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Monday, February 28, 2011

On Being Canadian, I Mean American

Just today I was standing outside of a cafĂ© waiting for Glenn to clear emigration and load the truck onto the ferry for its 3 day journey up the Nile into Egypt. As I was sitting on a dusty concrete porch - watching a kid chase after a tottering wheel with a lead stick - a large robed Nubian man approached; in perfect English he welcomed me to Sudan and asked my name. During the course of our conversation Qutpi asked where I was from. I told him The United States, a truth reserved for officials but generally withheld from passers-by. His lips betrayed his narrowing eyes, a wry smile spread out across his face; he asked, “aren’t you afraid to be here?” “No,” I replied playfully. “Should I be?” I asked raising an exaggerated eyebrow to mirror his mockery with my own. We laughed at the absurdity of policy and he went on to tell me of his family living all around the United States and welcomed me to Sudan with a warm handshake.

Fear is a weapon that divides, a concept known all too well by people throughout the world. Sometimes it is dressed in a cloak of culture and other times faith, it is the classic us against them mentality. It usually boils down to unfamiliarity, all too often we fear the unknown. This Nubian man understood such divisors, and felt propelled to thank us for coming to Sudan. He asked me to write home and share our experiences of what it really feels like to be here. He understood that something as simple as a familiar face is often times enough to turn an adversary into a friend.

I must admit that the media machine helps perpetuate these imagined divisions between people. My first day in Sudan I was walking through the souk (market) sussing out the various array of Sudanese produce, taking stock of the new ingredients on offer. As I traversed the alleyways tasting and sniffing my way through I was welcomed to Sudan no less than a dozen times. The question that follows is: ‘where are you from?’ Up until now we’ve been pretty stoked to be American since Obama is nothing short of a demi-God in Africa. But Sudan is another story and one not so easily bridged by skin color or bought with food aid.

So are we afraid? We claim Canadian citizenship to the casual asker, so yes, in a sense we are. But I do feel more than a twinge of remorse lying to these beautiful people who simply ask out of curiosity. I am torn between portraying the truth and extending another face of America to a population as unfamiliar with us as we are to them. So why the lie? Good question. Of all the countries we been through this past year we’ve yet to feel as safe as we do here in Sudan. Glenn says that it is a safe bet, everyone like Canadians, but I think there is something else, a reason that isn’t as easily explained. Perhaps it is out of fear, but the answer isn’t one that I can put my finger on.

My conversation with the Nubian man changed my perception of the banality of that lie. I am withholding information that might break down that fear by replacing it with a human face; every day I have the opportunity to be the familiar face of America. Come to think of it, we traveled under Bush for 8 years, talk about hated, so what is the big deal? Is it because the Sudanese are Muslims and we’ve been told that Muslims are ‘bad’? How much of the fear mongering has actually taken hold? I don’t know.

From here on out we will claim our rightful nationality. Not everyone likes Americans, so what better reason to be American? We might be the only Americans presently in northern Sudan, so we’ll do our best to represent y’all.

My love,

Thank you Qutpi…

Our photos around Sudan can be accessed here and here

Monday, February 14, 2011

Getting Closer to God

Islam is grossly misunderstood in the west. In The United States where freedom of religion is one of the cornerstones of our country – not to mention one of the freedoms many of us cherish the most - one gets a sense that those religious freedoms were not intended for Islam. Besides, Muslims are different from us. Their God is named Allah*, very unlike our God. Sometimes I wonder if freedom of religion actually means freedom to choose your preferred version of Christianity.

Sudan is 70% Muslim with most of its adherents Sunni, so it is best to know a thing or two about Islamic culture if you’re going to be out and about. I have more than a slight aversion to the term ‘culturally competent**’, but I try my best to keep any major guffaws to a minimum. Besides, Sudan does not have a friendly relationship with the USA, our government’s long history of foreign policy precedes this little micro adventure of ours and we’ve certainly felt the effects. As diplomatic as Glenn is, he hasn’t been able to iron out the wrinkles we’ve created in this part of the world, yet.

