Sunday, August 29, 2010

21 July: Voi to Nakuru

We awoke in the morning, elephants sadly departed, and hit the road again, all the way back to Nakuru.  Not much to report, but I did manage to find a sort of nonsense reference in the following:

Groundnuts = peanuts
For any who don’t know, our own familiar “Yankee Doodle” is American Revolutionary nonsense and always delightful to encounter in the mom-and-pop shops of Kenya.  And in the same shop, this delightful parfum de l'homme:

Made with extract of ???
My only regret is that I didn’t purchase this, as I’m dying to find out more about Obama’s odiferous nature.  Many more hours on the dusty fusty rusty road brought us back to Merica Hotel, and looking forward to the next day, when we would do some field work at a local school…

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

20 July, 2010: Mombasa to Malindi to Voi

Adrian, Beatrice, and I left Mombasa early in order to make our appointment in Malindi, a few hours up the coast.  I felt as if I had made the best of the ISOLA conference, even though my time there was somewhat brief.  At least I hadn’t heaved my huts into the Indian ocean the day before, so all was not lost.  On the way out of the city, we happened to pass by a critical tourist shopping stop:

We are headed to a section of Malindi known as the first village in East Africa (so I’m told), and I politely decline seeing the coral pillar set by Vasco da Gama (a noble name referring to his mother’s varicose veins), to mark his “discovering” it.  We have come here to witness a traditional dance and to sit on the performers firmly until nonsense oozes out from their prepostulators.  As we wait for them to dry their drums (for the rains are coming and going), we visit the nearby butterfly farmers’ collective, a project that pays villagers in the local forest to farm butterflies rather than to cut down the trees and make charcoal, or some other less-than-lepidopterrific activity.

We return to the compound, where we suck down some coconut water and watch the show.  They begin with traditional dances, but once they are through, we ask about children’s games, trying to edge them ever onwards to nonsensical activities.

They demonstrate a few games, including the following one that seems fairly common throughout Kenya:

The leader of the group goes to great lengths to explain various games, songs, traditions, and old stories.

Because Adrian and Beatrice don’t speak the local language, much of the material has to be roughly translated on the spot into Kiswahili, making our selection process more difficult.  By the end of the afternoon, though, we have much footage and a lot of translation work ahead, to see what gems may be within.  

After giving us gifts of medicinal plants and flowers, the performers see us off, and we tootle our way (that’s about 6 hours of tootling, making my tootler a bit sore) back to Voi, our resting stop before going back to Nakuru.  We end up, after much driving around, getting rooms at the Red Elephant, a game park hotel.  In the darkness, about 30 yards from our hotel-hut doors, on the other side of a substantial fence, and standing placidly by a watering hole, a family of elephants slurps us to sleep.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Sunday-Monday, 18-19 July, 2010: ISOLA conference

On Sunday I was up early for the first session of the ISOLA conference, hoping that perhaps I could give my paper if a delegate did not arrive, since a scheduling snafu had slated my paper to arrive before I did.  I went to one of the panels that included Mubina Kirmani, an Indian Kenyan who had written a book on the large Indian population in the country—a topic that I thought might dovetail with my own research.  The panel members were all there, unfortunately for me, but they were kind enough to let me give a brief, 10-minute spiel on the Anthology.  Immediately after, I was called away by a conference worker because they had, at the last minute, found a spot where I could do my whole paper—a dollop of goop fortune on this, the last day and the last panel.  I was escorted to another open-air hut-like building, with a session already in progress.  After papers on music and dance, and the nature of conflict (not a bad preamble to nonsense), I was able to give my paper.  All went well, though there was an odd moment.  Just after I performed the throat singing piece, “Dürgan Chugaa” (from the group Alash), a whole troop of monkeys descended from the roof area and gathered on the rafters, looking on curiously.  The audience members found this most amusing, claiming that my grumbly kargyraa style of throat-singing had called the monkeys, which might very well be true. It was certainly a conference-first for me!

Yarn-artist's rendition of Mombasa monkey
mesmerized by throat singing. Note: the mesmereyes.
After the session, and over the next couple of days, I was able to meet many oral literature scholars from different countries, many of whom were interested in our project and may be able to contribute. 

The sessions having finished around noon, Adrian and I declined the conference trip to Mombasa in order to orchestrate our fieldwork material from the Osiri Beach area and even begin a little translation.  We sat in the lobby as the monsoon-like rains fell and darkness settled, finally able to look back on our long hours of recordings.

On Monday, I went on the conference excursion to the “marine park” and Wasini Island.  After an hour and a half rough boat ride, during which many folks got sick (not I, with a steely stare at the horizon and a steady chew of my South African biltung (jerky)), they cast out the anchor in the open sea and told us to don our swimming costumes—for the marine park turned out to be under water!  Most of us, dressed in our conference casual, were not quite prepared to go snorkeling—and besides, our green pallor would have made us difficult to distinguish, and pluck out, from the heaving seas.  We headed to Wasini Island for a lovely lunch, a tour through the village, and a look at the coral gardens, a green plain bordering mangrove swamp, dotted with jagged coral boulders in fantastical shapes.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Saturday, 17 July 2010: Voi to Mombasa and ISOLA conference

I didn’t want to make the first pizza from the last blog entry too obvious, but I have tell you now that our hotel last night was called the Silent Resort, and true to such a topsy-turvy adventure, it turned out that all night long, I listened to the dulcet thumping of a delightfully repetitive African pop bass line.  And when I say all night, I mean all night…music still pumping as we left… Whence the beat, you might ask?  No doubt the natives in the secret underground caverns that stretch from Egypt to the Grand Canyon, via Voi and surely a right (or wrong) turn in Albuquerque.

