Easter in Maiduguri

This past Easter I found myself in Maiduguri, Nigeria – a burgeoning boutique religious holiday destination (almost). In any case, I was there for work, but didn’t realize my visit would coincide with Easter. Regardless, given the predominately Muslim city (and being Muslim myself), I didn’t put too much stock (re: any) into it.

During much of the trip I worked with my Nigerian friend Richard, who happens to be Christian. We were planning to spend one of the weekend days with his family, towards the end of my trip when much of the work had been done. As I was flying out the day after Easter and it had been a busy trip overall, that really only left Easter Sunday. I was a bit wary about occupying his family’s time that day, given that they may wish to spend it with themselves and not entertaining yours truly, but they assured me it was fine.

In any case, considering our plans to hang out on Easter, Richard asked if I would be interested in attending church services before (I think mostly in jest). At this point I had a monumental choice – sleep, or wake up early at 7:30 to make it in time for Richard to pick me up for Easter services. Very much wanting to do the former, but thinking how often would I have the chance to do the latter (that is to participate in church services during a major religious holiday in northern Nigeria), I decided sleep could wait (it still is).

Prior to confirming that, however, Richard said he should see his pastor, just to clear with him that a random foreigner who was not the devil may be lurking in his crowd. So that afternoon we stopped by his office. He seemed genuinely intrigued by the concept and asked a lot of questions about my visit, and point blankly about my religion. I replied I am Muslim. He laughed, so I did to. But once the laughing stopped, it became clear that I was in fact not the comedian he had assumed.

That led us to the question of ‘why do you want to celebrate with us?’ I noted that as a terrorist spy, it was my job to infiltrate the enemy, figure out everything I could about their religious rituals, and proceed to ensure there were enough chocolate bunnies on hand to give everyone instant diabetes (maybe he was wrong about the comedian bit after all!). In reality, I think my response was more along the prosaic lines of my interest in the cultural aspects of the celebration, and that we are all the same on the inside (did I really say that last part? I have no idea – I may have even started talking about reverse-oreos at some point; it really got away from me).

I recovered though for my captivating closing statement – my ‘heathen’ wife is actually a Christian. He took great joy in that statement and permitted me to come the next day (I wasn’t sure if he was happy that someone had actually taken pity to marry me, or thought that my dalliances with such an enemy would ultimately prove to be my undoing – perhaps both).

In any case, Richard picked me up early that morning and we drove cross-town to his family’s house. Everyone was getting ready by putting on his or her Sunday best – I did what I could (probably more qualified as a Wednesday morning middling effort).

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Richard and his sister making me look like Wednesday in comparison

We then drove to the church, and parked as close as we could. It was crowded and for security reasons no one could park too close to the building. Though it had been a few years, Boko Haram used to target churches during Sunday services with vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, and given that we were in the birthplace of the movement during a special day, security was high. There was a policemen posted at each church, while red tape blocked off an area outside of it. We had to pass through a metal detector until we were free to enter the compound (fortunately they didn’t find my lucky spoon, or my less lucky but equally cherished dinosaur spork).

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tight security outside the premises

In a nice sign of religious tolerance, Muslims had begun protecting churches during Sunday services in Nigeria – an indication that those ascribing to such deviant and narrow ideologies remain very much in the periphery.

The church itself was nearly full, laid out in three columns of pews. Men sat on one side and women on the other. We quickly slinked into a row at the back, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, despite the fact that there was only one foreigner who may or may not have been a devil impersonator in the crowd – and it was clearly I.

We were about 30 rows deep, but even this area quickly filled up around us. A procession of music took place – some catchy rock band tunes I find myself bopping along to (to the point where I very nearly started Maiduguri’s first annual Easter mosh pit tradition). There was also a string of choirs and a brass band, while gospel in the Hausa language common to northern Nigeria (but interestingly not the Kanuri language more predominant in Maiduguri) followed. Richard’s mother and father had both gone ahead of us as they were part of a women’s and men’s signing group respectively, so we paid special attention trying to spot them amongst the performances (I must say, my ability to discern different Hausa gospel voices could use dramatic improvement).

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it’s an Easter musical!

I had settled into a comfortable rhythm – swaying to some of the music while the stares of those around me had subsided. But suddenly while the vice-pastor was making his speech (purely in Hausa), Richard told me I needed to stand up. Looking at him in a state of panic, I asked why? I figured this would be a pretty good joke to play, with the vice-pastor outing me as indeed the devil incarnate.

Rather, Richard convincingly and unfortunately replied they were talking about my visit, and that I needed to demonstrate my presence to the church. I demurred and asked ‘really?” about half a dozen times with as many horrified facial expression as I could manage, hoping by the time I started getting up, it would be over. But he repeatedly affirmed positively, so I reluctantly did so very slowly – only to see the entire congregation of about 500 eyes turning their heads to stare back at me. So much for staying undercover.

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the crowd after many had left – looking in the forward, rather than backward, direction

I had no idea what the vice pastor was staying, so I quickly started to sit down only for Richard to motion for me to say upright as he was still talking about me. I awkwardly stood there for a few more minutes, before deciding I had enough and sat down. Richard then told me that I should go to the front, but I whole heartedly decided against that – apparently the vice pastor had asked, but got the hint that I wanted no part of any such thing, and moved on to bigger and better Jesus-related issues.

Some more music followed, and then it pastor’s turn to speak – the very same individual I had attempted to charm the previous day. He also talked mostly in Hausa, which mostly went above my head (i.e. all of it). But he then switched into English and began talking about a ‘special visitor.’ Richard motioned for me to stand up again, and this time given that I understood what was being said (though I should admit after 12 straight days in 100+ degree weather, my English was a little rusty), I felt I had no choice but to oblige.

The pastor noted that this Easter, the church had a visitor from Ethiopia (not sure if everyone expected to see my face at that point). He noted how I was a Muslim (the crowd gasps!), but I was married to a Christian. At this point his story started to divert from reality, but he went on to state that I go to both churches and mosques on a regular basis in Ethiopia, and thus wanted to come celebrate Easter with them since I was traveling (half of that is true – your guess which). It was a nice little story about religious tolerance, however, in a part of the world that has suffered from communal violence (as case in point about how such tensions can be stoked – this incendiary magazine, part of a series, is frequently handed out at church).

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In any case while not completely accurate, considering that I work in the peacebuilding field, it was nice to use my own story as a symbol of tolerance and a lesson for Nigeria – so I’ll consider that a solid day’s work (or really my impact for the whole year). The pastor of course closed with the slightly more directed and proselytizing remark, “we hope to see you in church more often!”

With that I could finally sit down. I had kind of started halfway already given the pastor’s speech droned on and I had no desire to be the subject of everyone’s stares (again), so I had been in an awkward and slightly uncomfortable pose for the second half of the pastor’s speech, assuming it’d be done any minute (my sporkasaurus was really poking into my back). In any case I was relieved that part was over, and I could just sit there and take in the rest of the Maiduguri gospel scene.

Not too long after, there was the ‘offering’ period. This time we had to go to the front – I initially resisted, until I realized everyone would be doing it. We all went up single file and dropped some money in a box – since this church had been so welcoming to me, I thought it was only fair to partake and deposited a small bill (though it was a newly-minted mobile money Omar-buck zcash bitcoin, not sure if that is accepted currency yet in northern Nigeria).

