Monthly Archives: January 2013

Breast-Feeding, Elephant Ears, and Basking Lizards | Meanderings of an American-African Mind

The mind is an amazing thing.

Do you know what I mean?

One minute you’re sitting alone or with others, thinking or discussing one thing or the other, and the next thing you know a random, sub-conscious word, thought or optical image diverts your thought processes to what appears on the surface to be an absurdly different topic altogether.

A case in point:

It’s a sunny yet relatively “cold” day today in Austin – high of 61F.  I’ve placed my seedling tray of tomato plants just behind our all-glass front door, so they will capture the light and warmth of the sun.  As I bent over to position them in full sunlight, I felt the morning sun’s warmth refracted through the door and on to my face, neck and arms.  The warmth and its soothing sensation, combined a moment later with the pleasured taste of a Starbuck’s Americano, drunk while sitting and looking out on an awakening neighborhood, somehow combined to trigger distant yet still close-at-hand memories.

I remember numerous happy childhood days at Kisumu’s Nyanza Club swimming pool, particularly, how good it felt (and feels) climbing out of cold water, then immediately lying face down on a sun-warmed border of the pool. 

From 3rd Wimpy Kid Movie

Diary of A Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

Do you have similar recollections? Can you feel even as you read these words the sun warming your cold body, head to toes?  

This remembrance somehow linked to and triggered in my mind an idiomatic Venda expression for “I need to go to the toilet,” of which, the relevance to water and sun will soon be evident.

One day I asked my Venda tutor, “How do I tell someone, ‘Please excuse me, I need to go to the toilet?'” He thought a minute then replied, “In formal Venda you simply say, ‘Ndi khou toda u di thusa,’ which simply translates ‘I need to help myself.'”  But, he said, “If you want to speak ‘deep Venda’ then you can say, ‘Ndi khou toda u kumbedza tswina,’ which roughly translates ‘I need to blind a lizard.'”

lizard

As you likely are doing now, I chuckled, yet think about its contextual accuracy.  Most Venda people still rely on foot power and foot paths.  Distances are quite far, and if you’ve traveled abroad, you know that relieving oneself outdoors seldom conveys any similar degree of uncouthness as it does in the United States. Given Venda’s proximity to the Tropic of Capricorn, imagine that it’s a 39-degree Celsius day. You’re walking along a foot path when morning tea catches up with you.  You stop to relieve yourself in the shelter of a rocky and sparsely vegetated hill, and lying just before you is a basking lizard!

Tropic of Capricorn marker, north of Polokwane, Limpopo.

Tropic of Capricorn marker, north of Polokwane, Limpopo.

Regrettably, all language lessons were not that painless.

The most embarrassingly painful Venda language learning remembrance for my wife and me was over the simplest and most frequently used daily expression – “hello.”

Our mistake?  Young when we arrived in South Africa, we asked an older – you would think more informed – white colleague how to greet, instead of asking someone from Venda.  As our colleague drove us to Venda from Johannesburg, a then six-hour drive, he told us, “Oh, it’s easy.  If it’s a man you say ‘Ndaa’ (masculine tone). If it’s a woman you say, ‘Aaah’ (feminine tone).”  So for the first few weeks, if not months, every man and every woman we greeted with either an “Ndaa” or “Aaah.”  Regrettably, what our colleague neglected to tell us is that only men greet with “Ndaa” and only women greet with “Aaah.”

Venda woman displaying most respectful posture in greeting.

Venda woman displaying most respectful posture in greeting.

We each received many strange and smiled looks when we greeted people.

My most painful related remembrance is of a woman I gave a lift to.  As she entered my bakkie (equivalent to a pick-up truck), I articulated in my most feminine tone and pitch, “Aaa!”  She must have been desperate for a ride, because rather than leaping out the window, she chose to remain with this seemingly crazed white taxi driver.

My wife’s faux pas was more painful, perhaps.  Soon after our arrival in Venda there was a peaceful coup, and our immediate neighbor in Block G, Thohoyandou (=head of the elephant), a general in Venda’s “air force,” Gabriel Ramushwana became president.  Rather then relocate from Block G to the substantial presidential compound situated mid-point between Thohoyandou and the white suburb of Sibasa on the hill, he chose to live with and among his people (there’s a lesson in there for all current and want-to-be politicians).

It wasn’t long, then, before the president’s yard was fitted with razor wire and a 24-hour military presence, much to our young son’s pleasure.  As President Ramushwana was exiting his premises one morning, and my wife was simultaneously closing our gate, she greeted him properly through his open car window.  It caused him to stop and respond kindly, “I see you’ve learned to greet properly in Venda!”

SA's 9 provinces & a rough outline of languages spoken in each.

South Africa’s nine provinces and a rough outline of languages spoken in each.

An important thing you should know about many, if not most of South Africa’s eleven official languages. They are tonal. Practically, this means one word can have multiple meanings depending upon tone and inflection. An example in Venda: “thoho” can communicate either “head” or “monkey.”

Vervet monkey

Vervet monkey

A personal example of a language miscue related to tone and inflection: It was a hot summer day, and as I arrived at my meeting destination a group of Venda ladies were sitting under a large shade tree.  We exchanged greetings, after which one of the group said something incoherent to me.  I attempted to say, “I didn’t hear well or clearly.” They all immediately yet politely stifled laughter, which, of course, told me my language effort failed miserably.  One of the ladies rose to her feet, walked over to me, and politely told me, “You have just told us that you have big ears like an elephant!”

censoredbreastfeed

A more U.S./European view of breast-feeding – taboo

Speaking of women and language learning . . . my mind again, as if it operates independently from intentional thought, skipped to a different page of memories.  This time a page of memories related to two breast-feeding incidents. Breasts and breast-feeding are viewed in wholesome (pure) and healthy terms in Venda, as in most parts Africa.

African woman breast feeding

African woman breast-feeding

Our arrival in Block G, Thohoyandou, Venda in early November, 1989, caused quite a stir, I’m certain.  The reason being: South Africa, even its so-called “independent” black homelands, existed within a canopy of legislated segregation or apartheid. It was more scandalous than normal for races to mix.  Yet here we were a young, white couple setting up home in what was effectively a new “black housing development.”  Within days of arrival, welcoming guests arrived at our front gate, including two pastors of local churches and their wives – one of whom, had recently given birth.

