Archive for the ‘Slice of Life – Non-Career Experience’ Category

The Queen of Katwe

Sunday, November 15th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “The Queen of Katwe” by Tim Crothers, published in 2015. This story focuses on Phiona Mutesi, a young female chess player in Katwe– a poor area outside of Kampala, Uganda.

Prior to her playing chess, Mutesi was destined for an empty life in which she was likely to die young from a fire, flood, disease, violence or famine, or bear many children starting in her teens, due to dependency on unreliable, polygamous men as providers of the basic necessities of survival. Education in Katwe was sporadic, as children attended only when they could afford the tuition. Not only priced out of schooling, but living a hand-to-mouth existence, Phiona (and her siblings) were compelled to “…walk around the slum, selling maize from a saucepan on her head.” She had to scrounge around for even one meal a day. Additionally, it was a three-hour round trip on foot between her home and the public well. Her family was evicted from numerous hovels due to nonpayment of rent.

Mutesi’s older brother happened to frequent a kids’ soccer program whose director started to also provide a bowl of porridge, and chess instruction. The soccer was introduced by a non-profit initiative called Sports Outreach Institute, started by Russ Carr. His goal was to teach kids “how to fish” and convert them to Christianity.

Around 2009, when she was approximately nine years old, Mutesi tagged along after her brother, walking the five kilometers to the eyesore of a venue, and became obsessed with chess. The food was a major draw for hungry kids. Their mothers, although grateful, were apprehensive that their kids might be kidnapped by the recreation coach who was a white man, according to local gossip.

Read the book to learn the details of Mutesi’s rise in Africa’s competitive chess culture, and the reasons for her uncertain future.

Bonus Post

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

This blogger skimmed “A Balcony in Nepal” by Sally Wendkos Olds, art by Margaret Roche. This book is comprised of journal entries of a few trips to Nepal in the 1990′s and 2000 made by Olds and Roche. They met people in Kathmandu and the rural village of Badel, where they stayed.

At the airport, they were greeted by street urchins, eager to carry their luggage for tips. There were sacred cows lying in the middle of the road intersections, temples, motorcycles, taxis, rickshaws, young men offering hashish, Tibetan rugs, currency exchange and guide services. In Nepal, there is cronyism in employment, so the educated Nepalis with no connections are compelled to leave the country to seek a living elsewhere.

Teachers receive extremely low pay in Nepal because there is a casual attitude toward education. Families tend to be large, and older siblings must take care of the younger ones, and also work in the fields at the expense of school attendance. Thus, a low value is placed on literacy in the lower castes, such as Darje (untouchables), which includes blacksmiths, tailors, ferrymen, musicians and leatherworkers. The educated classes begin studying English in the fourth grade. They must buy their own books and writing instruments. The vast majority of teachers are men. They might skip school to work in the fields, too.

Medical care is handled in the rural villages by shamans (medicine men). A medical doctor is seven days’ walk and a two-day bike ride from Badel. When a villager’s ankle became swollen possibly from too much hiking, the village shaman told the patient his ankle hurt because he crossed the river without praying to the river god. So the shaman chanted over the ankle and told him to go pray by the river. The ankle got better in two days; perhaps via the placebo effect.

Wendkos and Olds engaged in some philanthropic activity by raising money to build a library in Badel. They attended the local political meeting at which a committee was formed for library-related planning. The attendees included all of Badel’s ethnic groups, Rai, Bhujil, Puri, Giri, Sherpa and Darje. Several years later, by 2000, the library had opened; however, it was being used to house a school rather than lend books.

Read this book to learn other aspects of Nepali culture, and the diarists’ thoughts and feelings on their experiences.

Tomorrow You Go Home

Sunday, August 23rd, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Tomorrow You Go Home” by Tig Hague, published in 2008. This is the suspenseful story of how Russian authorities severely punished an Englishman for a minor indiscretion in the summer of 2003.

Hague had forgotten he had left a tiny amount of hashish in his jeans pocket before boarding a flight to Moscow. He was detained at the airport. His naivete led to his arrest and imprisonment. He was denied what is, in Western nations, due process. However, he was less deprived than other prisoners because he received care packages from the British Embassy and his family– consisting of noodles, biscuits, cigarettes, coffee, chocolate and warm clothing. The odds were stacked against him at his court hearings. The Russian prison authorities played a petty power game via bribery, to hang onto contraband and inside information from the hapless prisoners– some of whom were there because they had been framed– awaiting release.

Read the book to learn of Hague’s trials and tribulations, suffered at the hands of a corrupt, arbitrary system.

The Best of Times

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “The Best of Times” by John Dos Passos, originally published in 1966. This ebook is “an informal memoir.”

