Sunday, June 18, 2017
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.
NEXT STOP: BULGARIA
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 https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/forests-4-water/.
NEXT STOP: BRUNEI
Friday, April 28, 2017
First off, let me just say that I loved the protagonist in Unity Dow’s book, The Heavens May Fall. She’s a young, smart, fierce lawyer working for a nonprofit organization that helps women and children in Mochudi, Botswana. It’s hard for me to not love a character whose inner musings on the first page of the book go like this:
“Why can’t I watch the news of rapes by military men in the DRC, babies with distended bellies and flies eating at their eyes in the Sudan, and go back to my coffee? Why does an old woman waiting in a queue for service by a rude and incompetent clerk make me feel personally responsible? Why must I enter the fray, always, even if it just means dashing off a letter of complaint? Is there a busybody gene, and if so, why do I have to have it?”
If you are one of those people with a busybody gene, someone who feels the need to try to right every wrong, you’ll love Naledi Chaba too. As the attorney for the Bana-Bantle Children’s Agency, she handles cases for battered women, young rape victims, and those facing other heartbreaking situations. She fights against a system that lets a rapist go free because his young victim is mute and therefore unable to testify against him. She displays tact and sensitivity in dealing with a client who blames her marital problems on witchcraft. And she is relentless on behalf of a young girl who was raped by her grandparents’ tenant, even though her fight for justice puts her on a collision course with the judge hearing the case.
In between cases, the author shows the reader other sides of Naledi. She and her cousin and best friend Mmidi, a doctor, fret about standards of beauty and fashion, as well as society’s expectation that women will marry and have children. Naledi tries to balance the time spent on her professional responsibilities with her desire to build a relationship with the new man in her life, a rugby player on the Botswana national team. She laments the indignity of having to beg for funding all the time when working for a nonprofit organization. And she makes time every week to go see her widowed father, whom she adores.
The Heavens May Fall seems very authentic, possibly because the author herself began her career as a lawyer who championed women’s rights. She went on to become Botswana’s first female High Court judge, and she currently serves her country as the Minister of Education and Skill Development. I’m glad she found time to write this wonderful book in the midst of all her other work!
Early in the book, Naledi’s cousin Mmidi is talking with envy about a widow named Lesika, who seems to have everything. She has a pretty face and a full figure, speaks multiple languages, and never lets things get her down. Naledi knows Lesika. “She sold homemade bread door-to-door in the evenings and at weekends and was rather good at persuading me to buy yet another batch of diphaphatha, even before I had run out of the last.”
I looked up diphaphatha and found that it’s similar to a biscuit, although somewhat flatter and harder. I found a recipe on a blog called “Sapodilla Brown,” and gave it a try. I thought the bread was pretty tasty, especially with a little margarine and jam. Apparently, diphaphatha is usually cooked on a cast iron skillet over an open flame, so I was happy to find a recipe that used an oven instead. Also, some recipes use yeast as the leavening agent instead of baking powder, which would probably make for a lighter roll.
I looked online without success for the equivalent of Naledi’s Bana-Bantle Children’s Agency. I would have loved to donate to such an organization. Since I couldn’t find anything like that, I went back to GlobalGiving and found a project in Botswana that offers science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education to vulnerable girls, ages 12 to 25. According to Stepping Stones International, many vulnerable young girls “become caregivers which increases the likelihood that they obtain inadequate health care, are not protected from sexual exploitation and lose focus on education."
The “Girls Getting Geeky” program provides after-school education that helps girls develop design process skill, which they apply to different engineering challenges. It is hoped that this program will lead to an increase in the number of girls who complete secondary school and then either go on to college or find employment.
More information about the “Girls Getting Geeky” program is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/stem-education-in-botswana-girls-getting-geeky/.
NEXT STOP: BRAZIL
SSI provides year long, daily after-school programming (including school holidays) which includes STEM activities that foster innovation and empower girls to solve real-world problems and understand the impact of engineering in their local community and in a global context. caregivers which increases the likelihood that they obtain inadequate health care, are not protected from sexual exploitation and lose focus on education.
