... and oh so true

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Integration and differentiation

Being married to a Swiss man has its perks. He has a sense of general hygiene and will wash, wash up after Himself, and sort out His own ironing. He is handy in the kitchen and well applied around the house, having attended technical course ... and knitting class ... at school. All this, while being ecologically sound as well, phwoar!

Now, living in Zurich and being married to a Swiss man definitely has its perks (note: the photo is of Solothurn, though). New arrivals, like me, can register for the 'Integration Course for Women' which is run by the City in TEN languages this term, reflecting the demand and diversity amongst foreigners here - Albanian, Arabic, English, French, German, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Thai and Turkish.

This morning we had a 'soft' session, Lesson 2: Swiss folklore and traditions. Here is a taster from the hand-out - it's pretty interesting from an anthropological point of view:

The Silvesterklause tradition is confined to the area surrounding the village of Urnasch. Groups of men in elaborate costume go from farmhouse to farmouse, where they sing and greet the inhabitants for the New Year. The so-called 'forest' or 'nature' Klause wear pine-cone masks and dress in foliage. Like the other kinds of Klause - the 'beautiful' and the 'ugly' ones, they also wear bells, which they clank as loudly as possible when they finish their performance. The Klause who lead and end the procession wear round bells, while the others wear flat cow bells. This custom takes place on January 13th, the date of the New Year according to the Julian calendar.

I guess foliage is always a safe bet when it comes to festive fashion. Honestly though, I'm not entirely convinced about the bells, which to a Sylvesterklause amateur like myself, would probably only herald in a ringing headache. And so the pamphlet continues ...

Bern's onion market, held on the fourth Monday in November, is one of the biggest annual markets in Switzerland and draws thousands of visitors. On sale are onions braided into strings and made into items of all kinds. Visitors throw confetti at each other and drape strings of luridly coloured sweets round their necks. Children -and not only children- hit passers-by with squeaking plastic hammers.

One cannot help but be impressed by the ingenuity of the Bernese - after all, not just anyone can come up with a variety of ingenious renditions of the humble onion! Notwithstanding, I reserve (mature, adult) comment on the squeaky plastic hammers. Perhaps that's more Ste's scene, though I can't say for sure - the topic has never come up in day-to-day conversation.

Unique to Zurich is Sechseluuten, which Ste attended but I unfortunately missed, in April ...

the culmination of the day's festivities is the burning of the winter effigy, the Boogg. The Boogg, looking like a snowman and stuffed with firecrackers, stands on a huge woodpile which is lit when the cathedral bells ring out 6 o'clock. The moment when the Boogg's head explodes marks the official end of winter. And the faster this happens, the longer and hotter the summer is meant to be.

I hope, for my sake, that the poor sod's head detonated at the stroke of 6. The weather's been beautiful the past week; as far as I'm concerned, summer has begun!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


A tiny, almost-tossed-out memento from one of my daladala rides: I boarded at Hugo House on Kinondoni Road and alighted at the Orthodox Church just before Maktaba Street. Cost: 200 Shillings

And this, a somewhat less rosy -but more permanently emblazened- memory of my Dar days, thanks to the territorial sun.

Evidently the zebras weren't the only ones sporting stripes.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Chapter 1: Amortising a debt of kindness

Ali insisted on walking me to Posta, the central daladala stop. It wasn't far from his flat, just 15 minutes at an easy trot, but I felt bad because he had already extended me a great courtesy.

I had rung him on his mobile the day before, completely out of the blue, brandishing all the shiny telemarketing hooks (1. Researcher from the LSE; 2. Singaporean living in Switzerland; 3. Articulate yet harmless female with well-meaning questions and no previous record of badgering her subjects) to win myself a piece of his time.

It was a case that I had pleaded with other interviewees before, an argument which doesn't get any easier with practice - "Please meet me for a chat ... it will be of no discernible benefit to you but might potentially revolutionise my doctoral research and save my sorry little behind ..."

There was a long pause (1001 ... 1002 ... 1003 ... 1004 ...) and then a meandering umm. At that point, I cast away any remaining scruples and foisted myself shamelessly on the poor soul, offering to postpone my impending departure date if he would see me. He quaked ... and I heaved a sigh of relief. Then I promptly did what I always do before an important meeting - gnaw away anxiously at my right thumb. For luck.

Ali appeared where he said he would, when he said he would, and suggested that we talk in his family home. It was a modest and tidy third-floor flat and he passed someone some Shillings to get me a Coke. We sat in the armchairs by the window. Two young children climbed onto his lap, arching their backs ever so often to keep the visitor in sight. He cleared his throat and began,

"你如果要研究 中国和坦赞尼亚的外交, 那你应该先研究中国的历史, 而你必须了解那个社会里的矛盾 ..." (something to that effect anyway, but with better grammar and more flourish)

Ali grew up in China - he had attended a local school and graduated with two degrees from Chinese colleges. And so the conversation flowed: halting questions in English (yours truly) and expansive replies in fluent Mandarin (from him). Whatever the case, we had created a two-way street.

When the time came for me to leave, he offered to send me off. I thanked him profusely, for his time, his family's time and ... well, for having agreed to see me in the first place. Ali smiled good-naturedly and brushed my embarrassment aside, "I have often been the recipient of much kindness from strangers ... so don't thank me. This is something small I can give back."

Sunday, May 06, 2007

I went to learn

I'm back from Tanzania. It wasn't a long trip -all of 7 weeks- but plenty happened in that time. The 10 days preceding my safari home were a dream, jampacked with the most incredible interviews and encounters.

There were too many lessons, there is far too much to write: relevant information, conflicting emotions, vivid poetry, contemporary analysis, lurid imagery, oral history, jubilant ululation ... and all that tongue-basting ugali ...

I am humbled by how little I will ever know about the questions I am purportedly interested in. In the words of a special Mzee, "There are certainly some benefits to having been born earlier." And I missed that boat, The Glory Days, by a clean decade.

So here is my Pesambili's worth for now ... an intimate primate moment en route to Ngorongoro Crater -

"This sure beats navel-gazing ..."