Without getting too off course on policy issues there is a breakfast dish here called Bush. It is a thin gruel of bean water; no beans, they were too precious after Bush cut relief to Sudan in response to Sudan’s backing of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war, just bean water and a slab of onion, which pretty much sums it all up. And financially Sudan is cut off from the world: no visa, not ATM’s that are not Sudanese owned, so our credit/debit cards no workie here in Sudan. Just two little strangle holds the western world imposes when you choose not to play ‘their’ game. Ok, back to Islam.

So when we heard about Omdurman’s Sufi dervishes we had to check it out. How many of you hear whirling dervish and conger up an image of the Warner Brother’s Tasmanian devil spinning up a dust cloud? Surely I am not the only one. As famous as the dervishes are, I didn’t know a thing about them - apart from my comic imagination - until we joined them one night in a ritualized chant of la illaha illallah (there is but one God).

Sufi’s are a separate order of Islam who abide by the sharia (Islamic law prescribed in the Koran) but they differ from Orthodox Muslims in their belief that the path to Allah is through more mystical means, like trance and meditation, not ritualized prayer. Sufis often garner skepticism from mainstream Muslims but their long and varied history in Sudan is a testament to the relaxed traditions of Sudanese Islam. And you would be hard pressed to encounter a population of people more welcoming and gracious than the Sudanese.

On Friday Glenn and I hopped in a cab and headed out for a night of chanting, whirling and spectating as the dervishes shortened the gap between them and God. Here are our photos of the weekly ritual. And despite being a woman wedged in between all of the men I was singled out by a beautiful Sufi chant leader who took it on himself to lead me in my own personal path to God. There was an indescribable tangible quality to the evening and I could almost grab hold of the love that radiated out from the dancers. For one night we were all Sufi and love ruled.

The rest of the photos are here.

Sending my love to you,

*Allah is God in Arabic.

**Do you actually think that one can become culturally competent in a culture that is not your own? Think about it.

 Is it possible to bone up on another culture in say a few weeks? a few months? I don’t think so. Cultures are so rich and diverse because you grew up learning all of the intricacies over a lifetime. They can’t be explained away in a book of etiquette.  So you see the rub. You can certainly become sensitive to other cultures extending a basic knowledge as an offering of respect, but to become competent without living in an environment seems like a nice way for westerners to strive to ‘understand’.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ahhh Addis

Glenn and I were a bit beaten down by the time we arrived in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. We were badly in need of privacy among other things; the constant harassment of the people over the past 6 weeks and the poltergeist that took up residence in my guts were taking their toll. We limped into Addis road weary, tired and wounded.

Ironically, amidst the bustle of the city we found privacy and anonymity. We only heard farangi a dozen or so times a day, the beggers were of the usual urban variety and we could eat in privacy with only an occasional glance from nearby diners. You’re probably reading this thinking, ya, so what. In Ethiopia normalcy is a big deal because it pretty much doesn’t exist.

I don’t know how to describe the Ethiopians without inserting my negative bias. They are lovely people, truly lovely but my personality runs counter to their culture. They love white people (farangis) and for some reason find us the most interesting thing in the world. We are constantly mobbed, watched, petted and followed. We can’t brush our teeth without a crowd, lunches are village affairs and any sort of outing is accompanied by numerous ‘guides’ pointing out the obvious the entire way, “that is a cow,” “that is a church.” Yes, thanks for your services now get lost.

We've both reached a tipping point. Glenn engaged in a rock fight with 30 or so children one day. I know you’re recoiling in horror, but rocks and sticks are Ethiopians most successful means of discipline in rural areas, so we gave it a go. Not successful for the farangi, the kids thought it was fun as hell and my poor husband nearly had a heart attack running up and down the hills chucking rocks like a madman after 30+ kids who, by the way, have very good aim AND thought the crazy farangi was the funniest thing ever. It was pretty funny.

Mine came during a violent bout of diarrhea, roadside, with a mob of children running at me full speed yelling, “YOU, YOU, YOU.”  I now know that I can poop, throw rocks and shout obscenities at the same time. I freaked out. I love this country but am OVER the people. That was until we reached Addis and rolled into The Lion’s Den Hotel owned by the sweetest couple in all of Ethiopia, Addis and Bubi.

