Thursday, September 17, 2015


Music has always been a curious friend. And as with my other friends, there have been long lapses in my association with  it. I first remember turning to music at the age of 12 or so, as I suppose many do. I got my thirteen albums for a penny from Columbia records and found temporary refuge in my bedroom from the madness around me. I had eclectic tastes before I knew what eclectic meant or that "musical taste" would be something that would nearly spoil the medium for me years later. I was free then to like what I liked and to indulge in pure musical pleasure before the hipsters introduced the guilt.

Looking back now, I find it very curious that I related to and embraced heartbreak songs long before I ever learned to love (subject to debate). How can you feel pain you never earned? I know it wasn't a portent or even the seeds of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but those lonely melodies rattled around inside me comfortably as if I had shot straight to the fifth stage of grief without passing go. It wasn't sick, but it couldn't have been healthy.

There were other connections though, some intellectual and some spiritual. The Vietnam War was ending and there were songs that inspired or accelerated a region of my conscience that fuels my limited ethics to this day. I learned to consider sacrifice, injustice, and cruelty two and half minutes at a time. Music also helped me try to connect to the world around me, not just with like minded fans, but to ideas and the artifacts of generational heritage that had skipped a beat in my family. Jesus Christ Superstar energized me to look past the pedantic filters of faith and religion that had turned me off so completely from the Catholic church. For the first time I came to embrace my doubt and shame as part of my humanity and a portal to my God.

Later in my teenage years, adrenaline and decibels displaced lyrics and intellectual passion and I didn't mind. Feeling music without a particular emotional attachment is oddly cathartic to me even now. It is hard to go back and relive my first moments with a song or artist, not remembering it in a context free of the memories that followed and envelop it now. It is so rare for me to find new music that I like, perhaps because I prefer the aggregated pain and nostalgia that have barnacled those old tunes. There are the occasional exceptions though, and I am thankful for them.

Nearly a dozen years ago, I discovered a new artist (new to me anyway) while watching a terrible but fun horror flick. The movie was a period piece, if you are allowed yet to call a 1970's flick a period piece, and the soundtrack was from the same era. I heard a beautiful and haunting song that could have been sung by a man or woman, I couldn't tell. I waited patiently for the movie to end and watched the credits carefully. The song was by Terry Reid, and I hadn't yet realized that it was an old song. After a quick google search, I learned about his career and the album that contained the song that had enthralled me. I was in London at the time and Terry was a British artist - after a quick trip down to Virgin Records the next day, I came home with the CD. I loved every track. If you don't know his story, by the way, it is an interesting one. Google it :)

The tune is Seed of Memory and I have put a link to it below. The song is connected to my London experience and my friends there, but it has become so much more for me. When I listen to it, it echoes inside me displacing an emptiness, ricocheting between the pain and pleasures of lost love and middle aged foolishness. The reanimation is a welcome ritual that leaves me smiling and grateful for the ability to feel again. Music should be like that - haunting, forgiving, and friendly........

Friday, September 11, 2015


All nights are not created equal. Some are far more lonely than others.


Pelagie was my lifeline at the UNHCR camp in Zongo!  She was in charge of many practical administrative details, and of me while I was there. She took care of my lodging, meals, laundry, and all the crazy requests I had for work and gifts. She is a great organizer and very patient. Though I am not sure she understood the word patient before my arrival there :)
Pelagie is a very friendly and kind woman. She is also very intelligent and has a great sense of humor. She can be tough too, in that very appropriate African woman way. I saw her flash a bit of irritation here and there (completely warranted), but behind it was that quick smile and laugh that let you know things are fine but there are expectations. She never was firm with me, most likely as I was so lost on most things. She is highly respected there and knows her job well.
I liked to tease Pelagie and she took it wonderfully. One of my habits there was to name trees - most of my African friends didn't really get it at first, particularly when I named the tree below the "Pelagie Tree."  They would look at me strangely until I did the near figure eight gesture with my hands mimicking the female form. At that moment, they would burst out laughing, knowing they could go back and tease her about it (from a safe distance of course). She took it wonderfully and it was a few weeks before I had the courage to show her a picture of the tree. She smiled at me and I knew I was catching a break and getting away with a bit.
I am so fortunate when I travel to have wonderful people that take care of me so well that I can focus entirely on my job. Pelagie was that person who watched over me for two months this summer in Africa. She did a wonderful job.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Yahya was my primary driver this summer. He did an excellent job and became a good friend. We spent a great deal of time together in that Landcruiser - on average about 35 hours a week to and fro. He made the almost unbearable passage bearable, and helped me learn many of the nuances of the place much faster than if I had been alone. Yahya is an honorable young man and it was a great honor to spend the summer with him.

