Wednesday, August 25

Considering "Avatar" and "Inglourious Basterds"

You know what this blog prides itself on more than anything else? Topicality. That's why rather than immediately writing this post after I saw Avatar in June rather than December and January like every other person on the planet, I held on to it until Cameron decided to release Avatar:Special Edition with an incredible nine minutes of additional footage in theaters this coming weekend.  That's the sort of topicality that keeps me relevant.

To get to the point, I absolutely hated Avatar.  This is a new experience for me.  Movies have annoyed me (XXX), confused me (Auf der Anderen Seite), bored me (Das Boot), depressed me (Big Fan) and bitterly disappointed me (Stars Wars: The Phantom Menace), but I have never outright hated a movie before and wished that it were stricken from the earth and our collective memories.  The points raised by Ross Douthat and Red Letter Media regarding Avatar I agree with.  It relies on spectacle rather than developed characters or an interesting narrative.  It is more manufactured than crafted.  It appeals to the lowest common denominator.

Not that Avatar has some sort of unique grip on these properties.  They are more or less common to every Hollywood blockbuster.  Yet they escape my wrath.  Even if they exist primarily to make money, they make some motions toward believing whatever message they set down.  An ordinary person can become a hero.  True love exists and can overcome all obstacles.  Friends and family are more important than wealth.  So on and so forth.

Avatar believes in nothing.  Yeah, some words about an earth mother and connection with all beings and the sacredness of life are made, but Avatar doesn't really believe that.  Neytiri arrives in the movie when she puts arrows into the demon cats chasing Sully down.  Ignoring his attempts at thanks, she immediately drops to pray for the fallen demon cats.  Prayer done, she flips out on Sully.  "This is sad.  Very sad only."  "All this is your fault.  They did not need to die."

Okay, the sanctity of life.  I can deal with that.  Avatar can't, at least when there's the possibility for a full thirty minutes of war, blood and catharsis.  Then it's cool to run people down with rhinoceroses and cheer when a dragon tosses a gunner from his helicopter.  I think the Ewok celebration after the destruction of the second Death Star was less enthusiastic than that following the retreat of all humans from Pandora.

Avatar only believes in the sacredness of life so long as it makes the Na'vi seem like a decent race.  Unless, of course, you believe that humans are outside the earth mother and don't deserve life in the same way as her demon cats, but that's just sick and doesn't deserve response.

Consider, in contrast, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, his best by my money and much more deserving of the Best Picture Oscar than The Hurt Locker.  The attention of the critics was drawn by the themes of the political, physical, metaphorical power of film, but Basterds is no less a profound statement on cinematic violence.  Kind of odd considering this is Tarantino, the man who made us laugh when Vincent Vega blew off Marvin's head in the car and had the Bride begin her roaring rampage of revenge by tearing out a trucker's throat with her teeth and proceeded to slam a nurse's head in a door after cutting his Achilles tendon, but it's true.

I believe it was an interview with Giada de Laurentiis where she said that she used to eat every sweet within reach when she was younger.  Then she threw from eating too many at once and was cured of that.  In the same vein, Tarantino just keeps pushing the violence until the audience can't help but ask itself whether its really enjoying this, whether this is in any possible sense of the word right.  It's one thing to make Neytiri say "This is sad," over a demon cat's dead body.  It's another to make us uneasy with the beating of a Nazi officer by baseball bat or the shooting of Adolf Hitler, the go-to villains for Hollywood and video game designers when an entirely unsympathetic enemy is required.

It would be remiss of me not to direct you toward the extended analysis of Basterds done by Todd Alcott.  No small part of the inspiration for this post comes from him, and he does it better.

For fun, this is how Avatar should have ended.

Tuesday, August 24


I just completed a survey necessary to fulfill some Equal Opportunity Act requirements, and I have to be honest that the race section gave me some pause. It allowed one to check all that apply. Yes, I'm white. Really white. German-Irish ancestry and all that. Can't tan for the life of me, and sunburns don't even leave me red for a few days anymore. My skin just kind of absorbs it in a headlong rush to return to its previously established pearl brilliance.

