Sudan

emmanuel A Spiritual journey through West Nile, where hope and hospitality is in ready supply

New to me is the picturesque St. Emmanuel’s Cathedral. The last time I was in Arua (Christmas holidays of 2000), grandpa had retired from active church ministry he served in the former sanctuary; a dilapidated temple reminiscent of the days of the law–permanent cement pews on either side of the aisle built to outlast even the gospel itself, a relic podium with legs thinned by termites (ojuruko), steadfast by grace than wood. In the holiday season, this edifice serves the purpose of Sunday school.

In six days, myself with friends from Kampala will venture like missionaries preaching the gospel upon request by Bishop Joel Obetia with the support of vigilant youth from Mvurra county: “Congo”, “Sudan”, through to “Kenya” and then finally “Zambia/Central” zone. These are the sub-zones which unify Mvurra into one.

They were named so by former president Idi Amin; being allies to Uganda (read Amin) during a time of political turmoil and in return, they earned an eternal place in the Nilotic folklore.

Every day ushers ribbons of surprises. One night as we prepared to rest at the residential teacher’s quarters, a three minute’s walk from the quaint sanctuary, a friend carelessly sweeps a trail of red ants (eyekeye), we had a quiet good laugh.

In Sudan zone, we come across teenage boys digging red earth of what would be a pit latrine. After brief introductions they are willing to listen to us–a distant opposite from the language of transaction in the cosmopolitan, “Nfuniramu wa?” (What do i gain from this?)

emmanuel 2That teenage boys would sit and listen to us without being coerced by a guardian is humbling to say the least. It also reminds me of that portion of scripture in Mathew 19:14, “but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (ESV)

Each day comes with a teasing delight. I notice that village chiefs went out of their way to prepare special dishes to minister to our dietary needs. The meals were simple but served with gracious hearts; each meal comprised millet bread, enyasa (E-nyah-Sir). There is a strictly creamish-brown cassava bread however we ate bread consisting of both ground millet and cassava flour served with varying dishes; of salty dried mud fish otherwise called angara (Anga-rah) replete with protein cum bones.

The joke is that the young folk first observe an elder eating this mouth-watering dish. He dips a lump of enyasa into a bowl of soup, gathers a portion of the fish and combines the two before they go into his mouth–he does not chew but rather sucks the contents and sieves the bones of fish through one side of his mouth and finally spits them to the floor. And no, you do not use a fork, does not matter whether you are at home or in a fancy restaurant.

We also ate greens served with ground nut paste, osubi (O-suu.Bi) a distant cousin of malakwang (staple for the Acholi) another Nilotic majority from the North. Humid as it was (usually the Ember months); we drank tea which serves as a cooling hydrant. We also had ripe mangoes and succulent oranges for dessert.

On New Year’s Eve/New Years Day, the compound of St. Emmanuel’s Cathedral serves as a hub of merriment. Among the crowd is the bishop; several men of collar, members of parliament, pubescent youth, wandering children all packed to the rafters under three converging tents. Observing this activity is a handful of police personnel.

Ten minutes to midnight, all lights are turned off as candles are lit. That moment, people join together across denominations to be a voice—more than that to be a voice to the voiceless to petition the government of heaven to intervene in the affairs of earth, in the sphere of government, education, media, family, and finally business. That God would raise leaders of distinction to be a beacon for our next generation. It is called unity and it is what binds us.

At midnight, fierce sounds rapture from the top of metallic containers into the skies flitting into different hues and lights. Alas, fireworks litter the skies; revellers throng the green whistling and dancing to joyful noises bellowing from the musical instruments. Some folks hug each other; others use their phones to text and call distant friends.
It didn’t occur to me at the time that i had spent two years in the same country.

There is a hope which exists today. Amid the travails facing Africa’s generation is a hope to cope. That momentary glint ignites the belief of a today which is better than yesterday and it rests in this young generation but the responsibility for my country is to invest in them now.

About the Author: Emmanuel S. Anyole blogs at  Sebeenah; he has published book reviews and pieces on social commentary of African life and the ever growing paradox of being a Ugandan. A regular contributor to literary websites, Sebi lives in Uganda. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.

kassala mountains1On the day I left Philadelphia, I was consumed with stress and grief. So many things had happened to me and the children over the past three years. My mind could no longer comprehend and my heart was unwilling to be patient any longer. In fact, it no longer had the ability to withstand the constant lack of respect. I had been stripped.

For the past three years I sat and contemplated day in and day out. I could look at our relationship and see everything that was wrong with it. What I could not understand is why I was still there.

Love had been squeezed out of my heart, so this was not a contributing factor. I kept saying to myself that I was staying for the children; boys who needed to become men. This is what I told myself. I was a product of divorce and I knew what it felt like to want my father. However, it was more to it than that. Somewhere along the way, I stopped believing that I deserved to be happy. This is the real reason I stayed.

I really don’t think my mind was settled on divorce at that moment; but I knew I had to get far away. He was toxic and everything in his life was too. At t his rate, I would have lost my mind and my children too. Receiving a job offer to teach in Sudan came in the knick of time.

kassala mountains2I had never really heard anything positive about Sudan in the media so my expectations were blurred by the unknown and the negative images of the media. Once I arrived, a sense of peace fell over me. I felt safe. It was so different from the urban backdrop of Philadelphia. Everyone was so calm. They seemed so functional.

Over a period of 3 1/3 years, I went through a transformation that changed my life forever. I had a good job, lovely neighbors, and a secure environment. The boys played freely and were able to establish good relationships. The best thing of all is that I was doing everything alone. I felt empowered. I received absolutely no assistance from my children’s father. Every single thing we had came from my efforts and the help from my Creator.

