A Twist on Valentine’s Day

Valentine's Day heartsEvery year February 14 is Valentine’s Day, a Hallmark holiday that traditionally includes cards, chocolates, flowers, and often dinner out and perhaps a new bauble or other token of affection.

Ash cross on woman's forehead

This year February 14 is also Ash Wednesday, a Christian holiday that marks the beginning of 40 days of fasting in preparation for Easter, the most important holiday in the Christian calendar.

That coincidence of the two holidays gave me inspiration to look for a way to observe both of them in some compatible way.  A way to move from a strictly Hallmark holiday to a holiday in the spirit of II Corinthians 13, often referred to as the Love chapter. The last verse may be the most well known: So faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not forgetting my husband on this day of romance. He will receive a card with just the right sentiment, selected after 45 minutes of sifting through cards with texts ranging from syrupy sweet to barely appropriate humor. He deserves the perfect card. Each year I search for it. He is the reason my life is so rich I can think of ways to be generous to others–to share faith, hope, and love with others.

The specific inspiration for the twist came from alerts of new Internet stories about the countries I have lived in. Reviewing them keeps me in touch with a variety of aspects of life–political, cultural, religious–in those countries. The posts I received most recently about Madagascar gave me an idea for the twist.

Before I describe it, I’d like to introduce readers to Madagascar. Briefly.

Madagascar is the world’s fourth-largest island. The curves of the west coast of Madagascar match the curves of the east coast of the African continent, just to the west. Without the benefit of more detailed knowledge of how the supercontinent of Pangea rifted, it’s reasonable to assume the island broke away from Africa, but it’s more complicated. In fact, the land that corresponds to the island of Madagascar broke away along with a larger landmass that eventually moved northward and collided with what became the continent of Asia. That collision formed the Himalayan Mountains at the northern edge of the Indian subcontinent. During that land migration, the island of Madagascar broke away from the northward-moving landmass and drifted back toward Africa. Wikipedia includes an animation of the breaking apart of Pangea which shows these rifts and movements.

lemur sunning himselfThe extended period of time that Madagascar drifted first away from Africa and then back again resulted in the incredible variety of unique plants and animals of Madagascar. My favorites are the lemurs, ranging in size from as small as a mouse to as big as a baboon. Dream Works’ Madagascar film franchise helped popularize the lemur I believe is most widely recognized: the ring-tailed lemur. Distressingly, Scientific American reported in January that the ring-tailed lemur population has plummeted 95% since the year 2000.

Lemurs are not all that Madagascar is losing. The agricultural practice of slash-and-burn has contributed to the loss of 90% of Madagascar’s forests. But the practice has more than agricultural significance. Because the ash left behind after the burning enriches the soil, the practice has cultural value as it is associated with wealth and prestige, a powerful combination of motives difficult to overcome.

red silt in the rivers of MadagascarA secondary loss from the slashing and burning is the erosion of the soil which settles as red silt in the rivers and flows into the ocean, making it look as though the island is bleeding.

Economically, Madagascar in 2016 was identified as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The average annual income in Madagascar is only $1,000. Madagascar’s agricultural industry, including fishing and farming, employs 82% of Madagascar’s labor force. Other industries–including textiles, mining, and tourism–are growing, but a combination of factors including food insecurity, fluctuations in investment from outside, and political instability have made for a rocky road. In its 2002 election two candidates, the then long-serving president, Didier Ratsiraka and a challenger, Marc Ravalomanana, claimed victory, which led to a political crisis, resolved eventually in favor of the challenger. But seven years later, the military took over. Elections were reestablished in 2013. Since then, Hery Martial Rajaonarimampianina has served as president.

The idea for my Valentine’s Day twist came from the several alerts about people in Madagascar who had received micro-loans from Kiva.org, an international nonprofit, founded in 2005 and based in San Francisco, with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. It is possible to loan as little as $25 to a project through Kiva.

Here’s my proposal: In addition to following whatever romance traditions you have established with those special people in your life, consider sharing your faith, hope, and love through a small loan with Kiva to someone in another part of the world–or even to someone within the United States–to be part of another person or family realizing their dreams.

I have added my contribution to the loan requests of Clarisse and Ernest of Madagascar.

Photo credits:

An Early Christmas Present

Filmon Berhane 2
In 2004

This week I received an early Christmas present, the kind that no amount of money can buy.