SSI provides year long, daily after-school programming (including school holidays) which includes STEM activities that foster innovation and empower girls to solve real-world problems and understand the impact of engineering in their local community and in a global context. caregivers which increases the likelihood that they obtain inadequate health care, are not protected from sexual exploitation and lose focus on education.
Monday, April 24, 2017
One of the main reasons I embarked on this global reading project was to fill in the many holes in my knowledge about the people, culture, and history of other countries. I feel as though I am gaining a much greater understanding of the world in which I live, although reading only one book from a country doesn’t give me nearly the depth and breadth of knowledge that I would like to attain.
Reading The Bridge on the Drina, by Ivo Andrić, for my book on Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, provided me with a very broad perspective on this area, as the book covers a time period of approximately four hundred years. The focal point of the book is a bridge that was built to span the river Drina in the town of Višegrad. It is referred to only as “the bridge” in the book, but it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been named the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, after the Grand Vezir of the Ottoman Empire who ordered its construction.
The author, a former Yugoslav diplomat, uses the bridge, not as a character, necessarily, but as the unifying element that connects all the other characters and events chronicled in the book. Some chapters educate the reader about the history of the area, and others tell the stories of individuals or families. In all cases, however, the bridge plays a central role.
The Grand Vezir for whom the bridge was named grew up near the Drina, but was taken away by soldiers of the Ottoman Empire when he was ten years old. This was due to the practice of blood tribute, in which boys between the ages of ten and fifteen were forcibly removed from their families and taken to the Sultan in Istanbul, which was then known as Stambul. This boy grew up to become a very important person in the Sultan’s court, and he used his power and position to build the bridge in the area from which he had been taken.
Although The Bridge on the Drina is centered in the town of Višegrad, it soon becomes clear that what happens in Višegrad is symptomatic of what is going on in a much greater part of the world around it. As the residents of the town discover, “Who could ever have dreamt that the affairs of the world were in such dependence upon one another and were linked together across so great a distance?” While the town is controlled by the Ottoman Empire for most of the years covered by this book, the reader sees the beginning of the fall of the Ottoman Empire reflected in the handing over of Bosnia to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And when a Serb in Sarajevo assassinates Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the political repercussions are felt in Višegrad by not only the Serbian residents, but by all who live there.
Aside from the historical and political importance of the bridge, it serves as a meeting place for the people of Višegrad. As the author points out, “In all tales about personal, family or public events the words ‘on the bridge’ could always be heard. Indeed on the bridge over the Drina were the first steps of childhood and the first games of boyhood.” The book tells the story of an unhappy bride in a wedding party crossing the bridge to take her to the home of the man she’s been forced to marry. It showcases students arguing about politics and philosophy as they sit together on the bridge, men who have had too much to drink performing dangerous feats above the raging waters of the Drina, and old men of differing faiths smoking on the bridge as they discuss how best to navigate the changes facing the village.
Ivo Andrić was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, and in the award ceremony speech, The Bridge on the Drina was referred to as his masterpiece. The speech goes on to explain that the Nobel Prize was bestowed on Andrić "for the epic force with which you have traced themes and depicted human destinies from your country's history."
Clearly, if I had to pick only one book from Bosnia and Herzegovina for this project, I could not have chosen a better one than The Bridge on the Drina.
Judging from the number of cooking failures I’ve had in trying to prepare vegan dishes for this blog, I’d have to say that the “Cook” portion of this blog is the weak link. I’m going to keep plugging away and hope it gets better, but I’m afraid that this week’s dish didn’t turn out very well.
I didn’t find anything that I wanted to make mentioned in the book. The author included several references to halva, but since I’d made a version of that particular dish for my blog post on Bahrain, I didn’t want to make it again so soon. So I looked online and found a blog called the Old Curiosity Shop that had a recipe for a potato dish, kljukuša, that seemed easy enough to make. The only thing that needed to be changed to make the dish vegan was to substitute some other liquid for the milk and/or cream the recipe called for. I used almond milk, and just did not like the taste of the finished product. My mom suggested that if I make it again, I might want to just use vegetable broth in place of the milk, so I may give that a try someday.
