Egúngún, right here in NYC

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As may have been clear when I wrote about it in February, I was in serious awe and admiration of the egúngún masquerade that I saw during the Vodoun festival in Benin. I really didn’t know much about the tradition before visiting; I had mostly just seen photos that blew my mind and convinced me to visit. Since then, I’ve been reading up on it, and the subject grows more and more fascinating with every word. It also grows more and more confusing in certain ways, due to nuances in the cultures, religions, and ceremonial practices of close but not entirely similar peoples who share the egúngún tradition, like the Fon in Benin and the Yoruba in Nigeria.  So, I will quote liberally from authoritative texts rather than try to explain things in my own very unauthoritative words.

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Last weekend I was excited to visit the Brooklyn Museum for their exhibit of an egúngún costume made some time between 1920 and 1948 in Nigeria by a family called Lekewọgbẹ. The museum describes the exhibit as:

“the life story of a twentieth-century Yorùbá masquerade dance costume (egúngún), from its origins in Ògbómọ̀ṣọ́, Nigeria, to its current home in Brooklyn. Composed of over three hundred textiles from Africa, Europe, and Asia, this egúngún swirls into motion during festivals honoring departed ancestors. Centuries old, egúngún is still practiced in Nigeria, the Republic of Benin, and in the Yorùbá diaspora.”

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Also according to the Brooklyn Museum, egúngún is a Yoruba word that can refer to three distinct but related things: “all Yoruba masquerades, a specific masking society and related festivities, and the particular masks used in those events.” Egúngún masquerades go back hundreds of years to the sixteenth century.

“Most often appearing at annual festivals that honor immortal ancestors, egúngún also emerge on special occasions or at moments of need. The masks are vessels for communal ancestral spirits and, as such, are active only when occupied by those forces or ny maskers embodying those spirits. Men who perform egúngún remain human while temporarily taking on a spiritual dimension as they physically manifest unseeable ancestral forces. As dancers must conceal their human form to achieve this, they also wear gloves and long socks; a mesh panel at the front permits them to see during performance. …

During festivals, the masked egúngún travels from the shrine or grove to the streets and public centers, accompanied by drummers, singers, ritual specialists, and crowds of followers. These festivals reunite ancestors with the living, who assure the success of their community by lavishing praise and ceremony on the returned relatives. Spreading breezes of blessing in return as it whirls and dances, the egúngún allows the ancestors to participate in the present.”

My interest was piqued when I read that the egúngún tradition is alive and well in the Yoruba diaspora, including Brooklyn. A quick Internet search led me to the realization that the annual Isese Festival featuring an egúngún masquerade is just around the corner on Sunday, June 2. It starts at 11:00am at Locks of Nu Natural Hair Salon, 2000 Fulton Street. The procession will then make its way through the streets of Bed-Stuy. It is firmly on my calendar and I can’t wait to go. If you’re in the NYC area, I encourage you to come, too!

Here’s the invite from their site:

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a super shitty story

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I don’t know why but I have been looking forward to telling this story since the moment it started with a bang. Perhaps there is catharsis in the public airing of my literal dirty laundry. Perhaps I am a perverse exhibitionist. Perhaps I just like talking shit.

On that note, I plan to italicize every statement in this post that is both literally and figuratively true. Because if I’ve realized anything over the course of this very shitty time, it’s that the word “shit” is a stand-in for basically anything and everything in American culture. Why is that? Could it be that our culture is as obsessed with poop as I am? I’ll come back to that later. First I have to tell you how this shit started. Continue reading

Ghana: Kakum National Park

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I am so behind on posting about my travels. This is the conclusion of my January vacation series, more than three months after the fact. But as you’ll soon learn, Ghana was the gift that keeps on giving, so perhaps it’s fitting that my final post about the country is written from the vantage point of someone whose body left months ago but whose digestive system remains stuck there. My next post will deal with that sordid affair, but for now let’s stick to Ghana’s natural beauty, on full display at Kakum National Park

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I missed my blogiversary :(

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And it’s a big one – 5 years! Half a decade of hard work to finally speak French, and to consistently write in English. But on Sunday I forgot all about it in the midst of a bunch of craziness.

Had I remembered my blogiversary on the correct day, I would have realized how perfect the timing was. On Sunday I returned to New York from South Jersey filled with renewed motivation to get back on the language horse. That’s because I spent the preceding week with my family and was amazed and inspired by how my seven year-old niece has picked up Spanish practically overnight.

When I left the United States for Senegal at the beginning of January, my niece was two days into the bilingual English-Spanish program at her new school. All her classmates had started the program a half-year earlier because their parents had signed their kids up at the end of the previous school year. But Hannah and her family moved into the school district over the summer, and by the time they tried to sign her up, the program was at capacity. My brother and sister-in-law put her on the wait list and she joined the English-only track in the meantime.

In December, Hannah got the news that a space had opened up and she could start the bilingual track in the new year. My brother told me not to mention it to Hannah before I left, because she wasn’t looking forward to leaving her new friends and starting all over again with yet another set of new classmates. I thought that was a small price to pay for becoming fluent in a second language at a young age, but of course a seven year-old (six at the time) wouldn’t share that sentiment.

