Saturday, June 12, 2010

Chinatown, Africa

Going back to the recurrent theme of the growing Chinese presence in Africa, here's a great video from Vanguard TV on the impact of the tens of thousands of Chinese in Angola. And don't miss the kuduro dancing at the beginning and end of the film.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


As I mentioned in my previous post, the great thing about Cuba is all the people you meet just walking down the street. As an example, while walking by an outdoor neighborhood bar, we were called over by a lady with a greasy piece of fried chicken in one hand, a beer in the other, and a big smile on her face. Over a beer, she explained that she lives in Italy and is married to an Italian. She was traveling in Europe years ago as an athlete and defected. Their family seemed to be expert on exporting women—something like four out of six sisters had married foreigners and were living in Europe or the US. Later we realized that the invitation we received to the santería ceremony the family was having that night may have been to give some of the younger women a chance to get married off.

I consider myself a bit of an expert on voodoo and santería, this being my fourth ceremony, but they never fail to impress. This ceremony was a kind of funeral for a sister who had passed away years ago. All the sisters had returned from their foreign homes to be with their mother and the rest of the family for the ceremony.

Below is a photo tour of the ceremony. A word of warning, this post contains some graphic images. Anybody who will be overly disturbed by a goat being decapitated may not want to continue reading (Thi Ri, that means you).

First, the priests led the crowd in prayers and in calling out to the spirits.

As the lamentations grew more intense, one woman became distraught and then seemed to be possessed and finally collapsed.

The prayers and wailing continued until another woman was overtaken and collapsed.

Then everybody came together for a final prayer.

And the drumming and dancing began.

And bring on the goat. The animal's throat was quickly cut and the blood poured into a pan. They then proceeded to cut off the hooves and tail, and then to castrate the goat.

Grandma was given the honor of taking a big bite out of the freshly removed testicle (I'll spare you that picture). Then everybody grabbed a little dinner.

Sunday, March 07, 2010


So, we've established that the cuisine should not be the main draw for going to Cuba. And ultra-lefties looking for a socialist utopia may have their fantasies shattered by the mind-numbing disfunctionality and rampant materialism. So, why go? Well, for those of us who are just a bit too young to have vacationed in the Soviet Union, Cuba is about as close as you can get these days. There's definitely no other place like it. And besides the political voyeurism, Cubans are just fun people. I can't think of another place where you can spend two weeks and have so many memorable conversations with random people on the street or be invited into so many people's homes.

For example, while driving across the island and picking up hitchhikers, we met:
- University students who speak quite good English and French and are studying to work with foreigners as translators, tour guides, etc. They said they chose this career because they are interested in meeting people from different places and learning about other parts of the world. Then they said they don't mind the fact that they're not allowed to leave their country to travel abroad.
- A doctor who had spent years working in Mozambique and Trinidad & Tobago as part of Cuba's program to send doctors to friendly developing countries.
- An old man who snored while he was awake and professed his love for mulattas, saying he'd never been with a white woman his whole life.
- A middle-aged guy who loved the United States with all his heart, although he had never been there and only knew what he had seen in movies, and spoke only in clichés ("I love Disneyland. It's the happiest place on Earth." or "I love America. It's the land of the free and the home of the Brave.")

[The Cuban Evander Holyfield.]

We rented rooms in the homes of a family of hyper-intellectual theater critics, a high-ranking government official, a man whose family had been among the elite but had everything confiscated after the revolution.

[This guy and his friends were training the dog for an upcoming fight.]

There were people who would love to leave the country as soon as possible and those who defend the government and socialism until the end.

["I am what I am. And what of it?"]

We were driven around for $5 by a former star player and current coach on Havana's biggest baseball team. It would be like if taxi driver in New York was a former star on the Yankees.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What's wrong with this picture?

PNUD is the Spanish version of UNDP (the United Nations Development Program). Somehow I don't think Ban Ki-moon would approve of this message, with all the UN sex scandals and all. This picture was taken in Santiago, Cuba. Santiago is overrun with Italian men who seem especially fond of the discos and the young ladies who frequent them. Now I don't know if it was an Italian UN worker who put a Playboy sticker on his car, but if I were a betting man...

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Viva la Revolucion

There's a lot to say about Cuba. Few countries have a recent history as compelling - a former playground of rich, hedonistic Americans and mafiosos; maybe one of the only truly idealistic revolutions in history; site of the crisis that was the closest the world ever came to to nuclear war (FYI, both Fidel and Che said they wanted the Soviets to launch the nukes, despite the fact that it probably would have meant the destruction of their country); a tiny island and long-standing bastion of communism that has stood up to the world's greatest power (and most fervent anti-communist country) only 228 miles away. Following a disastrous invasion by Fidel, Raul, Che and their fellow guerrillas in 1956, there were only 22 mostly unarmed and disoriented men wandering the mountains. Amazingly, these guys managed to take control of the country and piss off American politicians for over 50 years.

After this trip, my conclusions about the country are more or less the same as they were after my first trip eight years ago. Most people respect the revolution, but have had enough. Communism's just not really working out. A few examples:

Doctors make something like $20 per month. A good hustler can get that from a tourist in an hour. When the financial incentive is for the best and brightest to be wandering the streets of Havana looking for tourists, there's a problem. Ironically, this has created a situation where Cuba has become a prime destination for sex tourism - kind of like it was before the revolution.

People can't travel. Never a good sign.

[This notice, in a taxi, explains how to prevent catching H1N1. At the end, it asks, "Can I travel?" Well, no, you can't, but it has nothing to do with H1N1.]

