Wednesday, January 31, 2018

CROATIA




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The hardest thing for me in writing this post about Croatia is figuring out how to describe the book I read, Dubravka Ugrešić’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. There’s no plot, and the writing doesn’t follow a linear, chronological path. Instead, the book consists of a series of recollections. The shorter ones are numbered, and the longer ones have their own chapter or subchapter names.

The Museum of Unconditional Surrender opens with an item about Roland the walrus, an inhabitant of the Berlin zoo, whose stomach contents were inventoried after he died. The list is too lengthy to go into here, but Roland had ingested a surprising variety of non-food items, including a cigarette lighter, a child’s water pistol, a bunch of keys, and a pair of sunglasses, just to name a few. The narrator is inclined to look for some kind of subtle, secret connections among the objects, and suggests the reader do the same with this book: “The chapters and fragments which follow should be read in a similar way. If the reader feels that there are no meaningful or firm connections between them, let him be patient: the connections will establish themselves of their own accord.”

As I read the book, it became clear that the narrator’s theme is exile and the sense of not belonging. Raised in Yugoslavia when it was still a federation of countries, including Croatia, the narrator has become a writer unable to return to her country because she wrote “something I shouldn’t have” when the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s led to the break-up of the country. She writes of travelling to Lisbon, Portugal, “with a huge amount of luggage, or entirely without luggage, depending on how you looked at it. I had lost my homeland. I had not yet got used to the loss, nor to the fact that my homeland was the same, but different. In just one year I had lost my home, my friends, my job, the possibility of returning soon, but also the desire to return.”

The narrator shares vignettes of many of the places she has visited, both before and during her exile. The book also includes musings by or about her mother, who moved as a young woman from Bulgaria to Yugoslavia. The mother has grown fearful of leaving her house, so her world has shrunk at the same time her daughter’s world has expanded as a result of her exile. In both cases, there is a strong feeling of alienation.

In the end, just as the narrator had promised, the connections among the book’s fragments did indeed “establish themselves of their own accord.”

COOK

The text of the book actually includes a recipe, so how could I not prepare it? When the narrator’s mother talks of the poverty of her early married life, she says, “Those were lean years. People shopped with coupons. The only material you could buy was homespun. There was nothing. No-thing! They were hungry … They cooked paupers’ food …”. When the narrator asks what paupers’ food is, her mother replies, “Caraway soup.” And that’s literally what it is: soup made from oil, flour, water, and spices, including caraway seeds, then topped with homemade croutons. I didn’t use the recipe in the book, since I wouldn’t be able to reprint it here without running afoul of copyright laws. Instead, I found a recipe for Croatian flour soup, which is similar, on the Genius Kitchen website. I left out the optional egg white, and made the appropriate conversions from grams to teaspoons or tablespoons (1 tablespoon of oil, ¾ teaspoon of paprika, 1 teaspoon of caraway seeds). I liked the soup more than I expected to, but probably not enough to make it again.



GIVE

No projects were listed for Croatia on the GlobalGiving website, so I looked to see what I could find on the Internet. I discovered an organization right here in Northern California with the stated purpose of developing “leaders for Croatia’s future by providing financial assistance to highly qualified students of Croatian origin, living in Croatia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, so that they may attend a university in Croatia or in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” More information about this organization, the Croatian Scholarship Fund, is available at http://www.croatianscholarship.org/.



NEXT STOP: CUBA

Sunday, January 21, 2018

CÔTE D’IVOIRE (IVORY COAST)



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As the book’s young narrator tells it, the full title of the book I read from the Côte d’Ivoire is “Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth.” Birahima should know – at the age of ten or twelve (his grandmother seems to think he’s two years younger than his mother told him he was), he is an orphan and has fought as a child-soldier for several different warlords.

He tells his story using the help of four different dictionaries that have come into his possession, and the book is peppered with the definitions of many of the words he uses. You would think this would be distracting, but it’s really not, especially when he chooses to define a term in his own words. For example, he describes “humanitarian peacekeeping” as being when “one country is allowed to send soldiers into another country to kill innocent victims in their own country, in their own villages, in their own huts, sitting on their own mats.”

Birahima’s life as a child-soldier begins after his mother dies and it is decided that he should go live with his aunt in the neighboring country of Liberia, accompanied by a local businessman. They don’t get too far into Liberia before they are captured by a contingent loyal to one of Liberia’s major warlords, and Birahima is pressed into service. While the concept of child-soldiers may be horrifying to most of us, the prospect didn’t seem to trouble Birahima. As he says at one point in the book, “When you haven’t got no father, no mother, no brothers, no sisters, no aunts, no uncles, when you haven’t got nothing at all, the best thing to do is become a child-soldier. Being a child soldier is for kids who’ve got f*ck all left on earth or Allah’s heaven.”

