Friday, December 24, 2010

Looking towards West Africa

"Don't tell me how educated you are; tell me how much you've traveled." The quote, attributed to Mohammad, still very much rings true. As I join the rest of the world in watching the continuation of violence in Cote d'Ivoire, I'm reminded of this - how much our experience in the world informs and taints how we see it, inextricably and forever altering the way in which we observe, react, and interact with our surroundings.

When I hear of violence in Abidjan, I think of Ghana's Cape Coast and Accra, just a few hours down the coast. When I hear of a damaged mosque, I think of the mosque just down the street from my home of two months, where little boys paused in their game of "football" to stare in curiosity at the "obroni" (that'd be me) walking by with a smile on her face and curious look in her eyes. When I see photos of youth in the streets - some wounded or killed, some actively taking part, some seeking refuge - I remember the Ghanaian youths I so often saw this past summer, selling plantain chips or groundnuts along the street or wearily manning phone credit stands, ranging in age from some 6 or 7 years to 20 and older.

I think of Simon, David, and Solomon, the young men who'd come to Accra in search of work and found themselves striving to sell their carvings and paintings in the local craftsmarket, telling me about how they came to the city and explaining the details of their trades before slyly asking for my number and inviting me out for drinks. I think of my friends and coworkers, or the young men who elected themselves my guides through the village of Aburi or on a hike through the canopy walk of Kakum National Park, young high school graduates or college students who grilled me about what the U.S. is "really" like or teased me about the World Cup, congratulated me when I was able to respond in the few rough phrases of Twi I'd picked up thus far.

I see all of these places and people and more. I can almost smell the spiced plantain frying along the side of the street at night, almost hear the incessant honking of tro-tros or the bustling of the market or Accra bus station. As I read and watch about the Ivory Coast, Ghana's next-door neighbor, I can't seem to get these faces and voices out of my head - and it makes the photos and clips that much more real, the numbers of those killed or wounded that much more poignant. That much closer to home.

When you visit a place, meet its people, speak with them, explore the country, it can no longer be a distant idea, just as those people can no longer be defined by numbers and statistics. You learn quickly that it isn't just "Africa," this distant and vast place you've only read about. The same goes for every place, but perhaps all the more so for the continuously generalized and misunderstood continent of Africa. Nearly every day, I'm that much more convinced that one must set foot in a place, listen to its citizens, before we can truly consider ourselves familiar with it. Not surprisingly, our perspective on the world tends to shift as we see more of it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Holiday consensus: "we're getting old."

When I sat down to delve into some Elie Wiesel this morning, chocolate labrador happily returned to my side, I had to pause in consideration of the sight in front of me: a very Christmasy, warm-and-fuzzy sort.

For as long as I can remember, my brother and I have been forced to patiently make our way through our stockings (always with a tangerine at the bottom, wedged into the red velvety toe) before tearing into the presents we were really interested in. Even before that, every day of December we'd race out to the homemade felt calendar to see what ornament we could pin to the tree sewn above the pockets, always ending with the star on December 24. 

As years went on and time and life played out, a stocking would be subtracted, then a wave of four new stockings one year as remarriage more than doubled the stocking count, bringing us to a grand total of seven. The December calendar still came out every year, though taking turns to put an ornament on the tree every day became more of a semi-forgotten and obligatory ritual than an exciting pathway to Christmas. Names on the aging stockings began to wear, ultimately redone in glitter glue along the furry white top of each.

This year's return for the holiday will be, I'm sure, one of the most eventful: one child is in the midst of wedding planning, one is on the verge of engagement, and it's just a waiting game for a third (which leaves me next in line - goodness gracious.). Drama of all sorts entwines the house and its original members, though its numbers have been cut save for holiday returns. In short, the half-joking phrase "we're getting old" has become a common one. Our conversations have morphed into wedding plans and engagement rings, home renovations or moving, or, from my end, gadding about from DC to West Africa to DC to, in the near future (hopefully), Denmark. ...This from the kids who used to sit on the floor in the midst of Nerd parties (because the idea of tea was nothing compared to the colored sugar water resulting from dumping Nerds candy into tiny plastic cups of water). Instead of spending my summer battling my brother in Duck Hunt, I'm jetting across the ocean while he wires houses, vaguely catching up with one another on holidays when not field tripping it to the local wineries to procure the necessary holiday survival kit.

