Archive for the ‘America’ Category

So I’m signing up for some “content mills” or websites to connect content and copy writers with small contracts. They’re meat markets that established writers tend to shun, but I’m not very established yet so I say I am here for anyone’s use and abuse at this point. A few dollars help.

Anyway, to sign up for these sites you obviously need a writing sample. They say I retain the rights to the samples I submit so I’ve decided to post them up here too, just for shits and gigs. Let’s call it transparency. So here is the one I just submitted. 150 – 250 words on one of my favorite places. Enjoy.

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Wherever I move, or stay for very long at all frankly, there are a few things I take care of first and right away to get my footing. I always look for a few resources like the closest place to relax outside, the nearest nature trail, convenience store, gas station, liquor store – the basics.
But what is the most important of all?
Why, the most important resource in the animal kingdom is of course none other than the watering hole. In my case, it’s the 4 Corners Pub in the 4 Corners shopping center at the 4 Corners crossroads my and three other neighborhoods cling to for life.
The 4 Corners Pub is a small, American-style pub tucked in between a gas station mostly used by underage kids to buy cigarillos and a seriously underrated Peruvian chicken shop. It has creaky wooden floors, creaky wooden stools, and a creaky wooden bar that comes out into the middle of the room from the left just as you walk in the door. There are a few TVs in the corners playing various games and lotto draws all through the bar and the “family” dining room to the right. There it feels like a nice, simple diner, right out of some midnight crime drama.
The bar has a nice selection and the food isn’t bad, but what I love most about my watering hole is everything else anyway. Just outside DC, it’s simple, classic America meeting new Americans: the frontlines.

Isn’t it weird to agree with something somebody you disagree with said?

I used to work with someone who basically sprinted to my shit list. That’s a story for another day, but in the mix of all the absolute magic that spewed from their face, they spit out one piece of wisdom I can’t actually help but agree with.

Get in where you fit in.

puzzleGet in where you fit in. This, in the context of training me to work with a new team. Yes, unfortunately this person was my superior for a while in a certain light, so I basically had to deal with them effectively and diplomatically a fair amount. I kept asking questions when the rush hit and that answer basically silenced them all. They say even the best map can’t take you over even an inch of land. At some point you’ve just got to take a step where you see one needs taken.

But thankfully, that’s just it. That’s all it takes: one step.

Yes, a broken watch is right twice a day, but a working watch does wonders.

I got another piece of advice I will always carry with me from my Uncle Eddy. He was actually my grandmother’s brother (I think) but really he was just a real cool dude. And a beast. Living in the Adirondack adirondacksmountains of upstate New York, he was a hunter by profession. Though he did keep a woodshed out in front of his tiny house on Big Tupper Lake that he also sold for that extra little trickle of cash we all need.

So one time I was actually graced with the chance to really hang with Uncle Eddy. My cousin and I got the opportunity to go fishing with him and one of his buddies one evening during a family reunion up there. So after the sun went down the four of us took his little fishing boat out on the lake. From there we puttered down this winding river that conveniently met the lake at the creepiest point on the far end of the tall grasses and mossy shorelines… on the other side of the bridge…

creepy-river

Anyway, my cousin and I kept asking when we would get to drop our lines but he kept catfishrefusing our impatience. We were looking for catfish and he said he knew the perfect spot. It’s got to be a nice, deep, muddy mess underwater, but what does that look like above it? Apparently also the creepiest place ever. After forever he finally let us drop our lines and when he did, it didn’t take 30 seconds for all four of us to catch a catfish as big as my forearm. We filled up our bucket in no time and went back to cook the family dinner.

See, Eddy spent his whole life in those mountains. He built a beautiful hunting cabin on the far side of tsnowy wood.jpghe lake with his own hands. No driveway, just a dock. He once tracked a deer eight miles in heavy snow off of two drops of blood.

If you asked him how he knew where those catfish would be, or how he found that deer, he would say he could see it. To him, it was all about knowing where you were and what you were looking at. Only once you know what you’re actually looking at could you see what was out of place.

the-woods

He told me, “Go into the woods. Surround yourself by trees. Stand still and look around. Notice all the trees and the bushes and leaves on the ground and all their tiny differences. Some trees are skinny, some are fat, some have lots of knots, some have lots of branches. Notice all the grooves in the bark, and how the dead leaves on the ground lean against each other. Once you know what’s around you well enough to paint it, take one step. Just one single step. Everything changes. The trees, the leaves, the world is totally different. Once you move at all, you need to paint a completely new picture before you’re aware again of what you’re actually seeing.”

One step at a time.angela_esnouf-one_step_towards_peace

Whether your guy won or didn’t, everyone sees what’s happening in the US. There is some serious … dissatisfaction … being expressed right now, from trolls and unfriending to mass demonstrations and arrests.

So a lot of people out there are asking themselves what to do now. Meetings and town halls are being held and filled up by people seriously afraid and with questions for days. But like I said, the best map can’t take you over an inch of land.

Only you know what to do and where to go from where you stand. But first you need to know where you stand.

