What does Uzo have to say about my new book?

Always exciting when “the book” is finally edited, formatted, and published. Holding the print copy in your hands never fails to make your heart beat a little faster. You’ve done it.

 

Whispers Under the Baobab, my seventh book, is as gratifying as my first. Perhaps even more so for not only have I honed the craft of writing in the process, I’ve set much of this one in West Africa including Mali, a country that has been dear to my heart ever since I lived there many years ago.

Even more gratifying are the comments from my Nigerian friend, who graciously agreed to be a beta reader.

As an African currently living in Nigeria, my country, I could relate especially with the African setting. Aside from developing the plot, Jones doesn’t fail to present the reader with tidbits about the life and culture of Sidu’s people.

Some sequels tend to lose steam along the way, but not this one. This second installment is a book you can relax to, and finish in a day. If you are looking for a novel where good triumphs over evil, where love is mutual and undying, where new friendships are forged from the unlikeliest of situations, and above all, where the plot is driven by suspense and some bit of code-cracking, then Whispers Under the Baobab is the book for you.

Darlene Jones demonstrates exceptional talent as a wordsmith, and for plotting an intriguing story whose premise invites readers be to resolute in their quest for what is true and right.

See both books here: http://ow.ly/aKXh30bMH88

 

Making a pie in Mali for Christmas

Market, Bamako, Mali

Market, Bamako, Mali

So you’ve come to Mali to teach school. You’re thousands of miles away from home, missing family and in a couple of weeks you’ll be celebrating Christmas.

You and your roommate decide to host a dinner for your fellow volunteers, a motley group of singles and one married couple.

Chicken will substitute for the turkey. Plenty of potatoes and veggies to be found in the market. Nothing to simulate cranberry sauce, but dressing and gravy are doable. Your roommate’s copy of Fanny Farmer’s Cookbook is a godsend as good old Fanny’s recipes are basic and you can find most of the ingredients, if not all the spices.

Now for the sweets. No way to make shortbread. Cookies, sure, but are they really festive enough?

Then one day you trot off (ie walk slowly in the heat) to the market near your house to buy some veggies, and there, in a little three-walled shack made of corrugated tin, you spot a barrel of liquid, identity unknown. You speak enough Bambara to ask what it is, but you don’t understand the answer.

“Let’s buy some,” your friend says.

“What for?” you ask.

“She shrugs. Maybe we can figure out what to do with it.”

She’s the cook so you agree and head home for a jar and trudge back to the market where the vendor fills it for you. You take it home and put it in the fridge.

The next day, you see that the clear liquid has solidified to a white paste. You dip in a finger and rub a bit against your thumb.

“Texture of shortening,” your friend says, then gives it a sniff and a lick. “Let’s try making a pie.”

“A pie! What will we use for filling?”

Back to the market, the big one downtown this time and there you find a variety of tinned foods from China fortunately with pictures on the labels. You choose apples, buy a couple of tins, take them home, thicken the juice with flour, and proceed to make the crust.

Because there are no plastic bags (or containers with lids) to be had, you keep the flour in a calabash bowl covered with a cloth. You take off the cloth, tap the sides of the bowl, spin it and tap again. Tiny bugs (flour beetles? flour mites? weevils?) scurry up the sides. You tap and spin until satisfied the flour is bug free and measure out the amount needed. You refuse to worry about germs. Your rationale? The heat of baking will kill them.

And, the pie? Delicious. The pastry the flakiest you’ve ever had. Only later do you learn that the liquid you bought at the market was the very Shea butter now found in skin care products.

P.S. I’m off to Mexico for a month, where I once tried making shortbread for Christmas, but it was so hot the dough melted.

 

Am I racist? (The reason I ask the question is Trump’s fault.)

kindred

story-hour

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the surface, I don’t think so. I grew up on an isolated farm. The first time I saw a black man was the porter on the train. I remember my little sister saying, “Mom, that man forgot to wash his face.”

I didn’t see another black person until moved to the city and I met the one boy in my junior high school who was a black from the US. I wasn’t a friend of his so I don’t know what prejudice he faced, but I do know he was a member of the “in group.”

Then I went to Mali as a CUSO volunteer. We were a group of twenty Canadians in the capital, Bamako. The neighborhood children ran up to touch us and then looked at their hands to see if the white came off. We often felt the gentle touch of a hand on our hair as we worked with our high school students. We were taken to the front of the line to see the doctor, not because we were white, but because we were respected for having left the safety of our homes to come to work in Mali.