Give me a moment, though. Consider the term "African American." I found myself sore tempted to mark that box on the survey. I have spent more time in Africa than most so-called "African Americans." I have the card to prove that Kenya accepts me. By the same token, those with slave ancestry are a fair share more American than I am. My dad lives here on a green card, and my mom can trace her earliest American ancestors only back to around the Civil War. Not that I did mark the box. I really need a job, and this one is my favorite. I'm not going to chance it quibbling over a stupid point like this.

More generally, though, "African American" used as a replacement for "black" really is stupid. It makes possible a lot of errors avoided by just saying "black." Most Haitians, Dominicans and Jamaicans are "black" but not "African American." Chiwetel Ejiofor, Idris Elba and Kele Okereke aren't "African American." They're "Afro-Brit" or some variant if the other side of the pond even bothers. Emigrant Afrikaners, Egyptians and Moroccans, hewing close to the definition, would be "African American," but no one is going to call them that.

My problem is with universality. If "African American" goes the way of "negro" and "black" takes the sole position, what of the other races? Would it not follow that colors should be used to identify all of them? Are we really going to start calling Asians "yellows" and American Indians "reds?" To the best of my understanding, there was a time when these were the preferred names, and they were perjorative.

In that case it may be best to select new colors with no past associations. I would like to nominate either "siennas" or "umbers" for American Indians. Those from the Indian sub-continent can be "auburns," and Latinos can be "coppers." Italians and Greeks can remain "olive." My ilk and I can be "tea roses."

Of course, all of this assumes that language acts in a coherent and logical manner. Which it totally doesn't.

Sunday, August 22

Cropping and displaying

The intention never was to keep my pictures on my computer forever. It's something that has always annoyed me regarding digital photography and that I have appreciated regarding film photography. Yeah Picasa and Flickr and all the rest are great for sharing pictures with those who live in a different time zone and aren't in the habit of visiting often and, through tags and albums, they make organization simple and access easy, but I have wondered for some time how often people go back to their computer to see old pictures. Seeing pictures from someone's latest dinner party or vacation to Disneyland may be just as boring whether it's in a lap-sized album or on the screen, but I can't recall the last time people crowded around a computer to see them. I did try at our reception party by setting my computer to loop a slideshow from Kenya, but it was not so popular as I might have hoped.  I think a cousin and aunt watched for a few seconds.

Which made me very glad that Demetra agreed that it would be appropriate to print a selection of my pictures to adorn our walls with rather than generic posters and whatever else the kids these days are using to decorate their rooms, apartments and homes. The problem arose when I realized that my pictures, at a size of 2592 by 3872 pixels shot with the vibration reduction setting on, do not quite fit the standard 8 by 10 proportion for printed pictures. That's more like 2592 by 3239 pixels. That's something like four-fifths the original size. That's considerable. That's the difference between this

and this.

It just doesn't look as good. It looks squashed. Without revealing the leading boy from the base of his neck through to his feet, his grace is lost. When only half of the ball is visible, its motion disappears, and it just looks ugly.

I hate cropping. Absolutely despise it. To be true, it is a neutral affair with some pictures. In the following cases either image works.

I have no real preference between them. They both work. I could even be persuaded that cropping improved the following picture as a smaller field was still able to capture what made the picture so special and even focus attention on it.

Regardless of the positive impact on this one and maybe another one, I can never forgive the entire concept of cropping for forcing me to destroy one of my finest photographs. When I transferred it from the camera to my laptop, it was long, and that is how I wanted it to ever remain.

When all crops were made and I brought the files to Costco for printing I discovered they print at 8 by 12. That would take just a narrow slice from the short side. Freak. Next time I will know better.

Really, this is just an excuse to post pictures of our no-longer barren white walls.

Observe and appreciate the subtle narrowing angles. That's what I like to call design.