Not only did I begin to feel I could be happy again; I was happy once again. It had been a long time. True happiness had not been a part of my life for over 13 years. The only thing I could see that was of any value was my children and the effort I put into rearing them.

kassala mountains3I remember sitting up one night contemplating. I reflected on my life back in America. I accepted the reality of all that had happened in my marriage. I embraced it and I repented for it. I repented for allowing myself to be oppressed. I was created for greatness but I had allowed myself to be treated less than I was worth. In a relationship, no one can be oppressed without a certain amount of consent from the other and for this I repented. I was not created for that purpose.

Visiting Kassala, Sudan was monumental. I got a chance to do something I have wanted to do all of my life; go mountain climbing. I arrived late afternoon. The foot of the mountains had such a silent beauty that I could never explain it. To the right of me were the mountains, to the left was open desert, and in the distance I could see another mountain chain. It was explained to me that on the other side of those mountains was the country of Eritrea and if I climbed a small way up the mountains I could see even more.

kassala5Some of my students started running up the side of the mountain and I ran after them. It felt so liberating. When I got about half way up the mountain, I stopped, turned around, and looked at the scenery. Tears came to my eyes. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I watched a caravan of camels go by and some Bedouin children playing in the sand.

I felt free, uninhibited. Then I looked over to the other mountain chain; the one forming a natural border between two counties. From this altitude it did not seem like a barrier between two places, but rather a peaceful giant sleeping unmolested, undisturbed.

In order to leave the familiar and experience something new, all I had to do was crossover. All the negativity held in my soul, al the heartache, bitterness, low self-esteem, and felling of rejections were released that day. The shackles fell and I crossed over, leaving it all behind. I was free.

About the Author: Fatimah Abdulmalik is a freelance writer and editor originally from America. She has spent the last twenty years traveling and living abroad; sharing her knowledge of the English language and writing about her experiences. She likes to write about acculturation, education and green living. You can follow her on twitter, facebook, and Google+

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Kidepo Valley was lit up by the fiery light of dusk like a son et lumiere. As our Cessna made its final approach, a herd of shaggy hartebeest scattered in desperate flight beneath us, terrified enough to part from their shadows. A strong headwind made the plane wobble and touch down on the murram runway like a rally car returning to earth. It looked to me like we had landed on an uninhabited exoplanet at the far side of the Universe.

Once a violent and cataclysmic volcano, venting the planet’s burning bowels through a cluster of fiery orifices, Kidepo had succumbed to time. Over hundreds of millions of years, the super volcano had collapsed, depositing its sediment evenly in the crater below, while its rim decayed into striking forms, many resembling wild animals such as rhinocerous and antelope. Except for a flat, horizontal gap to the East, about 40° wide that opened the way to South Sudan, the valley was surrounded by summits, some as high as 2,750 metres.

When we drove away from the airfield, the skittish hartebeest I’d seen from the air had all returned to impassive grazing. They have far greater threats to worry about in this valley than bald apes in flying cages.

Kidepo Valley National Park is my 25th East African park, and possibly the most spectacular I have ever visited. The 1,442 sq km park was opened in 1962, the same year as Ugandan independence , and is one of Uganda’s most outstanding locations, with a higher mammal count than any other in the country, yet as we continued through to the park to our camp we found it strangely devoid of visitors. Ours was the only other vehicle, which led us to believe this was also Uganda’s best kept secret.

Our lodgings, N’ga Moru Wilderness Camp, is one of only a handful of properties in and around the park, and arguably the best. By the fire, after dinner, owners Patrick and Lyn regaled us with stories of chasing lions away from the tents to allow clients access to their beds. Thankfully, no simbas were visiting that night. The place was tranquil and magical, with all the peaks of the caldera silhouetted against a starry firmament and the glow of a full moon.

At around 10 o’clock (absolutely the latest anyone should ever stay up in the bush), nearing its zenith the moon began to dim, like a biscuit being dipped in coffee. It was going to be the darkest night in 100 years. We had arrived just in time to witness a total lunar eclipse, and in Kidepo Valley we had front-row seats. Watching the starry night emerge around the darkened moon was eerie and breathtaking. The warmhearted people we had for company made all the difference.

 

Despite retiring late, when the moon was still in earth’s shadow, we were up with the birds and out on a dawn game drive before it had even set. As our Land Cruiser rolled across the verdurous, undulating graben, between herds of bushbuck and hartebeest, my first thought was to never tell anyone about this place. Here was a vast, peculiar terrain that time had completely forgotten. After only a short distance, we encountered a pride of male lions, basking in the morning sun, which Martine our guide told us was Tim’s Pride.

Boasting a dark shaggy mane one of them rose, and cast a gangly lion shadow west across the open savannah. He then sauntered over to join some sleeping friends, where he collapsed nonchalantly into the grass. Predators rule this valley.

Other carnivores include the bat-eared fox, striped hyena, aardwolf, caracal, cheetah and hunting dog but you don’t see them chilling by the road. Prey is scarce, in particular zebra, Impala and eland, the latter which UWA tried to bring back in a disastrous reintroduction programme. Hence, competition among the carnivores is high.

Martine is Dodos, a tribe of the Karamojong who dominate Karamoja, the bone-dry province in the north-eastern corner of the country, equivalent to one tenth of the size of Uganda, where the park is situated. They migrated here as part of a group who left present-day Ethiopia 400 years ago and split into two branches, the Kalenjin and Maasai who migrated to Kenya and Tanzania, and the Ateker, who migrated westwards to South Sudan and Uganda.  Karamojong means “the ones we left behind” and in many way that remains their status in modern Uganda. Stereotypes persist, especially about their lack of attire, though they’ve largely covered up in recent years.

Due to frequent cattle raids, the Karamojong are in constant conflict with their neighbors in Uganda, Sudan and Kenya, in particular the Turkana. They believe they have a divine right to all the cattle in the world. Young men use the raids as a right of manhood, or to increase their status, though the typical reason is to pay for a hefty bride price.

