Friday, October 23, 2009

On a roll...

I just walked to the flower shop in my neighborhood. I go there a couple of time a month, which is probably not as much as I should but enough to know the guys who work there. I try to speak a little bit of Arabic. They are always nice and fair.

Here, with much commerce, prices are not posted. The patron decides what the service or product is worth, says it fadal/i (here it is [m/f]), hands over the money, and walks away. If you underpay, there is a discussion, negotiation, or perhaps argument. This is the way that taxis, for example, function. I generally don’t have trouble with taxis because I know what the fares and rates should be. Today, at the flower stand, I got 15 roses to bring to friends who are having us over for dinner. I handed the florist 30LE (a 20 and a 10). He told me I overpaid, and handed me back 10LE. Wow! I don’t recall that every happening to me.

And then, things got better. I got asked directions in Arabic. I knew the place and street number and was able to answer correctly and coherently. Awesome.

So I am on a roll. And I think things are going to keep getting better...

What’s next?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Rocking Chair

This is a quick blog post about a recent purchase—a custom made rocking chair with foot stool. Egypt is know for wonderful mashrabiya woodworkers who design furniture and buildings. You see a lot of this stuff here, particularly in windows, and it is intricate and beautiful. (The classic example of this type of design in the photo is actually the footstool. The lattice design for windows is a traditional means of blocking out the sun while allowing air to circulate.) We wanted to buy a rocking chair so I went to a nearby shopping road where there is a series of woodworking shops and commissioned a rocking chair. I told them basically what I wanted including the color and a couple of weeks later it was ready. The price was 1,000 Egyptian pounds (or about $180US) for both pieces. They make nice screens (room dividers) that I would like to save some funds to purchase sometime.

Monday, October 12, 2009

More students

So, the student who starred in my previous blog post missed another appointment with me. No email. Not a surprise. He came to class and his cell phone rang. Twice! The second time, it interrupted a student oral presentation. I glared at him and said, “You’re kidding, right?” He actually tried to make some excuse. I shut him down pretty quickly so I have no idea what it was. Writing now I am a little curious as to what he would have come up with, but at the time I wanted his classmates to be able to continue their oral presentation of a Gary Snyder poem. The student was flustered by the phone and/or my reaction, and in reaching to turn it off, he dropped it on the floor and it fell apart into a bunch of pieces. Karma. (But I think he was probably able to put it back together.)

But, here is the other side of students. A former student from my African literature class in the spring came by my office to say hello. She brought me a book of poetry by Iman Mersal, a wonderful Egyptian poet who I introduced her to last term. My student got really into her work, which became the topic for her final paper. I had only read occasional anthologized poems that have been translated into English, but my student read everything in the original Arabic. When she came across a new English edition with brilliant translations by Khaled Mattawa (These Are Not Oranges, My Love), she got it for me.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Back to school; round 2

So we have finished the first week of the semester. Or at least the first post-Eid, post-H1N1 closure. My graduate students have been doing their thing, which was not a surprise. My undergraduates came back strong too, and that was a surprise to me. Perhaps I should be embarrassed by my modest expectations. These are mostly 16 and 17 year olds in their first semester of college. After only three class sessions, we were shut down so I kept in touch via email and by using some of the online course tools. They had handed in their first essay before the closure so I responded with comments and grades by email and required them to submit their second essay online. Almost all of them did it correctly and on time. Then for one first day back, they were to read a chapter of a book on art theory and write a short essay and most of them not only completed the assignment and did good jobs with it. Our discussions in class that day and again later in the week were pretty dynamic. The students had kept up with the reading.

In the class of 21, there is of course one student who missed the first three classes and shows up after the closure. He was on my email list and had access to the course website, but had done nothing to contact me or respond to my announcements. Initially I thought he was added late because sometimes the advisors do shady things, but he said he was registered by the deadline and got sick. OK. On this, his first day, a month after the first class meeting, and having missed the first three essays, he comes to class without a pen or paper. All he brought was his cell phone; I know, because it rang of course.

After class, he comes up and tells me how he is going to do all of the work by Thursday. I explain that he can’t do all of the work that quickly and that we need to make an appointment to meet to discuss exactly what he needs to do and when he can do it. We find a time for Wednesday. I also change the assignments for group projects in order to accommodate him. Finally, I tell him to always bring a pen and paper. He tells me he is a sophomore, so I explain that if first year students have no excuse for coming to class without a pen and paper, he certainly does not.

On Wednesday, he misses his appointment. I was not surprised. On Thursday in class, he had to borrow a pen and paper for the pop quiz (on which he did not answer a single question) occasioned by another student’s phone ringing. (On the syllabus, I explain that the penalty for a cell phone ringing is a pop quiz for the class.) And later he pulled out his cellphone which I did call him out on in front of the class. After class, he approached me to tell me how lost he is in the course. I asked about our missed appointment. He started to tell me that he had to do something really important at the same time. I explained that when you schedule an appointment that you are unable to honor, you notify the person via email. Then he said something about it being too late and he did not think I would have gotten the email. OK. This is not going well. We have made another appointment for this week.

This is all pretty typical stuff, as any teachers reading here will probably agree. I do find it also typical that I devote three paragraphs to one knucklehead and less than one to the rest of the class who come correct.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Buying ketchup in Cairo; or, economies of scale

In the US, when you go into the story to buy yogurt, you can buy an 8 oz. container for $1 or a 32 oz. container for $2.50. Or something like that. I am actually making this up in order to make the observation that when you buy a larger quantity of something in the US, the price per unit decreases. (Most yogurt is now in 6 oz. containers and the price varies wildly.) You save money by buying most things in large quantities. In many big US markets, the price tags on the shelves will often indicate the price per unit, so that consumers can easily understand that a 16 oz. jar of jelly is $0.19 per ounce, and an 8 oz. jar is $0.24 per ounce. There are exceptions. For example, when you buy fruits and vegetables by the weight, the price is fixed per pound. If you buy bananas for $0.60 per pound, it is $0.60 per pound whether you buy one-half of a pound or ten pounds.

Shift to Egypt. I have noticed at the local supermarkets that there are minimal benefits to buying products in larger quantities. An 8 oz. yogurt drink will cost 2.60LE and a 16 oz. will be 5LE. A 16 oz. bottle of ketchup costs 4.60LE and a 32 oz. bottle costs 9LE.

I am wondering what the reasons are for these different economies and think that it relates, in part, to lifestyle. With the growth of suburbs in the US, you have the development of Sam’s Club and the like. American consumers buy in quantities. Outside of large cities, they generally have cars and homes that can accommodate these sorts of purchases. Is this kind of consumption be driven by merchants or consumers? In an urban economy like Cairo’s, I imagine that it would not be an effective marketing strategy to push people to buy in bulk. Consumers are much more fixed and limited in what they can purchase and store. That may be changing here with the development of large suburban communities in the desert.

I have never been in a Sam’s Club, but I understand the idea is to buy a case of toilet paper which you can keep on hand and purchase at a discount. At our local supermarket, the largest pack of toilet paper has nine small rolls. Most people would not have the space to store all of these things.

Here, people shop for food much more frequently than in the US. You buy your fruits, vegetables, bread, meat, and fish fresh every day or every other day. You do not go shopping once per week, as we do in the US. People are used to purchasing fresh products on a regular basis so there is minimal incentive to buy larger quantities. A large bottle of ketchup, even though it does not spoil quickly, is really unnecessary because you go to the market frequently, it doesn’t save you money, home storage space is limited, and you probably have limited disposable income and could put that 4.40LE to good use in the time before you need more ketchup.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Before, during, and after the matches

On Friday night, I went to the U20 World Cup. This was my third WC, actually. On June 25, 1994, I went with my dad and sister when the US hosted. I was living in NYC and we went to see Saudi Arabia beat Morocco, 2-1. It was sold out at the Meadowlands which holds close to 80,000 people. Great match. Super excited fans. Our seats were in the last row behind one of the goals and, as my sister just reminded me, my dad pointed out that they were good seats because we could see the whole field.

