This blue marble

– and yet it spins


In transit

pajeboatDear Africa, after two months it is time for me to go home. It would have been easy for me to spend another two months getting to know you better, but then I would have much explaining to do for those back home. I have barely seen anything geographically, but experienced vastly greater expanses.

A year ago I went through the apartment following the KonMari method, removing every object that does not spark joy and keeping those that do. Surprisingly many Ikea bags and garbage bags left that relatively minimalist home. For the past two months I have carried my entire home on my back: clothes for 4 seasons, including outdoors, yoga, and beach wear, a yoga mat, books, and much else. Twenty kilos plus a daypack. I really do not need much else either, and yet I have so much more stuff waiting for me at home.

Perhaps life in transit means life without a proper home. But life in transit also means only taking as much as one can carry, and being sure about the essentials and the superfluous things. Being sure about what, physically and emotionally, we want to carry on our backs from point A to point B.

Some years ago the blogosphere was raving about the Burning House challenge: what would you take with you from  your home if your house was burning? You would need to be able to carry it yourself, and take a picture of everything at once. I am going back home to a reverse Burning House challenge: from being able to carry my entire life for two months to further minimalizing my life so the “click-point” of Marie Kondo’s definition for “enough stuff” is much lower than what it used to be.

During this journey of two months I have carried more mental and emotional weight than physical weight. I have not shared much of it here and do not intend to now, either. It has been a difficult journey and in my private journal I have written pages and pages about pain. But in the spirit of a deeper insight, when I dump my backpacks on the floor at home I will let it all go and see what stays. And that which stays will need to be laundered, tended to, thanked, and made ready for the next adventure.

(Dar es Salaam airport, Tanzania; August 2017)

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On voodoo and the reason for illness

lowtideAs our bungalow driver drove me to Stone Town he told me he had just driven his son to see the witch doctor, with pains in his stomach. It happens from time to time, he said, and the doctors at the hospital cannot find anything wrong. The boy has been helped by the witch doctor every time, with potions, magic, and by recognizing that someone wants to hurt the family by causing the boy to be sick.

According to other stories I have heard, too, this witch doctor seems to be famous and receives patients from far away African countries. It is said he can raise people from the dead. Somewhere on Zanzibar there is a forest of the dead. When you go there properly prepared by the witch doctor, taking a potion, you can see a dead friend or relative. Perhaps you have unfinished business, or simply want to wish goodbye. The witch doctor also has the ability to bring the dead person back, completely so she or he can continue life as if it never ended. This of course costs money, some 5 million TSH (approximately 1,700 EUR). The best proof of this medicine is the story of a local man who should be dead many times over, but always returns to his home.

Voodoo is still common on Zanzibar and nearby islands. Pemba is a globally known center of black magic, so famous that practitioners from Haiti do pilgrimages to the little island to learn. My knowledge of voodoo is limited, and so I listened with a growing perception that in voodoo the main reason for ailments is not disease or bad spirits, but that someone, a specific person, wishes to harm the sick person or his or her nearest family. Evil spirits or djinns may occupy a person, but most often an unexplained illness is due to ill-will of a person known to the victim, who sets the evil spirits after the victim. The witch doctor is able to both point out who this person is, as well as cure the illness.

Is this just the viewpoint of a successful, envied businessman? The underlying attitude is alarming to a European. On Bali, disease is seldom caused or wished by one single individual. The Balinese believe everything is a struggle and balance between good and evil, and that diseases are caused by bad spirits. They are typically not the fault of a human being. Here on Zanzibar the view portrayed by the driver is that most unexplained illness stems from people wishing to harm other villagers or relatives they know well.

There is scientific evidence for that illness can be propelled by our own minds: depression causes inflammation in the brain, and many difficult-to-diagnose pains and aches end up as psychosomatic, meaning they are caused by the patient’s mental pain and unwellness. But there is something more alarming to the concept of illness in voodoo. I could not help but follow the trail of my European-conditioned mind: if the reason for illness is inflicted by other people there must be much anger, envy, and hate around. After all, people do get sick from time to time, and every time they do they get to hear of a person who has something against them. Such a contrast, then, to the impression I have of the Swahili people: friendly, caring, people with a strong community feel. Kindness and charity are important aspects of Islam. None of these attitudes fit what I am now hearing: of a society where blame is easily pointed and many personal problems explained by ill-will by a community member.

But then again, I am not an African and am possibly missing about 99% of the cultural context of voodoo. Lovely ones, if anybody of you know better, please educate me!

