An Expansion and Welcome

Hamna Chakula will be expanding by incorporating a new voice to provide another perspective. I’d like to welcome another historian to the blog, who studies German colonial history. He also trained in early modern Indian History with a particular fascination and interest in the Mughals. We are both interested in diligence and paying attention to the subtleties in the world around us.

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Medicine, the Press, and African Responses to Ebola

I’m reproducing an email that I sent to a friend about Ebola, largely in response to an article from the New York Times about local responses to doctors and growing mistrust of medical interventions. Confusion around the Ebola outbreak is not new, but there are some big questions that few people are asking and they certainly are not getting answered. I’d like to address a few glaring problems presented in the article, which suggest that Africans are somehow anti-modern because they are seeking alternatives to allopathic medicine. I’d like to also raise some important points about areas where greater information and clarity are needed.

The response by villagers in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea is not anti-modern as much as the doctors appear to provide little in remedies that work and as the conduit for returning the dead they are associated with death, not life. Families see their loved ones sent off to hospital alive and returned dead. This isn’t a case of rejecting modernity, this is seeing the connections between life and death through this movement to and out of medical care as the process that brings death. What gets called “traditional” medicine or witchcraft by some is a valiant effort to find living practices that can bring relief. Allopathic medicine is confounding and obtuse for many who see its blood draws, stool/tissue samples, and regimented approach as a dangerous thing. Pills, injections, and hospitals are objects that appear dead or sterile – they lack the living quality that many expect to experience in seeking medical care. Pills are strange objects with mysterious properties that are manufactured in places far and away – hidden, secret, and controlled. Plurality of care is something many people seek to bring comfort, to ground the suffering in something that appears less foreign.

The movement of infected persons within and outside of the infected area has also arisen as a point of concern as the international community increasingly frets that the virus might spread beyond the immediate zone of infection. International travel certainly exacerbates the issue and increases the chances of infection as people get on airplanes and land in new destinations – unknowingly transporting pathogens through the air and exposing fellow passengers to disease. Movement is the problem here, but not in the way we think. While we focus on international travel as the danger, we’re forgetting the travel between village and medical center. Isolation has typically been the best method approach, but it is contrary to what is understood as a standard of care in allopathic medicine. People must be brought to hospital to receive care, in the process shedding the virus as they go – this is actually a strange thing to consider. The return of the dead body with all its fluids and tissues continues this process. Isolation wards function on the premise that those in isolation can still receive treatment, that cure is still within the realm of possibility. Isolating the sick in their homes may present a more pragmatic approach, but with such a widespread epidemic there is inadequate staffing to do this work. And the return of bodies to their loved ones is a key piece of our highly ritualized and symbolic relationship with the dead.

The larger questions that aren’t getting asked relate to how Ebola found its way to this part of the African continent and why it hasn’t been observed before. According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, prior to 2014 there have been no outbreaks of Ebola in this part of Africa. With the one exception of a Taï-type Ebola virus sub-strain that was contracted by a scientist who did a dissection of a chimpanzee in the Ivory Coast, there have been no human to human cases of transmission before this year. The absence of Ebola during the preceding decades of war and conflict in the region seem peculiar. Diseases tend to be opportunists and arise during times of social upheaval. Did it go undocumented, mediated at the household and community level in the absence of international intervention? Or it is truly something new in this region. If it is new, how did it get there? If fruit bats have been the reservoir, why now? During the war people must have consumed fruit bats to survive. The problem is no one is asking these questions, at least not the media outlets. Nor is the CDC or WHO, the only perspectives coming out on the outbreak further reify notions of African ignorance and lack of understanding. I would argue they know all too well.

