Kenya’s Libraries Get The Attention They Deserve

The archives of the McMillan Memorial Library are being digitized. Kenyans are also being invited to bring items such as photographs or letters to create an archive anchored in collective memory. Patrick Meinhardt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Palace is a fine way to think about libraries, and Kenya has a movement to make this metaphor work:

Turning Nairobi’s Public Libraries Into ‘Palaces for the People’

A Kenyan nonprofit is restoring iconic public libraries, leaving behind a segregated past and turning them into inclusive spaces.

A project to preserve libraries such as this one is not a sprint or even a marathon, but a relay, said Lola Shoneyin, a Nigerian novelist. Patrick Meinhardt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In 1931, the first library in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, opened its doors — to white patrons only. Continue reading

Aeon & The Rise Of Maize In Asia

On the outskirts of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in southwestern China, 6 November 2006. Photo by stringer/Reuters

Aeon was a regular source of excellent ideas and information during our first few years, and we are happy to see it again:

Maize is arguably the single most important crop in the world and is rivalled only by soybeans in terms of versatility. That said, it is, along with sugar cane and palm oil, among the most controversial crops, proving particularly so to critics of industrial agriculture. Although maize is usually associated with the Western world, it has played a prominent role in Asia for a long time, and, in recent decades, its importance in Asia has soared. For better or worse, or more likely for better and worse, its role in Asia seems to be following the Western script. Continue reading

The Heart Beat In Greece

Kostas Papastavros and his goats on the top of the Koziakas mountain, part of Pindus range on mainland Greece. Photograph: Vasileios Tsiolis

I appreciate the comment about the heart beat in Katy Fallon’s portrait of a particular form of pastoral life in northern Greece. It comes just as we start dreaming of making an overdue visit back to the country I would most likely choose to live, if not for Costa Rica’s strong pull:

Kostas leading the goats back to the family’s makeshift summer barn on Koziakas mountain

‘My heart beats up here’: Greece’s nomadic herders on life in the hills – a photo essay

For hundreds of years the Vlach herders in Greece and the Balkans have moved livestock to high mountain pastures for the summer months. But their numbers are dwindling as their arduous existence is threatened by soaring costs and a lack of state support

Kostas and Fotini walk with the family’s mare in front of the prehistoric cave of Theopetra village

Every spring in the Thessalian plains of central Greece, in the shadow of the mountains, an ancient and sacred migration of humans and goats takes place. Continue reading

Icelandic Elf-Curious Attitudes

Toni Demuro

In a world that is full of climate denial nonsense, where responsibilities to nature are abandoned by many, what harm could possibly come from Icelanders believing their own peculiar sort of nonsense? We will take any help we can get if it helps us and helps our protection of nature:

In “Looking for the Hidden Folk,” Nancy Marie Brown makes a strong case for everyday wonder.

For 70 summers, children have boated to an island in the Adirondack wilderness to seek out a cluster of tiny wooden houses and leave messages for the fairies who are said to live there. Sometimes the fairies write back — on slips of birch bark, tucked into the crevice of a log for children to find and exult over. The adult go-betweens behind the letters can’t resist feeding the children’s faith that the natural world reciprocates their interest.

Of course, they don’t believe in fairies themselves. In “Looking for the Hidden Folk,” the cultural historian Nancy Marie Brown asks: Why not? “Why should disbelief be our default? Why should we deride our sense of wonder? Why do we allow our world to be disenchanted?” Continue reading

The Invention Of Books

We are happy to have reason to return to our love of books, reading, as well as the history and importance of libraries.

Our thanks to Kathryn Hughes at the Guardian for giving us a look into the most recent work of Irene Vallejo:

Papyrus by Irene Vallejo review – how books built the world

From Alexandria to Oxford, a kaleidoscopic history of the written word

Reading between the lines … Tianjin Binhai Library in China.