However, shortly after the offering, there was another round of offerings! I hadn’t realized there would be two rounds, and had given all my offering in the first (i.e bitcoin account was dry and no time to engage in additional mining). I told Richard I didn’t need to give anymore, and he suggested instead we use the movement as an excuse to exit the church and beat the crowd, as the service would be over soon. That I could definitely agree to (skipping out early on church in my first session!).

We hung around the courtyard a bit to meet back up with Richard’s sister, before exiting the compound and making our way back to the car. A few people shook my hand on the way out, obviously recognizing me as the ‘visitor,’ or perhaps just because they thought I was a famous Bollywood/Lollywood/Nollywood star (I often confuse myself with such people as well).

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side view church

We returned to Richard’s house, where his sister prepared a delicious meal of egusi soup and semovita (translated to chicken stew and a yam-type blob you dip in chicken stew, for those of you not conversant in the truly delicious Nigerian culinary scene). I spent much of the rest of Easter hanging out with his family, similar to how my family gathers for meals during religious holidays (though the biggest difference is I am usually not there). It was comforting to know that not too much differed, though later that afternoon I took Richard and his sister out for pizza at a new establishment in Maiduguri. They had never eaten the delicacy before, so I thought I should share some of my culture with them as well, even if it is one of the more unhealthy aspects – all the more so since that shipment of diabetes-inducing Easter bunnies I had arranged never arrived.

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Prep time

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= delicious food time

In short, Easter in Maiduguri was a good showing, and at least one marked by a spirit of religious tolerance. It went off without a hitch (even if the city itself suffered an incident on the outskirts that evening). It was also a nice chance to bond with Richard’s family. Not sure if I will adhere to the pastor’s advice to go to church more often (has he ever told anyone the opposite?), but perhaps next time I’m in Maiduguri during Christmas or even Candlemas, I will oblige!

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Qat is for Lawyers!

Qat is a daily part of existence of many (most?) Somalis, and those in Somaliland were no different. A mildly narcotic leaf that you spend all afternoon chewing, it typically leads to heightened conversations and more intense reactions. Done in moderation, it’s no different that a bunch of people sitting around having a few beers, or maybe a lot of caffeinated and sugary tea (which also happens here). Done not so much in moderation, and it can lead to serious side-effects and dependency, as any drug – be it alcohol, cotton candy, or something harder, can have.

In any case, while preparing for an eight-day trip to Somaliland, I figured I would have a qat interaction at some point – avoiding it completely would likely just cut me out from a large segment of society, and a key cultural routine. Many a afternoons are spent chewing the leaf, while hanging out with friends either at home or a qat “den.”

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a den of qat

One early afternoon, I met up with a contact, who introduced me to two young lawyers from one of Somaliland’s largest law firms. We had a lunch of camel soup, camel meat, and camel milk – all camel all the time – which was another typical Somali aspect I had to partake in (it was actually all quite good).

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the camel buffet

I had no other meetings scheduled until 5:30pm that day (given the heat, little occurs from 1 to 5pm most afternoons, especially during the summer), so they asked if I wanted to join them back at their law firm. I said sure, I’ll check it out, as never in my life have I been in a law firm in Somaliland. So another crucial item to check off the bucket list.

On our way back to the law firm we made a pit stop. I wasn’t exactly sure why at first, but when I saw my contact returning with many a long stem of green leaves in clear plastic bags, I figured it out – it was qat time.

We arrived at their law firm, which was really a large house converted into an office, as many stand-alone offices are in this part of the world. Upon entering there was a small room with a desk and chair – a typical area for a receptionist. After that, however, was the living room. Instead of being a place of cubicles and desks as I would have expected of one of Somaliland’s largest law firms, it was a place of mats and little else. This was clearly a qat den.

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respectable entrance

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opens to this

There were probably about 15 individual spots set up along the walls of the room. Each had their own trash can, mats, and pillows – this was no amateur set up. Clearly this room was utilized for this purpose on a regular basis, just as you would expect of your top-notch lawyers.

There is an entire ritual, or procedure perhaps I should say, associated with chewing qat. First of all, the well dressed lawyers I had lunch with had changed their attire, eschewing their button-down shirts in favor of their undershirts, and removing their pants for a long cloth wrapped around their waist, more akin to a skirt.

Not having the appropriate attire, I instead chose my place next to my contact, and stretched my legs out, laying quite comfortably up against the cushion on the wall (I considered taking off my pants, but thought that’s too cruel to do to anyone, ever). Next to me was my trashcan, a litre of water, and an entire thermos of sweet, sweet, very sweet tea – all essentials of the qat chewing experience. The leaves themselves were washed and then placed standing up in the wastebasket itself, to dry. Afterwards they would be put back in the plastic bags next to each person, and the wastebasket would then become a normal wastebasket for refuge, like the long stems of the plant.

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the setup

The session began with about five or us, but more people kept filtering in an out (including a very charismatic but conservative imam at one point, who spoke perfect English and went around making fun of everyone for chewing qat while urging us replace that with prayer instead. He disappeared as quickly as he had arrived and with no apparent converts – though given his charisma, if he had stayed another five minutes or for three more qat chews, I probably would’ve been had). In any case the men (it was and typically is only men) all sat around, chewing their leaves, and discussing the day’s topics, which often involved politics and current events. The conversation went in and out of Somali, so I was only privy to certain sections, usually when an inquisitive newcomer was curious about the obvious foreigner in the room.

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imam would not have been too happy about this

This continued for about 2 hours, until around 4pm. At that time, people slowly began to set up small plastic trays next to their spots, and break out their laptops. Ostensibly to work, as even I was given the Internet code, but every time I looked at my neighbor, there was a combination of soccer highlights or Facebook pages on his screen.

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time to get some lawyer-ing done!

I asked them if they did this every afternoon – they said no, but in a manner that implied yes. We had arrived a little before 2, and I stayed until 5 – with more people still cycling in and the qat session going strong when I left.

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a quotidian affair?

Having gotten my cultural experience out of the way, I thanked them and departed for my next meeting. But I was left pondering the whole experience. I suppose its no different than a bunch of lawyers getting together for a few drinks for happy hour after work – that is, if the law firm had its own bar as soon as you walked in, and the happy hour began everyday after lunch. In some law firms perhaps!

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happy hour time!

But I was left a little judgmental, especially given how professional and put together the two lawyers had seemed during our lunch meeting. Nothing changed during the qat session, but I realized the extent to which this ritual pervades Somali culture, given that even these guys were partaking in this activity near daily, and their law firm had an entire room and set up dedicated to it. It may affect productivity in some way given that it seems the real work all gets done before lunch, but there could be other positive effects in terms of office bonding and current events information-sharing I suppose. For better or worse, it’s an indelible part of the culture, so next time you are in desperate need of a lawyer in Somaliland during the afternoon, you better be ready for some qat too!

A Veritable Somali Beach Party

Somaliland carries a name that invokes, well, the ‘land of Somalia,’ and all the chaos associated with it over the past two-and-a-half decades. Yet the “country” couldn’t be further than the state collapse and accompanying violence of its southern cousin. Rather, Somaliland has emerged as a beacon of stability in a troubled region, despite the continued negative associations in the West with the ‘Somalia’ moniker. In fact, it is actually quite a pleasant place to visit, and one where I found myself recently.

