[Above photo: Christopher Duncombe Rae (blue polo shirt) at home next to his brother, William— 31 December 2016]
15 October 2017
I received an e-mail from my nephew that his younger sister’s husband, Christopher, was discovered to have died when the plane on which he was flying from Cape Town to Washington, DC touched down to refuel in Accra. A young man with a wife, Deirdre, an 11 year old son, Jacob, and an enviable career as an oceanographer in S. Africa, his home country. “Fairness” may apply to relations between people or nations but cosmically, it doesn’t. Our universe is indifferent to human suffering. There is the loss, which lasts those left, forever. And there are the very difficult life decisions then to be made. Shelter in place? Move closer to family and the familiar in the US? It all seems so cruel. As my eldest brother said when our dad died, “Why did this happen to us?”, an expression of surprised, hurt outrage, demanding an explanation.
I am listening via Spotify to the Reverend Gary Davis (Say ‘No’ to the Devil.) and Elizabeth Cotton (Freight Train), two of many amazing musicians to whom my brother-in-law, John Ullman, introduced me. Often I literally met them, as he cast off his PhD and a promising academic/research career to follow his passion, traditional artists, especially musicians and their music. As their agent he would arrange concert venues and recording sessions for them and get them there sober enough (when necessary) to perform with their particular artistic integrity and virtuosity. People like Mance Lipscomb, The Boys of the Lough, Doc Watson, and Queen Ida and her Bon Temps Zydeco Band. He and his wife, Irene, even published a cookbook based on Ida’s Creole recipes. How to make a roux. I mean, a ROUX. He took Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys to Japan; the fans went crazy to hear this “hillbilly” music. Anyways, learning about and listening to these musicians has been a great source of pleasure in my life. Even trying to play a few of their tunes on my guitar. Trying. It recalls Alan Lomax and Chris Strachwitz, two of our greatest traditional music archivists combing the country with their tape recorders. Chris was (This one’s for you, DT.) an immigrant. How thin our history would be without people like John, Chris, and Alan helping to preserve and publicize the often little-known music and musicians of earlier days.
Holy crow, there are 4 green birds with yellow breasts and three of the same variety but drab (female/immature plumage?) at the birdbath. Willow Warblers? “Abundant Paleoarctic migrants Oct-May.” And I fancy myself as well-travelled! It’s strange how in our species the females are the flashy ones. I also saw my first Collared Sunbird of the season in the mango tree 15 minutes ago. Two Hammerkop just flew by and I saw a small flock of (to me) unidentifiable birds eating insects on the lawn. Black caps, black bibs, white breasts, brown backs—about the size of Oregon juncos. I must spring for the larger bird book—my field guide isn’t adequate. Oh, a Spectacled Weaver dashing up and down the bushes, eating insects. This is like living in an aviary. Everyone is getting ready for the rainy season.
The bloodsucking continues down south, with ambulance windows broken from thrown stones. The UN has even withdrawn all their personnel and President Professor Peter Arthur Mutharika has come from Lilongwe to calm things. His is a large, calming presence, I suppose, even though everyone I’ve spoken with seems to find him an ineffectual leader. His brother, Bingu, was president until he dropped dead in his second term of a heart attack. His VP, Joyce Banda, succeeded him and seemed to do a creditable job until Cashgate, a huge plundering of the national coffers on her watch. When the next election came around, Professor Peter edged her out. Usually being the incumbent gives you an advantage; in Malawi the problems, largely economic, are so dire that often the challenger wins as the incumbent has made little progress in fixing things.
We (Peace Corps) are now on STANDFAST—home by 4PM and stay there, don’t leave town, avoid any gathering, etc. It kind of put a kink in my going to the Lake for 3 days with Sophie and Eric. However, I’m enjoying the solitude and called Linda last night on Skype for a long talk. She’s on Hatteras Island, staying in a small cabin because of rain and high winds, exploring the Outer Banks. She’ll join my sister-in-law and 2 or 3 nephews further north in Duck for 4 days. They get on like duck soup. [Sorry!]
The fires in California are alarming and have caused such loss and suffering. Apropos, I’m watching “War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about WW2 with similar special effects. The US population then was 123 million. Now we are at 324 million and California’s rate of increase is more than double that (7 million to 39 million), being temperate, fertile, beautiful, and such an economic and job engine. And surfing! People spill out of the cities to less expensive and more rural settings to live. With greenery comes brush and grass in the dry season. Lives lost, primary dwellings lost, all family photos lost, pets lost. A friend just lost her magically beautiful country place in Kenwood, consumed by fire.
I’m reading a wonderful new history of the country (“Malawi: A place apart”) starting with the earliest hunter-gatherers, the various tribal migrations, the slave trade, David Livingston and the other missionaries, British colonial rule (Nyasaland), and independence (starting with a 30 year dictatorship where His Excellency Hastings Kamuzu Banda watched as his opponents were fed to crocodiles), with subsequent variably free elections. It was written with a sympathetic but clear eye by the former Norwegian ambassador to Malawi. How power corrupts. And how amazing South Africa was able to start over with Mandela who resisted that, as his successors have not. Not to neglect DC, where holding office now seems to be treated like walking through a Bank of America vault. So many of our politicians “lack all conviction”, as Yeats wrote, other than having a determination to hold onto their jobs at any cost, personal integrity be damned, so they can later become wealthy lobbyists. Pander to the largest constituency.
I’m going to pause and make some baked goods—a loaf of bread and some scones—for next week. See if my muse can regroup.
After the pause….
I made scones and another loaf of onion-rosemary bread. The former are too sweet, the latter is fabulous. I did write more, above, and think I’ll call it quits for this week.
It was wonderful to see the 4th year medical students at the Feedback Session. At the end of their rotation we give them feedback about patterns of erroneous answers we saw on their final exams (long case write-ups, a 3 hour written examination, and 2 individual oral exams each), stressing that trends like that indicate our deficiencies in teaching, not theirs in learning.
And they give us feedback, which we use to strengthen our efforts in teaching future students. It was particularly gratifying that two of the five students who had to repeat the rotation because they failed last year finished #’s 1 & 2! Repetition works!
I told Chimwemwe, the day guard/gardener, not to come in today. I plan to be here all day, the garden looks great, he’s been washing my car, and, frankly, it is so nice to have the entire place to myself.