What do you give the queen who has everything? When Mark Antony was wondering how to impress Cleopatra in the run-up to the battle of Actium in 31BC, he knew that jewellery would hardly cut it. The queen of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt had recently dissolved a giant pearl in vinegar and then proceeded to drink it, just because she could. In the face of such exhausted materialism, the Roman general knew that he would have to pull out the stops if he was to win over the woman with whom he was madly in love. So he arrived bearing 200,000 scrolls for the great library at Alexandria. Continue reading

Giving A Bread Its Due Honor

President Emmanuel Macron of France described the baguette as “250 grams of magic and perfection in our daily lives.” Eric Gaillard/Reuters

When the baguette was a daily part of our family’s life, we were fortunate to have a personal connection to the best guide, whose photo in the story below is as fitting as the photo above:

Steven Kaplan, perhaps the baguette’s most dedicated historian, says the bread has “little sites of memories” that “testify to a sensuality.” Daniel Janin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A Slice of France, the Baguette Is Granted World Heritage Status

More than six billion baguettes are sold every year in France. But the bread is under threat, with bakeries vanishing in rural areas.

PARIS— It is more French than, perhaps, the Eiffel Tower or the Seine. It is carried home by millions each day under arms or strapped to the back of bicycles. It is the baguette, the bread that has set the pace for life in France for decades and has become an essential part of French identity.

On Wednesday, UNESCO, the United Nations heritage agency, named the baguette something worthy of humanity’s preservation, adding it to its exalted “intangible cultural heritage” list. Continue reading

Understanding & Reviving Games From Other Places, And Times Before

Leaving aside the question of why so many of the world’s most important historical artifacts are in London, rather than where they originated, the curator in the video above is charming. And the man in the photo just below to the right is his counterpart in the place where this particular artifact originated.  My interest in board games is much less well informed, but like Mr. Mofaq I have an interest in their revival, so Deb Amlen’s article in the New York Times is appreciated:

Hoshmand Mofaq, an Iraqi artist, pondered his next move on one of the Royal Game of Ur boards he designed. Mr. Mofaq is part of a group who hope to popularize and return the game to the Iraqi people as part of their cultural heritage. Shwan Mohammed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For 4,600 years, a mysterious game slept in the dust of southern Iraq, largely forgotten. The passion of a museum curator and the hunger of young Iraqis for their cultural history may bring it back.

It is the end of a long, hot day of selling your wares in a market in ancient Mesopotamia, around 2,400 B.C., and you are looking for a way to unwind.

Netflix will not be invented for another four and a half millenniums, but as luck would have it, a pub lies ahead in the distance. A beer and a round of the Middle East’s favorite game is just the thing to pick you up. The thrill of the game is irresistible: It is impossible to predict who will win in this race to get your pieces to the end of the board, even in the last few moves.

One of the boards of the Royal Game of Ur excavated in the 1920s, on display at the British Museum. The British Museum, via Commons.wikimedia.org

You sit down across from your opponent, who offers you the first turn. You pick up the four-sided dice and shake them in your fist. Maybe this time the rumored fortunetelling aspect of the game will bless you with a spate of good luck and prosperity. Continue reading

57+ Countries, All Important, But A Few Favorites

Stelios Trilyrakis, the chef behind Ntounias in Crete, pats one of his heritage cows, a rare Cretan species called Gidomouskara. SteMajourneys

I have a longstanding habit, in an article like this one listing travel experiences including 5. Savor an Unforgettable Lunch at Ntounias in Western Crete, of skimming to find whether the writer(s) have been to anywhere that I know firsthand; if they write something meaningful about a place I know, I read the entire article. These days I have less interest in going to places I do not already know (between 57 and 60 countries where I have had meaningful experiences, ranging from a few days to living there for a year or more).

When I see Crete, I am all in, for reasons I have made plain previously. In this case I want to abandon all responsibilities and get on a plane.

Since that is not possible I am left to desk-travel, which is what I did to learn more about this place. I see now that on the two occasions when I have mentioned Xania I have spelled it two different ways. With the X my spelling was transliterating into English the letter used in the Greek alphabet for spelling that town’s name; otherwise the dipthong of Ch is necessary to produce the sound of the Greek letter that looks like an elongated X. Now that I have excused my spelling discrepancies, and daydreamed of a meal on the island of Crete at a later date, I will get on with my responsibilities.

The Parthenon Marbles, Back Where They Belong

The Parthenon in 1875.