Make yourself aware of your own situation, what you’re looking at right now, and study it. Look closely at all the leaves at your own feet. Dive into your own history and the history of the people and the land around you. Where you know the most, you can consistently and effectively do the most. Only once you know what you’re actually seeing can you see where to step, and all that changes when you do. You see an inconsistency in an argument? Pick up that book. You see one way to be more self-sufficient? Watch that YouTube video. Look around and find the need in your own life and grill it. Whatever you uncover will make you more and give you the strength to take your first step.

Then notice how everything changes. You feel something. You meet people. Those you already knew start looking at you funny. You go home and start looking at that funny. So look at it funny. Explore how much has changed with just a single step. There is where youSWNS_ROBIN_HAIR_02 study next, where you watch your next Youtube video or Netflix documentary, where you listen to your next underground musician, where you read your next article or book. This is change, this is growth, and this is scary. But it’s okay. Little by little, step by step, the bird builds its nest.

We can’t do everything at once but that’s no reason not to do anything at all. Empower yourself. Become aware and get in where you fit in. Take a step where you see a step needs taken, no matter what anyone else sees. After all, they may be tracking a different deer.

That’s basically all I’ve got for now.

Onward and upward.

Z

 

P.s. So this guy was silent and didn’t use motorized vehicles for 17 years. And doing that taught him the environment starts with the people around you. His story is an amazing one.

​Mali is in the midst of a social media blackout. In sending this out we’ll see how far that goes. 

Starting Wednesday night, the Malian government cut access within Mali to at least Facebook and Twitter after the arrest of a Malian radio show host sparked protests that turned violent. And access remains cut off today.

This radio host, who has been vocally critical of the current Malian government, used social media himself to rally his supporters against his arrest. As a result, Mali has cut off access to Facebook and Twitter at the very least. It’s not clear which, if other sites have been blocked at the moment. 

The two major internet providers in Mali, Orange and Malitel, have not made any announcements regarding the cut. This is not much of a surprise, however, as both companies have been prone to service problems and customer negligence for as long as they have been around. 
As social media blackouts have become commonplace in countries experiencing discord, it only highlights the importance of spreading information, and the internet as the ultimate tool for doing so. 

From African elections to the Arab Spring, governments are putting internet access higher and higher on the list of important resources to play with in order to manipulate the population. The same can even be seen in the American debate over “net neutrality.”

Thankfully at this point in the evolution of the internet, communication and information access have not yet been synchronized or streamlined enough to kill everything by switching off one app or website. Though it’s usually seen as a problem that we need several passwords to access our several online accounts, I for one am happy for the scattered nature of the internet. 

I fear the day all of our venues for information sharing come from the same website and everything can be controlled from one app. Everything is clearly moving in that direction, as internet streamlining is always in high demand. But until that day comes, I will enjoy this Wild Wild West-style internet because the truth still has a chance to slip through the cracks, for now.

So this is a test. This blog gets forwarded to a Twitter account and from there on to Facebook. Let’s see how far this gets. 
Onward and upward, people.

Z
Mali is the latest African country to impose a social media blackout

i know

Everything I do involves the transfer of ideas. I teach English, thankfully often to people who actually plan to use it in either the US or Europe (or England, which I guess doesn’t count anymore?). So I am constantly figuring out new better ways to understand ideas people are trying to communicate to me, and to effectively communicate my own ideas to others. But this isn’t just my job. It’s my whole life. And it’s not just a job for me. This one is for all of us.

I get home from work and the work continues, because as anyone who studies or works in language already knows, INeffective MIScommunication is pretty much where every shitstorm starts. Words just seem to have this nasty habit of changing, evolving, and flipping their meaning 9000 degrees along that treacherous journey from mouth to ear. There’s so much room out there for walls and booby-traps to stop ideas in their tracks, with results ranging everywhere from funny to fatal.

wall

Take the US for example (can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em, amiright??). The past few weeks we’ve seen a tragic evolution in the country’s paralyzing addiction to violence and aggression.  After years of reports and videos of what many feel to be excessive police violence, the violence has turned its crooked smile back on the police themselves.

Two major national tragedies in two weeks – mass shootings of police officers, and both by US veterans – have thrust the US into a dark time. But it seems like every time we try and begin a productive conversation about even the general problem of violence in the US, the sad problem of miscommunication gets in the way once again.

Watching from the outside, it looks to me like the entire country is talking past each other, particularly when it comes to violence and the police. How is this possible? The simplest way I can rationalize it is a fundamental difference in abstraction. Abstraction is basically how you draw the line between one “thing” and another in your mind.

Where does one “thing” end and the next begin? As a new driver, the act of “starting the car” involves numerous small steps like adjusting your mirrors, buckling your seatbelt, turning the key, shifting into 1st (or Drive), etc. After 20 years behind the wheel, “starting the car” becomes one action that happens to include all these smaller steps we no longer think about. This is abstraction. To me and most others, a chair is a chair. It’s a thing I sit on. To a master carpenter however, a chair is a work of art, many little pieces that fit together perfectly in a particular, beautiful way in order to stand tall and elegantly support the weight of my lazy ass.

So there appears to be a fundamental problem with abstraction when we talk about “the police” in the United States. To some, “the police” refers to the system of police and policing, including rules, regulations, quotas, metrics, training, culture, job descriptions, transparency, etc. that we all pay for, yet clearly and definitely contains some serious problems.