War was a constant in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the years covered in The Bridge on the Drina, and it has continued to plague the area in the years thereafter. On the GlobalGiving website, three of the seven charitable projects listed for Bosnia and Herzegovina were related to the subject of peace. I chose to give my donation to the Center for Peacebuilding in order to help sponsor youth to attend their Peace Camp. At the camp, participants will address their past traumas and learn to become involved in facilitating peacebuilding activities in their home communities. According to the Center for Peacebuilding, research has shown that young people who have participated in the Peace Camp have become more involved in volunteering and developed more close relationships with members of other ethnic groups. More information about the Center for Peacebuilding’s Peace Camp is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/youth-peacebuilding-bih/.the post war peacebuilding strategy in Bosnia is that it separated the country into two entities, The main problem with the post war peacebuilding strategy in Bosnia is that it separated the country into two entities, which ultimately led to extreme nationalist rhetoric and ethnic segregation, acting as barriers to creating a peaceful, multiethnic, and pluralist society. The main problem with the post war peacebuilding strategy in Bosnia is that it separated the country into two entities, which ultimately led to extreme nationalist rhetoric and ethnic segregation, acting as barriers to creating a peaceful, multiethnic, and pluralist society. The main problem with the post war peacebuilding strategy in Bosnia is that it separated the country into two entities, which ultimately led to extreme nationalist rhetoric and ethnic segregation, acting as barriers to creating a peaceful, multiethnic, and pluralist society. The main problem with the post war peacebuilding strategy in Bosnia is that it separated the country into two entities, which ultimately led to extreme nationalist rhetoric and ethnic segregation, acting as barriers to creating a peaceful, multiethnic, and pluralist society.
NEXT STOP: BOTSWANA
Saturday, April 15, 2017
While reading Juan de Recacoechea’s American Visa, I was surprised by how familiar the author’s writing style felt. It didn’t seem as though I were reading a book from Latin America – it felt like I was reading something written by a U.S. writer. I finally realized that, even though the characters were Bolivian and the setting was in La Paz, the book was written in a style the protagonist and narrator, Mario Alvarez, greatly admires – that of a noir novel. When visiting a bookstore, he observes: “I always liked noir novels about detectives and hoods that have clear beginnings and endings. Guys like Raymond Chandler and Chester Himes can change my life for a few hours, freeing me to see the world through the eyes of Philip Marlowe or Grave Digger Jones.”
Mario is a small-town Bolivian school teacher who goes to the capital city of La Paz to try to obtain an American tourist visa from the U.S. consulate. His son, who lives in Florida, has sent him a plane ticket, but Mario needs a visa in order to travel to the United States. Obtaining a visa is no small task, requiring Mario to prove that he has considerable financial assets. Otherwise, the fear is that he won’t return to Bolivia but will remain in the U.S. without permission.
When Mario goes to the U.S. consulate, he has numerous documents with him as evidence of his financial security. Unfortunately, they’re all forged. He doesn’t think this will be a problem, but while he’s waiting for his number to be called, he hears the people around him talking about how they are going to have to wait for three days while the consulate verifies their documents. In fact, one woman tells him the consulate hires detectives to do background checks on visa applicants. Disturbed by this news, Mario leaves the consulate and goes back to the cheap hotel where he’s staying.
The hotel houses a variety of colorful characters that one might expect to find in a noir novel: an unsavory desk clerk, a down-on-his-luck former diplomat, a resplendent transvestite named Gardenia, and, of course, a hooker with a heart of gold. The former diplomat tells Mario about a travel agency that, for a hefty fee, will handle the whole visa process for him. The rest of the book follows Mario’s adventures and misadventures as he tries to come up with the money for the fee.
The book’s afterword by Ilan Stavans explains how de Recacoechea came to write a book in this style. Stavans calls American Visa “a by-product of the ‘90s, a period of intense reaction to magical realism and its forgotten generals, clairvoyant prostitutes, and epidemics of insomnia,” as found in the works of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, for example. According to Stavans, “Juan de Recacoechea, along with an entire generation, became allergic to these stories, finding them too remote, too ethereal. Instead, he prefers the dirty urban landscape of La Paz, where the only thing magical is one’s talent to make ends meet.”
I have to admit that I found the gritty quality of de Recacoechea’s work to be much more accessible than the otherworldliness of the magical realists. But then, I’ve always been a sucker for a good noir novel.
