I’m working on a series of interviews with creative, interesting and amazing people I’ve known over the course of my life who, through whatever series of events, have found themselves in academia. This time, I’m interviewing Dr. Julie Huntington, who I know mostly as the oboe player in the seminal Michigan skronk outfit, Galen but now works on Francophone African literature in NYC.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Julie Ann Huntington. By profession, I am a professor of French language and comparative literature at Marymount Manhattan College. I also identify as a bicyclist, runner, advocate, writer, noise-maker, thrill-seeker, daydreamer, gourmande, and vagabond.
You’re from Southeastern Michigan, but now live in New York. I don’t know what I missed, how did that happen?
It’s a rather long story… that’s where the vagabond part kicks in. I’ve actually spent more consecutive years in New York City now (going on six) than any place in my life since graduating from high school. My first stay outside of Michigan in the summer of 1996 led me to a picaresque nanny job in a tiny town called Hem working for a psychiatric professional with some anger management issues and a college professor who tried in vain to seduce me with lines like “I see what kind of books you read… I know what kind of girl you are…” At the end of three weeks, we all agreed it was best for me to head to Paris to pursue other paths. With little money, I spent most of my days daydreaming and walking around the city. One day, I ended up wandering into an English language bookshop near the Notre Dame cathedral. After chatting with the owner, I secured lodging with some other ex-pats in a bed-bug infested library in exchange for a few hours of work each day. With little money, I spent much of my time reading books and helping out around the shop. George [Whitman] took notice of this and promoted me, calling me his Cordelia. In exchange for more responsibilities, consisting mainly of book-keeping and listening to George tell stories about lost generation Paris, I got my own room full of first editions and a sublime view of Notre Dame…
Filling in the gaps, I returned to Michigan to finish my BA at Eastern Michigan University in Anthropology and French. At the start of my studies, I had wanted to be a journalist, decided that I was ill-equipped to take on the burdens of truth and objectivity. Degree in hand, I headed back to Paris to consider my options…
I worked as a waitress in Paris in a Tex-Mex restaurant in Paris in 1998 for the World Cup matches and beyond. The restaurant isn’t there anymore, but I still have a scar on my knee from the celebrations. During that time, I decided to go to graduate school and prepped for my GRE exam…
And then you went down South?
In 1999, I moved to Nashville to start an MA-Ph.D program at Vanderbilt. My preliminary intention was to study XX century feminist narratives. As luck would have it, the woman with whom I had planned to work left the university and I had to shift gears. I became interested in issues of language and identity in areas where French was spoken as an official but not maternal or vehicular language. I was particularly intrigued by “noisy” writers who presented multilingual, musical, and otherwise resonant texts to readers. It all started with Ousmane Sembene… In my first year of graduate study, I read Guelwaar and God’s Bits of Wood… It was love at first read…
My interest in Sembene led me to Keur Momar Sarr Senegal in the summer of 2001 where I spent a summer working on a rural development project in coordination with community members and a group of Belgian and American volunteers…
I went back to Nashville and finished my Ph.D. at Vanderbilt in 2005. My work focused on exploring how instrumental literature, non-vocal music, and otherwise noisy phenomena are translated and transcribed into the frames of literary texts as a means of creating spaces for identity negotiation that lie beyond the limits of Western/Northern identificatory paradigms…
I worked as an Assistant Professor of French at Clemson from 2005-2008. While I was there, I spent summers taking students to Ghana on a summer program I created. I also traveled to Martinique and Guyane for research and conferences. I feel lucky to have visited Saint Pierre, Alawla-Yalimapo, Nzulezo by chance as sidetrips on these journeys as they are beautiful and unique places that have informed my work in important ways…
I loved the job at Clemson but was miserable living in small-town and even smaller-city South Carolina. I struggled to be happy there. It just wasn’t a good fit for me culturally…
When I was offered a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college in NYC in 2008, I embraced the opportunity. Regardless of the professional pros and cons of my decision, I am happy with the choice I made. I love working at a teaching-focused job in a city where I feel joyful and inspired…
Since my arrival in NYC, I have spent time away in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and France for research, but have always felt compelled to “come home” to NYC. I’m not sure if this is my forever city, but my vagabond heart is happy here doing what I do for the time being.
I really don’t think I’ve seen you in person in nearly 20 years, at which time you were active in music. Are you still doing music?