If there's anything 2010 has drummed into my head, it's that life truly can be a peculiar creature... never quite sure where it'll land us. Here's hoping that, wherever we land, it's on our feet. Happy holidays from the mound of snow that is North East, Pennsylvania.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

"This is my letter to the world..."

Blogging is a curious beast. Just the other day, I received a mysterious email from someone reportedly on the promotions team at CSN stores, somehow interested in my blog (though I'm curious as to which she's referring to) and commenting on the possibility of my doing a review of a product or some such thing... the insanity of research paper deadlines and other matters whirling about in my head has since prevented response, but intriguing/odd nonetheless.

More than that, however, is the intrigue of the fact that people do just run into things semi-randomly while cruising around the wonder of the internet. Take this, for instance: according to the blog stats here, this week the blog received about 3 times the number of page views from Germany than it did from the US. Finding this, admittedly, I'm terribly curious as to how that came about (really, how goes it, Germany? I should be in your area for the summer - any tips?). My initial doubt about blogs, frankly, was the potential for total self-involvement, pending how one chooses to use it... but then there are so many fantastic pros to it, an open letter to anyone who comes across it and is inspired to comment, carry on the conversation, etc.

Emily Dickinson famously wrote "This is my letter to the world/ that never wrote to me...." There's a certain undeniable power to it, this 21st century ability for anyone to write their own digitized letter to the world, but more importantly, the opportunity to interact with the world through the same medium - it can read your letter, and write back if it so chooses. Wonderful.

Friday, December 17, 2010

On the worth of writing (and writers?)

Somewhere between a 10 page paper on postcolonialism, an 18 page paper on coalition governments, and a 20 page paper on Shakespeare, a thought presented itself quite forcibly: writing to any real extent truly does require believing that whatever we're writing about is worth it. Worth my time writing it, worth someone else's time to read it. Ideally, it'll make a statement- maybe even make a bit of a difference, if I'm lucky.

It's something I'm reminded of when I come across something fantastic, something so in-tune that I have to actually pause mid-page to appreciate what the author has just accomplished. It has to be more than eloquence or wit, more than a finely crafted phrase or sentence. It has to truly say something. I've got to read it, shake my head in wonderment, read it again, and sink into a moment of thought and/or marveling.

As an avid reader, this is my inspiration, validation for taking the time out of a busy schedule to read. As someone with an interest in writing (not to fancy myself a "writer" - is there a certain authority attached to that word now, or not so much anymore?), it's still inspiring, but also terribly disconcerting. How does one attain such power through the written word? Amazing.

Not the first time it's struck me that it must take some amount of self-confidence to write for serious publishing, at least in my mind. To think that you have something worth saying, something worth proclaiming to others "Hey, you have busy lives, but really you ought to stop and listen to what I have to tell you. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about; you'll like it." The potential self-involvement that accompanies writing if one has any hopes for an audience. ...On the other hand, it still seems as though some things must be written, must be said, even if we don't feel quite up to the task. 

Something I mulled over while sitting on a runway in Dakar this past summer, recalling conversations with young carvers and painters in the Accra crafts-market the day before. I don't consider myself quite worthy enough to tell their stories, but someone ought to, no? ...And if those who felt themselves the true authority were the only ones to ever write... why, that'd be a lot of egotistic and didactic literature, now wouldn't it? Many stories that would be left untold, and the world deserves to hear them, just as they deserve to be told and heard. Must be told and heard, perhaps.

...Babbling. Back to work.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Unforgettable... surreal, but unforgettable

The insanity of finals week is very much underway (I'm vaguely afraid that I'll end up like Tom Hanks in a scene of Money Pit), and I can't help but think of what I was instead doing just seven days ago, speeding through northern Virgina with a Cuban and an Iranian, blasting Kurdish music like there's no tomorrow. A bit surreal, come to think of it.

To the times and people in our lives we'll never forget, to the moments at which we realize we truly will never forget them, and to the anticipation of making more unforgettable memories - cheers.