Dos Passos was sent by his father, a bigwig attorney active in politics and in his community, to a “public school” (what Americans would call private school) in England, and later, boarding school in the United States. His father was of Portuguese extraction, with houses in Sandy Point, MD and Washington D.C. In his youth, Dos Passos communed with nature, capturing small rodents, bullfrogs and garter snakes.

The author became a Darwin Award candidate by choice during WWI– a volunteer ambulance driver in France and Italy, after which he bummed around Spain, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. At times, he lived in New York. “When I found I was late I jumped a bus. In the twenties you could still sit out in the air on top of the [double-decker] Fifth Avenue buses.”

In Dos Passos’ generation, it was easy to make a living as a novelist and playwright. He debated political philosophies with his friends. It is now known which systems of governments are superior to others. But in the hard sciences, “… you could perform your experiment, report the findings. Other men could repeat your experiment to check the results.” The author felt that “developing a humane civilization” involves half communism and half capitalism. This blogger thinks he was conflating politics with economics. He meant “socialism,” not “communism,” because socialism is an economic system, and communism is a political system. But to create a just society, respect for human rights in both governing and allocating resources, is required.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of the author’s adventures abroad and his experiences hanging around with Ernest Hemingway.

Mama Koko

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen” by Lisa J. Shannon, published in 2015.

This ebook is the product of the author’s interview of two generations of a family from the Congo, starting in the 1970′s (the anecdotes’ time frames are rarely specified). The book documents the fates of many of its members– victims of the ongoing system of violence, perpetrated by a political group called the LRA, which had migrated from Uganda. Shannon starts with biographical information on the matriarch of the family, Mama Koko.

Mama Koko’s elders arranged her marriage for her when she was a baby: “…she was called out of class at the age of twelve. Her classmates and the nuns watched as the young beauty in her Catholic-school uniform arrived in the mission’s courtyard garden to find a strange old man waiting for her, introducing himself as her husband.” She was rebellious and rejected him. She put off a life of servitude for three years in order to finish the fifth grade; after which, the priest finally pressured her, under threat of death, to accept her fate.

The culture in the Congo is to ask “Who is your family?” the same way Americans ask “What do you do?” when meeting people. Their livelihoods were mostly agricultural– growing cotton, coffee, cassava, rice and peanuts. The core family of the story ran a plantation and a shop. The people also practiced polygamy. “Andre and his only brother Alexander were both sons of Game, who had four wives and forty-three children.”

The author suffered an attack of conscience, fantasizing about adopting a deprived child when she personally visited Congo. She saw for herself the life-threatening conditions under which the Congolese lived every day, even in geographic areas of relative calm. “I’d heard the snarky comments back home about white-savior complexes; I understood I was trampling too far into cultural sensitivities.”

Read this depressing ebook to learn the various ways people died (most of the time shot on the spot) at the hands of ruthless child-soldiers who themselves were tortured and drugged to make them kill villagers. One bright spot was that an American Peace Corps volunteer was able to provide a better life for one female in the family. They moved to the United States.


Sunday, February 8th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Mule, My Dangerous Life as a Drug Smuggler Turned DEA Informant” by Chris Heifner, published in 2012.

This suspenseful ebook is a personal account of someone who drove truckfuls of marijuana across state lines for tens of thousands of dollars per trip. In a college class, the author happened to meet a guy who ran a large smuggling operation. In the late 1990′s, this illegal business was booming in Texas, partly because some members of the Mexican army were accomplices. One time, when Heifner drove a load to Mexico, he witnessed the crash of a prop plane. The military rushed over to remove its contraband cargo before attending to the injured pilot.

Drug smuggling is a heartless business in which no one completely trusts anyone. Initially, the fear of getting caught was hard to stomach for the author because the punishment was so harsh, but the lure of the vast quantity of easy money was addictive. Read the book to learn what transpired when he did get caught.

Bonus Post

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

This blogger skimmed the repetitive ebook, “Struck by Genius” by Jason Padgett and Maureen Seaberg, published in 2014.

This ebook tells the story of how Padgett, the victim of a mugging, suffered a traumatic brain injury, and not only lived to tell about it, but also experienced improved cerebral processes (along with some negative side effects) due to it.

Padgett developed the conditions of savantism and synesthesia. The former causes his vision to form geometric patterns in everything he sees; he also acquired a natural, conscious talent for mathematics and physics which he had not previously had. Synesthesia means he sees a specific color when he sees a specific number or letter.

Read the book to learn of the psychological problems that have plagued the author since he was violently struck on the head, and the two with which he still grapples; how he finally became sufficiently functional to learn more about his conditions, and to find and contact other people with the same symptoms.