Music is a part of my life everywhere I go and I sense that it always will be. Although I don’t have any regular projects at the present time, I find myself collaborating on a few projects every year. Most of these are spontaneous and performance-based. I feel like the energy and logistics of living in New York City foster these kinds of dynamic but ephemeral musical encounters. Some of my favorite NYC collaborations have been with Samuel Consiglio (of Tami on 12 inch and Perfect Weiners and Butts), who I met while dancing at Zoot’s in Detroit in the 1990s. Another performance moment I enjoyed was when I was invited to perform as an oboe-playing cannibal in a play—It Didn’t Have to Come to This by Normandy Sherwood.
I seem to know a lot of people who did odd music things, and then moved on to the wacky world of academia. How did you go from music to academia? Do you feel like your particular musical experience serves you well in your academic career?
Coming from a working class family in Michigan, many of my life decisions as a young adult were guided by financial imperatives. From a young age, I understood that work defines so many aspects of an average person’s day-to-day existence, especially in American culture. With that understanding, I followed the path that I thought would lead me to my greatest contentment. In spite of the present states of fiscal and identity crisis in academia, I feel like I made the right choice. Working as a professor is fulfilling in many ways. I learn so much each and every day in my interactions with colleagues and students, but also in my own investigations and explorations.
In terms of music, being a musician definitely helps me to be in tune with the people and texts with which I work. It is particularly useful in the space of the classroom. Playing in collaborative projects throughout the years has helped me become better in listening to and responding to others. I am very student-centered in my approaches to teaching and I often position myself as a collaborator-facilitator-coach when working with students on discussions and projects. One could liken the structure of a lesson to that of a jazz standard. In this respect, there are definite objectives and protocols in place to guide our interactions during class time, but there are also spaces for every participant to voice, interpret, and respond in a multiplicity of harmonious or cacophonous ways.
I became really interested in questions of linguistic, cultural, and regional identities in post-colonial frameworks, particularly as mediated in literary texts. Since there was already a fair amount of work being done on linguistic approaches to identity negotiation and appropriation in literature, I turned my focus to music. Although much work had also been done on the aesthetics and implications of oral genres in written literature, instrumental genres were not being considered to the same extent. I wanted to create a rationale and a vocabulary for considering sounding elements in literature, particularly non-vocal ones.
The book project came about after the series editor, Gregory Barz, approached me about revising my manuscript to give it a more interdisciplinary focus. We agreed that I would take out much of the literary jargon and construct narrative frames around the chapters.
A book in itself is strange because it fixes ideas on the written page, even if those ideas are still being revised, reconsidered, and reconfigured. It is like a time capsule of thoughts. All things considered, I am proud of this work with all of its shortcomings and strengths. In my view it is just the beginning, a point of departure, the start of a dialogue.
What took you to Senegal? In the book it sounds like you just kind of showed up there. While the experiences are obviously amazing (outside of drinking the borehole water: been there, done that), I’m kind of thinking the whole time “How did she get there?”
The decision to spend time in Senegal was motivated by a desire to get a feel for the geographic and cultural spaces and the aesthetic and linguistic protocols I was reading about in the works of writers like Ousmane Sembene and Aminata Sow Fall. I signed on to volunteer with ASREAD, L’Association Sénégalaise de Recherches, d’Études et d’Appui au Développement, an NGO in Keur Momar Sarr, where I lived and worked with members of the local community.
In a sense, I did just show up without any sort of formal agenda. I just wanted to learn as much as I possibly could during my time there about music, language, and culture. For the most part, I let the villagers guide my experience of that learning. This created openings and opportunities I would not have been able to witness or experience if I had come in with a clear itinerary and agenda.
I really enjoyed the cross-cultural, cross-linguistic and cross-disciplinary nature of the work, (and in the Julie-in-Africa vignettes).
Whereas personally, I find it very fulfilling to work across languages, continents, cultures, and disciplines, the work is challenging and not always well-received.