To others, the “police” are simply those wearing the uniforms, those you can point out of a crowd. Police are the men and women who perform a necessary, difficult, and dangerous duty everyday. Failure to clarify whether you mean police-as-people or “the police” as a system or particular government program appears to end any productive conversation on this issue before it ever even begins.

The Black Lives Matter movement wants changes in the system of policing in the US. Meanwhile, opponents claim that individual police officers are often good people who deserve to be respected. What’s often missed is that both are true, and more importantly, both are possible! You can respect the courage of individuals while criticizing the broken systems they may represent on the clock.

In fact, if you truly want to honor individual police, you should want the system that employs them to be as fair and safe as possible for everyone involved. From the good, honorable men and women who don the badge and put their lives on the line everyday, to the citizens on the street whose taxes pay for this program of “protection” and “service,” everyone benefits from a better system of policing. Well, everyone except those who would plan to abuse it.

So in my opinion, as a professional communication enhancer and clarifier-of-ideas (look how good I am at the putting-together-of-the-words), it’s important to start taking the time to clarify the language we use when debating this volatile, yet essential issue. Unless we can agree on what “it” is that we’re actually even talking about, we’ll never make any progress and in our stagnation, lives will surely be lost.

Until we first agree on which bone is broken, we’ll never be able to make the right cast (or perform the right surgery). If you really care about the senseless loss of life on either side of this picket line, you’ve got to start caring about how effectively we are even communicating with each other in the first place. Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between “lightning” and “lightning bug.” Let’s make sure we’re all talking about lightning, or we’ll never make it out of this storm on the horizon alive.

lorax

Good morning internet,

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. I’ve been focusing on some other aspects of my life, which has been quite liberating. I have now finished my first edition of Wasted Land (my first collection of poetry) & my first semester teaching preschool! In addition, I just finished reading a fantastic book on addiction by Dr. Gabor Maté, M.D. This latest achievement is what brings me back to you wonderful people.

Dr. Maté is a well – respected physician who has authored numerous books regarding heath issues – mental health especially, such as ADD/ADHD, stress, & parent – child relationships. I recently finished his latest book (I believe), which focuses on addiction and I am impressed to say the least.

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction is nothing less than a brilliant analysis of addiction and its roots in the brain. Not only is the book well – supported by credible sources and Dr. Maté’s own experience working closely with severe drug addicts at a Downtown Eastside Vancouver clinic, but it is quite accessible thanks to Maté’s skill as a writer. He clearly and poignantly paints a comprehensive picture of addiction in all its forms, diving into scientific research surrounding everything we know about mental health, and stories of everyone from homeless, heroin – addicted sex workers to workaholics to his own addiction to buying music.

Of course, the word nerd that I am, I fell in love with this book the moment I saw the imagery in the title (I’m really just a sucker for a good story). The “realm of hungry ghosts” to which Dr. Maté refers in the title is one of the six realms through which the Buddhist mandala, or wheel of life, revolves. Each realm represents a separate aspect of life through which every person must progress in their efforts to attain enlightenment. In this realm, people are described as wandering, ghoulish creatures with emaciated bellies, constantly searching for anything to fill their insatiable appetites. What better way to paint the picture of the addict?

At first it may seem a bit presumptuous to address all these different forms of attachment to particular activities as if they are equal, but his own accounts of events like forgetting his adolescent son at a store and keeping him waiting on a street corner for hours while the Dr. browsed through records at a nearby store for hundreds of dollars worth of music quicky makes the reader think twice about dismissing addictions outside of substance abuse.
Dr. Maté’s analysis addresses the chemical & neurological roots of addiction as well as its environmental influences, pinning down early childhood development at the center of it all. The analysis however doesn’t end there. He then goes on to provide a comprehensive critique of the current failed U.S. War on Drugs policy and suggestions on a new direction for the future. I am thoroughly impressed.

I spent all four years at the University of Maryland analyzing addiction, drugs, and the drug war, and I can confidently say that In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts is by far the best, most comprehensive, and useful work I’ve ever seen on the matter. I can only hope he keeps giving us all insights into the complex and universal problem of addiction.

Kudos, Dr. Maté. Well done indeed.

All Fire’s Eve

To Baltimore

30 April 2015

 

The woody hills are sleeping

The cold, stale sleep of death.

While weeping wind whispers past

Black trunks, exhausted, out of breath.

 

A deafening silence drowns the air

In nothing, not a flutter.

The sun beats down the charcoal ground

The final drops of strength are mustered.

 

Creeping limbs claw and stretch

And squinting, step into the sun.

Gray-black snowflakes powder the land

Celebrating unions, embers of fun.

 

A sneeze! A tuft of feathery leaves,

The breeze, soft and somber.

Tired eyes gaze amazed

At all that’s left of night’s bright wonder.

 

All night long a blaze went on

Until this stretch of earth turned cinder.

Entropy laughed and chaos danced

While beasts of wood screamed out in splendor.

 

First went wings, the birds of sky

Flew off in all directions.

Scarred and scalding, scared and hauling

All they left alone and destined.

 

Next the bugs and biting critters

Pittered, pattered, shuffled and scattered,

Hid under rocks where the ground was still cool,

Beaten, broken, busted and battered.