The Parthenon in 1875. Interfoto/Alamy

The Elgin Room of the British Museum in an undated photograph taken during the Victorian era.

The Elgin Room of the British Museum in an undated photograph taken during the Victorian era. Keasbury-Gordon Photograph Archive, via Alamy

The original Parthenon marbles belong back in Athens, in the museum built for them. With all due respect to my British friends, my opinion is informed partly by my mother being from Greece, but mostly by an impartial logic.

That logic is expressed in the article below, which also happens to lay out an interesting sideshow:

Robots at the Marmi di Carra marble workshop in Italy carved a replica of a horse head, the original of which sits in the British Museum in London.

Robots at the Marmi di Carra marble workshop in Italy carved a replica of a horse head, the original of which sits in the British Museum in London.

Few cultural disputes inflame British passions more than the disposition of the Parthenon Marbles. Public debate about the statuary has raged since the early 1800s, when the sculptures and bas-reliefs, which date from 447 B.C. to 432 B.C., were stripped from the Parthenon and other Classical Greek temples on the Acropolis of Athens by agents of Thomas Bruce, a Scottish statesman and seventh earl of Elgin. The marbles were purchased — some say looted — by Elgin during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, the occupying power; they have resided in the British Museum since 1817. Continue reading

More Māori Ancestral Knowledge Coming Your Way

William Anaru, the biosecurity manager of the local tribe, Te Arawa, at Lake Rotomā. Cornell Tukiri for The New York Times

Pete McKenzie shares more from the place where ancient knowhow is respected:

As a weed choked a New Zealand lake, a tribe found a surprising solution in a centuries-old tool, adding to a pitched debate over how Indigenous knowledge can complement conventional science.

LAKE ROTOMA, New Zealand — A riot of native plant life once covered the shallows of Lake Rotomā, one of the many bodies of water that speckle New Zealand’s upper North Island. At night, mottled green crayfish scuttled from the deep to graze beneath the fronds in such plentiful numbers that the local Māori tribe could gather a meal in a few minutes of wading. Continue reading

Library!

The Long Room is at the heart of a $95 million conservation project at Trinity College Dublin’s Old Library. Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

The exclamation point in this post’s title signifies enthusiastic appreciation for a pleasant surprise. A story about libraries to take the mind off all that other news, and point it to lasting treasures. Our thanks to Ed O’Loughlin for the story, Paulo Nunes dos Santos for the photos, and The New York Times for the publication:

An Irish National Treasure Gets Set for a Long-Needed Restoration

The majestic Old Library at Trinity College Dublin, where some of Ireland’s most ancient and valuable books are stored, is a popular tourist attraction.

A librarian walking along the corridors in the upper gallery. Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

DUBLIN — The Long Room, with its imposing oak ceiling and two levels of bookshelves laden with some of Ireland’s most ancient and valuable volumes, is the oldest part of the library in Trinity College Dublin, in constant use since 1732.

But that remarkable record is about to be disrupted, as engineers, architects and conservation experts embark on a 90 million euro, or $95 million, program to restore and upgrade the college’s Old Library building, of which the Long Room is the main part. Continue reading

Three Cheers For Lawrence MacEwen

We missed this documentary film last year, perhaps because it was not reviewed in any of the news outlets we regularly monitor. But if you click the image to the right you can preview the film for a couple minutes. You will see it is about a man who spent his life protecting what he cared about. Since that is the underlying theme of the nearly 12,000 posts we have shared on this platform since 2011, it is cued up for viewing in our home this evening.  The film came to my attention in The Economist, and the accompanying photograph is unique in the history of obituaries in that publication or elsewhere:

The barefoot laird.