I found a comment on one of my earlier posts, E is for Eritrea, from one of the boys on Team USA while I was in Eritrea in 2004. And that means I also have a way to be in contact with him.

Filmon
In 2017

Yesterday we talked on Whatsapp. He explained that the team continued to play soccer for three more years after I left, taking part in a competition and coming in third among eight teams twice. Once they reached high school, they turned their efforts to getting good grades, as all parents seem to wish for their children.

He filled me in on where some of the Team USA members are now. Several have left Eritrea. At least one has moved to Europe. And he sent me photos of many of the boys now that they have grown into handsome young men. I’ve been smiling all week.

May your holidays be blessed with many reasons to smile. Merry Christmas to all.

Book Review: Leaving Before the Rains Come

Five Starsleavingbeforetherainscome“‘The problem with most people,’ Dad said once, not necessarily implying that I counted as most people, but not discounting the possibility either, ‘is that they want to be alive for as long as possible without having any idea whatsoever how to live.'”

Alexandra Fuller learned from her parents how to live. She has lived enough to write four memoirs and that’s only up to this point. Leaving Before the Rains Come is her fourth. In it she focuses on her marriage and its dissolution, a story that cannot be told completely without reference to her unconventional upbringing and her complicated family. She dissects her family history, uncovering the strengths and weaknesses of all her forebears, especially the women, and wonders how much of what made each of them tick, for better or worse, has been genetically encoded into her history.

“…although we had all lived inarguably interesting lives, few of us could afford exotic travel, and, surrounded by enough unbidden chaos on a daily basis, we didn’t go in search of it in our free time. No one had written much about us or made movies about our adventures, in part because there was no beginning or end to our undertakings, no way of knowing the arc of our narratives. We were less the authors of deliberate derring-do than victims of cosmic accidents, political mishaps, mistaken identities.”

Alexandra Fuller tells complicated stories using the most compelling language, several examples of which I have chosen to include within this review so her words can make the case directly. My words will never succeed better than hers.

Having been raised in Africa, Fuller met her American husband, Charley, in Zambia, where he worked at the time guiding adventure tours. Charley held out the prospect of being adventuresome enough not to be frightened off by her parents as well as offering a solid future 22-year-old Fuller thought she wanted. But instead of staying in Africa as Fuller’s parents did, willing to tough it out no matter what obstacles appeared on the horizon, Charley took Alexandra and their infant daughter to America, where the two tried, but never found balance.

“It wasn’t so much that we weren’t right for one another, but rather the ways in which we were wrong were so intractable and damaging that nothing–however profoundly accidental or deeply deliberate–could fix us. His flaws and my flaws didn’t weave together or tear us apart; they enmeshed us.”

They remained together nearly 20 years, raising three children, one African-born and two born in America. But for all her independence of spirit, Fuller didn’t truly know how to live on her own, and she failed to pay attention to the warnings Charley tried to impress upon her about the fragility of their financial situation. By the time she understood, there seemed to be no way back and no way forward, at least not together.

“It’s not anyone’s job to make another person happy, but the truth is, people can either be very happy or very unhappy together. Happiness or unhappiness isn’t a measure of their love. You can have an intense connection to someone without being a good lifelong mate for him. Love is complicated and difficult that way.”

  • Print Length: 274 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (January 22, 2015)
  • Publication Date: January 22, 2015
  • Genre: Nonfiction, Divorce; Biographies and Memoirs, Women

Book Review: Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

cocktailhourunderthetreeofforgetfulnessCocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness Five Starsis Alexandra Fuller’s second book covering her family’s experience in east Africa. The first, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, which her mother describes as an Awful Book, tells the story from her perspective. In Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, she expands the story to include her grandparents so that the story is told more from her parents’ point of view, even more so from her mother’s point of view.

It covers her mother’s Scottish ancestry; her grandparents’ move from Scotland to Kenya and back to Scotland; her father’s adventures in Canada, Montserrat, and Barbados before he landed in Kenya where within two weeks he met Nicola Huntingford and decided to stay. It covers the Mau Mau rebellion; Ian Smith’s Universal Declaration of Independence of Rhodesia from Britain and the world-wide economic embargo that followed; the Bush War which the nationalists refer to as the Second Chimurenga, the Shona word for rebellion, and which fostered the creation of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the Mozambique Liberation Army (FRELIMO), and the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO); and the eventual independence and majority rule of Zimbabwe.  It is a quick history lesson on a painful and shameful period in Africa. But it is much more.