My wife quickly learned the cultural role of providing “tea” and some form of “pudding” (sweet pastry).  Midway through their visit, the one pastor’s wife decided it was time to feed her newborn.  This was no big event, except for two complicating factors:  In likely her first-ever visit to a white person’s house she had worn her best dress, which was beautiful, yet impractical for nursing purposes, in that, the neck of the dress extended up near her clavicle, making “breast extraction” near impossible.  Secondly, she was a very buxom woman.  These factors did not deter her from trying, though – and repeatedly so!  Given that we all were sharing a small living room space, her efforts and failures became increasingly pronounced as time went on.  Much to all of our relief, I’m sure, the senior pastor finally voiced our discomfiture and what was evident to all of us – “Shame, she’s having trouble getting the pipe out.”

A final humorous story related to language and breast-feeding.  My wife grew up in the Dominican Republic, and is fluent in Spanish (and German).  Inspired by a college professor, she chose – actually, we chose – to raise all five of our children bilingual.  Upon arrival in Venda our eldest, a boy, was a year old.  After two years living in Venda and among the Venda people, he had learned a lot, but also “absorbed” a lot – specifically, the reality that many infants and small children received milk from their mothers’ breasts.

One evening we invited an elderly American couple over for dinner.  They were assisting in the management of a relief project at the time.  She, like the pastor’s wife, was quite a buxom woman, and sitting immediately to the right of my son at the dining table, he couldn’t help but notice.  Given the sights and cultural experiences he had absorbed to that point, he very innocently verbalized midway through dinner to my wife – fortunately in Spanish – “Does she have milk?”  It was obviously a moment of great discomfiture for my wife, but fortunately an anonymously embarrassing moment, which today we remember with great laughter.

Concluding thought: 

Meandering minds and their on-the-surface incoherent and dissonant linkages with past memories and associations frequently result in fond and kind remembrances of happier and simpler periods, events and relationships in life, which if we’ll allow them, just might warm up, encourage, what to that point in time or day we might tend to label as struggle, despondency, heartache or melancholy.

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Filed under Culture and Africa, Life, Memories, Perspective, Relationships

Birth-dates | Memories of Celebration & Loss

In case the world doesn’t know yet, please ring the bells.  It’s my birthday!

Birthdays symbolize and celebrate the fact that individuals have a history.

One of my eldest daughter's birthday.

Our eldest daughter’s 17th birthday.

In this blog I share a few memories from my own life history, plus an exercise that demonstrates the importance of memories.  I hope the exercise “I Remember” helps you re-experience happy occasions, or alternatively emotionally process through and beyond painful memories of loss.

Life celebratory dates are met with a mix of emotions by people.  For instance, I have learned over the years that December 31st is not a good day, to put it mildly, for my mother-in-law.  Although it marks a traditionally celebratory day (wedding anniversary), it’s also a painful 24-hour period, in which she’s acutely conscious of memories of lost love (husband’s death from leukemia) and of shared life and opportunities missed.

I remember my 7th grade and thirteenth year of life in, Texas.  My parents had returned there from Kenya for sabbatical. It must have been an emotionally laden and formative one, given the number of memories associated with it, but then again, middle school itself is the onset of a burgeoning adolescence for most teens.  

Memories include: walking to school with wet, long hair and then having to comb out icicles; learning CB radio lingo and having my own CB handle; having a much older high school girl catching me off-guard outside a church youth event, telling me she has this “thing for kids from Africa, do I know what she means?,” me naively replying “yes,” and then before I know what is what experiencing the sensation of a warm, wet and all-engulfing mouth; hanging out with an “exemplary adult” who not only introduced me to the world of adult magazines, but who wore his character on a T-shirt declaring “If all else fails, I still have my personality”; and drawing circles on a Texas map of the route I intended to take when I ran away from home, because I was adamantly opposed to my family’s return to Africa, given my happy acclimation to U.S. culture and life.

What about you?

Are traditionally celebratory dates mostly joyous occasions? Or do they evoke disproportional anguish and pain of memories past, such as a loved one’s death? A marriage dissolved? A child’s estrangement? The onset of a debilitating illness or addiction? A loss of a way of life and/or vocation?

Some Sinomlando staff and I (3rd from right).

Some Sinomlando staff and I (3rd from right).

Over the past decade my life has benefited from working with people, who comprise and relate to a South African research and community development non-profit called The Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work in Africa, http://sinomlando.ukzn.ac.za/.  Sinomlando is a non-profit psychosocial memory work and human rights initiative begun in 1994 by a Belgian professor of History of Christianity at the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, Philippe Denis, and a colleague, Nokhaya Makiwane.

Political satirist Zapiro using photo of June 16th massacre of school children as theme for a new South Africa tragedy - HIV/AIDS

Political satirist Zapiro using photo of June 16th massacre of school children as theme for a new South Africa tragedy – HIV/AIDS

Sinomlando seeks to redress the damaging effect of violence and HIV/AIDS on African children and their families through memory work and oral history. Sinomlando, an isiZulu word for “we have a history,” utilizes a slim memory manual in book form for its training of memory workers, entitled Never Too Small To Remember, the title of which is intentional in that we advocate for traditionally “silenced voices” – aka, children, but also women – to contribute their voices and stories.

Should you have interest to know how you can either contribute financially or become a partner member of Sinomlando’s work, contact them directly at “contact us”: http://sinomlando.ukzn.ac.za/index.php/en/contact-us-mainmenu-36.

June 16 (Soweto Uprising), 1976, massacre of 176+ South African students for protesting Afrikaans as medium of instruction.

June 16 (Soweto Uprising), 1976, massacre of 176+ South African students for protesting Afrikaans as medium of instruction.

Memory work utilizes many different exercises in enabling individuals to share their history and process life trauma. “Memories of Loss” and “I Remember” are two. Given that birthdays are hopefully more celebratory than remorseful, I share how to do “I Remember” because it can be used for painful and joyful remembrances.  With your spouse, partner, close friend, immediate and extended family, church or any other small group that constitutes a “safe place” for you, share with each other answers to the following four questions.

NeverTooSmall

The final question is particularly important, in that, it’s where participants express feelings associated with specific memories.  The start to healing or coming to terms with a specific loss and struggle in life, is most often  preceded by a verbalization or sharing with someone, as in, for example, the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, where the first step is simply having the courage to acknowledge one’s addiction/problem and need for help.

I REMEMBER

 Share a remembrance, a memory.

(Examples: a wedding, the birth of a child, the death of a family member, etc.)

Share on what occasions you most often remember these events.

(Example: for my mother-in-law it’s December 31st)

Share what you typically do or think when you remember these events.

(Examples: I sing songs, I look at photo albums, I get in a “sour mood”, I cry inconsolably)

Share what emotions these memories provoke in you.

(Examples: I feel relief, pain, sadness, distress, etc.)