Despite what you might think from having eaten at Cuban restaurants in the US or Europe, Cuba has some of the worst food in the world. The most commonly found meals are frozen pizza, hot dogs, rice and beans with a few scraps of meat, mayonnaise sandwiches, and ice cream (Cubans eat an astonishing amount of ice cream. Literally, everybody with like seven scoops of ice a slice of a sundae. No joke.) The lean economic times following the fall of the Soviet Union and central planning of people's meals has all but destroyed Cuban cuisine.

["Light food: fried chicken, hot dogs and steak"]

One might think that at least Cuba would be free of annoying advertising. Nope. It's just that all the advertising is for one product: the government. There are basically two news stories in Cuba that are repeated incessantly in various forms in newspapers and on the radio and TV: Cuba is unfairly on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism (they have a point) and the five "Cuban heroes" are unfairly detained in the US on spying charges (This happened in 1998! This was also the top story when I was there in 2002. A little obsessive are we?)

[Photo courtesy of the Cuban embassy in Nairobi website. I rest my case.]

I don't really know the details of this story. Cubans told me the Five were trying to infiltrate and sabotage groups of Miami Cubans who were plotting against the Cuban regime, which sounds quite a bit like spying to me. Either way, are these really the country's biggest problems? When the Haitian earthquake hit, the news just talked about the great work the Cuban doctors were doing there.

I'd have to say the best thing about communism in Cuba, besides the obvious free health care and education (I'm dismissing these jokingly, but yes, they are truly remarkable achievements and something my country should be trying to learn from. I think my discussion of this after the first trip was a little more balanced), is the Russian (former Soviet) embassy. It may be the coolest building in the world. Look closely...I'm pretty sure it's a Transformer.

[Photo credit: Daniel Norlund]

Thursday, January 28, 2010

As much as I hate discouraging comments, I hate having to delete a hundred spam comments about viagra and lactating lesbians even more. So, from now on, you have to sign in to comment. Sorry.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Huambo photo essay on HELO

The second issue of HELO magazine is out and I have one more photo essay in it, this time from carnival in Huambo, Angola.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Charm City

Since leaving New Mexico ten years ago, I've lived in London, Prague, Nicaragua, Colombia, Brazil, New York City, East Timor, Angola, Chad, Myanmar, and Benin. So, the next stop was obvious...Baltimore. Don't look so surprised, Baltimore has...crabs...The Wire...umm...multiple buses every day to New York.

Oh, and there's Johns Hopkins University, where I'm working on my PhD in the International Health Department in the School of Public Health. After almost four years in Africa, it was time to spend a little time in my own country and in an academic environment.

I'm debating what to do with this blog, since my daily life in the library may not provide the same quality of stories. I don't know when was the last time a rebel came through here. On the other hand, Baltimore does have its share of excitement, for better or worse. And the guy I bought my furniture from had a voodoo temple set up in his closet. Also, I do happen to be in one of the world's centers of global health learning, so maybe I'll focus more on sharing some of the bits of wisdom on saving lives I pick up here. And of course my work and research will still take me down there on a regular basis.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Voodoo Baptism

I’ve really been neglecting the blog. The main reason for that is my busy new life back in the US. But I’m not going to talk about that just yet, since I haven’t finished up with Benin yet. I promised to let you all know what a Beninese voodoo ceremony is like, and I’m a man of my word.

With the end of my stay in Benin quickly approaching, I picked up the pressure on the USAID driver/voodoo priest that I worked with to make something happen. Finally, on my last weekend, he came through. With a little support from the white guy (me), he would perform a type of “baptism” ceremony for a new baby of a young couple who hadn’t yet been able to save enough money to do it. Ever on my guard after years in developing countries, I asked the priest, Noel, to make me a list of the things that would need to be purchased and their prices. The list read:

1 goat $45
cola nuts $20
4 chickens $7
2 bottles of perfume $4
candles $3
1 bottle of gin $7
2 packets of chalk $2.50
1 packet of needles $1
1 packet of razor blades $.30
praying money of your choice

Now initially he had listed a dog or cat for the ceremony, but I object to that one. I was already questioning whether I wanted to watch – and especially pay for – a goat or chickens get killed, but there was no way I was going to have a dog get its throat slit. My curiosity goes pretty far, but I think that’s right about where the line is. In the end, we agreed that the only animals to be sacrificed would be the chickens. Generally, I’m pretty against killing animals for non-nutritional purposes, but I justified my support with the argument that I was just helping with a ceremony that was going to happen anyway. A little weak, I know.

So, what’s a voodoo ceremony like? I’ll disappoint you right now – no pins in dolls, nobody got possessed, and alas, not one single person turned into a lion. There was lots of praying and chanting. At one point, he went to each person and rubbed cola nuts on them. Questions about the person’s future prospects were and asked, and the nuts are thrown on the ground like dice. It’s believed that a god is answering through the nuts (turned up means yes, etc.). The baby’s father, after assuring Noel that he had been treating his wife well, was outed by the nuts. It turns out he’d been out late drinking with his friends. Don’t try to fool the nuts. I’m happy to report that I’m going to very healthy, successful, and wealthy in my life.

The ceremony then moved on to the grim stage, with the slitting of some chicken throats. Just like the Santería ceremony I attended in Cuba, the chickens were rubbed on a person to soak up all the bad vibes and then are sacrificed, with the blood poured over idols on the altar.

Finally, the chickens were buried and each person had a chance to make a personal prayer. All in all, a quiet, intimate, and interesting ceremony – even a bit touching at times.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dangbo, Benin

A few photos from a great trip through some pretty remote and waterlogged villages in Benin.