The real story in the book is the love story: the love between Tim and Nicola Fuller; the love of Tim and Nicola Fuller for their children; the love of Alexandra for both her parents; the love of all of them, but especially Nicola Fuller, for Africa, though not always the Africa that exists; and most of all it is a story of the love of life illustrated through an independent spirit that kept her parents moving forward, looking for the next challenge in spite of losing children, jobs, farms, and wars.  Alexandra Fuller tells this love story so compellingly, so engagingly, so compassionately for not only her family but also for the native Africans around them. Her introduction to her family made me feel as though she was welcoming me into it. And I felt honored to get to know them all.

  • Print Length: 258 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (August 23, 2011)
  • Publication Date: August 23, 2011
  • Genre: History, Biographies and Memoirs

Book Review: The Man-eaters of Tsavo

theman-eatersoftsavoThe Man-eaters of Tsavo by Lt. ColonelFour stars J.H. Patterson, first published in 1907, steps the reader back in history to the 19th-to-20th turn of the century to an area at a time when place names reflected the non-Africans who arrived and set out to tame the continent. The initial chapters of the book tell of Patterson’s challenge to rid the area of two man-eating lions which were disrupting the construction of the railroad through Uganda. Many readers may already be familiar with the fictionalized film version of this story, The Ghost and the Darkness, which includes scenes directly from the pages of Patterson’s retelling. But Patterson’s book includes much more than the tale of dispatching the two troublesome lions.

Having recently read two modern memoirs about the same area, Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and Scribbling the Cat, I particularly enjoyed reading this one to construct my own historical backdrop for them. The photographs, though of poor quality, help greatly in conjuring up mental images of the location. Just as in Fuller’s memoirs, some of the language used by the author may be harshly judged by today’s standards. But also as in the case of Fuller’s books, the author presents the stories in a near objective, journalistic tone without braggadocio, though not entirely without deprecating the Africans he meets along the way. He is a colonial, intent on taming the African wilderness for the benefit of Europe, and he takes every opportunity for adventure and to increase his collection of animal trophies along the way. Yet he shows a level of compassion I hadn’t expected when he describes why he chooses not to shoot an animal if there is a risk he will only injure it.

Don’t expect this book to follow the traditional arc of memoir. Patterson is as much a single Englishman taming the African continent at the end of the book as he is at the beginning. He does not confront any demons along the way–only potential trophies, most of which he succeeds in killing. The book is a report of his adventures, plain and simple. If there is a purpose other than telling his own story, it may be to build up excitement in the reader to inspire similar adventures. The appendix provides a complete list of what someone traveling to Africa should bring as well as a chart showing the likely cost for all the servants needed once in Africa.

My purpose for reading the book was to broaden my understanding of east Africa. I recommend the book for anyone who may similarly be interested in either the history or the geography of that area.

  • Print Length: 172 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1500161497
  • Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing; 1 edition (February 22, 2013)
  • Publication Date: February 22, 2013
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Genre: History, Travel

Book Review: Scribbling the Cat

scribblingthecat“The windows of the pickup were rolled down because we, in Five Starscommon with everyone else in this part of the world, were jealous of every drop of fuel we spent. And, under these circumstances, air-conditioning (like the exorcism of war memories and the act of writing about it) was an unpardonable self-indulgence. K had gone quiet and the muscle at the back of his jaw had begun to quiver. Air-conditioning ices memories with its blandness, but with the windows wound down the past came rushing back at K. ‘Do you smell that?’ he asked me more than once, looking at me as if expecting to see the same war-shocked look on my face as he wore on his own. I nodded. But what I was smelling was not what K was smelling. I was smelling now, he was smelling memories.”

In Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier Alexandra Fuller tells the story of her return to Zambia in order to travel with K, a soldier who fought in the many wars of independence in East Africa in a search to make sense of what the war had done to them both. Still a child during the wars of independence that turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe, Northern Rhodesia into Zambia, and freed Mozambique from the Portuguese, Fuller experienced it as a time when both her parents were defenders of colonial way of life. In her first memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, she recalls being left behind with her sister and mother as her father heads off in camouflage and a blackened face so that he won’t be visible. Fuller the child wants to yell out to him in warning as she watches him walk down the drive leading to their farm that she can still see him, that he must watch out. She also sits at her mother’s feet during her mother’s periods of assignment at the map of lights set up to give white farmers a warning system if attacked. If one of the lights came on, a call to arms would go out to defenders to race to the farm under attack.