Thank you for sharing in my birthday by allowing me to share something of my own history and life story, as well as that of The Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work in Africa!

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Filed under Africa, Life, Loss, Memories, Perspective, Relationships, Uncategorized

20 Do’s and Don’ts of Assisting the Jobless

Do you care enough to help the jobless?  If so, at what level are you willing to help – Maze Help or Mentoring Help?

Let me explain how I view the difference.

Finding work, or helping someone find work, is often likened to simple navigation of a maze, consuming as little as 15-minutes of your time, but certainly less than a few hours at best.  This short expenditure of time and effort I call “maze help,” aka –  charity help.

jobmaze

If you intend to contribute meaningful help to someone seeking re-employment, then the analogy of mentoring a visitor or immigrant in acclimatizing to his or her new environment is more apropos, I believe.  The reason being that joblessness is frequently a seismic crisis, precipitating significant life adjustments.  Helping someone through and beyond job loss could possibly consume tens of hours of your time spread across days, weeks, and in a recessionary climate, even extending to months.

I have experienced both analogies.

As job seeker, I have been the recipient of well-intentioned friends or acquaintances, who offer “maze help.”  Regrettably maze help is most common, and I define it as snippets of time and energy, requiring minimal personal inconvenience, and often assumes the form of verbal or written statements such as – “I really don’t know of anything at present, but I will certainly let you know if I do hear of a position that might be suitable for you.”

“Maze helpers” seem to view the act of helping as simply an act of charity, as Jon Picoult notes in his article “The Jobless Won’t Forget Your Help.”  Promises of help are made by well-intentioned individuals, who either don’t want to be troubled beyond the time and energy it takes to write a reply email or make a phone call, or who feel insecure and ill-suited to help you for whatever unknown reason.

helpinghand

An example of “Mentoring Help” occurred in 2008, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.  A local non-profit I worked with gladly accepted the offer of an unpaid, six-month German intern.  As national director of a newly funded USAID training project, I was not charged with orienting this intern, nor did I feel I had the time to do so due to project compliance requirements.  Nevertheless, shortly after this intern’s arrival it was apparent that we had not done enough in helping him acclimate to our city and country.  I could have simply offered him “maze help” in the form of an email or phone call or a quick cup of coffee, sharing condolences about his struggles but little else, yet I knew this wouldn’t suffice, nor was it the right and decent thing to do.

He needed mentoring/orienting help.  So for the next few weeks, plus periodically, then, over the next four months, I invested time and effort in helping him make a positive transition through the attending acclimating-to-South-Africa crisis.  I picked him up and took him to the bank, helping him transact money.  I drove him to town where he bought an A/C adaptor for his laptop, as well as groceries.  I invited him for several meals, and facilitated a doctor’s appointment when he became ill.  I informed him of “safety tips” (turn your cell phone off during taxi rides, so you don’t advertise it to would-be-muggers), and acted as his sounding board when he was lonely, frustrated, and processing more information and newfound experiences than his single brain could manage.

howcanihelp

After reading this blog I hope you still want to help!  Jobless people need your help, yet not if they feel your help is merely acts of charity. “Charity help” merely accentuates your fortuitousness of economics, life, education, inheritance, et cetera, and makes people in need feel correspondingly more shameful (=failure).

Below are 20 suggested Do’s and Don’ts on providing practical assistance to jobless individuals. Please feel free to contribute additional ideas, or to add commentary to those listed.

DON’TS:

1.  Don’t assume anything.

  • Don’t assume a person doesn’t want help simply because they haven’t asked for it.  If you have an interest in helping, don’t wait for the jobless to ask you. Take the initiative.  Risk investing 30-minutes to an hour of your time and the price of two cups of coffee (Yes, be sensitive to their curtailing of expenditures and buy them a cup of coffee!).  Your initiative will be appreciated and remembered.
  • Don’t assume the jobless will tell you exactly what they need.  After all, they, like you, have self-respect.  They feel awful being in need already; don’t make them beg for your assistance if you’re already willing or in a position to help.  Rather, ask if and how you might be of help.  Cite specifics within the parameter of your kindness and willingness to help:  e.g., tuition assistance for continuing studies or merely meeting once monthly for coffee. 
  • Don’t assume a person’s joblessness is due to laziness, ineptness, or any other self-made mistake.  Think the best of a person until fact proves otherwise.

2.  Don’t assume every job seeker’s reason for unemployment is the same.  I list this separately because it is purported that, despite the illegality of discrimination against job applicants for a status of “unemployed,” it is still widely practiced.

3.  Don’t “false promise.”  Offer help only if you will keep your promise.  Otherwise, candor is preferred – e.g., “I’m sorry.  I would like to help, but I don’t feel I’m in a position to do so at this time.”

4.  Once committed to helping, don’t disengage without informing the person, preferably with an explanation and in person.  Disengagement without explanation, leaves open the question of “why,” and risks further adding to a job seeker’s unwarranted, yet shameful sense of not measuring up, or of somehow being deserving of one’s predicament.

DO’S:

5.  Assess your motive for helping prior to offering help.  If you don’t, it’s possible you will communicate a patronizing (=treat with an apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority) versus compassionate attitude.

6.  Think sensitively before asking questions, because the questions might merely transfer additional anxieties on to the job seeker.  Examples: “Did you manage to secure any job interviews last month?  No? Really!”

7.  Allow individuals to vocalize frustrations and struggles without correcting or criticizing them.  Strive to provide a “safe place” (a figurative place of trust that is free from ridicule) where the jobless can air any and all feelings of insecurity and struggle. Listen. Affirm their feelings. Occasionally offer their words of struggle back in the form of a question – e.g., “So, what I hear you saying is that you’re struggling with the reality that your wife will ‘better you’ in terms of pay and position?”  Talking is cathartic.  Often time answers to problems and a willingness to re-engage life arise from those emotional outbursts.

8.  Offer the jobless unused air miles for airfare purchase toward job-related trips.

9.  Offer to help offset expenses related to continuing education or skills training.

10.  Offer gift vouchers to coffee shops or restaurants, which they can use toward job search purposes, such as informational interviews.

11.  Offer or help them find a temporary work opportunity, even if it’s a more volunteer than paid type situation, which will help mitigate discrimination as an “unemployed” candidate when submitting job applications.