Friday, August 20

Rodrigo y Gabriela at Marymoor Park, Redmond, Washington

My musical tastes were not always so refined as they are now. For a long while in my youth I listened almost exclusively to country as that was the music of the only radio station you could reliably get reception for in Baudette. Then I discovered CBC Radio 1, Canada's BBC, and that interest faded fast enough. I moved on to my dad's classic rock cassettes from there. It was a safe choice. Queen, Styx, Journey, Kansas, REO Speedwagon, The Who, Meatloaf and all the rest had produced their best and signature work decades earlier. Their respective places in the major and minor pantheons were established before I had been born. Their only new albums were greatest hits collections. Mildly afraid of Napster, Limewire, Morpheus and everything else we used before BitTorrent and before the advent of iTunes, they were the most cost effective way to buy music. I knew if I liked them and their radio staples were available on a single disc. Minimal risk there of spending fifteen dollars on an album and only really liking one song.

Classic rock was also a boring choice, and that was part of what made going to college so exciting and getting away from I knew and was comfortable with. I had friends who hated classic rock and country. They introduced me to new genres and bands. I listened to Pandora and AccuRadio and followed them up. I downloaded weekly free singles from iTunes. I heard "Tamacun." I discovered Rodrigo y Gabriela. I bought their self-titled album from iTunes. I saw them perform in Munich. I bought re-Foc in Oxford. I downloaded Live: Manchester and Dublin. I bought Live in Tokyo the day it was released, and Demetra had to bring back 11:11 from the States because I was in Kenya when it was released. To be waiting for, anticipating, counting down the days to their next album, this was exciting. It was not something I had done before.

To a degree, I felt possessive of them. It's kind of ridiculous. I didn't discover them on the streets of Dublin. I found them through a free iTunes download after their third studio album debuted at number one in Ireland. I was, however, the first among my friends to listen to them and was the one to make them listen in turn. It's not enough to say I liked them before they were popular, but it's close enough.

When I saw them in Munich, it was a rough performance. There was no opening act. The concert started nearly an hour late. Gabriela asked for requests, and Rodrigo played with a Heineken in hand. I don't know what the deal was. They had been touring for years already at this point. Maybe it was their first time in Germany, and they had nerves. Maybe they didn't like Germany. Maybe it had just been a bad day. It may not have had the form of the perfect concert, but it was excellent, the best I have attended. The people who came to see them there cared. Rodrigo and Gabriela fed off the energy, and it was returned to them ten fold in a beautiful loop. Emmett got Rodrigo's pick when he threw it into the audience.

Seeing them last weekend outside Seattle as they begin an American tour, something had changed. In the years intervening they had played for President Obama and made the rounds of late-night talk show music segment. I heard one of their songs on a Bozeman radio station. City magazines picked out the concert as one to look forward to. Ticket prices had doubled. They didn't play in a club that held some two hundred people but a park that easily held ten times that many, and there was reserved seating closest to the stage. They still rocked, but it was definitely something different.

I don't want to say that they've been ruined by success because I don't believe that. 11:11 was an excellent album with new sounds, and I will be excited when they announce their next release, live, studio, instructional, whatever. Beside, without this success, they would be limited to tours in the United Kingdom and occasional forays into continental Europe, and I would never see them in America.

I don't want to say that casual fans ruin them either. I may not appreciate that they prefer to stay sitting on their blankets and picnicking or making out rather than bounce around, but at least they are hearing and supporting two superior musicians.

I don't know. I'm glad they're receiving the success they deserve. I'm glad more and more people are discovering them, but I am disappointed that I'll never see them again in a small club bouncing with people who care intently about them just twenty feet from the stage.

Oh well. Things change.

Enjoy this solo by Rodrigo. Spread the good word about them. Keep bringing them back to America.

Monday, August 16

Considering "The Team"

Living now without a TV and without the funds to make regular visits to the cinema possible, I've been spending more time than usual looking for free alternatives online and came across The Team (That's a link to the YouTube account if you want to get straight to watching the episodes. If you would prefer the more ponderous official homepage, you can try that link.).

In their words:

This series is a metaphor of Kenyan society. The team members and the coach have been brought together from many of Kenyas tribal groups to play together on a co-ed league. The league has been formed and financed by a group of wealthy international philanthropists and businessmen who believe sport will be a way to neutralize the ethnic hatred that shook Kenya after the last elections.

