Monday, July 30, 2018

Samburu, a Cultural Paradox

Annamaria on Monday

The Samburu tribe have lived in the Rift Valley of Kenya since the 15th century.  It was around the time they arrived there that they split off from the Masaai--though the groups remain culturally quite similar and still share a language.  The Maasai went south.  The Samburu settled in the area north of Mount Kenya.  They are semi-nomadic, and pastoralist, raising cows, sheep, goats, and camels.  Their diet consists almost entirely of milk, cows' blood, and maize cooked into cornmeal mush.

They are monotheist and have clung to their old ways and beliefs, largely it seems because the culture allows very little leeway for change.  The tribe is a gerontocracy--ruled by elder men, who not only make the decisions, but who also have the power to communicate with their god, Nkai.  If elders feel disrespected, they can call upon Nkai to curse the offender.  The strength of the elders' hold on the people accounts for the changeless nature of the Samburu way of life.

Their pastoralist way of life and its enduring nature makes them a people causing very little harm to the earth that they occupy.  They live in harmony with their natural surroundings.  This is a very good and beautiful thing.  

I first learned of the Samburu a little over two years ago, when I met a Michael Lenaimado in, of all places, the Boathouse Cafe in Central Park.  Michael is Samburu, and as a boy of twelve he asked a visitor to Kenya, my life-long friend Fran Drew, to be his pen-pal.   Fran introduced me to Michael on his first visit to the US.  Since then, on my trip to Kenya earlier this year, I have had the privilege of learning more about his work and of meeting his wife.

Michael is a leader of the anti-poaching efforts in his tribal lands.  Eighty rangers, who protect elephants and rhinos, report to him.  He has also developed a way of engaging the tribal people in the anti-poaching effort.  He had come to the US to talk about this work--at a conservation conference in Denver.  Michael has organized Samburu villages to host conservation-minded visitors.  The villagers provide the hospitality.  The guests come with a sense of wonder about the animals and their habitat.   The tribe members earn money and learn how much people from around the world admire the environment in which they live.  The experience teaches the tribal people the value of what they have.  This is in direct opposition to what had been happening--that the poor tribal people took money (usually a pittance to the poachers, but a fortune to the local people) to turn a blind eye to the slaughter of the animals.

Also this past January, Michael brought his wife Sarah Lesiamito to visit with lucky me.  When Michael told her that my latest book--the Blasphemers--deals with female circumcision, she wanted to come to tell me about her efforts in that regard.

Every bit as much as Michael is a warrior against poaching and for conservation, Sarah is a warrior against the subjugation of girls and for their rights.  She traveled seven hours to come to talk about what she is doing and wants to do.  She is working to convince girls not to submit to circumcision and their mothers not to subject their daughters to it.  She is also taking in and sheltering young girls who have run away from the brutality of arranged marriages.  

The problem is a difficult one--especially in the face of the intractability of the old customs.  Regular readers of MIE may have seen my posts about the treatment of pastoralist girls.  Generally speaking, they are circumcised, and then  their fathers sell them into early marriage: the girls are usually between twelve and fourteen, the men who take them are three or four times their age, the price is usually in cows or goats.  Among the Samburu, there is the added practice known as "beading."  Beads and beadwork are an important part of the Samburu culture.  A gift of beads is a great honor.  Here is the Samburu bead regalia that Sarah presented to me when we met.  I was bowled over by it:

BUT... Beading, when warriors give the beads to young Samburu girls, has another, horrifying meaning.

In the pastoralist culture, men do not marry until they are past the warrior age: usually into their thirties.  While they are warriors, Samburu men make arrangements with the mothers and brothers of young girls.  They present the girls with beads, and--with their families' permission and support--begin sexual relations with the chosen girl.  One source I read said the child might be as young as five.  (This is as far into this tradition as I can bring myself to describe.  If you have the courage for it and want the facts, you can go here.)