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Children on the Move

I cannot claim to understand all the legal wranglings and debates around the immigrant children question that’s currently ensnared public interest in recent weeks. But as an immigrant and one who came as a child, I have some thoughts and reflections on the nature of the risks involved. I’ve read all manner of news dispatches about a freshman congressman who was denied access to a facility that housed 1100 children at an army base in Oklahoma. Bridenstine’s maneuver was a political one and not actually related to welfare of the children, I have no qualms in pointing this out. Children are not to be used as political fodder, and their security was a perfectly logical reason for denying him access. Less grandstanding examples include historical accounts of children coming to these shores during social and political crises in Europe. More recently, during my own lifetime there was an effort to scoop up the children of mixed parentage as the Vietnam War drew to a close in “Operation Babylift,” 1975. I was not one of the children in that airlift, though I am of mixed Eurasian descent – I emigrated from Vietnam, with my mother, in 1973. During these last days of the Vietnam War, we were living in Thailand.

The children of mixed parentage, who were abandoned or orphaned in Vietnam, faced a bleak and horrible future. One where they were ostracized by their kin, a persistent reminder of a failed war and US soldiers who sired children but denied their existence. This is a bitter pill, even today. I was one of those children; abandoned, denied, and left in the arms of a mother who moved heaven and earth to secure my future. I know that she would have put me onto that airlift in 1975, but she managed to get both of us out eighteen months earlier. I have her letters, words of desperation, anxiety, and fear are jumbled together with encouragement, praise, and love for a man who represented our last hope as he appeared to flag in his promises of unwavering love, a pattern that had occurred before. I’ve been fortunate not to face those same choices. Under her firm hand I grew up knowing that my life came at a high cost and that her choices for me were based on her desires for me and a future she didn’t live to see. The anniversary of my mother’s death is approaching at the end of this month – so my mind is awash in thoughts of her and what she sacrificed.

Thanks to my mother I’ve had opportunities, but they haven’t come free or easy. The United States is great for what it offers, but also a challenge for many who want this land to be better. My mother also managed to get some of her family out of Vietnam in 1975. I know many in my family have struggled through language barriers, job insecurity, and terrible poverty. But like generations of immigrants before and after, not one has given up.

By all rights, I am a success, the true American dream. But I also know that I didn’t get here alone. My mother planted the seed and convinced me that if I worked hard enough I could be anything. After her death, I had others who supported my endeavors and encouraged me along the way. I have achieved multiple degrees, I live in security, I have an excellent career, wonderful children, and my husband is a paragon. I am far from wealthy, but that’s not the measure of my success and I think my mother would agree. I am successful because I’ve worked hard and I’ve taken chances. These things happened because my mother dared to think that the US would be a better place, knowing my odds of survival, let alone success, in Vietnam were bleak.

The mothers of these children, the ones crossing our borders today, are likely making similar choices. To send their children into exile than to allow them to mature in a land of political uncertainty, corruption, and violence. This is not an immigration issue, but a moral one, they are refugees and asylum seekers. There is no moral high ground in denying them at least some due process.

I provide a recipe that is a synthesis of east and west, one that emerged in Japan to suit the tastes of those barbarians who insisted on kicking down the doors of Japanese isolation.

Recipe for Chicken Nanban (southern Barbarian chicken)

3 lbs boneless chicken (based upon your preference of meat, bone in breasts work well, (I haven’t tried bone in thighs/legs) and with or without skin based upon preference – lately for us it’s skinless, boneless breasts)
1 Cup all-purpose flour
1/4 Cup potato or corn starch (we use potato)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
enough water to wet the flour mixture to a thickish pancake-like batter

Cut the chicken into 2-3 inch chunks
Heat 2 inches of vegetable oil in large pan (at least 4-5 inches deep)
Add the chicken pieces to the batter, swirl around to coat all the pieces in the wet batter, slowly add the pieces to the hot oil in small batches, transferring cut chicken pieces to batter, then to oil: once the chicken pieces are golden and floating in the oil transfer to a baking tray and place in a warm oven 350′ while you cook and transfer the balance. It also allows the oil to drain off the chicken (line tray with paper towels/drip cloth to absorb oil). Continue to cook in small batches to keep oil hot, until all the chicken is finished.

Serve with steamed rice and nanban sauce (it follows next).

Nanban Sauce:
We don’t make the creamy version like some recipes show because the version we learned from the chef/owner of Kamon was a shoyu-base and not a creamy type. I hope you don’t mind my very imprecise units of measure, I cook by taste and smell.

