my mystery malady

This past Wednesday, I woke up feeling exhausted but otherwise fine. About an hour after eating breakfast, a dull sense of weakness and malaise began creeping over me and I had to lie back down. By the end of the next hour, I was unable to sit up, paralyzed by bodily fatigue. I had stitches of pain and muscle aches in my legs and sides and neck. I couldn’t find a comfortable position and every time I moved I moaned. I was chilly and sweaty at the same time.

I didn’t want to jump to malarial conclusions and I also didn’t want to go to the doctor without a very good reason, so I tried to wait it out, but by 7pm it was clear it was getting worse instead of better. I had gotten nauseous and head-achey, my aches had turned into pronounced pains, and I could barely crawl out of bed let alone stand up straight.

I hobbled with Mamie to the pharmacy next door where they pronounced their prognosis soon after my arrival: “un petit palu,” a mild case of malaria. I told them I take doxycycline every day as a prophylactic and they mimed the pill going in one ear and out the other. They gave me a fizzy paracetamol tablet to reduce my fever and told me to get to the doctor stat.

So we headed to the emergency room (salle d’urgence) of the hospital downtown, whereupon I began an epic journey / vocabulary lesson. Continue reading

Youssou, encore une fois

YoussouNdourOn Saturday we went to see Youssou in a very different venue than last time. It was a concert space en plein air, as they say, and it was packed with a generally younger, more casual, and much more energetic crowd than at the Grand Theatre gala.

I almost skipped this show because of the fear it could never live up to the first one, but then I realized that would be incredibly silly. And in the end, the two shows had such different vibes that they were like apples and oranges.

One thing remained constant, however: the ungodly hours. Youssou is nearing 60 years old and yet he came onstage at 1:15 and finished performing at 3:49am. (I know the precise time because by that point I was checking my phone every five seconds.) He and his band kept asking the crowd, “Est-ce que vous êtes fatigues?” and my whimpered “Yes”es were completely drowned out by the delirious “Non!!!!”s.

But earlier in the night, when I was not yet falling asleep on my feet… here’s the moment that gave me chills. (That’s my beautiful and charming “host sister,” Cecile aka Mamie, at the end.)

I’ve now heard this song, “New Africa,” live three times. The first time was in New York and I got baby chills. In Senegal, the baby chills turned into enormous adult chills, and I felt a bit like a sucker for cheap thrills. But can you blame me?

It was an awesome night. There’s a longer video here (including amazing drumming and dancing) if you want to see more.

what I was up to in Liberia

Before I post pictures from Liberia, I want to share the video that I made there, which was the reason for my trip:

If you lack the attention span for a 14-minute video on reproductive health, here’s a 4-minute version. And here’s an even shorter cut that AJ+ did using my footage. Documentaries / non-fiction videos are often trees falling in forests, but AJ+ has a really big audience and their piece has gotten over 300,000 views so far, which makes me very, very happy.

It was such a privilege to see Liberia in the way that I did through this project. While I love dropping into a place as a tourist and observing on a surface level, it’s a different and deeper kind of enrichment to spend time in a country where your primary purpose is to document some facet of humanity. Criss-crossing the country from Monrovia to the most remote villages, I got up close and personal with people – mostly women – whose lives and experiences have been about as different from my own as you can get. Strangers afforded me access to their private lives, thoughts, and feelings, and they entrusted me to portray them sensitively to the public. It always amazes me when that happens, considering how guarded I personally am in front of a camera.

I would never claim to “know” Liberia or Liberians after only two weeks… but I will say that what I experienced there has made a huge impact on how I “know” and see and feel about myself and the world. I think that is the greatest gift that travel – and this line of work – can give you.

sibling rivalry


Every once in a while, I come home to discover a new person or two at the dinner table and find out that they’ll be staying for a few weeks. So far they have been a Cape Verdean public health Ph.D. candidate doing research in Dakar, a pair of American students at the language center where I took French classes, and a set of Senegalese doctors who were in town for some sort of very short residency.

The Cape Verdean came first. The night he arrived, we all made sparkling conversation around the table, and I was surprisingly chatty in French. I had one of those nights in which I didn’t have to search for the words; they just came to me. I was conjugating (mostly) correctly, my subjects were agreeing with my verbs, I was cracking jokes, and I understood or could infer the meaning of everything that was said.

I was feeling great… until my “host mom” looked at the Cape Verdean guy and complimented him effusively, “You speak French very well.” (Cape Verde’s official language is Portugese.) Her gaze was ever so slightly askew, so that I might have convinced myself she was talking to me instead of to him, had my host sister not noticed the “what about me?” look on my face and piped up, “Ruth speaks French well, too.” My host mom glanced at me and without realizing the blow she was dealing, she conceded, “Ruth’s French is improving.” BURN.

And that’s how it came to pass that I became insanely jealous of a random Cape Verdean dude, and wouldn’t stop ruminating on how annoying it is that he pronounces his qu’s like kweh instead of keh.

With the American students, rising college seniors, I got even more ridiculous. One didn’t speak any French and so I loved her. But the other claimed to be “almost fluent,” and every time she opened her mouth I found myself hoping she’d trip up. Meanwhile, I would pipe up needlessly in dinner table conversation just to prove that I could speak French, too. I had fifteen years on this women and yet despite her being nothing but kind to me, I was threatened and competitive. My four year-old niece behaves more maturely with her one year-old brother.

The saddest part is, if I could only get out of my own way, I could learn a thing or two from this woman – not about French but about life. After a week in the house with her, I realized that her French is “almost fluent,” the way mine is – that is to say, not at all. And yet, her confidence made it easier not only for her to speak but also to not suffer over it the way I do.

I need to chill out with a. the thought that I’m on some sort of French fluency time table and running way behind schedule, and b. the belief that every time I open my mouth to speak French, my value as a human being is on the line. It’s really not that big a deal. No one cares. I speak how I speak, and it’s fine.

The US military often sends service members to the language center for French and cultural training, and in a couple of days, two of their guys are coming for a few weeks’ stay. I am hoping that I will successfully dial down my competitive streak during their time here. (Well, really I’m hoping that they’ll suck at French so that I won’t feel any competition to begin with.)

[Photo: Mr. T HK]

Morocco part 1: Marrakech

My Portugal flights included a stopover in Casablanca in both directions. Since it cost barely $50 more to hop out in Morocco before continuing on to Dakar, I decided to stay a few days. After an uneventful evening in Casablanca, I took a morning train from the Casa Voyageurs station to Marrakech, a little over 3 hours away. It was remarkably easy and the train runs every couple of hours. Continue reading

happy 4th of July!



misspiggyIt’s just another weekday here but I’m planning to take it easy anyway. My day got off to a delightful start when I emailed a photo to myself and opened my boîte de réception to find a note from “moi.” 

Happy Independence Day to all my American brethren! Please watch enough fireworks for the both of us.

frenchifying my digital world



It just occurred to me that it would be good for vocabulary building and reading comprehension to change my email and Facebook interfaces to French. Look how adorable they are! The Mets are “affronting” the Cubs right now. You bet they are. My gmail inbox is my reception box. Drafts are called “brouillons,” which in verb form means “to mix up, scramble, confuse, or blur.” Fascinating!


This is the stuff I do on Saturday nights here…