Then in 1999, we went to the opening ceremonies of the Women’s World Cup, which featured boy band 98 Degrees. (No I am not making this up.) Also sold out. Supposedly it was the largest US crowd ever for a women’s sporting event. It was Juneteenth 1999, and matches were the US-Denmark and Brazil-Mexico. Brazil beat Mexico 7-1, and the US shutout Denmark 3-0 on goals by Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Kristine Lilly. In case you were wondering, my memory is not that great, but I am grateful to Wikipedia for the assistance. It needs to redeem itself after the problems it caused last night (read on).

I described the process of getting the tickets in an earlier blog post. At the point of purchase, I asked the location of “Al-Salam Stadium,” and after some discussion got a few inconsistent responses that did not inspire much confidence. When at home, I did endless searches online and found very little except a Wikipedia link from Al Salam Stadium to the Egyptian Military Academy Stadium, which is located in Nasr City, near Heliopolis and the airport, where there are several stadiums. (The same information came across a list-serve too.) OK. I even wrote down the name of the place in Arabic. When I called the taxi company and told them where we were going, they called me back two minutes later to double check on the location. Not a lot of confidence, but I thought we would figure it out. So we went to the Egyptian Military Academy Stadium. We drove completely around the entire perimeter (which was several miles long) and it seemed pretty clear that, although there was a stadium, there were no matches taking place. I mean, this is a major international sporting event. It should be obvious. But, alas, it was not. We stopped at this one spot and it took about 15 minutes, but a solider helped us figure it out where we were headed—still about 30 minutes away. As we were leaving, the soldier asked me my name and told me that he is from Aswan and his family has a felucca... I politely took down his name and telephone number. Our cab driver started laughing and spoke his first English words of the night: “Always business.”

The road ahead was not much more clear. We stopped to ask directions several times. We saw the stadium lights in the distance, but were on the wrong side of the split highway and had to drive miles before being able to turn around. Once we did, we passed the road to the stadium because there were no lights and had to back up along the shoulder of the highway (which was kind of dangerous because the road did not really have a shoulder). We were still really far away and eventually made it to what seemed like the main gate of the stadium. We asked some folks who were there and they said we were in the right place. We got out, paid the cab driver, and were on our way. A couple of my friends who were with me spoke some Arabic and arranged for the driver to come back to get us. We had no idea what transportation would be like after the match so this seemed like a good idea. He asked us to pay half of the return fare up front, which was a bit strange, but we talked about it briefly, got the driver’s phone number, and gave him 20LE additional toward our return. Or so we thought (more on this later).

Feeling the adventure was over, we went to enter the stadium. We showed the guards our tickets and they told us we needed to enter by a different gate that was at least a mile away. (Our tickets were 2nd class.) At each point during the evening, I kept thinking, it can’t get stranger, but each time was proven wrong. Finally we arrived and there were a lot of guards telling us conflicting things—that we were at the wrong gate, that the gate was closed, that they were not letting more people in. This was bizarre. And chaotic. (And I would write about the dead dog that was lying flattened on the driveway where we were standing, but that would make the story too weird.) Eventually we made the smart decision to listen to those people who were telling us what we wanted to hear (that we could go in), ignored everyone else, and made our way upon a phalanx of riot police with helmets and shields. They told us we could not enter. We pointed at the ranking guy in a white uniform who just told us we could enter and they let us through. My friend made a joke about how mad he would be at me if I, who “organized” this outing, got him beat up by riot cops for no good political cause. There were lots more guards but we showed our tickets and entered the stadium as the first half was ending. It took us about an hour and a half to get to the stadium (and the driver was 30 minutes late to start), so we were late.
There were of course no seat assignments, or any signs whatsoever. The way we entered and exited looked no different than a service entrance. There were people sort-of-pointing us in the right direction, but it is not clear to me if that was their job or they were just being helpful. Once inside, the area we were seated in was relatively full, although the stands behind the goals were nearly empty. We were seated next to a section filled with soldiers, who are given free seats to help fill up the stadium, which is on the grounds of a military complex (which may partly explain the confusion about the stadium). The soldiers were not especially disciplined, but they were well-dressed in their civilian outfits which are bright-colored nylon track suits. Including hot pink. I spent much of the evening imagining US soldiers in such gear... By the way, once we were inside, we realized the stadium was not the same one pictured on Wikipedia.

The stadium was, despite its chaos, quite nice in some respects. We were seated in front of an enormous television screen and there were nice, new displays behind each goal. This was really state-of-the-art stuff that is probably as nice as things get this side of Jerry Jones’s ego. But the stadium does not have toilets or signs directing patrons or a proper concession area (though there are guys wandering around with bags of koushari).
As for the football, we just missed some excitement. A few minutes earlier a Nigerian player got a red card and Venezuela scored the match’s only goal at the 45-minute mark. The first match ended 1-0 for Venezuela which was a pretty big upset since Nigeria won the last U17 World Cup a few years back (though it is not exactly the same team) and was a tournament favorite. Since I missed the first half, I am embarrassed to admit that while watching the second half I did not realize that Nigeria was down a player until the match was over. Nigeria still controlled the ball and had a few solid opportunities to score. The Venezuelan fanatics were definitely the best--they had flags, signs, and most importantly trumpets!Tahiti, not surprisingly, got smoked by Spain, 8-0. It looks good for Venezuela to advance now, since they can presumably beat Tahiti. Nigeria needs a strong showing against Spain (and should probably run up the score on Tahiti) since not all 3rd place teams advance. Tahiti presented their opponents with floral leis, and had some other cool-looking pre-match rituals.

Before the matches ended, we called our taxi driver who told us he was on the way to come get us. We went outside and waited for him. We called again. He said he was “five minutes” away, which of course meant closer to 30 minutes. My friend had fun explaining to his 6-year-old son that “5 minutes” is a figure of speech, like “in a second” does not literally mean 1 second. The driver showed. He dropped three of us off first and then went to the final stop. The evening adventure was over. Or so I thought. About 15 minutes later, my friend calls and tells me he is still with the driver who is insisting that the fare is 1 ½ times the meter for both going and returning since we were so far out. He is refusing to accept the fare that we offered—the meter rates plus a nice tip. Since I was the person who arranged the taxi, he asked if I knew anything about this. I told him no and that it sounded fishy. He was trying to call the cab company, and a friend to help with some translation. I also tried the cab company (it was probably about 1:30am) and got a dispatcher on the phone who apologized, and told me that this was b.s. and that we should not pay and that the driver would have to meet with his supervisor and be reassigned the following day. Next, I tried to call back my friend whose line was busy. I made the mistake of calling his wife who I woke up, because I was anxious to get him the message. After some extensive debate, my friend left the driver in the lobby of his building and there, apparently, the adventure finally ended.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

U20 World Cup comes to town

The FIFA U20 World Cup (soccer for all my US folks) started here tonight with Egypt beating Trinidad and Tobago, 4-1. It is a cool thing. All of the FIFA tournaments are being held in Africa in the period leading up to the South Africa-hosted World Cup in 2010. Egypt gets the U20 event, which is scheduled for the next three weeks in for several cities in lower Egypt including Cairo.

This afternoon, I headed out to buy tickets for an opening round group being held here in Cairo tomorrow night. The double-header is Nigeria vs. Venezuela and Spain vs. Tahiti. This is the first time Tahiti has ever qualified for an international tournament so I am definitely rooting for them. (They qualified with a huge upset of New Zealand.) As for the other match, I can’t root against either the Flying Eagles or Chavez. Can’t wait! In terms of things I am eagerly anticipating at present, the match is holding steady at number two.

So to buy the tickets for this international event, I had to go to a kisok in Gezira near one of the sporting clubs. I could not get clear directions to where it was, but knew the general vicinity and decided to wing it. I took the Metro and found the spot, a temporary booth with a nice graphic on the side seemingly made of cardboard on a street corner. But it was empty. There was a group of four guys drinking tea under a shade tree across the street who called me over. This was the ticket office relocated. They had black canvas briefcases filled with tickets. They asked me which match I wanted, found the tickets (20LE each, less than $4US) and I was on my way. Most anywhere else the scene would have felt sketchy, but here is felt just right. Here are the tickets:
I will try to remember to leave my dog, helmet, and hammer at home.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

No Class.