In these limited experiences, I felt no racism except perhaps a reverse one in Mali that worked in my favor.

Recently, I read two novels with an African American female as the protagonist. As I read, I was jolted each time something in the story reminded me of her color. Obviously, I was subconsciously seeing her in mind as white like me.

Why?

  1. Because, as a reader we all tend to identify with the hero or heroine and automatically see them as we see ourselves?
  2. Because, color isn’t an issue for me and I wasn’t consciously thinking of that as I read?
  3. Because I am racist and I couldn’t possibly see the heroine as a woman of color?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that a year or two ago these questions likely wouldn’t have entered my head. I’d have read the story, pondered what I liked about it, what I’d learned from it, likely recommended the book to friends, and then picked up the next on my “to read” list.

What changed?

Trump came on the scene and the media coverage that allowed him to build and grow his attacks on decency obviously impacted my mindset. Even though I’m not American and can’t vote in the election, I’m seeing much too much of him in the media here in Canada and on Facebook. His statements are abhorrent. I feel sick watching him, yet I’m obsessed and can’t turn the computer off.

I cringe when I see the picture of black manikins hanging in trees as Halloween “decorations.” I cry when I see African Americans attacked at his rallies. I fume when I see him stalk Hillary at the debates. And, I am enraged when I learn of his sexual attacks on so many women. His abuses of his position and his power are staggering—almost beyond belief.

The more I watch and read, the more afraid I am of his virulent actions and the actions of some of his followers. How far will this go? I pray he loses the election, but even then, I expect we’ll see an ugly, violent backlash.

Does any of this answer my original question? Am I racist? I don’t think so. What I do know is that somewhere in all of this mess, we all need to find ways to move to genuine goodwill in our treatment of others.

 

Memory Beats Reality

Barn

Perusing the book shelves in the hotel lobby, I snatched up a favorite I had read many years ago. This will be a delightful reread, I thought, with visions of snuggling under a warm blanket on the sofa and reading to the wee hours of the morning. I’d pretend I’d time traveled to my youth, but now I wouldn’t need to hide under the covers with a flashlight lest Mom notice and take the book away.

Alas, it was not to be. What I remembered as a delightful romantic romp was in fact a rather poorly written story “telling” rather than “showing.” I stopped reading before I got to the end of the first chapter preferring to live with the warm fun memories of the book than the reality that I faced now.

The disappointment with the book got me thinking. How many of our past experiences are better not relived?

For one, a visit back to my childhood home—shattering.  Our house and farmyard, diminished by adult eyes brought me to tears. Where was the enormous barn? It couldn’t be that little lopsided building over there could it? The house was worse—a tiny low ceiling three room structure rotting from disuse, the pattern on the wallpaper I so loved as a child faded to mere shadows.

Travelling is another. My first return trip to Mali was a delight. Three years after coming back to Canada, I revisited the house where I had lived, spent time with the students at the school where I had taught, browsed in the market, lunched with the nuns…. All was well.

Another trip to Mali twenty years later brought heartache. Inundated with refugees from the drought, the city was unrecognizable. Wide boulevards, now populated with rude shelters, reduced to narrow paths. The broad steps to the post office, now crowded with make-shift dwellings, had to be pointed out to me. And most of the people I had known were nowhere to be found.

Now, when I think of Mali and Bamako, my memories are tarnished by that later visit. I push them to the back of my mind and linger over the cherished ones from my years living there.

Visiting my school after retirement was another mistake. The start of a new year carries its own excitement unique to the people involved. I was no longer a player, and while I was welcomed warmly and showered with good wishes, all I felt after the visit was deep depression.

I’ve never been attracted to the idea of reunions and have never attended one. I think, now, that my instinctive rejection of reunions stems from this subconscious knowledge that memories are best left as they are—to be savored, and, over the years, to develop a hazy halo that we can bask in to our heart’s content.

 

 

An American Stands Out in Mali

well

The airport is small and crowded. We’re the only foreigners and are surrounded by Malians as we wait for out flight. The men could almost be in uniform as they are all dressed alike in khaki pants and short sleeved shirts.

We introduce ourselves to one of the men and ask where, in the US, he is from.

“How did you know I’m American?” He gestures to the crowd around us. “I’m dressed exactly the same as everyone else here and I’m black.”

“Well …” How do we put this delicately? “Your walk, your stance, your haircut all scream US.” We hesitate and then say, “You’re black, but your skin tone isn’t at all the same as the Malians.”

