My wandering field life passed the ten-year mark earlier this year. That’s ten years of finding my way into a new work environment and getting to know new colleagues once a year or so. In a more mundane way, it’s ten years worth of photo files to keep up-to-date and to try to remember to share on my blog. A cousin (thanks, Juliette!) noticed that the entries from my earliest days had lost their photos: mine was a rather early blog, and the ways of uploading photos have changed since then. (Many of those earliest posts appear frankly so embarrassingly shallow to me now that I’m tempted to simply wave my editorial wand and have done with them…but thus far my sense for historical accuracy is controlling that temptation…) If my continued research succeeds, many of those photos will be directly restored onto the blog as I find their originals in backup hard drives and other obscure locations: ah, new year’s resolutions before the old year has even wrapped up!
In the meantime, I’m uncovering little treasures that never made it up here, while fondly remembering where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I was recently saddened to learn that Nancy Schrom Dye, former president of Oberlin College, had passed this year. During my years of active alumni-association work I greatly appreciated her contributions to my alma mater – so I was proud to join some other colleagues in taking her for an end-of-year meal which, the digital date stamp tells me, occurred in Beijing on December 31, in 2005. Up above are also a few rediscovered December 2005 Beijing-area shots which somehow didn’t get posted at the time. (Posting photos was more challenging in those early days…)
Just below are some previously-unposted 2015 shots: early-morning moonset at my home here in Haiti; me with my brother and a colleague when I gave a talk at Carnegie Mellon University earlier this year; and some shots from the lovely Frick House & museum in Pittsburgh, from the same visit. And since this put me in the mood, I’ve wandered through the many countries & continents, family meals & trips & assignments on four continents that have filled the years between these two sets of photos so very fully. Assembling them’s been fun for me so I hope viewing them is fun for you too :-).
This time last year? In December 2014, I returned from Sierra Leone & later went with great friends to enjoy the Ai WeiWei exhibit on Alcatraz Island (more photos from that one in the original post….though that particular set of great friends – you know who you are! – are remarkably camera-resistant):
Where’d I spend 2013? Living in PNG, participating in meetings in Amsterdam & dive trips in Australia, then celebrating the holidays with Steve & Mom in New Zealand:
I began 2012 in the US (where I visited Washington, DC in cherry-blossom season), turned 50 in the company of Howard & Gene at Kakadu National Park in Australia, and finished the year in PNG:
2011 was mostly Mweso, a little Lamu, a little London and a year-end back home seeing Frank Lloyd Wright homes of Pennsylvania with family:
2010…wow, what a year. Just seeing all the continents and countries where I spent time (actually meaningful time, with friends and family and work) makes my head spin even now. The photos evoked so much for me that I just couldn’t narrow it down to three or four…so I’m giving you a lot from 2010, a mix of Manipur (start of year) and Mweso (end of year), with a sprinkling of Sweden, Berlin, Paris & California in between:
I entered 2009 in Tahiti, yes it’s true: during the year I took off from work to help Mom with her house, I dedicated two months to exploring Australia (and watching the Australian Open!) and New Zealand, flying in via Tahiti with a few nights in Papeete, just because I could. The year ended, of course, in Manipur and included a great trip to see excellent sites of Rajasthan with Howard & Gene:
2008 started in Nigeria, and ended in Tahiti…with a lot of good work in Nigeria, a short assignment for the earthquake in China, visits in Germany with my exchange family friends there….and a good deal of time in and around NYC (Mom, aunt Judy & I enjoyed a harbor trip past Ellis Island where our own immigrant ancestors entered the country, and also a trip to our favorite sculpture park up th Husdon)…with a side trip for some hiking in Sequoia and other California adventures:
2007…I began the year based in Colombo but spend the new year’s period with Mom & Steve at Angkor Wat, returned to Colombo to finish out an assignment, headed on for training in Paris where I also got celebrate Mom’s 71st birthday…back to the US to reorganize my life after my first two years in the field, and then off for a new assignment in Nigeria. At the time it felt big. Now it’s all fond memories:
…which will bring us back to year two of this current phase of life’s great adventure, the lovely year 2006. From Beijing & Yunnan in China, to Polonnaruwa & Sigiriya in Sri Lanka (where I was based at year’s end), with family time on Cumberland Island (Mom’s 70th birthday dinner!) and in Germany in between. With a special souvenir from Seoul, where I had the opportunity to work a bit with the young ladies pictured with their daffodils. In a small-world twist, I had dinner with one of those two young ladies just a few nights ago in Port au Prince, which she visits sometimes in her current work with the CDC. So much small world, so little time for it all. Happy end of 2015, and many good hopes for a 2016 of more peace and health to everyone, everywhere.