12.  Offer to review resumes, cover letters, and provide input on job search strategy.

13.  Invite and accompany them as your guest to Rotary and such meetings.

14.  Offer to be their elevator pitch recipient.

15.  Offer to role-play the interviewer.

16.  Write them a LinkedIn recommendation and/or endorse their skills.

17.  Offer to assist with expenses of enlisting a top-recruitment firm.

18.  Assist and affirm them in identifying their transferable skills.

19.  Offer to teach them basic skill sets of yours (e.g., Excel, web page development).

20.  Offer to child-sit for job interviews, or merely to provide a self-care outing.

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Confessions of a (former) Killer and Gun Lover

Given the tension in the United States over gun rights and the prospect of tighter gun controls, I want to contribute a few thoughts on the subject myself.  I start with a confession.

I confess that I was a killer of African wildlife and I was a lover of guns (although the latter sounds a bit kinky as I write it).  Okay, so I’m not a former killer of people as my blog title might intimate at, and you’re disappointed in a sick-kind-of-way because that’s why you clicked on my blog. Please don’t disengage.  Read on.

Don't I look "tough"!:)

Yes, I thought I was quite the dude.

First, a preamble: This blog is not a diatribe against guns, gun ownership or hunting. I accept the arguable concepts of self and national protection, as well as conservation reasons for hunting or culling. Rather, I write as someone whose perspective on guns and hunting has changed, and this is my attempt to explain in part why.

I don’t recall ever choosing these twin interests.  I simply was born into a family and culture where owning guns, shooting guns, and hunting with guns was entertainment and identity.  It helped that once or twice a year guns and hunting resulted in a freezer filled with venison of wildebeest, impala, eland, hartebeest, warthog, yes, even the occasional zebra or cape buffalo. I admit I enjoyed going on several day “hunting safaris” in Kenya, Tanzania, and once in Botswana.

There’s something magical about camping out under the canopy of an African night sky, as Hemingway did, while nursing a cup of coffee, chai, or hot chocolate around a warm, crackling campfire – my family were teetotalers, therefore, regrettably I never knew the greater joy of nursing a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon until much later in life – listening to the nearby sounds of hyenas and jackals, and occasionally, a distant rhythmic chorus of lions (hear at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iC5vrt7eGG4), all while gazing up at the ga-trillion stars that mesmerized and enthralled your wonderment of life and being alive.

My family didn’t always go on safari just to kill.  Even on “non-kill” photographic safaris, however, hunting was ever-present on our minds.  We enjoyed wildlife viewing safaris to national parks, including Masai Mara, Amboseli, Samburu, Serengeti, The Ark, Treetops, Lake Nakuru, Ruaha, and Ngorongoro Crater. Although we exchanged rifles for cameras on these occasions, this did not stop the males among us from incessantly referencing this and that particular animal from a hunter’s eye.

“Wow, look at the horns on that impala!”  Or, “Wow, what I would give to have my rifle right now!” Or, “That Zebra stallion has dark, beautiful stripes – a lot nicer than the zebra I shot last year.”  Sometimes my siblings and I would so intensely want to shoot a prized trophy that we would act out a shot, positioning our left and right arms and hands outward toward an animal, as if holding a magnum calibre rifle, and then making a shot sound with our mouths, while simultaneously pulling on an imaginary trigger. Of course, on these “hunts” we always bagged our animal.

An elephant "shot" with camera at too close proximity.

An elephant “shot” with camera at too close proximity.

This interest and love of hunting and firearms lasted longer than I care to admit.  And when guns no longer featured into my home inventory, they were temporarily replaced with a compound bow.  I transitioned to bows for two reasons.  Most importantly, I lost bi-lateral high-frequency hearing for a combination of likely reasons, one of which, were rifles exploding in close proximity to my unprotected ears.  Stupid, stupid, stupid! Secondly, once you master “the shot,” which I did, rifle hunting offered little pleasure other than “the stalk.”   The rush that comes from observing first-hand the skill of an expert tracker as he reads the telltale signs of animals and nature, and leads you ever closer to your intended quarry is the topic of many a-fireside-conversations.

Tracker follwing animal spoor

Tracker following animal spore

What changed my mind about firearms is difficult to articulate in words. Obviously there exist any similar number of “Newtown, Connecticut” type incidents to point at, yet those have all occurred at a safe and sterile distance from my own life, and despite the horrid, tragic, and senseless loss of life, including small children, they were not the effective change agent for me.

Although I could add as a caveat, that during my family’s residence in South Africa, we once counted up the number of friends and acquaintances we had known murdered and it came to about 20, and add to that almost 50 incidences of armed hijacking (I lost count after 40).  Yet even there, amidst what psychologists and social theorists define as “a culture of violence,” mindsets were mitigated because South African society absurdly yet understandably came to accept violence and crime as simply part of “the culture.”  After all, if you’re unable to stop or stem violence you still have to live with it.

Zapiro cartoon depicting an endemic "culture of crime" in South Africa

Zapiro cartoon depicting an endemic “culture of crime” in South Africa

For me, a change of mind and attitude toward guns and killing germinated during the summer of 2001.  That summer just prior to 9/11 was singularly formative in reshaping my worldview and identity, and, of course, post-9/11 only reinforced my sense of shared identity with people of the world, given that more than 90 countries lost citizens on that day.

As part of my postgraduate studies I had the fortune to attend summer/2001 seminars at Bossey Ecumenical Institute in Geneva, Switzerland. This studies-abroad experience was singularly transformative, in that, for the first time I was obligated to temporarily suspend my protective, American cultural identity bubble.  If I was to get anything out of the three weeks’ study, I had to place myself in the vulnerable and unsettling position of having to listen and vicariously experience life and faith through the shared experiences and perspectives of individuals, who I shared few life commonalities with.

A discussion about homosexuality and interpretation of holy scriptures arose one session, particularly over how subjective truth is, and how people are selective (pick and choose texts that best fit their interpretive and cultural lens) when it comes to contentious issues.  My mindset at the time was conservative, so both my thought and contribution was in effect to try to claim a high ground of “absolute scriptural authority” (*postmodernism posits that all truth is interpretive and provisional – I agree) and disregard or at least minimize the reality and day-to-day experience of those who of necessity have to live a daily branded life of being gay.

At some point in the discussion, America’s gun culture came into play.  A participant from India, about my age, heterosexual, and married shared something that struck a deep chord of change in me.  I take considerable liberty in recounting these twelve years later what exactly she said –

“Being tolerant or even advocating for homosexual rights is about perceiving God as ‘life-giving.’  Whatever is life giving or affirming of life is of God, because God is the ‘giver of life.'” She contrasted the “sin” of homosexuality with the “sin” of America’s penchant for guns, violent entertainment, and sometimes aggressive interventionist strategies abroad and posed this concluding thought: One affirms life and the other destroys life, therefore which one poses the greater societal ill and danger?

