Tuesday, December 2, 2014

World AIDS Day

I’m not sure if you have been reading the news, but today, December 1st, is World AIDS Day.  According to one news article I read, the intention of World AIDS Day is to raise awareness and money for research and medical care with the intention of eliminating the disease by 2030.  While an admirable goal, I think it will be difficult to obtain.  Here’s why:

When I was in Congo eight months ago one of the men I met told me that Congolese are more concerned about Ebola than AIDS.  Given our current predicament in Africa with Ebola, this seems poetic.  Back in April when I heard this I thought that was rather foolish.  Now, seeing how quickly Ebola spreads and how difficult it is to contain in Africa, where sanitation is grossly lacking, I understand his reasoning.  Nevertheless, I was surprised by his laissez-faire attitude toward the risk of HIV/AIDS.

Another man I met in Congo told me how AIDS was not a problem because, “we use the condom.”  Well, not long after that I learned what that meant.  The government and NGOs in Congo- Congo reportedly has more NGOs and UN Peacekeepers that anywhere else on earth- have launched nationwide campaigns to “condomize.”  That’s right, it’s so important we made it a verb!  While safe sex propaganda is everywhere in Africa it turns out there is a problem with the marketing message.  As someone who teaches Marketing, perhaps we need to be a little more direct.  Olivier went on to explain that in order to please their government, they wear condoms.  But, the whole point of sex is to join together bodily fluids.  So in order to achieve both goals, they wear condoms, but first cut they tip off so that bodily fluids may be exchanged. WHAT THE #&$*?????  Yes, that was my reaction too.

As I was telling my class last week, the good thing is that no one actually dies from AIDS in Africa.  Before I moved to Africa I had to take a physical.  As mandated by the Botswana government, I was required to have a TB test to enter the country.  Without the test I could not become a resident.  Sitting in the doctor’s office in Lubbock my doctor thought this was ludicrous.  “I can’t imagine they care if you bring this into the country, if anything, shouldn’t we be concerned about you being exposed to it while you are there?” she asked.  My doctor couldn’t even remember the last time she had administered the test, and as a result, filled out the form incorrectly. I ended up having to return a second time to get retested. But as I was saying no one in Africa dies from AIDS.  No, not at all.  But TONS of people die from TB.

You know, “The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club?”  Well, it’s kind of the same deal.  We talk endlessly about HIV/AIDS- go to this workshop, get tested, read this brochure, tell your friends.  Yet no one actually has it and no one dies from it.  I can’t tell you how many funerals I have been invited to (in Africa), where someone has died from TB.  Answer: A LOT.   People willingly talk about and show evidence if they DON’T have it, but AIDS patients in Africa are like unicorns, everyone has heard about it, but never actually seen one before.

As I was saying, I think the desire to eradicate AIDS in the next 15 years is admirable.  However, I have little hope that this can be achieved because I think there are a number of cultural barriers which make this a serious challenge.  I should also mention that perhaps the most significant explanation for why I think this will fail is because this is a “preaching to the choir” sort of situation.  In Botswana there is at least one newspaper article every week about HIV/AIDS.  Guess how many newspapers in Botswana ran front page articles about World AIDS Day? Not one.

In case you were interested, here are some of the medical PR campaigns I’ve seen around Africa.  Sleep under a mosquito net to avoid malaria:
Get your Yellow Fever vaccination:
Use a condom:
And this is also related to HIV/AIDS and methods to prevent the transfer of the disease from mother to baby during birth:

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Church of AMERICA!

Late last night I wrote a message on someone’s Facebook wall: “It’s almost Thanksgiving!  I think that means it’s the beginning of the festive season (at least for us Americans). Compliments!”  If you are unaware of the meaning of “Compliments!” read this blog post.

That’s right, tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the U.S.  The Canadians began their festive season REALLY early, because they celebrated Thanksgiving almost six weeks ago.  Good for them- they beat us at something.  Oh yeah, of course, there is hockey too.

Today I was speaking with one of my Motswana friends in Setswana about Thanksgiving.  Here’s the English translation of what I said, “One day, a long time ago some Englishmen wanted to be free from the church.  They got into a boat, and were at sea for many months.  One day they saw shore.  They got out of the boat and there were Americans looking at them.  The Englishmen were very hungry.  Then the Americans gave them a cow.  Thanksgiving!”  The funny thing is… I know those of you who know me can imagine me telling this story....  That face you are making right now, and that laugh… apparently that part translates REALLY well!  My friend Topo thought this story was hysterical.

I’m not sure we have turkeys in Botswana and I couldn’t remember the word for large chicken.  And in Botswana a cow is the best present you could possibly give someone.  That’s why when you get married the bride price is paid in cattle.  And if you give the new couple a cow as a wedding present you will likely get one of their offspring named after you. Hence, the Americans giving the hungry Englishmen a cow was quite generous.