Well, my friends, here you have it. So Much World, So Little Time has landed back in the US of A. If I can do some early-morning lounging in a comfy bed in my good friends’ George & Pierre’s beachside bungalow in Venice, enjoying streaming KRNN on the headphones and uploading photos to the blog via WiFi, then it seems to suggest I’m no longer in one of the developing-world towns I’ve lately been calling home. You’ll note, in the non-italic text below, that I wrote it about three weeks ago while sitting in Hong Kong en route to China; as you can guess, all this travelling I’ve done in the month (wow! yes – it was EXACTLY one month ago that I left PH, the 9th of May…) has left me quite exhausted and rather mentally whiplashed, coming as it did after a fulfilling and hard-working eight+ months in Port Harcourt. (I hit four continents in less than four weeks and averaged about two hours per day airborne – not counting terminal time and gate-but-not-yet-airborne time — over that period…) I know the sequence of these shots may seem off to some people – after all, I went to China after I left PH. But it simply does not seem right to let these wonderful shots that bring the PH & Nigeria era of this blog to an end, come after the photos of China, which though impressive and important represent only a couple weeks of my life, rather than the investment of time and mental energy I made, and was well rewarded for in experience and enjoyment, in Nigeria. So…herewith, SMW, SLT presents some final shots and thoughts from Nigeria…and Paris….and China. J Don’t expect to see much more on here for quite some time to come. I’ll be helping Mom with this house-reconstruction project, so am unlikely to have many experiences that merit the SMW, SLT treatment. (Though life often surprises me.) Take care…and though I’ve said it before I shall say it again: you all – and you KNOW who you are – are the most wonderful group of friends and family and supporters that anyone doing what I do could ever dream of having, in fact far more wonderful than I or anyone has any right to even dream of.
It feels well-nigh trite to say of Nigeria that it’s the people that make it great, and a wonderful place to spend some time working. Photos of African children looking happy are standard fare in tour books and tourists’ photo albums the world over, so it’s truly with some trepidation that I present these portraits for your enjoyment. But it’s all altogether too true. Relaxing (what the Nigerians would call vacating, cognate of ‘vacation’) at my desk in Los Angeles last summer, I read with some trepidation the stories of violence, crime and near-anarchy in Port Harcourt, Lagos and other parts of Nigeria. While excellent books like This House Has Fallen present very good portraits of Nigeria, they are by nature geared toward the dramatic. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that most of the time life somehow manages to go on in most places, in usually rather undramatic and mundane ways.
In point of fact, Nigeria rocks and its people rock even more. Sure, it’s messed up and full of corruption, and no Nigerian will deny it. Heck, even the politicians admit it; they’ll just say it’s all the other politicians who’re corrupt and not them! 🙂 I find this in many ways more palatable than the US, where so far as I can see everything about our foreign and domestic policy since the ascension of Shrub George II has been all about how best to enrich the companies in whose shares his friends have invested…while the folks in Kansas and Texas still seem to think he’s trying to keep Americans safe. Yeah, whatever. And this has involved the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Iraq and around the world, while all Nigeria’s troubles have done so far is mess up Nigeria…oh yeah, and raise the price of oil even higher, which is the only time the developed world (and especially Americans) ever seems to notice Nigeria. But don’t misunderstand me to be suggesting that you head off on vacation to Nigeria any time soon – one colleague says, of Senegal (one of the more tourist-friendly countries in West Africa, one is given to understand), that ‘it’ll be a while before tourism here is really enjoyable for the tourists.’ This is even more true of Nigeria: if you get to work there, it’s great. I wouldn’t go there as a tourist any time soon.