On Wednesday evening, the university announced that all classes will be cancelled until October 4 due to a decree by the government shutting down all schools in the country as a supposedly proactive measure against the spread of H1N1 flu. It is not exactly clear to me what this will accomplish. The World Health Organization has issued a statement addressing the best ways to fight the disease, and does identify schools as an important site (and their closure as way to address it). In part it may be that there is a fear that travelers who are going abroad for the Eid, which begins this weekend, to places like Saudi Arabia will return with the disease. There is no outbreak. And my university is shut down even though there are no reported cases. One can only imagine what will happen if there are reported cases. Plus we do have flu season coming up in January and February.

For me, it means that I am scrambling to reinvent my two classes after just spending a lot of time inventing them. I am afraid of losing whatever kind of momentum we started gaining during the first two weeks of the term. The official policy is that missed days will be assigned to Tuesdays (a day when few classes are actually scheduled) throughout the semester. I have decided that my graduate seminar will continue to meet at undisclosed locations (hush hush) during the cancellation period. For my undergraduate class, I am trying to do a lot of things electronically via email and the course website, but that still requires a massive reconfiguration and adjustment on my part. There are lots of unanswered questions.

I am trying to find something clever or interesting to say but am at something of a loss. I am burnt out from reading 19 student essays, typing up my comments, sending them out individually by email, composing a class email, responding to follow-up queries from students, and planning the next assignment.

Kulli sana w’intu tayyibu!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

What I am learning when I am studying Arabic

I am keeping on with my Arabic tutoring, but am encountering another of my bout with frustration. After a summer mostly spent away from the language (despite the fascinating overlap with Bantu languages like Kiswahili and Tshiluba), I realize in some ways how little I have learned and retained. For what its worth (and I really don’t know), I do plan to keep on with it.

I am reflecting on how many different ways there are to study a language. Traditionally in academia, you study languages—historically ancient languages—for purposes of reading. Graduate students, even when working in modern languages, are examined for their ability to comprehend a scholarly text in the language being tested. There is a large gap, of course, between reading comprehension and conversational ability. From all those years of French study in high school, I could read and understand materials probably better than I could carry on an informal conversation. But then again, is the purpose of high school French to enable me to order a baguette should I ever be a tourist in Paris?

I am really not sure. As Arabic has begun to be promoted in the US, is there a popular commitment to teaching people to read classical Arabic literature or contemporary scholarship? Or is there a shift, driven by politics, to train a cadre of Americans who can communicate with people in the Arab world? This seems to me to be a different skill, driven in part by the vocational potential of language facility. Still, this remains a complicated issue with regard to Arabic, where there is such a radical distinction between written and colloquial forms. And, while I really do not have much sense of what is happening in terms of language instruction in the US, I do see myself facing dilemmas with my Arabic study.

Am I studying to be able to have a conversation with a taxi driver? To be able to understand Palestinian or Lebanese films? To be able to read a newspaper? To be able to read the Qur’an? These are all radically different sets of language skills, and all of them take a very long time. This is part of what I am starting to realize. I am a long way from being able to read an Arabic language newspaper or have an in-depth conversation in the language. I believe, at my current pace, I am probably years away. It is hard not to be frustrated but I am doing my best.

I am having different thoughts about what my goals are. For example, while fluency remains far off, I am learning, for example, something about the differences in varieties of Arabic language. I have learned something about the importance of different types of greetings in Arabic, even when I am deficient at using them correctly. I have also been able to make observations about the secularization of a religious language when I hear a Coptic friend say insha’allah or il-hamdu li-ilaah. Also, I realize that I have learned a lot about communicating in English with people in Cairo. That may not make much sense, but I appreciate the importance of greeting someone before asking a question. I have been fascinated by the fact that I may be learning most effectively a sort of cultural understanding about the role of language here in Cairo. I am probably learning this much better than I am learning to communicate in the language itself. Maybe it is just manners? Not to diminish the importance of manner, but I suspect there is something more.

I am not sure what it is but I will continue to try to find out.

My current Arabic teacher is moving to Dubai after the Eid, so I will be asking the university for a new tutor.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

First Day of School

I know that people have often commented on the inappropriateness of many student email address monikers. In my first-year humanities class, which met for the first time yesterday, of the 21 students, I had:
  1. [name]xxx [at]
  2. [name]69 [at]
  3. therockandrollmaster [at]
  4. Lolita [at]
As much as I enjoy laughing at (and blogging about) the email list on the first day of class, I think I owe it to the students, mostly 16 and 17 year olds, to strongly encourage them to have an email address (preferably their official university account) that they use for professional purposes, including my class.

It is not all bad. The Lolita reference is kind of exciting if I presume the student is interested in Vladimir Nabokov. After all, this is a sort of literature class.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Kindness of strangers

This morning, J and I were walking to the bus which is about 10 minutes away. J is very pregnant and Cairo is very hot this time of year. Along the route, we decided to catch a cab the rest of the way. A driver stopped. We got in. We rode a very short distance—2 blocks, I think—and asked him to stop. We got out and I reached in my pocket to pay him a few pounds. He smiled and waved me off. He wouldn’t take my money. I thanked him and he drove off, presumably to pick up a paying customer. The way cabs run in Cairo, it is highly unlikely that we will ever see him again, even if we wanted to do so.

Cab drivers in Cairo, as a group, sometimes get a bad rap. Many of them drive old cars in poor condition. Sometimes they press hard for higher fares. Sometimes they are in more of a hurry than you are. But sometimes like this morning, they make small, lovely gestures.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Ramadan Scene

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset and then break the fast each day with an iftar meal. In Cairo, about an hour before iftar, the streets get very quiet. Most folks are headed home, or somewhere else, to eat.

One of the principles of Ramadan is charity, so food is offered to the needy. One form this takes is tents which are set up around the city—often organized by mosques, business, or private citizens—to provide iftar to anyone in need.

There is another scene that particularly moves me. If you are out at the time the sun sets, currently around 6:20pm, there are groups of young men who hand out food and drink to people on the street or in taxis. Cups of juice, bottles of water, bags of fresh dates. You see them throughout the neighborhood—in the streets in front of mosques or just hanging out in the midans (squares). It is a great scene.

Yesterday, shortly before sunset, I was in a taxi with some friends for a short ride from the metro station, little more than a mile. By the time we got to my apartment—less than a five minute ride, the driver’s car was filled with about 10 bags or cups of dates, some nuts, and a bottle of water. Since I was in the front seat, I got to receive most of it for him.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Art from Congo

I don't know what it says that I am back in Cairo and writing on my Cairo blog about Democratic Republic of Congo. These pictures, however, are about both places, I think. Art from Congo that are now part of my life in Cairo.

First, this is a picture of a handbag made by an artist friend of mine, Veronique, from Kuba cloth. She is a fabric artist that I met four years ago, who works with various sorts of raffia. I have a lots of things she has done, including a marionette. She is not herself Mukuba; she is from Bandundu and works in Kinshasa. This bag is pieced from some fabric that she bought from Kuba artists. I gave it to my wife as a gift.
This here is my home office, or my soon-to-be office. This is a piece I bought from Kuba artists, a brother and sister (Bope and Henriette) who I met this summer through Vero. This is a huge piece about 3 meters (or 10 feet long).
These are two smaller pieces that I purchased from the same artists. The first is hanging in my home office area, on the wall directly across from the one pictured above.
This one is in the hallway in our apartment. So I guess this blog entry is about our Cairo apartment.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Né dans la rue + Pixo!

So, the good art exhibit I saw was a graffiti show “Né dans la rue” (Born in the Street) at the Fondation Cartier in Montparnasse. There was no photography allowed inside (and the fact that I was using my sweet new Canon HD video camera for my stills made me kind of conspicuous) but they did hae some nice pieces on the exterior which I photographed and posted via Facebook.

