Thursday 27 September 2012

Rewriting the great bedtime stories I remember from my childhood

Once upon a time in a land far away there lived a handsome rich prince. Everybody wanted to marry him but he was a shrewd young man, mature for his years and wise about the ways of the world. He wanted to marry a true princess yet none of the many girls sent to his court had stolen his heart and he remained unmarried. Indeed many of the girls who came to court him claimed to be princesses with vast realms and riches to match his, but in truth their story was all window dressing and sooner or later each had been exposed for the fraud they were. Of course the prince kept on devising new tests to weed out these fraudsters but the gold diggers were always keeping one step ahead, so the prince had to devise yet more tests for the candidates for his hand. This stalemate had gone on for many years and the young prince was most unhappy and most frustrated and in reality running out of ideas. He had always been very careful about these tests, knowing that if any girl passed his test he would be honour bound to marry her. Now he was getting really worried. There were more and more suitors, who were more and more desperate to succeed in the tests, by fair means or foul, and some very dubious characters were to be seen accompanying some of the young ladies to court. Stories abounded of midnight raids on the wardrobes of other suitors, poison being put into other suitor’s food to make them sick, and other underhand methods being employed to eliminate competition.

As he sat contemplating his predicament one day his steward came to say that there was a pleasant surprise guest waiting to see him. To his delight it was his old aya, who had nursed him and all his sisters when they were young children, but whom he had not seen for a great many years. As they sat reminiscing over tea and cake the young prince told his old friend of his dilemma. The night drew on and the prince insisted that the old lady stay in his apartments not in the local hotel, and so she came to be around when the next batch of likely spouses came the following day. At first the prince was his usual polite but uninterested self. This batch was the same as before. No one grabbed his attention, they all looked identical “babes”, their conversations were boring, and their chaperoning mothers were battleaxes. Then just as he was thinking he might try and slip quietly away to go riding, cupid’s arrow struck. Across the other side of the room was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, with golden locks and bright vivacious green eyes, standing quietly looking at the pictures on his castle walls. He went over to speak with her and no sooner had he sat down with her than his steward came to ask if they needed a candle for the evening. Time had just vanished during their conversation. The prince escorted the young woman to her suite in the castle and wondered back to his apartments in a state of total euphoria.

Next morning however he woke in a desperate state, was this love, could she be for real? How could he find out. He had no new test for this batch just the usual ones which of course by now were old ones and everyone passed. His steward brought in breakfast and the days mail and told him his old aya had asked to see him first thing. The old lady came all excited. She too had notice the young couple talking for hours, and wise old woman that she was had taken action to help her young ward in his time of need. To her delight she now came to report that only one of the batch had passed her test. the young prince was at the one time delighted and frightened as he realized this was either the end of his nightmare or the beginning of another, potentially, worse one. He was cornered, he would have to marry the woman who had passed the test. But who was it. Now the old lady was a right romantic and wanted to keep the moment extremely special and stubbornly refused to tell the prince unless he came straight to his grand hall where all the girls were waiting to make the announcement. The prince realized that much as he loved his old aya, and had always trusted her, he was fearful that the chosen girl would not be the one he had fallen for. What he thought would he do then? Break his word? Marry another? A very worried and concerned prince walked slowly to his fate in the great hall.

There in front of all the court, the lords, ladies, the suitor’s families and chaperones, the old aya stood up to all of her frail height and commanded attention as she told them that her young ward’s long , and arduous quest was at an end. His future wife had been chosen because only one had passed the latest test. As the old lady took a breather, partly because she was old and partly for effect as she knew how to work an audience: there was much muttering debate and questions flew around the room. Finally the old aya continued her story, she explained that she herself had made every one of the girls beds the night before. More muttering was heard. Curses were heard to rise telling of her incompetent bed making being the cause of a most disturbed night’s sleep, of nightmare interrupted sleep, of complete inability to get any sleep whatsoever during the past night, of endless tossing and turning.