Most of the things Mario and his friends ate in American Visa didn’t seem like they would be very easy to veganize. Even searching the Internet for a good vegan Bolivian recipe was a little daunting, with one website saying “[t]he Bolivian cuisine almost lacks for the vegetarian recipes.” Fortunately, that same website, Recipes Wikia, provided a recipe for huminta that didn’t require any changes or substitutions. Huminta (or humita, in some Latin American countries) is a casserole that’s usually prepared with corn, but the recipe I used called for quinoa. Other key ingredients included tofu, winter squash, tahini, and anise extract, but the overwhelming flavors in this recipe were quinoa and anise. I found it to be a little dense, and thought it could have benefited from less quinoa and more butternut squash. I’m going to follow the recipe’s suggestion to slice and pan-fry the leftovers. Everything is better fried, right?
GlobalGiving offers several options for donating to non-profit projects in Bolivia. The one I chose should be near and dear to the hearts of all vegans – addressing the problems created by the practice of monoculture farming that relies heavily on the use of pesticides. Sustainable Bolivia has created the Permaculture Practitioner Young Leaders Program to provide “practical training for 400 middle school students from agricultural areas.” According to Sustainable Bolivia, the “Permaculture techniques we teach will be aimed at improving soil fertility, harvesting water, and building living interactions that save time and increase productivity.” The hope is that the students who participate in this program will go home and share these permaculture techniques with their communities. More information about the Permaculture Practitioner Young Leaders Program is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/permaculture-sustainable-bolivia-mizque/.
NEXT STOP: BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
Sunday, April 9, 2017
The concept of karma is probably familiar to most readers. If you’re like me, you think of it as some kind of cosmic payback when a person does something bad, or a reward when they do something good. Other than that cursory understanding, I have to confess that I haven’t given much thought to how karma is actually supposed to work.
In reading The Circle of Karma, by Kunzang Choden, for my book about Bhutan, I was interested to see that karma is used to explain everything that happens in a person’s life, good or bad. The book’s protagonist, Tsomo, is the daughter of an important religious man in their village, who explains that “everybody was the way they were because of the way they had lived their previous lives.” Religious practice allows a person to accumulate merit to ensure that his or her next life will be better than the current one.
This causes a certain amount of consternation for Tsomo since, as a girl, she’s not taught to read or write, two things that she wants to learn more than anything, and she worries that her lack of education will preclude her from accumulating enough merit to make her next life better. But she’s a dutiful daughter and stays home learning how to cook, work in the fields, weave, and care for her family.
Astrology is also an important factor in Tsomo’s village. Her mother is told by the astrologer that Tsomo “will be restless, always wanting to travel." Her mother doesn’t really believe that part of the horoscope is true because, “where can a girl, even a restless one, travel to?”.
Actually, a girl can travel to many places, as Tsomo discovers when circumstances cause her to leave her village, and she comes to the realization that “[s]he had to learn to be on her own.” Her travels over the next few decades take her to India and Nepal, where she learns to be self-reliant, meets new friends, and finds many ways to accumulate merit.
I had more trouble than I expected with the use of karma to explain every situation in this book. For example, I felt like the man who took advantage of Tsomo and treated her with indifference for many years before finally abandoning her got off much too lightly by having his behavior characterized thus: “He had come to collect the dues she owed him from some lifetimes past and he left her fifteen years later, completely depleted both emotionally and financially.” Invoking karma as an excuse for bad behavior was a bridge too far for me.
I admired Tsomo’s resilience, persistence, and resourcefulness, and I followed her travels with interest. The book's author, Kunzang Choden, is the first Bhutanese woman to write a novel in English, and I felt like she did a wonderful job of bringing Tsomo's character to life.
Throughout The Circle of Karma, Tsomo eats momos, a steamed dumpling common to the Himalayan countries of India, Nepal, and Bhutan. The ones she eats are filled with meat, such as pork or yak, but I found a recipe for vegan momos on the Aapdu Kitchen website. I followed the recipe fairly closely, except that I couldn’t find ginger garlic paste at my grocery store. Instead, I added a tablespoon of finely chopped ginger to the recipe, and substituted chili garlic sauce for the red chilli sauce in order to include the garlic flavor. The recipe calls for a capsicum, and I didn’t know what that was, so I looked it up. Turns out it’s just the scientific name for the pepper family. Since there were numerous references in the book to the Bhutanese people’s love of chillis, I used a spicy serrano pepper.