Karamojo: Uganda’s Land of Warrior Nomads is stunning portrayal, both pictorially and narratively, of this area and its people. Written by Karimojong journalist, Sylvester Onyang, and American writer, Jeremy O’Kasick, with photographs by NatGeo’s David Pluth, it offers a unique insight into Karimojong culture, history and everyday life, as exemplified by this description of an elder:

“With more than 90 years behind him, Apalorot is seen by the Karimojong as sitting between the realms of life and death. He tells of the old stories: the days when the white men, the British, had little presence and no power in Karamoja; the caravans as long as the sky of Swahili and Ethiopian elephant hunters, slave traders and merchants that passed through their lands; the battles between Karimojong and Turkana when they had few rifles.  It was in that time when Apalorot understood that he would one day inherit his grandfather’s gift to appease God’s spirits. He would then become a link between his people and the sky, the sky being Akuj, Akuj being God.” 

I wondered if Apalorot knew Karamojo Bell, one of the very first British visitors (though he would have insisted on being called Scots). In 1897, at the age of 17, and toting a single-shot .303, Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell arrived in the East African interior on the nose of a Uganda Railway locomotive. He had been hired by the railway to take out lions. Not seeing much currency in simba hides he turned his attention to elephant and headed north in search of the legendary tuskers of Karamoja.

He returned again and again and earned the nickname “Karamojo” for his extraordinary elephant-hunting exploits in the province. For the next 25 years he hunted in Uganda, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Central Africa and West Africa and shot a total of 1,011 elephants.

 

It was all about angles with Bell. The “Bell Shot” ensured quick death for his elephants, shooting them through the brain with the small bore calibre rifle, usually from behind their ear which he targeted while hotfooting behind the fleeing tembo. Demand for his elephant hunting books is so high they’re all still in copyright today.

There aren’t so many tembos left these days. But the decimation of the elephant population from its hundreds of thousands can not be attributed entirely to Karamojo Bell, who hunted farther into the Central African interior after the British colonial administration imposed a ban on ivory hunting in Uganda in 1909. That must have signaled the end of the era Apalorot spoke of, when the white men, the British, had little presence and no power in Karamoja.

 

Feeling adventuresome, Kigongo and I decided to return south down a road seldom travelled, the fabled eastern route, which runs parallel with the Kenyan border and has a reputation for bandits. Our first leg passed through Kabong, Kotido, and Lockchar, towns each separated by a hundred kilometers of empty road. We hoped to reach Mount Moroto by midday.

Driving through the barren scrubland over newly-graded murram surfaces, the journey was relatively smooth. And thankfully there were no bandits. In fact, for prolonged stretches we encountered no one else, not another living soul, as we crossed this extraordinary landscape of striking rocky outcrops, jagged inselbergs and crumbling kopje’s. A Nasa probe would not have looked out of place.

We reached Moroto slightly behind schedule, and enjoyed a refreshing beer and sandwiches at the Mt Moroto Hotel. With just a slight increase in elevation, the air cooled considerably, offering us a chance to chill before continuing on.

Travellers have avoided this back road for many years, but Mount Moroto boasts a must-see forest reserve, protecting a range of habitats from arid thorn savanna to dry montane forest. It’s also a birder’s paradise, included as one of the few sites to spot Uganda’s only truly endemic bird, Fox’s Weaver.

We continued south through Nakaprirpit, past the majestic Debassian range, dominated by the monumental Mt Kadam. When we entered the Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve, the route rapidly deteriorated. Having witnessed a lunar eclipse the night before we were now being subjected to its landscape.

The road remained atrocious for about 85 kilometers, all the way from the town of Namuru to Sorinko in the foothills of Mt Elgon – an area devastated by mud slides in 2010. We were relieved when we saw Sipi Falls in the distance, cascading from the highlands, as we knew that meant we had at last left of bandit country, and were approaching a paved road. We finally reached the mountain town of Mbale just after sunset, having travelled 420 kilometers in 11 hours.

 

Mbale is not typical of most Ugandan towns, in two ways: it neither grew out of a colonial station nor a pre-colonial settlement, and it was spared destruction during the Bush Wars in the 1980s.

In fact, Mbale was founded in 1902 by Semei Kakungulu, one of Uganda’s more colourful characters. He is also known for founding Uganda’s only Jewish sect. In 1919, after abandoning politics in favour of spiritual pursuits, he wished to have himself circumcised, but was told the practice not only broke with Baganda heritage but also Christianity. “If this is so,” he replied, “then from this day on I am a Jew.” He then sought sanctuary farther up Mt Elgon’s slopes where he founded his own self-styled sect, known as the Abayudaya (Luganda for Jew).

Though put together with a mishmash of Jewish and Christian customs, the Abayadaya developed a unique style of spiritual music, setting the text of Jewish prayers to African melodies and rhythms. Their proper conversion to Judaism came in 1926, with the arrival of a European Jew known simply as Yusufu, who spent six months with them and instructed Kakunguli to delete all the Christian prayers from his book, cease baptizing children, observe the Saturday Sabbath, and only eat kosher meat slaughtered according to Jewish custom.

Today only around 500 Abayudaya remain, having endured years of persecution, especially during the Amin era when some 3,000 abandoned their faith. They are not officially accepted as Jews, nor will they be until they undergo an recognised conversion, approved by a court of rabbis. But they continue to live according to Talmudic law.

 

 

 

 

 

Imagine an ancient mountain, a volcano that has been standing solitary and silent for millennia, its base one of the largest in the world, its springs feeding numerous rivers and waterfalls, its rich soil nourishing communities across two countries and where you can wander the uncrowded trails to its summit at over four thousand meters.

from mountelgon.net

Majestic and revitalizing, Mt Elgon must have looked like the promised land to anyone who set eyes upon it, especially after crossing the waterless wilderness. Towering nearly 2,500 meters above sea level, it is the oldest and largest solitary volcano in East Africa, covering an area of 3,500 square kilometers.