"The characters are from broken families, even as Kenya itself, is a broken country. In that way, the team becomes a surrogate family for our players. They all want a family but no one knows how to reach out and get it. Each of the players, and the coach, struggle to overcome ethnic hatred that sparked violent confrontations after the elections. The purpose of the series is to show that it is possible for people to overcome their differences for the good of all."

The press releases, with language much in the same vein, for the series from Search for Common Ground and Media Focus on Africa Foundation can be found here and here.

In my words, that's great. I hope the money is well accounted for and a few minds that previously thought the best response to a botched presidential election is killing a neighbor are changed, but I doubt it. Just skipping past my inclination to believe only a fraction of the seed money filtered down to the cast and crew (The Department for International Development kicked in 1,628,461 pound sterling to Search for Common Ground in 2009, and they're only one of over fifty major international organizational donors. That does not include the hundreds of individual donors.) how many people honestly believe this will work? I thought these sorts of things were heavy handed when I was in elementary. By the time I got to high school and we were watching videos to teach us best driving practices, it was beyond ridiculous. Maybe this comes from a childhood spent in America where everyone is trying to sell you something or convince you to vote for a particular candidate, but even Jesus told parables that hid the true message to make it more palatable for the people. Let's not insult Kenyans either but explaining point by point what the point is. Make something entertaining. Show some Kikuyu and Kalenjin treating each other with respect. Don't have the coach explain they need to overcome their tribal animosity. Call it good.

Soccer is an interesting choice for the subject. It's natural on the one hand. Soccer is as popular in Kenya as anywhere else. Basing a show on the trials and tribulations and games of a club provides an immediate audience looking for a fix between weekend English Premier League matches. On the other hand, the history of soccer is not the cleanest in Kenya. Kenya Football Federation was suspended by FIFA a few years ago for any number of instances of corruption and violations of basic statutes. It has been since replaced by Football Kenya Limited though history has yet to demonstrate it is an improvement. The two most popular and consistently successful teams of the Kenya Premier League, AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia, are immensely tribal. AFC was formerly Afaluhya United, and Gor Mahi was formed through the merging of Luo United and Luo Stars. Sofapaka won the league title last year, though, largely through the efforts of Congolese refugees, so I don't know how strong the tribal ties remain.

All that being writ, it was kind of comforting to see people eating and enjoying ugali and saying things like "sawa sawa" and "poa."

Tuesday, August 10

Extreme trials riding

Evel Knievel Days did not merely provide the raw material for a thought provoking post on the nature of extreme entertainment.  It also provided ample subjects in action for amateur photography.  Of all the men riding motorcycles in circles on vertical walls, men throwing down basketballs from a trampoline and motocross races I captured with my camera, this image is my favorite.  One aspect that I particularly enjoy is how Geoff Aaron, the rider, and his bike are the only elements of this picture really in focus. The four people standing behind him don't distract as they aren't entirely in focus.  I think I managed to just turn the camera enough while the shutter opened to follow him and leave those standing still a bit blurred.

I find it more than a touch ironic that of the one-hundred-odd pictures I shot of this man's tricks, this simple wheelie, one of his warm-up stunts, is my favorite. The man did hops over barrels, ran a ramp that was on a seventy degree angle and jumped up and down the three platforms of a steel stage, and the simplest trick is the subject of my favorite picture. Let's consider why.

Aaron is flipping his leg over the bike here while balancing on a steel barrel. The members of the audience make a good framing device, but they are too large and dominate the picture, distracting from the real subject.  It doesn't help either that the dominant colors of his suit, gray and black, are so similar to the barrels and asphalt, and the suit's texture makes good camouflage against the watching crowd and the temporary fence in front of them.

 This should be an incredible picture.  Aaron is taking a jump off a ramp twice the size of a man and at an angle somewhere around seventy degrees yet there is no real drama.  There is no sense of the speed necessary to take the leap, and the crowd isn't exactly demonstrating the appropriate emotion of awe mixed with more than a healthy amount of fear.  The idea with including the stop light in the picture was a bit of a joke, to suggest that maybe he shouldn't 'go,' but that may be too subtle.  Or childish.  Whichever.