Years later, Fuller, now married and mother of two children, returns from her Wyoming home to visit her parents in Zambia. She meets K, a soldier who is still battling demons unleashed during his time as a soldier in the RLI, Rhodesian Light Infantry.

“Because it is the land that grew me, and because they are my people, I sometimes forget to be astonished by Africans.”

Fuller begins her narrative with the lines above. K astonished her because he was still in Africa after years of fighting against the native Africans who were fighting to take possession of the land. K has lost his farm, his son, and his wife. But K has found God. He has turned his life over to God, asking God for guidance every day. K asks God if He has sent Fuller to be with him.

Fuller admits she and K were on the wrong side in the fight. And yet her parents remained. K remained. And she returns again and again, feeling African more than any other nationality in spite of her American husband and Wyoming home. She invites K to return with her to Mozambique, where K spent most of his time fighting to retain possession of African land, in the hopes that she can help him find reconciliation and she can find understanding.

“You can’t rewind war. It spools on, and on, and on. Looping and jumping, distorted and cracked with age, and the stories contract until only the nuggets of hatred remain and no one can even remember, or imagine, why the war was organized in the first place.”

In the end there is no reconciliation, no understanding. There is only the story of “what happens when you stand on tiptoe and look too hard into your own past and into the things that make us war-wounded the fragile, haunted, powerful men-women that we are.”

This is a naked story of warts and wounds and victims of war. Fuller opens up the door to let the reader see her Africa, an Africa she loves in spite of its terrors and dangers. She uses the language those she meets would use, unflattering in its references to black Africans, but without apology. She simply reports.

To any who choose to pick up her story, and I recommend doing so but not until after reading Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, be sure to turn to the back of the book to review the Glossary before diving into this story.

Book Review: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

dontletsgotothedogstonightAlexandra Fuller’s first memoir covers her chilFive Starsdhood in Africa, including stints at boarding schools far from her parents, ending with her marriage to an American who brought her out of Africa and into another land.

Her parents were grounded in Africa, her mother by birth and her father by experience. Yet after the death of their second child, a boy, they chose England, perhaps to escape the threat of the Coming-Back Baby because they hadn’t buried their son far enough away from their Rhodesian home or perhaps to avoid the rising threat of violence in the increasingly independence-minded region. In the few years the family lived in England, Alexandra was born.

But success in England eluded them. In view of insurmountable debts, Fuller’s father returned to Rhodesia, and her mother brought the two girls, Vanessa the first born and Alexandra, back by ship to Cape Town and then by train to Rhodesia.

Fuller tells the naked story of her family’s successes and failures in England, several spots in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) including on the border with Mozambique, Malawi, and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), without judgment, as an objective participant, if that isn’t an oxymoron. There is no apology in the book. There is just the story, told with candor and compassion, with humor and hope. Fuller uses the language of her mother, not hiding her mother’s colonialist views of the Africans. But she also tells of the loss of two more children which bring her mother at least to the brink of a nervous breakdown. Since her parents’ life choices differ so widely from what most people would consider average, it is difficult to be certain how far from the Fuller-normal either parent ever drifted. In the end, her mother survived.

Fuller describes the Africa of her childhood down through the layers of dirt and muck under her feet with love. Learning how to recognize possible improvised explosive devices and how to handle a gun are normal elementary school requirements. When the girls go to sleep, they worry about terrorists hiding under their beds. Yet there is no judgment as she writes. This is Africa, she writes. And it is home.  We should all have such warm feelings of home.

Z is for Zambia

White Rhino by SarahDepper, on Flickr

I never wanted to go to Africa. I was sure of it. That is, until I went to Yemen, another place I never wanted to go.

But a good reason to go to Yemen came along. And I am so very pleased. I enjoyed Yemen so much more than I had expected (Y is for Yemen) that I realized I needed to give more consideration to other places I thought I didn’t want to go. Africa came immediately to mind.