Crush, peel, and mince one entire bun of garlic
Peel and mince at least two thumb-sized pieces of ginger (more, if you’re like me and enjoy the zing ginger adds to food)
Place ginger and garlic into a large glass container (old mayo jar is good), add three fingers of shoyu brand/style of your choice (at this point, if you have a wand mixer you can simply stick that into the soy-ginger-garlic sauce and frappe)
1/4 c cooking sake
1/4 c mirin
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 Tbls of sesame oil
two fingers of warm water

Place lid on jar and shake – ladle it out onto your nanban don and relive the happy memories of Kamon. If you add a bit more olive oil to the sauce, it also makes a great salad dressing!

You can make a quick little cucumber pickle by grating an english cucumber and adding a little rice wine vinegar and salt. Drain off liquid after letting it sit while you make the other parts of the meal!

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Don’t Curry Privilege, Anxiety, and Silence

Today was a beautiful, startlingly bright, perfect day. The sun shone, the breeze flirted with the tree leaves, the temperature as near perfection as any human could ask, and I thought to set myself up at a local cafe to read some articles and edit one of my own. I also love to watch what other people are doing as they walk by or sit at another table. This is a useful technique for beginning an ethnographic study, too. But today, I wasn’t keen to observe much outside of my own work. I glanced up at one point, however, to find a young mother feeding her child. Father came and went, he remained at the edge of the street. They had clearly stopped at this location to feed the baby because she sat in a small pink chair atop the metal table. I noted that the baby’s food was in bright little quilted jars, suggesting homemade, and the extended family of aunt and grandmother hovered around, checking their phones, their hair, the cut of their clothing, while baby ate. Then I was struck by the oddity of the moment because I noticed that other than speaking occasionally to the other adults, the mother didn’t engage with the child. Feeding the baby was a chore to be satisfied, not the beginning of an engagement with the process of dining as something social, cultural, and shared within a family.

The baby was dutifully fed, but no one spoke to her as she ingested the proffered spoons of peas. She made the occasional fussy sounds and motions, wanting to leave the confines of her pink chair. The next time I looked up, mother had gone and the young aunt was feeding the child with even less interest and barely watched as she pushed the small spoon, frequently empty, into the child’s mouth. Once the feeding was completed, she was hoisted out of the chair and held at arm’s distance by father. I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad and hope that what I observed was an aberration. This was a child in a family where by all rights she should have been the center of attention – seemingly the first grandchild and on a family outing. Moreover, this family’s appearance, accessories, etc. indicated they were from an economically secure, if not privileged background. But I’ve noticed a growing trend among young parents in the US, irrespective of cultural, economic, or ethnic background spending less time engaging with their children through the spoken word as the glowing, electronic interface takes priority over the person before them.

A few months ago, there were a spate of articles on British news servers (The Guardian) and then a few days later (BBC). In the US the discussion targeted parents of preemies. I realize preemies have different developmental needs because of the stress of premature birth and the developmental struggles that coincide, but as the British discussion shows, talking to your child is good no matter their birth status: on time, late, or premature. Talking to children is frequently silly, sometimes sticky, and often enlightening. Children are young for a fleeting moment; even their dependency upon us is couched in terms of emergent autonomy and eventual exodus. Each step, each word, each new skill, every meal moves them further along their journey but they needn’t do it alone. In the US, we tend to privilege the autonomous, the individual, the person who did it alone – but that shouldn’t be the ideal.

Talking to your child(ren) while cooking and eating adds to the pleasures of our human experience. It might also open up some interesting pathways to engage with children about various struggles they face. It also creates enduring relationships and ways for our children to talk to us about their lives. They want to tell us things, we need only provide the mechanisms. Sitting down is often too formal, perhaps even confrontational, kitchen conversations, like talks while running, are cathartic. Kitchen talks tend to be some of the most lively, philosophically rich, and humorous discussions around my home.