Adrian, Beatrice, and I packed ourselves back into our trusty car—which has by now had a flat tire, a punctured gas tank, and alignment perfectly calibrated for Moon craters, and hit it bright and early for Mombasa and the 8th conference of the International Society for the Oral Literatures of Africa (ISOLA).  The terrain went from scrubby des(s)ert to coconut cream pie as we hit the coast, where the heat and humidity are fairly staggering (though they’ve got nothing on a Delhi summer). 

We arrived in the afternoon at the conference hotel and venue, called the Leisure Lodge, which, despite its name, is not a retirement home in Florida but rather a lovely beach-hut-turned-circus-tent kind of resort, complete with monkeys inside and outside the main structures.  Because we had arrived after the start of the conference, Adrian and I had to slide into conference mode immediately, as we attended papers, meals, and schmoozing sessions.  I was fortunate to be able to meet with Judith Jefwa, a professor at the University of Nairobi, with whom I had been in touch via email a few month earlier, and who had expressed some interest in contributing to the anthology.  I also briefly met Dr. Peter Wasamba, chair of the Literature department at Nairobi and head organizer of the conference, who was kind enough not only to insert me into the conference late, but also to distribute among the delegates the Call For Papers flyers for the anthology.  The sessions on this day and the following were fascinating, especially for a scholar very much of the page such as myself.  As I mentioned in an earlier entry, the performative aspect of oral literature represents a whole new dimension to art, and it was eminently and elementally edifying to be among top scholars in the field.

What better way to top off a day of oral literature scholarly discourse than to enjoy the massive hotel buffet while listening to a local musician’s Casio goodness renditions of John Denver? 

I would have preferred the Beatles, or at least this Beetle.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Friday 16 July, 2010: Nakuru to Voi

Note Bene: For all those who have tried to post comments in the past, I believe I’ve fixed the problem—so please do post your comments!

Today was another slog of driving, from Nakuru to Voi, a town much closer to Mombasa and also where Adrian and Beatrice’s son, Paul, goes to college.  The drive was long, but completely rewarding.  We went away from the green climes of western and central Kenya and were moving into the eastern part, which is much dryer and hotter.  The grassy plains, with waves of tall brown grass hiding, no doubt, many a lion and lesser quangle-wangle, are dotted with gorgeous acacia trees which soon gave way to baobobs.  I realize now that the trees that I’ve been drawing all my life have actually been baobob trees, even though I’ve never met one. 

Massive, sectioned trunks that narrow dramatically into branches twisted fantastically.  After a long drive, with Adrian bravely taking on the endless random speed bumps and bribe-baiting police, and overtaking the black-cloud-spewing overloaded trucks moving 20 miles per hour, we arrived in Voi, where we immediately met with Paul, who introduced me to a young man and two elders from a local tribe, from the hills nearby.  We went to our hotel balcony where our guests recited nursery rhymes, game rhymes, and my favorite (even if not nonsense), the “beer blessing,” a ceremony performed by the father to the son when the son is to have his first beer.  It involves the father spitting/spraying beer on the son’s forehead and rubbing the beer into the scalp in long massaging motions, all the while warning him of the dangers of drinking.  We found one interesting nonsense piece that seems to be in many versions throughout Kenya, a rhyme recited when the children are going through the crops with sticks to kill the locusts (locusts which, by the way, I saw today… apparently quite a delicacy, as well).  Many thanks to all participants, especially those who came from the hills…

After the session, we had dinner, only to encounter these pizzas:

 If anyone can explain the naming of any of these, I would be most appreciative.  I know you have all missed the menus from last summer in Eastern Europe, so I hope this begins to satisfy you…  Suggestions in the comments, below??

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Thursday, 15 July, 2010: The legend of Gor Mahia

It was time to leave dear Homa Bay, and none too soon, for my life surely was in danger.  Forget the lion, the leopard, the buffulated buffalo, and the homuncular hippo—the most deadly African beast is surely the Four-Post Jellyfish.

It seems that this particular specimen had roosted over my bed, and so I had no choice but to vacate, seeing as I had left my jelly-extraction kit back in my leopard-skin pillbox hatbox box. I escaped unslimed, and we headed out to the next adventure, to learn of Gor Mahia, the famous Luo hero, known for his bravery, wisdom, and diplomacy, not to mention his magic.  He was most certainly a real person who, in his youth, had led the Luo in successful battles against neighboring tribes.  His did this, so it is told, sometimes by transforming himself into different creatures and objects, his favorite shape being that of a termite mound.  When the British arrived, Gor Mahia, then the leader of his people, saw the hard reality of the situation and collaborated with them to save his tribe.  Other tribes fought back and were easily slaughtered by the British.  Over the years, many stories were told about his different adventures, and it was Adrian’s field work that gathered these legends into a grand retelling, The Epic of Gor Mahia (Pangolin Publishers, 2003).  This day, we were to drive to the burial site of Gor Mahia in order to listen to one of the elders tell us some of the stories.