Somaliland carries enormous tourist potential, not least because of sites such as Laas Geel, (one of the best-preserved series of cave paintings in the world), in addition to an expansive coastline. Thus the perfect spot for a more educational-sort of spring break tour, primarily for archaeology majors (so that may be a bit too specific of a niche to build an entire tourism industry around, but you gotta start somewhere, and I’ve always heard archaeology majors leave the best Trip Advisor reviews!).

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What was drawn in Laas Geel, stays in Laas Geel (unless its on the Internet)

In any case, as part of a work trip I visited the town of Berbera, Somaliland’s main port and a site of intrigue given the fascination its strategic location along the Red Sea coast has garnered from world powers. The small downtown center is a crumbling facade of white-washed colonial buildings amidst wide and empty boulevards, a testament to a glorious trading past. The British arrived on the scene in the late 19th century, making Berbera the capital of their British Somaliland protectorate. After independence, Cold War power politics engulfed the town, with both the Russians and Americans setting up shop at various points. Despite its former status as an entrepôt, much of downtown Berbera today is derelict, with entire blocks in near ruins, a legacy of conflict and neglect. It makes for an interesting place to wander.

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One of the better preserved buildings in downtown Berbera

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more typical downtown Berbera architecture

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somehow the front survived . . .

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an abandoned Russian hospital in Berbera – as the picture suggests, it was built slanted (more realistic explanation than the fact that I don’t know how to work a camera)

But I didn’t come to Berbera nor starting writing up this blog post to talk about buildings – that was just a plug for the architecture majors spring break tour (see, an expanding clientele base already!). Rather Berbera, as a port town, is obviously on the water. And by the water is the beach. That’s what the true action is.

On the Friday I happened to be in Berbera, I had a break during the afternoon and thought it might be nice to take the short walk from my hotel down to the water given the 45-degree celsius heat (just shy of 115 fahrenheit). I had seen a few people out there already, so expected some company. But I was not prepared to enter what was a veritable Friday afternoon Somali beach party.

I think everyone in the town, plus a few other towns, and then some, must’ve been there, (well at least those who were not too busy chewing qat – subject of future post). I was shocked and a little intimidated once I actually got to the water given the near two kilometers of coastline was packed with many a frolicking Somali youth and families, enjoying the weekend afternoon (Friday being the weekend here). But I was here to walk along the beach and go in the water, so I persisted, despite being quite obviously the only foreigner along the coastline that day (aside from all those happy looking hostages I had passed on the way in . . . just kidding!).

Somaliland embraces a conservative Muslim culture, but there were plenty of women enjoying the beach, even in concert with their male counterparts at times. However, they were covered from head to toe – but that didn’t stop many from still going in the water (after which some emerged with clothing that was indeed quite tight to the body, revealing a figure this sort of style was designed to conceal, and made it hard not to gawk given the context). Most of the men, while wearing shorts, also went into the water with their shirts on. Not wanting to stand out any further than I already did, I followed local custom, taking my now two-piece bathing suit into the ocean with me.

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Following the ladies down to the beach

It was refreshing water and a clean beach – I could really envision the tourism potential. The “country” (technically it is a non-recognized entity that claims its own sovereignty from Somalia), perhaps just needs to rebrand in a way so that the word ‘Somalia’ doesn’t appear in its title. For example, if Amazon.com changed its name to Somali-ship.com, I’m not sure it would capture the same ty[e of clientele (perhaps those more inclined to view the movie Captain Phillips as one of the great tragi-comedies of our time). In any case, rebranding as The Country Formerly Known as Somaliland, or TCFKAS, might be a more effective business strategy.

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future TCFKAS-ians (or TCFKAS-ites?) enjoying their non-pirated water

In any case, after getting completely wet, I thought I might as well walk along the beach in the 45-degree heat, to get completely dry, before this short break from my real purpose for being in Berbera re-emerged. As I walked, I drew a number of stares, but mostly people ignored me, having too much fun in the sand to pay attention to the odd foreigner lurking about (and I certainly was lurking).

I wanted to take soooo many photos, but was conspicuously trying to be inconspicuous, so did not bring my camera along the walk. Many mental images were snapped, however, those are likely to be as fleeting as that moment when I realized Santa Claus and Donkey Kong were the same person.

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as close as I could get really – this photo barely does the crowd justice, given that most people I see are invisible

In any case, during my walk a few entertaining interactions did occur. To begin, for the first half an hour, every woman I saw had her hair covered. But after walking a while I spotted a group of young girls and boys hanging out together, some in the water and some not. But what was more astonishing is that there were some uncovered heads! I tried not to ogle, but it was difficult as I had been in Somaliland almost a week by now, and had forgotten what female hair looked like. One girl even walked by holding the hand of her male counterpart, while disparagingly saying something to me in Somali (I assume based on her tone – either that, or she is a really awful ice cream saleswoman). Even I thought she was a bit risqué, and was about to report her to my superiors, until they decided they didn’t care.

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the (clearly) superiors of my Berbera trip

Another mother was sitting on the beach covered head to toe, except for her mid-section as she was breast-feeding her child.  I’ve rarely felt more uncomfortable than when I was walking past her.

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Beach hanging

A few people, mostly male youth, did talk to me. One had a super soaker and was running around squirting his friends when he suddenly turned and pointed it right at my center brain. Given Somalia’s international reputation, the thought of pirates and al-Shabaab flashed through my eyes, but then he turned away without squirting.

Another group of two probably 15-year boys were a bit bolder and insisted on grabbing my hand as I walked by, refusing to let go after what turned into an extraordinarily lengthy and uncomfortable handshake. They spoke a bit of English, and asked where I was from. The entire time I was in Somaliland I relied on my Pakistani roots, as it immediately engendered a feeling of warmth and likemindedness that being from American likely would not. So I told them I was Pakistani, and they light up, asking if I was a Muslim. I affirmed, and the main guy’s friend declared “Good! If you were a Christian I would’ve killed you, I swear to God!” A little startled by that response, to which I assume was jest but laced with a degree of half-hearted seriousness, I immediately withdrew my hand and walked away, shaking my finger and telling them that was not true Islam (to be fair though, I really wouldn’t know . . .).

Aside from that I was mostly left to my own devices, taking in every moment of this Somali beach party that I could. Some pickup beach soccer (futbol) was ongoing, while others were doing flips into the water. There were many large SUVs parked and driving along the beach, an indicator that this was still likely an elitist-type activity, rather than the Friday of your average Joe (or Mohamed). But I did see many people departing the beach by foot, while a public minitaxi took others, so not everyone was rolling in it (and those with SUVs may have been the diaspora as well).

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some drive to the beach

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some walk home

I became more emboldened the more I stood there, and no longer intimated by the large crowds, but walking right through them. Alas, I had gone from one end to the other, and needed to return to my hotel to get ready for the early evening interviews scheduled. Thus I wandered back, and left the party more homogenous than when I arrived.

When we retuned to the hotel at sunset, I wandered back down to the beach with my Somaliland companion. The beach, where just a few hours before had been hundreds of people, was completely deserted now. Beach-bumming is apparently not an evening activity. Rather, the only life was a caravan of about 30 camels, strolling back home at sunset after a hard day’s work somewhere, as nice a daily commute as a camel could want (I assume).

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apparently TCFKASians turn into camels at dark

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what a difference a few hours makes – still crowded though!

In any case, the veritable Friday afternoon beach party was over, but in the short time I experienced it, it did alter some of my perceptions of the country, and showed me how much fun Berbera can be. Next time though, I’ll be sure to bring my own super soakers (and camels) to get in on the action!