No not everyone, retorted the old aya:  all but one. Eyes darted round the room trying to find the one girl who did not look, dishevelled, tired, baggy eyed, and incessantly scratching unseen itches. Within a few minutes it became clear that everyone was looking at one girl. She quietly stood up and when asked how she slept,  said she had had a beautiful, sound and very restful night’s sleep, thank you very much and didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

By this time the prince was on his feet trying to see who this was and to his amazement and delight he found it his conversation partner of the previous night. How? his eyes asked his old aya? She clasped him tight and whispered in his ear, that only someone who was truly in love could sleep soundly with a itchy powder on her sheets. At this the prince kissed his old aya on both cheeks and raced across the room, fell down on bended knee and asked the girl if she would marry him . Of course, just as the old aya knew she would, she said yes, because she too had been struck by cupid’s dart the previous evening and had gone to bed in a state of total euphoria after taking her leave of the prince.

The couple married later that day with great pomp and ceremony and much music and dancing. The old aya was given pride of place at the head of the prince’s wedding feast table and her own private apartment in the royal household for the rest of her days. The couple lived happily together for a great many years and had lots of children. But they never forgot the old woman who had ensured their union and they took care of the old aya for the rest of her life.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

The darkness outside, the darkness in

Dark Matter




Michelle Paver


I can't recommend this book enough! I hovered about buying it from Audible for ages as it had been Ian McKellan's superb reading of
Paver's Wolf Brother that started me listening to audio books (my review) and as a result reading the whole of her brilliant fantasy  novel for the young adult reader, Chronicles Of Ancient Darkness Series, I wondered if moving to an adult book, and a ghost story to boot, would work for her and for me. Haunting (pun intended), beautiful, epic, vivid, memorable.... the adjectives keep on coming. From the first word I absolutely loved it! 

The narrator’s voice is so realistic, authentic, so convincing as Jack, the office clerk who had dreamt of being a physicist, and who to escape loneliness and boredom in London takes up with some well to do gentlemen explorers for an Arctic expedition in 1937.  When he faces the long cold northern winter alone without sun, with only the occasionally visible moon and the superb green hue of the Northern Lights to break it, he has to come to terms with not only the practicalities of living alone and living in perpetual darkness but also of overcoming the darkness inside.

His encampment on a remote stretch of beach has a history but is it a true story or a myth, a legend? Is there anything or anyone out there? is it the rampant overworking of the human mind when severely stressed and  isolated?, or is there really something there?  I won't give anything away because I think Paver tells this tales exceptionally well - I listened to it in 2 sittings only because I started it late one work day evening, else I  suspect it would have been an all in one read.

The book is written as the entries in Jack’s journal. In this way Paver’s writing builds the suspense, the characters, the story as you’d expect from such a format, but moreover she gives it an incredible sense of place and I mean that in both the external and internal sense and their interconnectedness :  a geographical sense of place in her depiction of the landscape of the northern wastes, the snow, the ice, the cold, the remoteness, its emptiness and its life, the monochromatic vastness, black and white with a significant splash or two of colour, the beauty of it all - pure cinematography in words, and a sense of the psychological  space of Jack  - the landscape of his emotions, his hate/love relationship with the husky dogs, his relationship with other people both before, during and after the expedition, his realisation of himself, of the breadth, depth and type of his emotions, of loneliness and of being alone, of the need for the bond of companionship with fellow man and dog and yet the horrid things men do to both. Imagination runs riot and has its consequences.