Cut to three and a half months later. When I hung out with Hannah, I made sure not to bring up Spanish in case it was still a sensitive subject. Instead, it was she who randomly answered a question from her mom with a Spanish response. Thinking this was my opening, I asked her how Spanish was going. Because she is seven, she couldn’t give her parents (who were in the room) the satisfaction of thinking that she had come around to their point of view, so she insisted over and over again that she hated Spanish – in Spanish. “Why?” I asked. “Porque es un otro lenguaje,” she answered in a perfect accent. In the ten minutes of Spanish conversation that followed, I struggled to remember how to say the most basic words and phrases, and she answered flawlessly, effortlessly, mellifluously. I told her that I was both incredibly impressed and incredibly jealous of her Spanish abilities and she rolled her eyes.

Yes, Hannah, I know that feeling. When I was approximately seven my mom hired a Hebrew tutor to come to the house and give me lessons after school. I still remember it with the visceral responses I had then, of life-threatening boredom mixed with intense desperation to escape. I don’t know what happened with the tutoring – I’m pretty sure it didn’t last longer than a couple of months. Maybe I moped about it so much that my mom gave in and discontinued the lessons. Thirty years later, I would give at least one good finger to go back in time and sit through those stupid lessons no matter how mind-numbing they were.

So, even though Hannah was not in the least excited about her newfound Spanish, I could not have been more excited for her. Clearly, one of my biggest unfulfilled wishes in life is that I had been raised bilingual or at least schooled bilingually. I would have saved so much trouble and hard work that way, with a better result than what I’ve got now after years of struggle and effort: inconsistent proficiency rather than fluency in French, ridiculously grasping Spanish, and exceptionally faltering Hebrew. I’d know how it feels to have two different but equally accessible forms of expression at my disposal, to toggle between two different worlds with ease. I will never know what that’s like and it really bothers me.

But, just because I’ll never have two equally balanced fluent languages in my brain doesn’t mean I shouldn’t keep trying to learn other languages to the best of my ability. Without realizing it, my niece inspired me to get back to work. I am going to sign up for a Rosetta Stone subscription so that I can learn Spanish right along with her (or a few steps behind her, more likely).

When I started this blog five years ago my goals were to move to Senegal, learn to speak French fluently, and learn Spanish and Hebrew pretty well. I would say I’ve gotten about 50% there. On my fifth blogiversary (plus a few days), it feels appropriate to set a new goal for the next five years of this blog. Here it is: Go the remaining 50%. 💪

[The photo is a drawing that Hannah gave me last week. Apparently it is the cover to a blank book about the three little pigs; I think the point was that I was supposed to fill in the book. Because she is somehow a full-on Spanish speaker after three months of immersion, she wrote the title of the book in Spanish first, and then in English.]

four wonderful things, including some (get over the) hump day inspiration

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Thing one: I was overjoyed to learn that — if we can look at the glass half-full for a moment — the damage to Notre-Dame was much more limited than it could have been:

  • Even though I saw a bunch of disheartening photos of windows missing their glass, CNN reported that all three of the massive rose windows from the 13th century along with many of the other stained glass panels survived the fire. I was sure the glass would all melt away, and I am so happy to know that much of it held out.
  • The organ was also spared, as was much of the artwork.
  • Many of the statues had been removed just days before, in preparation for the renovation work, so they weren’t caught in the fire.
  • A bunch of priceless artifacts were rescued before they were destroyed, including the crown of thorns that means so much to Catholics.
  • Had the fire reached the towers, the whole thing would have come down soon after. It didn’t, and that seems miraculous.
  • According to the New York Times, almost 850 million Euros has already been raised towards rebuilding, which seems so fitting for Notre-Dame’s 850 years of history. Some have asked why money can be raised so much more easily for a cathedral in need than for people in need, but I choose to focus on the fact that there is a need and it’s being met. I think that is a wonderful thing.

Thing two: I realized that I had inadvertently already donated to the Notre-Dame rebuilding fund by responding to the World Monuments Fund‘s annual membership call the day before the fire. I gave $45 to become an Explorer-level member (usually $50 but there was a deal during the pledge drive). This means that a. I will receive a yearly magazine about the organization’s fascinating and important work to save and restore humanity’s architectural heritage, and that b. I have contributed to that work. You can, too!

Thing three: I just learned that the 2020 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. will “celebrate (and complicate) connections between Benin, Brazil, and the United States” through an exploration of their voodoo-inflected musical and cultural traditions. You know what that means?! If you can’t bring the girl back to the Vodoun Festival, you can bring the Vodoun festival back to the girl. See you in 2020, D.C.!

Thing four: The day before I left Senegal, I had breakfast with a French-Guinean journalist friend, Sarah. We caught each other up on where our respective lives had led us over the two years since we had last seen each other, and we exchanged our conjectures and semi-formed visions about where the future might take us. At some point we realized that we were both in a similar place of finally enjoying the present moment and accepting that life was not going according to our preconceived plans, but that it was working out really well anyway. Then she casually dropped the pearliest pearl of wisdom: “Life has more imagination than we do.”