I wish I could say the momos turned out well, but I really can’t. I didn’t roll the dough thinly enough, and I felt like the chili garlic sauce overwhelmed the taste of the other ingredients. Serving the momos with mango chutney helped, but this recipe definitely won’t go down in the books as one of my best.
I checked the GlobalGiving website to see if they had any projects in Bhutan. They had one, helping the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy to create greater awareness among the citizens of Bhutan about how a participatory democracy works. The country transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 2008, holding the first election for the National Assembly of Bhutan. Since democracy is a new concept there, people are not necessarily familiar with their rights and responsibilities under this new system of government.
The Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy is taking a three-pronged approach to educating the people of Bhutan: “First, it ‘inspires active citizens’ through projects that tackle social problems. Second, it ‘encourages and expands public discourse’ by organizing forums focused on diverse topics such as the role of media and the crisis of democracy in modern times. Third, it produces ‘resources for democracy’ targeted towards all citizens, ranging from rural teachers to government officials.”
More information about the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/empower-bhutans-citizens-to-engage-in-democracy/.
NEXT STOP: BOLIVIA
Thursday, March 16, 2017
The premise of the book I read from Benin can be described as follows: life is hard and then you die. The author, Olympe Bhêly-Quénum, summed it up even more succinctly when he titled the book Snares without End.
According to Abioseh Michael Porter, who wrote the book’s introduction, while most of his contemporaries in Africa were writing books about colonialism, Bhêly-Quénum chose instead to write an existentialist novel. The book tells the story of Ahouna, who enjoys periods of happiness and good fortune, interspersed with periods of ruin and despair.
Ahouna’s childhood is happy. His father is a prosperous and important man in their village, and, as Ahouna said later, “Life was good. Existence easy.” But good fortune can change in an instant, as Ahouna discovered when his family’s livestock was suddenly stricken with anthrax and when their crops were later ravaged by locusts. Even worse, his father becomes a victim of a tragic injustice, which leaves the family reeling. As his mother observes, “Life, my dear little Ahouna, is a wasteland of rotting refuse, in which men devote their energies to futile, vain things, and build hopes on these. And yet you must continue relentlessly pursuing these trifles, if you want to go on living and feel that you are in fact alive. Everything is linked to these terribly meaningless things.”
In spite of that cheery bit of motherly wisdom, things do get better after that, for quite a long while. Ahouna falls in love, gets married, and starts a family. He is happy tending his family’s flocks, playing music on his kpété (a reed flute) or his tôba (a small bamboo harp). Everything is going well until the day his wife inexplicably turns on him, creating a rift between them that can’t be mended. Things become so bad that Ahouna leaves home, and then his downfall truly begins.
Ahouna seems to go back and forth in his mind about whether his wife has turned him into a monster, or whether he was always a monster and she merely brought this aspect of himself into the open. By the end of the book, his existence becomes a matter of complete indifference to him.
If my description makes Snares without End sound bleak, that’s because it is. This quote from Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, which appears both on the dedication page and in the novel itself, pretty well summarizes the author’s theme: “Know and believe firmly that your life must be a continual death.”
Snares without End was full of food references, so I assumed I would have no trouble making a good vegan recipe for this post. Boy, was I wrong! I thought I was going to make bean fritters, after reading in the book about an evening market, where “[t]here were cakes for sale, fritters and akassa balls…”. I found a recipe that seemed straightforward enough, and made the bean paste. But when I dropped it into the hot oil to fry, the paste completely disintegrated, leaving me with a pot of oily bean goo.
So I searched the Internet for more recipes from Benin and found one for baby bananas in orange sauce on a website called “Global Table Adventure.” Since there was a reference in Snares without End to the people of the village bringing Ahouna’s family “bunches of bananas, baskets of pineapples, avocado pears, naseberries, cashew nuts and pawpaws,” this recipe seemed appropriate.