We were headed into the most remote region of western Kenya yet, from pocky pavement, to dirt road, to dirtier road, to roads where we had to stop the car and move large rocks out of the way, and finally to little more than a foot trail.  Adrian warned me that if it rained, we would be stuck, all while the clouds were gathering in purple piles to the east.  We finally parked the car just amongst the tufts of tall grass, below the hill that contained the burial site.  A short walk up brought us to a clearing, with a group of locals led by one of the descendents of Gor Mahia.  The site was no more than some mounds of dirt, demarcated by stones, but the interested parties were hoping to build a proper monument in the near future.  As we were shown the site, our storyteller arrived, an old behatted man who had much trouble navigating the dirt, stones, and trenches. Eventually, the men were all seated on top of the grave site, thanks to a collection massive wooden chairs that had been dragged from who knows where, while the women sat on the ground on the outskirts of the area.  Just as our master storyteller began, a few thick raindrops fell, and we were told that this was naturally Gor Mahia’s blessing.  The clouds passed, and we listened, under the baking sun, to the legends of the great Luo hero.

 Even Adrian, who has done so much research on Gor Mahia, learned a few new stories, and while the nonsense was most likely hiding under that rocks and stones, the stories we heard added much to our knowledge of Luo people, their history and culture, not to mention their vivid imagination.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Osiri Hill, Kenya, Part 2

 Wednesday, 14 July, 2010

I spent another day in the company of the Luo around Osiri Hill.  We arrived a little earlier than yesterday since we had so much to do, and this was our last day here.  As happened yesterday, a group of dancers and singers met our car.  This time, it was a group of women, in fact, an organization headed by Hellen Akinyi Kanda Nyakobiero, that benefits local women and children.  They hopped and popped and helped bring some of the others out of their shyness throughout the day.

 No more opening ceremonies for this day—we got right down to it, having performances throughout the day of stories, riddles, history, quizzing on traditions and customs, and proverbs.  It seems that, thanks in part to Hellen, but also to the general vibe, people were a bit more relaxed today, which led to some wonderful interactive oral literature.  I should perhaps mention that performances here, and also generally in Africa, involve the audience in ways that would seem downright inappropriate to a western audience.  The performers often go through a ritual call-and-response greeting and then, throughout the performance, entertain the audience’s comment, jibes, often incorporating them into the whole.  There is a kind of willing participation—active rather than passive reception—that enlivens the performances here and makes them unique to the occasion.  Of course, I will be exploring how nonsense may play a role in this distinctly African way of performing.

In our break from performances, we walked down to the shores of Lake Victoria, where I could, if I so desired, walk in the steps of the hippo, their tracks sunk deep in the mud. 

We walked through the fields of wild ongongo, tall and strong arid wildflowers, to return to the hut.

And now it was time for my performances…  Because most of the audience had little or no English, I chose the more performative pieces, “The Bathing Hymn” from The Tenth Rasa, and “The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles” (from Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play—and by the way, thank you Mrs. Quinto, not only for the leather trousers but for allowing me to perform this in Oral Communication in the Year of Dour Gourd, 198XX).
"This is the story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles!"
Towards the end of the day, we were able to ask the participants to give some of the children’s rhymes they knew, which of course are often brimming with nonsense (and this is why people are reluctant to perform them, sadly).  And then, as an experiment of sorts, we actually asked them for nonsense.  Of course, the word for "nonsense" in Luo, in its literal meaning, does not designate a literary genre, although there is a different word, oyuma, that implies a kind of silliness and stupidity of speech that has some semblance of structure.  Adrian tried to explain a little, but we left the rest up to the group as to how they might represent a performance of oyuma.  The result was hilarious:

This film is of Hellen Akinyi Kanda Nyakobiero, the leader of the dance group mentioned above.  A few people arose and performed this kind of piece, ones mostly involving sounds, laughter, wild gestures and facial expressions, and audience engagement.  Few words were spoken, and the audience loved it.  Most interesting to me was that it seemed that this kind of performance was an accepted part of their repertoire—a kind of nonsense performance that even Adrian, who has done significant research and field work, didn’t know (note bene: Adrian’s field work has mostly involved the story of the Luo hero, Gor Mahia, which is distinctly non-nonsensical).  As texts, these are mostly just sounds and gibberish, and so my western scholarly brainbean wants  immediately to exclude them from the nonsense cannon.  As performance of oral literature, however, they have structure, sense implication, and other goodliness that my students will recognize as hallmarks of the Real Thing.  As I try to consider concepts of performance nonsense, which would have to be the main mode of African nonsense oral literature, I can see how these “texts” could indeed be considered nonsense.  Certainly fodder for future floundering.