I planned to retire from the Foreign Service once I had completed 20 years. Everything about the system was geared to encourage Foreign Service employees to leave after 20 years, except for the few who managed to be promoted into the Senior Foreign Service. I didn’t expect to reach that level, so I planned my life assuming I would retire in 2005.

In 2003, I actively sought as my final assignment an opportunity to see as much of Africa as possible in what I assumed would be my final two years: roving management officer. For my last two years, I would serve temporarily in whatever management positions the Bureau of African Affairs felt were most important to fill when the gap between leaving and arriving employees was long or when vacancies occurred unexpectedly, due to illness or other emergencies.

Plans have a way of being interrupted, especially when living overseas. Instead of spending two years in Africa as a roving management officer, I was only there for nine months. And that meant I only experienced three countries: Madagascar (A is for Antananarivo), Eritrea (E is for Eritrea; K is for Keren), and Zambia.

My stay in Zambia was the shortest: three weeks. Far too short. So I’m “extending” it through reading.

Zambia is the setting for a number of memoirs. Here’s one I just finished. Watch for my review of it soon. (A preview–I gave it five stars.)

(From Goodreads.com) “In Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller remembers her African childhood with candor and sensitivity. Though it is a diary of an unruly life in an often inhospitable place, it is suffused with Fuller’s endearing ability to find laughter, even when there is little to celebrate. Fuller’s debut is unsentimental and unflinching but always captivating. In wry and sometimes hilarious prose, she stares down disaster and looks back with rage and love at the life of an extraordinary family in an extraordinary time.”

The following are now on my “Want to Read” list:

(from Goodreads.com) “When former journalist Adeline Loh could no longer endure the brain-deadening routine of work, she did what any sensible person would do: flee Malaysia with a paranoid vegetarian named Chan and go ambling in the lion-infested wilderness of southern Africa. However, upon arriving in Zambia, the bush virgins realised nothing from the Animal Planet documentaries had prepared them for survival in the savannah. With baboons, hippopotamuses and buffaloes conspiring to tear them into pieces, our addled heroines rattled along crater-pocked tracks, canoed through the crocodile-infested Zambezi River, flew over Victoria Falls on a little tricycle with wings, stalked incestuous rhinoceroses and peed amidst thorny shrubbery. And in more life-preserving moments, they pondered antimalarial druggies, sleazy hunters and muscle-bound native women while hoping to achieve their main goal—not to get eaten alive!

“In Peeing in the Bush, Loh recounts in candid prose her fun and engaging misadventures in Zambia with a rich mix of anecdotes, commentary and deft description.”

This one is in my hands, written by the same author as the one just finished so I am looking forward to starting it.

(from Goodreads.com) “When Alexandra Bo Fuller was in Zambia a few years ago visiting her parents, she asked her father about a nearby banana farmer who was known as being a tough bugger. Her father’s response was a warning to steer clear of him: Curiosity scribbled the cat, he told her. Nonetheless, Fuller began her strange friendship with the man she calls K, a white African and veteran of the Rhodesian War. A man of contradictions, K is battle-scarred and work-weathered, a born-again Christian and given to weeping for the failure of his romantic life and the burden of his memories. Driven by K’s memories of the war, they decide to enter the heart of darkness in the most literal way, by traveling from Zambia through Zimbabwe and Mozambique to visit the scenes of the war and to meet other veterans. The result is a remarkably unbiased and unsentimental glimpse of life in Africa.”

(from Goodreads.com) “It is 1972 and James and Katrina Martin set off for a well earned month of vacation from Zambia to South Africa and England. They return to find that James is to be offered an opportunity to start a new mine away from the Zambian Copperbelt, an opportunity that he takes. They travel to the Mtuga operation which is located just off the Great North Road in the Mkushi district of Zambia. The mine is sited on old workings from the 1920’s and is being re-opened as a surface mine. The Mkushi District is better known for its tobacco and maize farms and in the late 1970’s for the camps of the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), an organization that they will encounter a few times.

“Life is complicated when the Rhodesians close the border with Zambia and Zambia retaliates, potentially stranding all their new mining machinery outside the country. They must formulate a plan to get everything to the mine and the operation started on time and to budget. Things are further complicated by corporate politics and rivalries that create problems along the way.

“Although now married for almost three years, James and Katrina continue to discover each other and their romance and desire for one another is as strong as ever. They take every opportunity they can to be away and alone together in the more remote parts of Zambia.”