Last year I remember using Thanksgiving to get out of a faculty meeting at UB.  In all reality, I really did have plans.  (Side note- If you ever become an expat become really good friends with someone who works at the U.S. embassy in your country because they throw the best parties.) I apologized to my dean and asked to be excused from the faculty meeting because it was Thanksgiving and I had plans.  Also, the faculty meeting was scheduled at 5pm, so it’s not like I was really skipping work.  Not to mention it probably started late, and then they paused for tea, etc, etc. I probably got back from my party before the faculty meeting ended anyway. After I mentioned Thanksgiving my dean turned to two or three other faculty members with a confused look, then back to me and said, “What church is that?”  I couldn’t help myself, “The Church of AMERICA!”

Sadly, not all Thanksgiving traditions translate as well as my narrative above.  I have tried countless times to show pictures and explain the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to my Batswana students.  They like the pictures, but they don’t get it.  One thing I have learned is that there is no such thing as a parade in Africa.  There are processions, such as when Nelson Mandela died.  They understand that.  But the victory parade or holiday parade doesn’t exist in Botswana.  Of course, this is a first world problem.  Perhaps once the electricity and water become more consistent we can consider marching around with 40 foot Snoopy balloons.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ebola in the U.S.: MINOR PROBLEM

If you had to choose, which would you rather have: access to the Internet? Or access to a toilet (i.e. indoor plumbing)?

Yesterday the Washington Post published an article stating that 4.4 billion people around the world still don’t have Internet.  The thing about living abroad is that your perspective changes, without you putting in any effort at all. Upon reading that headline I immediately thought to myself: So what?! Several billion people don’t have access to toilets!  If I had to choose one, I would opt for sanitation and hygiene over a virtual update of Kimye’s most recent scandals any day.

I admit the Internet is useful.  I no longer own a bound dictionary because I can use dictionary.com.  When I was learning to drive a manual on the left side of the road, I watched youtube videos for practice. And naturally, as a professor, I use the Internet every day before I teach to see if there are any current events related to my class which I should discuss with my students.  Yes, the Internet is great.  But I don’t think the fact that two-thirds of the world population is sans Internet is all that unfortunate.  According to The World Bank, only 24% of Sub-Saharan Africa has electricity.  You can’t have Internet without at least some access to electricity.  But Obama’s Power Africa initiative is a foolish endeavor (read: DISASTER) which I will save to address a different day.

World Toilet Day is celebrated annually on November 19th aimed at bringing attention to the need for behavior change and policy implementation “to end open-air defecation.”  Currently, more than 2.5 billion people worldwide do not have access to toilets.  This means they have to relieve themselves in the open.  For those living in rural areas, individuals can try to find somewhere secluded, but this is a security risk.  If you remember that rash of rapes and murders in India recently, many of those occurred because girls had no access to latrines, forcing them to go out into fields to relieve themselves, and there they were easy prey for violent attacks. However, many of these people without access to toilet facilities don’t live strictly in rural areas; many live in incredibly crowded slums in the inner-cities.

When I was in Sierra Leone a few years ago I visited Kroo Bay, one of the largest slums in Freetown, the nation’s capital.  In one Kroo Bay neighborhood 15,000 people live in very cramped quarters with access to four, FOUR (4!) toilets.  Also, it should be noted these are long drops, not toilets with running water.  If you are unfamiliar with a long drop please read my previous post here.  If you would like to see some photos of the Kroo Bay neighborhood, check out this BBC article (be sure to click through the pictures).

The lack of toilets, running water and sanitation is why Africa has an Ebola problem.  When I was in Kroo Bay there was an outbreak of cholera, leprosy was rampant, and the life expectancy was, and still is, 35 years.  Everyone is concerned about Ebola coming to America.  The simple truth is, this should not be a problem here and it should be halted immediately without significant concern.

As Americans we are fortunate.  We have access to running water, thus we can use flush toilets and wash our hands.  We wear shoes, therefore we don’t have to worry about walking around barefoot and potentially stepping in someone’s bodily fluids and contracting a disease.  And for the most part, we live in reasonable accommodations, not cramped living quarters where we are subject to others’ illnesses due to close proximity and the inability to quarantine ourselves (or others) when we are sick.

So, back to the original question: Would you rather have access to the Internet or to a toilet?  I know this may be a tough one for some of you, but try to consider the facts I mentioned above.

Here is a picture I took when I was in Kroo Bay, Sierra Leone.  On the left side you can see a child wearing a blue and white shirt squatting and going to the “toilet.”  Also on the left you can see a woman standing up (there is a man in jeans and a white and gray shirt behind her) who is doing laundry in this creek.  And then if you look on the right side, there is a boy with a bag next to a set of stairs.  Next to that boy you can see the back end of a pig (black and white, or pink? legs and tail):

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Four Weeks Down… Eleven to Go

I’m NOT counting down the days until the end of the semester.  Really! I promise!  It’s just that this is right about the time when I realize I am starting to get behind in teaching and if I don’t speed things up a bit (read: discourage my students from asking questions about topics they are interested in which are related to the class) then I won’t get to cover everything I want.  And the truth is, there is no chance I will tell my students to stop asking questions, because hey, at least they are interested and taking an active role in their learning.  So I’m not going to fault them for that.  The truth is, there really needs to be two tourism classes in order to cover everything to the level I would prefer.