By way of a croaking goodbye, I performed one last piece, “Dürgen Chugaa,” the Tuvan fast-talking nonsense chant by the group Alash, in my best counter-counter-baritone kargyraa throat-singing.

After a long, leguminous day of nonsensical proporpoises, we had to say our goodbyes, with an array of speeches and much goodwill bubbling up and reaching from Lake Victoria to the top of the Inspiration Tree.  One of the men said to the crowd that these performances reminded them of the richness of their own oral literature—something that, with “developed” cultures continually encroaching on the “developing,” they tend to forget. I was told to bring word of the Luo to Obama himself, and I promise that if I ever meet him, I shall. 

Imagine spiritual ostrich feathers on my head

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cape Town to Nairobi to Nakuru to Osiri Beach

Sunday-Tuesday, 11-13 July, 2010

 My dear, patient penultimate penguins, I’m sorry it has taken so long to get to Kenya… I have frequently been sans internet, and I’ve also been so very busy with our field work, conferences, and the snark infested waters of the Indian Ocean.  I also must apologize, because it seems that, at least for now, I can’t post film clips (that is, without sitting here in the lobby of this hotel for a hour, for each to upload--which is what I did to get the one below!).  I have some great footage, though, and I’ll post various things when I return to the Land of Broadband, or at least the Land of Brobdingband, which is slightly more beefy and has better sausages.

And so… from Cape Town, I managed to maneuver my pith helmet bark around the Cape of Good Hamhock and up the east coast.  I took a left before the Horn of Slapricow and rode a tumultuous typhoon to Nairobi, where I met, after much correspondence and anticipation, Adrian Onyando a scholar of oral literature at Egerton University, a poet and storyteller, a gentleman, a man of much muchness, and One Good Egg.  Adrian had gone to great pains in creating an extraordinary 2-week field work and research program, the details of which I will, presently, be playing out on this here blogbone.  Adrian and I immediately drove about an hour and a half to Nakuru, and the Merica Hotel.  Thankfully, it being a singular institution, it is not a Merica Hotel. 


Adrian, his wife Beatrice, and I left Nakuru early on Monday to reach Homa Bay.  It is a long drive, and towards the end, the roads degenerate considerably.  Along the way, we passed through rural Kenya, with fields of corn, sorgum, sugarcane, and in the highlands, endless stretches of tea plantation, a lucrative legacy of colonial days. We made a stop at a honey-making collective, where one may buy a special honey mix, including—all smashed into a brownish, lumpy sludge—bits of comb, semi-solid mystery-blobs, plenty of honey-mummified bees--oh--and some honey.

We did not arrive at Hotel Hippo Buck (Yes, what else?) until night, where Adrian, Beatrice, and I thankfully fed ourselves with fish and ugali (the ubiquitous cornmeal cakes… think gritsbricks), and retired…

The next day was the first real day of field work in the Homa Bay area, home to the Luo people (though they are spread out through many countries in Africa).  We drove the dirt path up Osiri Hill, past the small houses of corrugated iron and thatched roof, and ended up at Adrian and Beatrice’s compound, which features the beginnings of their organization, the Osiri Beach Education and Career Forum (with the rather unweildly acronym, OSBECARF).  Through OSBECARF, they have built the only library within many miles of this location, and they also have various education and counseling programs for the villagers in the area.  It is an enormous undertaking, and they have done some amazing work, getting the local children funds, which are combined with the parents’, to put them in schools--and then making sure they stay in school.

When our car entered the courtyard of the compound, we were greeted by a group of performers drumming, singing, and dancing to welcome me.  Ostrich feathers flying, drums drumming, they made me feel positively ostrichish, or perhaps just ichish.  Sometimes I can’t tell the difference. The area elders came down the hill, and I went down the line, shaking hands, receiving their blessings and well-wishes, to which I replied in my limited Luo, ero kamano, thank you. Also, when they really mean it, they have a hip, three-part handshake: the normal, then the cool thumb-gripper, then normal again.  As I was filming, one of them stepped boldly out, grabbed my hand, and led me up to our gathering place.  I have the film clip to prove it, but it will have to wait until I can post these…  In the scorching sun, to the accompaniment of drums, feathers, and a shofar-like horn, I stomped and kicked, clomped and shook and booked and jumped and, finally, schlumped, as they played that funky music.  After wowing the crowd with my moves (and also removing the last shreds of doubt in relation to my ability to get down and shake it with a ceremonial fly-swatter), we had some speeches, and then I was taken around back, to a garden area, to plant my welcome-tree.  Now, I have had some affinity with the Lorax for some time (notwithstanding the moustache), but never did I imagine that I would have a tree not only planted in my honor, but also named after me.  Michael the B, meet Michael the Tree.  I put the sapling in the ground, threw in a few shovels of dirt, and watched as they watered and filled in the rest.