Sarah is a Samburu woman with an education.  She is a teacher who holds an undergraduate degree in teaching and two Masters Degrees--one in Special Education and one in Leadership.  She told me she wanted to learn leadership because she wants to be able to teach girls to be leaders.

Last month, to aid her efforts, I had the enormous privilege of introducing her and Michael to Sister Mary Vertucci and the staff of the Emusoi Center in Arusha, Tanzania.  Mary and the women who work with her have been warriors for the rights of pastoralist girls for over twenty years.  Hopefully, their methods and encouragement will spur Sarah's efforts.

Sarah and Michael and Sister Mary and the staff of Emusoi.  
Sarah and some of the Emusoi girls.  

But let me take you back to New York City before I end this story.  Two weeks ago, I had a Samburu-related surprise, that turned into a shock.  In Bergdorf Goodman, the super-swanky department store on Fifth Avenue.

Imagine my surprise when I saw this on the elevator:

It says "featuring handcrafted beadwork by Samburu
women of Northern Kenya."

Since I needed to go through the handbag department on my way out , I decided to see what they were selling with Samburu beads.  Brace yourself.


Need a closer look at the price tag?  Yes!  It says $1680.  

The profits from these adorable little handbags are being shared with the Elephant Crisis Fund.  If you know anything about my attitudes, you know that I want to save the elephants. I do.  But I want to know, do the people who are using those beads to decorate luxury goods know anything about the plight of the girls in those pictures on their display?  Do they think those girls are at all as important as the elephants?  Or their profits?

My heart hurts. 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

In Full Retreat: Writing in France

I went to France at the beginning of July planning to get a start made on the new Charlie Fox book. I’m happy to report that the tentative 15,000 words I’d hoped for morphed into 20,000 once I got into the writing, and I’m even cautiously pleased with the way it’s going so far. I promised myself I’d have a break when I hit that point, and do some driving around to look at locations for later on in the story, but at the same time, I’m anxious not to lose too much momentum.

No chance of getting out of practise with the writing itself, though. I also had a last-minute Q&A to write for the #BlogTour I did at the start of the month for the launch of the new crime thriller standalone, Dancing On The Grave. Thank you so much to everyone who took part or supported me along the way.

And then I was reminded that I’d promised to provide a short story for a proposed anthology earlier in the year. The editor contacted me and asked for a brief sentence or two about the story, and particularly the setting of it. Within a week, if possible.


My mind was a complete blank.

Me and fellow crime thriller author Libby Fischer Hellmann at
the American Cemetery, Omaha Beach in Normandy
When I came out to Aveyron in southern France, I had with me my author friend, Libby Fischer Hellmann. She needed to finish a book just as I needed to start one. Incredibly useful to have someone else along on the 1100km drive south, though, as trying to drive a UK-spec right-hand-drive car through a French toll péage, where all the payment booths are set up for left-hand-drive vehicles, can be a bit of a problem.

French toll péages can be tricky in a right-hand-drive UK car!
We did quite a bit of touring about in the afternoons, having spent the mornings dutifully scribbling. And when I picked up another visitor, who arrived the afternoon following Libby’s departure, I had already seen one or two of the nearest and most popular.

Chateau de Bournazel with medieval crane in evidence...
So, I found myself sitting with my notebook outside a fabulous French castle on a baking day, waiting for them to finish sightseeing, and suddenly a short story came floating by. Needless to say, I grabbed it with both hands. By the time my visitor returned, I had the main points mapped out, and I finished off fleshing it out sitting in the garden, with one of my feline muses for company.

Spatz, one of my muses
So, I’ve been trying to work out what it is about being here in in the Aveyron valley area that’s been so good for my inspiration. It can’t be the weather per se, as it’s been similar weather in the UK.