Ascending its gradual slopes, through dense montane forest, mixed bamboo and in the open Afro-alpine heath and moorland, the visitor encounters a mystical flora: giant lobelia and groundsels. There are plenty of primates along the way too, including Black and White colobus monkey, Debrazza’s monkey (occasionally) and Blue monkey, as well as leopard (occasionally), Bush pig, duiker, buffalo, and hundreds of bird species; Jackson’s Francolin is found nowhere else in Uganda.

 

Sipi Falls, on Elgon’s north-western slope has recently become a retreat for expatriates and middle-class Ugandans who regularly come for its invigorating waters. It’s only a 4-hour journey from Kampala, and that’s where Kigongo and I were bound; it was time to stop mooning around the foothills Mount Elgon.

We headed south on a recently-paved road. I wish I could describe the final leg of our journey but I didn’t manage to stay awake for it. Basically, from memory, there’s lots of greenery and bananas, a bit of lakeshore, the Nile at Jinja, Mbira Forest and then the steamy, clamorous, lock jam, traffic jam – damn – that is Kampala. Gee, it’s great to be back home.

[To follow our journey through Karamojo on Google Earth, download this file.]

 

It is nearly my 45th birthday: Did you participate in my #45×45 Birthday Project yet? DO IT TODAY! We have helped nearly 45 families to receive Solar Cookers. Join in!

My father, who is also a Penn grad and the reason I traveled from Los Angeles to Philadelphia for college, often says, “Sleep? I can always sleep when I am dead, there is so much to do.” I recently realized that this quote actually comes from Benjamin Franklin! He said, “There will be plenty of time to sleep when you are dead, life is for living. So wake up and perform.”

This year, George and I are traveling in South East Asia exploring, wandering, and waking up! This is not a year of sleeping through the same life or same job. We have been away from America for nearly three months so far. We are currently in Bangkok discovering how to acquire a visa to spend my birthday in Myanmar.

George and I met online, but we really clicked because of Myanmar and the Schwedagon Pagoda. When I mentioned to him that it was my favorite place, he was intrigued. He had to meet a fellow traveler who loved the temples and culture of Burma. And now, nearly six years after we first met, we will be there together for my 45th birthday.

Please join in my birthday celebration by donating to the Jewish World Watch Solar Cooker Project for Darfur refugees. In the 45 days before I turn 45, I am searching for 45 people to donate so that 45 families will have solar cookers and more safety in their daily lives. Together, we can help many families leave their refugee camp in search of firewood and fuel, without fearing harm.

In Mongolia.

After a long journey full of peril from Darfur in Sudan, people arrive at the camps in Chad, traumatized after losing homes, family members, and any concept of safety into a bureaucratic jungle with only tarps for creating a new shelter. Having given up my home by choice this year to travel with my husband, I hope to help others feel cared for no matter where they rest their head. Please use this link to donate . Note that your donation is in honor of me and JWW will keep track of the money we raise together. Thank you for making a difference today. More information here.

I hope that in the new school year and the Jewish year and for my 45th year, that you will not “stand idly by” or sleep your year away. Listen to Ben Franklin and wake up, perform, and participate!

This article was first posted on the Alumni blog of the University of Pennsylvania: FRANKLY PENN

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We’d reached the town of Wadi Halfa in the northern Sudan when a humid wind hit the overland truck.  While traveling through the desert avoiding the impassable banks of the Nile, we were astonished when the breeze suddenly felt moist.

I understood that Lake Nasser must be close.  This body of water, created by the Aswan High Dam, has forever changed the climate of the region.  Rain now falls occasionally along its length, a feat of nature seldom seen before the dam was constructed.  Yet the dam has proved to be a mixed blessing.  The Nile no longer floods in Egypt, resulting in a build-up of silt that used to be flushed into the Mediterranean Sea along with the polluted run-off from the millions of people who live beside the great river.

But these concerns were far from our minds at the time.  We spent several days in Wadi Halfa awaiting the next sailing of a vessel down the lake and over the border from the Sudan to Egypt.  These boats, ancient paddle-wheelers that dated from the time of British rule, plied the lake on an intermittent schedule between the two countries.

1) Paddle-wheeler on the lake: Photo by Steve Routhier

A cruise of Lake Nasser sounded like a fine adventure.  The big day arrived after many rumors of departure proved to be premature.  I can’t recall the reason, but we decided to walk from Wadi Halfa town to the boat dock, a distance of several kilometers through the desert.  It was a hot sojourn, trudging through the endless sand with all our gear.

Somewhere in the remote region of the northern Sudan my friend Jack and I had stumbled upon a Frenchman who’d spent years in Africa.  He sported a brilliant white turban and with his beard he looked like an Arab himself.  Upon hearing that I was Canadian, he immediately cried, “Lennoxville!”   Other than the big Canadian cities it was the only town he knew of in Canada. Naturally I was endeared to him for his psychic abilities in determining my own hometown.

So the three of us humped together in the great and unremitting heat to the Lake. The steamer was there awaiting its passengers, most of whom had sensibly arrived from Halfa by truck.  We tore off our outer clothes and dove into the Lake.  Memorably, a small crocodile swam past when I was a hundred meters from shore, putting an abrupt end to our water frolicking.

Our attention turned to the boat.  Since the original vessel was not capacious enough for the number of people who traveled back and forth between the two countries, metal barges were lashed to it on both port and starboard sides.  We quickly understood that, with our cheap tickets, one of the barges would serve as our “seat” for the trip.  We also noted that a position near the bow would be the most desirable, as the breeze from the boat’s motion would be the only relief from the heat. The metal barges, we figured, sucked up the sun like sponges and would radiate the heat onto the hapless folks who were stuck outside without shade.