Lawrence MacEwen made a tiny island prosper

As soon as spring arrived, the young Lawrence MacEwen shed his shoes. Barefoot, he ran to school down the only road on Muck, a mile and a half of gravel mixed with grass. Barefoot, he jumped among the fallen basalt stones of the dykes built long ago by kelpers, who had made a living gathering seaweed from the rocks. Barefoot he climbed the craggy western cliffs, hanging on to heather for dear life, and scampered to the top of Beinn Airein, the highest hill, to look out past Eigg and Rum to Knoydart and the Cuillin Hills. Barefoot he would stand for hours on the beach below his house, so mesmerised by the rolling tide that he could not stir until his mother called him in for tea. His feet would sink a little into the white sand, embedding him in the place. Continue reading

Unexpectedly Amazing In Kerala

Shaji has a prized collection of more than 200 varieties of tubers. Photograph: Shaji NM

In our Kerala days we visited Wayanad many times, but I would remember if I had met Shaji. We would have sought his advice to expand on the agricultural initiatives at the properties we developed and managed.  Monika Mondal’s story ‘The tuber man of Kerala’ on a quest to champion India’s rare and indigenous crops brings back memories of unassuming neighbors doing unexpectedly amazing things:

Shaji NM has devoted his life to collecting and farming tubers such as yam, cassava and taro, and promoting them across the country

Shaji NM has spent the past two decades travelling across India to collect rare indigenous tubers. Photograph: Shaji NM

Known as “the tuber man of Kerala”, Shaji NM has travelled throughout India over the past two decades, sometimes inspecting bushes in tribal villages, at other times studying the ground of forests closer to home among the green hills of Wayanad in Kerala. His one purpose, and what earned him his title, is to collect rare indigenous varieties of tuber crops.

“People call me crazy, but it’s for the love of tubers that I do what I do,” says Shaji. “I have developed an emotional relationship with the tuber. When we did not have anything to eat, we had tubers.” Continue reading

Stewart Brand In Perspective

Stewart Brand Ted Streshinsky/Getty Images

He has been mentioned in our pages three times before today. Now, on the fourth occasion, it is about Stewart Brand’s Long, Strange Trip:

In 1966, Stewart Brand was an impresario of Bay Area counterculture. As the host of an extravaganza of music and psychedelic simulation called the Trips Festival, he was, according to John Markoff’s “Whole Earth,” “shirtless, with a large Indian pendant around his neck … and wearing a black top hat capped with a prominent feather.” Four decades later, Brand had become a business consultant. Continue reading

Tiles, Heritage & Conservation

Joan Moliner with some of the 1,600 tiles he has found in builders’ skips. Photograph: Stephen Burgen/The Guardian

When we were working on the project that became Xandari Harbour, articles like the one below, or any about architectural preservation, were the type we most enjoyed sharing. It has been too long, so here goes:

A man on a mission to preserve Barcelona’s decorative floor tiles

As 19th-century apartment blocks become luxury flats, Joan Moliner is saving part of the city’s heritage

A tile display with Moliner’s Brompton bicycle. Photograph: Joan Moliner

Each morning, from the moment when Joan Moliner unfolds his bicycle for the ride to work to Barcelona city centre, he is on a mission, one eye on the road, the other on builders’ skips. His quarry, if that’s the word, is cement floor tiles.

All over the city, 19th-century apartment blocks are being made over into luxury flats. In the process, a vital part of Barcelona’s heritage – its decorative tiled floors – is ending up in a dump.

Conservation of the architectural heritage rarely extends beyond listing the facade, despite the wealth of interior detail in buildings erected at a time when Barcelona was a mecca for artists and artisans. Continue reading

Something In The Air For Onetime Mining Communities

The Shoshone Museum documents the town’s scrappy past as a mining community.

When Alex Ross, a music critic, wanders from criticism to commentary or into especially unexpected territory, it is always for good reason. He clearly has a love of desert ecosystems. His most recent publication intersects desert ecosystem with a deserted mining community. It reaches me just after yesterday’s link to a model for improving the prospects of a coal extraction community, so there is something in the air:

The Queen of the Desert

How Susan Sorrells transformed a Death Valley mining village into a model of ecologically conscious tourism.

For mile after mile along California State Route 127, a two-lane desert road, there are no services, no homes.