Recipe: Ground Chicken or Turkey w/Peas (Murghi ka keema)

Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick and Easy Indian Cooking, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996). This is a family favorite. We eat this meal on a weekly basis, it’s that good – it’s the ultimate comfort food. It’s one of those Anglo-Indian dishes, like Mulligatawny (from Madras) that emerged when Indian cooks adapted Indian cookery to suit English tastes. Murghi is also quick and easy. Pick up the spices from a local Indian/Halal grocer, they will be fresher and less expensive than what you would get at a conventional grocery store.

Serve with basmati rice and a kachumber (diced cucumber, onion, and tomato salad) Serves: 4 – 6

Ingredients:

3 Tbls vegetable oil
1 whole cinnamon stick
4 cardamom pods (get at Indian grocer)
2 bay leaves
1 med. onion – finely chopped
4-5 garlic cloves, crushed and minced (we will often double the amount of garlic)
2 tsp peeled, finely grated ginger root
1 1/4 lbs ground chicken or turkey (1 package)
1 lb fresh or frozen peas
1/4 tsp turmeric powder (get at Indian grocer)
1 tsp store-bought garam masala (Indian grocer)
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (optional if spicy isn’t your thing)
1/2-3/4 tsp salt
2 Tbls fresh lemon juice (to garnish), lemon zest is nice to add too
Freshly ground black pepper – to taste
Prep all the spices into a small bowl, cut the onion, ginger, and garlic. Put oil in a wide pan (4 qt) and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, put in the cinnamon, cardamom, and bay leaves – stir for a few seconds. Put in the onion, stir and fry until the onion pieces turn brown at the edges – add garlic and ginger – stir for a few more seconds. Now add the ground chicken (or turkey) and fry while breaking up the meat until all the large lumps are gone. Add the remaining ingredients (spices and peas) and stir until the meat and peas are evenly coated in the spice mixture and peas are heated through. Finish by adding the lemon juice, stir.
Any whole spices: cardamom, cinnamon and bay leaves should be removed before serving. This can get tricky because those green cardamom pods have a tendency to disappear in the dish – don’t eat them, they are extremely strong in flavor. We’ve taken to omitting the cardamom lately because we grew weary of the unpleasant surprise!
The possibility for variation abounds – we have used fresh pink and black-eyed peas and even added fresh corn (cut off the cob) to the meat and peas mixture. Brown cremini mushrooms are also a welcome addition (a half pound works nicely) This was one of the first dishes my kids learned to cook – they think it’s easier than spaghetti!
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Requiem for Mother’s Day

It’s Mother’s Day. I’m a motherless daughter, but also a mother to a daughter and son. Today, I find myself thinking about so many mothers and daughters – in fact several hundred mothers whose daughters are now lost to them. I am referring to mothers in South Korea who lost their daughters (and sons) in an unconscionable ferry accident plagued with criminal behavior. And I find myself thinking about mothers in Nigeria whose daughters were kidnapped from their school, a place that was supposed to be safe. Criminal violence against children and women seems to be the thread here. And I think about the international response – feeble in both cases and grotesquely exploitive in the Nigerian situation. No one has dared to speak as if they understand and know what the mothers suffered in their children’s drowning deaths. But with mass kidnap the specter of owning a tragedy moves into the realm of the imagined community. Michelle Obama’s statement that these girls are somehow akin to the first daughters of the United States is outrageous, spurious, and inappropriate. Personalizing the tragedy suffered by families in Nigeria actually robs them of the power of their plight and further destroys the validity of the claims of an atrocity.

By claiming these are her daughters, Mrs. Obama conflates all young black women into one category, they are not the same. They are not equal. The kidnapped girls are not like her daughters at all, who are guarded, protected, and without the need to decide to run for it, to face death over removal to a place unknown. The girls from Chibok, Nigeria whose life experiences, and historical understanding of oppression are different from young African American girls who have their own history that is particular and distinct to these shores. The kidnapped daughters are not the children of the powerful and privileged, these are daughters whose parents lack the political clout to compel their government, the government of Nigeria, to act in the best interest of its citizens. Empathy does not require us, the human community, to co-opt the deep emotional and personal losses of a community by claiming they are our own. We can support and agitate for action without privileging our own interpretation of the events. The girls who were kidnapped do not live in a state with a functioning police force and legal system. The state president, Goodluck Jonathan has proven to be corrupt and incompetent. If you want to understand the lack of concern let’s look at the numbers alone. One of the news reports above lists the number of girls still in captivity as 276, noting that 53 girls managed to escape. But then this image of a woman at a protest, at some undisclosed location (which is another issue), holds a placard asserting 234 girls were abducted. Which is it? Meanwhile, another eight girls were abducted just last week. The original group of girls were abducted weeks ago now, yet the lack of political will, corruption, and misinformation have spiraled.