The fear of the dark, the "what's at the back of the cave?" conundrum that is as old as human history itself is the core of the story, it is what Jack has to handle. His stumblings on his journey are oftimes funny, sometimes sad, scary, simultaneously realistic and eerie. Just which are real and which imagined, decide for yourself when you read this excellent book.

 ashramblings verdict: Not to be missed. an accomplished, gripping ghost story (5*)

Sunday 16 September 2012

High life in Abuja

Braving the wet season downpours I headed out of Friday evening with new friend B ostensibly to have dinner. I knew we were going to eat fish, but little did I know we’d end up at one of Abuja’s hot night life spots, Blakes. At a 1000N entrance fee, it is way outside my volunteer budget. The younger vols often go to some of the city’s many clubs (usually the one’s with free entry) and bop the night away to the wee small hours to the latest hip-hop and other modern dance music genres which are not really to my taste. So as we approached I was already having second thoughts about the evening and trying to think up reasons for going home early :) So imagine my delight when we get sat down after picking our fish and ordering it to be cooked, when I hear the dulcet tones of a trumpet and the latin rhythms of high life wafting across the room to my ears. Oh heaven. If there is any music I associate with sub-saharan West Africa this is it.

We had got there relatively early at around 9:30PM in order to get a seat under cover as the seats nearer the stage are open to the elements, but the weather gods favoured us and he rain stopped and kept away. In the end the meal was Ok, nothing special but the atmosphere was great, not overly crowded by either ex-pats nor by 20-somethings. A number of acts took the stage during the evening beginning with a warm up compare rabbitting on about red devils in the usual pigeon English I fail miserably to understand until I  heard the words Arsenal and Chelsea – yes, football, the universally loved sport for all Nigerian who avidly follow the English Premier League! Ok so back to the night’s line up… 2 or perhaps 3 bands, and assorted individual performers, along with various dancers and acrobats, jugglers etc. The dancers, who were on stage for the vast part of the night , were 2 girls and 1 guy – oh gosh eye candy and they all knew it! And such energy. Pure showmanship. The young man dancer was perhaps one of the  strongest, fittest dancers I have ever seen. Late in the night’s events he and one of the vocalists did a staged act which I will try to describe. The dancer is down low on the floor, as if limbo-ing, and then raises his whole torso up and down, with the singer emphasising the motion with his hands and in time to the music. I lost count after 10 and he must have done 20! 

Of course all these “acts” are to engage the audience to give of their cash :) I assume that’s how the performers get paid . You see people go up on stage to dance with them and flash notes around and at the end of each set the artists come round the tables hats in hand. For the most part it is tastefully done, but there are times when performing for money this still makes me feel uncomfortable.  I know performers get paid, but do I need to see the money change hands? I know people pay for the experience be it paying to take a helicopter up over a glacier, paying an entry fee to a football ground, and even paying to be one of the passengers on the first commercial space flight. The last one of these we all know costs a huge amount of money, but for some reason I just don’t see the person who pays for this as doing it just to flaunt his or her money. Loads of people dropped notes to the singers, musicians, dancers etc but there was one guy who happen to be sitting on the table next to us, with a couple. She and I exchanged a few pleasantries but this man, on two occasions, went up on stage to dance, and instead of slipping the singer some notes either into his hand of shirt pocket etc had a handful of clearly new notes and was wafting them about, one after the other , confetti like around the singer and then one of the dancers. Grotesque! One of the stage hands had to come and scoop them all up for the band :)

A curio from the night – white handkerchiefs! Everyone takes out a (clean) white hanky and waves it around when dancing, some people even have 2!

Apart from that the night was great fun, Lovely music – old style highlife, modern highlife, some old pop, some rock and roll, some reggae, some Niaja pop and some modern African beat music I would not be able to put a genre to. Perhaps the  place for the 60th?:)  I finally arrived home about 3AM! and that was after having told out gate man when I left I expected not to be very late! This was so unusual for me that my flat mate had returned home from her night out, our house guest was in bed, and she thought I was as well, locked the door and left the key in the lock - consequently when I tried to open the door I couldn’t,  so I had to phone C, wake her up and get her to come and let me in. Oh dear what a way to end the evening! Nice one!

It's all in the tone!

First, some interesting facts about Nigerian Languages…..There are over 520 languages of them! Only Indonesia and Papua New Guinea have more. Over 1/4 of all African languages are spoken in Nigeria.  Hausa is spoken as a first language by over 25 million people, and as the second by a further 18 million.  (If you are interested to see where your language falls in the world rankings check out Ethnologue's website.) It is not surprising therefore that most Nigerians in addition to their own native tongue and English, speak or understand at least one other of their country’s languages. The languages with the most speakers are Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo.