And so we found a spot and stretched out some blankets to claim it, surrounded by effusive Egyptians and Sudanese.  Meals of beans and pita bread, served twice a day, took care of our dietary needs for the duration and the bango we brought with us filled our entertainment quotient.  It never occurred to us that by smoking it in the forward part of the boat the scent would fill the rest of the barge, but then many of the other passengers were puffing away themselves.

The scenery during the journey was stark, moon-like, and vast.  Deep valleys filled with water, mountain tops rose over the watery horizon and the shoreline loomed in the distance like an unreachable promised land.  At night the stars shone with relentless intensity and by day the sun bore down, steering us into a state of climatic transcendence.

2) Lake Nasser: photo by Steve Routhier

Departing the paddle-wheeler at the end of the three-day trip, just upstream from the High Dam,  a scattering of other Western travelers regarded us with something between suspicion and amazement.  Unlike them, we had not been aboard the train from Abu Hamed to Wadi Halfa.  They must have wondered how we had arrived at the boat in the first place.

A train at the dock ran along the Nile into Aswan town, an oasis after our weeks in the Sahara.

3) Kitchener’s Botanical Garden on Bustan Island, Aswan: a welcome relief from the desert

We saw the many sights of the town including the famous and ancient “Nilometer”, once used by Egyptians to measure changes in the river’s level.

4) The Asawn Nilometer: photo by Ken and Peg Herring

It was no longer of any use, even if locals could have read the hieroglyphics.  The Nile had been tamed by humans, just as they had also tamed this part of the Sahara and brought water to an arid world.  The ultimate impact on African and world ecology was anybody’s guess.

And so the world moved on in ways we could only guess at, as we ourselves moved forward from the deserts to the cities, from realms of magic to those of the mundane.

GorillalandGreg Cummings’ Gorillaland describes a compelling and terrifying trip through the heart of Africa. The reader is treated to a cast of characters like individual strings in a Byzantine intrigue, from the pristine to the corrupt, to the archetypal and historical. When each is tightened into place and woven more completely together the story’s tapestry reveals the chaos, greed, natural beauty and power of Earth’s largest continent.

While following the story of minerals like diamonds and coltan, Cummings work exhibits a remarkable level of understanding of the issues. Richard Katz, the “Jewish” Diamond King from South Africa to New York, Natalie, the up and coming young NGO executive from WorldWatch, Derek, the rebel cowboy guide complete with boots are like Broadway Musical stars waiting for their solo to share their side of the story. Their arguments with each other pale when they become entangled with the rebel general and warlord Cosmo Zomba wa Zomba who has killed not hundreds, as the International Criminal Court in the Hague says, but thousands. Nearly all the characters are chasing the chance to restore the honor of a family member, an opportunity for bloodline healing. Lions are not the only predators in this story; crocs, revenge, and the past all come back to bite you in this story.

 

gorillaThe setting of this story is the Congo, “The place is fantastical, with all its erupting volcanoes, exploding lakes, impenetrable jungles and, of course, the river. Add human suffering to the mix and you have the perfect setting for a movie.” The issues of saving silverback gorillas, who are being hunted as food and for witchcraft rituals, as well as the drama of how to remove resources from the Earth and what constitutes fair trade are enough for a blockbuster. But add in centuries of African struggle and conflict of religion, culture and the story really takes off. The additional issues of international aid from foreign countries, corruption in the military, and various feuds, boils this story into a cauldron that must erupt nearly as certainly as the possible explosion of Lake Kivu!

gregThe anecdotes and life stories of the main characters explain the hardship and devastation of this vast land. Using the characters’ personal histories as context ….. Pedro’s loss of his entire Rwandan family living in Uganda due to the ravages of AIDS. The reader learns without feeling lectured. The “Lost Boys” tragedy of being torn from family or watching them suffer reveal how this army of young soldiers has been twisted into place. The ever present and lovely-looking yet nefarious Madame Nshuti, with a curious scar under her wig, a poorly ended affair with Derek, shows this Michele Obama of the Kivu to be a survivor but is she also a killer, and double crosser?

Natalie’s evolution is apparent when she yells at Cosmo while in the jungle, “You don’t frighten me. You disgust me. You think you rule the Congo? You don’t. When the real rain of progress falls on this country, murderers like you and Duke will simply melt away in the jungle, never to be seen again.” Many of the characters are forced to reconsider their life-long attitudes of hate to others especially Duke, who “was sworn to hate the Hamites.” Yet after interactions with Pedro, a Tutsi, he must alter his thoughts.

The moments for key players to cross and double-cross each other with arms deals, mineral wealth and loss of life seems to the reader like watching a tennis match. Which side is winning? Will evil overtake all? Just when you think you know what will happen next, some natural disaster like looming lava or great earthquakes disrupt all especially those on the river in their iroko pirogues.

In our technically-evolved world, we forget that nations have found ways to speak to each other. “Hakuna raisaux,’ said a Mai Mai soldier wearing the mane of a bush pig on his head, ‘we have no (cell) network here, but you can drum him a message, and it will reach that side now-now. I speak Balanga drum.” From far away, it is hard to understand or even imagine the jungle world of the Congo; this story brings light to so many critical elements of Africa that we should learn to understand.

Derek sums it up at one point, “You have to hand it to the Congalese for remaining so optimistic in the face of such adversity. I mean, these people have nothing: no government, no institutions, no infrastructure, nothing. Yet they still have a touching belief that great things will happen in Congo.”

Lisa Niver Rajna, Greg Cummings, Batman and Richard Bangs

On a personal note, I met the author, Greg Cummings, at a private screening in Bel Air. His astonishing first-hand knowledge of Africa, the gorillas and all the players in the madhouse of the jungle make this moving story very real. I know that his efforts to improve mining conditions and also help the gorillas have made for some of the best on-the-ground advocacy from the region. My elementary school students and I were fortunate to have him come and share his passionate intensity with us. We look forward to being part of the grassroots solution with creating more gorilla-friendly electronic devices, like cell phones and computers. Perhaps we can help to save this unique animal and even learn how to save ourselves.