If personalizing the tragedy gives it power, then give the mothers the power to speak out. Not mothers in the United States, but the mothers of the girls who were taken! We have rallied around an idea, yet we don’t know their names, their villages, what they were studying, what they wished to do with their lives. Personalize the horror by telling us about what we have lost by loosing these girls. The subtext that no one can address is the issue of child trafficking and how criminal behavior is then legitimized through trade and aid. There is too much that we don’t know and don’t understand.

Exploitation Elixir:

Brew coffee, infuse with bitter cocoa nibs – drink.

Coffee, the plant that originated in the highlands of Ethiopia.

Cocoa, the plant product consumed by Meso-american warriors before going into battle, infused with hot chilies. A commodity grown today in West Africa that relies upon child trafficking and labor.

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Thoughtless Writing

I read this article yesterday and it swam around in my head for a while, so I went back to read it this morning and the following questions cropped up: What does the author want us to conclude? What makes a slave trader ‘notorious’? How is a slave trader more vile than a slave owner? Does this make the Bush family unique in American history, given that many families with deep roots in this country were likely a party to slavery in one form or another? Are the sins of the ancestral father the same as those of the current sons of the family? Does one form of evil presage another?

I’m bothered by this sort of writing because the intent of the story is unclear. Was the author attempting to argue that G.W. Bush was evil, on par with a slave trader? Or that PEPFAR was some sort of attempt to make up for the crimes of his forefathers? This is the problem when writing is unclear or doesn’t make an appreciable statement – the audience is left with too many questions and allowed to make its own conclusions about the story.

It’s writing that I see all too frequently in the papers of my students, many of whom are quite articulate in the classroom, where I can prompt them to expand upon their assessments. All too often, their writing leaves these enormous conceptual gaps that are inappropriate and can lead the reader down the wrong path. Sloppy writing allows the reader to make too many assumptions about the author’s intent and uses of evidence.

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Lamb Stew in the Provençal-style

Lamb Stew in the Provençal-style (serves 8-10)
 
5-6 lbs leg of lamb, deboned, trimmed and cut into 1-2 in. cubes
1 whole bun garlic – minced
1 large onion – roughly chopped
Black pepper to taste
2 tsp salt
2 Tbls olive oil to sauté garlic and onion
2 Tbls herbes de provence
2 Tbls anchovy paste (optional)
2 Tbls capers (optional)
1 C  Niçoise or Kalamata olives (optional)
1/2 C balsamic vinegar
4-5 Carrots cut into chunks (another option is zucchini, it virtually disappears in the broth) – optional
2 C red wine or more if needed
Add more liquid as needed when stewing – depending upon how much liquid you want in the stew. 
  1. After the meat is trimmed and cut, place into a bowl with half of the minced garlic, half the salt, some olive oil, and all the herbes de provence. Toss the meat with this mixture until coated, set aside (if you have the time, cover and set in refrigerator for 4-6 hours). 
  2. Saute onion and other half of the minced garlic in a heavy dutch oven until the onions are translucent and begin to caramelize.
  3. Add the meat, salt, freshly ground pepper, balsamic vinegar, and red wine. Stew for 1-2 hours on low heat on stove or longer in the oven at 325′ if there is time. 
  4. If using, add vegetables, anchovies, olives, and capers 15 minutes before serving – (Patrick didn’t add these when he made the stew). 
  5. Two ways to serve – one is with mashed potatoes (garnished with paprika) or with tagliatelle (or other flat pasta).
Increase all ingredients proportionately for larger gatherings.
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