Nigeria Sprachfamilien

All Nigerian languages are tonal. Yoruba, I am told, is amongst the most tonal languages in the world. For adult language learners tones can be difficult to master: the subtle rise and falls, the multitude of alterations to vowel sounds that tones make,  often sound very strange compared to the syllabic stress patterns of English. But as I found out last week, even native Nigerians have difficulty.

Last week one of my colleagues, A, was on the phone talking to someone in Igbo, not his native tongue, not even his second languages, actually more like his 4th after English. Next thing I knew my other colleague, F, sitting on the desk between A and me burst out laughing. It turns out A had fallen foul of a classic tonal pattern mishap, which in English sounds really unfortunately funny. He had meant to say Bawo ni isé? (Note the rising tone accent on the final 'e' which has nothing to do with the fact that it is a question, and which translates as How is work? But he had said Bawo ni ìsé ? (Note the additional falling tone on the initial 'i' of the final word) and this means How is poverty?  What a faux pas!

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Great finds on the web (1) – Lost Crops of Africa

I posted recently about eating Eritrean food for the first time. During my search for the botanical name for the grain used to make this I stumbled across an amazing book available  on the net. Lost Crops of Africa is an incredible compendium about the various crops and plants from different African countries. It is packed full of botanical, cultural, socio-political, historical and nutritional detail it is a proverbial encyclopaedia of native African food stuffs,Volume 1 covers Grains – the staples of much of Africa, Volume 2 Vegetables and Volume 3 Fruits”.

Browsing it took me back to university days, studying Economic Botany as it was then called, looking at edible plants for the Green revolution and diversifying the gene pool of hybrid species productivity. Did you know for example that rice, commonly associated with Asia, is also a African plant?

A different species has been cultivated in West Africa for at least 1,500 years. Some West African countries have, since ancient times, been just as rice-oriented as any Asian one. For all that, however, almost no one else has ever heard of their species.

Asia's rice is so advanced, so productive, and so well known that its rustic relative has been relegated to obscurity even in Africa itself. Today, most of the rice cultivated in Africa is of the Asian species. In fact, the "great red rice of the hook of the Niger" is declining so rapidly in importance and area that in most locations it lingers only as a weed in fields of its foreign relative. Soon it may be gone.

This should not be allowed to happen. The rice of Africa (Oryza glaberrima ) has a long and noteworthy history. It was selected and established in West Africa centuries before any organized expeditions could have introduced its Asian cousin (Oryza sativa). It probably arose in the flood basin of the central Niger and prehistoric Africans carried it westward to Senegal, southward to the Guinea coast, and eastward as far as Lake Chad. In these new homes, diligent people developed it further.”

The book is produced by National Academies Press and is available in full text on the web.

Monday 3 September 2012

Eating Eritrean food


Taita and shiro

A bit back my flatmate C and I took a walkover to our VSO staff colleague’s house close to where I used to stay. Y is originally from Eritrea and it was an opportunity for me to taste a new cuisine, although I skipped out from final course, the coffee, and instead had Arabic style tea served with cardamom and clove which I have had before. the main meal however was all new tastes.

The main staple is injera. Looking very similar to a think pancake or an Indian dhosa, injera is made from a flour of Teff grains (great for celiacs by the way) Botanically is a very old species, Eragostis tef, and highly nutritious. Taste wise I’d liken the resultant dough to a thin flat unrisen sourdough. I liked it, its sour taste compliments the spicy food really well. It is finger food, eaten by breaking of a piece of the injera and using it to soak up the various sauces. Y served two sauces: one made with chickpeas called shiro and the other a meat sauce called zigni . Yum yum / tu’um tu’um . A cooking lessons has been promised and if/when it materialises recipe instructions will follow