Throughout the book, various misadventures lead to Birahima leaving warlord after warlord, only to be captured and put to work by someone else. He never stops trying to find his aunt, however.

Most of the book’s action doesn’t take place in Côte d’Ivoire, but in Liberia. There is also a segment in which Birahima travels to Sierra Leone. In addition to the interactions between the people and the governments of the various countries, the book discusses the tensions between the "Afro-American colonialists" in Liberia and the various groups of indigenous people.

The best thing about Allah Is Not Obliged is its very engaging narrator. Birahima is tough, profane, precocious, and thoroughly likeable. He is very much the hero of his own story, describing himself throughout as “the blameless, fearless street kid, the child-soldier.” He’s a character I’ll remember for a long time.

COOK

Getting enough food to eat is a problem for Birahima at various times throughout the book, and the child-soldiers always talk amongst themselves about which warlords are able to offer all the food they can eat. It’s probably no surprise, then, that I didn’t find anything in the book that would be appropriate to prepare for this blog. In an Internet search, I found a recipe for an Ivorian chilled avocado soup on the Genius Kitchen website. It was ridiculously easy to make, and it was very good. I’ll have to try to remember to make it again when the weather heats up.


GIVE

No projects were listed for Côte d’Ivoire on the GlobalGiving website, but a quick Internet search turned up a nonprofit organization called Ivory Coast Mothers and Children. This group “works in partnership with The Patricia Nau Clinic, a community-based maternal health clinic located in the village of Braffoueby, Cote d’Ivoire. Through funding and capacity building support, we are building healthier communities by advancing quality medical care for safe births and access to disease treatment and prevention, especially for mothers, newborns, and children under five.” This is particularly important in Côte d’Ivoire, a country with one of the highest infant and under-five mortality rates in the world. More information about Ivory Coast Mothers and Children is available at http://ivorycoastaid.org/.



NEXT STOP: CROATIA

Saturday, January 13, 2018

COSTA RICA





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Mysteries and thrillers are my favorite fiction genre, so it was a treat to discover that the book I’d chosen for Costa Rica was a very readable mystery. Cadence of the Moon, by Óscar Núñez Olivas, tells the twisted tale of a serial killer who is terrorizing the people of Costa Rica’s capital city, San Jose.

Most of the victims are women, and there are many telltale signs, often gruesome, to support the conclusion that the murders are all the work of one man. Trying to find the killer becomes all-consuming for Homicide Chief Gustavo Cortés and other members of the police force. The FBI even sends in one of its profilers to assist in the investigation as the number of victims continues to grow.

Also working hard to discover the identity of the killer is reporter Maricruz Miranda and others at the newspaper El Matutino. As Maricruz pursues the story, she finds herself more and more in the company of Gustavo, which lends romantic intrigue to the plot.

The investigation takes many twists and turns, reaching into a religious cult, a left-wing terror group, and the highest rungs of the social ladder. Many themes are raised in the book – misogyny, work-life balance, workplace ethics, and the politics of class, among others. The ending isn’t all tied up with a pretty bow, but it may present a realistic picture of the pressures that can be brought to bear in a setting where the oligarchs hold all the power.


COOK

The characters in Cadence of the Moon didn’t eat anything that was culturally relevant, so I went back to the International Vegetarian Union’s website to look for a recipe from Costa Rica. I found a good one for black bean soup. It had a ton of different spices in it, but since I’d reorganized by spice cabinet on New Year’s Day, I was ready for it.




This is a very hearty soup and has an excellent flavor. It’s a tiny bit on the spicy side, so if that’s a problem for you, you should probably cut down on the amount of cayenne. A dollop of vegan sour cream provided a nice finishing touch.




GIVE

The GlobalGiving website lists several projects for Costa Rica. None related to any particular situation in the book, so I just chose one that touched my heart. The Community Action Alliance provides school supplies, uniforms, and shoes to help children from low-income families attend public school in Costa Rica. Many of the children who receive assistance from this program are being raised by single mothers or guardians, and they would not be able to afford to go to school without this help from the Community Action Alliance. More information about this program is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/give-the-gift-of-education-to-children-in-poverty/.