Maiduguri!

Maiduguri city slogans:

  • 2007 – Home of Peace
  • 2012 – Home of Pieces (unofficial)

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I have been trying to visit Maiduguri, a regional capital tucked away in the northeast corner of Nigeria, for years. Despite spending much of the past five years focusing on the area for work, a plethora of canceled trips and failed visa attempts meant I still hadn’t been on the ground by 2017. So when I found out I would be traveling to Nigeria for a conference (finally!), I figured I had to give it my best shot to visit the country’s northeast corner as well.

Prior to that though, I had to get a visa at the Nigerian Embassy in Addis Ababa. That is a whole story in itself, and one best relayed orally. If you still care about anything by the time you finish reading this post, demand this of me the next time I annoy you with my presence.

There are surprisingly a few different airlines that operate near-daily flights to Maiduguri from the Nigerian capital of Abuja (where my conference was) these days. This was not the case just a few years ago, as the city was the epicenter of the Boko Haram crisis, forcing the airport’s closure. In fact, Maiduguri is largely considered to be the “birthplace” of this nefarious movement, which made visiting all the more intriguing.

While the violence still rages in the countryside, security has increased drastically in the city, meaning that those days when the airport was closed are long (and hopefully permanently) gone. It is now its routine for foreigners, largely operating within a humanitarian or security context, to make the trip (i.e. Maiduguri as the next hot spring break destination, as I was promised by no one but which I can truly emphasize the “hot” aspect of, is still just a few years off).

As soon as I landed I immediately felt a wave of dry heat (another emphasis on both dry and heat). The rainy season hadn’t quite yet begun, and the daily temperature hovered in the low 100s. But it felt comfortable. There is something about the Sahel – a section of the world equal parts dusty, dry, and scorching – that has a certain allure. It is inexplicable when explained in such non-alluring terms, but in one sense I felt like I was back in Burkina Faso, producing a wave of calm and reminding myself that one day I would like to spend 27+ years living in this climate (to which Christine does not realize she has signed up to). In fact, given that it had been cold and raining for nearly a week straight in Addis when I left, the chance of pace was much welcomed!

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Maiduguri it is!

Alas, I was still a little nervous going in. I had heard of some people having issues getting into the city. There is a special procedure for all foreign nationals flying to Maiduguri, despite still being a part of Nigeria and technically no need for special permission. It is still under a state of emergency though, and the seat of a veritable war against militant Islamists. So I can understand the extra security, though it seems the screening of foreigners is more to keep a track on who is doing what, rather than any procedure to enhance our, or the city’s, safety.

Fortunately, a local colleague happened to be on the same flight as me and I had enough documentation – that combination allowed me to pass through with ease. In fact, the security guys were quite the joksters – when I explained myself and my mission to one of the guys, the head security guy (in a wheelchair – not sure if this was due to any recent conflict incident) offered to take me right to Sambisa Forest, the headquarters of the Boko Haram movement! Something tells me he’s made joke that to an unsuspecting foreigner visiting his city for the first time before (needless to say as intrigued as I was, I did not take him up on his offer).

Another reason I really wanted to visit the city is that over the past five years I have focused on the Lake Chad Basin professionally, and thus have worked with a number of contacts from Maiduguri, that I had never met in person. With some, I even chatted via Skype on a weekly basis for years (only rarely did they claim to be a deposed prince who just needed my credit card number to assert his rightful place on a vast, gold-filled throne). So part of the allure of finally visiting Maiduguri was to meet these contacts and see them in their element.

One friend in particular was very excited that I was coming. I had let him know shortly before, and as soon as I got to my hotel, I gave him a call. He said he was on his way – I wondered if I would even recognize him. I had seen so many photos over the years, but seeing someone in person for the first time is a different story. Luckily the hotel parking lot was quite empty when he showed up, so it was fairly obvious who was who (that did not stop me from pretending I was Big Bird for a while, just to see if Snuffleupagus happened to be lurking around).

I also thought it might be a bit awkward to meet and spend much of the next four days together, as the extent of our relationship previously had centered around twenty-minute increments of Skype conversations. I was fairly pleased to know, however, that our virtual conversational skills quickly translated to real world interactions, and the typical awkwardness that characterizes all my human interactions was present at a lower than usual level.

In any case, Richard took me out into the city, and I was finally exploring Maiduguri for the first time, after years of anticipation. We passed by all these areas I had read about and Richard had take pictures for us. For example, the notable city gate was upon us as soon as we exited the hotel. There was a sense of accomplishment in some ways – I always knew when I was sitting in the dregs of Crystal City writing report after report on specific neighborhoods of Maiduguri with Richard’s help, that one day I would get out there and actually see these sights for myself. I was just shocked that I had been right (that rarely occurs), and this day had actually arrived.

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City gates!

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Shehu (traditional ruler) palace

A quick background on Maiduguri – as mentioned, it’s the birthplace of the ravenous terrorist organization, Boko Haram. For a few years around 2011 to 2013, the city was essentially off limits for foreigners, as Boko Haram militants held sway in many neighborhoods. The movement wound up fleeing for the countryside in mid-2013, in large part thanks to the emergence of civilian vigilante actors opposed to their presence. Since then a relative calm has returned to the city, in turn allowing foreigners to start frequenting it. Maiduguri has become the hub of both the continued operations against Boko Haram, but also the response to a massive humanitarian disaster ongoing in the region, due to people fleeing from Boko Haram’s predatory presence in the countryside. Nonetheless, while the city is more peaceful than before, Boko Haram retains a sort of fascination/obsession with it, and consistently attempts to intimidate it, often through the form of young and likely coerced suicide bombers. Many of them are intercepted on the city’s outskirts resulting in few to no civilian casualties, but penetrations do occur, ensuring that while it feels like and is more or less a safe city, security is never far from anyone’s mind.

Nonetheless, my four days there were without incident, and it really did feel like a normal city – as safe and secure as anywhere else where temperatures rise to the 120s. Richard was a gracious host, introducing me to his friends and family as if we were old friends (given that we really were, just of the Internet variety – but hey, that’s how most of America meets their parents for the first time these days, isn’t it?).

While we toured much of the city, one thing that surprised me most was how good the food was! It is a bit ironic, given that the region is facing an impending famine, but non-displaced Maiduguri residents seem to have adequate supplies, and some of those supplies are in fact quite delicious!

While visiting a cattle market near the outskirts of the city, we picked up some suya, or essentially grilled meat with some onions and a dry pepper rub to dip in. It was so durn good that I didn’t even realize it, but I talked about it essentially non-stop to such a degree that Richard insisted we go back the next day just to shut me up, despite it being a 30-minute drive one way (and if you’re asking why we visited a cattle market given I was not in the business of purchasing some stock to take back to Addis, well I’ll tell you. One way Boko Haram funds itself is by stealing cattle in rural areas and then giving them to complacent middlemen who in turn sell them in local cattle markets for a lower price & split the profits – this particular cattle market was even shut down back back in 2016 for hot minute, to prevent this practice. Nonetheless, no such nefarious activity was apparent, but I may have been distracted by the prospect of all this cattle transforming into delicious mountains upon delicious mountains of suya – in case you are wondering, no I have never had a single vegetarian tendency in my life!).

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pre-suya cattle . . .