Two days later we found ourselves weaving through the back roads of Addis in Addis' Mercedes SUV heading to dinner for one of the yummiest Indian meals we’ve had in a long, long time. Our new friends were a much needed breath of fresh air. Addis’ and his wife Bubi are 'new' to Ethiopia; having lived in the US for 30 years, they have just returned to their native country. A couple years ago they returned to capitalize on the vast opportunities available to them in a country that has been in some ways frozen in time.  

Addis, recently retired as Ziggy Marley’s band manager of 30 years, was a natural story teller. He and Bubi are living proof that the American dream is alive and well. As we ate we learned of Bubi’s career opening NYC’s first Ethiopian restaurant which she successfully ran for 20 years. They talked of their kids, who Addis described lovingly (and with a twinkle of pride in his eye) as, “spoiled American brats.” Life back in Ethiopia hasn’t been an easy transition for these two. After more or less growing up in the states they’ve become more American than Ethiopian. Bubi described what it was like being an outsider in her own country. She even gets charged the Farangi prices, despite her flawless command of Amharic. “They can tell from my accent that I am not from here; I go to the markets with my girlfriends and have to stand behind them while they negotiate for me. I just pull out my money and pay, otherwise I get charged the Farangi prices.”  

I can’t even begin to tell you how nice it was meeting these two. Through their stories they eloquently described the clash of culture we’ve been experiencing for the past 6 week. They got it. We loved them and hope, hope, hope to see them again.

Addis and Bubi thank you for everything. And Addis, yes, our wrong turn down a side street in Addis Ababa was meant to be; we needed you.

 Sending my love from Ethiopia with Tomorrow People stuck in my head for a week straight. 
CP (and GP too)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Year in Questions

One year later.
Today is our anniversary; one year ago we landed on African soil. One year! Wow. We’ve not only survived driving through Africa (as many of you feared we wouldn’t) - living out of a car - but we’ve actually thrived. We’ve had plenty of fuel for our journey: your encouragement, the generosity of everyone we’ve met and the laughs we’ve shared along the way.  

Just starting out.
Over the course of this year I have frequently been asked different versions of more or less the same question: How has Africa changed you? It is hard to say how the people of a nation have impacted your life while you are still on the ground amongst them. When you’re in a situation you cannot realistically forecast into the future (or accurately assess yourself), you’re more or less trapped in your own perspective. Of course there are plenty of trivial changes, like my uncanny ability to suss out a fruit vendor down a ramshackle back alleyway constructed solely of scrap metal and plastic tarps, but I don’t think that is the point of the question. I’ll have to write a post return update and let you know how it is going.

People also inquire about the poverty in Africa, asking how we deal. My answer is a based on my own definition of poverty and it is a question of perspective, not of accumulation. I see poverty as not having enough of something; Americans with more than enough - yet never satisfied - always seeking more, chasing, chasing, chasing that elusive [fill in the blank] are just as impoverished as the African who deals with food scarcity. Yes, you can argue Maslow by saying that the accumulation of wealth cannot possibly compare with inadequate basic needs, but poverty is a question of perspective: abundance vs. scarcity. Hunger, filthy water and a lack of basic medical facilities are byproducts of poverty, but separate issues altogether. For those of you who have spent time in poor countries, you know that poor is a relative term.

 If you live in rural Africa and you have more of something than someone else does, you share with them. That is how African’s operate. It is a different way of being in the world. No, most Africans don’t have ipods, drive expensive cars and live in fancy houses like we do. They certainly laugh, sing and joke more than we do. They dance and have time for conversation. They stop what they’re doing to help you whether you need it or not. There is a spirit of community that our world has lost. So are they poor?

By my definition, America is the more impoverished of the two nations. Try crying into your cashmere sweater and tell me how comforting it is.

I’ve grown accustomed to the wealth of spirit that surrounds us every day here in Africa so I don’t really see the poverty as such. The real question is how I’ll deal with the poverty of spirit back home where the acquisition of: money, youth, power, etc. takes precedent over the development of self and soul.