Article first published as Gorillaland by Greg Cummings on Technorati.

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Sept 3, 2012: Forty-five days before I turn forty-five, I am asking you to join me in donating to Jewish World Watch (JWW) for the Solar Cooker Project to help forty-five families. I hope to find at least forty-five people willing to donate $5 to $45 (or more) in honor of my forty-fifth birthday so I can share my gratitude about all the good things in my life.

$40 will provide one family with two cookers and with $1800 we can outfit 45 families.  So if 45 friends each donate $40 I can provide 45 families with safety, security and solar cooked meals!

I have worked with JWW on several projects and their motto: “Do not stand idly by,” inspires me. I hope that together we can help many families no longer fear going out of the refugee camp in search of firewood and fuel and into the dangers of gang rape and death.  After a long journey full of peril from Darfur in Sudan, people arrive at the camps in Chad traumatized having lost home, family members and any concept of safety into a bureaucratic jungle with only tarps for creating a “home.” Having given up my home by choice this year to travel with my husband, I hope to help others feel cared for no matter where they rest their head.

Please use this link to donate www.solarcookerproject.org

Note that your donation is in honor of Lisa Niver Rajna and JWW will keep track of the money we raise together! Thank you for making a difference today.

One person really can make a difference. Join us to help with our current project, 45×45: Solar Cooker Project! We Said Do Good!

45 X 45: Solar Cooker Project

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Article about our project in WESTSIDE TODAY, listed as media coverage in the Charles Bronfman Prize:
Sept 3, 2012: Forty-five days before I turn forty-five, I am asking you to join me in donating to Jewish World Watch (JWW) for the Solar Cooker Project to help forty-five families. I hope to find at least forty-five people willing to donate $5 to $45 (or more) in honor of my forty-fifth birthday, so I can share my gratitude about all the good things in my life. $40 will provide one family with two cookers and for $1800 we can outfit 45 families.  If 45 friends each donate $40 I can provide 45 families with safety, security and solar cooked meals! I have worked with JWW on several projects and their motto: “Do not stand idly by” inspires me. I hope that together we can help many families no longer fear leaving their refugee camp in search of firewood and fuel, and into the dangers of gang rape and death.
After a long journey full of peril from Darfur in Sudan, people arrive at the camps in Chad, traumatized after losing homes, family members, and any concept of safety into a bureaucratic jungle with only tarps for creating a new shelter. Having given up my home by choice this year to travel with my husband, I hope to help others feel cared for no matter where they rest their head.
Please use this link to donate www.solarcookerproject.org
Note that your donation is in honor of Lisa Niver Rajna and JWW will keep track of the money we raise together! Thank you for making a difference today.
December 2012 UPDATETogether we have raised enough money for FORTY-NINE Families to receive solar cookers! 

Inspired by Caine

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 Inspired by Caine! LACOT, We Said Go Travel and Jetset Extra Travel Happy Hour:
What inspires you? Where will you go next? Join us for a travel meet, mingle and get inspired happy hour!
Meet us at XBAR in Century City. Hyatt Regency Century Plaza at 2025 Avenue of the Stars Los Angeles, CA 90067
on June 12, 2012 from 6:30-8:30pm
Have you seen Caine’s Arcade yet? We are having a raffle to raise money for the Caine’s Arcade Foundation!
Video from the event: Inspired by Caine

Books for Bhutan

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Meet Plan Go in Los Angeles: This event is designed to give you the opportunity to MEET inspirational speakers and like-minded travelers; get motivation, contacts and resources necessary to PLAN the trip of a lifetime; and start taking concrete steps forward to GO on that global adventure.  Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 7:00pm “Realize Your Travel Dreams!
The profits from our event were used to help fill the shelves in Mongar with books. If you would like to help add more to the library, please use this link.
Website: Books to Bhutan
Video from our event: Realize Your Dreams! 
Meet Plan Go Article about our donation: Click here

Burmese Refugees

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George and Lisa Rajna (the creators of We Said Go Travel), participate in community lives when they travel and support those in need. In Northern Thailand, at the UNHCR we learned about Burmese refugees from UN workers we met. While we sat in the same seats that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had only a month earlier, unlike them we were not able to get permission to visit the camp. Using a list of needed items, we were able to donate balls, workbooks, pencils, toothbrushes and other things desired by parents in the camp for their children.

Mongolia Fair Trade

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While in Ulaanbaatar, we were able to learn about the Kazak women who make purses from tapestries.Bill and his NGO buy complete wall hangings from our artisans at fair trade prices.  All the hangings have been used in Mongolian Kazakh Gers or Yurts.  The traditions of making hangings are dying out as the younger generations see it as old fashioned so hangings are becoming more rare.  Many of our wall hangings were dated by the person when they made it.  We have hangings as young as 1995 (15 years old) and as old as 1965 (45 years old).Many hangings get damaged over the years from natural wear and tare and accidents.  People want to change them out just as we change our wallpaper in our homes and would normally throw damaged hangings away.  We show our Kazakh friends how to make all sorts of bags from the damaged wall hangings and give value to something they thought had no value. They are amazed that people will buy their old wall hanging products and are even more amazed that we find them attractive and works of art.  it really gives them a fresh sense that their embroidery is really of value and admired.  We think it give fresh life to the makers as well as the damaged wall hangings.