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suya in preparation

Richard’s sister also insisted we come over to his family’s house for lunch one day. She had prepared a chicken dish with a peanut sauce, along with a yam-type side dish. To complement the meal I bought the drinks, which consisted of chapman, or a local punch-type soda. The meal was delicious, perhaps even rivaling the suya vendors. I ate until I couldn’t eat anymore, then I ate some more. Having a sumptuous home-cooked meal in Maiduguri was never part of what I had dared to envision during my daydreams of visiting the city, but it made me feel quite welcome, and dare I say invoked a desire to extend this trip to an indefinite duration.

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a delicious meal

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meeting the whole family

While we were not eating, we also checked out a few of the necessary voyeur terrorist tourism-type sites, such as the area where Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf used to preach (his mosque and house have since been razed, but some of the buildings nearby still have bullet holes from the 2009 uprising that pit his group against the government), and Gwange neighborhood (one of the poorer areas of the city, that I frequently saw pop up in the news circa 2011-12 as the site of near daily violence).

 

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area of the city in which Muhammad Yusuf used to preach

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site of the former mosque

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continued scars

Other visited institutions of the city also used to be the site of significant violence, but have since recovered. Monday Market, the central market in Maiduguri, suffered from multiple Boko Haram attacks, but you wouldn’t be able to tell today as we walked around a large central market not unlike any other in West Africa. It also seemed to have plenty of food available, in contrast to the dire situation faced by many in this part of the country.

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kicking it in Monday Market

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grains available

On that note, we also visited a few IDP camps, to get a sense of the situation faced by many. There was a distinct difference among the camps we visited in terms of official response and more makeshift settlements, but it was also clear a number of international NGOs had heeded the call and were present. A few of the IDPs recounted their horrific tales of having to flee their home villages due to Boko Haram violence, and their desire to return as soon as they can to continue with their lives. A long-line of brightly dressed women waiting for a food handout along the side of the road as we left the camp, directly contrasted to the seeming normality we had seen in the market.

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Dwellings in IDP camp I

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Dwellings in IDP Camp II

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food line

The University of Maiduguri (UNIMAID) is another Maiduguri institution, and despite Boko Haram’s abhorrence of Western-style education, was largely was spared during even the height of the conflict. It is located, however, on the southeastern edge of the city and encompasses a large campus which is not all fenced off, thus making it an easy and recent target of Boko Haram violence. It was the university Richard and most of his family & friends had attended, so we went to visit there as well. Security was a little tight and I had to explain myself to gain entrance – despite the presence of security personnel around the city, nowhere else were we stopped. We eventually got in through the first gate, after convincing the guards that a bearded Pakistani who studies terrorism and at times gets mistakenly placed on no-fly lists, was of little threat to them.

But once inside, we went to where Richard and his friends typically hang out. It was a couple of benches underneath a tree along a heavily trafficked sidewalk, next to some stores and other guys selling snacks. In other words, the perfect place to be seen, but also relax and see. We ate some watermelon and talked with his friends for a while. The whole experience was so normal, it was almost surreal for me to imagine that all these guys had basically lived through a war. The setting could’ve taken place on any college campus anywhere in the world, and I had to keep reminding myself I was indeed in Maiduguri (although the uproar that ensued once I explained I didn’t want kids probably would be more replicated at a place like Bob Jones University, rather than the ones I attended).

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hanging at the university

In fact, Richard’s whole life seemed so much more normal than I had envisioned. He lived by himself in a one-bedroom apartment, drove a car, hung out with his friends, watched downloaded movies on his tv, went on dates with his girlfriend, and generally led a life typical of a mid-20s young male. Of course, the electricity in his house was out at least half the month, he struggled to find steady work, and had to dodge the occasional suicide bomber. But, aside from that . . .

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Richard in his pad

One of the other areas we visited was the Sanda Kyarimi Park Zoo. The zoo had apparently stayed opened throughout the conflict, though it may have seen some better days. A collection of animals, namely elephants, ostriches, and alligators, highlighted its presence, but it served as a sort of success story, a part of the city that refused to cower in the presence of militancy, and survived throughout (the animals themselves had refused Boko Haram’s incessant recruitment attempts). A sort of symbol of the city’s resilience. At the same time, however, it appeared the animals served as a secondary purpose, with the primary one being of an area for young couples to spend time together, with only a leering ostrich to judge them. Another stark reminder that the perverse ideology of Boko Haram, despite its stranglehold on this city for some time, clearly does not represent the entirety of the population. An obvious fact, but one that is nice to see visible signs of at times.

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spying on couples

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some more creeping

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he’s definitely creeping too

Finally, perhaps my other favorite event was when a massive sandstorm preceded a rainstorm, darkening the sky almost immediately. The storms in the Sahel, while less frequent than the daily affliction of rain in Addis between June to September, are simply more dramatic. Despite barely being able to keep my eyes open to all the dust circling around, I cherished the experience.

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and the sky darkens

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All in all, the trip to Maiduguri was a success, not least of all given that no security incidents occurred (despite some scares in the weeks after). The security risk to the city was palpable – there is a nightly curfew, the civilian vigilantes set up their checkpoints in the early evening, there are posters of wanted militants around the city, and regular convoys of military officers and armory go by. But at the same time, Maiduguri is as normal a city as elsewhere in the Sahel/West Africa region, and life for most of its residents goes on. The Boko Haram crisis has clearly had an effect – for example there are none of the motos that are ubiquitous elsewhere in West Africa as they were banned since Boko Haram easily used them as a getaway for hit and run assassinations – rather these have been replaced with the less escapable three-wheeled tuk-tuks. Examples like that abound of the effects the Boko Haram crisis has had on the city, not least to speak of the devastated countryside. And while much of Borno state is suffering and the IDPs in Maiduguri as well, it is easy to feel a sense of normalcy in the city and forget about the issues surrounding it.

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youth vigilantes sign

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Anti-Boko Haram army poster

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(poorly shot) movement of security personnel

At any rate, I had accomplished a key personal and professional goal in finally setting foot in a city I had read so much about, and meeting the contacts I had worked so much with. Nonetheless, the trip was short, in fact too short – four days was certainly enough to check off the box, but it just added another item to the list – which is to return soon and for a lengthier duration!

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next time I’ll make this hat work!

 

 

Pepé’s Parliament Tour

Christine and I were walking down the street in Harare, when we came across the building housing Zimbabwe’s Parliament. I had remembered that a friend told me you could do a tour of Parliament, so figured we would stop in the check it out. Though we couldn’t do it right then because I didn’t have an ID on me, we found the place we had to go to register, and after being handed over four different times, eventually found the man who would be our guide. To call him a character, would be an understatement.

For no good reason, I will refer to him as Pepé. Pepé immediate began asking me some questions about what I do. Thinking slowly on the spot, I told him the truth – that I research conflict in Africa. He drew back a bit and suspiciously declared, “So you’ve come here to do research,” likely invoking the official line regarding pervasive distrust of Westerners in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. I had to explain I was just on vacation, which he replied was even more suspicious given that Zimbabwe was an expensive place to travel to. Though perhaps he discounted this line of reasoning after viewing my ragged attire (or that only heightened suspicions, as the perfect disguise!).

We were on the 4th floor and waiting for the elevator – when it came he just said “I don’t trust you,” and jumped on. A little shocked, I froze in surprise, before snapping out of it and following him. Shaking off that last statement, we told him that I’d get my ID and come back in the afternoon. He walked outside with us and made some forced not-so small talk. He then abruptly pointed to a man and said, “there’s my boss, I’m afraid of him.” He disappeared from sight at that, leaving us frozen in shock yet for the second time in as many minutes.