Yesterday I gave my students index cards and asked them for feedback about my class.  These were anonymous comments, so they could say anything they liked, good or bad.  But I specifically asked them to tell me if there was a destination or topic they wanted me to cover.  I figured if I asked them for feedback now there was enough time in the semester for me to work these areas into my class.  Apparently I need to talk more about Australia.  Mention of tourism in Area 51 would also be appreciated (by someONE).  That’s the first time I ever got that request. I just hope that area 51 person is present the day we talk about it.

There is a little bit of concern over the impending map quiz they will receive.  At the beginning of the semester I asked my students to draw a map of the world and name whatever they could.  Some were quite impressive.  Others were…. Creative.  According to a recent poll by the Washington Post one in six Americans can locate Ukraine on a map.  Granted, that’s a weird one.  After all, until the recent argument with Russia over Crimea, and then the Malaysian airlines crash in Ukraine, what would make Ukraine stand out?  Ok, bad example.  Let’s talk Iraq.  We should know Iraq, right?  We’ve only been AT WAR with/in that country for over a decade.  Apparently our geographic literacy is even worse than we think.  Six in ten Americans canNOT find Iraq on a map.  That makes me sad.  One more shot…. CHINA!  The Olympics, they are taking over the world with their ever-growing population, they are responsible for more pollution that anywhere else and most importantly ALL THINGS ARE MADE IN CHINA!  Survey says, 70% of Americans can point out China.  Ok, that’s better.

I’m not worried though.  I am confident my students will ace their map quiz in a few weeks.  In the meantime, here are a few maps we discussed in class:

There is one thing we know.  That is where Ebola comes from.  Of course, Ebola is only in five countries in Africa.  The other 49 are chugging along just fine.  So, the spread of Ebola seems to be overstated here.  Then again, the Panama Canal is also overstated here as it is HUGE!:

Now, we do have some Americans at the opposite end of the spectrum.  This is probably similar to how my map would look if I was asked to draw it, smart-ass comments and all:

In case you were curious how Europeans view the U.S. here you go:

I’m pretty sure this is exactly how Texans view America as well.  I will give them one thing.  More than half my class identified the U.S. on their maps, and then specifically added Texas to demonstrate they knew exactly where it was.  Apparently, no other states are all that important.

Friday, September 12, 2014

That is Sedition!... That is the Truth!

One of my favorite movies growing up was The Last of the Mohicans. If you are unfamiliar, it is based on the historical novel of the same name about the French and Indian War and the use of Native Americans by the French and British Armies.  If you are not up on your history, here’s the Cliff Notes: the French and the British fought each other from 1754 to 1763 for control of North America.  Since neither the French nor the British knew the continent all that well they used American Indians as informants in an effort to outmaneuver each another. Obviously the British won which is why we don’t speak French. Moving on…

As I was saying my favorite movie was The Last of the Mohicans.  My brother’s favorite movie is equally cerebral, thus proving we are related: Dumb and Dumber.  In The Last of the Mohicans there is a scene where one of the Native American informants is arguing with a British army officer.  The British officer didn’t like that the Mohican was questioning his judgment and shouted, “That is Sedition!”  The Mohican responded, “That is the Truth!”

Sedition is a word which is seldom, if ever heard in developed, western countries.  Sedition involves speaking out against a political ruler (or nation) and encouraging others to rebel as well.  In the U.S. we have freedom of speech (or freedom of expression), so we can voice our opinions regardless of whether they are in opposition to authority figures. We have freedom of assembly, so people can gather together and protest.  We have freedom of the press, so the media can report without fear of legal repercussions.  There are countless examples every day of acts which could be considered seditious, but in reality they aren’t.  That is the benefit of being American.

Botswana is different.  Botswana recently arrested a newspaper editor and charged him with sedition.  The paper ran a story stating that President Khama had been involved in a car accident and apparently compensated the other driver by giving him a new Jeep.  And what is seditious about this?  I don’t know either.  Here is the article if you would like to read it.  Seems pretty straightforward if you ask me.

I will say the one thing I found curious about the article is that, “…while someone is holding the office of president and during his tenure, no civil or criminal proceedings can be instituted against them.”  Hmmm… that is unsettling.  And it reminds me a lot of our evil dictator to the north, President Mugabe of Zimbabwe.  At 90, you would think Mugabe would have retired by now, particularly since he’s been at the helm 34 years.  Of course, that will never happen.  He must die in office.  If he retires he will either be tried by The Hague for human rights violations or his own people will kill him for all the suffering he’s put them through.