(from Goodreads.com) “1898, Tsavo River Kenya, the British Empire employs native workers to build a railroad. Construction comes to a violent halt when two maneless lions devour 140 workers in an extended feeding frenzy that would make headlines and history all over the world. Caputo’s Ghosts of Tsavo is a new quest for truth about the origins of these near-mythical animals and how they became predators of human flesh.”

You may recognize the lions as the titular characters in the 1995 movie, The Ghost and the Darkness. For the original book on which the fictionalized movie was based, see The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.

And there is also fiction.

(from Goodreads.com) “In A Cowrie of Hope Binwell Sinyangwe captures the rhythms of a people whose poverty has not diminished their dignity, where hope can only be accompanied by small acts of courage, and where friendship has not lost its value.”

K is for Keren

Lisa, a teacher from Texas at the Asmara International Community School, introduced me to Keren, Eritrea. Or perhaps it was Keren that introduced me to Lisa. It happened in the Keren Public Library.

Once a month, Lisa and her daughter went to the Keren Public Library where the US embassy had set up an American Corner. These spaces in public places exist in towns too small for an American consulate, where information about the United States is made available for the local population. Often a computer terminal connected to the Internet is the centerpiece. No American staff members work at American Corners. Instead, a local staff member from the place, often a library or a university, agrees to assist those visiting the American Corner find information. In many American Corners, discussion or cultural programs are hosted.

Maryam Deira Chapel
St. Maryam Deari Chapel

Keren is the second largest city in Eritrea, situated within 60 miles from Asmara. It was the site of many battles during World War II and the Eritrean War of Independence. One attraction in Keren, St. Maryam Deari chapel, located inside a beobab tree, marks the site where Italian soldiers hid during a battle with the British in 1941. The tree was hit, and the hole in the tree can still be seen, but the soldiers survived.

Sandra at the camel market
Sandra at the Keren camel market

Another attraction, at least for me, is the camel market, held each Monday.

But my fondest memories of Keren are of Lisa and her kids at the Keren Public Library. One Saturday each month, an embassy driver picked up Lisa and her daughter for the trip to Keren. Lisa invited me to come along. We got started late that Saturday so I asked Lisa what would happen if we didn’t arrive on time. I worried that the children might leave if we weren’t there on time. She assured me that nothing would happen until we arrived. She, it turned out, was the program in Keren. The children all waited for her. And when it was time for her to leave, they stayed at her side, holding her hands, her arms, her shirt, attempts to keep her there longer.

Armed with a cassette tape player, cassettes of songs used in American early childhood education programs, children’s books, and posters containing enlarged drawings from some of the books, Lisa performed with a group of 20 kids ranging in age from four to 14. She called it a class. I felt it was much more.

She got them all up on their feet to sing and dance along with the songs. Even the older ones enthusiastically joined in as they sang “I’m a little teapot, short and stout . . .” They all placed on hand on a hip with “Here’s my handle . . .” and raised the other hand with “And here’s my spout.” After they sang the song, Lisa asked questions about teapots, tea, and anything else the children’s answers raised.

My favorite part of the program involved Lisa handing out posters of the drawings from the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do  You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle. The children with the posters lined up in the order the animals appear in the book, and they held up their posters for the rest of the children to see when Lisa mentioned their animal as she read the book.

After Lisa finished reading the book to them, the children with the posters recited the book pages themselves. All of the children recited the first part of each page, “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?” The child holding the drawing of the brown bear then answered, “I see a [black bird] looking at me.” And so it went, not necessarily in the order of the pages in the book. The variation ensured that every child in the room listened carefully to know which animal they next would ask the question. A second set of children then took their places and repeated the exercise.

As I watched the performance, I conjured up a continuation of the lesson for Lisa, one where the students might have to give up the rhyme of “see” and “me” by replacing “you” with “he,” “she,” or “we” in the question and then replacing “me” with “him,” “her,” or “us,” as appropriate.

On the Saturdays Lisa wasn’t in Keren, she conducted two of the same classes in Asmara at the American Cultural Center. She repeated the class each Saturday so that all of the more than 100 children who wanted to take part could attend one.