I gave my namesake a firm leaf-shake and was escorted up Osiri Hill, for a view and storytelling.  The land is dry, with strange cactus-like desert candelabra trees and magic wildflowers.  At the top, I was able to see all around, including a piece of the enormous Lake Victoria below, with all the hills and valleys around.  I was told the history of the area, about the original tribe of magicians who lived on this hill until other tribes drove them out.  When the magicians left, they scattered their remaining seeds, where their magic plants prospered, but now the plants were cursed.  Since then, Osiri Hill has been avoided by some, who fear the bitter magic of the plants, and who say that the magician tribe occasionally sneaks back, to gather plants for their magic brews.

On the way back down, we stop by the “Inspiration Tree,” a lovely sculpted tree with thick foliage creating a cool chamber below, where a ring of rocks marks the performance space around the trunk.

 I’m told a story of magic and hippos and led back down the hill, over mysterious ancient stone configurations, to the main hut where everyone is assembled.

Now that all of the welcoming ceremonies have been attended to, the next step is introductions.  Starting with the elders, each person introduces him or herself to the group, but this is no simple howdy-do.  The Luo people prefer to introduce themselves with far more than their names; they also give their nonro, or background, and then they often deliver their pakruok.  There is no direct translation for pakruok—it is a unique form, that has, by the way, had little scholarly attention—but it includes nicknames, very short stories, and/or what is like a brief narrative, compressed into a form that also resembles a name itself.  For instance, Akwany son of Otieno, gave this pakruok: “the-behind-of-a-ship-is-white-as-it-starts-off.”  The pakruok utterance is distinguished from normal introduction and storytelling by a certain chant-like intonation, pacing, and musicality.  The pakruok can also include one or more siguia, an original musical composition that acts as a personal song. Part of the nature of the pakruok is that it should be unusual and interesting… and thus, when the Luo combine artistry, humor, wild creativity, and a strong sense of identity, they sometimes end up with literary nonsense, from carnivalesque gender games to logic-bending images and non sequitors.  The following is one of the more animated fellows in the group, who identifies himself as Odira:

And so once again, we find new uses of nonsense—in unexpected and extraordinary ways.

Here is the text from one of the pakruoks (though not the one above), from Ong’ete Marembo, a Luo man (who, by the way, also uses the name, "Wilkista," below, which is a woman's name):

     I am the Smoke that overlooks the illness of the sheep;
     Wilkista* Agutu son of Marembo.
     Let-me-see brings Give-me, the brother to Onyando
     Let-me-see brings Give-me:
     ‘Why do you pull this cloth,
     Since I started pulling it, you too have been pulling it?’
     I stop there.

Through the afternoon, the audience members performed various kinds of oral literature, including songs, stories, riddles, and tongue twisters (which, as I suspected, produced some nonsense).  We managed to gather some children to perform, as well, though most were at school.

One of the problems with this kind of gathering is that people tend to want to perform only those pieces that they think are fit for a guest—pieces that give their history or have some otherwise didactic  or “high” artistic value.  Of course, what I want is their nonsense literature, and while they usually have it, they are reluctant to deliver for fear that it is not worthy of the occasion, that it has little value, hearkening back to the accursed dictionary definition.  This is, in part, why we are doing this; just as Sukumar Ray created the tenth rasa to legitimize the genre of nonsense, so we try to elevate its status wherever we go.

My high horse has grown long in the trooth, and so I shall take him out behind the barn with handcuffs and a baguette.  Beatrice and some of the other women provided a huge feast, that was taken in a separate hut with Adrian and several of the male community elders.  There were a few more performances before we had to go home in the gloaming.  I promised the group before I left that I would repay them, in my own small way, by performing the next day…though what exactly I would do, I wasn’t sure.  Still, their interest was peaked, and we all retired looking forward to another day of stories and nonsense.  I place a white stone on this day.

By the way, anyone wishing to donate to OSBECARF and/or sponsor one of the local children can write to Adrian at: or It takes very little money to make a huge difference here.

Greeting From the Library of Congress

Dear Nonsensical Readers of Sonzenbia,

Kevin here.

So, Michael has been traipsing about Africa hunting for nonsense without me. I’d give my left tongue to be with him. But this is not to say I’ve been idle. Admittedly, for a while there, I was just resting in my hammock in Virginia. But one day when I was resting in my hammock I started to feel guilty that I was not hunting nonsense in Africa. The following is a photo of me at the exact moment when I was resting in my hammock and started to feel guilty that I was not hunting nonsense in Africa:

With guilt in tow I drove through the jungles of Virginia (three whole hours) to the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Something about Washington, and something about something named after Congress, made me think there might be nonsense about in this place.

I began my search.

My main search was for nonsense in Africa, naturally. But along the way I was surprised to find nonsense catalogued at the Library of Congress for Israel, Turkey, Germany, The Czech Republic, Poland, Italy, France, The United States, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and Colombia. It was a treasure trove. Who’d ‘uv thunk it? As the Library of Congress is a non-lending library I spent about 100 dollars making copies… but that’s neither here nor there.