In a sense, interdisciplinary work is destabilizing. It requires critics—both readers and writers—to suspend self-ascribed notions of mastery of their respective methodological approaches and areas of expertise while exposing themselves to alternative modes of analysis and subject areas. Metaphorically speaking, interdisciplinary work is the mixed martial arts of academic work. In this respect, interdisciplinary practitioners develop proficiency in a multiple areas of expertise which they incorporate interchangeably depending on conditions and contexts. Multifaceted, versatile, and dynamic, interdisciplinary work creates opportunities for dialogue and exchange across categories, perspectives, and methodologies. The limits of this type of work is that is simply not possible to be a specialist in all styles. By consequence, interdisciplinary scholars often exchange the jargon and depth of analysis displayed in single-discipline scholarship for the accessibility and interwoven or textured quality of interdisciplinary work with varying degrees of success.
In terms of working across languages, cultures, and genres, there are multiple challenges at work here. The main challenge is that what we conceive of as the academy is still grounded in the geographic, linguistic, and cultural zones of Northern/Western nations. Even when working in scholarship grounded in African locations, critics find themselves faced with the imperative of constructing argumentation in dialogue with critical frameworks created within and endorsed by scholars working predominantly in Northern/Western academic and cultural systems. There is a type of academic hegemony at work here and it is difficult to overcome.
My parents and much of my extended family still live in Michigan, so I come back to visit a few times a year. I would also come back for an epic jam session.
What’s next? Anything new coming down the pipe?
I am working on a second book project examining culinary narratives, folklore, and recipes in contemporary West African fiction. I am also training for the 2014 Boston Marathon.
Julie’s book, “Sounding Off: Rhythm, Music, and Identity in West African and Caribbean Francophone Novels (African Soundscapes) is available for purchase HERE.
Does malaria facilitate the development of exploitative agricultural estates? Interview with Dr. Luis Chavez
My friend Luis just published a paper in PlosOne on land consolidation or the formation of “latifundia” in Spain. Latifundia were large agricultural estates owned by the Romans, often dependent on slave labor, the growth of which has been implicated in Rome’s fall.
Luis creates a mathematical model to describe the formation of these large estates. He then tests the hypothesis that malaria transmission exacerbated the situation, by forcing land owners to sell cheaply to opportunistic land owners in less malarious areas.
Luis, an ecologist who works on issues of disease transmission (and all around great guy), is somewhat unique in the world of quantitative sciences. He took a few minutes to talk to me so that you can see why.
Who are you and what’s your background?
If you ask the japanese they might say: O gata no hen na gaijinsan. As to my academic background, I studied biology/parasitology as an undergraduate, then mathematical ecology for a M.Sc. and then was granted a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology (note: at the University of Michigan).
Nevertheless, I have always been interested in the humanities, especially history since it gives the best vantage point to understand the present. I grew up in a household where mixing things/topics was usual. Both my father and grandfather went to grad school, something unusual in Latin America, and since i was child lunch time talk was heavy on the side of human rights and solidarity, science and the need for change. When Nelson Mandela died i remembered that a lovely family activity during my childhood was going to a cultural/educational event in solidarity with Nelson Mandela and the South African people to end the apartheid.
For lay people, what’s the paper about and what motivated you to explore it?
The paper presents a mathematical model that can explain the formation of latifundia (large estates) when the profitability of land varies across landowners in a landscape. The model is also used to show that when such differences are not present latifundia still can emerge if there are differences in the risk of acquiring an infectious diseases. I built the model based on historical records to show that both patterns have been observed in societies as different as “latin” Europe (Italy and Spain) and China.
What’s a “latifundium” in Spain? I dug around a bit and could find some things about Rome and Latin America, but not so much about Spain. Why choose Spain?
A latifundium is a large estate, which requires the labor of people that do not own the land. I chose Spain because a essay by Chantal Beauchamp presented a couple of striking maps showing that places where malaria was common were those where Latifundia were common during the 1930s (Fig. 2): http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/ahess_0395-2649_1988_num_43_1_283483
The pattern of association between malaria and latifundia was not new, but only Beauchamp had data amenable for a quantitative analysis.
Are you trying to say that malaria helped enable capitalist land appropriation?
It might be the case. The hypothesis that malaria helped to enable land appropriation was put forward by the great italian malariologist, Angelo Celli. He has a book on the topic [reference 8 in the paper, available at the UMICH SPH library]. Celli was probably the most advanced malaria epidemiologist at the turn of the 20th century.