It can’t be the presence of the feline muses, either, as I have two on hand back in Derbyshire. (Who would be mortified if they knew I’d been unfaithful to them by sleeping with other cats on my bed here!) Perhaps it’s the lack of distraction. Good internet for research, but no TV. Friendly locals, but no close friends except on the end of a phone line or Skype call. And no other purpose than writing except to keep the place running—easier said than done after an ant invasion, near-miss lightning strike that knocked the power out in the house, and neighbouring dogs chasing the cats around the garden, at which point Inkypuss went and hid in the rafters of one of the outbuildings. We spent ages searching for her and fearing the worst.

Inkypuss, showing there is Something of the Night about her...
French road signs are entertaining to me as a Brit—particularly the fact the Stop signs have ‘Stop’ on them, rather than ‘Arrêt’, but are still the distinctive octagonal shape as at home and in the States, so they are instantly recognisable even if obscured by snow. And whoever designed the signs warning of the approach to a pedestrian crossing must have been a closet fan of The Beatles

Abbey Road, anyone?
 This area is very arable. It suddenly becomes understandable, if the French farmers object strongly to some aspect of government policy, why it creates a serious problem for their politicians. The chestnut-coloured and cream cattle are beautiful muscular animals in the fields. Every garden is full of hydrangeas.

Hydrangeas are everywhere in this part of France, both pink and
blue ones often growing alongside each other.
 By the time you read this, I will be on the way up-country heading for the ferry home from Calais on Monday. We have several side trips planned for the journey, so expect to hear more about that part of the trip very soon.

Me driving over the famous Millau Bridge (the Bridge in the Clouds)
Meanwhile, I exceeded my cautious target of 15,000 words by another 5000, I’m well into writing the short story. I plan on making lots of notes for both novel and story while on the road—or during the overnight stops, at least—so I can leap back into my August workload of writing as soon as I get back. Hopefully, still thoroughly invigorated by my time away.

Vive la France!

This week’s Word of the Week is deracinate, meaning to uproot (usually a person) from their natural social, cultural or geographical environment. It comes from the 16th Century French déraciner, from dé (removal) and racine, meaning ‘root’, from the Latin radix.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Bitter and the Sweet


First the Bitter.

All of Greece is in mourning, and I’m purposely not posting photographs of the source of its grief.  The world’s seen enough of those scenes by now. 

The fires this week that claimed so many lives weigh heavy on the nation’s mind. So, too, do the responses of its government officials to criticism of both their preparedness and reaction to a far from unexpected phenomenon—wildfires happen across Greece every summer. It is a developing story, with finger pointing well underway. Indeed, the head of the junior coalition party sharing power in the current government (he serves as Defense Minister), in an interview with the BBC, blamed the victims for building their homes illegally. Here’s a link to that much talked about interview.

As would be expected, much speculation is being bandied about in search of an explanation for how this tragedy came to pass.  Some theories are rational, some clearly not. For a good primer on where things stand at the moment, I suggest reading an article in Wednesday’s New York Times, by Jason Horowitz, titled, “In the Aftermath of Greek Fires, Suspicion Combines with Grief and Recrimination.” 

Barbara and I add our prayers to those of the many from around the world sharing in Greece’s mourning. 

Now for the Sweet.

Not actually sweet, more like bitter-sweet.  It’s an article I wrote for the just published thirteenth-year anniversary issue of Mykonos Confidential, the sleek, annual summer magazine celebrating all things Mykonos that’s come to be known as the “Bible of Mykonos.”

The theme for this year’s issue, as envisioned by its publisher, Petros Bourovilis, was “My Summer of Love,” and so that’s what I wrote about.  Whether or not my tale is what Petros expected I cannot say, but I can assure you it’s all true, and reveals how I came to write my first mystery novel on Mykonos.

PS. In the interest of full disclosure, I also was asked to participate in the fashion shoot section of the magazine (for comic relief, no doubt) and most of the photos in this post are taken from that totally fun experience, as captured by photographer Thanasis Krikis, and styled by Stefanos Zaousis . Thank you, one and all.   Here’s the article:   

“My Summer of Love” is a tricky subject. It can mean decidedly different things to different people. Perhaps that’s why Mykonos Confidential chose it as the topic for the likes of me to write about?  After all, as varied and complicated as love relationships can be, so too, are our respective relationships with the island of the winds.