The following is a picture of me there (or here):

About Africa…

The Library of Congress had almost no leads at all cataloged for “nonsense” and “Africa,” and none by any particular country name, i.e. “Kenya” or “Uganda.” I did have one hit from South Africa… “Gillian’s Nonsense” but the “nonsense” here was not nonsense, as we here know and define it. I also pulled up a small collection of African American street rhymes, which did indeed produce a couple good results. This one's from Texas:

I wish I had a nickel
I wish I had a dime
I wish I had a boyfriend
Who kissed me all the time
My momma took my nickel
My daddy took my dime
My sister got a boyfriend
And gave me Frankenstein
He made me wash the windows
He made me wash the floor
He made me wash his underwear
And he kicked me out the door

Back to Africa… I searched under various languages as well, such Lou, Bantu and Swahili. Nothing. I knew in this moment that Mike had his work cut out for him in the field. But I kept digging and searched instead under the wide umbrella term “folklore” to see if any likely suspects might turn up from oral traditions.

In the end I think I did find a few things.

The following is somewhat nonsensical, and is a translation of a Kenyan folksong collected by Gichuhi Ngugi in 1984. The title is “Wagacuki.”

Bee, let us fight.
If you will fight with me, I’ll slaughter you.
The meat will be taken to the blacksmith ;
The blacksmith will make knives ;
The knives will stab the clouds :
The clouds will give the rain :
The rain will water the grass ;
The grass will be fed to the calf ;
The calf will marry a wife ;
The wife will cook porridge ;
We will drink the porridge.

And here's another Kenyan folksong, titled “Lililio" which was collected by Joshua Eshiokhunjira in 1984. It is a comprised of a string of nonsense words with a couple of random objects thrown in for seemingly no reason. With the “sensible” objects translated to English the song runs:

Bitter meat
Bitter fish

Turning to a slightly different genre, Mike and I have learned that prose-folk-nonsense is one of the rarest types of nonsense—always a surprise when it’s found. The following is an African folktale/riddle, that if read simply as is, is pretty nonsensical:

A man and his brother were on the way to sow their millet. The younger brother went on ahead, carrying the millet seed on his head.
As they walked along, the younger brother suddenly stopped and said, “It is sweet!”
They sowed the millet, cultivated it, harvested it, and then passed a season until the rains came again.
One day the man and his brother started out again to sow the millet.
When they came to the same place where the younger brother had spoken the year before, the older brother asked, “What is sweet?”
The younger brother answered, “Honey!”

Kind of funny I think.

I also found some other examples of folksongs that will have to wait for transcription for now—beer drinking songs, naming songs and coming of age songs--And there were a few longer modern poems that may make it into the anthology… works such as “J. Oreng” by Lucas Odote or “Msonga Odhil” by Ogwang Okoth... both of whom were writing in the Lou language.

In all The Library of Congress nonsense holdings proved pretty enlightening.

When my Africa search dried up I turned my attention to collecting some great material from New Zealand, Canada, France, Italy and Germany. Alas, the Turkish, Israeli and Japanese material was not made available to me on this visit. Another time. However, I think that my favorite find at the Library of Congress was a rare book published in New York in 1825. The title? “Aldiborontiphoskphorniostikos.”
Aldiborontiphoskphorniostikos is a collection of mind (and tongue) numbing nonsense phrases and tongue twisters. It was, ostensibly, published as an alphabet “game," but apparently did not catch on. Perhaps the page representing “N” will explain why:

“N, Never were such Times! said Nicholas Hotch-Potch, as Muley Hassan, Mufti of Muldavia, put on his Barnacles to see little Tweedle gobble them up, when Kia Khan Kreuse transmogrified them into Pippins, because Snip’s wife cried illikipilliky, lass-a-day! ‘tis too bad to titter at a body, when Hamet el Mammet, the bottle-nosed Barber of Balsora, laughed ha ! ha ! ha ! on beholding the Elephant spout mud over the ‘Prentice, who pricked his trunk with a needle, while Dicky Snip the Taylor read the Proclamation of Chronohotonthologos, offering a thousand sequins for taking Bombardinian, Bashaw of three tails, who killed Aldiborontiphoskphorniostikos.”

Time to get back in my hammock.

Dr. Kevin Kelley Shortsleeve, July 2010

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Anachronous update: Nakuru, Kenya, after and before

Hello everytoady! Apologies for disappearing for a little while... you see, after leaving Cape Town, I went directly to Nairobi, then Nakuru, and then out into some remote places around Lake Victoria. Adrian Onyando and I have done some amazing field work, and I will bring it to you soon. Unfortunately, the internet in my current hotel is also quite substandard, so I'm going to have to wait longer before I can post things. Do not despair! Our adventures continue is several more areas of Kenya before I go to Uganda on the 24th.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Three Men and a Stone

Cape Town
Saturday 10 July, 2010

I woke up to the sound of rain, a perfect beginning to my one day of touring around Cape Town. It didn’t matter, though, as I was to be in the indubitable, redoubtable, and redubitable company of Philip de Vos and Niki Daly, who had generously offered to guide this poor sybaritic sinner through the Things and Thongs of Cape Town. Due to the weather, we visited a couple of used bookshops, where my nonsense hunter’s instinct didn’t quite lead me to anything South African. As I had read in the studies of children’s literature, many of the books were British and American, including Spike Jones, Thurber, and the ever-present, ever-blyted Enid Blyton. As my grandpappa used to say, one doesn’t always bring a kudu home from the veld. Grandpappa was, in fact, more likely to bring an impalatable ipecacish impala strapped to his strop.