Back to Botswana, I have to say, I am disappointed.  Botswana has been the shining beacon of hope for Africa for decades.  It is the only consistently stable democracy which has never had any major problems, aside from HIV/AIDs and poverty, but then again, you can’t change the weather. Of course, there was that issue with the student elections which demonstrated the government is more corrupt than people give them credit forI do hope this sedition situation is an outlier and not a sign that Botswana is moving the way of many of the other African countries (i.e. dictatorships).  This is yet one more thing that reminds me why I am proud to be an American.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Requiem for a Suitcase

Another one bites the dust.  Actually, another one, two, three bites the dust.  Remember how when I first arrived in Botswana one of my bags had a giant hole in it?  Well, there is something to be said for duct tape and shrink wrap.  I didn’t want to buy another piece of luggage while in Africa, so I saved it, duct taped it back together, filled it with a bunch of stuff, and then had it plastic wrapped at the Joburg airport.  TA-DA!  It actually made it all the way home.

And then there was my luggage that was forever lost.  First in Ethiopia for several weeks.  Then it went MIA when they forgot to put it on the plane from Joburg to Gabs.  I used that one most of the time I was travelling around Africa for the past year.  But by May the zipper had broken, so I could only half unzip it.  By June it had deteriorated to not opening at all.  So, yet again, I duct taped it together and then had it wrapped at the airport.  Thankfully, that one made it all the way back to the U.S. as well.

Then there was my rolling carry-on.  The wheels on that broke months ago.  So by Christmas it no longer rolled.  It was simply a “drag it all over the place and explain to porters, bellmen and anyone else who tried to help me with my bag not to worry because it was already broken” kind of bag.

Well, today I finally made the move to bury (in the dumpster) my three pieces of luggage, taken to Africa, only to meet their maker and return lifeless.  I suppose this is just one of the steps to moving forward and saying good-bye to my time in Africa.

On the bright side, I got new luggage!  I highly recommend my new TravelPro roller bags.  They are lighter and seem to have more room than my old luggage (which by the way lasted me a record 239 passport stamps!).

Out with the old….
In with the new….
Of course, that being said, I wouldn’t be terribly heartbroken if I didn’t take an international trip for a while.  Then again, you never know.

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Different Take on Race

Late Monday I sent a book chapter to my editor.  I awoke Tuesday morning to an email stating, “This is great!  We should talk ASAP. When can we chat?”  We agreed to Skype that night.  As the day progressed I became more excited about the positive tone of the email.  By the time our Skype appointment rolled around I had convinced myself I had A Sorcerer’s Apprentice situation on my hands.  You know how Mickey started off with that one broomstick?  And then it multiplied until he was surrounded by thousands?  I was convinced my 18 pages had grown into a full length book.  No such luck.

This Skype meeting was the first time my editor and I had actually seen each other.  Until that point in time I had no idea he was… black.  And the reason he wanted to talk to me was because I had several statements in my chapter about black Americans and how they are viewed by the locals when they go to Africa.  Since he found this so interesting, and surprising, I figured I would share some of the highlights of our conversation.

Before my trip to Congo I was visiting with some friends in Botswana.  As I told them about the plans for my trip, one of them, a Motswana, said to me, “You can’t go there! There are BLACK people there!”  I was shocked.  She was black.  The other four friends at that get-together were black.  I was the only white person I had seen in weeks.  I was ALWAYS surrounded by black people.  How was going to Congo different?  I couldn’t help but say quizzically, “Huh? I don’t understand.”  She went on to explain that she, and other Batswana, were not black.  They were brown-black.   And as you go further north people become “more black.”  “Ugandans and Kenyans, they are blue-black.  But the Congolese?  (She shakes her head.) They are black-black.”  It had never occurred to me that Africans had their own racial distinctions among themselves until that moment.  But this prompted me to start paying attention to this, and from that point forward I realized that they do differentiate.

When I visited Kenya everyone would immediately want to talk to me about Obama, of course.  “We are very proud to have a Kenyan as President of the United States.  He is a very good muzungu.”  I was surprised to hear Obama referred to as a muzungu, but figured it was because he was light skinned due to having a white mother.  I later came to learn that all African-Americans are muzungu (in East Africa).  Or lekogwa (in Southern Africa). Or obruni (in West Africa.)

Many African-Americans visit West Africa because of its slave history.  Ghana and Senegal in particular have become huge slave tourism attractions.  However, many black Americans who make the trip to these destinations leave less than satisfied.  I have been to some of these former slave prisons, dungeons and trading posts, and they are by nature, sad.  It’s understandable that people aren’t laughing and happy when they depart from these locations.  But African-Americans tend to struggle not just with the historical aspect, but also their interactions with locals while they are there.

When African-Americans travel to Africa they typically have the ideal that they are going “home” to visit “relatives.”  But when they arrive they are called “obruni.”  “Obruni” means “whiteman” but it refers to any non-African.  In other words, Europeans, Asians, people from the Americas are all called “obruni,” so it actually has a second meaning of “foreigner.”  This terminology projects the opinion that Africans do not see black Americans as “black Africans coming home.”

Some tourist destinations have realized this attitude is detrimental.  Ghana launched a PR campaign not too long ago designed to change the behavior of residents toward African-American visitors.  Ghanians were discouraged from referring to them as “obruni” and were instead told to say “akwaaba anyemi” which means “welcome brother (or sister).”