Still and all, I’d certainly be delighted to work again in Nigeria, with Nigerians. A colleague – pardon me if I’ve mentioned this before in these pages, but I do love the quote – says he describes his experience in Nigeria as ‘a minimum security prison with a work release program.’ He adds that he loved it – one of the most enjoyable and engaging jobs he’s had, at least with MSF. I fully concur. Yet another said that Port Harcourt presented in many ways the most unattractive surroundings in which he’d worked – but that the work and hospital presented the most enjoyable and engaging work he’d done; another statement with which I quite concur. And that’s always it with MSF – it takes me to these crazy places, far from potential dates or even potential bean & cheese burritos, where I run a bit more daily risk than when I’m walking down the streets of San Francisco or London…but where the things I get to learn, the work I get to do and the people I get to meet just hands-down beat anything else I’m likely to have a chance to do at this point in my life.
When I was sent to China more than three years ago on my first MSF assignment, I remembered with some worry all those things I hadn’t loved about China, Taiwan and the Chinese in the 1980s – noisy, nosy, brash, often olfactorily dense (that’s a politically-correct way of saying things and even people often have very strong odors in China, something to which we Americans tend to react very adversely), etc. But I’d forgotten all the things I love about China and the Chinese – fascinating, culturally rich, often open and very friendly, full of surprises. MSF seems to keep sending me to these superlative countries – most populous in the world, most populous in Africa, etc. And of course I grew up in another superlative — biggest economy, most populous outside Asia, most fucked-up of the major economies, etc. Whether from these roots or from some other aspect of my personality, this seems to work for me: I end up loving these big, loud countries. I dream of vacations and retirement in Iceland , Ireland and New Zealand (places I picture as quiet, peaceful, clean, unpolluted, green…), but I seem to thrive when my work takes me their diametric opposite.
Better late than never may be a good motto in the case of these photos. It’s a gray and somewhat drizzly Wednesday afternoon in Hong Kong as I write this, and Nigeria and my dense and rich experiences there during more than eight months seem a world or maybe a lifetime away already. Two weeks ago I was still in the swing of handing over to my replacement in Port Harcourt; a week ago I innocently expected to be back in NYC the following night after a few days of helpful debriefing in Paris. Right now I was supposed to be in Oberlin, getting ready for the weekend’s 100th anniversary festivities for Shansi (www.oberlin.edu/shansi for the uninitiated) and enjoying a slight break before taking up the home-reconstruction project for my mother. But – well, the earthquake in China happened and it seemed a good idea for someone with my experience of China and knowledge of the language to be available to help the team that’s ascertaining how and whether MSF can do more than we already have (www.msf.org for those stories) to support populations affected by the earthquake in Sichuan. It strikes me that the contrast between China‘s official response to the earthquake – massive, swift, and generally quite thorough – and that of the junta in Myanmar to the destruction in the Iriwaddy Delta could hardly be more stark. Perhaps this means I’ll get to be home sooner rather than later, after all. But I’ve learned, again, that the future is unpredictable and often surprising. May we all experience surprises more pleasant than unpleasant in the coming months.
Below and above are a number of shots from trips into some of the creek or riverine towns I visited. The shots are mostly of Krakrama, a small town just off the roads and accessible only by boat; Abonnema, the largest town in the Kalabari Kingdom area, including a few shots of me and colleagues with the Amayanabo or King of Akuku-Toru/Abonnema; and Buguma, the traditional seat of the Kalabari Kingdom and its Amayanabo (different from the Amayanabo of Abonnema, though both are Kalabari town; Nigeria is a country rich in traditional rulers, chiefs, and kings – rather un-English, one might say…). In one shot you’ll see a large bridge crossing the river; this bridge links Abonnema, on one side of the river, with the road that leads to Buguma and other towns like Port Harcourt, as seen from Krakrama, which will need one or two more bridges built before it’s reachable by road. Even Abonnema and Buguma were only linked by road to the rest of the state when a new bridge went in about a decade ago.
This is a fairly typical example of the type of evangelical protestant church that has sprung up, apparently, throughout West Africa. I found the Christianity of my Nigerian colleagues quite interesting — in the US, all the born-again evangelical types would never dance as fantastically as my Nigerian colleagues do; most certainly not to tunes with such lyrics as “I like that booty, I like that booty…” So our parties were sometimes a bit confounding to me: truly excellent dancing to songs whose lyrics were really quite forward; yet I had to remind myself that a very high percentage of those doing the dancing were very strongly Christian. I also noted that a lot of it is about power and success and winning — winners chapel is a typical name.
