Ol Ari Nyiro also contains the only protected indigenous relic forest remaining in the area. This includes natural springs, 62 man-made lakes, and the Mukutan Gorge. The conservancy supports over 450 species of birds; 85 on the IUCN red list for vulnerable and endangered species; over 800 insects – many of which are rare, and 2,350 species and subspecies of plants identified so far, some of which are unique to the conservancy. (Rare bugs – UGH! But, good for them.)
  • In 2009 during one of the worst droughts in Kenya’s history, Kuki started an emergency nursery school, a famine relief and feeding programme, that has so far benefited over 35,000 women and children and is ongoing

Earth is our Mother














An Extraordinary Woman

And all this came about because of how Kuki Gallmann reacted to extreme personal tragedy and loss – by reaching out to try to heal the hearts of others, and by standing for those whose rights will always be second to the rights and desires of humans – wild animals.

Well done, that woman. Well done.

I can’t help but note that in the early photos from both Kuki Gallmann and Rosamund Carr, there are sad dead trophy elephants shot by their husbands. In later photos, live animals being hand-fed by the women. Hm. Of course then I think about Sarah Palin bathed in caribou blood, grinning from ear to ear. UGH. I guess the love of murdering animals is not confined to the male gender. I am eternally gratefully there are people who are equally passionate about protecting life. Even life which people persist in regarding as that of a “lower order.” What nonsense. The Earth is our mother – we are all connected. We Are All One.

Land of a Thousand Hills (Ruanda)

book coverRosamund Halsey Carr’s life was profoundly changed by a small breeze that blew a man’s red hat off his head and across the road.

The man was a hitchhiker. Rosamund and her husband were driving away from their life in the Belgian Congo on their way back to New Jersey. They had given up on Africa.

But when they stopped the car to fetch the hitchhiker’s hat, it would not start again.

They learned it would take two months to get replacement parts and fix the car. although they eventually divorced, they stayed in Africa. That changed everything.

Colonialist Caveats

Rosamund and kids

Roz founded Imbabazi Orphanage on her plantation at Mugungo in 1994. It’s still in operation.

Rosamund Carr was an extraordinary person. She stayed on her plantation through the genocide, protecting all the Hutu and Tutsi workers she could, even facing down machete-wielding thugs by telling them “Go ahead, kill me, an old white woman.” (They didn’t.) She founded an orphanage after the genocide. She made one of her black workers her business partner. She helped women workers who were beaten by their husbands. She genuinely seemed to love many of the Africans without patronizing them.

But, and I hardly see how this could have been avoided, she was a woman of her time. In the memoir she seems completely oblivious to the atrocities committed by the Belgians in the Congo. (She mentions only that the people “thank” the Belgian government for “governing them so well” before independence.) She expresses shock and regret that the Europeans kicked off “their” property by Congolese soldiers are now unable to pass that land down to their children and grandchildren as expected. She takes European life in Africa as a matter of course instead of a Colonialist phenomenon.

Nonetheless, she was a much better European than most. Perhaps because she was an American. (To Africans back in the day, all white Westerners were called Europeans. Like how the Thais call foreigners farang, which means “Frenchman.”) Rosamund’s husband was the big game hunter and explorer Kenneth Carr. When she first meets Dian Fossey, who is working with the mountain gorillas, Fossey stipulates that she NEVER mentions Carr’s name in her presence. She doesn’t. Rosamund admits to not liking Fossey at first – the outspoken animal rights advocate seems to have been an aquired taste. Though not mentioned in the book, Wikipedia suggests that Fossey may have captured suspected poachers and had them stripped and beaten with stinging nettles.

Ahead of Her Time

Hutus Tutsis and Batwas.

The Tutsis are very tall…many over seven feet. Hutus are moderate. Batwa pygmies are often under four feet tall.

In many ways, however, Rosamund was ahead of her time. She originally married Kenneth, as I suspect many women did in those days, because she was an adventurer born into the wrong gender. Even in 1949, there was no way a lone woman could do what she did without marrying that kind of man.

But once in Africa, she starts striking out on her own. First she takes a job managing a plantation. “Kenneth was livid that I would even consider such an idea. He said it was improper and unseemly and that I was utterly incapable of handling such an enterprise on my own.” Then, she starts driving. (For their first three years in Africa, he didn’t “allow” her to do so.)

It’s a shame that the country of Ruanda has been so scarred by genocide and civil wars. (I certainly won’t be visiting anytime soon.) Because there are so many wonders there. Including the Mountains of the Moon (the movie King Solomon’s Mines was filmed there). Including Batwa pygmies, the original inhabitants, most of whom stand less than four feet tall. The Batwa were pushed into the forest by the first wave of invaders, the Hutu. Then came the Tutsi. Then the Belgians.

And of course, near and dear to my heart, the gorillas. And the elephants. I Elephant Stamp from 1959absolutely hate that they shoot elephants which trample on the pyrethrum plants. In one poignant scene, Kenneth shoots a bull elephant who has come down from the mountains with four females, but the beast doesn’t go down. Thinking that he’s missed, Ken doesn’t try again.

The elephants stand there for hours. When they finally move off, the bull falls over. Turns out Kenneht’s shot killed him instantly – but the females surrounded him and held him upright until they could no longer bear his weight. Elephants are special. They should always be protected.

The Plant That Made it All Possible

Pyrethrum PlantsLike many Europeans, Rosamund managed, and then owned, a pyrethrum plantation. The pyrethrum plant, with its pretty white flowers, was discovered to be a powerful insecticide during World War I. The story: A company of soldiers bedded down in a field for the night. When they got up the next morning, all their body lice were dead.

Fair Warning: This book will crack your heart wide open and allow a lot of liquid to leak out of your eyes. Kind of like what happened to Lake Kivu when an earthquake made a crack in the bottom. All the water drained away. Many of the African characters you come to love in the book will be slaughtered senselessly. But Rosamund Halsey Carr clearly shows us that there can be good in the world too. The children of Ruanda are resilient, if only they are given a chance.

This is an extremely enjoyable memoir of a life well lived, and well loved.