Pepé’s character, revealed in our less than five-minute interaction with him, only further solidified the notion that we should starting spending more time at Zimbabwe’s Parliament, so we returned in the afternoon and began our tour. Pepé was probably at least in his 50s, and walked with a bit of a limp. Although a short man at a few inches shy of me, he had a gruff manner of speaking, which seemed indicative of many decades worth of uphill battles. While dressed up in a worn suit, it was also just a little too big for him, creating the effect of him sinking into his attire (though I can empathize – I didn’t realize slim fit clothes existed until 2014).

 At the entrance to Parliament, Pepé asked for the ID I had gone home to get. I proudly gave him my driver’s license, which in my mind proved I was not a spy (I have no idea why, I think spies can drive too). He quickly shattered my notions that this would resolve the not-so latent tension between us, exclaiming, “this is not an ID!” Meanwhile, Christine handed her driver’s license, which he promptly accepted and said, “see, now this is an ID.” While I was perplexed by his response, the guard accepted my driver’s license regardless, and we were able to begin our tour beneath his leery eyes.

Throughout our time together, Pepé shifted from anti-Western comments that had nothing to do with the confines of the Parliament tour and likely spurred on by Zimbabwe’s status as a pariah nation, to much softer tones and even occasional dissent of the current government. Much of this manifested into how he felt about me, vacillating from a guarded approach as he considered me a spy, to a friendlier demeanor like we used to enter baking competitions together. This split personality made the tour quite interesting, but also very confusing, and we never quite knew where we stood – as a manifestation of a Western threat to Zimbabwe that Pepé would take into his own hands to eliminate as his patriotic duty, or truly the dimwitted but inquisitive tourists we claimed to be.

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Chamber of Parliament

 At any rate, our tour started off less as a tour really and more as an questionnaire, as Pepé took us to one of the main Parliament rooms, sat us down and just asked “so, what do you what to know?” I didn’t realize the burden of information was going to be on us, and was already wary of his suspicions regarding me, so we just started off with some softball questions, such as “when was this building built?,” how often do the parliamentarians meet?,” “is there any free cheese around?”, and so forth.

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Pepé said it first!

He warmed up a bit, and then Christine astutely asked “what are the main issues Parliament is debating these days?,” subtly shifting the conversation to something more interesting and relevant. He told us about the debate over the bond notes – Zimbabwe officially uses the US Dollar as its currency, but had just issued new notes that were equivalent to the dollar in order to increase overall circulation. The whole notion was a bit controversial though, as trust in the new notes was low (although we saw the recently released bond notes and used them frequently in circulation, an indication of their quick acceptance). Even Pepé was somewhat critical, either a surprising rebuke of government policy, or the beginnings of an elaborate trap that we would unwittingly walk into.

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Fresh bond note in the wild

There were a number of stuffed animals and animal parts that adorned the walls of this chamber as well, and when we inquired about them he assured us that they were real. But as was his typical oscillation between friend and foe, this response was characterized more by the latter, with a stinging remark to close the question that went along the lines of “unlike YOU Europeans, we don’t kill all our animals,” followed by an intense and definitively uncomfortable glare in our direction.

We had exhausted our set of questions upon that, and got up to leave the room. On the way out he pointed to the massive chair at the front of the building, ostensibly where the head of this chamber sits. I really wanted to sit in it and take a photo, but assumed it was out of the question. But I also figured this tour couldn’t get any more awkward, so might as well ask. His eyes actually lit up upon that request, and allowed me live out my dreams of being a leading Zimbabwean politician, if just for a few minutes.

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Pepé and Omar, ready to take Zimbabwe politics by storm!

That chair-seating session, however, inspired him in some other sense, and he took us around the corner to a small, mostly empty room. I am not sure if this is part of the standard tour, if there is such a thing with Pepé, but inside this tucked away corner was an even larger and more simply decorated, but distinguished chair. Pepé explained that this was Mugabe’s chair for Parliament, and they only took it out when he visited. Knowing exactly what my next question would be, he said in no uncertain terms, “you can sit in it, and if you are anatomically correct, you can even poof on it!” Absolutely unclear what that meant, I ignored him and sat on it anyways for a few photos. I suppose I was not “anatomically correct” in the Zimbabwean sense, as I do not recalling poof-ing, despite my best efforts.

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Trying (not) to poof on Mugabe’s chair

Pepé took us upstairs, to the Hall of Heroes. There were many paintings of leading Zimbabwean figures lining the walls, with most dating back to the nation’s liberation struggle. He pointed to a few key individuals, but the only informative remark he made was, “this guy committed suicide and died young,” with little other explanation as to his historical significant. Abruptly, Pepé turned to one of two white faces amongst the 40 or so odd paintings. He quickly brought us over there as if he instantly had a great idea. He explained, “look we don’t discriminate!,” and pointed the face of an old white man. Clearly proud of himself for rising above the fray and demonstrating racial equality despite such obvious Western prejudice against his country expressed by us, we asked what this man had done to deserve such an honor. Unprepared for this line of questioning, he stammered a bit, saying, “uh, well . . . he was . . . at the time . . . so we don’t really know, but we still recognize his contributions!” Couldn’t have pictured a better image of racial equality myself.

There was a statue in the middle of the hall of what appeared to be a traditional Zimbabwean warrior with a spear. “See,” Pepé noted, “we didn’t have guns and didn’t fight like that.” He proceeded to pretend there was a spear in his hand, and vigorously act out a series of fighting moves in the middle of this distinguished hallway, his baggy suit flailing around to the point where we had to undertake some evasive maneuvers to avoid contact during the extensive reenactment.

We left the Hall of Heroes and continued to the law and research libraries. Along the way he gave us some printed Parliament notes from a storage area, walked by a man who he claimed was his father-in-law but ignored him, and muttered other occasional comments indicative of his intermittent suspicions. At the libraries, Pepé outsourced his touring to the librarians on duty who were no doubt thrilled by the opportunity, before we were quickly kicked out of each (actually to be fair, they were somewhat intrigued – not sure how often they receive genuine spy tourists).

That more or less concluded the tour, though we weren’t really aware of the fact since Pepé didn’t mention as much, but just walked outside where he lit up a cigarette. He randomly walked down the street a bit and we followed, not in the direction of his office, which was on the other side of the building. After about two and a half blocks he stopped and said he was going back. That apparently implied we were not, and the tour had thus come to its fitting conclusion.

I had debated tipping him or not, but had a $5 bill in my pocket anyways, so pulled it out towards his direction. He jumped back and said, “I am a public servant, and this is an act of corruption!” Afraid that he had finally entrapped his spy and caught him in the act, I quickly retreated and moved to put the bill in my pocket, while apologizing. But Pepé grabbed it out of my hand before I reached my pocket and said, “but this will buy a few drinks tonight!” And with that last act of stupefaction, Pepé walked off and disappeared into the crowd, leaving just as stunned as when he was first met him. But hey, at least we got to try to poof on Mugabe’s chair (think about that next time you watch Zimbabwean C-SPAN)!

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What I imagine Pepé was (or will be) in a different life

A Side View Mirror Trip Through Namibia

For the first time in our lives, Christine and I rented a car abroad and drove through a country. The car happened to come with side view mirrors. These side view mirrors happened to catch glimpses of the serene beauty that is the wondrous Namibian landscape. What follows is what I would consider the most art I’ll ever get involved with in this lifetime.