Calabar really does public sculpture and other demonstratoins of public pride — the huge flag at the top is part of an independence monument in the center of town, and these hands are on a gorgeous bluff in the old district of town, overlooking the Cross River. It was delightful to wander and enjoy the green and relatively smog-free streets.
A fantastic highlight of Calabar is the two small primate-related NGOs based there. Pandrillus, aka the Drill Ranch, was the first to start up – founded in the early 80s by an American woman named Liza with whom I had the pleasure of watching the drill monkeys (above) and chimpanzees (below) pace their compounds and – in the case of the chimps – frolic in the water. (Shortly after I wandered into the compound, which is tucked away on a back street in a residential part of town, Liza decided the heat was getting to the chimps, and out came the hose; and yes, I did get to hold it and spray this girl above for a while — for all the world it felt just like holding the hose on a hot summer day for a frontyard full of kids in the midwest — they’d take turns running into and out of the water and screeching happily. I ask you: where else would one get to spray a chimp with water on a hot summer…well, February…day?)
Anyhoo: long story short: Cross River State, of which Calabar is the capital, is home to some of Nigeria’s little remaining forest and wild habitat in which monkeys and other wildlife can pursue their lives as they always have. Sadly, many of them get shot for the bush-meat trade; Pandrillus and Cercopan, the other NGO, take in the monkeys orphaned by the bush-meat trade, and sometimes reclaim monkeys who’ve been shipped around the country or the world as pets. Pandrillus specializes in Drills, a pretty large monkey and close relative of the better-known Mandrill, which live only in a narrow band of Nigeria and Cameroon, and on a nearby island in Equatorial Guinea. Cercopan focuses on a few species of smaller monkeys, several of which I’ve captured in action below. Both have offices and small enclosures for newly-received primates in town, and a larger facility north in the forests, where they run larger groups and, I think, try to prepare some to return to the wild — though having been orphaned at a young age, and/or chained to a perch in a hotel lobby here or a barbershop there, many of these primates wouldn’t really thrive in the wilds any more, and so stay indefinitely — and breed. Both organizations have had success at captive breeding, which is great since the Drills and at least one of the species at Cercopan are quite endangered and live in habitat that is under constant threat. (The most endangerd at Cercopan, I believe, is limited to a narrow band of habitat between the Cross and Niger rivers in Nigeria. I’m here to tell you there’s not a ton of undisturbed habitat left in this particular zone!)
Not sure if this is a mom and her kid, or just two friends; one thing I saw very frequently during the hour or so I spent just staring at these fabulously un-stressed-out looking creatures was the frequetly with which one of them will collapse in front of another for a grooming session. The other will then quite obligingly start picking through fur and – one assumes – removing grubs and burrs and other debris acquired while roaming the…cage.
The first time I saw — in Port Harcourt — a book vendor balancing a stack of books nearly as tall as himself on his own head, I was most impressed. Now I’ve become as accustomed to that as I am to the traffic here. The tree, above, is a bus stop — desintaitons all indicated on the sign to the left of the tree.
My first weeks were characterized by an almost-giddy happiness that reminded me of the joy I felt while wandering the streets of NYC on lunchbreaks from my first job out of college. I had such a vivid delight in the fact that people whose intellects and purposes I respected were expecting, yes, needing me to return to the office from my lunch break so that I could answer their phones and make their photocopies that my heart sang with the joy of feeling wanted and useful. ‘Whatever,’ you’re thinking. Had they not been my emotions, were it someone else’s heart who’d experienced it, I too might find it peculiar. But the experience was there nonetheless, and I must admit that I had similar feelings in my first weeks here: almost an existential ‘Wow, it seems I actually can do this job, there actually is good work for me to do here, and my presence is worthwhile. Cool!’ After all, however much the last two years introduced me to MSF, I was still fairly in the dark about what I’d really be doing and what life would really be like once I got here to Port Harcourt: new continent, completely new type of project, and new role as Field Coordinator.While it may appear false modesty, the fact is that — proud though I admit I am of my multilingualism and a few other skills such as my croissants and breakfast breads — I generally assume I’m a rather ordinary person with rather ordinary skills. That what I can do, pretty much anyone else can also do. At least if they apply themselves. It took living with someone for several years to ascertain that things I could do, he could not do. Of the corollary – that things others can do, I can’t do – I’ve always been painfully aware: it still hurts that I can’t play piano, take to the stage as a modern-dance heart-throb, or identify which elements are burning in a distant star by the color of its light through a telescope. Being a non-musical college student grunt at an Oberlin College which (even in the early 1980s, when admission rates were getting dangerously high) boasted more musical talent than an average evening at Carnegie Hall, along with an assortment of non-musical intellects and personalities that have gone on to shining careers in the arts, literature, science, politics and all the other fields of human endeavor simply reinforced my core sense of my own general averageness. Of which, let it be said, I was not at all ashamed — average is great; where would the world be without it?