Unfortunately, he and other italians [most notably Grassi] were blackbolded in the Anglo-Saxon world because they threatened the ego of Ronald Ross by saying malaria was not just due to a parasite transmitted by the bite of a mosquito [a biological fact that, nevertheless, they independently showed and published in Italian]. If you are interested just check the oldest records for malaria in the Nature archives.
Though issues of land tenure are very different in the US (given that we killed all the natives and stole it all), we did have some big and awful land plantations in the South along with a serious malaria problem. Might we also try to apply this to the United States, and, if so, how?
I think it might have helped to the consolidation of large estates in the south. Interestingly in the Midwest you never had the latifundia observed in the south, but you had malaria in Michigan (the midwest) at some point (See Humphreys M. 2001. Malaria: Poverty, Race, and Public Health in the United States. Baltimore (MD): Johns Hopkins University Press.).
Nevertheless, in the south due, for example, to Jim Crow laws there might have been a differential risk of malaria infection not observed in the Midwest. However, i found no data to go beyond speculation, well other that in the Canal Zone the Jim Crow housing organization showed the differential malaria risk: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/529265
I find these quantitative approaches to historical problems fascinating (I also started work on a paper on malaria in post-conflict Angola, maybe I should publish it). Do you think applying these methods to history as informative to present day problems? If so, how?
I think so, history probably gives the best vantage point to understand the present (Rendering history a tinker damn’s is a good strategy to sell things no matter if they are useful or even safe, Henry Ford was clear about this). In theory failures can be highly educational, something the model suggests is that equity in land tenure is an unstable equilibrium that could only be maintained by an external policy as the Chinese did before the An Lushan rebellion, and that any kind of unfair land redistribution could only be expected to not work (latifundia will be eventually formed), as observed over and over in most Latin American nations.
The mix of methods is rather novel. However, in the discipline focused and partitioned environment of academia, do you find that its hard to get an audience for this kind of work? Is there a future in it?
I can tell you this stuff is only suitable for publication on the Arxiv.org or PLoS One/ Springer Plus, if you want it to be peer reviewed and you don’t sign your paper with an address in Princeton or Oxford. I think the audience does not belong in any department, though scholars working on the diverse fields of ecology, health, sociology, maths, economics and even history might find it interesting. I think there is some future, there is the emerging field of cliodynamics that looks at historical dynamics and there is even a journal for cliodynamics where they, every once on a while, publish good food for thought like this paper: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/1ks0g7dr#page-1
I thought my data was not dynamical enough, so I didn’t try there.
This work is heavily political. Do you think there is a place for politics in science?
I think everything gets embedded in politics. Otherwise there would have been no shutdown in the CDC and other US government agencies few months ago, etc. I don’t think my work is more or less political than a risk factor analysis for lung cancer and smoking. I think i might be blackbolded by some of the references I cited, but to understand Capitalism even the Catholic Church is studying Marx [Funny the leading scholar is the Munich Bishop, whose last name is Marx]:
This time, I picked up a book of works by Korean photography Kim Ki Chan. Kim passed away in 2005, but spent the brunt of his adult life documenting Seoul, and its (and Korea’s) transformation into one of the richest areas in the world.
His pictures, rather than focusing on rampant consumerism and youth culture, center on the back alleys of the urban poor. Mostly black and white, his portraits of local Korean families struggling to get by are stunningly beautiful. I’m positive that the pictures appeared vastly different at the times they were taken, but looking at them now and thinking about how Korea has grown, one can’t help but thinking that the subjects are filled with anything but optimism.
Kim’s subjects are overwhelmingly poor. This presents a challenge to a photographer, who can often run onto dangerous ground of portraying the poor as sad and helpless, or romanticizing poverty as cute and adorable. Kim does neither. It’s clear that many of the subjects know Kim already, probably as a friend. He probably saw some of the kids he photographed grow up and have their own over his long career.
My experience in Korea is really quite limited. I went there a couple of times in the late 90′s but my lack of Korean kept me from venturing out to the areas in which Kim operated. I’m sad that I never had the chance to see them, but suspect that some of it still remains.
We are now working in Il Motiok, a small community of Maasai families located in Laikipia, Kenya. These families eke their existence almost exclusively through goat herding, though some work on neighboring livestock ranches.
It’s a small community of about 130 households. Most people have never been to any level of school. Times have changed. Lack of land and climate change has made their old ways impossible and families are now sending their children to school. Some are hoping to send their children to university.