These really were the most frustrating pictures for me.  These were amazing tricks.  Each platform could not have been deep enough for both wheels to stand on in a parallel, line and each step up was taller than the individual wheels.  Aaron had to have precise enough control going up to gun the accelerator just enough to launch up another level without shooting off the other end.  There was a pause after every leap as we all waited to see if he could do it again.  And that's all the pictures really capture, a man about to leap again.  Even when the picture is in the midst of the leap, the excitement is hidden.  It just looks like a little jump.

Toward the end of the performance I slowed the shutter to try and show some of Aaron's speed.  I am happy that I managed as he moved between platforms and even that the telephone lines and red pole frame him in the sky, but overexposure of the clouds really takes something away, gives a sense of unreality to the whole things.

All these things considered, though, I feel the greatest reason I prefer the original wheelie is that it's one of my largest pictures of Aaron. I shot all of these with my shorter lens at the full focal length of 55 mm, equivalent to 82 mm on a 35 mm lens. My reasoning for this selection at the time was two fold: first, to provide some context for the height of his jumps and stunts and second, to give me a greater margin of error in making sure he was in the picture. Unfortunately, this also meant that the subject was much smaller within the picture. Using the following picture, let's consider why this was a poor choice.

This could have been a good picture. There is some tension and drama in that he's in the midst of a trick that requires him to be stationary at the moment. That gives a sense of stillness to the scene. Also, there is some humor as he looks back over his shoulder. Unfortunately, the interesting part of the picture takes up about a quarter of the whole because that's what the full zoom could capture. The rest is just empty, distracting background. Judicious cropping could help, but that's not how I roll. Shoving my way through the crowd for superior positioning could help, too, but I'm not doing that in pursuit of a simple hobby.

Friday, August 6

Helena adventures: The capitol

I may not know who Montana's senators or representative are, but I have taken a tour of the state capitol building, and I figure that is a pretty good start to spending at least three of the next four years in the state.  Now I have something to talk about with the locals.  I can say, "That certainly is a high dome," or "Those Ohio brothers did a fine job of decorating the original part of the building," and I will be in.  My compatriots will know I belong.  Until questions of regarding past and upcoming votes on the national stage come up.

Seeing as how no one else joined me on the top of the hour at the security station, my guided tour of the capitol was personal and private and moved at my leisure to take pictures in the empty senate, supreme court and house of representatives.  Not that there is a terrible lot of interest to take pictures of when the legislature is not in session, mostly empty halls, stained glass ceilings, statues, oil paintings and a lot of pictures of Lewis and Clark.  There's one oil painting in the hall leading to the house of representatives.  There's the Charlie Russel mural Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians in the house of representatives proper.  And there's the immense bronze bas relief in the Senate that celebrates the bicentennial of their passing through Montana.  And therein lies my frustration.

Why all the love and celebration of two men and their Corps of Discovery who only passed through the land, six decades before it was even a territory, let alone a state?  Yes, their exploration was important, and their early observations of the rivers, flora, fauna and local people are well preserved, but they only passed through.  They spent no more than a year here in total.  They both died well before settling began in earnest.

It's like Montana is desperately searching for the respect of the East.  We totally love Lewis and Clark.  You know who they are, right?  They were sent out by Thomas Jefferson.  He's cool, right?  That makes us cool by extension, right?  It would be like Gonzaga claiming Sherman Alexie as a notable alumnus when he transferred within a year.

Come on, Montana, have some real state pride.  Celebrate actual Montanans and those whose actions formed the state.  More statues of Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress.  Paintings of Sidney Edgerton and Joseph Toole, the first governors of the territory and state, respectively.  The slightest bit of notice paid to the Copper Kings.  Celebrate your own history and people.  Don't glom on to those already established in the history books.  If the rest of the nation has no idea who Marcus Daly is, whatever.  He's yours.