NEXT STOP: CÔTE D’IVOIRE (IVORY COAST)

Saturday, January 6, 2018

REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO





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The narrator of the book I read for the Republic of the Congo is a man known to the locals as “Broken Glass,” which is also the book’s title. Being a regular patron of a bar called Credit Gone West, he has been given a notebook by the owner of the bar and asked to write in it. The bar owner doesn’t put much stock in the spoken word, and thinks that by having Broken Glass write things down, Credit Gone West won’t vanish from people’s memories one day. Broken Glass begins by writing bawdy and fairly graphic stories about a few of the bar’s patrons in the first part of the book.

It was the last part of the book I found more compelling, however, because it is there that Broken Glass begins to write about himself. The reader learns that he is sixty-four years old, and that he was once married. His appetite for red wine, however, has cost him his marriage. He used to be a teacher, a calling that he loved, but his alcoholism led him to do many unacceptable things in the classroom until he was finally fired. Sometimes when he writes about the days before he lost everything he valued, he prefaces his reflections with the phrase, “… when I was a man like all the rest…”.

Broken Glass used to love to read, and talks about how he has “… traveled widely, without ever leaving my own native soil, I’ve traveled, one might say, through literature…”. In fact, he peppers his writing with frequent book references, ranging from Doctor Zhivago to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to Snares Without End and many others. He is a mostly self-educated man, with a curiosity about people and places. Unfortunately, he has not found a way, aside from red wine, to deal with the one thing that has always tormented him, his mother’s death by drowning in the Tchinouka River.

The author of Broken Glass, Alain Mabanckou, has taken many liberties with punctuation and capitalization in this book, giving it an almost stream-of-consciousness feeling. I was afraid I would find this style of writing distracting, but the book held my interest throughout.

COOK

No one in Broken Glass ate anything I wanted to cook, so I had to once again do a Google search. I found a website I’ll have to remember for future blog posts, the International Vegetarian Union’s “Recipes Around the World” page. The recipe I chose from the Republic of the Congo was called Veggie Sauce Z’ara or Veggies in Peanut Sauce. Basically, it’s sautéed eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper, and carrots in peanut sauce, served over rice or pasta. I made the mistake of grabbing my eating peanut butter, complete with sugar, rather than my cooking peanut butter, which is just ground-up peanuts, so the dish turned out a little sweeter than I would have liked.




GIVE

Giving may have been my favorite part of this blog post, because although GlobalGiving.org only had one nonprofit organization listed for the Republic of the Congo, it was the one I would have picked even if there had been a hundred organizations to choose from. Primatologist and environmental champion Jane Goodall has been one of my heroes for a long time, so I was happy to contribute to the Jane Goodall Institute’s Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center for the care of orphaned chimpanzees. According to the project description, the “chimpanzees, victims of the illegal commercial bush meat trade, often arrive at the sanctuary sick, malnourished, and close to death. Under the skillful care of Tchimpounga's dedicated staff, these chimpanzees receive a second chance at life.” More information about the project is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/help-feed-over-150-orphaned-chimpanzees/.



NEXT STOP: COSTA RICA

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO




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Yes, I know I’m in the C’s, and the name of this country appears to start with a D. In my mind, though, it’s “Congo, Democratic Republic of the,” which will be followed in my next blog post by “Congo, Republic of the.” So now, on to the book!

This country came up on my list at a fortuitous time, just as Richard Ali A Mutu’s book, Mr. Fix-It, was released after being translated into English from the Lingala. This little book tells the story of Ebamba, a man from the capital city of Kinshasa who wants to marry Eyenga. The road to wedlock is fraught with peril, however, beginning with the wrangling that must be done by the couple’s families to establish the bride price. The negotiations aren’t helped by the relentless rain, which causes roofs to leak and sewers to overflow. Making things even worse, Ebamba’s landlady hears of his engagement and threatens to evict him, since unbeknownst to him, she had plans to fix him up with her daughter.

Ebamba begins to wonder why bad things always happen to him, and we learn that he recently failed to be hired for a job because he wouldn’t sleep with the manager. It does seem that one thing after another causes trouble for Ebamba, and the book’s title doesn’t seem at all apt.

Aside from the story of the hapless Ebamba, Mr. Fix-It is full of details about life in Kinshasa. The author appears to want to share his love of the city with his readers. After a particularly poetic description of the sun setting over the Congo River, there is a passage that reads: “Kinshasa, the land of bursting joy in all its forms… It’s true, you may live to be one hundred years old, but if you have never seen Kinshasa, you cannot say that you have truly lived.” While that may be the author’s view of Kinshasa, I can’t help but think that poor Ebamba has a different view entirely.