The people I’ve met so far have been grounded, capable people distanced from some of the more severe social problems that plague poor communities. As the pictures show, however, they do have an incredibly large number of children.
Il Motiok just got cel service 6 months ago. Every adult has a cel phone now. Don’t ever let people tell you that illiteracy is a barrier to wide uses of technology. Not only are they communicating with one another, herders are calling one another to inform of prime grazing spots for their goats.
As part of our research efforts, I have been offering family portraits as a way of saying thanks for letting us intrude on people’s busy lives. Here are some of the pictures.
I approached Mr. Richie after class and asked him if it would be alright if I sat in on the class. He looked a bit distressed and asked if I would be doing the course work. I said that didn’t really matter to me. I just wanted to come to the course every week and listen to his lectures.
Richie loved the Japanese cinema. His lecture style was so un-alienating that one couldn’t help but love it, too. He would present the films in a manner that made them entirely foreign and unique products of the particular culture that produced, but simultaneously fit them squarely in a worldwide tradition of movies. He would present his lecture on the movie of the week, then we would watch the film in a theater, where he would deliver an abridged version of his Tuesday lecture for people who didn’t have the pleasure of attending his class. I think I learned more about art, cinema, media, culture, social science, the humanities and politics in that one 7 week course that I did in the entire remainder of my undergraduate education.
The time for the first mid term came, and I sat for it. Richie came up to me again with a distressed look on his face and stuttered, “A-a-are you taking this c-course for c-c-credit?” I said no, but asked him if I could take the exam anyway. He looked stressed but said yes, no problem. The following week, when he passed back the exams, he had thoughtfully commented on my work, writing more than a page of notes, ending with “If I were grading this, I would give you an A+. Good work.” When the time for the final exam came, the entire incident was repeated. To this day, I’m not sure why my not officially signing up for the course stressed him so. Perhaps he had too many students. I would like to think that he was trying to be meticulous and follow the rules to the letter, which was rather uncharacteristic of a man who flouted so many rules in his lifetime. Perhaps Japan had rubbed off on him more than he cared to consider (though there was no sucking of air through teeth).
I would see him on the street and he would always say hello. I regret not engaging him more while he was there, but it’s hard to just approach someone when you’re a starstruck kid. I later learned that he had a terrible time in Michigan, mainly because the stodgy faculty in the Japanese studies department would take him out on the town in neighboring Ypsilanti. I wish I would have known.
Shortly after that, I became more and more immersed in Japanese cinema studies and decided that I wanted to go to Japan and eventually pursue a graduate degree in the field (I didn’t do the latter). I arranged for a job teaching English conversation in Osaka (with the help of a friend), and left for Japan in November of 1996. It was there that I started speaking Japanese on a daily basis, and met my wife, who still puts up with my abhorrent command of the language.
If I had not taken Richie’s course, I don’t think I would have gone to Japan. It can’t be said that life would have been better or worse had I not gone, but it certainly would have been very different, and probably a little less interesting and certainly minus a life partner. For this, I am entirely grateful for Donald Richie’s existence and wholly sad for a great man’s passing.
Richie made experimental films in the 1960′s. This is one of them:
Andrew WK is a rock star, composer, motivational speaker, Taco Bell enthusiast, television host, inventor and (very) part-time painter based in NYC.
Andrew was a student of mine (I gave him an A- and got him grounded) when I was doing a volunteer teaching gig at Community High School in Ann Arbor, MI in 1994. We became acquainted, played in a couple of bands together, and later I put out a couple of his records on my BULB record label. Most important to me, however, is that he’s a good friend.
A couple of weeks ago, it was suddenly announced that Andrew would be serving as a “United States’ Cultural Ambassador to the Middle East.” Andrew would be travelling to the Kingdom of Bahrain on behalf of the US State Department, where he would be spreading his positive “Party” philosophy (the freak out, good time sort, not the divisive Democratic/Republican kind). Not more than 24 hours after I heard the announcement, however, news appeared stating that the entire trip had been cancelled. Many of us were scratching our heads, wondering if the entire thing was a stunt. Fans of AWK have been known to start and passionately spread odd rumors in the past.
However, several media outlets ran articles that included a transcript where a representative of State mentioned the trip and its subsequent cancellation. The State rep was quoted as saying “There may have been some preliminary conversations with him, but he will not be going to Bahrain on the U.S. government’s dime.” Andrew’s scheduled trip to represent the US was very real.
