Friday, July 21, 2017



Near the beginning of In the Shadow of the Banyan, the narrator, Raami, thinks back to a particularly heartbreaking moment from her childhood. She is seven years old, a member of the royal family, and the Khmer Rouge has just won the civil war in Cambodia. Revolutionary soldiers are everywhere, and they view those who are educated, the intellectuals, as their enemies. Raami and her family have fled Phnom Penh and taken refuge in their country home, where everyone is trying to figure out what their next move should be. Everyone, except for Raami:

“But at the moment I saw nothing, heard nothing, nothing that revealed to the world what I alone knew – I’d be shot because I too was an intellectual, an avid reader, a lover of books.”

She isn’t shot, but her life of privilege vanishes as she and her family are rounded up with everyone else and forced to begin a new life of hard labor under miserable conditions in far-flung parts of the country. Raami’s beloved father tries to help her understand what is happening: “Everything is connected, and sometimes we, like little fishes, are swept up in these big and powerful currents.” Her father is not only a prince, but a poet as well, and thus an obvious target for the wrath of the Khmer Rouge. Raami, a mere child, can only watch as her grandmother’s prophecy threatens to become a reality: “There will remain only so many of us as rest in the shadow of a banyan tree…”.

The stories Raami’s father told her and the ideals he espoused help sustain her during this terrible time. She comes close to losing all hope, but in the words of her father, “…if there’s a sliver of opening, a crack in the wall somewhere, you must take it, walk through to the other side.” And in the end, Raami understands “that while all else may vanish, love is our one eternity.”

The book’s author, Vaddey Ratner, weaves a moving tale of the horror Cambodians faced on a daily basis during the short rule of the Khmer Rouge. It wasn’t until I finished reading the book and saw the author’s note at the end, however, that I realized In the Shadow of the Banyan, although a work of fiction, tells the author’s own story. She, like Raami, was the daughter of a royal prince, and her family suffered the same hard fate as other Cambodians when the Khmer Rouge took power. Ratner wrote this book to honor her father’s spirit, “to give voice to his memory, and the memories of all those silenced.”


Raami’s family eats well in the beginning of In the Shadow of the Banyan, dining on things like lotus seed porridge and mango crepes. As the book progresses, however, Raami’s diet consists mostly of watery rice, soggy wild morning glory greens, and insects (so not vegan!).

I decided to look elsewhere for food inspiration, and found a recipe for fragrant eggplant on the Asian Recipe website. Served over rice, it made for a lovely, though somewhat piquant, dish.


In one of the villages where Raami is sent by the Khmer Rouge, the children are required to attend school for a few hours each day. All they learn, though, are pro-revolution songs.

“We didn’t learn to read or write a single word, and even though I already knew how, I never let on. It was clear we must keep quiet, keep what we knew hidden.”

When I went to the GlobalGiving website to find a project in Cambodia, then, I knew I wanted my donation to go to an organization committed to educating children. I chose Helping Hands, a project by an organization called Globalteer, which seeks to provide a free education to 300 children in the province of Siem Reap. According to the project description, “We often take education for granted but in Cambodia, where an entire generation of educated people were killed by the Khmer Rouge, basic education is still a luxury.”

The Helping Hands project includes kindergarten for younger children, “free supplementary education for older children so they can complete their state school studies and university scholarships so that high school graduates can go to university.” In addition, training is provided in health and hygiene, nutrition, and agriculture.

More information about the Helping Hands project is available at


Friday, July 14, 2017



Some countries have produced a wealth of literature that has been translated into English. Other countries, not so much. Burundi is in the latter category. Fortunately, Burundian journalist Roland Rugero wrote Baho!, which recently became the first novel from Burundi to be translated into English.

Baho! is the story of Nyamuragi, a young man living in a village in rural Burundi. Nyamuragi has been mute since birth. In his mind, the reason he was mute initially was simply because he did not want to speak. After his mother took him to a local healer, however, whatever procedure the healer undertook to cure him made it physically impossible for him to speak from that moment forward.