It would have been simple enough to make except that I used red bananas like the creator of the recipe had used. I’d never had red bananas before, and they were a little tricky to work with. They don’t peel easily like regular bananas do, and they’re fairly hard, so they take a long time to cook. If I had it to do over again, I’d just use regular bananas. Everything turned out okay, though, helped in no small part by the scoop of vegan vanilla bean ice cream I served with the bananas.
I found several projects in Benin on the GlobalGiving website, so my only dilemma was which one to support. I finally settled on a project to bring education to poor rural children in Benin, undertaken by a British organization called Hands around the World. Money raised for this project will be used to provide flood-proof classrooms in Dogba village. More information about the Hands around the World “Schooling Children in Benin” project is available at http://hatw.org.uk/supporting-village-children-into-school-in-benin/
I’ll be on the road for the rest of the month, so there won’t be another blog post until early April. I may post occasional updates on The Booktrekker’s Facebook page, which can be found at https://www.facebook.com/TheBooktrekker/. When I return…
NEXT STOP: BHUTAN
Providing new flood-proof classrooms has made education a much more secure possibility in Dogba village and the local community. Building a resdential unit in Affame will give good care and a safe home to vulnerable children.Providing new flood-proof classrooms has made education a much more secure possibility in Dogba village and the local community. Building a resdential unit in Affame will give good care and a safe home to vulnerable children.
Thursday, March 2, 2017
Beka Lamb, by Zee Edgell, is a novel about not only the coming of age of the title character, but of the country of Belize itself. Beka is a fourteen-year-old girl growing up in Belize City, where she is struggling to deal with her family’s expectations at the same time she is trying to help her best friend cope with a devastating situation. She is also caught up in her country’s political uncertainty, as the people of Belize try to take control of their destiny.
Although Beka’s father Bill never wanted her to go to high school, her mother Lilla persuaded him to let her attend St. Cecilia’s Academy. Unfortunately, Beka doesn’t apply herself to her studies, and as a consequence, she fails her first year. To compound the problem, she lies about it, a habit that has led to trouble between her and her parents on previous occasions.
Beka’s best friend Toycie, on the other hand, is a model student. She’s a favorite of all the adults, both at school and in the community. She falls in love with a local boy, however, and her life begins to spiral out of control. Between Beka’s own shortcomings and the crisis facing her friend, Beka must discover an inner resolve she didn’t know existed.
The turmoil in Beka’s life is set against the backdrop of the identity crisis facing her country. Belize was a British colony, with all the problems colonialism entails. Beka’s father, while not necessarily pro-British, is doing well enough under the current political system and doesn’t want to rock the boat. His mother, Beka’s Granny Ivy, on the other hand, is active in the People’s Independence Party and dreams of an independent Belize. To complicate things further, the government of Guatemala wants to annex Belize. It’s enough to make Beka say to her teacher, “Sometimes I feel bruk down just like my own country, Sister.”
Beka manages to work through her struggles and find her way, as Belize inches closer to the end of its existence as a colony. It seems somehow fitting that Belize finally gained its independence in 1981, and Beka Lamb, which was released in 1982, was the first novel published in independent Belize.
There were so many vegan or veganizable dishes mentioned in Beka Lamb that I had a tough time deciding which one to make. Rice and beans, panades (little cornmeal turnovers filled with refried beans), and johnny cakes were just a few of the choices. Ultimately, the one that sounded the best to me, once I figured out what it was, was potato pound.
While attending a wake, Beka’s Granny Ivy asks her if she wants “[s]ome lemonade and a piece of potato pound?” That’s exactly what Beka wants, so “Miss Ivy lifted a heavy brown pudding from a side table, cutting a generous slice for Beka.”
Potato pound is described in the recipe I found on Food.com as similar to bread pudding, except that it uses sweet potatoes in place of the bread. The only change I had to make to the recipe was to replace the butter with a vegan spread. With a little splash of vegan whipped topping added, it made for a very tasty dessert.
I didn’t have to think twice about which organization would receive my donation for Belize. Sacramento’s own Joey Garcia, author and advice columnist for Sacramento News & Review, was born in Belize and has founded a non-profit organization called Rise Up Belize! This organization “initiates, supports and promotes educational activities that benefit the children and adults of Belize.” Among other things, Rise Up Belize! operates summer camps and offers high school scholarships for the children of Belize. More information about Rise Up Belize! is available at https://www.facebook.com/pg/BelizeRising/about/?ref=page_internal.