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Photo 1: Heroess Acre just outside of Windhoek, a national monument built by North Korea (obviously)

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Photo 2: Shrubbery amongst desert

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Photo 3: Enter some elevation

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Photo 4: Remove some elevation

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Photo 5: A Namibian reststop

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Photo 6: Some real elevation in Damaraland

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Photo 7: Winding passes

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Photo 8: Switch to the left side for a zebra

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Photo 9: Right side Etosha Park giraffe

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Photo 10: Storms a coming and we’re a going

 

THE END OF THE ART!

North of the 38th Parallel – Part 셋

This is the final chapter in the three part Q&A on my trip to North Korea. Previous parts available for the eternity of the Internet here (I and II)

What Other Miscellaneous Impressions Did You Have?

A few other seemingly interesting impressions emerged during the trip.

First of all, it’s clear North Korean is anachronistic in many ways. I began to see the country as an old kingdom from centuries ago. A small elite has set up a system to benefit revolving around the hereditary succession of one family, which is viewed as near-equal to God. All of society is structured to replicate this system, with many massive public works projects constructed with what I can only assume is more or less slave labor in support of this social project. The country would not be out of place among the Game of Thrones-like empires that pre-date the evolution of the nation-state.

At the same time, agree with it or not, the system is vastly impressive. The level of control is so total and complete, that either everyone believes what they are meant to, or at least won’t even let up the facade for a single second. The ability to maintain such a degree of isolation in this day and age, where I make Skype calls across the world on a daily basis while ordering pizza from Mongolia, is incredible. I go back to West Africa, but imagine if I tried to set up something similar there (which I basically did during my Peace Corps service, unsuccessfully trying to get all the kids to refer to me as ‘Hulk Hogan’). There’s just no way it would work – successive leaders have been trying to extend governance throughout their countries for decades, with middling success. The historical circumstances are very different, but I can’t help but marvel at the level of control installed, and endured throughout the years.

The level of grandeur also can truly be impressive. Now the choice of who gets to participate in this system and who does not is rather stark and heartless, but the ability to build it in the first place is not insignificant. Similar to how my ability to consistently talk about doing 189 pushups with a rabid monkey holding a carrot on my back is just as nearly impressive as actually doing it (right?).

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pretty cool to me

That’s not to say the system is considered faultless, even by its own people. The very first day one of the staff from my uncle’s office that was accompanying us got pulled aside by a security guard while we were walking around. The guard verbally chewed him out for a good five minutes, for reasons which are still unclear. We were all a bit stunned, and half expected the man to disappear and never be seen again. He had a bit of a scowl on his face as he left, and just told us to get back in the car quickly. As soon as we were in the car though, he lit up and began ardently complaining about the incident to our driver (again all with a degree of assumption, since people in this world speak Korean). The questioning of a security guard and voicing complaints to another individual was surprising to me, but demonstrated that not everyone is a sycophantic, blind sheep (as cuddly as they might be).

This was further emphasized when we tried to drive out to Kim Il-Song’s birthplace right after. It is a bit outside of town in a hilly area, and the winding roads can get confusing. We stopped to ask directions from a bumbling old security guard probably in his fifties and wearing an outfit two sizes too big. He kind of explained to us where to go and we went off. Only that it didn’t take us to where we needed to be, but basically right in a loop (I think he just wanted to see us again – the feeling was not quite mutual). The driver then realized we had to go in the other direction, but perhaps he was still smarting from the previous security guard incident. As soon as we passed the bumbling old man again, they (the driver and my uncle’s colleague) rolled down the windows and simultaneously yelled at him. The man stood there shell-shocked and didn’t even offer a response, while we rolled up the windows and drove off. Clearly some authority can be questioned (to be fair, this man did not look intimidating in the least, and I’m pretty sure doubled as my elementary school bus driver).

On another note, there also must be some amazing event planners in this country. If they can ever open up and start a service economy, event planning would be the way to go. We attended the circus, a concert, and saw Kim Il-Song square where there are so many numbers and lines across the entire thing to prepare for events. All were impeccably choreographed and clearly a lot of time had gone into creating such spectacles. I was so impressed to the point that I immediately hired a set of North Korean event planners for my upcoming quinceañera (don’t worry, you’re not invited).

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Everyone take their places

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How much work was it to get every single bunny in just the right spot in the background?

We did manage to check out some local technology as well. North Korean is famous for promoting their own everything basically, creating knock off versions of existing technologies elsewhere (though I did hear rumors that most of it might be made in Chinese factories and just given a DPRK logo – similar to everything else in the world these days). Ay any rate, when we visited the Science Center, we saw rows of shiny, new North Korea brand computers, down to the mousepad. They were all connected to the ‘intranet‘ as well, which seemingly had an endless supply of knowledge written by North Koreans, for North Koreans. Fancy North Koreans have access to that ‘intranet’ on their mobile phones anywhere as well – we looked up ‘Pakistan’ while on the road and read the wikiepedia-style article, which was rather accurate.

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local computer

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More local technology

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Internet or Intranet – everyone just wants to stream shows

As for the mobile phones, the one I saw had a rather large screen, but was still quite thin. It was incredibly heavy though, much heavier than a similar phone you’d find outside North Korea (it could also be because I can barely curl an egg roll these days). All the apps came pre-installed as well, and the whole thing cost a pretty won – if I calculated right, around $340. Overall though, it seemed to function fine and didn’t really freeze up or run slowly. It is kind of crazy to think that just up until a few months ago, some North Koreans possessed more advanced mobile phone technology than I did, but that’s what carrying around a flip phone until 2016 means.

A few other North Korean-isms came up during our visit. First of all, we learned that everyone has to attend mandatory Saturday ‘reeducation’ classes. Akin to Sunday school I imagine, but on Saturday instead – how fun. We would also see groups constantly cleaning the streets – it seems community groups get assigned this on a regular basis. Just about every balcony on all the apartment buildings in Pyongyang had flowers, which we were also told was a rule. There was also a 200-day campaign going on during our time, which meant that all society was mobilized around improving everything during this period, giving special effort. However, this 200-day campaign had began just as another 80-day campaign had ended, and some (foreigners living in Pyongyang) surmised that would be followed by another right after. So despite it being a tool to maximize societal efforts, we saw a lot of evidence of it in action – from propaganda posters advertising its arrival, to red flags in public places as its symbol, to people fixing up the outside of their houses, especially in Kaesong. Electricity barely went out while we were there (once in the diplomatic enclave and another time while in a shop downtown) – but we were also told that as part of the 200-day campaign, coal workers were putting in 14-hour days to ensure a steady supply. Seemingly unsustainable, but also near constant mobilization.

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Poster outlining the 200-day campaign

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Red flags symbolizing the campaign, while a group fixes the street

The Myonghang hotel near the Friendship Hall we visited up country was also a microcosm of everything North Korean. A massive structure in the middle of nowhere, it’s mere existence is impressive proof of what North Korea is able to accomplish. I imagine if discovered as an overgrown ruin by future peoples (or past aliens) they will claim this as the mark of a great civilization, on the level of the Pyramids, Taj Mahal, and the Pokemon Go app. Yet at the same time, it was mostly a facade. There was supposed to be a rotating restaurant on the top floor, and while it was closed, I wanted to go up anyway to see the view. However, the elevator for this 15 story behemoth was not working (and the stairs were not offered). Then my uncle’s colleague had raved about the pool and insisted we go see it, only for us to be told we couldn’t (because we assumed it wasn’t in viewable state). On top of it all, we were literally the only ones in this place, which had a five staff per customer ratio, all seemingly ready, waiting for something or someone. We lunched by ourselves in this massive cloud-themed restaurant that was fully set up to accommodate over hundred with silverware and place settings already out. Again, an impressive feat of architecture and engineering demonstrating apparent capabilities, but we were just left wondering if those capabilities were appropriately applied.