My Summer of Love experience occurred unexpectedly on a stifling August afternoon in 2005, during my third decade of summers on the island.  I’d not yet given up my New York City law practice, but had returned to Mykonos committed to writing a book about this place I call home.  I had no desire to write a guidebook, or wax on about summer tavernas and island romances.  I planned to write a serious novel, one that told the truth as I saw it about the island’s people, politics, culture, and beauty, but in a way that held my readers’ interest as we explored life together on the island. 

A murder mystery-thriller format seemed the natural way to go, but my plans encountered an unanticipated setback when my closest friend on the island deeply opposed my idea.

We’d been friends since my first day on Mykonos.  I happened to pass by his jewelry shop on my way into town from my hotel, and though I forget how he’d lured me inside, the next thing I knew I was (unsuccessfully) dodging drinks, pastries, and candies.

Unbeknownst to me, I’d stumbled upon the most loved man on Mykonos.  A consummate gentleman and fervent booster of the island, he had an extraordinary circle of local, national and international friends, all of whom made a point of regularly stopping by to say hello to him.

Over the years we developed a deep friendship, sharing our birthday parties (he was seven days younger than I), watching out for each other’s children (I escorted his older son to his first days at Syracuse University), and attending together many a Mykonian panegyri, concert, baptism, wedding, and funeral. Without my realizing it, he’d subtly turned me into a Mykonian—or at least as close to that elevated status as a non-Greek American could hope to achieve.

Me, Tassos, Renate and Thomas McKnight

That’s why, when he expressed his heartfelt concern that placing a murder mystery on Mykonos might harm the island, I put my project on hold. Disappointed as I was, I did not want to write anything that might harm his business, or reflect badly on him in the eyes of Mykonians because of our friendship.

Then came August.

I’d stopped by his shop one evening around eleven, and he asked if I’d like to join him for dinner. He said he was “about to close,” but I’d been down that road many times before.  I knew that as long as a single potential customer lurked nearby, he’d remain open. True to form, we finally made it to the restaurant around one.

He had a lot of things on his mind, and I did a lot of listening.  Then out of the blue he said he’d decided I should write the Mykonos book I wanted to write.  I never asked him what had changed his mind.

We finished dinner, I walked him back to his home, and said goodnight. 

Around daybreak the next morning I received a call that my friend had suffered a massive stroke, and was at the medical clinic waiting to be airlifted to Athens.  I made it to the clinic as he was being wheeled to the ambulance for transport to the airport.

That was the last time I saw my friend alive. He died on August 3rd, with family and friends at his bedside.

I know what you’re thinking. How could this horrific tragedy possibly serve as any sane person’s Summer of Love?

It’s complicated, but real.

His body arrived back on Mykonos by ferry to the old port. Tradition had family and friends meeting the casket there to accompany his remains to church for the funeral service. Fittingly, the procession passed by his shop on its way to Agia Kyriake.

I’m not Greek Orthodox, so I did not think it appropriate to participate as a pallbearer.  I walked close behind the casket, trailed by a crowd of hundreds. As the line of mourners approached Kyriake, Mykonians pushed me forward toward the casket, politely telling me to participate as one of the pallbearers. When I said, “I’m not Orthodox,” one of the pallbearers insisted I take over his position, saying, “You’re his friend, that’s all that matters.”

We carried his casket into the church, and I never felt closer to the people of Mykonos than I did at that moment.  My feelings only grew stronger once we left the church, and wound our way through the town’s narrow streets toward the cemetery.  Locals I barely knew kept stopping me to share hugs and tears over the genuine sadness we all felt at the loss of such an extraordinary soul.

During that brief bit of a summer afternoon, I was immersed in a communal outpouring of pure love, unlike anything I’d ever experienced before—or after.