I thought the show was excellent. The entry room included large new pieces commissioned for the show from artists from Europe, the US, and South America. Then, downstairs, in the first room, they had historical pieces, mostly from the 1970s, which included piece books, video footage, oral histories, and photographs. They even brought in P.H.A.S.E. 2 and SEEN to recreate some of their classic pieces. Next, as the show moved into the 1980s, they were showing Wild Style (they had Lady Pink’s airbrushed jacket too) and videos by Blondie and The Clash. Plus they had record artwork (Ramelzee!) and paintings by Basquiat and Haring. The website for the show is nice and has a lot of material available for those of you not able to make it to Paris.

For me the biggest revelation was Pixo, a film about pixação (aka “pixo”) a form of tagging that has taken off in Sao Paulo, Brazil. These are writers who work in very dangerous spots on the sides of public buildings, climbing up spiderman-style. (You can check it out some more in the video below.) Its roots are hard to determine—a lot of writers cite the influence of heavy metal album covers---but it goes back at least to the 1980s. It is illegal and has been the foundation for an entire outlaw culture. In the way that graffiti has become increasingly astheticized, and therefore commercialized, pixo is deliberately avoiding that route. (An Audi parked in front of the Cartier Foundation exhibition seems seems suggestive of graffiti's entrance to the galleries.)
I think we have reached a point, for example, where it is not too hard to recognize the artistic value of many graffiti artists (like those photos posted on my fb page). (Example: Part of KET’s sentence in NYC for tagging trains was to paint a mural at a school.) The case becomes a lot harder with pixo, which is all about creating a font to make a tag and a message. This has two effects, as I see it. First, their work becomes much harder to co-opt for commercial purposes. There is little to no premium placed on what we might call the artistic quality of the tag; the premium is placed on its placement and visibility. Second, the focus stays on the words and the message, thereby lending itself to particular form of political protest for young people (mostly, but not entirely, men) in Sao Paulo who have no other way of being heard. The video I am posting below includes a pixo action at the fine arts school in Sao Paulo, where a student, also a pixo writer, got a group of other writers together and bombed the school.

I am not sure when and where you will have a chance to see the full film by João Wainer and Alexandre Orion, but here is a shorter versions online. It is in Portuguese with French subtitles, but the images of the writers climbing the buildings is amazing whether or not you understand either of the languages. It is definitely worth 11 minutes.

Pixo, un film de João Weiner et Roberto Oliveira (Extraits)

If you have trouble with the embedded video, try the link above or let me know.

Friday, August 21, 2009


During the four days that we spent in Paris en route from the US to Egypt, we saw an exhibit “Tarzan!” at the Musee Quai Branly. This is a new museum--think an updated American Museum of Natural History--devoted to art from the non-Western world. I anticipated a museum exhibit that was somewhat critical of Tarzan—one that attempted to place the development of Tarzan alongside US and European colonial policy toward Africa, which seems to me the obvious backstory of the Tarzan phenomenon. I was not looking for irony necessarily, but I was hoping for something much different than what I found.

The first clue was the ubiquitous little © copyright symbol that reminds you that Edgar Rice Burroughs retains all rights to Tarzan.

The exhibit did do a couple of things well, I thought. The extent of visual documentation—books, films, and ephemera—that was accumulated is a valuable archive. There were other connections that were made clear, such as tracing King Kong to the kind of racial imagery that preceded it in Tarzan films. Also there was a good explanation of the emergence of the leopard print in European fashion as a result of Tarzan. The racial imagery in these action figures is unmistakable.

BUT: There was no discussion of European imperialism in Africa and how that provided a context for the ways that readers and viewers experienced the stories, which began in 1912 with Burroughs’s first novel Tarzan of the Apes. It was just shocking to me. There has been some good serious scholarship on Tarzan that made me expect certain things from the exhibit. In a book I love, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996), Gail Bederman concludes with a discussion of Burroughs’s first novel in the context of US ideals of racialized masculinity. So this work on Tarzan does exist. (There is newer book from Univ. of Georgia Press by Alex Vernon called On Tarzan that I have not read.)

Here are a couple of images, which I find offensive. (Keep in mind that the exhibit had no such warnings and was in many ways targetted at children.) The first is from a “view finder” (those kid binoculars).

These here are from comic books, which contribute to the hateful association of black people and crocodiles.
None of these images were accompanied by a substantive critique. Not only was I hurt and offended, but I was also surprised. Perhaps I am naive.

There were many more seemingly innocuous images, such as this one from a recorded storybook of "The Jungle Book." This grabbed my attention because growing up I had the exact same record (in English of course).For more images, the NY Times has a slide show that accompanies Michael Kimmelman’s (also negative) review. I have more thoughts and criticisms, but will leave it there for now.

Postscript: The day afterward, walking along the Seine, I noticed not surprisingly Europe’s endless fascination with Tintin, specifically Tintin in Congo, which, for those not familiar, is a terribly racist Belgian comic. Tintin is being made into a movie (supposedly without the more overt racism) by Spielberg. Two years ago, Borders wisely decided that it would no longer keep Tintin in Congo in their children’s section. Just this week, the Brooklyn Public Library has been receiving coverage for its decision to pull it from their children’s section. (The Brooklyn PL link reproduces some panels from the book.)

I did see a good exhibit in Paris too, so I will write and post some more in the coming days.

Bloody cellphones

Global Witness released a new, major report on mining in Democratic Republic of Congo last month that identifies some of the British firms and their involvement in the country’s ongoing war. The full 110-page report, “Faced with a gun, what can you do?” is available online, as is a more condensed summary.

In discussing this with some friends recently, I was asked about what kinds of actions individual consumers can take. It is easy to feel powerless, but, since US consumption is in many ways responsible for the civil war and grinding poverty in DRC, our role is crucial. Here are some ideas abouts things you can do before you buy your next cell phone or computer:
  • First, research the phone company and their policy on their coltan supply. Many have detailed statements on line. We can do research, encourage other to do the same, and send letters to manufacturers (specifically their departments of corporate responsibility). Even when their policies are posted, send letters asking questions so they know that people care. It is particularly important to encourage rigorous monitoring and enforcement by companies of their supply chains. Just because suppliers sign an agreement that they do not use coltan from DRC is not really enough. For one example, you can see Motorola’s statements on the mining of metals and their suppliers. What is perhaps most amazing to me is that despite their efforts, they report that only 47 of 179 suppliers even responded to their survey. Certainly Motorola can require their suppliers to at least respond to their survey!
  • Second, people can encourage companies to mine coltan elsewhere--Australia and Greenland for example. The latter is suspected of having large untapped reserves and requires some exploratory research. Nokia, for example, has tried to eliminate Congolese coltan from its supply chain. Still, Nokia has to be pushed to provide more rigorous documentation and enforcement. Apple and Samsung also have policies you should be able to find online.
  • Third, we can encourage the development of alternative technologies. I am technically out of my league here, but there needs to be research into affordable ceramic capacitator construction... Given all of the other technological advances in this area in recent years, this should be feasible.
  • Fourth, we can encourage our family, friends, businesses, colleagues, churches, and organizations to do this research and make phone calls and write letters and consume products accordingly. If a university or large business is purchasing a bunch of phones or laptops, I think an inquiry into the supply chain would be taken seriously from a vendor.
  • Finally, of course, we can try to limit our consumption. Recycle. Try to keep our cellphones longer...
Just a few ideas. I am sure there are other good ones out there. Hope this is helpful.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Back to the office...

I got back to Cairo on Friday night after a few days in Paris. (I will try to write something about that trip in the next week.)