 

Then the paws who sniffed the air

With darting eyes, turned and ran

Sprinting through fields with standing hair

And howling cries of living damned.

 

For the flames were alive this yesterday’s night!

So bright they outshined the stars.

To the forest it felt like the whole world would melt

But it lit up the vastness of night from afar.

 

They jumped and they flew and fought through the blue

And their orange grins laughed from tinder to tinder.

They ripped out the trees they would need to keep prancing

But shrugged off the rain and burned off the splinters.

 

The forest was furious this All Fire’s Eve!

The mountains and oceans could tell.

But like the great oceans and mountains it knew

That you’ve got to keep going if you’re going through Hell.

 

So the sun has arisen and the fires have died.

Creatures come back to the light!

The forest you used has been leveled, abused,

Everyone’s always left home overnight.

 

Shaken, you step over kindling

Famished, you flip stones and ponder

Wandering orphans and neighbors cross paths

And glistening eyes in tender sonder.

‘What will we do?’ you ask.

‘What ever could possibly come next?’

Afraid, in despair, unaware, there unseen

The seed that from fur falls in your steps.

Bon soir internet!

So it’s been six (almost seven!) months since I packed up and moved across the world into the heart of darkness and so far it’s literally been sunny every day. During the rainy season it can be gray for a while and sometimes the dust paints everything beige but the sun always comes out eventually. Why do I feel like there’s a message in there somewhere?

Mali has been surreal. I still can’t believe I’m here, or that I’m starting to understand French, or that I’m finding my own work, or that my niece is a year! (WTF?!?!) The river of life really has some massive bends. Learning a new language is coming along great, or well enough at least for me to understand the basics of most of the everyday French conversations I find myself around. I’ve even started picking up some Bambara! Doni doni. All it takes is a little focus really. I used to be apprehensive about learning new languages but now I think it has finally turned from frightening to fun. It has definitely been challenging but I am doing my best to embrace the privilege of learning. Teaching is one Hell of a learning experience, go figure. English is in high demand in this francophone country, and a native speaker definitely helps meet that. In fact the demand is so high I’ve now had to turn down clients in order to have adequate time to prepare for the students I already have. And aside from working with government and non-governmental organizations galore, teaching preschoolers has been (and remains) especially humbling. Between teaching preschoolers, government employees, and locals to other teachers and their children, I am getting quite the crash course in teaching students of all ages, levels and backgrounds. It makes me wonder what else I can do that I may have never considered before.

Come to think of it, this whole adventure has been one Hell of a learning experience. Every day I drive down the road and wonder what else someone will somehow be carrying on a scooter, or “moto” as they’re called in Bamako. Goat, dresser, art, family, you name it. I’m surprised I haven’t seen someone carrying another moto on one of those things yet (although I have seen someone on the back of one dragging a bicycle behind them, and a moto on top of a car). Malians are impressive. They really work their asses off. Everyone I’ve met and seen seems to be doing everything they can to make as much money as possible. Considering how hot it gets here alone I’m inspired! Their efforts can be misguided sometimes, like the children selling water and really any portable thing you can think of on the street corners and roadsides from infancy instead of going to school. But the people here really look like they do their best to get ahead, even if it takes years of backbreaking work. Bamako is filled with strong people. I’m glad to be able to help in what few ways I can. Petit a petit I suppose. There are a tragic number of people simply begging as well, though those seem to mostly be men and boys. Malian women are especially impressive. I have yet to see a Malian woman just relaxing. Men on the other hand, like most men I know (myself included) seem to take every chance they get.

I’m learning a lot about Africa in general talking to all my local and professional students. African people and the African spirit amaze me more and more every day. Check out these few examples real fast and tell me you’re not impressed.

http://www.myafricanow.com/a-house-made-of-plastic-bottles-nigeria/

Isn’t that all awesome? I’m learning so much from all the people here. Not to mention that I live with an investment banker with a bleeding heart. Six months with my father has been eye-opening to say the least. I’m extremely grateful to have been given the privilege of a lot of his insight on poverty, corruption, bureaucracies, development, organizational finance and management, etc. So much so that I’ve even considered taking a couple years in the future to go for an MBA. It doesn’t look as dry/confusing/useless as it has in the past. I might be able to see myself buckling down and learning the inner workings of the capitalist process, if only to learn exactly what we’re all up against. That is of course If I could somehow manage to get my hands on one of these mysterious “scholarships” everyone keeps talking about. From my experience though they seem only to exist in fairy tales…

Speaking of fairy tales – the war in the North has turned a corner now that suspected militants have attacked civilians in Bamako, the capital. Last week a popular bar was the stage for an attack of some sort using machine guns and grenades, which I believe marks the first attack of that kind within the Bamako city limits in years. Word on the street is they were looking for caucasians and though two were caught, the organization that claimed responsibility is currently still out there so Dad and I are… honestly not changing our behavior very much. We stay in a lot anyway but I guess now we will buy a few more munchies at the supermarket. Like pops said, he doesn’t get danger pay for nothing. The world is a real place and rocks hurt so you’ve got to be ready for it no matter where you live.