There is a remarkable postscript to this story, one I credit to the spirit of my dearly departed friend.  During his funeral, as I stood at the foot of his casket struggling to maintain my composure, I stared up at the church’s dome. Spread out before me in what I can only characterize as a vision, I saw the perfect story line for tying together all the many ideas for my book.  It was as if my friend were saying, ‘Okay, Jeffrey here it is, now write it.” 

I think it’s fair to say that my debut novel, Murder in Mykonos, is a product of “My Summer of Love.” Even today, it stands as a tribute to the memory of my friend, Tassos Stamoulis, proprietor extraordinaire of the Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry shop. God rest your kind, sweet soul, my friend. 

You remain deeply missed by all lovers of Mykonos. Perhaps now more than ever.


Friday, July 27, 2018

silence is golden

                                                               our wee motorhome; tranquil

I was watching a TV show recently.
                                                               It looked quiet

It started like this. A man in his kitchen sitting at his table, painting small soldiers, the way men do, tip of the tongue out in concentration, giving Napoleon the right hair cut. There is some Chopin tinkling on his radio, quietly.

 Then the next door's kettle starts to boil, it's a whistling kettle and nobody lifts it off the stove.
 Then  the gardener arrives to cut down next door's trees and the chain saw starts up.

The teenagers,  next door, on the  other side  to the kettle boiling scenario, open their patio doors and  let out the sound of ACDC on full volume so they can sit and watch the chainsaw do its stuff.

After  about five minutes of this, the  soldier man, goes out and takes the chainsaw to the entire lot of them. It was filmed in such as way that the audience was cheering them on.

                                                 Wee bit noisy now...

I have always had a problem with sound. I like things to be quiet, not silent but quiet. I would hate  to think that  next door  could hear my radio out  in their garden. I'd wear headphones.

Maybe I have hyperacusis. I can't stand the drone of vacuum cleaners ( this is a good one as it gets you a cleaner), or buzzy things, alarms,  dogs barking, car engines running for no apparent reason (that's against the law here anyway), the buzz of things not being tuned in properly, Taylor Swift, chain saws, electric lawn  mowers ( why can we not go back to the push roll of the old sort- it was a good aerobic work out !)… and  worse of all BKS. ( bloody kids screaming). I will use that  term a lot, BKS.

So to be clear- scenario 1, stressed mum in  airport, screaming kid,  mum has bags of toys,  bits of fruit,  is pulling faces, nothing is working-  every mum has been there, we are all empathetic and  joining in with face pulling and amusement attempts to get small person to BE QUIET.
Scenario 2  the mum is looking at her phone,  or has her headphones in, or just says, 'now be quiet Tarquin'  as Tarquin screams the bloody place down.  They deserve all the dirty  looks they get  - it's not Tarquin's fault, although the situation could be remedied by a tourniquet applied round the neck.
 ( so I am told)

This is all a bit raw at the moment.

Reasons? We are having a heatwave,  not since 1976 has it been like this. I recall we were  camping in Devon that year and my dad could not get the pegs of the tent in the ground as it  was so hard. I saw the  cracks in the earth and thought there had been an earthquake ( I was very young at the time and brought up knee deep in mud so this dry stuff was all new to me).

So now people are out in their gardens,   behaving as if they are  still in their house. They are cooking dead animals outside and  drinking lager - a lot of it. They are shouting and singing, badly, they  have their ghetto blasters ( as they still called that) up at the kitchen  window. blasting out sounds  from.. 1976!

Then  when  I finish work and think I will sit outside and have a coffee- some bugger starts up with lawn mower or a chain saw.....

So we went away- to Oxford for 4 days to let the new start at work settle in without  the big  bad ( now part time) boss  being on the premises. A lovely campsite. The music in the showers would have deafened  the Deep Purple sound engineer.  Most (English it has to be said ) campers were out with the beer and the bbqs, and their own brand of crap music. Their kids ran feral until two in the morning, screaming round the camp sites on their  bikes.  Dogs barked incessantly. It was truly bedlam ( which as you know was a institution for those with psychiatric  disorders- which was me by two hours of this). I had my earphones on listening to the wondrous  Christopher Fowler and then towel wrapped round my head for further sound isolation.