I found it so profound and thought that only someone speaking a non-native language could express themselves so poetically in casual conversation. She later told me that she had actually heard the words from a friend many years ago, had held on to them, and had passed them on to me in that very apropos moment. Regardless of who said the words first, I now think of her as a poet-journalist.

I meant to post the quote sooner because I love it so much, but I’m glad I didn’t get around to it until now so that I could apply it to the horror-turned-to-wonder of Notre-Dame surviving a blaze that could have burnt it all down.

Our Lady, Notre-Dame

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After living in Paris for much of 2017, my last week was the one between Christmas and New Year’s. On December 22, I stayed out all night with a couple of new friends and we bar hopped from speakeasy to speakeasy. I meant to post about it here but I never did (maybe I will get around to it one day…).

The idea to visit a bunch of speakeasies in one night came to us after we discovered a shared passion for exploring the city. The challenge to stay out all night was my addition to the plan. I believe that spending 24 hours wide awake in any given city reveals otherwise unknowable things about it and also inspires high-on-life-low-on-sleep euphoria that forever solidifies one’s connection to it.

That’s exactly what happened on that night in Paris. We visited four or five speakeasies between 10pm and 4am. After we decided we had had enough of bars, we made a last-minute change of plans and wandered around until we found a 24-hour brasserie close enough to the Seine to hop out at dawn and watch the sun rise over the river.

The brasserie happened to be just across the bridge from Notre-Dame, and as we walked across the plaza in the first hints of light, I realized that the cathedral would open to the public in just fifteen minutes. Nobody was waiting outside, so after another last-minute change of plans, we were the first to go in when the small entrance within the huge wooden doors opened.

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I had passed Notre-Dame many times during my nine months in Paris, but I had only been inside once before, on a family trip to Europe when I was 13 or 14. It was so packed that I could barely see a thing, and I was therefore underwhelmed. This time, the cathedral was nearly empty, very dark, and decorated for Christmas.

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The stained glass in the rose windows looked black; it was still too dark outside for the colors to shine through.

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Although the light inside came from electricity, there was so little of it that the cathedral resembled how it must have looked when candlelit hundreds of years ago.

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The only thing I could hear was the sound of my own footsteps falling and snatches of a hymn being sung by choir members near the altar. Maybe they were practicing for the next night’s midnight mass, or maybe they were getting ready for the first mass that morning. I walked through the nave feeling the sacredness of the space, the peacefulness of the moment, and a deep gratefulness for having visited Notre-Dame in such a special way.

Watching the cathedral burn this evening was heartbreaking. Notre-Dame connects millions of people who have been awed by it for over 850 years, and if that chain is broken it would be a tragedy for all of humanity. But it would especially be a tragedy for all those who have not yet visited and felt its power.

That goes for people of all religions or none at all. Notre-Dame belongs to all of us – the “notre” is everyone’s “our,” not just Catholics’. I’m not a religious person, and if I were it would be in the Jewish and not the Catholic faith. Yet cathedrals move me in a way that feels unexplainable, given my lack of belief. Actually, it is entirely explainable. Gothic architecture objectively evokes an emotional response, a sense of wonder and holiness. While cathedrals hold a special purpose and meaning for Catholics, they are special, full stop, for everyone.

In my opinion, Notre-Dame is not among the most beautiful of Paris’s cathedrals, but it is one of the most magical. It has towered majestically over the banks of the Seine since the 1100s, when Paris was in its infancy. Created by humans in a remarkable feat of engineering and ambition, it has witnessed and outlasted countless other human dramas including the Revolution (and all those other counter-revolutions and rebellions I once learned and have since forgotten about) and two World Wars. It was around before the plague! Almost every important figure in French history must have been inside at some point.

It is a beloved fixture of the Paris landscape, at its heart and in its heart. As I said, I’m not religious. I identify as agnostic, and if I had to choose one way or the other, I’d say I don’t believe in God. But in spite of that, I found myself praying this evening. “Please, God, in whatever form you take, let there be some sort of miracle that allows Notre-Dame to escape nearly unscathed. Please let nothing truly irreplaceable be lost. Please let it be possible to rebuild so that people still feel connected to humans who lived a thousand years before them. Please let Notre-Dame continue to survive threats of destruction, just as it has done before, as a testament to the sacredness, ingenuity, resilience and beauty of humanity itself.”

That December morning in Notre-Dame, we only spent a few minutes inside, because we didn’t want to miss the sunrise entirely. I took for granted that the cathedral would always be around, but the dawn would only last a few more minutes. We quietly left the cathedral and walked around to the back of it, where these views awaited us.

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My heart aches to think about the view looking back at the people in those buildings tonight.

Ghana: Elmina and Cape Coast

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The bulk of the planning for my Benin-Togo-Ghana trip went into the Benin portion, and I figured that I’d play it by ear in Togo and Ghana. Had I done a bit more research ahead of time, I would have realized I’d want two days to explore Elmina, Cape Coast, and Kakum Park. Instead, I tried to cram it all into one very long day trip that started at 6am and ended at 9pm in Accra. There was not a minute of downtime in the itinerary, aside from a lunch that tried to kill me. More on that another time. Continue reading