TEACHING and Creating Global Citizens:

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 While teaching science, I have had the opportunity to share my travels with my students.  Learning about balance scales and scientific measuring, we discussed scales from Morocco Markets, the scales in the Floating Market of Kalimantan, Indonesia, and scales at the doctor’s office.Learning about the fall harvest of Sukkot, we studied the Mongolian nomads and their Gers, tents that George and I lived in for eleven days on a Gobi desert journey. We also learned about social and economic issues while participating and winning the OXFAM Canada International Recycled Toy Contest. We raised awareness by watching a documentary about Tuvalu and its water issues called: “Trouble in Paradise.” My students interviewed the director in a session at school that prompted them to write letters to politicians and have a bake sale to help the people who must soon leave their island nation.Using material from JWW, I created a lesson called, “Earth Science: Who Cares?” which connected our rock cycle unit to the Congo Conflict-Free Minerals Act and we wrote to President Obama and other elected officials to ask for their support for the people of the Congo. Gorilla Greg came all the way from Rwanda to further discuss issues of the silver-back gorillas, mining and the Congo Conflict Free Minerals Act, which he helped to author.After seeing videos of Samoan school children from Manono Island, who wander this car free island shoe –less, my students wanted to be pen-pals as well as send shoes! Brian from Santa Monica Bay Keepers joined us to discuss the Kelp Forest of our Santa Monica Bay and how over hunting of sea otters allowed the population of sea urchins to devastate the Kelp. The connections we made to literature (Island of the Blue Dolphins), California economy, population growth and politics made for a fascinating day of science!In science, we also worked to care of our environment and its trees, and its animals. Kangaroo Lanie has brought many animals to school from chinchillas to camels and from alligators to armadillos as well as a kangaroo named Sheila with a joey in her pocket. All of these interactions have helped my students learn to make connections and get involved.At a National Science Teacher Conference, I met the team from Heifer International and was able to get their incredible curriculum of books and movies. I have often given Heifer International animals as gifts and was thrilled to be able to teach my students about their work that really changes lives.

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1) Pyramid field near Jebel Barkal

NOTE: All photos by Jack McGory except as noted

An area in the Sudan used to exist that would have ranked as a premier destination beside  Kathmandu Valley in the 1960s or perhaps Bhutan in the 1950s, had any traveler the audacity to report on the place.  Where? The great Bend of the Nile, located between Abu Hamed and Wadi Halfa in the northern Sudan.

In the nineteenth century, voyagers making their way from Khartoum to Egypt were obligated to pass downriver along the path of the Nile.  Fortuitously for all concerned, the British built a railway that cut across the desert from Abu Hamed directly to Wadi Halfa, and a great stretch of the river was forgotten by the modern world.  The railway eliminated weeks of arduous travel through cataracts, winding river channels, and a transport system that daunted all but the bravest European explorers and wanderers.

In 1977 I had the great fortune to meet a traveler who had followed this ancient route, and he told me that the region was one of the last untouristed areas remaining in northern Africa.  His comments were low-key, understated, and truthful.

Having recently spent several months in Ethiopia and Kenya I decided, what the heck, why not check out the lost portion of the Nile?  What was there to lose except time, perhaps my health to obscure disease, my life and worldly goods to local Muslim fanatics (the Mahdi who’s army did away with Charles Ceorge Gordon hailed from Dongola, one of the towns along the northern Sudanese Nile), or maybe a leg or two to lesser forest-dwelling cobra ankle-biters.

3) The town of El Khandak

As Grace Slick of the 60s group Jefferson Airplane once sang, “You can listen to a thousand different reasons why you can’t go.”  I chose to listen to my heart, which told me to get there as fast as the Sudanese transportation system would allow.   It only took 48 hours to travel by train from Shendi to Abu Hamed, counting breakdowns in the desert, roof-riding to admire the view, and chatting with the train personnel who must have been paid by the hour, rather than by the distance covered.  A fun ride, in other words.

1) Dreadlocks on a train – heading downriver

One amenity of  Sudanese travel was the availability in most towns of government rest houses, where a traveler could rest, shower, and sleep the hot days away while waiting for the next ride to show up.  Abu Hamed had a wonderful establishment near the train depot, very comfortable and friendly.  And when I use the word friendly in reference to the Sudan, the concept is one that implies fullness of meaning.  The further one gets from civilization in the desert regions, the more wonderful, open, thoughtful, and intelligent are the inhabitants.

My journey to the lost Shangri-La in the Sahara became the closest I’d ever get to a perfect world of harmony with nature, peace, and spiritual enlightenment.  Their bango, grown around Halfa Djedida, was probably the best quality I’ve sampled during my life on this planet.  The Sudanese sold it by the “arm,” an amount roughly equal to the size of a man’s forearm.  The cost was not particularly dear. Five bucks in local currency usually did the trick, or perhaps a bottle of Johnny Walker purchased duty free at the Khartoum Airport (I bought of few of those trade items upon my entry in-country.)  These were pre-Omar Bashir days, before the crazies found their calling as corrupt feudal rulers and world class war mongers as personified by the current Sudanese president.

Still, certain events and situations stand out in my mind after all these years.  In one locale, I recall sitting in the shade near the Nile and talking to an older Sudanese gentleman who spoke surprisingly good English.  As it happened, he had lived in Detroit and worked in the auto industry there.  “Why,” he asked, “do you white people work so hard?”

“For the money,” I replied.

“And what good is that?  You suffer, you have no time to enjoy life and when you die your money stays behind.  This is life without purpose.”

“Well, we have to eat and pay for housing, you know.”

“That is why I returned to the Nile.  Here, we do not need your fancy houses.  Here, food grows without trouble.  Here, we can contemplate life, and we hope to discern the wishes of Allah.  You Americans are crazy.  You waste your lives, you die in poor health, and your precious time on Earth is squandered.”

I had no good answer to his astute comments.  He was correct in his assessment of the Western lifestyle and grateful to have escaped it.  His attitude was typical of every Nubian I had the pleasure to meet.  In a sense, they were proto-hippies who practiced their values rather than merely yammering about them to others.