COOK

I wasn’t inspired to cook anything that was mentioned in Mr. Fix-It, so I did a Google search instead. I found a recipe for kushari on the Recipes Wikia website. This dish consists of a layer of rice, topped by a layer of macaroni, topped by a layer of lentils, and then finally topped with a spicy tomato sauce and garnished with crispy fried onions. Way too many carbs were involved, but the dish was tasty enough.


GIVE

There were so many projects listed for the Democratic Republic of the Congo at GlobalGiving.com that I had a hard time choosing just one. I finally opted for one administered by the Congo Children Trust that provides a home for street girls. According to the project description, there are more than 250,000 street children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As is the case pretty much anywhere else, girls are especially vulnerable. To help some of these girls, “'Maison Janet Bokwa' is now offering a safe haven for 10 street girls, where they receive a local education, friendship and one-to-one support. Situated on the outskirts of Lubumbashi, the house offers a peaceful environment for children to overcome their time on the streets, and enjoy activities such as sewing, arts and sports. Over time, we aspire to reunite these children with their families.” More information about this project is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/congo-children-trust/.

NEXT STOP: REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Saturday, December 16, 2017

COMOROS




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First things first. Where on earth is Comoros? I’d never heard of it until I started making plans for this project. Turns out it’s an island nation off the eastern coast of Africa, situated between Madagascar and Mozambique. It used to be a French colony, which means that I needed to find an English translation of a book written in French. Unfortunately, it does not appear that any Comorian novels have ever been translated into English for commercial publication. Hmmm, what to do?

I did what other people who have embarked on a similar global reading project have done – I emailed an entreaty to Dr. Anis Memon, a professor at the University of Vermont who has done his own informal translation of Mohamed Toihiri’s novel, The Kaffir of Karthala. Dr. Memon graciously emailed me a copy of his translation, and my problem was solved.

The Kaffir of Karthala opens with the protagonist, Dr. Idi Wa Mazamba, being told by his physician that he has cancer and has only a year to live. He doesn’t tell his wife, with whom he leads a fairly loveless existence. He recently met a young woman from France and a relationship appears to be developing between them, although it is complicated not only because he is married, but by the fact that he is a black Muslim Comorian and she is a white Jewish European.

The book is full of descriptions of Comorian life, including wedding customs, religious rituals, and personal relationships. As the book proceeds, we also learn more about the government of Comoros when the President offers Idi a position in his administration. I especially liked this quote from Idi when he was talking to the President: “To succeed in changing attitudes you have to begin, Mr. President, by demanding of each of your ministers that in full council they give you a summary of the books they’ve read this month, for the mind is like a plant: if you don’t water it, it dies.”

The author of The Kaffir of Karthala, Mohamed Toihiri, served as a Comorian diplomat. According to Wikipedia, he was Permanent Representative to the United Nations for Comoros, accredited as Ambassador to the United States, Canada, and Cuba, and he was also the first published author of Comoros. I enjoyed having the opportunity to learn about this country from a man who knows it so well.

COOK

The book mentioned a plethora of fruits and vegetables that grow in the Comorian islands: mangoes, guavas, coconuts, bananas, litchis, oranges, lemons, almonds, tamarind, grapefruit, wild raspberries, corn, manioc, and breadfruit, for example. There were also some dishes that sounded like they might possibly be vegan, if only I had been able to find recipes for the Comorian versions of them, such as sambosas, nutmeg biryani, and halwa. I decided to just search online for Comorian recipes, and I found one for soupe faux pois, or sweet pea soup. The recipe was vegan as written, so I didn’t have to make any substitutions. The soup was very tasty and a little spicy. It was not pretty, however, as you can see in the photo below. It was supposed to be garnished with lime slices and coconut milk, but they were too heavy to stay on top of the soup. So those Jackson Pollack-type speckles of coconut milk are the best I could do for the garnish. The recipe was from a website called InternationalCuisine.com.




GIVE

Finding an organization to receive my donation for this country was a bit of a challenge. My go-to donation website, GlobalGiving.com, didn’t have any projects listed for Comoros, so I had to do a little Internet searching. I found the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, which works to save species from extinction throughout the world. According to their website, Comoros and nearby Madagascar “form part of one of the five most important areas in the world for biodiversity.” However, many species on these islands are being threatened. Consequently, “Durrell focuses on the most threatened species and the most threatened habitats of Madagascar and the Comoros. Rural communities depend on the same ecosystems for their livelihoods, so our approach is based on empowering these communities to lead in the protection of their local environments.” I asked that my donation be used for a project in Comoros. More information about the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust can be found at https://www.durrell.org/wildlife/.