Nyamuragi’s muteness has caused him a certain amount of trouble over the years, but nothing like the trouble in which he finds himself when he is out walking and has an urgent need to go to the bathroom. He runs toward a young girl, Kigeme, who is drawing water for her family, to ask where he can find a latrine. Without words, his question must be asked by gesturing, which Kigeme misinterprets as a prelude to rape. She screams for help, bringing the villagers out of their homes, and they all begin to chase Nyamuragi in order to bring him to justice.

Descriptions of the injustice and inhumanity Nyamuragi suffers at the hands of the townspeople are juxtaposed against references to the changes in the village brought about by Burundi’s civil war, which began in 1993 and lasted until 2005. “The green fruits that life intended to bring to maturity were carried off. Men were torn apart, ripped to pieces by machetes, pierced by bullets, eaten away by poisonous death, and violated by the unspeakable.” The repercussions of that war are still felt deeply by the characters in this book, changing forever their relationships with one another and their view of humanity’s place in the world. “Too many deaths have taken away the people’s beautiful, united soul.”

I searched the Internet to find out what “Baho,” the title of the book means. I found an article in which this question was posed to the author, and he explained that the title means “to live”:

Baho! is an exclamation to a country consumed by death and violence: Live!”


There are many references in this book to the fruits and vegetables grown in Burundi: beans, sweet potatoes, corn, apples, cassava, peas, squash, and rice, for example. In other words, there are many ingredients to work with in order to create a delicious vegan meal. I found a Burundian recipe for beans with coconut and cilantro on the Fandom Recipes Wiki. Although it was suggested that this dish be served with green vegetables, I chose to serve it over rice instead, after reading this passage in Baho!:

“Above all, Nyamuragi adores rice—white, copious, beloved. To eat is to savor the present! It is to quench hunger, to fully possess the present, to carry life on in peace…”.

I was a little concerned when I was adding the large quantities of spices listed in the recipe that they might overwhelm the other ingredients in the dish. They didn't, and this turned out to be a delicious meal. I loved the taste and texture of the coconut in combination with everything else. Also, this dish involved minimal chopping, always a plus for me. I will definitely make this again!


GlobalGiving’s website lists eight different projects in Burundi, all of which sounded very compelling. The one I chose was a joint project of BeyGood4Burundi and UNICEF to help take clean, safe water to half a million people, mostly women and children. According to the project description, “Burundi is the second most densely populated country in Africa, the fourth poorest country in the world, and is facing a major water crisis.”

When she is approached by Nyamuragi in Baho!, Kigeme is collecting water for her family, a task that is performed almost exclusively by women and girls in Africa. According to UNICEF, “Globally, girls and women spend about 200 million hours every day gathering water.” In many cases, they have to walk long distances along unsafe routes, and with so much time spent collecting water, they are forced to miss school.

This project “will support building water supply systems for healthcare facilities and schools, and support the drilling of boreholes, wells and springs in order to bring safe water to districts in grave need.” Bringing water to the people “enables girls to stay in school developing critical skills and women to spend more time focusing on other vital priorities in their lives.”

More information about the BeyGood4Burundi safe water project is available at

NEXT STOP: CAMBODIA Burundi is the second most densely populated country in Africa, the fourth poorest country in the world, and is facing a major water crisis.

Friday, July 7, 2017



Even before the start of The Parachute Drop, we learn the sad fate of the author, Norbert Zongo, former publisher and editor of the Burkina Faso newspaper L'Indépendant. In the author’s preface, the reader is told that Zongo was beaten and imprisoned for his political writings. In the translator’s preface, we find out that Zongo was later killed in a car bombing, ostensibly by allies of Burkina Faso’s president at the time, Blaise Campaoré.

 The Parachute Drop is a novel about a fictional African country, Watinbow, described as a place "...where spirit is measured strictly for its cash value." Watinbow is led by the corrupt President Gouama, who has risen to power with the help of a European country whose leaders want someone in charge whom they can control. Gouama’s main interests as president are to amass great personal wealth, ensure that people (especially women and girls) are always at hand to do his bidding, and destroy anyone whom he perceives as a threat to his power.