In November, during the period leading up to Thanksgiving, many, if not all North American Jain communities, hold all-night prayer vigils for the millions of turkeys that are slaughtered for our ritualistic feast day.  In case you know nothing about Jainism, it is an Indian religion, of which one of its underlying tenets of faith is “ahimsa” or “non-violence.” Gandhi’s non-violent means of protest took its inspiration from Jainism, and later Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Nelson Mandela were inspired by Gandhi.  So there is some truth in saying that Jainism singularly sparked social revolutions on three separate continents and through three historically significant individuals.  When I shared the Jains’ prayer vigil for turkeys with my world religion classes each semester, I inevitably heard snickering.  To young identities shaped by a pioneering, minutemen and wilderness-subduing history, such as is the United States’, the idea of commiserating with birds to be slaughtered seems the utmost in absurdity.

Yet is it?

Which is more out of kilter?  A near obsession by many with all things guns – gun shows, gun collections, gun rights, and guns themselves, of which the latter were the primary contributing factor in 8,600 of 12,700 total murders in 2011? Or an “absurd” valuing of life; one that advocates non-violence even to the point of holding all-night prayer vigils for turkeys?

You be the judge.

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Filed under Africa, Life, Memories, Perspective, Religion and Faith

Post Office Memories and Cultural Apropos Uses of the “F-word”

In our era of high-tech gadgets and high rolling entertainment I’m struck by how prominently small, simple, and insignificant past events figure into consciousness and identity.  An example of mine are memories associated with checking the mail or post.  I’m not referring to the typical U.S. residence mailbox, situated right outside most front doors, but the mailbox you rent on a monthly or yearly basis at the post office.  I still remember distinctive experiences, sights, smells and sounds of many post offices in places I lived in Kenya and Tanzania as a child, and in South Africa as an adult.

For instance, when we lived in Thohoyandou (= “head of the elephant”), Venda, South Africa, our post box was a ten minute drive up the hill to a mostly white suburb called Sibasa.  The reason I reference “white suburb” is that my family’s experiences in Venda included both “apartheid South Africa,” as well as a free Nelson Mandela, yet pre-1994 constitutional democratic South Africa.  Thohoyandou was a mostly “black” town in Venda.

Neighboring Shangaan women sitting at a post office.

Immediately adjacent to the Sibasa post office was an OK Bazaar (grocer) and a PEP store (comparable to a Dollar Tree in the U.S.).  In deep, traditional Venda culture, when a young girl or a woman greets a man, especially an elderly man, she shows formal respect by at minimum kneeling on her knees, averting her eyes and head away from direct eye contact with the man, positioning both hands together and with them outstretched and curled upward “losha(ing)” (greeting) with the Venda feminine greeting “Aaah.”

A Venda woman's respectful posture of greeting.

A Venda woman’s respectful posture of greeting.

The man is expected to cup his hands together, perhaps, even, softly clap them repeatedly (if you’ve seen the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, the bumbling scientist, Marius Weyers demonstrates this when greeting the Bushman Xixo or his given name Nǃxau ǂToma), and with them on the outside of his right thigh, respond with “Ndaa.”

One day as I exited the Sibasa post office, a young girl in bright and beautiful Venda traditional dress and I encountered each other face-to-face on the sidewalk. Each time we tried to sidestep and get out-of-the-way of the other, we simply kept moving in the same direction and impeding each other’s forward momentum.  I won’t forget what occurred as we both simultaneously saw the humor in our respective and awkward positions.  I simply smiled and greeted her in Tshivenda. She, on the other hand, immediately prostrated herself full-length on the red clay-dirtied and people congested sidewalk, and extended to me the highest and most respectful of Venda greetings.

Venda hands in greeting.

Venda hands in greeting.

Yes, one could read into her “respectful display” a racialized political context, from which she merely acted out of abject fear of a white man.  On the other hand, I’ve chosen to remember it as a memory snapshot of how a young Venda girl chose to acknowledge and respect me, a stranger (the “wow effect”). I wish I could inform this young girl today, what an impression she made on this “mutshena” or “mukhuwa” (white or white person).

As a transition story from post office to coarse cultural language memory is a post office and coarse language memory I have from my childhood years in Kisumu, Kenya (the same place I reference in my blog “Fly fishing for sheep and slingshotting for ‘ndeges.'”

A daily family ritual, as it were, was to drive downtown to the post office and check the mail.  My favorite “check time” was evening after dinner – in the absence of TV, the drive to town served as a surrogate.  I recall how my five siblings and I competed for who got to check the mail, much as we also competed for who got to have their piece of pie in the pie pan, instead of a dessert plate, because then it meant you might have a few extra crushed graham cracker crumbs or sweet pie filling residue.

Lest you mock the importance we placed on the mail event, and its lasting place in my memory hard drive, is the fact that this occurred prior to the age of internet and email, and therefore mail was our primary means of news and “goodies.”  By goodies I mean American food care packages from family in Texas, or even a letter from my aunt, who used to send me envelopes stuffed with stamps for my stamp collection from places all over the world that she collected from work.  Or as I’m told by my parents, the first and only letter written by my dad’s dad, who worked for decades at an agriculture and feed store, and wrote to inform me – an aspiring fourth or fifth-grade millionaire chicken farmer (I sold my broiler chickens to my parents) – the prices of chicks, feed, and poultry supplies, from which I then devised my get-super rich-schemes.

On one particular night time mail run, I recall sitting in the front across from my dad, and as we neared and rounded one of Kisumu’s many traffic roundabouts, belting out for all the car’s occupants to hear Neil Diamond’s “High Rolling Man,” specifically the refrain “Hot damn, hot damn, hot damn, you know that he could.”

My parents, well, especially my mom, but on this occasion my dad, too, clear their throats when they’re undergoing and experiencing uncomfortable situations (an example of my mom’s quick onset of throat obstruction was at a viewing of the movie In Her Shoes, which my wife and I watched together with my parents at Bedfordview Mall, South Africa.  My mom’s throat clearing occurred during Cameron Diaz’s toilet stall sex scene). By the way, in case you’re wondering, yes, despite any ribbing of my parents I’m very grateful to them for the examples they were and continue to be.  They will celebrate sixty years of marriage in 2013.

A Kisumu roundabout.

A Kisumu roundabout.

When I started belting out loud the refrain to “High Rolling Man” my dad first cleared his throat, then proceeded with eyes averted straight ahead, to say something to the effect, “Uh, um, son, do you know what you’re singing?”  It says something as to the Puritan-like sensibilities I grew up with, as well as to the time period of my childhood, but I honestly was naive to the possible inappropriateness of the words I was singing.  I don’t remember us laughing about it then, nor was I punished, but it’s humorous to think back upon now.  Especially in light of the following two “swearing stories” that occurred in South Africa years later.