“You know,” he says, “I’m dean of the school of architecture at UofX. I came here to study the buildings, to see how they keep them cool in such extreme heat. I’m looking for ways to conserve energy back home, and in an ideal world, to eliminate the need for air-conditioners.” He smiles ruefully. “I thought that if I dressed like everyone here, I could blend in and travel unnoticed, so to speak, but I’ve been spotted as a foreigner every time. Now I know why.”

We nod, not at all surprised. “And what did you find out about the buildings?” we ask.

“Mud brick homes are built with two ceilings about three feet apart. The heat is trapped in between and the homes are surprisingly cool.”

Mud brick buildings in the US? Not likely, but we tell him we hope that he can find a way to create a natural air conditioning effect and wish him well as he heads for his plane.

 

 

Raymond takes care of the Canadians

jewelry

I lived in Mali some years ago. My husband and I have been here before for an extended visit and now we’re here again.

Despite our experiences in Mali, our host Raymond seems to feel a need to be “poule mère” or mother hen.

First it’s at the airport in Bamako and in the crowds his help is much appreciated. We whizz through customs as he seems to know all of the officers. Makes sense since he’s probably the one who taught them their self-defense courses.

Visiting the doctor, we once again appreciate his presence as he helps translate for us. Mind you, I could have done that myself. But the best part is his and the doctor’s glee in meeting a real “Bill Jones.” It seems that a certain Bill Jones figured largely in their English language lessons.

Then it’s off to the market to buy souvenirs and gifts for the folks back home. Raymond takes us to his preferred vendors and shakes a finger warningly as he admonishes them to not over charge us. He leaves us then to meander.

I’ve not forgotten how to bargain, and though it’s been many years since I lived in Mali, I know that 12,000 francs is way too much for the item in question. We bargain back and forth until we’re coming close to an agreement at 3,000 francs. Just then, Raymond walks up. The vendor takes one look at him and says, “1.000 francs, Madame.”

I stifle a giggle and hand the man a wad of francs that he will later discover to be 1,500 for I’ve tried, seemingly in vain, to explain to Raymond that a couple of dollars isn’t a big deal to us, but could be  and likely is a big deal to the vendor and his or her family.

Note: Currently the Internet tells me that 10 Malian francs (CFA) equal about 10 cents.

Soldiers, rifles, and ice cream

soldier

The year is 1972. We’ve spent a week in Morocco and now we’re in Mali to visit our friends. Their house is too small to accommodate us, but we’ve been offered the apartment belonging to a young couple from France who are away for a few weeks in Europe.

We also have a mobylette to scoot around town, so we’re set for the trip of a lifetime. We visit the zoo, swim in the Olympic sized pool built by the Russians, drive up to the hospital to see our friend and her brand new baby.

We also stop off to see the doctor and feel terribly embarrassed when we are escorted to the front of the long line. People have been waiting for hours, but we’re first—a courtesy to the guests. In answer to our protests, the doctor says, “You have left the comfort and safety of your home to visit a Malian friend. You do us the honor.”

“I think I’ll go get an ice cream,” my husband says one afternoon. “Want to come?”

“No thanks.”

The ice cream shop is just a couple of blocks away. He can manage on his own even though he doesn’t speak French. He leaves and a few seconds later I hear him calling my name. I step out and look over the balcony.

My husband is facing a soldier who has a very large gun pointed at his chest. Our apartment is opposite the court house which has been heavily guarded for several days as there is a trial on for the men who attempted coup a few months back.

I call out an explanation. It doesn’t get me very far as the soldier apparently has no concept of what ice cream is. I try again with a more general message that le monsieur is going to the store. The soldier nods and waves his gun indicating my husband can leave.

Later I look over the balcony again to see my husband handing a cone to the soldier and then demonstrating with his own how to eat it. They both look mighty pleased with themselves and I breathe a sigh of relief.

 

 

 

A brighter future is not to be

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It had been over twenty years since I’d been to Mali. Now, in 1995, what would I find?

In 1972, the airport crowd was sparse. We relinquished our passports to the customs official and waited. I heard a man calling “jeunesse, jeunesse” and looked around for a youth group. Then I saw that he was waving our passports in his hand and realized that jeunesse was his pronunciation of Jones.

In 1995, the airport is crowded and we don’t know which way to turn. Fortunately our Malian friend is there to meet us and he paves the way through the throngs of people to customs and then to collect our luggage which includes a huge box filled with toilet paper and Kleenex for him and his wife, items that are still expensive—when one is able to find them.