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A future ruin?

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An empty marshmallow cloud restaurant, also known as the of most Pee-Wee Herman movies

What was exit like? Did the check all your photos?

Exiting the country was a completely different experience than entering. We took the train up to the Chinese-North Korean border, so we didn’t have to deal with the airport at all. Everything in North Korean is so controlled and people and generally aware of your arrival beforehand, but our arrival at the border at the city of Sinuiju (we didn’t get off the train) was the first time during our trip I think someone was not informed ahead of time of our impending presence.

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all aboard to Sinuiju

 

The train was seven cars long, with three North Korean cars, followed by a dining car, followed by three other cars. As mentioned in post II, we were not permitted to go into the North Korean section. The rest of the non-North Korean cars were filled with Chinese nationals, likely a mix of tourists and businessmen. We had the first berth of the first car within this section of the train, with six beds for ourselves (the train was only about a five hours journey, though also took three additional hours of border formalities).

Upon arrival at the North Korean side, a guard walked into the train and was startled to see us, likely expecting just Chinese nationals. The confusion on his face was obvious, and he pointed at me as I was seated closet to him, asking where I was from. I responded ‘Mi-guk,’ which means America. That gave him even more consternation as he attempted to figure out how on earth an American had ridden the train all the way to here undetected. I pointed to my uncle and explained he was a diplomat, but that had him start asking for my diplomatic papers instead, to which I unsuccessfully tried to explain he was the diplomat and we were all his family (even though I am not a direct relative, and have a different nationality & last name).

The guard ran out and back a few times, but eventually figured it all out. Once the confusion was removed, the process was smooth and the guards extremely courteous. Our bags were not searched at all, nor where our cameras inspected, I assume because we now fell under the diplomatic protection of my uncle. Though the model and make of our mobile phones was jotted down, nothing else happened with them. He again asked his usual refrain if we had GPS’s or bibles (unbeknownst to him Qurans would’ve been more appropriate), but once satisfied that we didn’t he left us alone, while taking his time with all the other Chinese tourists. We had been warned to have receipts for all souvenirs and to delete potentially sensitive photos from our camera prior to exit, but it proved all for not. The guard even cracked open a wide smile, saying in English “have a nice journey,” and bowed upon exiting the train, an amicable parting memory (I wonder how long he had been waiting for an appropriate time to use that nugget of English!).

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The other border . . . we could not cross this one

Arrival in China

Arriving back in China, even after just nine days in North Korea, was overwhelming. There is music blaring and lights flashing everywhere and shops upon shops upon shops. So many damn shops. All trying to sell you something. Capitalism is so hot right now.

The contrast across the border could not be more stark. Even taking the train from Pyongyang, the area begins to get a bit more developed once you get closer to the border, given the extent of trading (legit and illicit) that happens with China. We saw a noticeable difference in nicer, taller, and more plentiful buildings. But that still is nothing compared to China. In the distance we saw what looked like a megatropolis, full of skyscrapers and rice. It looked like the future (note: all the more difficult to comprehend, given that Dandong is only China’s 118th biggest city). It’s all very visible across the Yalu River – I just don’t see how it’d be possible to stand on the North Korean side and look out at that everyday, without wondering if something might be up. The differences are so stark, that Dandong has developed an entire niche tourist industry around those who go halfway across the railway bridge linking the two countries, just to ‘look’ into North Korea (a similar reverse industry has developed on the other side of the border for more active North Koreans to ‘look and swim’ into China, in an attempt to introduce more exercise-based tourism).

Also, one noticed right away that so many Chinese people were fat. I never saw a fat North Korean (though that’s probably evidence of something rather bad . . . like chronic starvation – could be a new center for diet tourism perhaps?). At any rate, another symbol of the incredibly different paths taken by the two countries, simply predicated on divergent governance and leadership.

Nonetheless, after the initial awe of arriving back in China wore off, it quite annoyed me. All the flashing lights and loud music and plethora of items, I yearned for a simpler time. Reverse culture shock as they say, but there was something calming about the North Korean controlled society (for me at least). If this is what development means, should they really be going down that path? Not that it’s any of my business to pass judgement, but its an activity I often involve myself in, especially when its none of my business.

Concluding Impressions

To start, we did get the feeling that North Korea was changing a bit. We visited Tongil Market in Pyongyang where capitalism seemed to be on the move, and as mentioned perhaps more tellingly, were not allowed to take photos of it, lest it represent to the outside world that the free market does in fact exist within the country. The market was packed and contained a highly tolerated black-market exchange center, where you could get 8,500W for your dollar, rather than 1,000 on the official rate. Along with some other nascent changes, a Chinese national we met remarked that it reminded him of his own country’s initial flirtations with capitalism in the late 1970s/early 1980s (though advertising and the development of catchy names is still a ways off – we bought some souvenirs at the creatively named Department store no.1). Whether that proves to be an accurate assessment remains to be seen, but there were small indications that the government has been experimenting with ways to improve the economy, introducing some capitalism-like reforms in the process.

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Capitalism in action (btw, are they eating iced ice cream water??)

Furthermore, the situation in Pyongyang did not seem as dire as imagined – rather the city is experiencing a bit of a construction boom. We visited a whole new and futuristic street reserved for the nation’s scientists, while the ‘Pyong-hattan’ skyline boasted an array for freshly built tall apartment buildings. Another whole new part of the city was under construction, reportedly at the rate of an entire story per day. Where the financing for all this is coming from in a country supposedly under international sanctions is unclear, but what was certain is that the construction all around defied preconceived notions of a country under serious economic strain (which very well may still be the case overall). Kim Jong-Un has reportedly put a simultaneous focus on both military and economic development in a change from his father’s policies, and the construction we saw and the development of small market centers appeared to be evidence of that. One North Korean further explained the changes, stating six years ago there were no cars on the road in Pyongyang, but now there are plenty, “as we grow by ourselves.”

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Up and coming buildings

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Pyong-hattan by night

Thus overall, the impression we got was not of a country in stagnation or on the brink of collapse (which some daring press reports may confirm), but on on the move, in a very odd fashion. Perhaps that was exactly the impression our visit was designed to achieve, but for the small portion of the country we experienced, it seemed to be the case.

At the end of the day though, what was I most interested in prior to my visit was the people. While our deep interactions were with an elite crowd, the common humanity witnessed in little events like joking about bowel movements, or more jokes about bowel movements, demonstrated simply that people are people everywhere, no matter what. Even in North Korea, which I still think is probably adequately described the weirdest place on earth (rural West Virginia excluded), I felt there was more commonality between us than not. Perhaps that was the most enduring impression from the trip, that its possible to find similar ground even with someone who has grown up in North Korea under a completely different system unlike anything else remaining in the world today. I mean if Dennis Rodman can do it, then we all can.

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and the crowd goes wild!

It’s over, it’s all finally over – you can now sleep easy!