During postgraduate studies my mentor and primary instructor was a South African, but of Scandinavian descent. He could regale people with stories, both historical, as well as with a combination of “creative thought” and energy.  Of the latter, possibly, he frequently told students that the Zulus had to create words to fit mostly British sport and culture.  For instance, when soccer arrived on the scene, they simply called it “e-football,” and when cricket arrived, “e-cricket.”  Golf was a particular problem since few if any non-whites played the sport.  What the Zulus consistently heard white players saying during rounds of golf was “dammit.”  So, according to my professor, golf came to be referred to by Zulus by the “Zulu word” “e-dammit.”

When my family and I moved to Johannesburg in 2003 we, like the majority of South Africans, urban and rural, rich and even poor, employed a part-time outside yard worker. “Eddie” was from Tzaneen, a city in the north-eastern part of the country.  He spoke Pedi (northern Sotho) and little English.  I spoke mediocre Venda, but not Pedi.  Due to rampant crime, my wife insisted we get a few dogs.  We found a few “township dogs” (mixed breed) on the outskirts of Soshanguve township, situated 25 kms north of Pretoria.  Both dogs were less than one year old, and despite our efforts to prevent them, they chewed up everything, including a large dog bed made from sisal, which was advertised as “dog chew resistant”!  Hah, I have pictures to prove the fallacy of that marketing assertion.

One morning I went outside to water the flower bed and could not find the attachments for our water hose. Eventually I asked Eddie if he knew where they were.  His face told me “yes, ” but now the difficulty was telling me where or what happened to them.  I do not presume to know whether what I am about to tell you is a culturally and socially accepted expression among all South Africans or not, but I can tell you it is very common, nor is it looked aghast at, as it would be, and is, among conservative and “Christian” American.  Eddie spoke hesitantly and communicated this short and very clear message: “dogs . . . fucked up.”

One of the culprits!

One of the culprits!

You see, in South Africa “f#@ked up” is an expression that unambiguously communicates that something or someone is “beyond repair.”  So Eddie was telling me that our dogs, who were capable of destroying even a purported to be indestructible dog bed, were the culprits responsible for destroying my water hose attachments.

About a year later, I was advocating for a group of young women, who were part of a HIV/AIDS home-based caregiver support group, started by a retired Zulu school teacher, Thokozile, or simply “Thoko,” as a service to her community of Emdeni, Soweto.  These ladies were remarkable in their compassionate care and commitment to help people and families infected and affected by HIV/AIDS for little financial remuneration.  One day a year or so after working with them, I received a call from Thoko.  Her voice didn’t sound itself, but at the same time I was not immediately concerned or alarmed.  I answered the phone “Hello?”  She replied, “Scott?”  I said, “Thoko, is that you? How are you?”  She answered, “Oh, Scott, I’m f#@cked up.”  I had never heard that expression used by persons referring to themselves before, and so did not immediately clue in to its implied severity.  Sadly, Thoko passed away before that week ended. She was telling me, in effect, “Scott, I’m beyond repair. Goodbye.”

Thoko, fourth from right

Thoko, fourth from right

I end this blog with two thoughts. Why is it that many North Americans, in particular, especially many among my former community of meaning – “Christian America” – still chafe so painfully under the discomfort of swear words, when many to most of them frequently or regularly use slang or “Christian cursing” themselves (e.g., effin’, dang, frickin, darnit, gosh dangit, dadgummit, heck, shoot, shitzu, fudge, etc.)?  And, why do sensibilities about coarse language loom so disproportionately large compared to far more serious “real sensibility” issues like child and wife abuse, hunger and homelessness, child trafficking, racial bigotry, ad infinitum?


			

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On Vulnerability and Disengagement

My impetus for blogging about vulnerability and disengagement came from reading Brene’ Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.  Brown, a Houston-based researcher, catapulted to public awareness as a TED speaker.  Daring Greatly advocates having the courage to live vulnerable lives.

I reflect briefly on two personal examples of vulnerability: Place and space vulnerability. Relational vulnerability.

First, a definition . . . Vulnerability is a state of being open, susceptible and exposed to pain or suffering.

eyevulnerable

Vulnerability is paradoxical, in that risking a state of being vulnerable is a prerequisite to growth and intimacy and even life, as for example chemistry, anatomy, physiology and microbiology are prerequisites for most medical science programs.

Vulnerability assumes many forms and degrees of severity, including these few minor ones of mine from this week: Buying Tampax Pearl “super” and “regular” at Costco for the women in my life.  Being shown three close-up photographs of a tuxedo cat’s obstructed anus by a AT&T repair technician after I innocently asked him during a home visit to repair our internet connection what kind of cat he had, and he felt obligated to “show-tell” me more than I cared to know!

risk&reward

Vulnerability occurs by at least one of three means: 1) a voluntary and intentional choice (e.g., me buying a typically feminine product), 2) an imposed duty  (e.g., a course requirement to do or visit something unfamiliar, like the Jain temple below), or 3) an unforeseen consequence of one’s words or actions (e.g., being shown the tuxedo cat photos).  Courage and risk are not only common to all three, but prerequisites to vulnerability’s rewards.

A light, comical example: At some point in my marriage I took a risk and chose to buy my wife an outfit of clothes.  It was a vulnerable, risky and spur of the moment act because it’s a typically feminine versus manly thing to do, plus, she might have taken exception to or misinterpreted my act and/or what I bought her.  Yet, having acted despite the risk, I was and continue to be rewarded by her: liking most everything I buy; I get all the compliments indirectly from her friends, plus, it’s fun to hear the standard I’ve now created for their husbands and boyfriends once they hear I bought all my wife’s outfits; and, finally, I get to “dress her hot.”  Hah!

My wife wearing & receiving "my clothing line."

My wife wearing & receiving “my clothing line.”

My first significant personal experience with vulnerability occurred during postgraduate studies in world religions.  I entered the program from a conservative upbringing, similar it seems to Charles Kimball, author of When Religion Becomes Evil, who described his early formative “context of meaning” as Southern Baptist, but who today – like me – has journeyed far from that without being merely reactionary.

My belief structure and self-identity leading up to graduate studies was evangelical, in so far as that communicates a consciousness and spirituality overly concerned with not only “how to get into,” but also “who’s in and who’s out” of heaven/eternity.  Ultimately, I believe, it’s a frail and insecure faith.  It’s a faith orientation rabbi David Hartman aptly observed about, “The longing to be eternally redeemed can become so profound that you doubt whether your way will take you there if you see another person enjoying his or her different way.”