NEXT STOP: BENIN
Sunday, February 26, 2017
For Belgium, I read The Misfortunates, by Dimitri Verhulst. “Misfortunate” isn’t even listed in my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, so I went to the Internet to see what it means (although I had a pretty good idea). According to oxforddictionaries.com, “misfortunate” is a Scottish term meaning “an unfortunate person.”
With such a sad-sounding title, I had hoped this book would be purely a work of fiction. But no – it’s a semi-autobiographical novel. In fact, the dedication reads, in part: “And in memory of my grandmother, who wanted to avoid the shame and died while I was completing the last pages of the manuscript.” Honestly, faced with this much gloom before I’d even read a word of the first chapter, I’m surprised I followed through with it.
As I got into it, though, it wasn’t an especially sad book, at least not in the sense that it made me want to cry. It’s a series of vignettes about four brothers (three adults and one teenager) living in the fictional town of Arsendegem, Belgium, with their mother and Dimitri, the 13-year-old son of one of the brothers. Dimitri is the book’s narrator, and these vignettes are woven together loosely to tell the story of his coming of age among four men whose lives revolve around alcohol and other vices. Mostly alcohol, though.
When Dimitri is born, his father is at one of the local pubs and doesn’t make it to the hospital in time for the birth. When he finally arrives on a bicycle, inebriated, he snatches baby Dimitri up, loads him onto the bicycle, and takes him to all his favorite pubs to show him to his friends. More drinking ensues, and it’s a miracle that Dimitri is returned to the hospital in one piece by his father later that night.
Some chapters in the book are comical, such as the one detailing the family’s obsession with the music of Roy Orbison, and others are poignant, like the one in which Dimitri, now an adult, visits his grandmother in the nursing home where she is in the advanced stages of dementia. The reader follows Dimitri’s father’s journey to the rehab clinic to try to take control of his drinking, and Dimitri’s unhappiness about becoming a father himself. Throughout the book, there is an air of fatalism, a feeling among the characters that their lot in life is simply to drink, smoke, and carouse until cancer or some other illness kills them.
Dimitri’s life doesn’t follow the pattern of the other men in the family, but the scars from his earlier years are apparent in the writing. Also apparent, however, is his great affection for those men. As an adult who has long since moved away from Arsendegem, he writes, “The misfortunate have a more realistic view of the world; my love for my uncles is vast and incomprehensible, but no one has ever had the gall to demand comprehensibility of love.”
Food was mentioned occasionally in TheMisfortunates, but nothing sounded very good, and practically nothing was vegan or veganizable, although one of Dimitri’s uncles did joke, “Next thing they’ll come up with meat-free meat.” Mostly, the men in the family just drank. As Dimitri said of his father, “The years in which he dutifully drank himself into serial oblivion had robbed him of his appetite.”
That left me free to search the Internet for any Belgian recipes I could veganize, and the Belgian potato soup recipe I found on the Recipes Wiki website looked perfect. I substituted margarine for the butter and vegetable broth for the chicken stock, of course, but I wasn’t sure how to replace the light cream. One website suggested blending silken tofu until smooth, so that’s what I did. I also added salt and pepper. The soup was delicious, and I’m sure it will become a winter favorite for me.
Women did not fare well in The Misfortunates. The only man in Dimitri’s family who appeared to have had a relationship of any duration with a woman was his dad, and that didn’t end happily. Attractive women were objectified, and the men didn't consider most other women worth discussing. The whole lot of Verhulst men seemed to go back and forth between being misogynists and simply not being interested in anything that wasn’t booze.
In choosing an organization for this week’s donation, I decided to get back at this old boys’ club by giving my money to a group that helps girls. Greenlight for Girls, which I found through the GlobalGiving website, "holds one-day, girl-focused events to show the fun in math, science, engineering and technology through hands-on workshops run by role-models in STEM fields." The events are offered in Brussels free of charge, and the organization reaches out to girls in low-income neighborhoods especially. More information about this project is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/inspire-girls-in-hands-on-science-around-the-world/.
NEXT STOP: BELIZE