As I hinted during one of the late-summer entries, one thing about many Americans’ reaction to my current career path that disturbs me is the tendency to heroicize what I’m doing. More broadly, Americans’ post-9/11 tendency to heroicize anyone who sets about accomplishing their chosen or assigned jobs with integrity, honor and generosity towards their fellow humans greatly disturbs me. If everyone who behaves with honor and integrity is to be a hero, then either the currency of heroism has been sadly devalued or — more to the point, I fear — the currency of averageness has been dragged into the gutter. Returning to my original point about Port Harcourt: I’m here to do a job, and my first weeks were illuminated by my pleasure at discovering that I was up to the task. I don’t usually take this for granted, certainly about any new situation into which I’m putting myself.
As you’d expect from a job which, in its office part, takes up six full days a week, finding my groove at work is helping find my groove in that which passes for my ‘outside life’ here. And, let it be said, whenever I’m in Port Harcourt I’m essentially on duty: I’m someone who carries around two mobile phones permanently so as to be easily reachable – how sad is that?Specifically, this means I’m jogging some mornings, doing more yoga, pulling out 哈利泼特与魔法石 (for those of you whose computers lack the Chinese character set: that’s Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone) and giving the Chinese-reading muscles in my brain a bit of a workout, etc. etc. Things that give me a bit more sense of wholeness and balance in body and mind, and leave me with some outlets outside work – which can get intense at times.
After the literal on-street running vendors, we get the more established vendors. These folks set themselves up mainly in the median strip (‘central reservation,’ they call it in England and perhaps here, I think) — which is a quite narrow little island of concrete past which the diesel-smoke-belching used cars with their CH, F, D and NL stickers all roar. (At first it bewildered me, how many European cars seem to be taking a vacation in the tropics – until I figured out that these are all used cars sold – stolen? – in Europe and brought to Nigeria for the used-car market.) Here on the narrow strip of concrete you have guys with boxes of noodle soups, watches, handkerchiefs, underwear and other sundries for sale. It’s really all quite enterprising and impressive, though my heart goes out to their poor lungs: truly, the air in PHC is scary. My friends keep saying you’re worried about…fear not for me, dear friends: fear for my lungs! 🙂
How could you NOT love a place like this?!
But said gleaning had not yet taken place in Africa, and yes, it seems Africa still is something else altogether at least when it comes to communications and the internet. Had it been only the slow connection, I’d still have gotten deeper into the upload than I did. But nooooooo. The working hypothesis du moment is that the computer in the ‘business center’ at which I had set up shop didn’t like my USB key. While it accepted the photos you see below under the headings “Frustrated in Abuja” and “Mile Three Market, Port Harcourt,” multiple attempts to transfer the photos from my laptop to the ‘business center’ desktop came to naught – despite a complete erasure and reformatting of said USB key followed by reloading of selected critical photos, all while the clock ticked away on my 40-cent per minute block of internet time.
Love ya, mean it.
