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