On Sunday morning, I headed to my office and campus is mostly a ghost town. There were very few people there. I went to my office and my computer did not turn on. I tried every outlet in my office. The lights (including a desk lamp that seemed to be on the same circuit as the computer powerstrip) worked fine. I swapped out a cable from a different computer in the office and there was nothing. It is less than a year old too. The problem was that there was nobody around to help me. Almost all of the university staff takes their annual leave in August, which makes sense since there are no classes and few people around. But it doesn’t make sense in that there is almost no technology coverage. I tried to call lots of people, and barely got a human. Full voice mail boxes. Forwards to attendants who never picked up. I reached a department administrator on her cellphone in England! Eventually I went to the Dean’s office who put me in touch with a hardware supervisor in some other building who sent someone down to my office. He kindly figured out, quite quickly, that it was in fact an electricity problem. Then we were able to call someone who dispatched an electrician over who fixed it. I think he replaced a fuse. Whatever it was, he was able to do it without even being in my office. Then as a bonus he was able to complete the unfinished installation of my desk outlet which had never been screwed into the wall and spent all last year lying on the floor with all of the cables exposed. (It was not a repair I ever thought to request.) Anyway, it was not how I had hoped to spend my first day back in the office, but that part of it was a windfall.

Friday, August 7, 2009


I just read this article on BBC about a marriage proposal for Chelsea Clinton from Godwin Kipkemoi Chepkurgor. It involved an offer of cows and goats as the dowry, or bride price. In many places, the family of a daughter will receive a gift from the family of her fiancé. There are lots of variations on how this is done, but my closest friend in Kinshasa was seeing his daughter married while I was visiting so I have been thinking about it.

In this case, his daughter and her fiancé are both from the same ethnic group (Lega), which makes things less complicated than in increasingly common inter-ethnic unions. They had a meeting between the families and agreed on the price which is usually counted in goats. The exchange in goats rarely takes place. The cash value of the goats is figured out—today between $50 and $60 each—and the exchange takes place in cash, which might be around $1,000. There are variations—two Kongo friends of mine got married last year and their exchange included fabric and clothing in addition to cash money.

It is something that may seem very strange or foreign to people in the US, but I am not convinced it is all that unusual. As my friend explained, as the father of the bride, he is responsible for throwing the parties, which in Congo frequently have 400 or 500 people. Plus there are two parties--the wedding and the engagement. Essentially the dowry is the groom’s family contribution to the feast, which in many cases does not even cover half of the expenses. There are similarly gendered customs in the US about who is responsible for paying for what. Of course, there are many variations to this practice in Congo and elsewhere but this is one that I know.

The engagement party is traditionally where the dowry is exchanged. However, recently in Kinshasa, there have been robberies of these exchange-of-dowry parties, because word gets out that a large amount of cash will be on hand. Now, people typically meet a few days before the party and privately exchange the cash. At the party, the bride’s family now gives an empty envelope to the groom’s family.

Other things are discussed at the family meetings as well. In the case of my friend’s daughter, it had to do with her education. She is currently a graduate student in computer science and wanted to delay the marriage until she completed her degree and has long hoped to study abroad. Her fiancé and his family had agreed to this. This was the situation when I left Kinshasa.

Last week, on what I thought was the night before the party, I telephoned to offer my good wishes. But the party was called off. Earlier in the week, my friend’s daughter found out she was going to be able to go to India to complete a Master’s degree (or its equivalent). Her fiancé’s family wanted to schedule the marriage before she traveled. She refused. Her family supported her. The engagement has been called off, at least for now.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Photos from Nairobi

It has been a while since I have posted but hope to get my rhythm back once I get back to Cairo at the end of next week. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I have some pictures from the day I spent in Nairobi on layover en route from Kinshasa to Cairo. I am experimenting with new ways of sharing photos, so these are up on Flickr and Facebook. Comments on your preferences for viewing photos are welcome.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

In memory of Michael Jackson (Radio Trottoir Mix)

I was in Kananga when I first heard that Michael Jackson died. There was someone from North Carolina staying in Tshikaji who mentioned it somewhat flippantly in passing. My reaction was, like that of many people around the world, literal disbelief.

I returned to Kinshasa on that Friday evening and my friend’s nephew Patrick, who is in his 20s, picked me up to take me to campus. One of the first questions he asked me was, “Is it true that Michael Jackson has died?” As an American, he expected me to have some sort of privileged insight or authority. I responded that I thought it was; I heard the same thing as him. We spent a couple of minutes commiserating about how great he was and how sad we were. Through our conversation, though, I sensed something else happening. His sense of disbelief was different than my own sense. For him, there was real uncertainty that this was the truth whereas for me it was disbelief as a result of shock and sadness. So I asked him, when and how he heard the news. He told me that late Thursday night (around 11pm, which would be 3pm in California), radio announcers started talking about it. This is the way that news spreads in Kinshasa. It is through rumor, only some of which ends up being truthful. The newspapers and other conventional media often report unfounded rumors. There is even a name for such grapevine reporting, radio trottoir (sidewalk radio). There is a lot of irresponsibility in the media in Kinshasa, though I do admire the public’s sense of skepticism of sources that folks in the US so often accept as beyond reproach.

The story does not end there.

On Sunday, a friend told me that Tabu Ley Rochereau, perhaps the greatest living Congolese musician, also died on the same day as Michael. Here he is with the great Mbilia Bel, his former wife.

I was shocked that I had not heard more about this. Tabu Ley has been sick. He was revered, and served as a governor of Kinshasa until recently. I asked a couple of other people who confirmed it too. Eventually I met some skepticism and, within a couple of days, it was revealed to be a false rumor. You can read about in French. Apparently there was a similar rumor a couple of years ago.

Then, there were reports that the most famous Congolese actor known as “Sans Souci” (né Mateya Matondo) has died as well on the same day as Michael Jackson. Sans Souci was only in his early 50s and starred in many popular television comedies. You can read an obituary here and see a tribute featuring some of his work:

This turned out to be true, but also passed through the rumor mill. When I was with a friend toward the end of my trip, he received text message on his phone that had been making the rounds. It said, in effect, that Michael Jackson was not really dead, but that his death was staged to overshadow the passing of Sans Souci. My friend, like nearly everyone else I imagine, laughed it off.

Throughout the city, there were many memorials for Sans Souci. As with Michael Jackson, the overwhelming sentiment in Kinshasa was deep sadness. Being there really enabled me to appreciate the incredible adoration of Michael Jackson throughout the world. I had a student who told me that he was so sad he did not speak or eat for two days! There was a memorial held for him at the Académie des Beaux Arts, which you can see here:

Friday, July 17, 2009

Archival Research

I thought I posted this last week...
I did some research at a small library in Kinshasa. It is actually a remarkable place, located at a seminary very close to where I was staying. There was Belgian priest who taught history at the university for many years. He passed away about five years ago, and his personal library remains one of the best places there (perhaps in the world?) for doing research on Congo. It includes lots of standard books, but also unpublished theses and dissertations and lots of pamphlets and smaller documents that are not available widely. For example, I found, quite remarkably, a 1906 publication from a Belgian rubber concessionary company responding to critics of its human rights record. (William Sheppard, an African American missionary in the area, was one its most outspoken opponents. The company later sued him.)

When I was last there, this library was not regularly open because there was not anyone there to staff it. I was really excited to learn that the situation has been remedied and it was now open regularly. By regularly, I mean you call the priest who supervises it or the student intern and they can open it up for you. (Unfortunately this situation is about to change as the student is graduating and the priest is traveling and there are no replacements.) The catalog is a 200+ page binder listed roughly alphabetically; there is no electronic catalog or anything.

An electronic catalog would be limited anyway since there was no electricity for the time I was there. The seminary actually has a big generator but they don’t turn it on until after the sun sets. (They run it from 6 or 7pm until 10 or 11pm). So I requested the books and then set up a chair and table outside in the parking lot where I was able to work under the light and heat of the sun. It was a bit surreal. Me with my laptop taking notes from 100-year-old Tshiluba dictionaries while, at the other end of the parking lot there is always a crowd of people filling up large 5 gallon containers with water from one of the only reliable taps in the area.