Bahrain is a particularly troubled place right now. Protests have rocked the tiny, oil-rich nation but the heavy handed monarchy has managed to brutally stifle much of it. Bahrain’s human rights record has been described as “dismal” by Human Rights Watch. Sending someone like Andrew, whose positive, self made image very much represents the ideals of liberal, free market democracy would actually be a perfect choice to represent the US in this difficult time.
Perplexed the whole thing, I decided to reach out to Andrew and get the full story. Andrew was kindly able to take some time out to answer some questions about the incident. First, I would like to thank Andrew. Here’s the interview:
A: We were cold called, but there had been some murmuring about me traveling abroad in some capacity for a few years. We first officially heard from the State Dept. on September 13th, 2011. That was when they wrote to us with an official invitation reading, “Department of State sponsored trip to Bahrain for motivational speech”.
FB: I’ve read that someone from Bahrain specifically made a request to the Embassy there.
A: We had never heard anything about the trip being requested by a citizen of Bahrain, but I had heard rumors from my managers that they were approached about an entertainment project with the U.S. government. We didn’t know what it was exactly until we got the official invitation. It was always presented as a government sponsored event to spread good will and cultural exchange between the U.S. and the middle east. The people who I work with and who help plan my career have always worked on ways to help further the cause of uniting different cultures and promoting the coming together of the human race. I’ve followed and embraced that spirit for a long time and definitely want to do right by them. This was a natural step in that larger effort. Western culture is very powerful.
FB: How far along was the planning?
A: The planning was a long process that went on for about 14 months. There were many levels of approval and clearance we had to go through on both the U.S. and Bahrainian sides. We just did what we were asked to do and completed all they requested with respect and cooperation. There were some background checks, but it seemed the State Dept. had already done a huge amount of research on me before hand. Most of the details were planned with my handlers and managers without my direct involvement. The plane tickets were booked for our trip to officially begin on December 1st, 2012. We coordinated the flights and travel details with the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain and left them completely in charge of all the on-location details.
A: We had our last planning phone call on Wednesday, November 21st, 2012. That’s when our State Dept. contact went over the final schedule and explained that I should officially announce the trip to the public. He explained what language to use and the overall tone of the trip and the ideals we would be promoting. I never actually met anyone in person from the State Dept. Everything was done either on the telephone or the computer. In 2003, I had been given a private tour of the White House by an ex-Secret Service official who was very passionate about my work and music. It’s possible that he was the one of the folks that first helped introduce the State Dept. to my work as a motivational speaker. Otherwise, I don’t know how they picked me specifically. That’s been really perplexing, but I didn’t think about it too much at first. I was just so excited to be asked. But once they canceled everything, I obviously have been trying to figure out what this whole thing is really about.
FB: Did State set up an itinerary?
A: Yes. We were sent the official itinerary by the State Dept. at approximately 6am on Monday, November 26th, 2012. The plans for the trip had always been based around lectures and motivational speeches at local schools. There was never a public concert planned, although we had plans to “jam” with some of the local musicians in Bahrain at a rehearsal space and music store. The main bulk of the trip was to be spent focused on positive interactions with the young people of Manama, the capital city. I planned on talking about positive thinking, making the most of one’s life, embracing freedom, and using partying to help forget your troubles. The State Department gave me overall guidelines, but were also very open to allowing me creative control when it came to how I would present our ideals and how I would present myself. They were always very familiar with what I do – that’s why they came to us in the first place – and they were certainly made even more familiar with me during the lengthy year-plus process of planning and clearance.
At about 11am on the same day we were sent the official itinerary, our State Department contact called us in a panic with the news that his “higher ups” canceled the entire trip for unknown reasons. Apparently it went far up the chain and a lot of people were getting in trouble, even to the point of being fired over this project.
A: It was explained to me that there was a passionate rock and metal scene in Bahrain. I had heard similar reports from others about there being lots of loud music fans in the more liberal parts of the Middle East. I was planning on playing some drums and keyboard and just making up songs or playing songs that we all could learn together. It was all very open to spontaneity. However, the State Dept. also made it very clear that the musical parts of the trip were secondary to the speaking engagements. It was always explained to me that the main goal was for me to help foster a positive impression of the U.S. in the minds of students and the people of Bahrain at large.