In that heat, we couldn't open the door of the motorhome, as it was too noisy outside. So we went into Oxford town... in 34 degrees ( I know that might be nothing  to some of you guys  but getting in double figures is pretty good for us), on a Saturday I the height of the tourist season, and met very excited Italians. Lots of them.
 Then we  bumped in some excited Japanese.
                                           And various others... the lot below are excited about ice cream..
 So we escaped into the botanic gardens and sat there in total and complete silence,   the walls of the Victorian garden blocked out the  noise of the madness outside.
 then the bells  in the tower rang,  and rang and rang.
for and hour and a half...
 and rang.

Then stopped.

Then started again.

My ears began  to bleed.

I don't know if I have hyperacusis or not,  but sounds like that can be very painful. It hurts my ears.
 and I want it to stop, or somebody will die.

                                  Could I use these giant lily pads as ear muffs?

We escaped to Blenheim palace the next day ( noisy but posh noise so that was ok) and when we got back ( Sunday  pm) the campsite  had emptied leaving only the  normal campers behind, the Germans with their Rohan trousers, the Dutch, the French, who were on holiday and  rather bemused that nobody told the Vandal hoards to put a sock in it. I think it was the eyebrow to toenail tattoos that  might have put them off.
All was quiet apart from the odd shout when  something happened at the open.

                                     And more noise

"Hyperacusis is a health condition characterized by an over-sensitivity to certain frequency and volume ranges of sound (a collapsed tolerance to usual environmental sound). A person with severe hyperacusis has difficulty tolerating everyday sounds, some of which may seem unpleasantly or painfully loud to that person but not to others."

So now you know.
As the song says Silence is golden.

                                                 It looks a quite village....

All very serene

quintessentially English...

weeping willows....

cottages round the village green 

beautiful gardens

                                              thatched cottages

amusing names

 They were even cutting the grass in the churchyard. Next time I am  going to stay at home with my head under the pillow. But by next time it will be raining.

Caro Ramsay  27th July 2018

Thursday, July 26, 2018

And now for something completely different...

Michael and Pat Thursday

We’re in the bush this week, and with the exhaustion Stan referred to last week after knocking Dead of Night into good shape at the eleventh hour (and fifty-fifth minute), and with another deadline already looming, it seemed that something a bit more light hearted might be in order. So here it is.

You may have developed the impression that only good things happen in the African bush from the posts from me, Stan, and Annamaria. Well, that’s not always the case. Consider the Egyptian lady:

There was a young girl from the Nile,
Who fell for a large crocodile,
Although she quite bloomed,
Their affair was quite doomed,
For he ate her after a while.

Then there was the experience we had a few days ago:

The baboon who shat on the car,
Preened himself like a star,
“With a smelly great turd,
I have had the last word,
And the stink will spread wide and far!”

There are some lascivious things goings on. We noticed that our friendly large lizard who is usually found sunning himself on a well-oriented rock had developed some pinkish scales. Imagine our shock at discovering what this means.

The giant plated lizard once said,
“I can feel the change to my head,
When the scales go pink,
As quick as a wink,
I will lure a young lady to bed!”

Finally there is the Fork-tailed Drongo who spends his mornings with the car’s side mirror.

A delightful young Drongo named Jayzee,
Is known for his beauty but lazy,
He coos to himself,
On each reflecting shelf,
The narcissism is driving him crazy!

As for me, I was tearing out so much hair over the last few weeks that my beard survived unscathed. I approached trimming it with trepidation.

Michael, while trimming his beard,
Said it is just as I feared,
“A Pearl-spotted Owl,
And two Guinea Fowl,
Have all made their nests in my beard.”
(With apologies to Edward Lear.)

We’re sure the Limerick experts out there can do better. You’re invited to paste your favorite creature limericks into comments, or send them on to me and I’ll add them to the post.