NEXT STOP: DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

Saturday, October 7, 2017

COLOMBIA





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The obvious choice when looking for a Colombian author is Gabriel Garcia Márquez, whose brilliant work I’ve read before. But I wanted something different, and I was particularly interested in finding a woman author. A little Internet searching turned up Laura Restrepo, who began her writing career as a political columnist. She has written several novels, some of which have been translated into English.

The one I chose, Delirium, begins when a man named Aguilar returns home to Bogotá after a few days away and discovers that his wife, Agustina, is in a state of delirium. This is not the first time she’s had a breakdown, but this one is more severe and lasts longer than usual. The book’s plot takes the reader through the factors and traumas in Agustina’s life that helped drive her to the condition in which Aguilar finds her.

There are different narrators throughout the book. First, there is Aguilar himself, whose story encompasses his life with Agustina, from the beginning of their relationship to the present. He is desperate to find a way to bring her back to the way she was before he left for his trip.

Then there is Agustina herself, although she refers to herself in the third person (“the girl Agustina”) and only as she was when she was still living at home with her parents. She craves her father’s approval above all else, but he is a hard man, giving approval only to his older son, who is much like himself.  He mostly ignores Agustina, and he is brutal to his younger son, whom he considers to be too effeminate. Agustina is the only one who can console her little brother after their father has beaten him.

Another narrator is a man known as Midas McAlister, who has been a friend of Agustina’s older brother since childhood. Midas was with Agustina when her breakdown occurred, but has his own troubles to deal with. Unlike Agustina’s family, who are members of the oligarchy, Midas has had to hustle for everything he has. Among other things, he serves as a middleman between the notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and the oligarchy, who act as willing money launderers for Escobar, since he returns their money to them greatly multiplied.

Finally, Agustina’s dead grandparents are heard from intermittently throughout the book by way of passages from their journals. Agustina’s grandfather suffered from bouts of delirium too, and the back story in the journals gives the reader a look into Agustina’s family history.

Between the four narrators, the mystery of what brought on Agustina’s breakdown begins to reveal itself. Or does it? A quote from Gore Vidal with which the author opens Delirium calls into question everything the reader knows about Agustina: “Wise Henry James had always warned writers against the use of a mad person as central to a narrative on the ground that as he was not morally responsible, there was no true tale to tell.”

COOK

My husband and I travel to Colombia often to visit our son, his girlfriend, and their darling baby boy. Because of my frequent visits, I knew what dish I was going to cook for this post before I even knew which book I was going to read. A traditional dish in Colombia is cazuela de frijoles, which is basically just beans served over rice. In Colombia, it usually is served with a substantial portion of meat as well, and it’s not always easy to convince the server in a restaurant that I really do want it without the meat. I used a recipe from the Sweet y Salado website, omitting the ham hocks the recipe called for. I didn’t have the Colombian aliños seasoning cubes the recipe called for, but there was a Sweet y Salado recipe for that as well.  Likewise, I didn’t have the Sazón Goya seasoning packet for the aliños seasoning cubes, but Sweet y Salado had a recipe for that too.

I also made arepas to serve with the cazuela. These corn cakes are ubiquitous in Colombia, where it seems they’re a staple of almost every meal. Usually they’re made with butter and cheese, but I found a vegan recipe at PETA Latino’s website.



GIVE

Since Medellin is the Colombian city with which I’m most familiar, I wanted my donation to help people in that city. GlobalGiving had a project listed on their website that sounded perfect to me: building urban gardens to help people living in the impoverished Comuna 8 neighborhood.

According to the project description: “Comuna 8 is home to 11% of Medellin's displaced population, of which 98% earn at or below the minimum wage. Families that have moved away from their rural homelands to escape violence leave livelihoods behind. They are then confronted with lack of economic opportunity, which often can lead to crime or violence. This puts impoverished children and families at risk of not achieving their life project, exposure to physical harm, poor nutrition, and low educational attainment.”

The gardens created through this project enable families not only to eat nutritious food themselves, but to sell the surplus to supplement their incomes. More information about this project is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/huertas-urbanas-medellin/.



NEXT STOP: COMOROS