(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)

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Calm like a crab’s heart

watersedge.jpgSitting in the shade of coral rocks on the beach. A crab is cleaning out its dwelling in the sand, after the receding tide swept its front door shut. My dwelling is a simple bungalow with wood worms eating out my bed from the inside. Nature is (still) everywhere on Zanzibar.

I am trying to tell my mind to not be everywhere and to just be “here”. It is not easy, but yoga is helping. One of the core mantras of ashtanga yoga is “practise, and all is coming”, meaning that even if one is only instructed in asana (poses), the other 7 limbs of the practice will find their way into one’s life, too. This balance of spiritual vs. physical instruction is what I have been searching for in ashtanga practice since I started. I am too impatient, too demanding, too curious. Twice I thought I found it with an instructor, but both times I have been turned away by the ego of the teacher.

A yoga teacher acquaintance once told me that there are many people who seek for a personal guru for a long time, discarding one “candidate” after the other. I think he meant that many (including myself) hope to find a perfect person to follow, when such perfect persons do not exist. In the end, we all have within ourselves the key to the answers. Perfection is not a requirement for knowledge.

Before each practice here on Zanzibar we are asked to set an intention. The one I set myself every day is to calm my heart. I think the crab digging out its beach house has a calmer heart than I have.

(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)

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The backside of Brandberg

damara-1The vast emptiness of Namibia is astounding. We have driven in landscapes where hours went by without us seeing a single human-derived shape. Gas stations are unheard of. Yesterday we were directed to a country lodge for gasoline. They directed us some 3 km down the road, and when we almost gave up hope and turned around, there in the middle of nowhere, was a car body shop and a fuel pump.

We arrived during the one lunch hour when it was closed, of course. So we drove up into the yard and asked two ladies if we could obtain fuel anyway. Yes! and many smiles, and we were directed to the body shop where we found ourselves crashing the car mechanics’ lunch break in the shade. “No problem, I come” one of them said, and ignoring our protests, interrupted his lunch to walk all the way out to the pump to give us fuel.

Had we not thought of asking someone for refueling options hours before, we would probably have emptied out our tank in the middle of the desert.

It is easy to imagine that Namibia, like many African countries, hosted many tribes that were somewhat distinct, with their own languages. The country is in many parts so inhospitable that one could only imagine pockets of space supportive of human habitation. And yet, the people here are all desert people. Somehow they feel comfortable in and environment that withstands up to +50°C heat during the day and +10°C  at night, years without rainfall, and in good years 4 months of intense rain during the hot season.

It is even crazier to think that, as far as science knows, we humans originated from here. Perhaps the climate was milder, then? Or perhaps it was precisely this challenging environment that pushed the ape to adapt and evolve into humans?damara-2(Brandberg, Namibia; July 2017)

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Jellyfish mass stranding

jellyfishIn places the Benguela current is like a thick soup, with swirls of orange or yellow plankton. There are patches with 5 jellyfish per square meter, just as far down as one can see from the boat. And lots of live jellyfish mean lots of dead, stranded jellyfish. Everywhere. Every day. People slip on them on the boardwalk like on banana peels.

Today, the following question harassed my mind: if a blue whale eats 4 tons of krill per day, how many shrimps is that? Our team did some quick calculations and arrived at the following answer: 40 million krill lose their lives every day so that one blue whale can get its belly full. That is more than the population of the Nordics combined. Actually, it is 8 times the population of Finland. All in 2 big feeds, if the whale is lucky.

Krill apparently live up to 10 years of age, with an average lifespan of 6 years. Say that the average age of the krill population swallowed by a whale is 4 years, corrected for any young (unfortunate) krill. That means that during one day, a single blue whale obliterates 160 million life years. That is a whole lot of life experience lost. Even if it is only the life experience of a lowly krill.

(Walvis Bay, Namibia; June 2017)

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Lunch in Stockholm

stadshusetQuick snapshot of the City Hall after a lunch with the Mayor of Stockholm. Although I must confess I did not know she was the Mayor until much later – this due to the confusing title she has in Swedish (I just thought she was a senior council member). And I sat opposite to her. Oops.

Usually I don’t make such a miss because I depend on my excellent governmental affairs colleagues who brief me before every meeting. I am terrible at trying to follow the politics of any of the Nordic countries I work in – including my own. Instead of being thankful that I live in a democracy and actively participating, I try to exclude politics from my life. How very privileged and ungrateful.

(Stockholm, Sweden; April 2017)