Our conversation lasted for the better part of an hour.  We bonded over our shared muzungu heritage, began planning my editor’s dream itinerary to visit Africa (he’s never been) and discussed my book.  Though I haven’t perfected my spell casting skills yet, at least it appears my new project is off to a good start.

Here are some photos from Bunce Island, a former slave fort in Sierra Leone:

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Reentering the First World, Part Two

First of all, please let me apologize to my loyal blog readers for being absent for the past week.  I was driving from Maryland back to Texas and stopping to visit friends along the way.  I thought I would keep up with my blog while on the road, but in the end nine hours of driving a day plus mandatory (and necessary) social time with friends I haven’t seen in years equaled an exhausted Kelly unable to open her laptop.  But, rest assured, I am back!

Yesterday I arrived in Lubbock, Texas and was greeted by my posse of graduate students- current and former.  Thank goodness they were here to help me unpack my car, move my things from storage to my new house, rearrange furniture, etc.  They are currently scrubbing the toilets and cutting my lawn as I write this.  Totally kidding!  But they did help me with the move-in process which was a huge relief.  And it was a lot of fun because it was a mini-reunion (mini because we were missing a few Phelantologists who have graduated and moved on to bigger and better things).

I spent the better part of last night and this morning unpacking and cleaning, but you know how moves are.  You unpack 20 boxes only to realize you apparently packed all the plates and utensils, but somehow the glasses and bowls missed the boat.  This is made all the more shocking because somehow there are three used toothbrushes and a half empty roll of toothpaste in a box.  I know, I thought the same thing, Why in the world would I keep those for almost 15 months? Ewwwww….

Around 10 this morning I had a pretty comprehensive list of items I needed to purchase to make my new digs more habitable and so I ventured out to the store.  I know I arrived back in the U.S. about a month ago, but I’ve been so busy with conferences, social visits and family vacations that I haven’t spent any time doing normal day-to-day stuff- like going to the store.  This morning’s visit to Market Street (a grocery store) was a bit overwhelming.  I went in with a list of about a dozen things to buy.  But as I perused the aisles I kept thinking, Oh wow! They have XYZ product?  I should totally get one of those!......  They have ABC!  That’s amazing!  I haven’t seen one of those in…. hmmm…. a year, if not longer.  I definitely need that too…...  I don’t even know what this thing is!  But it looks AWESOME!  I’m totally getting this.  I don’t know what I’m gonna use it for, but I’m pretty sure I will LOVE IT! 

In aisle 8B I realized I had a problem.  Actually it was pointed out to me by Tim, a friendly shelf stocker.  I saw canned artichoke hearts and took EVERY SINGLE can off the shelf.  He stood there and watched me do this and said, “Are you sure you need ALL of those?”  I didn’t count them, but I would guess I had at least 100 cans of artichokes in my cart.  In the end I didn’t buy any of them because I realized I probably wouldn’t eat them this week anyway and I could just wait for them to go on sale.  And when they DO go on sale, they will actually be there.

Last night I was visiting with one of my former grad students and her husband.  Joe asked me, “What was the hardest thing about living in Africa?  What is the biggest adjustment coming home?”  I told him that it’s not the big things that make living abroad hard.  I knew before I went to Africa that there would be lots of power outages, that water rationing might mean you couldn’t take showers for days, that there were food shortages, so there were times you would go to the grocery store and there would be no fresh food on the shelf.  But you expect those things.  The things that drive you nuts are the little things.  Here in the U.S. if you need a battery you go to CVS a block away, run in, pick out the battery you need, pay for it and get out of there.  It should take 5 minutes or less to run that errand.  But that’s not how it works in Africa.  That task could take you all day, or several days.  (Remember when I tried to get my university ID?)

The best example of the little things driving you nuts involved two monkeys, a toothbrush, and what else? A condom.  Because in the end everything (in Africa) involves a condom, right?

One day I was in my house in Botswana, working at my desk on the first floor.  I heard a lot of commotion upstairs and went up to investigate.  Two monkeys had gotten into the house through my open bedroom window and were tearing my bathroom apart.  In the scuffle to get them out of there they knocked my face cream and toothbrush into the toilet.  Now, I wasn’t happy about the face cream because do you have any clue how difficult it is to find face cream for a white person in Africa?  Answer: Very hard.  But I could live without face cream.  I could NOT live without a toothbrush.  I finally got the monkeys out of the house and set out for the store to buy a new toothbrush.  It took me seven hours to (I think) nine or ten different stores in search of a toothbrush.  In the second to the last store I looked around, was unable to find a toothbrush and so I asked for assistance.  The store clerk said they did not have any toothbrushes, but instead offered me a box of condoms.  Though I desperately attempted to keep my cool I failed.  I started flailing my arms and told him, “I CANNOT CLEAN MY TEETH WITH THAT!!!!”  Thinking back on that now I remember the clerk nonchalantly shrugging as if to say, “Hey lady, here’s your option.  If you don’t like it, oh well.”