Wednesday, August 4

Las Vegas

I remember wanting to go to Disney World a terrible lot when I was much younger, seven or eight or thereabouts. My dad pulled out a map of the nation to demonstrate the considerable distance between northern Minnesota and central Florida and the even more considerable time required to drive to and from these two points. That did nothing to abate my interest. The steady grind of time did. By the time my high school band had the chance to attend as part of Disney Magic Music Days, I didn't particularly care. The Disney parks are billed as places of dreams and their fulfillment. I guess the idea of such a place lost its appeal to me once I began reading fiction in earnest. After all, how can the limited reality of a park ever hope to compare to a novel's infinite mindscapes? Not well if early dispatches from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter are to be believed.

So, Las Vegas as destination never interested me. With a few minor cosmetic alterations, it is the Disney World for adults. They are places that exist more in the imagination and in persistent marketing than in reality. Disney World is a place where cartoons become characters who walk on the streets and movies can be entered through thrill rides. In Las Vegas one becomes glamourous, and a fortune is only a spin of the slots away.

Control is tight in both to maintain these illusions and prevent the intrusion of reality. Strategically placed garbage cans and armies of cleaners keep the Nevada casinos and Florida theme parks some of the cleanest places in the world. With no clocks and no windows and strictly controlled temperatures, Las Vegas casinos remain in a perpetual twilight. Even when one wants to leave and return to the real, one will hours seeking the exit as the halls and streets are not so much meant to direct one toward any particular destination as much as keep them wandering.

These things fascinate me. They are a conscious, continuing effort to make a place resemble as much as possible its image. This is not so much a concern in the national parks where the forests and rivers pretty well take care of themselves or cities like London, Paris or New York City where enough has been written and filmed within and regarding that no single perspective dominates to the exclusion of all others, no matter the efforts of their marketing departments. These are places that have histories. Over the centuries they have changed and are allowed to continue doing so. Las Vegas and Disney World, both mere decades old, have little room to grow from the aggressive marketing that has so long defined them.

What is most interesting is how Las Vegas' image fails. It has always had an aura of glamour about it for me. Yes, the well-dressed men of Ocean's Eleven has a lot to do about this, but even the slobs in The Hangover had their penthouse for a night. Las Vegas was a place to stroll about in three-piece suits and diamond earrings and necklaces. It was not the Las Vegas I discovered. Maybe the scene changes in the evening and night, but in the morning and afternoon it is all tank tops, patterned shorts and pastel polo shirts. Not so much something classy as appropriate for a barbeque in the suburbs, I would think.

Even more off putting was how many of the stores in the hotels were having sales, stores like Lacoste, Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, and all the others that are signs of some affluency. Maybe it was an attempt to move more product in a recession and maybe it was fortuitous timing in coming when they were clearing room for fall collections, but these were significant reductions in price, significant enough to make the pieces affordable to everyone. Of course, this was all part of the larger trend in making so many things cheaper, more affordable. Coupons to the better buffets and discounts on the tickets to the best shows in town are all readily available. Everything is available in Vegas, given a willingness to spend the time searching or standing in line. Which is the point in the end. A city where everything can be bought and everything is affordable.

I wonder, though, how much it means to finally make it to the good seats of Penn and Teller wearing a new Louis Vutton suit after a multi-course dinner at Venetian restaurant endorsed by a celebrity chef only to find your neighbor has done the same thing and comes from the same suburb as you. These articles are supposed to be the privilege of the few. Their uniqueness is what makes them special. What happens when they are available to everyone? Nothing of great importance in all likelihood. If they do become common, something new and exclusive will take their former place, but I do find it interesting to consider.

Tuesday, August 3

Considering Ngugi wa Thiong'o's “Petals of Blood”

One has to go back centuries in history to find a time that some person, some group was not interested in improving Kenya and greater Africa. It is an idea hardly unique to untold numbers of governmental organizations, non-profit groups, philanthropists and volunteers who operate there now. First there were the British colonialists. While thoughts of expanding the empire and reaping the bounties of the Rift Valley were the strongest of their motivations, I do not doubt that most, if not all, believed that they were improving Kenya, whether by introducing the local peoples to Christianity or by bringing in modern technologies and medicine. Given time and enough exploitation and ill treatment, the native people began to clamor for independence as they believed that they could better govern themselves. Short years after the British withdrew and it became clear that the mere transfer of power from whites to blacks would not bring about the promises of uhuru, the politically inconsequential of Kenya began to act themselves to bring their new nation to its fullest potential.