We had a lovely lunch by the sea, where we gained one passenger on our trip, making us the carbon copy (or at least the molybdenum copy) of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, although instead of a dog, we adopted a white stone.

Philip and I left Niki and went to Chapman’s Peak, a high point from where we could see the mountains all around...

These peaks are a part of the so-called Twelve Apostles. The ones pictures above are Paul, Peter, Timothy, Sidney, and Charo (with the cloud-clinging boa).

Below, the blue, blue water:

A sumptuous dinner in the company of the whole passel of Consistent Compotators topped off the day.  Such a lovely leaving of Cape Town, thanks to the kindness of nefarious newts. It was, in more ways than one, a white stone day.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Cape Town, Days 4-5: Slugs, thugs, and mugs

Thursday, Friday, 8-9 July, 2010

I headed down to the National Library again on Thursday and Friday, but before I talk about my continued research, a photograph of two of Cape Town’s main attractions:

The so-called Wheel of Excellence, right next to the Mound of Indifference.

My remaining time in the National Library was spent going through children’s literature and oral literature. I’ve made a few discoveries along the way, including a terribly racist Alice in Wonderland imitation, but nothing too dearth-shattering. As Mrs. Baba told me, the indigenous material is rarely published, and as I have found out reading about children’s literature in South Africa, most of it only sees one printing and then disappears or is eaten by toothy children. Just as the India market for English books has been dominated by books from the UK, so English-speaking South Africans have been only too happy to import their books from abroad, and so native publishers rarely would solicit more indigenous material. Jay Heale writes that before 1985, there were so few children’s books published in South Africa as to be “derisory,” and he gives the grim statistics for post-1985:

Year Total books for children’s published in South Africa
1985 26
1986 59
1987 134
1988 121
1989 109
1990 105
1991 84
1992 78
1993 102
1994 92
1995 76

(from Heale, Jay. from the Bushveld to Biko: The growth of South African children’s literature in English from 1907 to 1992 traced through 110 notable books. Grabouw: Bookchat, 1996. p. 3)

Things have been getting better since then, thanks to writers and artists like Niki Daly, Gus Ferguson, Philip de Vos, and Piet Grobler, but there is still (as there was in India) far too much Enid Blyton on the shelves.

On Friday, first thing in the morning, I met with Gus Ferguson, who, in addition to being a pharmacist, a top-notch poet, and a cartoonist, is the Cosmic Life President of the Snail Liberation Underground (SLUg?), and the erstwhile publisher of Slug Times, a magazine of slimendous proportions. I thought that perhaps it would only be fitting for an upright member of the Society for the Prevention of Sense (SFPS) to collaborate and conspire with the SLU(g), and so, to make our First Contact as smooth as possible, I set out to liberate a snail (and to document it fully). I scoped out a colony of indentured snails toiling away in the park near the library, and, while pretending to be one of the Hairytrees that inhabit this land, I swooped in and liberated the snail. But, as I have learned from The Herding of the Snail, it is not enough to liberate a snail. One must tame the snail, take it home, play with it, and by these processes, transcend the snail and self to achieve Enlightenment. And this is what I did.

As you might imagine a meeting between two self-less and snail-less beings can only be harmonious, and so it was. Gus was kind enough to bring many of his books, and we talked much about this and that, nonsense and Fook Island. I also discovered that there is a “Slug Award,” a shining beacon of slugness, given by his august Underground movement, and that Niki had in fact won it. I can only hope, some day, to be worthy of the Slug Award.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Cape Town, Day 3: Meetings and bleatings

Wednesday, 7 July, 2010

Today, on the way to a meeting at the Centre for the Book, a division of the National Library of South Africa, I happened down Dorp Street, happened down Dorp Street, dorp dorp dorp. You must forgive me, but if there were ever a Dr. Seussian street, it must be Dorp Street, happened down Dorp Street, dorp dorp dorp. One day when I’m older and twenty pounds colder I’ll cycle to Berklee down Dorp Street. And when one bikes home in the dusky alone it then naturally turns into Prod Street.

Well, my dreams of Dorp Street (happened down Dorp Street, dorp, dorp, dorp) will have to wait for another day, for this morning I had a meeting with Mrs. Nombulelo Baba, the Project Coordinator of children’s literature programs at the Centre.

But I almost turned away from this charming old building. You see, after climbing the outside stairs, I was confronted with this sign hanging in the door:

How odd, I thought, since the weather seemed quite nice, if a tad chilly. Could these South African winters really be considered so bad as to close buildings? It was unlikely, but the sign seemed clear enough. Still, I had to look inside, just in case. Sitting at two reception desks were two receptionists receptioning receptively (respectively). I walked in and made a little joke about the sign: “I thought you were closed for the weather… so cold! Heh heh.” Receptionist number one replied, “No, only the doors are closed.” Well I’ll be a boer-sausage strudel! If there is one thing Kevin and I learned last year, it was never to take anything for granted when traveling hitherward and thitherdorf!