They say a lot of people who move overseas experience culture shock.  Many individuals also have similar challenges adjusting when they come home.  I suppose the artichokes are my reverse culture shock.  When I was at Market Street today I also stopped to stare at the wall of a thousand toothbrushes.  Sadly, Tim was there for that too.  I thought I was using my inner monologue when I said, “Wow, so many toothbrushes.  They are beautiful.”  But when Tim responded and said, “Yes, we have lots of toothbrushes.  But remember, you can only use one at a time” I thought it best to tell him, “I’m not strange.  I’ve been living in Africa.  I haven’t seen most of this stuff in forever.”  He nodded his head as if he truly understood me and said, “Well, in that case, we are open 24 hours, take your time looking around.” 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Zonkies: The Cool Kids of the Animal Kingdom

When I went to college I was in one of the first classes to have a significant number of multiracial students.  In an effort to be as transparent as possible I will take this opportunity to admit I actually had to look up the proper term.  A multiracial American is someone who belongs to two or more races.  This is different from being multiethnic.  Most Americans are multiethnic by default.  If you say you are an American whose ancestors are from Ireland and Germany you are multiethnic.  But someone who is multiracial is from two (or more) different races: black and white, or Asian and white, or Native American and Asian, etc.  Again, please keep in mind, I am a professor of tourism, not a race or ethnicity specialist.

But as I was saying, when I went to college I had a lot of classmates who were multiracial.  This made a lot of sense because kids born in the late 70s/early 80s had parents who were the first to consider and accept interracial marriages in the U.S. And all these kids were very open about this; they really embraced and were proud of the fact that they were a little bit different.  A lot of my friends had dads who were former U.S. military and met their wives overseas during either the Korean or Vietnam wars.  And then I had a lot of other friends who had one black and one white parent.  There were so many of these interracial kids at Hopkins they actually formed a club: the Happy Halfies.  They would introduce one another as, “This is my friend Chris.  He’s a Happy Halfy, just like me!”   To be completely honest, those of us who weren’t halfies were almost a little jealous because they were definitely the epitome of cool kids.  And they were all good looking.  I’m not sure if there is a biological explanation, but there wasn’t a single bad looking guy or girl in the group.

A few years after I graduated I moved to Galena, Alaska to work in a boarding high school.  All of my students were native Alaskans.  Some were Inuit, others Yupik Eskimos, Athabaskans, Aleuts and a few Inupiaqs.  Each year Galena would host a huge basketball tournament in which teams from around the state would fly in and compete.  I always looked forward to this event because there was a huge cultural component, and it gave me a real opportunity to learn more about the differences between the various native groups.  The team from Aniak always amazed me.  Their mascot was the halfbreed.  In the 1970s the Aniak high school students selected the mascot because “it made sense.”  There was a large population of white settlers who intermarried with Yupik Eskimos, resulting in mixed-race kids.  When I was in Galena almost 15 years ago, the mascot was shown as a face cut in half: one side of the face looked like a white settler, the other half of the face had native features and a long braid.  The portrayal has since been changed:
The reason I am writing about my friends the Happy Halfies and the Aniak Halfbreeds is because a story about a zonkey in Crimea recently went viral.  (At least something positive is coming out of poor Ukraine.)  I was looking at CNN this morning and there was a zonkey born in a Crimean zoo recently.  When I was in Botswana I used to see zonkeys from time to time.  They aren’t terribly common, but when a zebra and a donkey fall in love, or have the opportunity, a zonkey is what results.  I am certainly not equating my friends to animals, but anytime I see a zonkey I was always reminded of the Happy Halfies and the Halfbreeds.  In case you are unfamiliar with a zonkey here is a picture from Botswana.  We used to have donkeys wander around town all the time, but here is one of the zonkeys not far from UB:

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Little America

Last week I was in San Diego for a conference.  When the conference ended I went to San Francisco for a few days to visit my friend Brian.  I had never been to San Fran before, so while my first priority was visiting Brian and his family whom I hadn’t seen in over a year, a close second was checking out the city.  One of our excursions took us to Chinatown, which is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, and the oldest in North America.  The funny thing about all that stuff being sold in Chinatown… is that it is all made in India!  I took great pleasure in picking up all the little trinkets, turning them over, anticipating a “Made in China” tag, only to be shocked upon reading, “Made in India” instead.  What IS the world coming to?

Somewhere between the fortune cookie factories, the foot reflexology massage advertisements and the Indian made chopsticks, I was reminded of a conversation I had with some friends about a similar phenomenon... Little America.

Believe it or not, Africa is not typically known for being culinarily sophisticated or diverse, but there is evidence to the contrary.  There are at least three established Chinatowns on the continent, in Madagascar, Mauritius and South Africa; Mombasa, Kenya hosts a huge annual Oktoberfest; and Johannesburg has a Little Italy.   One afternoon I was sitting in the lounge at Joburg Airport with some recently acquired single serving friends discussing these types of ethnically-centered communities.  A Brit made the comment (in the way only a Brit could say it), “I don’t understand, why aren’t there any Little Americas?”  To which I responded (as only an American could), “Of course there are!  In fact there are several thousand of them.”  After a belated pause for effect and the expected exchange of confused glances I continued, “And you have all been there, likely many times.  It is called McDonald’s!”