Next services 57 miles” reads a sign at the southern end of California State Route 127, which goes from the Mojave Desert town of Baker up to the Nevada border, skirting the edge of Death Valley National Park. It’s one of those two-lane desert roads that slices across the landscape like a never-ending airport runway. There’s an extended stretch that consists of a long downward slope followed by an equally long ascent. If you’re driving at night, the headlights of cars coming in the opposite direction float above one another in midair, like planes waiting to land. But cars are infrequent. For mile after mile, there are no services, no homes. Continue reading

Making Things, Giving Things & Keeping Things

A northern fulmar in flight near Boreray, an uninhabited island in the archipelago of St. Kilda. Photograph by Philip Mugridge / Alamy

Last week I read an essay explaining the allusive power that human-made objects can have. It got me thinking about St. Kilda. Reading four years ago about that place and its people spurred my imagination sufficiently that the following year I committed to a challenge. The challenge was created by the speed of change impacting travel culture, and the tendency of travel retail to homogenize over time.

Things you might see in the Authentica shops

Local artisans all over the world were finding their goods displaced in shops oriented to travelers by things made in faraway factories.

Specifically, the commitment was to support local artisans by creating a venue for selling their goods to travelers. Perhaps utopian is a concept too big to apply to this commitment; anyway, maybe the word quixotic is more apt. Authentica offers human-made things for travelers to take home with them, within the context of a travel-retail complex that operates with very different resources and intent.

We understand why the replicas are made, and why people buy them. We refuse to confuse understanding with acquiescence.

The scoop and the bird clip in the image above, two such things I also wrote about two years ago, are examples of local culturally relevant artifacts that we hope will not be outsourced to a factory in another part of the world. The coffee in that image is another example, with a twist. What I like about coffee as a memento is that it is at the intersection of tangible and intangible. It is quintessentially Costa Rican, but once you enjoy the entire bag you no longer possess that thing. As you consume it, it tells you something about Costa Rica. When it is finished you possess a memory of the coffee, and of Costa Rica.

Arctic Heroes

The book is not new, but it is new to us. Ben Taub has brought to our attention this stunning portraiture that, like most great photography, makes you wonder how the artist got the composition just so:

Ragnar Axelsson

The Fading Ways of Indigenous Arctic Hunters

Ragnar Axelsson

Ragnar Axelsson’s portraits from Greenland reveal the effects of climate change on ice floes, sled dogs, and a traditional culture.

During springtime in the far, far north—when the sun breaches the horizon, after months of total darkness—indigenous Greenlandic hunters head out to frozen inlets and get lost in ice and time. By day, the hunters might move miles in one direction, while the ice under their feet floats gently in another. Continue reading

Tamil Nadu, Rice, Identity

In the early days of our posting here south Indian rice was a staple in our meals, and we knew that this now global foodstuff had a long history in other cultures. But it looks like the state neighboring where we lived may have found a clue to how much longer they have had rice in their diet:

An ancient rice bowl complicates the story of civilisation in India

In Tamil Nadu, archaeology is part of a contest over history and identity

Rarely can a spoonful of rice have caused such a stir. When M.K. Stalin, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, addressed the south Indian state’s legislature on September 9th, he celebrated a musty sample of the country’s humble staple. Carbon dating by an American laboratory, he said, had just proved that the rice, found in a small clay offering bowl—itself tucked inside a burial urn outside the village of Sivakalai, near the southernmost tip of India—was some 3,200 years old. This made it the earliest evidence yet found of civilisation in Tamil Nadu. The top duty of his government, the chief minister triumphantly declared, was to establish that the history of India “begins from the landscape of the Tamils”. Continue reading

Yemenis, Coffee & Entrepreneurship

Wisam Alghuzi, left, and Jab Zanta at Diwan, their cafe on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Yemeni coffee entrepreneurs have graced our pages a couple times before.  We do not tire of these stories, wherever they may originate:

Second-generation Yemeni entrepreneurs in Brooklyn want to reclaim their role as the purveyors of the original specialty coffee.

Hakim Sulaimani roasting coffee at Yafa Cafe in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Hakim Sulaimani remembers exactly where he was when he first heard that his homeland, the poorest country in the Middle East, had invented one of the most popular drinks in the world.

He was sitting in the living room (which was also his bedroom) in his family’s apartment in Brooklyn, watching a children’s show on public television. When someone on the show said that coffee came from Yemen, Hakim was stunned. He had never heard anyone outside his community say anything about Yemen before, let alone something that made him proud. “I was super-hyped,” he recently recalled. “Super-giddy.” Continue reading