In our meeting Mrs. Baba and I talked nonsense for quite a while, and I was able to get a better understanding of the children’s book scene in South Africa. Apparently there are still precious few books that record (let alone translate) indigenous oral literature, particularly that of children—nursery rhymes, lullabies, game rhymes, etc.. The Centre tries to encourage those who might not normally publish to do so, but because it is underfunded, this task is challenging. Still, from what I saw, they are doing excellent work so far. Mrs. Baba was kind enough to spread the appeal for nonsense to her colleagues and to the greater group at the Centre. Many thanks for her kindness.

I spent the afternoon at the National Library, continuing to go through whatever literary and native oral literature I could find—and I did make a few interesting discoveries, including one nonsensical mathematical limerick from the 1920s (the nonsensical nature now having been confirmed by my redoubtable numerical neighbor Eric, whose mathematical chops are deeply fried and served with applesauce).

I walked back home to prepare for the big meeting, one I had been anticipating for two years. It just so happens that, in 2007, I thought I would have the opportunity to meet Niki Daly, author of A Wanderer in Og (which he writes under the perplexing pseudonym “Nicholas Daly”) one of the finest nonsense books to come out in recent years in any country. We were not able to meet at that time, and I was lucky to have this second chance. To make things all the better, Niki was able to rope in Philip de Vos, a very fine South African poet (both in his native Afrikaans and in English) and another one of those rarest of birds: a nonsense artist. Interestingly, and as is often the case with nonsense artists, both Niki and Philip have significant experience as musicians. I was positively atwitter. When I walked up to Time-Out Café (which, appropriately, has a wall painted in melting clocks and mincing, nightmarish forks), I saw Philip sitting, and even though our eyes met for a few seconds, it seemed as if I wasn’t at all what he was looking for. It turns out that I wasn’t at all what he was looking for. Apparently, when he had googled me, the first photos to come up were that of my eternal name-nemesis, I. Michael Heyman, the ex-director of the Smithsonian Institution. Ira Michael Heyman is probably around 80 by now, and so, once I introduced myself to Philip and learned of the confusion, I understood perfectly.

[Not me]:

We sat down and began to sink our teeth into the nonsense when Niki came in, and sure enough, he also looked somewhat strangely at me. As I soon learned, he was, in fact, expecting to meet a brightly turbaned, extravagantly mustachioed India man (which admittedly, I almost am sometimes), as this was my profile picture on Facebook.

[Also, not me, but certainly closer historically, spiritually and follically]:

And so, despite the initial disappointments (for my true appearance, especially since I shaved my own extravagant whiskers from last summer, is not nearly as inspiring), we managed to salvage the evening with much merriment and discussion of nonsense, its relation to music, footballies, and operatic sunsets. Philip gave me some of his nonsense books (like gold to me) and a few CDs of his poetry and music efforts, some public and some not (like double gold). Niki gave me a copy of The Herding of the Snail, a brilliant work which I’ll talk about later, and a pile of his A Wanderer in Og, which I can distribute to those who eat all their peas and, rather than being naughty or nice, are particularly ogfull. It was a great pleasure and an honor, and I floated away in a cloud of sudorific sand…

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Cape Town, Day 2

Tuesday, 6 July, 2010
Cape Town

I had heard tell of the Fearsome South African winter, but rather than my usual habit of chewing the facts to gluey pulp and spitting it up for your easy digestion, I present to you photographic data with which you can make your own decision:

Today was the day I had tried to avoid far back into my trip-planning: the World Cup semi-finals game in Cape Town. There was nothing for it however, and so I would have to face to vuvuzelas.

In the morning, after some writing and various business backflips, I walked into town (no longer backflipping, but occasionally backflapping) and, after some awkward soccer banter with the bag-check fellow (despite my lack knowledge, I faired fairly fair, all told), I plopped myself down at the National Library.

Over the next several hours I poured through everything that the various librarians and I had picked out: various books on oral literature, some meek and mild non-indigenous nursery rhyme collections from the early twentieth century, folktales, and several books by Niki Daly and Gus Ferguson—but more on them later (the next day I was to meet Niki and Philip de Vos—stay tuned!)

I managed to crawl out from beneath the pile of books as the library was shutting down and walked back to the center of town, where I met the orange and blue mobs. For those un-hip enough not to know, it was Holland (orange) vs. Uruguay (blue), but the fullest flocks were by far the orange. Marching down the main streets, orange wigs, face paint, bright orange safety overalls, and of course, vuvuzelas blaring, the glowing mob moved like an engorged channel of nuclear waste. For a little while I followed along the flatulent parade, but when the crowd bottlenecked at one of the bridges, I took a northerly turn, back to the Waterfront and my hotel. Just before the game, I took a walk one more time with the crowds down to the stadium (which is not even a mile away), thought for a moment about buying scalped tickets, and then went back to the hotel bar to watch the game. In honor of some very fine VanBronkhorsts I know, I routed for Holland…