The mention of McDonald’s sent the conversation off on a completely different tangent, one in which only a tourism professor could dominate, and so I did.  My companions began debating the merits of McDonald’s, the menus selected according to geographical region and questioned why some countries have a never-ending supply of McDonald’s, while other areas, particularly the large majority of Africa were McDonald’s-free zones.  Even the Brit admitted, “The last four months in Zimbabwe have been the longest of my life.  I would have killed for a Big Mac.”  There are only five African countries with McDonald’s restaurants: Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, Mauritius and Reunion Island.  The other 49 countries are sans-Mickey-D’s.  In case you are curious as to why McDonald’s has not infiltrated the continent there is a simple answer: The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention.

In 1999 Thomas Friedman wrote the book The Lexus and the Olive Tree in which he stated, “No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.”  In the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention chapter, Friedman goes on to explain that McDonald’s will only enter a country that has reached a certain level of economic development, one which supports a middle class that can patronize a McDonald’s establishment.  Once a country has that kind of financial security it becomes a “McDonald’s country,” one which is stable enough not to want to pursue potentially destructive actions, such as wars.

In all fairness, The Golden Arches Theory is not absolute.  In fact, shortly after the book was published NATO bombed Yugoslavia.  The 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon and the current crisis with Russia and Ukraine are other examples which make the theory flawed.  But at the same time, there are countries which could be categorized as possible “McDonald’s countries” which haven’t made the cut.  Namibia and Botswana haven’t been in wars with anyone since independence, 24 years and 48 years, respectively.

Trust me, I am NOT advocating the spread of McDonald’s, particularly into Africa.  I would much rather see these countries develop their own businesses outside of the big brand giants.  But I have to admit, there is nothing more challenging than teaching in Botswana and saying to your class of 100+ students, “Ok, you know how McDonald’s does XYZ?”  You look into the crowd of faces and realize everyone is staring back at you completely clueless as to what you are talking about.  “No, no most definitely do not know how McDonald’s does XYZ, or anything for that matter.  Never mind, give me a second, I can find another example for you.”  At some point in your academic career you think you are pretty well versed in your field.  And then you get a little reality check like this one and remember that learning should never stop.

Here is a map of countries with and without McDonald’s, along with some other interesting facts.  It should be noted there is a mistake on this map: the large red spot in northwest (top left side) Africa is Algeria which does NOT have a McDonald’s.  Instead that should be blue and there should be a red area NEXT to it (on the left) where Morocco lies.  Minor detail, unless of course you are Moroccan or Algerian:

Sunday, August 3, 2014

An Albino Pinkie and a Pint of Goat’s Blood

I don’t really know why, but today I had a strange thought, Huh… Haven’t seen any albinos in a while.  How odd.  I’m sure most of you reading this are thinking to yourselves, Wow.  That’s one ODD thought.  Agreed.  Albinos were part of my normal daily life in Africa.  And of all the observations from my African travels, this was not one which I thought would resonate and stay with me when I returned.

I’m not sure I ever saw an albino in real life before I moved to Africa.  But in Africa, since most countries have a population which is over 90% black, albinism is quite common.  There are several reasons for this but inbreeding is considered one of the primary causes.  Aside from the cities, most people in Africa live in villages.  The large majority of people will live in those villages their entire lives- unless of course they attempt to migrate to the cities for work, which is happening more frequently.  However, those that do remain in the villages will likely marry someone from their own village, or a neighboring village.  When you only have 200 people in a village, your options are limited, meaning there is a high likelihood you will marry a cousin.  By the way, this also tends to happen in bush Alaska.  This is why many states require you to get a blood test before you get married because if you procreate with a relative there are likely to be health problems for the resulting offspring.  In Africa, the most common health issue associated with marrying your relative and producing children is albinism.

Tanzania has one of the highest rates of albinism in the world, with one in every 1,300 people having the condition.  This may not sound like a lot, but I will say from experience I saw at least one, sometimes many, albinos every single day that I was in Africa.  Some areas are more sensitive to albinism than others and some places are incredibly adverse to it, often hunting albinos down and killing them as you would game animals.  Many albinos are referred to as ghosts due to their light features and are often believed to have magical powers. This is especially important when it comes to witchcraft which is prevalent throughout the continent.  People go to witch doctors for all kinds of things: infertility, help in finding a mate, premature baldness, and one of my personal favorites, wanting to put a curse on an enemy.  No, I didn’t put a curse on anyone… or did I? (insert evil laugh here)

When you go to a witch doctor- I was a witness, NOT a participant- you are given a prescription for how to solve your problem.  It’s kind of like a Catholic going to confession: 5 Hail Marys, 5 Our Fathers, etc. etc. But our visit to the witch doctor resulted in, “Bring me the pinkie finger of an albino and a pint of goat’s blood.”  WHAT?!?!?!  No joke! And for the record, I did not return for the follow-up visit, I didn’t want to be an accessory to the albino pinkie crime.

