Acknowledging History

Original image at
Bald cypress trees along the Bayou Coquille Trail at the Barataria Preserve. Credit: National Park Service.

On Friday, May 19, Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans gave a speech marking the removal of Confederate leaders’ statues from prominent city sites. His words strike me as the sort of thoughtful, nuanced words of persuasion that the United States needs. I’m not a Southerner, but I hope I could ‘take in’ analogous words on the issues where I have blind spots. 

The text of Mayor Landrieu’s speech, below, is from the Times-Picayune newspaper’s website.

Continue reading “Acknowledging History”

July 2016 Shootings

The shooting deaths this week, first of more black men by police, then of Dallas police officers, feel particularly bleak. I want to say we’re at a breaking point, but I fear we may not be. The headlines on the New York Times’s digital front page, below, describe the past, present, and specter of the future. It’s a sort of poetry of horror:

Violence Divides a Nation Torn by Race

Here’s what we know about the shootings in Dallas, Baton Rouge and Minnesota

Ambush in Dallas: 5 Officers Die in Sniper Attack at Protest

Gunman Said to Be Army Veteran; Police Kill Him with Robot

Study Confirms That Use of Force Is More Likely on Blacks

Is That Even a Thing?

I loved this article, and the author’s third explanation of why we’ve started asking, “Is that even a thing?”:

[One reason we ask “Is That Even a Thing?” is] the closing gap between satire and the real thing. The absurd excess of things has reached a point where the ironic detachment needed to cope with them is increasingly built into the things themselves, their marketing and the language we use to talk about them. The designator “a thing” is thus almost always tinged with ironic detachment. It puts the thing at arm’s length. You can hardly say “a thing” without a wary glint in your eye. The volume, particularity and inanity of the phenomena effectively force us to take up this detachment. The complaint that the young are jaded or ironic is misplaced; it’s the conditions that are this way.

Thurs, 1 Nov 2007

I have been spending a lot of time in camp and really needed to get out today. Lizzie taught me the basics of how to use my GPS device, so I traced my route to N’s house, marked the manyattas (homes) of several of her neighbors, and then followed my route back to camp.

Using longitude and latitude I can also transfer the points I visit to a paper map so that I can see where everything is located visually on a map of all of Koija. So I feel good – it’s a way not to get lost and way to keep track of where people and physical objects like water holes are located, which might be useful for my research.

The driving is also going great. I feel a lot more confident and am up to driving a relatively normal speed, approximately 35 mph on a good road.

I also spent time with N’s family today. The 6-year-old who had polio seemed happy and chatty. N’s “second mother”, which is to say her father’s 2nd wife, showed me a cow that was born last night. The second mother laughed a lot when I asked if the cow was a boy (layioni) or a girl (ntito); apparently these terms mean girl-child and boy-child, and there are different words for male (laché) and female (nkaché) animals.

We spent a good while inside the house of N’s mother as well. I should stop to explain: a manyatta is a large fenced homestead that has multiple animal corrals and multiple houses inside of it. There is usually a house for each wife, a house for the father, a house for any mostly-grown children, and also for any other relatives living there.

N’s mother is the first wife, has borne 6 children, and has a very nice house. Anyway, it is always interesting to be inside people’s houses, especially those of nice people who make me feel at ease. N’s mother is one of these people. She served us tea, gave baby J. a bath in a plastic tub, and laughed along with 2 friends of N’s who came to visit.

Tuesday night I was alone in camp… For the first time that night I heard lots of voices all around our camp, just outside our (very thin) fence. They sounded relaxed, but what do I know? I asked the guard what people were out and about, and he said “watoto” (children). So I figured that was ok. The next morning when our English-speaking cook came to camp, he explained that they were out hunting dik diks (a tiny antelope, about the size of a cat). As Lizzie said when she returned to camp, it’s not like there’s much else to do around here when you’re a 12-year-old.

Lizzie and I were also talking about S’s son who died several years ago. Lizzie helped take him to the hospital right before he died. He was misdiagnosed with malaria[…] and given some powerful anti-malaria medicine that poisoned him because he really had Hepatitis B, which meant his liver was unable to process the anti-malaria drug. Lizzie told me Hepatitis B is contracted through blood or sex, but the boy was 9 when he died. This begs the question, had he been circumcised very early (unlikely) with a dirty implement? Had he been raped?

N. has told me in a different context that there is a problem with rapes of young women here. It is hard/impossible to know the scale of the problem at this point, and whether it is better or worse than other places.

I have also heard of at least 2 different instances of children in groups wounding themselves. In the first case, they made cuts on their own thighs. In the second case, very young kids were rubbing gravel into the backs of their hands until they bleed, creating large scabs. I wonder if this is an instance of kids being bored that can happen anywhere, or a sign of more serious problems.


I just finished a book about the Nigeria/Biafra civil war. It’s called “Half of a Yellow Sun“, by Adichie, and I highly recommend it.

I also just finished reading an old National Geographic dedicated to Africa. I was struck by an essay written by Alexandra Fuller, who wrote a well-known memoir of her childhood in Zambia, called “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.” I attach a link to the article, as well as a passage that captures something I have felt in Laikipia (in the 3rd paragraph below) but never seen in writing before.

Alexandra Fuller writes:

“The Cost of Walking for Days Through the Middle of Nowhere
The women at the Chifungwe scout camp, seeing me emerge from the bush, sent a child in search of a mirror. Like characters in an 18th-century novel, they deemed it prudent to show me the full horror of myself. Then they fetched me a bucket of hot water, tea, and a comb.

“Rolf met me here, having driven down off the escarpment on axle-breaking roads. That night I fell asleep listening to the village breathing. In the morning there was the domestic chatter of women to wake me, as they walked down to the river to fetch water. There was such an explosion of birds I couldn’t untangle their song. It was the mopani-leaf turpentine that I smelled and wood smoke and game droppings and the pungent swirl of the river. And the world rocked with life.

“On this page I can’t smell the burnt-honey scent of bee sting, or feel the smallness of who I really am under the ponderous annoyance of an elephant, or understand that animals share my fright—a leopard is chased by an angry baboon troop. But I have understood that I am only the sum of my biology. And what this grants me is the undeserved gift of connection, usually granted men and women of transcendent and disciplined lives.

“Long Words on a Hot Afternoon
I do penance by pretending to read the exhaustive A History of Wildlife Conservation and Management in the Mid-Luangwa Valley, Zambia, by W. L. Astle, published by the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol, August 1999. From the preface: “It is an account of recorded events . . . from the start of European penetration at the end of the 18th century to the early 1970s, the time of the start of a ferocious onslaught by commercial poachers.” “