The seminary campus is quite lush and pleasant. Unfortunately, there are a ton of mosquitoes as well. Even though I wore long sleeves, my typing hands were exposed. After my first day there I noticed several bites on my hands where they were feasting while I was working.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Picture of Inga Dam

This is the dam and hydroelectric plant I mentioned in a recent blog post. 100 Congolese francs=0.13 US$

Friday, July 10, 2009

Class Photos

Here are some pictures that probably belong with my “final examination” entry below. These are my students and our classroom. They seem much happier in the photo which I took (and was not in). But I do like Shabani’s dictionary-reading pose in the one with me. There was one woman in the class who did not attend that day (or most other days). Most of the students in the department are male, but many of the strongest are female. Of three recent appointments to the position of graduate student assistant, the two in literature (the third is in linguistics) are women (and former students of mine).

The art of making a bed

Manny is a young man, probably in his early 30s, who works at the guesthouse where I stayed in Kinshasa. He cleans up the house, which includes making up the beds. His work is amazing because of the 300+ nights I have stayed in this bed since 2005, he rarely repeats himself in this task. It is really incredible because he keeps coming up with something different nearly every day. It is only a top sheet but he has a ton of creative ideas. I think I have always appreciated it, but probably not enough. Now as I realized in the few days before I left just how wonderful it is, I thought it would be nice to take some photographs as examples of his work.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The View from Kananga; or, Hydroelectric Power

With a million people, Kananga is the largest city in the world, I have been told, without electricity or running water. The city is cut off from the rest of the country because the trains run rarely and there is no intercity road transport, or efficiently passable waterways. While there I stayed in Tshikaji, which is a village about 10 miles from downtown. It is also the site of a small dam and hydroelectric plant, so it is the place in the region with electricity. In 2006, it had water too, but there was very little this year. (There was a discolored trickle that could be used to fill up a bucket, but not enough to get pressure through the shower.) Tshikaji is also the site of the region’s hospital because of the electricity and water supply.

During the trip, I went out to the dam, which was small but efficient looking. However, I was most struck by something else off site. In the distance, about a mile away, was an enormous hydroelectric cable from the Inga Dam that runs clear across the country. Inga has the capacity to power much of the continent. But instead it runs right beside the largest city in the world lacking electricity and heads out to Lubumbashi, the mining center of the country. It is truly one of the most dramatic things I have ever seen.

Of course, I was wondering how this can be justified. I was told the government has some excuse about the excessive costs in using this line to provide power to Kananga (which did at one time have power though I am not sure until when and from where). Then I asked about sabotage and was suprised that there have been no incidents that anyone I asked knew to tell me. The cable is in plain view, near a major city, and does not appear to be protected. In Nigeria, when corporations try to extract oil resources, the people organize militantly to prevent it from taking place.

The politics of infrastructure investment can be pretty disturbing, especially when it is used to isolate people. (Think about the ways that roads were paved in many southern towns in the early twentieth century—they often systematically avoided black-owned land and businesses to create new “main” streets through white-owned areas, which insured that the most lucrative commercial establishments were owned by whites.) Most of the recent international discussions taking place about expanding Inga are focused on the export of its energy to Nigeria, South Africa, and north Africa, rather than servicing citizens in places like Kananga.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Final Examination

Greetings from Kenya, where I am on a 24-hour layover en route back to Egypt. I have a bunch of random blog entries which I wrote in RDC but was not able to post immediately. I spent very little time online; internet access was hard. Anyway, I will be posting some of these in no particular order over the next couple of days.
I am typing this blog entry in the classroom at the University of Kinshasa while my students are taking their final examination. The scene is somewhat unusual because there is no electricity on campus. I had printed out a copy of the examination, but since the photocopiers are run by enterprising students (more on this in a moment) so I wanted to wait until immediately before the exam to make copies. Well, my plan was foiled. Without electricity, my colleagues offered me some carbon paper. That is oftentimes how things work here. Instead, I started writing the examination including instructions on the board. The exam requires the students to identify and analyze a series of quotations from works we read this semester. I had to shorten a couple of them, but otherwise it seems to have worked out. I won’t blog too long; I need to conserve my battery.

The course, by the way, is modernism, and the exam quotes are from Hughes, Rich, Hemingway, Kincaid, Moore, Faulkner, Lahiri, and Ives.

As for the photocopiers, people plug them in independently in classrooms, college hallways, in dormitories, or running cables into the road. They are all older desktop models. They make some sort of arrangements with people who let them store them in offices or supply closets overnight. It has always been this way since I have been here, but recently I was surprised to learn that two of my students own photocopiers. They buy them, hire someone to operate them for them, and collect the revenue. One of my students seems to be doing pretty well with it (and I don’t know what pretty well means other than that he seems satisfied) and another doesn’t like his location in front of some of the dormitories. This is one of the most Kinois things I can imagine. There is this incredible spirit of creative entrepreneurship here—everyone is always doing something to try to make some money. (I need to blog more about entrepreneurship too, but for now I am going to save my battery.)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


One of the regular occurrences I quickly got relatively used to when I lived here—to the extent that you can get used to such a thing because you never do get used it—was being pulled over by the police. I blogged about it then and don’t want to repeat myself, but the roulage (traffic police) are terribly underpaid and extract their income by harassing citizens (and occasionally non-citizens like me). I am not sure what if any changes there have been here in that regard, but my initial impression was that things have become more professionalized. Their uniforms were I made a few trips without being stopped.

That changed. I was going downtown yesterday (Thursday) and got pulled over on Boulevard Triomphal in front of the stadium. It is a notorious spot. My friend who was driving got out of the car, showed his documents (which were in order) and had a long conversation outside of the car. He is very calm and has a great demeanor for this sort of thing. The way you handle these things are with patience. There was nothing that the cops could hassle us with, but the ways things work here are that once you hand over your license and carte rose (owner’s card), you are held hostage. Sometimes, you need to give some money to get them back. This is pretty standard. Back in the day (i.e. 2006), we were sometimes able to handle it sometimes without paying. If we did pay, it was usually a couple hundred francs (less than $1).

The recent experience had an amazing twist. My friend who was driving spent 20 to 30 minutes talking and refusing to pay anything. Apparently, the cop was asking something exorbitant, like $30. The cop then handed the license and carte rose to an old man who was sitting by the side of the road fixing shoes. The old man put them down his pants and the cop walked away. My friend, steamed, came back to the car, got 3,000 francs ($4 US) and gave it to the cobbler. He counted it, as if he was collecting money for a bill, and pulled the documents from his pants and returned them. The older man was a strange bagman—not too threatening or intimidating.

Bizarre. There are a couple of explanations. First, there has been some crackdowns from some supervisors against this kind of thing. This way, no money exchanges hands between drivers and police. Some supervisors (perhaps the same ones?) also shake down the traffic police who work under them, so they get a better rate by sharing with the shoe repairman than they do sharing with the boss.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

More on traveling to Kananga

Our airport departure to Kananga went pretty smoothly. All of the other travelers in the group had sent their bags to the airline’s central office a day in advance. This is standard practice here to avoid everything that can happen when checking in at the airport. Due to the reasons mentioned in my previous blog entry, I was not able to do so.

There are tons of fees, and it is sometimes hard to determine what is official and unofficial. All of those fees that are added to tickets purchased in the US (when you see a ticket that lists at $200 + $200 various airport fees) are paid separately at separate windows. Usually, you get a receipt. There was a protocol assistant there to give our group a hand with all of this; typically his job is to handle all of the money. Everything, despite the chaos, was pretty straightforward.

After we arrived, my bags had been carried into the terminal by two porters as is standard practice. Before I could tip them, one told me it would be $5 per bag. Since $5 is an average daily salary in Kinshasa, I respectfully laughed at them, knowing a proper tip to be to be more like 500FC (Franc Congolais) or about $0.60. They were surprisingly insistent and unwilling to negotiate, so I told them that they could talk to the protocol who was helping us and ask him for $5. (He was in line waiting to pay one of the taxes.) At first they said, no, they were asking me. I said, he is the boss. They said, no, you are the boss. Anyway they refused what I was offering and went to wait for the protocol. At that point, two police officers asked them to step outside of the terminal. They refused, since they had not been paid, and were physically thrown out by the officers. Nobody was hurt or anything, but then they were outside banging on the window.