Early in the novel, Gouama is told of a plot by two high-ranking military officers to stage a coup and wrest control of the government from him. He and his advisors devise a plan to do away with the ringleaders of the coup by having them participate in a ceremonial parachute drop during the president’s visit to the northern part of the country. The parachutes are rigged so they won’t open, and the two ringleaders plunge to their deaths.

The coup proceeds nevertheless, but the president evades capture.  The rest of the book tracks his actions as he tries to figure out how to regain power.

Gouama’s corruption and other moral failings are highlighted throughout the book, in contrast to the political idealism voiced by some of the students he meets along the way. Rather than using his power for personal enrichment and for satisfying his depraved desires, he is told that “…if you presume to guide the destiny of others, you must be willing to sacrifice your own destiny, your own personal desires.” According to the students, “There is no real happiness for anyone unless there is happiness for everyone, for all of the people.”

While the country and characters depicted in The Parachute Drop may have been fictional, the corruption and political failings described in the book are all too real in countries the world over. It is both a cautionary tale and a sad commentary on those who allow power to ignite their baser instincts.


Many of the foods mentioned in The Parachute Drop sounded so bland I couldn't imagine making them for this blog. Millet porridge, plain couscous, corn mush -- where's the fun in any of that? So I started searching the Internet for other recipes from Burkina Faso and found several references to peanut soup, which sounded really good. The recipe I chose was from a blog called "A Planetary Potluck," and no changes were required to make the dish vegan.

It was a little spicy for a hot summer day, but if you don't like a lot of spice, you can always put in less cayenne. I loved this soup, and I look forward to making it again during the fall and winter.


The GlobalGiving website lists several projects in the western African country of Burkina Faso. As someone who is passionate about books and reading, however, I was especially drawn to the Friends of African Village Libraries and their project to develop a mobile library, a tricycle motorbike with a wagon on the back that would take books to about a thousand people in twelve rural villages. Books in Burkina Faso are expensive and libraries are rare, so the hope is that by taking books to the people, the Friends of the African Village Libraries will be “empowering them and helping them develop and reinforce the habits of reading and critical thinking.”


empowering them and helping them develop and reinforce the habits of reading and critical thinking.

Saturday, July 1, 2017



A rebellious teenaged prodigy studying piano at an authoritarian school for the musically-gifted in communist Bulgaria – what could possibly go wrong? Plenty, as it turns out, and fifteen-year-old Konstantin learns some hard life lessons in Nikolai Grozni’s semiautobiographical novel Wunderkind.

Konstantin’s passion for playing the works of Frédéric Chopin is matched only by his enthusiasm for having sex with the girls in his school, especially the brilliant violinist Irina. He and Irina challenge each other to increasingly precarious dares, like when Irina bets that her performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Vocalise” will make Konstantin cry. If she fails, she will have to walk naked through the entire school, but if she is successful, he will have to take off his pants and enter his classroom through the window, which entails walking along a narrow ledge on the outside of the building, five stories up.

It seems that Konstantin is always running afoul of someone or another in the autocratic administration or on the faculty of the Sofia Music School for the Gifted. He also has a bad relationship with his parents, of whom he says, “They seemed unable to understand that I couldn’t be both a genius and an average kid who went to school and brought home straight A’s; that my tendency to sabotage my own achievements was perhaps a direct consequence of being born with a gift.” The only adults who appear to be always on his side are his piano teacher, whom the students refer to as “Ladybug,” and his mysterious Uncle Iliya, who appears from time to time to tell Konstantin about the decades he spent in concentration camps.

Konstantin’s closest friends at the school tend to be rebels and troublemakers, just as he is, and one by one, they are expelled from the school. When that happens, these young people, who were always considered to be special, find that their musical talents have no value for them without the school’s backing, and they are just average Bulgarians with no high school diploma and limited options for their future .

One thing I loved about this book is that each chapter is titled with the name of a musical composition, usually, but not always, by Chopin. Someday, I want to reread this book while listening to the masterpieces that illuminate each chapter.