In 1972, the streets of Bamako were wide empty expanses. The post office steps vast and welcoming.

Bamako

In 1995, I search in vain for those sprawling boulevards and I miss the post office entirely. The streets and steps are clogged with makeshift shacks and vendors and carts. Most streets are reduced to one lane so that vehicles manoeuver cautiously between pedestrians, chickens, goats, and children playing in what little space they can find.

Where did all the people come from? Starving and desperate in the countryside plagued by drought, they fled to the city searching for a better life that is not to be found.

I was shocked and saddened by what I saw. I’d naively thought that time would bring progress, that conditions in Mali would be so much better, that the beautiful city I remembered would shine brightly.

That was 1995. Now? I’ll know more in January when my friend comes to visit me here in Canada. I’m sure she’ll have reports that I don’t want to hear, but I will listen and ask what can be done to help.

Raymond comes with gifts

AgfaPhoto

Raymond comes for another visit and, as usual, loaded down with suitcases full of gifts. As he pulls items from the cases and checks the list his wife has given him, we see that she hasn’t left anyone out.

Hand woven baskets for the moms, snake and iguana skin wallets (that I know from experience will never wear out), beaded bracelets for the girls, and handcrafted artifacts for the men and boys.

Raymond cross checks the items with the list. “Non, ce ne sont pas pour vous.”

AgfaPhotoSeeing that none of these are meant for us, he repacks the case and opens the second. He pulls out a massive wooden something.

“What is it?” I ask.

“Je ne sais pas.”

“But, Raymond.” I can’t resist teasing him. “You’re Malian, don’t you know what this is?”

He shakes his head and refers to his wife’s list.”

“C’est un piguet de tente.”

Light bulbs flash. A tent peg which can only be from the Tuareg of the Sahara.

What a unique gift. One we will always treasure.

What a sad gift.

Why sad?

Well, the fact that the Tuareg are selling basic items of their life tells us something of the dire straits they are in.

Are there benefits to moving?

AgfaPhoto

We’re moving. As I contemplate the demands and logistics of organizing, packing, and notifying friends, family, agencies of our new address, I wonder if there is an up-side to moving. The answer is, yes.

I haven’t moved often as an adult, but throughout my teaching career, I did change schools and that isn’t a lot different than a house move. Packing up the classroom – files, books, teaching materials necessitates much the same organizing and sorting.

Classroom contents such as textbooks belong to the school, but every teacher has a truck load of their own materials. My own books, posters, manipulatives, pictures, etc. go into boxes. Then, with each move, I face the filing cabinet, go through each file carefully—something I often haven’t had the time to do in years. Many things can be discarded as obsolete. Files I’ve used often and know I’ll use again get packed along with the rest. And often I stumble across gems that elicit an “Oh my, goodness, I’d forgotten all about this.” Ideas for teaching that I’d used with success in the past and somehow let fall by the wayside. They’ll be put to good use again in the new school.

Our last move was from a house to a condo and the process not much different from that described above. Decisions were made regarding which pieces of furniture to take and which to sell. The accumulation of “stuff” in the basement sorted, some of the items to be sold, others to be donated or junked. Cupboards and closets opened and emptied.

“I didn’t know we had this,” I said (more than once) as I sifted through boxes from the bottom of the closet.

“If we didn’t know we had it, do you think we can live without it?” my husband asked.

Settled in our new home, everything unpacked, pictures hung, I’m determined to keep our belongings minimal, to avoid the “acquiring” mode of my younger self.

Now as I prepare for this move, I see that I’ve partially succeeded. We still have too much stuff and much of it will have to go as we sort and pack. Some of the decisions will be harder than others. Do we really need those glass plates that were wedding presents, but never used? Do we really need two sets of dinnerware? We haven’t used the fancy ones more than once a year. What to do with those afghans Nana knit for us? Ah, we’ll give them to the grandchildren.

Where, in all this work, is the up-side of moving? Is it in the flood of memories that come with the finding and handling of items we’ve had for so many years? Is it in the freedom of parting with items we’ve had for so many years?

For me, the process of moving has invariably been positive—a cleansing of sorts. It’s rejuvenating to leave the old behind and move to the new. It’s liberating to divest oneself of material acquisitions. Of course I’ll keep the things I hold dear—family antiques, books, special souvenirs of Mali—but the rest will be downsized once again and I won’t miss any of the things I leave behind. Perhaps this is a piece of the freedom we all aspire to.