The ghost association makes many people afraid of albinos because no one wants to interact with the dead.  At the same time, some cultures think albinos have special powers; hence the reason for incorporating body parts from, or in some instances, a human sacrifice of an albino.  But regardless of these two beliefs there is the theory that albinos never die.  And very often that is true.  You never find a dead albino; instead they simply “disappear” because they have been hunted down and their body discarded.  There is also a black market for albino body parts.  Basically if you “need” an albino pinkie you can go to a dealer and pay him, sometimes thousands of dollars to “harvest” the necessary part.  More than once I’ve overheard comments made about albinos to the effect of, “There’s my next fortune walking down the side of the road.”

The average life expectancy of an albino living in Africa is 30 years, due in part to what I described above, but also because they are so susceptible to skin cancer, even more so than a white person.  In Tanzania fewer than 2% of albinos make it to 40.

So as I was telling you, I haven’t seen an albino in quite a while.  But I think that has more to do with the fact there just aren’t that many of them here in the U.S., not that we are hunting these mysterious ghosts for medicinal purposes.  Someone asked me today what the biggest shock was about my time in Africa.  After reflecting upon it I would have to say my visit to the witch doctor would rank among the top five.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


For the past two hours I’ve been watching CNN.  Actually, that’s not 100% true.  For the past two hours I’ve been writing a research article with the television on in the background tuned to CNN.  One hundred and nineteen minutes of that broadcast was dedicated to Hamas, Gaza, the sanctions against Russia and the Malaysia airlines crash.  In the last 60 seconds Anderson Cooper squeezed in a story about a stowaway found on a U.S. Air Force plane.  In case you missed it a U.S. Air Force plane landed in Germany yesterday after a trip to Africa.  Upon landing, the maintenance crew discovered the dead body of a “young black man presumed to be African” in the wheel well which housed the landing equipment.  By a show of hands, how many people have heard about similar incidents in the past?  No one?  I didn’t think so.

Believe it or not, this is actually a very common occurrence.  Of course this is probably news to anyone reading this because the media only reports stories which sell papers or directly impacts the lives of their viewers.  As a general rule, stories about nameless individuals from countries most people have never heard of before, who are dead anyway, don’t provide a return on investment, so the media houses don’t report it.  But stowaways happen all the time, particularly on international flights out of African countries.

During my time in Africa I met a number of people who worked for the UN, the Red Cross, the World Bank, the IMF and various other NGOs.  The rule is if you see a white person travelling alone in an African country (especially if it is a country most foreigners don’t frequent) there is a high likelihood they are associated with one of these types of organizations.  I was approached countless times and asked point blank, “Who are you with?” meaning, “Which NGO do you work for?” When I would respond that I was a tourism professor visiting XYZ country as a Fulbright Scholar people would look at me as if I had lost my mind.  In short this expression translated to, “What is WRONG with you?  You mean you CHOSE to come here?  By your own free will?  SERIOUSLY????”

The good thing about meeting all these globe-trotting do-goers is that they love to talk about the misery associated with their chosen professions.  I was once on a plane with a man who had worked for the IMF in about a dozen African countries over more than two decades.  People always think I’m a great person to invite to a dinner party because I have good stories about my travels.  Well, if I was throwing the party, I would invite this guy.  Over the course of our four hour flight, and then two dinners together later that same week, I learned about how to obtain illegal weapons, how to embezzle and bribe high ranking government officials, methods used to torture private civilians and among other things, the prevalence of stowaways.

As our flight was landing we were delayed on the tarmac for over an hour.  The flight crew made no effort to explain the delay but we could see the airport less than 100 yards away.  They refused to open the doors telling us only, “There is a problem with one of the wheels and we cannot deplane until the officials investigate.”  Upon hearing this, my neighbor Mr. IMF said, “God I hope this isn’t another bloody stowaway.”

While security in some areas of Africa can be downright frightening at times, it appears most African countries have a significant deficiency when it comes to securing the planes and runways themselves.  Mr. IMF told me that on a regular basis (at least monthly or more often) “kids,” sneak onto airfields and climb into the wheel wells of planes in hopes of catching a free ride to a better life.  He said one of the most unfortunate incidents happened on a commercial flight from Equatorial Guinea to France (I think).  He said three boys, no older 12, died during the flight.  When French authorities found them the smallest, and likely the youngest one, was gripping a note which had written on it something to the effect of, “We are seeking a new life in France.  If we die, please consider helping our younger brothers back home.  They need you.”

I think the only reason yesterday’s stowaway situation was granted any air time was strictly because of the recent Ebola outbreaks in Africa and the fact the plane had visited several countries currently suffering from this illness.  Otherwise, this likely would have never been reported.  I guess there are two morals to today’s story: 1. despite all the best efforts at attempting to maintain a secure existence, people are always finding ways around it, and 2. desperate people are willing to take extreme measures, even when they know they are unlikely to succeed.