Food didn’t play a big role in this book, although I thought briefly about making borscht, a beet soup that Konstantin’s piano teacher’s sister was preparing for dinner one night during Konstantin's piano lesson. Standing over the stove making soup during this hot Sacramento summer just didn’t sound appealing, however, so I decided to make a cold dish instead.

Tarator is a cold cucumber soup, which is popular in Bulgaria during the summer. I used a recipe from a website called Gourmed featuring recipes from the Mediterranean region. The only substitution I had to make to veganize the recipe was to use vegan yogurt. The soup turned out really well and was very refreshing.


The GlobalGiving website lists numerous projects needing donations in Bulgaria. The one I chose is a project of the Trotoara Foundation, which seeks to open a youth center in Sofia to provide at-risk youth with a creative space where they can participate in activities that involve music, arts, and crafts.

The project coordinators hope that by “[f]Focusing on creativity and personal empowerment, our pedagogical approach can help raise a new generation with the ambition to set challenging goals in life. By helping children obtain new abilities and knowledge, complementary to what is taught at school, we can foster self-esteem and a belief in one's own abilities.[f][ocusing on creativity and personal empowerment, our pedagogical approach can help raise a new generation with the ambition to set challenging goals in life. By helping children obtain new abilities and knowledge, complementary to what is taught at school, we can foster self-esteem and a belief in one's own abilities.”

More information about this project is available at


Wednesday, June 7, 2017



One of the biggest challenges in attempting to read a book from every country is finding books that have been translated into English. When I made my preliminary list of books for this blog, I was able to find only a couple of novels available in English written by authors from Brunei, and neither book actually seemed to relate to that country. Finally, I learned about Written in Black, by K. H. Lim, which is set in Brunei and centers around a Bruneian-Chinese family.

The book’s protagonist is ten-year-old Jonathan, who is reading Huckleberry Finn when he receives a phone call from his uncle telling him that his grandfather has died. That begins a series of life-changing events for young Jonathan, as his family’s problems cause him to do things he would never have attempted otherwise. We learn that his mother left the family six months ago, ostensibly for health reasons, and Jonathan is desperate to talk to her. Somehow, she always manages to call when he’s not home. His older brother also left home, seemingly the action of a rebellious teenager. Jonathan’s father, then, is left to raise Jonathan, his older sister, and younger brother.

They leave their home for a few days to stay with Jonathan’s uncle in order to perform the customary funeral rites for Jonathan’s grandfather. While talking with his cousin, Jonathan learns that his older brother Michael has been in frequent contact with their mother, which leads to Jonathan’s decision to sneak away and find Michael. What follows is misadventure upon misadventure, or as Jonathan later describes it, “…so far, I’d survived a ride in a coffin, a cursed house, a horde of bats, a pack of wild dogs, and a gang of lunatics.”

While Jonathan is no Huck Finn, and the author of Written in Black is no Mark Twain, this was a fun story about a boy who decided to take matters into his own hands. The plot’s twists and turns kept me interested all the way to the end of the book.


No particular Bruneian dish caught my eye when reading Written in Black. However, there were several descriptions of the lush fruit trees and extensive vegetable garden at Jonathan’s uncle’s house. In particular, there are two leafy mango trees that provide shade for the cage of Pak Tut, a nearly five-foot-long monitor lizard. When I googled Bruneian recipes, I found one for mangoes with sticky rice, which I decided to make in honor of Pak Tut.

The recipe I used was on a website called Asian Recipe, and was very easy to make, something I really appreciated after some of the more difficult recipes I’ve attempted for previous blog posts. I wasn’t able to find coconut cream at any of my grocery stores, so just used coconut milk instead. The rice didn’t turn out to be very sticky, but this was still a delicious and refreshing dessert.


I spent a long time searching online for an organization in Brunei with a mechanism for online donations, but I didn’t have any luck. In particular, I had hoped to donate to the Brunei Darussalam AIDS Council, “a non-profit, community-based organisation tackling the HIV & AIDS situation in Brunei Darussalam,” but couldn’t figure out an easy way to get money to them. So at this point, I have not made a donation to an organization in Brunei, but if I find a way to do that in the future, I’ll update this page with that information.