Six months in and I must say I am actually fairly impressed with myself. Every day I work on something personal besides my job, and after six months I’m starting to build up some nice new habits to be slave to. Though that’s not to say I’m not also impressed by my ability to make enough money to actually contribute to gas and groceries. No such thing as a free lunch. I’ve begun meditating and exercising semi-regularly and I can already feel the difference. Little by little much gets done. As much as I love to sit around and do nothing I’ve already made a bit of a name for myself in the city as a solid English teacher and tutor, even building up referrals from clients for more work. Plus I’ve learned a fair amount of one new language and have begun to understand the basics of another. I’ve learned and am learning firsthand about our global system of international development from someone who has basically the same thoughts I do on the matter, only way more developed. Not to mention I’ve reached a new level in my grasp of international politics and news, including keeping up with the political and legislative landscape within the States, which really makes me feel like a grown up haha.

It’s especially exciting to look back home and see the cascade of drug law reform legislation that I sacrificed many good grades in college trying to build a culture for starting to pick up speed. A tear comes to my eye just thinking that as I write this cannabis has been legalized in Washington D.C., the place where five or six years ago people were laughing at me for suggesting it could actually change within our lifetimes. “You’re wasting your time,” “get a real cause,” “worry about something you can change,” I heard (when it wasn’t just laughter) for four long years while peoples’ lives were thrown away into prisons and caskets for feeding an addiction or starting the wrong kind of entrepreneurial enterprise or just struggling to eat something after chemotherapy. It’s just so satisfying to hear silence where there once was doubt.

So much amazing work is being done all around the world that I am inspired to get to work on my own contributions as fast and as hard as possible. By my birthday I want to have all my poetry (which looks like about 60 pieces) in one place so I can finally arrange it all and maybe even have enough good ones for a collection. After that I’ll be able to get back to the novel I’m working on and a possible collection of short stories. One day my musical equipment will arrive and I will jump back into the music game. Until then I’m also teaching myself how to… well… teach!

Speaking of my birthday, it looks like my birthday this year is on Easter, which is cool I guess. More importantly it’s on a Sunday! That means no work on my birthday which is all I really want. I’ll still spend the day working, just not at my job. It will be into the hot season by April so I’m really just gonna try to survive. It won’t be the hottest yet but I imagine it’ll be like “the wall” at Philmont. The wall is a few miles of gnarly switchbacks up the side of a mountain. “How do we know when we’ve reached the wall?” “Once you feel like you can’t go any further, then you’ve reached the wall.” It’s okay though. I’ve forgotten the pain. The view at the top however, I’ll never forget.

Onward and upward,
Z

I ni sogoma,

As with most circumstances in life, I stumbled my way into a great trip this weekend to le Festival sur le Niger (the Festival on the Niger). And as with most circumstances in my life, this was of way higher quality than what I deserve. In case you aren’t familiar, the Niger river is the major river that flows through Mali, blessing the region with everything a massive river has to offer like hydroelectricity, a transportation highway, and all that delicious fish!

I got to tag along with my father up to Segou this weekend for the 11th annual Festival sur le Niger. The NGO he works with, Population Services International (PSI) is one of the sponsors for this festival so they had a whole team up there running a stand and offering services to festival-goers.

I’ve worked stands at festivals and events before and these guys step it up a notch. PSI is chiefly involved in malaria prevention in Mali, but they also do a great deal of work in reproductive health and maternal and infant mortality. At le Festival that means they’ve not only got the whole spread out on display with mosquito nets, Protector condoms, oral rehydration tablets, infant zinc regimens, and IUDs but they’ve also got teams throughout the festival grounds offering private consultations about any reproductive issue or product and even on-site HIV testing! Dad and I got ours done of course. Have you?

“Zach! Hurry up! You’re going to be late for your HIV test!” – Dad

A few other organizations do some of the same things like handing out condoms and performing skits about health issues. However I don’t think anyone else was offering on-site HIV-testing (with only a 15 minute wait for your results!) and IUD insertions. Boo-yah. To be fair Marie Stopes International (MSI) – another organization my father has spent some time with – did have a post-abortion care centre set up which is definitely solid. Unfortunately abortions are only legal in Mali if absolutely necessary to save the life of the mother (Oh, you mean it will just ruin your life, not end it? Yeah, no.) All the health information was really uplifting to see to be honest. I didn’t see any “safe partying” stands like the festivals I’ve worked and organized, but at least the community’s serious issues are being addressed. I wish more festivals in the United States were as open about promoting healthy lifestyles and options, especially those that don’t directly relate to partying. Burning Man is the only American festival I’ve experienced that even mentioned anything about safe sex and sexual rights, for example. Obviously Mali has a much more dire health situation overall than the United States but misinformation is still just as dangerous. And this illusion that the USA is immune from major epidemics and health issues is still a recent veil of luxury even though many take low disease rates within the States for granted. It’s important to remember that safety in general is an illusion; we’re all just one pandemic away from being thrown back into the dark ages.