I went into a gallery in Addis Ababa the other day looking for Ethiopian folk art. It was like walking into Barneys in the middle of NYC during a holiday buying frenzy. I was surrounded with rich white American women demanding price lists and grabbing up treasures faster than the staff could swipe their Visa cards. I think I stood there gaping in awe, but I am not quite sure, it was a bit of a blur. I handed over my price list to a woman shrieking across the gallery with an east coast accent to her rhinestone spectacled friend and slipped out the front door. That was a culture shock and a half, but a world so, very, very familiar. I am pretty sure the shock of returning to the western world will be more glaring than any I’ve experienced thus far. The real question should have been: Am I ready for this?

And one I’ve gotten a lot lately is: Are you ready to come home? The answer is yes. By my definition you are all rich beyond measure and Glenn and I have been so blessed by your wealth of spirit, love and vitality. I can’t wait to be home and kiss your faces, hold those babies and soak up your wealth. You will share with me won’t you?

My love,

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Legend Has It

If you’re Ethiopian you most likely believe that: the Nile River originates in Ethiopia (the White Nile actually originates in Lake Victoria running through Uganda and Kenya first), that Mt. Kilimanjaro is in Kenya (it is in Tanzania) and that Moses’ stone tablets inscribed with God's law rest in a church somewhere in Axum, a little town in northern Ethiopia not far from the Eritrean border (check out Gram Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal if you interested in the plausibility of this claim). Ethiopian's also abide by the belief that if you want to hide something, you make many, many replicas of it and guard them fervently. So word on the street is that the true Ark of the Covenant lives somewhere in the Tsion Maryam Church, guarded around the clock by a monk who has devoted his life to keep the ark safe through constant prayer. It is believed that if the monk were to falter in his devotion, the ark would come under threat. He is the only person alive who has seen the Ark. 

We rolled into Axum 2 days before Timkat, the celebration and reenactment of the Ark’s arrival in Axum. Cool. We were told that one of the replicas would be carried through town toward the old reservoir known as Queen of Sheba’s Bath where it would spend the night before returning to Tsion Maryam Church. The precession of pilgrims and townspeople, priests and deacons, camera wielding tourists and the Chinese video crew was quite a sight.

Later that evening we met up with our Israeli friends and word on the street is that the Israelis want it back. So we told them where we last saw the Ark and they headed that way. It is Ethiopia and it would be totally possible for them to have (at some point) mistaken the fake ark for the real one, so who knows. When we picked up the Israelis the next day, their packs were quite heavy. We tossed them into the back of the car and headed south to visit the churches of Tigray together. We didn’t say anything about weight of their packs and they kept quiet about their evening escapades. It seemed like an auspicious start to our adventure into Tigray.

As a country Ethiopia is steeped in myth and Ethiopians are fantastic story tellers. For any given question you can always expect an answer, rarely will it be the same answer and it is not uncommon for the same person to give you different answers on different days; answers can often vary wildly, and when asking about dates, responses can vary by a thousand years or more! The cool part is that no one really knows how old most of the churches actually are. Some sources will date a particular church to the 4th century, while others believe it represents 12th century architecture; complicated by renovations, additions and the inclusion of plaster and frescos at random many of these churches have continued to evolve throughout time as an amalgam of periods rather than belonging to just one era. 

There are over 350 known rock-hewn and cave built churches throughout Ethiopia, many of them over 1,000 years old, and nearly all of them are still in use today. So a 6th century church that has been used throughout the decades as a sacred place of worship is bound to come across a designer or two who just can’t help but dood it up a bit. This is Africa and African's love bling. A few of the churches are believed to have been built before Christ as pagan temples, later converted into Christian churches. If you’re a historian the ambiguity might drive you nuts, if you’re Ethiopian your certainty is fact, if you’re a curious observer the mystery only adds to the mystique.

For photos of Axum and Timkat click here

For photos of the Tigrian Chruches and our escapades with the Israelis click here

Sending love out to you,