Abuja, I think, is rather like the idea of Nigerian nationhood: as much an aspiration as a reality. The dominant view when one enters the city from the west – where the airport is; also, it happens, where both MSF’s office and its expat residence are located – is of two large and dramatic religious structures: the National Mosque, and the National Christian Center. These two elegant and dramatic buildings, situated in line with each other on the central axis through what will (one hopes) some day be downtown Abuja, strike me as quite emblematic of that which is Nigeria, that which is Abuja. As much aspiration as reality, they seem to say that these two great monotheistic religions do – or is it can? or might? or should? – cohabit peacefully in this nation. As these photos will attest, though, Abuja is a city very much under construction, very much still in planning. One could imagine signs saying “pardon our dust while we reconstruct the national nerve centre and create a symbolic capital with which all our multidudinous ethnicities, tribes and regions can feel comfortable, of which they can all be proud.”
So I ran around town on a Saturday morning, just after the second day of Id al Fitr, the most important (?) festival in the Muslim calendar, marking as it does the end of Ramadan. And Abuja reminds me of the new parts of Nanning, where I lived more than two years ago: wide, grandiose boulevards empty of cars and nearly devoid of people. Imposing government buildings, with nary a restaurant, hardware store, supermarket or shoe shine stand in sight. Gazing from the fourth-floor window of my room at the Hilton, where I’ve enjoyed room service and a fabulous hexagonal pool for the past two days, I see hills and residential compounds, lush greenery…and no sign of people on the streets. I hope Abuja can get it together. I hope Nigeria can get it together. It’s two years older than me; on October 1 they celebrated their 47th anniversary. For something like half of those years the country was under military dictatorship. This spring it managed the first transition from one civilian government to another, albeit after an election which international observers found utterly flawed.
This country is pivotal to Africa; it’s pivotal to the energy future of much of the world, being the largest exporter of oil in Africa. One in five Africans is Nigerian; but it’s not yet clear to me how many Nigerians identify first as Nigerian, and only second as a member of whatever religion, ethnicity or region they come from. The hope and beauty of the two religious centers that form the heart of Abuja are something I can agree with, whatever my objections to organized religion per se: the entire world will benefit if these and other religions can finally learn to coexist peacefully, within countries and within the world as a whole. It is perhaps fair to say that Nigeria’s first 47 years were a steady erosion of the promise and potential that seemed evident at independence from England. Still and all, there is reason to hope – despite flawed elections, the country has an active civil society, a flourishing press, and pretty good internet communications. It has abundant natural and human resources. I think we should all hope that Nigeria’s next 47 years will be a steady climb back up that ladder of hope and prosperity; that its regions, religions and ethnicities can agree on some core ideals and values that can define a meaningful Nigerian nationhood – and that none of those values will be the current national pastime of graft and corruption; and that the rest of the world will learn to take Nigeria – Africa’s superpower, such as it is – more seriously.
Ok, I admit it, putting this up as my last photo from Abuja is a bit cynical. This building is the Nigerian Communications Commission. I don’t know what their mandate is, but I suppose it has – on paper and in theory at least? – something to do with…getting good communications going in Nigeria, maybe? HAH! See notes below about the “high-speed” internet at the Hilton “business center.” If that’s as good as it gets in this country, you can imagine what I’m living with down here in Port Harcourt. Then there’s the fact that basically no one I know has a landline…mostly because it seems the telephone companies periodically show up saying you owe them, like, a few jillion dollars for calls you pretty much never made. Or the fact that, despite their relatively small size (I think I’m gonna have to downsize them even more, though…), I have to load these photos up one at a time onto the blog, since dialup connections (wifi at that, for the above-mentioned reason about landlines…) are more or less nonexistant here. So anyhoo, memo to Nigerian Communications Commission: try putting more effort into your work product, and less into your nice-looking building. It is rather a nice-looking building, isn’t it? And just around the corner from the Hilton, hey!
Port Harcourt is the capital of Rivers State and the center of Nigeria’s petroleum industry. It is, I think, the third-largest city in Nigeria after Lagos and Kano. (But don’t quote me on that one.) It is certainly the major metropolis of the vast Niger delta, one of the largest remaining areas of mangrove swamp in the world, and home to enormous reserves of light and sweet crude oil which is greatly coveted for its relatively easy refining into the fuel that runs the millions of vehicles clogging America’s highways. It’s an area rich in history and conflict, and it’s where I’ll be living for a while to come, I hope.
Despite movement restrictions, we still have to get out every now and then to do our work. Not long ago I was out with some of my colleagues to do some outreach about our services in one of the local markets. Here are a few images from that outing. Enjoy.