Aside from the wealth of health information flying around in Segou, the air this weekend was filled with the best of sounds: music! Much like the others I’ve experienced, the music plays around the clock in Segou. Booming, dynamic drum beats from djembe circles to electronic programs move the crowds like the waves on the shoreline, boosted by vibrant, melodic French and Bambara vocals in the classic African style we all know and love (Lion King, anyone?) and . Bringing it all together, kora and guitar solos tear through the crowds and tie everyone’s ears in knots. All the music has a strong West African feel. This is 21st century African though. Mixed in are some solid electronic beats and keyboards, plus electric strings and amped-up drums. Though I think I heard a sax in there somewhere which is always appreciated. R&B, rap, Jazz and classic blues seem to be the styles of choice. As always, the later the night, the heavier the music. Hoo-rah. The highlight for me may have been when one band brought a whole crowd of rap artists up on stage who proceeded to bounce lines off of each other to the band’s various tunes. I’m quickly becoming a fan of Bambara rap. Bamba-Rap as I’m calling it.

Not to mention I know one of the evening’s two hosts! The same woman, Fifi, organized and hosted the karaoke competition I was featured on in the Fall. Small world haha.

The Festival sur le Niger is set up much like Baltimore’s Starscape festival which has now evolved into Moonrise (Starscape as it was just got too wild to handle I guess. Having been, I completely understand.). The stages are spread out across a beach-esque shoreline. Unlike Starscape that lasts just one night however, le Festival sur le Niger lasts about a week, ending on a Sunday. Perfect for a weekend trip. Plus in Segou the festival spills right onto the town streets outside the venue complete with more unofficial stages and vendor stands. That and the main stage here is actually on the water on a floating stage. The pit (the standing-room only area directly in front of the stage) actually leads right into the shallow banks of the grand Niger river, the cause for quite a refreshing front row experience. Note to first-timers: don’t bring your phone into the pit.

There is a noticeable security presence at the annual festival in Segou, moreso considering the escalation in northern violence since the new year, but it’s not too overwhelming. During the daylight hours the grounds are open to anyone interested in catching some tunes on a side stage or trying out some local cuisine (it’s all about the peanut sauce of course). It’s only in the evening that the exits become checkpoints.

The vendors/merchants are out in full force at the festival. Conflict in the north combined with a new government and now the ebola outbreak has put a dent in the number of European and otherwise international crowds. The same could be said with any Malian industry though. The war in the north alone has beaten down on Mali’s tourist industry pretty hard. So naturally, Europeans and obvious foreigners like myself are really hounded. You’d better put your bargaining face on or you’ll be broke by the time you walk through security. As a relatively young, caucasian, tattooed male I am quite the spectacle to the locals so of course a few people requested pictures with me and a few others professed their love. All in all just another day in the life. 😉 No, I’m definitely still not used to being the exotic one.

I’m glad I’ve been practicing my French (and Bambara!). I’m starting to be able to have basic (though admittedly rough) conversations with people on my own. Next year I’ll be more ready. The music at the Festival sur le Niger is a mix of French and Bambara with the occasional sprinkle of English. The most English I saw was on a “party tips” billboard aimed at international visitors. I appreciated that. It listed several important aspects and customs relating to Malian and Islamic culture. Apparently for example dresses traditionally mean you are married, greetings are quite important, and shorts are generally reserved for children… but no way was I wearing pants out there. Call me a child. Hey though, at least it’s the cold season.

All in all being with one of the sponsors got me the royal treatment this weekend in Segou. Seats in the good chairs and free entry are great, but we also got set up in one of the nicer hotels just a couple blocks from the venue. And not only is there electricity all night long if you want but wi-fi too! Africa is already so much different from when I first actually remember visiting in 2002, not to mention what my parents describe from the 80s! The whole set-up in Segou is quite impressive actually. Maybe next year I’ll see you there! The rooms are nice with working toilets and air conditioning and great local foods plentifully line the streets. Breakfast was even included with out hotel stay. Well, except for the omelet.

Onward and upward,
Z

Bonjour mes amis!

First I’ll apologize. It’s been a couple weeks since my last post. I hope you can find it in yourself to forgive me. If not, reading this will be tough.

It’s December in Bamako so you know what that means. The pool… is a tad nippy… at night. People here have broken out their scarves, coats, and hats. Meanwhile I’m still in sleeveless T’s and shorts. As far as I’m concerned I’m sweating a little less, which is honestly a relief. Despite the lack of snow though I can still feel the tug of the holiday season. The Holidaze have us!

This will be my first Christmas in Bamako, my second in Africa that I actually remember. Besides the one or two I may have had in Conakry when I was still in diapers, my first Christmas in Africa was in the lovely Gorum Gorum, Burkina Faso when I was 12 if I remember correctly. My mother took my brother, my sister and me to Burkina for a few weeks, during which we took a trip out to Gorum Gorum, a small village on the edge of the Sahara. Christmas morning we woke up in Gorum Gorum and began our three – hour camel ride into the Sahara. I love camels, but after that I’m not sure I’ll ever ride one again if it’s not absolutely necessary. And i didn’t even have a guide stuck on the back of mine. I would say it was like fucking a two-by-four for three hours but that would be a lie. It wasn’t like fucking a two-by-four for three hours, it was fucking a two-by-four for three hours. You’re literally sitting on a wooden chair with a wooden board-for-a back and another board sticking up the same height in the front. And you can’t lean back. It was fun but I threw up immediately afterwards and am probably sterile. Though that may have been the orange soda i drank immediately after returning to the ground… Either way, thank God (ain’t nobody got time for none of that noise).