Sunday, May 28, 2017



It’s been much too long since my last blog post. I have an explanation, though. I really didn’t like the book I had chosen for Brazil, and it didn’t help that it was 521 pages long. I tried to keep plugging away, but when I was about halfway through, I finally threw in the towel and decided to choose another book.

I’m so glad I did! Otherwise, I would not have discovered Adriana Lisboa and her wonderful book, Crow Blue.  The book’s main character, Vanja (short for Evangelina), is a thirteen-year-old girl who leaves her home in Rio de Janeiro when her mother dies, and moves to Lakewood, Colorado, to live with her mother’s ex-husband, Fernando. He and her mother divorced long before Vanja was born, but Fernando agrees to let Vanja live with him and help her find her father.

Fernando was originally from Brazil too, where he was a Communist guerrilla fighting against the military dictatorship. While most of Crow Blue focuses on Vanja’s new life in the United States, there are flashbacks to the guerrilla days that Fernando left behind.

In Colorado, Vanja befriends a nine-year-old neighbor boy, Carlos, whose family is from El Salvador. She helps him with his homework, and gives him a safe and happy place to spend his spare time. Carlos has lived in Colorado for as long as he can remember, but the concern that he and his family will be sent back to El Salvador because they “didn’t have papeles” is never far from his mind. Vanja and Fernando take Carlos with them on a week-long road trip to New Mexico, which deepens the bond among the three of them.

Crow Blue is more than just a coming-of-age book. It’s a heartwarming story of how three exiles from other lives and other places can become a family of their own.


Since most of Crow Blue is set in the United States, Brazilian food doesn’t really factor into the plot. So the dish I chose to make for this post is one that was mentioned in the book I tried to read first. The dish is called feijoada, and it’s a Brazilian stew that’s usually made with meat. Fortunately, I found a Jamie Oliver recipe for a vegetarian version and decided to make that. I didn’t have to do much to veganize the recipe – I just substituted a dollop of vegan sour cream for the yogurt on top of the stew. The bigger challenge was trying to translate a British recipe into terminology and measurements that can be understood in a U.S. kitchen. For the record, a courgette is a zucchini, and I converted the ingredients that were listed in grams as follows:

·        Rice – since the stew is served over the rice, there was no need for a precise conversion. I just cooked a cup of brown rice according to the package instructions.

·        Sweet potato – 200 grams is a little less than half a pound.

·        Kidney beans – actually, I substituted black beans, which are more likely to appear in a Brazilian dish, and I used the whole 15-ounce can.

·        Fresh coriander (cilantro) – I used about a fourth of a cup, finely chopped

·        Vegan yogurt or sour cream – it’s just a dollop on top of a bowl of stew, so no measurement conversion was necessary.

It turned out quite well, although it’s a dish better suited to the fall or winter, rather than these warm late spring days that we’re having in Sacramento!


In Crow Blue, Fernando and other resistance fighters live and train in the state of Pará, a vast, forested area near the Amazon River. It’s described as being “…almost big enough for two Frances. Three Japans. Two Spains and a bit. More than one thousand, six hundred Singapores.” Since the time when Fernando was there, however, forests have been cleared in obscene numbers. “Amazon forests continue being cleared to the order of one Belgium a year, basically for cattle farming. The miracle of the transubstantiation of forest into beef. (Soy? It too is transubstantiated. It is exported and becomes cattle fodder in rich countries.)”

When I looked for projects in Brazil on the GlobalGiving website, I was happy to find Forests4Water Brazil, which is a community reforestation project administered by an organization called Iracambi. According to the project summary, this organization has already planted 100,000 native rainforest trees, and they have plans to plant another 10,000 this year. It may not be possible to undo the damage that’s already been done to the Amazonian rainforest, but I wanted my donation for Brazil to be used to help correct the mistakes of the past.

More information about the Forests4Water Brazil reforestation project is available at