Yahya is from Zongo, the village I stayed in. He is a Muslim and that was a nice connection between us. He also has a great sense of humor, which probably helped him survive me and that dreaded road. We joked and laughed a great deal, and I never saw him angry nor did I see him ignore or mistreat anyone. This is an important note, as refugees are in a very precarious situation and they way they are treated by support staff can make all the difference. Yahya understands this and is a great ambassador. He quickly became involved in many of the classes and meetings we had, far and above his basic duties as a driver.
I was pleasantly surprised by the interest Yahya had in developing his English. We had ample time to do so on those long rides and he was a very quick learner. As I have mentioned in other posts, our favorite English expression became "pigs in puddles." Yahya is a very loyal man - he loves his family, his job, and the people he works with. I had the great fortune of meeting his family, Hawa and Fatima (below) and seeing the house he is building for them. We even ran into his parents out on the road one day. Beautiful family.
I miss my daily commute with Yahya and our frequent stops to change currency, buy farm tools, charge camera batteries, and drink cold orange sodas. Yahya hopes to visit the states one day, and of course, Chicago should be his first stop!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Bryce and Samson

Bryce and Samson
Bryce (right) and Samson (left) where the two people who made my whole summer trip possible. Bryce is the Senior English Language Fellow who created the proposal for the project, and Samson is his man Friday. They got me off to a great start, supported me throughout, and helped me wrap everything up. This picture is from my first night in country at a goat bar.
Bryce had the remarkable vision to create this program. When I interviewed with him on the phone for the position, it was like I was talking to my own dream. He chuckled and told me he really designed it for himself if he would have been available.  Bryce is a level headed guy who cares deeply about what he does and the people he serves. After our initial discussion, he gave me a good deal of leeway in the design of the interventions, and things worked out very well. He had visited the camp earlier in the year to help set up a library. In doing so, he recognized the great potential of the folks there to help build their own English programs. Armed with that assurance, he submitted a very innovative and unique proposal to send an English Specialist into the camp to work at the ground level - this had never been done before. By the time we were done, he had written a white paper to present to the State Department to replicate the program elsewhere. On top of this, Bryce does a great job with the Congo-American Language Institute in Kinshasa that supports programs throughout the country. It was an honor to work with him.
To Bryce's left is Samson, a former student who is now his assistant. From the moment I met Samson, I realized he was one of the most kind and genuine people I was likely to encounter anywhere. Samson is also very diligent and conscientious - I could never imagine him having a bad word to say about anyone. His English is quiet excellent, although he probably doesn't think so. Samson was my tour guide during a few hectic shopping days and he took very good care of me. I remember telling him something about the DRC that made him very happy and sentimental, prompting him to say "I am so proud that my country does that." I realized then that I would never think of patriotism the same way again - he didn't thump his chest or loudly extoll, he was just simply touched and pleased. I will remember his gentleness, hopefully when I need to. I could never be as kind and accepting as Samson, but maybe I can lean a little more his way :)
I was so blessed to be included in this project and to have met and worked with these two men. They will never know how much this summer recharged my batteries or how proud I am of our collaboration.