It’s a faith still reflective of, if not mired in its Puritan roots, especially its perception of God:  loving, yes, but also capricious and punitive.  To illustrate using a common African image  – It views eternal security from the fearful perspective of an infant having of necessity to cling to its mother’s neck lest it fall off, rather than seeing the mother’s anxious love as all-embracing and anxious to ensure, herself, that her child doesn’t fall and injure itself.

My wife with our youngest.

My wife with our youngest.

My studies program required that I engage first-hand with cultural and religious difference.  So, for example, instead of learning about Jains from a disengaged and purely theoretical vantage point (books and lecture), I engaged in a year-long participation and engaged study of a Jain community in Richardson, Texas, with no conscious intention other than to experience and understand a people and faith different from my own.  Phenomenology is the term that describes this approach to study.  In the so-called Bible Belt of the southern United States, learning about the religious and cultural “different other” more often than not, it seems, focuses on identifying and emphasizing cultural and religious differences so as to more effectively proselytize.

Indiareligions

Recalling that first Sunday in 2000, twelve years later, stirs up vulnerable feelings of discomfiture. What would “their” place of worship look like?  Am I appropriately dressed?  Has everyone removed their shoes outside the front door, or only some people?  Should I?  Will my shoes be here when I leave?  What kind of reception awaits me as a guest, a white face among likely all brown?  How should I greet them?  Do I greet the men differently than the women? What will “their” order of worship be?  Will I be expected to participate in everything?  Would I even be allowed to?  Will someone be available to explain things?

Similar fears and imagined antagonisms occurred during my trans-Atlantic flight the following year to Geneva, Switzerland, and seminar attendance at the World Council of Churches’ Bossey Ecumenical Institute.  My wife and I laugh now, but as a grown man at 33 years of age, I admit I was emotionally distraught when I “called back home” after arrival and check-in at Bossey.  Everything was threatening, but especially the religious and cultural “different others,” including I came to find out, people who were either gays, themselves, or who had no theological or moral problem with gayness (understand this was my feeling then, not now).

Bossey Ecumenical Institute

Bossey Ecumenical Institute

Over the course of three weeks we participants from many parts of the globe and varying faith and no faith backgrounds engaged each other in sustained conversation and shared experiences.  We ate, laughed, traveled by bus, cried and shared stories.  I still remember the story one Sri Lankan participant shared during morning devotion.  He was attempting to illustrate what it was like to live as a person from a non-super power, colonized population, where local “history” is interpreted and communicated from the victor’s perspective.  In the story, a student asks his teacher, “Ma’am, if the lion is the king of the jungle, why is it that the hunter always wins?”  His wise teacher thought, then replied, “That’s only how it seems on the surface and for the moment, until which time as the lion has his opportunity to tell his side of the story.”

As a Norwegian seminar colleague shared with me as we sat with a glass of wine looking out over Lake Geneva – “Scott, I feel like we’ve done a lot of deconstruction (of our respective faith and cultural traditions, plus years of acquired book learning), yet very little reconstruction.”  I think that’s a lot of what a vibrant, maturing vulnerability entails.  It requires, as it were, unlearning or giving up for a time mono-cycling, so as to learn how to share in riding tandem.

Vulnerability isn’t only important for overcoming our rootedness to place and space (our proverbial “bubble”), but also in building and nurturing relationships.

The most vulnerable of all relationships

The most vulnerable of all relationships

Several months ago I responded to a Harvard Business Review article entitled “We Approach Diversity the Wrong Way” by Liz Ryan, in which she advocated for “MoCo” (more conversations – that is, more vulnerable and candid sharing with each other about stereotypical and prejudicial perceptions and attitudes acquired over the years toward each other; not less) in addressing problems related to diversity. I wrote:

“I appreciate this corrective perspective, especially helping people learn to talk about the ‘sticky human stuff’ by MoCo – more conversation. I recall a conversation a small group of us (whites) had with black colleagues in South Africa years ago – just barely, if yet democratic South Africa. We came together with our culturally acquired stereotypes to discuss a joint work project.  The lingering positive effect and lesson for me was the ‘real conversation’ that transacted, which affected positively on work and interpersonal relationships.  I recall a black colleague sharing, ‘When we see a white person approaching our house we immediately ask ourselves, ‘What is he coming here to ask us to do?’ This man’s comment immediately hit home to me for the truth it was.  I, in turn, candidly replied, When we see a black man coming to our homes, we tend to ask, ‘I wonder what he’s coming to ask for?’  This rare ‘MoCo moment’ was priceless and helped establish trust between people in a new post-racial society by partially clearing the underbrush.”

I resonate with Brown’s observation that while “betrayal” is most often associated with partner/spousal cheating, lying, breaking a confidence, and failure to defend a friend against false accusation, in actuality a more “insidious” and corrosive of trust betrayal is disengagement.

Disengaged?

Disengagement is when one or more parties in a relationship stop making effort and fighting for the relationship, stop paying attention, stop investing time, and stop caring.  Disengagement is the precursor, the underlying condition prior to cheating, lying, abandoning, et cetera.

Illustrative of disengagement is a funny and effective South African Tedelex advertisement.  A husband is slouching on a sofa watching Saturday sports on the “telly” (English for TV). The viewer is led to believe the husband’s crime is neglecting and disengaging completely from wife and marriage.  The wife does several walk-bys the TV trying to get his attention, before resorting to one final and desperate measure.  On the final walk-by she wears nothing but a bathrobe.  She stops mid-center of the TV, turns toward her husband, flashes open her robe, then closes the robe and walks away.  Only then does the husband take quick and eager cognizance of his wife and gets up from the sofa, conveying the message that only one thing possesses the potency to lure men away from their sports – sex.

Seldom, of course, is relational disengagement quite so humorous.  The neglected child, the struggling single parent, the unemployed, the poor, the immigrant, the soldier, the elderly – to name only a few – feel disengagement acutely. Disengagement from friends, church members, family, neighbors, former colleagues is exacerbated when combined with unwelcome, yet, inevitable attending self-shame: a sense of failure, inadequacy and not measuring up, not being good enough.  This is why Brown includes a section in Daring Greatly on “shame resilience.”

Thinking back on a few close friendships lost, as well as many marital separations of friends and family members, I wonder how many of those relationships might still be intact today if either one or both parties had, out of respect for the other and the relationship, resolutely refused to disengage time, attention, effort and caring?