My bags—one of which I was carrying for someone else—were overweight. This involved being weighed at the check-in counter. They wrote a bill for the overcharge of $8US. The protocol took the bill to another office in the airport and paid it. Then he returned to the check-in counter with a receipt stamped paid was able to check the bags. This process took about an hour and the two porters were waiting for us on the other side of the terminal, where we were about to pass through security. I reminded the protocol to tip the porters, which I am sure he did.

After we passed through security to enter the departure lounge we were called into a small office. I was selected the head of the group because I am the only person who speaks French. No problem. I understand enough about these things that I am comfortable to be by myself with two airport officers and our 9 US passports. I could tell that what they are doing is official—they are entering our names, passport, and visa numbers by hand into a ledger. No computers (even though this is the main airport in a city of 10 million people). This is required for domestic travel. As he was copying the information, the power went off so I borrowed a flashlight to help him copy down the numbers. Throughout the entire process, I made the appropriate small talk. At some point, however, another member of our group realized that the officials were from the Kasai and came in speaking Tshiluba, which is usually charming. So the one guy started speaking to her in Tshiluba, asking for money, which he had never mentioned it to me. It seemed like she agreed, but I couldn’t follow the conversation. (The man asking for the money seemed to be some sort of a supervisor; a different uniformed man was copying our information into the ledger.) Another member of the group outside of the office was getting a little bit nervous, but I assured her that everything was on the up and up and that we would not pay anything additional. So after the information was entered into the book by flashlight, the supervisor took our passports and escorted us into the lounge. I was thanking him and trying to politely get our passports back—the sooner the better and the less chance he would ask for any kind of money. Through a combination of insistence and politeness, I get them back and he still never mentioned money to me. He then goes to speak to the other woman with our group and I think she gave him some money (though I never found out), but at that point I think she realized that she was not paying an official fee.

When we arrived at the airport in Kananga, we deplaned on the tarmac and there were a bunch of people standing around. One guy was pretty insistent that we needed to give him our passports and go to the office. In fact, he was so insistent (je suis ici pour vous) that I quickly realized that he was not there for our group, even though he told me he was. Anyway, we walked to the terminal and met the others who were there and really waiting for us.


OK—I really haven’t explained much about what I was doing in Kasai and promise to explain a little bit more later in the week. Briefly, I did see a sewing school for single mothers, a Jesus film dubbed into Tshiluba, a former colonial hotel (ironically called PAX) that has been turned into a medical clinic, and a university named for a 19th century African American missionary.


Yesterday was Independence Day and my mother’s birthday! Happy Birthday Democratic Republic of Congo and Mom. The former is 49 years old.

Leaving for Kananga

Electricity and Internet access have been extremely limited. I will try to post a couple times, but most likely you will need to wait for my return to Cairo for more news.
I had plans to travel to Kananga last Saturday but didn’t know what time exactly, so I made tentative arrangements for someone to pick me up early Saturday morning. On Friday I went to the campus to teach at 8am with plans for an afternoon meeting and then to visit a friend downtown. I got a call, however, from my fellow travelers who told me the van was leaving from Ngaliema to the airport at 6am the following morning. It would be impossible for me to make it down there on time from the campus that morning. My ride was an hour away from campus and campus an hour from Ngaliema. Leaving time for possible late-night roadblocks meant that he would need to leave before 3am...not feasible.

So I went ahead with my plans to visit friends and sometime later in the evening I would go back to campus to pack my things. I would spend the night with friends and then they would be able to take me to Ngaliema where I would meet the other travelers and the van. Thankfully my friend was able to borrow a car, without which this would have been impossible.

I met my friend at the high school where he teaches at about 5pm. We spent about an hour there. Then we went to the home of a couple of friends in the Kasavubu neighborhood, which is near the school. We ate and spent some time looking at photographs and I got to watch the video of their wedding last year. We left Kasavubu after 8pm and headed to the university where I was staying. By the time we got there, I collected my things, and we made it my friend’s place in Cité Mama Mobutu, it was close to 11pm. We hung out for some time with my friend and his wife. We had some wine, ate some food (including caterpillars), and looked at photographs. Shortly after 12, my friend’s wife went to sleep. I was tired, especially knowing that I needed to get up at 4am, but excited to see my friends. Then my friend wanted to watch the dvd of my wedding. And then after the wedding video ended, the tv came on and it was “le catch” (pro wrestling), which is incredibly popular and nobody in Kinshasa want to miss.

Through those last few hours something strange was happening. My friend’s wife went to bed around midnight. She was sleeping in a separate room (their current place is quite spacious). My friend was undressing down to boxer shorts and an undershirt in the room where I was going to sleep. That bedroom also had the television and dvd player, so we were watching the wedding and le catch from the bed. At some point, I am not sure when, I began to get the distinct impression that my friend was planning to spend the night in the same room (and bed) with me. I am still completely stumped as to whether or not it was so as not to disturb his wife by coming to bed so late (1:30am) and getting up so early (4am). Or perhaps, I wonder, is it a form of hospitality, him staying with me? As confusing as it was to me, I could tell that for him it was very normal, and not something that demanded any sort of explanation. I suspect sharing a bed with another man is not that unusual here, a place where extended families are large and space limited. So why not share a bed with an adult friend? As I reflect, it is probably not unusual in most cultures. But here, there was no space issue; his wife was one room away. I didn’t want to embarrass him by asking, or do anything that would hurt his feelings. But the mystery remains. He was being extremely generous in helping me out.

In retrospect, I think I was probably staying awake as late as I did because I was waiting for him to go to the other bedroom before laying down. He, on the other hand, was waiting for me to get ready before going to asleep. Both of us thought the other wanted to stay up. I couldn’t imagine that we were going to share a bed, and he couldn’t imagine that such an arrangement would be unexpected to me.

I finally announced I was going to sleep. So without discussion he got in side of the queen-size bed opposite from me. He slept with his feet at the head of the bed, opposite from me. And that was that. We woke up at 4am to get ready to go out.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tu as bien grossi

NOTE: I just got back from Kananga where I wrote a lot but could not post. I will try to catch up soon. Here is one.

Tu as bien grossi: This has been the most common greeting I have received from friends in Kinshasa who I am seeing for the first time in three years. Roughly translated: “You have fattened up nicely.” This is a rather high compliment for people living in a city where, according to a study, more than 50% of the people eat one meal every two days. If you get bigger, this means that you are eating well because things are going well in your life—you are employed, have a stable source of income, and, if male, a wife. One example: some famous musicians whose fame has allowed them a fat belly will often wear a too-small t-shirt to accentuate their graisse.

This intended compliment makes me incredibly self-conscious. Putting aside my own American sense of vanity, I don’t think I would be considered overweight by US standards. And I don’t really keep track of my weight, but I guess I have put on 5-10 pounds in 3 years. My measurement: I still wear the same pants that I wore then (even pants I had tailored in Kinshasa), although they fit slightly tighter around the waist.

When I was last here, I had a much better exercise regiment (thanks to Makfitness) than I have been able to develop in Cairo. Then, I was, I think, considered a bit thin for an American, but was, and still am (I think again) quite average.

I do not exaggerate when I tell you that literally the majority of the dozens of friends I have seen here have told me that I have bien grossi within the first two minutes of conversation. It is often accompanied by a “Tu es en bonne forme” (you look good). Although I realize it is a compliment, it is still hard for me not to be self-conscious and to process it in that way.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

From Kin La Belle

Back in Kinshasa for the first time in three years! Wow!

I am even staying in the same room in the Guest House at UniKin where I lived for the year when I taught here.

The city looks mostly the same. There is not much new construction. The condition of the roads is a bit worse (this being after the rainy season). Talking to friends, everyone says things are getting worse. In 2006, the exchange rate was $1US to 450FC (Francs Congolais), and pretty stable. Now it is $1 to 720-750FC. $US is accepted here as official currency (typically for larger transactions—not in day-to-day purchases—only $5 bills and larger are accepted). Since most people who are paid are paid in FC, their purchasing power is diminishing. For someone like me, I come in with US$ and profit from the economic shift (when I do not need the benefit). That is just one easily quantifiable marker of the changes. There are many other less quantifiable stories that I am hearing about how things are here.