FB: How did it all start to fall apart? What happened?
A: It all happened very fast. Everything was good to go up until that Monday morning, after we received the itinerary. In that window of time between 6am and 12 noon, something happened and it has still yet to be explained what exactly it was, beyond that “higher up” State Dept. officials had changed their mind and now decided I was not an appropriate person to represent the U.S. as a Cultural Ambassador. It’s still not clear why they had this change of heart at the last second after they had invited me and spent a year carefully planning my trip. We had flights booked and the trip was less than a week away.
Some have said it was canceled because we announced the trip to the public, but I was encouraged to announce the trip by the State Dept. directly. The whole idea of my Cultural Ambassadorship was to generate public interest and excitement about the meeting of our two cultures. It was never meant to be a secret event – that would have defeated the entire point.
In the days since the cancellation, I’ve received inside tips that there was a passionate debate in the State Dept. about my going at the last second. It’s possible that someone outside of the State Dept. who wasn’t aware of the trip initially became incensed that they weren’t informed before. Apparently some of these unknown higher-up officials were on my side and others were deeply offended by the idea of me going. It would still be nice to learn exactly what happened and who specifically pulled the plug. I’m not taking it personally. For all I know, they could be protecting my own safety. Maybe there were threats, related or unrelated to the trip. It’s definitely confusing and kind of feels like a dream – like there was some other aspects to this project that maybe we didn’t understand or weren’t told about. I’m still as much in the dark as anyone.
FB: Bahrain is a pretty troubled place right now. I’m surprised that State was willing to send anyone over there. Did you have any reservations about going? We know from your live shows that you aren’t concerned about personal safety, of course. It could be suggested that the US would be supporting a repressive state, which some people might have trouble with. Was this ever in the conversation?
A: In the months leading up to the trip, I’ve learned a lot more about the complicated situation in Bahrain. I was definitely looking forward to getting an in-person view of what’s been going on and get a clearer impression of their land and their issues. Since I was going there to spread positivity on behalf of the U.S., it’s definitely been interesting and also concerning that I may have been used as some sort of pawn in a larger game to distract from the potentially bad situations. My handlers insisted that I would be safe and that the U.S. and Bahrain had a good relationship. I was going in the name of supporting that relationship and was expected to support a positive view of both countries.
Some of what’s been most confusing about this is wondering how it’s connected to earlier projects we’ve been a part of, and if I was chosen for reasons that aren’t as obvious, or weren’t openly explained to me. Kim Kardashian had been scheduled to visit Bahrain the same weekend we were there. She wasn’t formally sent by the U.S., but she was there to promote an American milkshake company. Apparently there were protests to her visit and some controversy in advance to her arrival. Some have speculated that maybe the State Dept. canceled my official Ambassador trip because it coincided with her unofficial visit. Of course, she has every right to visit with or without government sponsorship on our side, but it would be unusual to think of the State Dept. not wanting me to be there at the same time as her.
A: In the past week, we’ve received an incredible outpouring of support, especially from folks in Bahrain and the Middle East that had been looking forward to this trip. It’s been really moving and has definitely motivated us to find a way to go there with or without the support of my own country. We’re working on it. I’ve never been to the Middle East and really want to go.
FB: I could only find information on one other Cultural Ambassador, and that was Kareem Abdul Jabbar. How does it feel to almost have been in a club with the famous star of the seminal cinematic work, “Airplane“?
A: Kareem Abdul Jabbar is amazing and I’ve always loved him – his basketball legacy, and his work as an entertainer are awesome examples of America at its best. It’s been a real privilege to even imagine sharing some sort of place with him and other ambassadors in the history of U.S. culture. It seems like these are opportunities for us to show the world what this country can offer and to help unite more people together in the spirit of freedom and a shared global purpose.
FB: It’s great to have talked to you again after so many years. Were you OK after Hurricane Sandy? Did you eat any sand?
A: It’s wonderful to talk with you too, Pete! We were OK during Sandy, thank you. I always eat a bit of sand every few days, just for the earthy taste and texture. I’ve loved dirt eating since I was about 6 years old. I strongly recommend people try it at least once in their life. Party Hard Forever and stay strong!