In 2013 my wife and I will celebrate our 28th anniversary.  I credit her for demonstrating and teaching me the importance of engagement.  She (more than I can be credited with) did this through stubborn insistence that we talk through our “everythings” – and I do mean everything, including feelings and insecurities, and the secrets and insecurities of men and maleness, or women and femaleness. Difficult as it is on some days to see or acknowledge, our marriage and family is worth fighting for relative to “anything else out there on the market”.  Brene’ Brown’s importance was in reminding me of the dangers of disengagement and the imperative even for macho men to exercise courage in practicing vulnerability.

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Fly Fishing for Sheep and Slingshotting for “Ndeges”

Lake_VictoriaMap

Kisumu lies in the northeast corner of the lake

Growing up I always enjoyed anything outdoorsy, including fishing.  From fourth to sixth grade I lived in Kisumu (“kiss-a-moo” as my grandmother pronounced it), Kenya, within walking distance of Lake Victoria – the largest tropical lake in the world at 26,600 square miles, as well as the second largest in the world, after Lake Superior.

I had a group of five to seven Luo “boy friends,” who were my constant and daily companions after school hours.  We were always outside playing.  Anything from walking through adjacent scrub brush shooting slingshots, to hanging out on the weekends near the lakeside picnic area in hope of Indian picnickers, from whom my friends would beg for yummy spicy Indian food leftovers.  All the while and unbeknownst to the picnickers was a young white boy hiding behind a retainer wall eagerly waiting his share of the begged loot.

slingshot

A similar “sling” to what we made.

The slingshots we made from purchased strips of inner tube obtained at the local open market.  Each strip had to be hand selected according to its springy, rapid elasticity, which, of course, would equate to a much quicker catapulted small stone or pebble.  A prized rubber was red versus black. We were always on the lookout during our walkabouts in the “bush” for a prized forked stick, which we would cut to perfect hand and slingshot size, strip off its bark so as to allow it to sun dry and harden.

Since my knowledge of Luo was basic at best, and theirs of English the same, we would speak  to each other in simple words and hand gestures.  I grimace remembering some phrases, including “ndege with the long tail.”  It wasn’t enough to simply say the words (ndege is Kiswahili for bird, and, well, you know what “with the long tail” means), one also had to act them out.

For example, when we saw a group of mouse birds, or mousies as we affectionately called them, fly into a nearby bush or tree, we would excitedly whisper-shout to each other “ndege with the long tail,” while simultaneously pulling an imaginary long quill out of our rear with one hand, while with the other quickly unslinging slingshots from around our necks, where, incidentally, we coolly kept them before this became the fashion in Milan.   mousebird

Being boys, we also liked to play cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers.  This is where I was able to showcase my expertise in Luo (or Dholuo).  So, when half my Luo friends went to hide and the remainder of us were counting to whatever arbitrary number, I would call out “wathe?”, which communicated to those in hiding “ready?”  If they weren’t quite ready then they responded “podi” or “not yet.”

Back to Lake Victoria and fishing, before moving on to fly fishing for sheep on the West Rand.

I bought a small gill net at a local fishing supply store in Kisumu, maybe 15 to 20 yards in length, which resembled a tennis net, except fitted with cork floats on top and weights on the bottom.  My friends and I would walk to a small and narrow inlet of the lake not far from the Nyanza Club, toting our net, sandwiches, water thermos, plus a reed basket, which was used to transport home our tilapia.  After arriving my friends would strip down to either their knickers or nothings, while I, out of an instilled fear of contracting bilharzia, remained fully clothed on the bank, keeping an eye out on our belongings, as well as snakes, which occasionally would make a water crossing near our extended net.

Fisherman and gill net, in an inlet much like what ours looked like

Fisherman and net in an inlet much like what ours looked like

Once the net was strung across the narrow inlet, my friends would then disperse themselves in the water 20 to 40 yards further up, and walk slowly back toward the net continuously slapping the water with sticks or their two outstretched hands.  “We” then lifted the net to examine whether “our” attempt at herding fish was successful or not.  I have only warm memories of those days, including taking our tilapia home, batter frying them, and eating fish with homemade chapatis (Indian flat bread).

Turkana

Lake Turkana, northern Kenya

Although while on the topic of fishing I could share two more erstwhile stories, both of which relate to my dad’s apparent jinx with boat motors (One, an encounter with a threatening hippo on Lake Naivasha, while my dad was desperately trying to restart a temperamental motor.  The other, the death of one of two outboard engines on a small fishing boat with seven adults, on our return from fishing at Central Island, miles from shore on a stormy Lake Turkana – a place purported to have the highest density of Nile crocodile anywhere in the world), I prefer to tell, what to me, is the most comical: fly fishing for sheep.

A former South African friend of mine is an avid fly fisherman, so much so that I’m certain he would live in a floating tube chair if wife and work allowed.  He has taught the basics of fly fishing to many a person, including myself, and on this particular story occasion, my teenage son.  We drove across Johannesburg to a section of the West Rand that is populated with small holdings and wedding venues.  This fishing hole, as it were, had three or four quite small pools stocked with rainbow trout and bass.  To keep the surrounding grass and brush cleared with minimal human effort, the owner kept a number of “free range” livestock – a pony or two, sheep, maybe geese.  We fishermen (and a fisherwoman or two) were individually scattered across the few acres.

As best I can remember, I was fishing at the end of the larger pool, while my son was fishing the same pool at mid-center.  Suddenly I heard my son shout in a panicked voice, something to the effect of, “Pa!  Come quickly!  Help me!”  Upon hearing his stricken voice, my heart immediately skipped a beat or three, and I dropped my own rod and turned to race toward him.  What I saw as I turned doubled me over with laughter.

On one of his many back strokes, which are a necessary and finessed aspect of fly fishing, he was unaware that a ewe was feeding directly behind him.  His small fly embedded itself in the ewe’s wool, and upon my son’s forward cast the sudden forceful tug startled the ewe.  She bolted in an angled direction toward, yet away from me.  My son, not wanting to lose his fishing equipment, ran after her with his rod bending in an extreme doubled arc, as if he had just hooked a Great White.  I was laughing so hard – and all the while trying desperately to remove my digital Canon camera from a buttoned cargo pocket – that I was of no help.  Eventually, of course, the ewe’s pull and my son’s resistance resulted in a broken line.

My son (left) with his instructor (center) on the West Rand

My son (left) with his instructor (center) on the West Rand

So . . . should you have bought a sheep skin in the Gauteng region anytime between 2006-2007, and discovered through a painful laying down on it experience that it contained a small hooked fly, you now, more than likely, know the origin of that fly!

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