And this is where Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood begins. Godfrey Munira of New Ilmorog, along with three others, is taken in for questioning following the murders of three prominent men in the community. Waiting for the investigator to meet with him, Munira begins to write his memoirs and reveal his relationships with the suspects and victims, beginning with his arrival in the town, twelve years ago when it was still just Ilmorog. His reasons are complex, but he tells everyone that he has come to open a primary school that no other teacher has run longer than a year at. At this time Ilmorog is a pastoral village. Its inhabitants are all farmers and herders pass through regularly. Munira is an outsider. His understanding of their concerns is limited, but he is afraid of returning to his father a failure and is content to remain an observer in this village which remains the idealized image of Kenya and much of Africa for most Westerners still today.

In time other outsiders come to Ilmorog with their own hard pasts. There is Abdulla who was active in the Mau Mau War in providing the soldiers in the forests with ammunition. There is Wanja, a wanderer whose grandmother is a pillar of the community. Last comes Karega who was expelled from the same secondary school as Munira following their participation in student strikes. In their own small ways, they want to make Ilmorog and Kenya better. Abdulla and Wanja operate the only bar in town and make it a place welcoming to all. Karega joins Munira at the school that they may hold more classes.

It would be fair to say that they are tolerated fairly well. They are different and have different ideas from the people of Ilmorog, but they mostly appreciate what the outsiders do and try to do. Then a drought descends upon the region, and the outsiders prove their worth. Karega proposes a delegation visit their Member of Parliament, and a group is organized. It is only through the efforts of the outsiders that the delegation succeeds at all. In celebrating the next harvest, the four are invited to drink theng'eta, distilled from millet, and share themselves.

It is the last happy time in Ilmorog. The seeds of its destruction and descent as New Ilmorog are sown already in their visit to Nairobi. Through their appearance in the capital, the Honorable Nderi wa Riera and powerful others learn for the first time about the existence of this village and make plans for it to profit themselves.

Petals of Blood is reminiscent of The Brothers K in its efforts to capture the spirit and breadth of a time and place, explain some things and hope for others. The characters in their backgrounds, in their efforts at change, in their responses to the annihilation of Ilmorog and ascent of New Ilmorog are types for wider forces, movements and populations in Kenya.

The reasons for the continued exploitation and crippling of Kenya after independence are simple for Ngugi. The British may have left but colonialism remains. European investment in Kenya remains heavy, and those most willing to take advantage of it, no matter the cost to the people, are those who profit. It is not the Mau Mau warriors who lead the country, but those who betrayed them to the British. The student revolutionary who led Munira to expulsion returns years later to become headmaster when old Fraudsham is forced to resign in the face of a second student strike. Rather than teach African history, literature and ideas, the dreams of the students, he enforces the British system even more strictly than his predecessor. Those who honestly work in the interests of the people are shot.

There is a particularly telling scene that still rings true to me today when the Ilmorog delegation meets their MP in Nairobi. At first Nderi is concerned it may be a ploy devised by his political rivals to weaken him in Parliament, diverting his attention and resources away from other matters. He speaks to the delegation and suggests that they may best help themselves by donating toward his campaign that he may then organize effective assistance later. Even after a media shaming forces him to provide assistance for the drought stricken, Nderi dreams of turning Ilmorog into a cultural village for European tourists and turning theng'eta from a celebration of a successful harvest into a cheap high available throughout the year. His first and only concern is protecting himself and his power. The rest of the world is divided into threats against him and those things that can profit him.