PARTY HARD FOREVER
It has been reported that one of my heroes, Denis Mukwege, has survived an assassination attempt today in the DRC. Dr. Mukwege runs a clinic in Kinshasa which specializes in reconstructive surgeries for vaginal trauma in women who have been raped in the ongoing conflict in the DRC.
Mukwege has performed more than 20,000 surgeries on women, but has recently moved on to speaking out against the conflict on the world stage. He often publicly points to the DRC government and the the government of Rwanda as fostering conditions that put Congolese women in danger.
Recently, he spoke before the UN and accused DRC President Joseph Kabila as being complicit. Apparently, someone was listening and sent gunmen out to murder him today. His guard was killed but Mukwege survived the attack.
I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Mukwege about two years ago. I’m glad to see that he’s alive to fight another day for the women of the DRC.
A couple of days ago, I wrote about prices in the local market. In that post there were some pictures of some local sellers. To be fair, I printed them out and took copies to the people in the pictures as a way of saying thanks. Prints are cheap, and people get excited about having pictures of themselves around. It’s a small price to pay for invading someone’s space for a while.
Someone saw me giving out copies and pretty soon nearly the entire market was asking to have their picture taken. In Malawi, taking pictures in a market is a big no-no. Here it’s entirely ok.
Photographing people in a crowded market in the middle of the day is kind of a challenge and, to be honest, I don’t like having my camera out in the open. It draws attention and attracts young thieves. I’m consoled, though, by newspaper reports of market thieves being burned alive (whatever you do, don’t Google it).
Upon first looking at the pictures, I was fairly underwhelmed. Shots of people I’ve had the chance to speak to are always far better than just shots of people I don’t know at all; the story is everything. I must have shot nearly 50 people in a span of 3 minutes so there really wasn’t much time for conversation. To me, these were just some rushed shots of some random people in the market.
However, looking at them again, I discovered something interesting. I realized that every single one of the people in the pictures made a point of demonstrating their trade, or wanted themselves to be featured at their stand clearly identifying themselves as the owners.
All of them took the time to make themselves look good before having their picture taken. Some put on their “uniform,” which was usually an apron. A few even went out of their way to look like they were passing goods to customers, emphasizing that they are merchants who believe in what they sell.
Nearly all of the vendors in the market are women. Some are in their 80′s. Some are just kids. Some have small children with them. All of them appear to know each other well. Almost none of them speak English, indicating that few have been to school.
It’s clear from the pictures that every one of the market vendors is immensely proud of what they do, even if its just selling a few tomatoes, having a small cooking oil stand or dealing in kitchen goods. I’m certainly not denigrating market sellers, but the level of pride evident in this small, out of the way market in this isolated corner of the planet was pretty inspiring.
Like other islands, the people make their living almost entirely through fishing. Small scale fisherman capture Nile Perch, Tilapia and catfish, bring them back to community fishing boards, which then sell them to larger brokers, which then take them to the notorious (and mysterious) “factory.” The “factory” then filets the fish and sells them to European and American dealers. The welfare of this tiny island depends entirely on the whims of hungry Europeans. The global economy starts on islands like Sucru.
In contrast with the other islands, however, the locals appear to eat some of what they catch. In fact, I assume that the majority of what they eat comes straight from the water. I could see absolutely no evidence of agriculture of any kind on this tiny island. The result is that the residents of the island appear quite well fed, some are even fat, but clearly lack essential vitamins due to their monotonous diet.
Housing conditions are miserable, and, like many islands here, sanitation is quite poor. About twenty years ago, a group came and installed a septic and well system to try to keep the locals from openly defecating and drinking their own sewage, but the system appears to have never been used. Like most areas around Lake Victoria, people prefer to crap in the bushes over a formal toilet. The result is that diarrheal disease is constant, and children live in states of vastly poor health.
Though only having a handful of residents, malaria is endemic to the island. Black mambas (considered the most dangerous snake in the world) are also native and live in plentiful numbers. We found a freshly killed one on a rock.
Safari ants are also plentiful. A few crawled up my pant leg and drew blood. I can be seen in one of the pictures picking them off myself. I think everyone had their pants off at some point picking off ants.
Despite all the challenges, the locals are incredibly kind (like many people around the lake), appear quite happy and don’t mind being photographed. They laugh hysterically at my rudimentary (though improving) command of the Luo language.