Lisa’s program wasn’t something the US embassy asked her to create. It was an idea based on her passion for sharing language and learning with more than just the two dozen children in her elementary school classroom at the Asmara International Community School. She started out hoping to establish a children’s story hour like in libraries in Texas she had brought her daughter to before her daughter reached school age. She asked for permission to invite the children of US embassy employees. On that first day, a dozen children arrived. The next week, she was surrounded by children who lived in the neighborhood who asked if they, too, could join the class.

Reading to children and encouraging them to learn to speak English was not Lisa’s only passion in Asmara. She noticed many children in her own neighborhood did not have shoes. Lisa approached the owner of a shoe store in Asmara and arranged to pay him for shoes in exchange for a coupon she printed and gave to children whenever she saw one without shoes. Each month she received a bill for the number of pairs of shoes she had given coupons for.

Lisa’s willingness to immerse herself into the lives of the people, especially of the children, of Eritrea inspired me to take the time to talk with a few boys I met on the street in downtown Asmara a few weeks later, a conversation that led to my sponsorship of a neighborhood soccer team, documented in E is for Eritrea.

Thank you, Lisa.

E is for Eritrea

Team USA in Asmara Eritrea
Habtom (at left), Dawit (third from the right) and the other boys of Eritrea

Eritrea had been independent for less time than I had worked for the US Department of State when I arrived there in February 2004. I knew very little about it, only that it gained independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s.

My stay in Eritrea was short–just four months. But by the time I left, a piece of my heart was firmly embedded in the country.

It all started one Sunday afternoon when I went with my friend from the embassy, Jewel, to a barbecue at the Israeli ambassador’s house. When we arrived, Jewel noticed that one of the tires on her car was flat. Always practical, Jewel decided there was no need for us to delay our arrival at the barbecue to replace the tire; we could find someone to help us change it when it was time to go home.

She was right. And it was her timing that made all the difference to the rest of my stay in Eritirea.

While Jewel pointed out to the volunteers where her spare tire and jack were, I stood back on the sidewalk, just watching. That’s where I was when a group of young boys approached. There were eight of them. They were carrying a t-shirt, each of four boys holding onto a corner of it as if it were ready to catch something. One of the boys approached and asked me for help. Since none of the boys appeared to be injured, I asked what kind of help they needed. He pointed to the shirt and said they needed money to buy uniforms.

At this point, I thought about my options. A) I could just shoo them away, telling them I couldn’t help, B) I could give them some money towards their uniforms, or C) I could spend the time I was going to have to wait for the tire to be changed talking with them.

I choose C.

The smallest of the boys, Dawit, was the only one who seemed comfortable speaking English. He translated as we talked.

First, I asked what kind of uniforms they needed. They explained that they wanted uniforms for their soccer team. I asked the boys their names. I only caught a couple of them. Isaias, Daniel, Habtom.

I asked how much money they needed for uniforms. They said each uniform cost 100 nakfa (Eritrean currency, the equivalent to $7.00). I asked how I could be sure they would use money I gave them for uniforms. After they couldn’t answer that question, I asked if I was going to have to trust them. Dawit nodded vigorously at that. Yes, I would just have to trust them.

When I noticed that the tire was nearly changed, I gave the boys 300 nakfa so they could buy three uniforms. And they went off down the street. But a minute later, Dawit and Habtom came back. Where did I live, Dawit asked. I told him I lived in the United States. But he wanted to know where I lived in Eritrea. I didn’t know my address. Someone from the embassy picked me up each morning and someone else dropped me off at home after work. When I explained that I didn’t know my address, they reluctantly went away.

But a minute later, Dawit and Habtom were back. This time, Habtom handed me a pen and asked me to write my telephone number on his hand. That I could do. And they rushed away again.

I never expected to hear from or see them again. But the following Saturday, Habtom called. Since he didn’t speak English, I was about to hang up when I heard him say,  “Habtom 300 nakfa.”

The next voice I heard was an Eritrean who spoke English and who told me the boys wanted to meet me the next day to show me their uniforms.

Every Sunday for the rest of my stay in Eritrea, I met with the boys of the soccer team, as many as 16 of them at one point. I watched them practice, took photos and videos as they played, and after practice they walked with me to my house where I gave them refreshments and we watched videos together–Finding Nemo and Bend It Like Beckham were their favorites.

That first day, only four boys had uniforms. So I bought the rest of the boys uniforms, too. And boots, and soccer balls, and better boots when the first set fell apart after a couple of games, and a second set of uniforms. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my money or my time in Eritrea. I still can’t.