On another occasion, I was again sitting on the riverbank, meditating on the afternoon heat and stillness of the atmosphere.  I must have remained perfectly still and quiet for an hour.  Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed movement.  A fox trotted past, between my position and river, without seeing or smelling my farangi scent.  The animal approached within two or three feet and I smiled.  He grinned in return, his mouth open in a perfect imitation of a human smile, and continued on his way.  I had not threatened him and he had no reason to exhibit fear.  I felt a connection with the land and fauna that I have never experienced since.  Slowly I rose and walked away, leaving the fox to squat on his haunches and observe my departure.

Most villages had no system of drinking water, common enough at the time.  Everyone, including me, bathed in the Nile, drank directly from its waters, and allowed the cool fast-flowing current to caress our bodies and minds.  In the towns great ceramic urns were placed in convenient public gathering spots.  They were huge, hand-thrown pottery containers, which must have taken considerable skill to produce.  Every urn would have a cover, and a metal drinking cup attached via a string to the top.  The protocol was simple; you took the cup, scooped water from the urn, drank your fill, then rinsed the vessel from the container, rendering it sanitary for the next customer.  Of course the service was a communally organized affair, and the only sin a traveler could commit was to not to rinse the cup.

2) Village street in need of a sand blower

I never contracted even the slightest upset stomach during my journey.  The Nile River has, at least in the Sudan, some kind of ancient magic to its waters that keep them clean and parasite-free.  I still wonder how this is possible, but the truth of the matter was clear to everyone who lived there.

I traveled to one of the many islands in the river, huge tracts of land that appear on no maps – although these days you can probably zoom to them with Google Earth.  To get there, a local man showed me the ferry, a 40 ft. wooden sailboat similar to an Egyptian felucca.   The captain was asleep at the bottom of the boat, but happy to accept a few pennies to sail us to the island.  He even allowed me to take the helm and steer the craft.  The rudder was huge, heavy and extended far behind the transom  in order to steady the boat in the current.  One did not steer with the rudder, but rather maintained it in the central position while manipulating the boat’s direction by turning the lateen sail.  Very simple, very efficient, very advanced nautical understanding.

We walked through a dense palm forest on the island.  There were no villages as such, only the occasional collection of thatched huts.  At one such compound we were invited in by a woman.  She was loud, talkative, and effusive in her happiness.  It seemed she had given birth a few weeks before, and in keeping with local tradition, had a rest period of 40 days where her menfolk were obligated to cater to her every whim.   She also told me I was the first white person to have visited the island in living memory.  I met a few of her relatives, some of whom had blue eyes.  I was told that this island had once been settled by nasri or Christian peoples from far away, and who had intermarried with the native Africans.  Of course, all the residents had long ago converted to Islam, but their genes told of past migrations that have been lost to the  historical record.

One last memorable evening occurred, the details of which I have described in my novel, “Descending the Cairo Side.”  While overnighting in a small hamlet, I happened to pass near the mosque at the center of the village, and found the townsfolk gathered in the cleared sandy space in front of the building.  Never one to impose myself on other peoples’ religious and cultural practices, I attempted a retreat.  However I was beckoned by the participants to sit and join them in a feast and dance, held in honor of an important person who had died seven years previously.  This celebration was a rare custom from pre-Islamic days that was still carried out in Nubia.   I will leave the precise details to my novel, but we feasted and danced under the night sky for hours, a unique combination of ancient African ritual and rural Saturday night fun.  The village had no electricity, running water, streets that would be recognized as such, and no modern structures made of any materials except wattle and mud.  The flute-playing helped to coax every witness into a trance-like state, while the dancing, with men leaping high into the air in a rhythm suggested by the flutes and drums, made for a scene from long-past recesses of the human spirit.  I was astonished to have the honor  to attend this occasion, and the locals told me probably no Westerner would see this event again, as the honoring of long dead men was a dying art form, and soon would disappear altogether.  They spoke with eloquence and sadness about their predicted future, with the women of the village shared equally in the conversation.  These women especially treated me with gentle kindness.  No Muslim strictures about separation of the sexes in this part of the Sudan, at least not in those days during the 1970s.

During the trip down the bend of the Nile I traveled via every imaginable conveyance.  I hopped a train for one segment, sailed on small wooden boats, covered some miles by ancient paddle wheeler, and walked more than I would have cared to had there been a choice – the season was late spring and the heat was intense, with afternoon temperatures reaching the high 40s on the Celsius scale.

5) In the pilothouse of a river boat – we spent hours with the captain and his mate on this trip, drinking endless cups of tea, puffing on bango, watching the river drift by, and ruminating about life’s greater meaning

6) Another ferry boat, somewhere on the Nile’s Bend. Shadow on left is Jack snapping the photo; my shadow is on the right

Donkey transport proved occasionally useful, but the last portion of the trip I traveled by truck along the Nile, on a roadless stretch that veered away from the river into the deep desert to avoid canyons and cliffs.  On the last memorable night before reaching Wadi Halfa, we crawled through the desert without headlights because  the driver thought the vehicle’s battery would last longer if he didn’t needlessly drain its electricity.  We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, and to the south I saw clearly the Southern Cross, while near the horizon to the north the Pole Star shone brightly in the night sky, with the Milky Way so intense in the moonless starry dome that the world was aglow while I witnessed the principal stars of both the northern and southern hemispheres.

I arrived at one final conclusion before dawn.  Gazing at this trackless wilderness I came to understand a basic theorem of biological existence.  Where life is capable of existing it will find a way to propagate and thrive, as I found my own path through Africa and into the beauty of a lost world.

7) The water wheel turns on the same axis as the Earth

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8) The end of the line: modern Wadi Halfa.  The old city, much honored by writers and poets, now lies deep under Lake Nasser and the reconstructed town is a poor substitute for its predecessor. Photo by Steve Routhier