The hope against the corruption and exploitation is less clear. Munira, Wanja, Karega and Abulla all have their own responses as Ilmorog changes. Ngugi's sympathies are most with Karega, the union organizer well versed in Lenin and Marx, but Petals is not merely an extended pamphlet on the wonder of communism, though Ngugi does thank thank the Soviet Writer's Union for allowing him the use of the Yalta home to complete the novel. More powerful is the fate of Joseph, the street child adopted as a brother by Abdulla and later supported by Wanja throughout secondary school. It is their simple and great compassion for this one unfortunate child that has greater promise for Kenya's future than all of Karega's secret meetings.

I wonder what Ngugi would think of Kenya today. One of his dreams has been realized. It is an African curriculum in Kenya now. Secondary students read his novels, and African history is taught. Other failures remain entrenched still three decades after Petals was published. Capitalism still fails Kenya. The nation is one of the greatest producers of flowers and black teas in the world, but the sales of these have yet to trickle down to the workers in any meaningful way. The politically powerful protect only themselves and profit the most handsomely from all efforts to make things better for the weakest. Other problems have emerged. Tribalism, given only the briefest mention in Petals emerged in the harshest light in the post-election violence at the beginning of 2008.

Monday, August 2

Watering hole at Chemiril

This is, by far, one of my favorite photographs. As the woman opens her fuchsia kanga, a spot of brilliance against the encroaching aridity, to tighten it against her waist, there is a sense of eternity. Caught at a natural pause in the motion, it is appropriate and still. I like, too, that the sparseness of the picture is evocative of Pokot as a whole. Only three people stand in it. The sky is largely clear. The shrubs along the ridge are dry. There are nice layers, as well. Beginning at the top and working down, the sky is clear, before coming to the clouds always just on the horizon. Then it is interrupted by the couple and shrubs on the ridge before coming to the yellow sand on the bottom.

I was lucky to take this. I shot just five pictures of the scenery outside Chemiril before turning my attention to the Famine Feed, and this was one of them. I don't believe I ever managed to shoot another better in all of the following trips.

Chemiril, the third station of the four where we delivered maize flour and cabbage quarters in Pokot, was unique among them in that a watering hole stood only a short distance away. This was a big deal. Even after the drought broke around January, I never saw any other constant masses of water. We drove over and through dry creek and river beds to reach the last station, Riongo, and Demetra tells me the truck got caught in mud on one of her trips, but I never saw any water in them. At one time there was a massive river passing by Ng'yang where the Monday animal market took place.

You can see where they gave up on building a bridge halfway across when they realized it was not worth the time and money to finish it when anyone could drive across below it.

The watering hole offered a variety of intriguing photographic possibilities. First, as the only major, dependable source of water for who knows how far, it is where all the herders brought their goats and camels to drink. My rather intense distaste for goats is documented on this blog, and after shooting hundreds of pictures of them for donors to the Survival Program, my preference would be to never take another one, but seeing the herds rush to water is kind of cool. I needed proof, too, that I had actually seen camels in the wild. That's not so terribly common.

You can see how I attempted to recapture some of what that first picture so special. The composition is very nearly the same, and the location is the same, just a little to the left of the original. I would say these shots lack the same vibrancy in how small the animals are. This is of little matter in the original where the energy comes from the colors of the people's clothes, but goats and camels are the same color as the sand. They don't stand out as much.

In the flats of Pokot, Chemiril was unique, too, in that there were shifts in elevation. I could find a high point and shoot at a distance. People could layer themselves as they walked from the village on the opposite side of the watering hole.

Another picture with the original clearly in mind in setting the levels, it also fails to achieve the same energy, for the same reasons as those of the goats and camels, I believe. The people are too small and lack the color to give the picture the same energy as the woman with her open kanga.

I downloaded Picasa immediately after I bought my Nikon D60 and use the program exclusively to organize and present my pictures. I also make frequent use of its editing features. I try to limit this to lightening a dark picture or increasing contrast, but I am certainly not immune to modifying a picture a bit more. Above you can see the original of my favorite, before the colors were edited. I cannot honestly say which I prefer. This lacks the intensity of the latter, but its colors are much closer to those found in Pokot. I am curious. What is your own preference?