Last week I helped out at an annual community Christmas event at le Parc National (the national park). They call it “Santa.” It’s a Christmas market and showcase that blends the Christmas holiday with the traditional craftsmenship of Mali. It’s funny because most people don’t even know what “Santa” means; they just know it means Christmas. Some artisans showed off clothing, some metalwork, some homemade Christmas ornaments and some snakeskin belts and crocodile briefcases. It was definitely a sight to behold. Some German friends sell sausages and sourkraut (sp?) every year and asked if I could help out. I left the restaurant industry to come to Africa and teach and low and behold, I end up right back on the grill. Sure we can sub out the sausages for a kebab. No, we do not serve drinks. It was nice to help out in the community. Not only do I get to feel like I’m actually contributing to the welfare of the city but I get to practice my French! The shopping was awesome too, which is of course a plus. It’s interesting how many people and businesses here recognize or even know of Christmas. I get the sense that the relative percentage of people in the States who recognize or try to cater to followers of Islamic or Jewish holidays (for example) is a lot less. It’s just surprising how open people are to cultural practices that aren’t their own, if only to exploit for a buck. Many of those I grew up with could learn something.

Kari just flew in from London, so the next couple weeks should be full of good food and fun times around town. We went bowling at Byblos, one of the nightclubs on Bamako’s main strip. It’s a nightclub/restaurant/bowling alley that has quickly become one of my new favorite places. We’ve also been to Apellussa (sp?) The best Tex-Mex restaurant in town, which was pretty legit. The Canadian flag on the wall threw me off at first but I like it.

Anyway I hope everyone who celebrates has a great Christmas. For those who celebrate Chanukkah, I hope that was awesome too, along with all the other holidays that take place during this arbitrarily designated time of year.

However Happy New Year to all!!! We made it one more rotation around the Sun without being consumed by its lava tornados. I’d say that’s as good a reason as any to have an extra glass.

Cheers. May your future plans put your wildest dreams to shame.

Onward and upward,

-Z

Hello friends and family across the screens, I hope this post finds you well.

It’s Thanksgiving again, and as usual, the holidaze is in effect. This Thanksgiving, as with each, I am thankful for many things. This year I am in a new house, in a new country, speaking a new language, working in a new field I actually consider useful, and I can’t help but be thankful for it all. But on this, the American day of “thanks,” I think I might be most thankful to understand the true, actual history behind arguably the most quintessentially American celebration. After all, the history of Thanksgiving is quite literally the history of America’s beginnings, and thus America itself.

Thanks-giving feasts are and have been celebrated around the world throughout history. In the United States, the end-of-November “Thanksgiving Day” holiday was declared by President Abraham Lincoln to recognize and celebrate the founding colonists’ first year of survival in North America. Unfortunately however, this is not the whole story. Though taught as a wholesome celebration of the natural bounty that springs from the American way of life with the help of our friends, the generous Native people, the history of this day of thanks is actually a bit more complicated, and a bit more sinister.

There is some truth behind the Thanksgiving story we all know, going back to 1621, one year after midwinter of 1620 when the famous Mayflower first landed on the North American coast. The Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated in reference to the three-day feast Governor William Bradford declared to thank God for their survival. But what get’s lost in the traditional teachings of the holiday’s history is exactly what that survival entailed.

In 1620 the ship known as the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock with 102 British exiles, ready to start fresh with their newly founded, Puritan way of life. However as we know they were not the first Europeans to set foot on North American shores. Six years earlier, in 1614, a small expedition of Brits had scoped out the East coast on behalf of the British crown. They only stayed on land for a short time but when they left they brought 24 Natives back to England with them as slaves, and left Smallpox in their wake. In just a few years the smallpox they first introduced to the Natives had spread and decimated 90% of the 500+ nations.

Fast forward to 1620 and our beloved Mayflower landed on what looked more like Plymouth Tombstone than Plymouth Rock. Plymouth itself was erected just beside the ruins of an abandoned Native village that had been devastated by Smallpox. Now, it’s true that the English immigrants of 1620 probably would have died without Native help and generosity. But that help was only possible due to – and in fact came primarily from – the sole survivor of that ghost village by Plymouth, Squanto.

Squanto was a former slave of the English and Spanish, and had thus learned the respective languages of his European masters. For asylum he offered himself to the settlers who used his insights to grow corn for their people, and his translation skills to negotiate peace treaties with the surrounding tribes. So in 1621 after a year of plentiful corn crops and relative peace, the first, three-day, thanks-giving feast and celebration was declared. This was not the official holiday we all know of course, but it served as the benchmark for colonists living on the former land of exterminated Natives to declare thanks to their Christian God for allowing such “blessings.” In reality much of their survival was actually dependant on the former enslavement and subsequent cooperation of Squanto, and the biological devastation of the Smallpox their predecessors had unleashed upon North America.

Fast forward another 15 years. A decade of prosperity had attracted greater numbers of Europeans to North American shores, and with them had come their Puritan methods of trade dependent on the individual ownership of property. This was far different from and highly contradictory to the Native ideals of communal land ownership. In fact this was far different from what much of the world had seen at the time, and proved to be the critical vehicle for the establishment and expansion of capitalist economics. So with an increased population of settlers interested in trading private property, the question arose: who did the land legally belong to?