Despite my three overnight flights and little sleep (partly due to the showing of a great Nigerian film “Preacher Man”—strongly recommended IF you like Nigerian film, which is its own genre), I have been able to spend lots of time with friends during the first 24 hours of my trip. This part of the return can be quantified by the number of Primus beers I have shared, and the fact that I ate more meals in a 24-hour period than I previously thought possible. Everyone seems as happy to see me as I am to see them.

On the road in front of the house, there is a teenager who runs a sort of phone booth. These are everywhere—if you don’t have a phone or can’t afford to add a full block of credits, you can go and pay to make a call on one of his phones. He also sells SIM cards and credits. I went to see him to buy a card, as I did a couple of times each week when I was last here. He remembered me, which was nice. He updated me on changes to the cellular network, exchanged some money for me, and told me how he has been doing. And I did the same.

Today I will go over to the faculty to get to work.

Postscript: I wrote this blog yesterday (Monday morning) on my laptop but spent most of the day without electricity. There was still none this morning, but I came downtown to the American Cultural Center and was able to get online here and post this.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Some updates...

I am leaving for Kinshasa tonight and will arrive tomorrow morning. Can't wait. I don't know what the technology situation will be but I will blog from time to time. Insha'allah. I will spend June 20 to 26 in Kananga, which I was told is the largest city in the world (1 million people) without electricity and running water. Internet access will be more difficult there, but not impossible due to the incredible ingenuity of people with few material resources. Hook a cell phone signal up through a gas-powered generator or something along those lines...

I was hoping to blog about the past couple weeks in Cairo, but been have too consumed with trip preparations. My friend Stacy was visiting and we went to Alexandria for a weekend (where I saw Lumumba Street). The new library is impressive. The Mediterranean beach culture is a lot of fun in June, even though the circus does not open until July. In the museums and elsewhere, there are celebrations Alexandria's cosmopolitan past, which, on its face, is very attractive. There is a disturbing side to it, in my opinion, which is the romanticization Egypt's colonial past. (Just a though for now: there is a lot more to say on this subject.)

I also went to a Sufi dance concert here in Islamic Cairo, which was fantastic. It was held at the gorgeous Wikala al-Ghouri. Here are some pictures.

I have been asking Stacy to guest-blog about his trip. I don't want to give too much away but it could be a screenplay for a film starring Ben Stiller.

As for the swine flu outbreak, the campus is scheduled to reopen tomorrow, which is too late for me. I am still upset that I won't be able to bring books to my colleagues as planned--this is very disappointing. But the flu outbreak seems to be controlled. The dorm quarantine will be lifted on Monday. The initial patients diagnosed with the illness have been released. Il'hamdu'lillah.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Visas, embassies and things

As many of you know, I am heading to the Democratic Republic of Congo (RDC) on Saturday night. It will be my first time there in three years, since I spent a year there as a Fulbright professor at the University of Kinshasa; there will be lots of happy reunions. These last couple of days, I have been busy preparing for my departure, complicated in some ways by the quarantine of my office. It means I have to rely of the kindness of friends for printing. It also means, most sadly for me, that a number of books I planned to give to colleagues are exiled in my office and will not be making the trip with me.

While this week is busy with preparations, the same has been true for the past couple of weeks, really since before the semester ended. In addition to making formal arrangements with my hosts, I have been doing a lot of more informal reaching out to people there and abroad about details related to my visit.

I got my ticket on Kenya Airways through Nairobi. For the return trip, the airline changed once leg of my trip so that my one-hour layover was reduced to an impossible fifteen minutes. I was given a few options by the travel agent, and I chose to spend 24 hours in Nairobi on my return. The airline is putting me up at a hotel too. I have never been there and this seems like a good (albeit too brief) opportunity to check out the city.

The other major activity involved acquiring a visa. During my previous trip, as a Fulbright, I had the US Department of State at my back, which I too gladly accepted (despite my lack of love lost for the administration and its policies). I had even met the RDC consul in person at a reception in Washington, DC, so it was relatively straightforward. I fed ex’d my passport to DC and got it returned by mail a short time later. It was a simple 1-month single entry visa, and after I got to Kin, I was able to have folks at the US Embassy in Kinshasa take care of arranging for me to get a year-long, multiple entry Visa de Courtoisie.

This time, I was more-or-less on my own. I had a faxed copy of an official letter of invitation from the office of the Rector at UniKin. (Academics do have substantial political clout in RDC.) I called the embassy and went to their office with 4 copies of a stack of documents—the letter of invitation, my airplane ticket, proof of the legality of my stay in Egypt (and that I would be allowed to return), proof of Yellow Fever inoculation, my previous Visa de Courtoisie, passport-size photos, and a few other things I may be forgetting.

On the Cairo map I was using, the embassy was marked by the country’s former name, Zaire. But the building was immediately identifiable because the huge concrete wall was painted the colors of the new flag—powder blue and yellow. Though a bit run down, the architecture of the building, located in a historic and fashionable Zamalek neighborhood, is still impressive. The wall around it, however, does make it difficult to appreciate. I should have taken a picture, but perhaps I had subconsciously channeled the Kinois interdiction against public photography.

For my first visit, I deposited my paperwork, filled out a detailed application form, and left my passport. They didn’t give me a receipt for the passport because, they explained, I had not paid the visa fee yet (and I would need to return to do that later in the week). Receipts are rare in Egypt; they are ubiquitous and extremely formal in Congo. Not sure which system was at work. I suspect it was a combination of few receipt requests from people living in Egypt, and an unwillingness to give anything but the most official of documents. Anyway I didn’t expect a problem and there was none.

I received a telephone call and returned two days later to pay. I think they needed to review my materials before accepting money. In order to pay, they told me the amount (the equivalent of a little bit more than $100US) and gave me their bank account number. Since they don’t have a cashier there, I took this small piece of paper they gave me and went to the bank branch where I made the deposit and got the bank deposit receipt. I exchanged the bank receipt for an embassy receipt, and was done for the day.

By the end of the week, I was able to return—for a third time—to pick up my passport with the visa stamped inside of it. It was a bit time consuming—I had to travel to Zamalek, which is about an hour away from my house, three times in one week. But on the whole it was easy and smooth. I suspect I was a bit of a novelty—a US citizen applying for a RDC visa on a US passport in Egypt. When the person at the front desk announced my arrival to the consul, he asked in French if the passport was ready for the Americain. No name required.

The embassy here serves several countries in the region where the RDC does not have embassies: Turkey, Lebanon, and Kuwait (as I recall). The procedures are very different than what US travelers typically experience when traveling abroad. If a visa is needed (and it is not in many places including EU countries), it can be gotten at the airport (as in the case of Egypt, or as I will do during my transit layover in Kenya). All I can say is that the RDC is a country that foreigners, including those from the US, have tried to overthrow on several occasions in the past half-century, so it is more than reasonable for them to be careful when admitting outsiders. I recall a case when I was there of a presidential candidate with dual US-RDC citizenship who hired a private US firm to provide security. The security officers, who had no experience anywhere near RDC, expressed shock that they were arrested after they were found with a huge cache of technological equipment—computers, satellite phones, walkie talkies, etc—and some weapons. They were quickly released and expelled from the country. But what looks like the tools of the trade to a cop from Orlando, Florida, looks a lot different in the suitcase of an American in Kinshasa. It seems reasonable to expect a traveler to have at least a basic understanding of the history of the place they are visiting.

I don’t know a lot about current relations between RDC and Egypt, but the historical ones are strong. When Lumumba was assassinated in 1961, there were massive demonstrations in Cairo, which included the destruction of the American Cultural Center. President Nasser, a great pan-Africanist, expelled the Belgian ambassador as well. Lumumba’s widow and children settled here after at the personal invitation of Nasser. Today, one of Lumumba’s daughters lives here, and works with a regional NGO. And just last week I saw a street named for Lumumba in Alexandria.