To propagate their economic way of life, the settlers agreed that public land belonged to the King (by way of his divine right), represented in the Americas by the Governor. The Puritans believed themselves to be God’s chosen people, and that the rest of the world was damned. As a result, their invasion and the fight for their prosperity was justified by the support of God, and the lives of those not aligned with their ideals were expendable. The rest of the world was doomed to damnation either way. Any within the colonies who opposed this idea and claimed the Natives as the rightful land owners were quickly excommunicated and literally thrown out into the woods to starve. The Puritans needed only to look to Psalms, chapter 2, verse 8 for their justification, in which the Bible writes, “Ask of me and I shall give thee the brethren for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” The whole of the earth was theirs for the taking.

This justification worked perfectly for the paralleled ideals of expansion that form the basis of capitalist economics. So much so that stockholders in an English trading company – who had been awarded by the King the right to govern their company’s own internal affairs – voted in 1629 to move the company and themselves to North America. These stockholders landed north of Plymouth, establishing Massachusetts as a self-governing company of stockholders. Once on North American soil, it did not take long for these money-driven stockholders to realize that their most profitable commodity was the slave trade. Labor, after all, essentially pays for itself.

The conquest and enslavement of Natives became so profitable that for decades it was the centerpiece of their new trade markets. In 1641, the Dutch Governor of Connecticut offered the first scalp (or “redskin”) bounty, drastically increasing the number of massacres against Native communities once again. Of course, because the mere eradication of threats was not nearly as profitable as enslavement, Native men were slaughtered while women and children were sold off into slavery. Several years later, various Manhattan churches decided to celebrate the prosperity that had come from this State-sanctioned genocide and mass-enslavement, and the first official “Thanksgiving Day” was declared.

Well into the 1670’s, Natives tried fighting back against the colonists with little success. But just to insure the continued success of the slave economy, a final call for massacre and enslavement was made. At the rate of 20 shillings per scalp and 40 per slave, the rest of the Native resistance was silenced. In 1676, Massachusetts declared “Thanksgiving,” to engrain within the State a public day of thanks to God, for once again eliminating all obstacles in their way. After that, the rest is history.

President Washington was the first to call for a national day of Thanksgiving, though as we know, it wasn’t until Lincoln that the national holiday of Thanksgiving was made an official, annual event. For Lincoln, the day served as a most useful tool. It was the perfect myth to aid in his efforts at solidifying and unifying the nation. Thanksgiving celebrated the prosperity and the bounty of the American way of life while not only ignoring, but masking and silencing the brutal nature behind the red, white, and blue curtain.

So where does that leave us today? Americans everywhere have heard the stories of Native genocide perpetrated by the European settlers of the colonies’ early days, yet most still celebrate the wholesome-looking holiday nonetheless. Some may not believe the holiday is directly related. Some may try to rationalize that the murder and enslavement that got us here isn’t what they and their families celebrate around the Thanksgiving table. Some may even write it all off as an unfortunate hiccup, or ignore our bloody past all together. But we can’t go on ignoring our past. The rest of the world knows how the United States forged its beginnings and see the hypocrisy in holidays like Thanksgiving clear as day. The fact of the matter is that to not only accept, but celebrate these atrocities as they were designed to be celebrated while perpetuating worldwide “humanitarian” campaigns for “democracy,” “freedom,” and “justice” is hypocrisy at its worst.

There is hope though. There are ways we can call attention to this hypocrisy and begin to overturn the oppressive power structures that carry through to today and spill out onto the streets of places like Ferguson, Syria, and Palestine: our homes. We can start by stopping. Stop honoring this day of genocide. We can gather with our families and give thanks to our Gods for all that we have been blessed with, but we hold no obligation to the “Thanksgiving” title. Instead we could celebrate Harvest Day or Indigenous Peoples Day. Universities like Brown U. and Hampshire College have already brought petitions to their administrations demanding they change the name of the holiday to reflect and honor the countless native lives and land stolen by the early European settlers. We could all follow in their footsteps and change the name of the holiday to honor those who died so we could be here. It is possible to change things. Just this year Seattle became the first city to abolish their celebration of Christopher Columbus, arguably the father of modern slavery and genocide. The rest of the United States could take these steps and start moving ourselves in the right direction.

When Ghandi was asked what he though of Western civilization, he said he thought it sounded like a good idea. Plato said that the origins of a just society must come from equal access to a good education. Well, learning the true history behind our world and honoring those who actually deserve it is a damn good first step. Holidays are a fantastic way to teach our children about our ever-increasingly complicated world one piece at a time, so why not teach them to honor the people whose lives were stolen from them to build the world we see today. Let’s stop retelling the fantasies we’ve been taught to cover the truth, and start teaching the truth. Let’s abandon our old, false stories and embrace the real ones. Only then can we hope to start writing new futures. Who knows, maybe if our children learn to value the lives that have been decimated by history they’ll start to value their brothers’ and sisters’ lives as well.

Onward and upward.

Z

If you would like to look deeper into what I’ve written about here, check out “Native Blood,” an essay found at Kasamaproject.org

Or watch my good friend and mentor Solomon Comissiong from the University of Maryland discuss the topic further here. (YouTube)