Monday, 28 December 2009

The Netherlands - Vaarwel

It's time to say vaarwel to the Netherlands.  I'm beginning to realise that learning about a country like the Netherlands is a massive undertaking and, despite all the things I have learned, read about, watched, listened to and tasted, there is still so much more!

I managed to get my hands on one of the Netherlands most famous movies, Turks fruit or Turkish Delight (in English - I know, the first one also looks like English, but it certainly sounds a lot different), directed by the famous Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (he later directed RoboCop and Total Recall) and starring Rutger Hauer (you'll probably remember him best as the evil blond guy in Blade Runner).  It was an incredibly interesting movie, quite shocking in many ways and definitely worth watching for an insight into Dutch culture and humour.  I really enjoyed it, despite the depressing message behind the film. 

I've also been reading De Telegraaf and Algemeen Dagblad using Google translate.  The biggest news stories in the Netherlands this month have been about expenses for senior police officers, the terrible weather, a fatal car crash on one of the dam barriers, the Netherlands first swine flu death, Herbert Raat, leader of the political party VVD, being attacked by three Moroccan girls on a train, a university in the Hague taking down a Christmas tree because it might alienate non-Christian students.

I've also learned that:

- there is a local reformed church in a village in Overijssel that believes the EU is a Catholic conspiracy.

- despite being incredibly successful during his lifetime, Rembrandt was hopeless with money and ended his days in a pauper's grave. 

- the Witte Huis in Rotterdam is Europe's oldest 'skyscraper' at 12 storeys.

- the Dutch had a big part to play in the export of coffee to Europe, they mostly traded with Al Makha in Yemen (hence the term Mocca) and they even stole some of the coffee beans and started their own plantations in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). 

- the Irish word for rabbit, coinin is almost the same as the Dutch word konijn.

- one third of the world's dairy cattle are Holstein-Friesian.

- Scheveningen is the seaside part of the Hague and was often used as a password for the Resistance in World War Two as it is a notoriously difficult word for Germans to pronounce correctly!

- Allochtoon is the Dutch word for its citizens who were born to 'non-native' parents - it comes from the Greek allos+khton meaning 'other land'. 

- a wadloper is someone who hikes in the muddy flatlands of North Friesland.

Last, but not least, I'm going to leave you with one of the most famous songs ever by a Dutch band - Venus by Shocking Blue - surely one of the best songs ever!!  I love the video (from YouTube), it's so sixties!!

Image credits

The image of the cow is by flickruser kevinzim who is from Oxford in England.  Thanks for sharing this with us using the Creative Commons License. 

Rembrandt's self-portrait is copyright free.  The original painting now hangs in Kenwood House in London. 

Sunday, 27 December 2009

The Netherlands - Spinoza - Deus sive Natura

During my learning journey through the Netherlands and Dutch culture, I stumbled upon the Sephardic Jewish philosopher Baruch de Spinoza.  Never having studied philosophy in school or at university, I'm a complete beginner when it comes to the various different philosophers and, with Spinoza, I feel like I've stumbled on an interesting crossroads in European thinking, a bridge between medieval thinking and the birth of the scientific age.

To make my life easier, I ordered a book called Spinoza: A very short introduction by Roger Scruton - part of a wonderful series of introductions published by Oxford University Press.  I definitely would have found it very painful to read one of Spinoza's great works, the Ethics or the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, so it was useful to get an overview of Spinoza's philosophy and from that very short introduction, I'm going to try to write an even shorter overview in this blog :-)

Not knowing the great philosophers, I was a bit out of my depth and reading about Spinoza, I also touched on the Philosophy of Descartes, Grotius, Hobbes and many others.  A lot is made of Spinoza's Sephardic roots and, for those of you who don't know, the Sephardic Jews originated in Spain and Portugal, fleeing after the Reconquista and the introduction of strict Christian laws in Iberia - many of them moved to the more tolerant society of the 17th century Netherlands, forming their own communities in Amsterdam and Utrecht.  Spinoza was born and raised in the Netherlands, but had a cultural understanding of the ancient Jewish texts and also some of the philosophy of Islam. 

Something that really fascinated me was the fact that ideas like the ones Spinoza postulated, had such a violent impact on the society he lived in.  He was cast out of the Jewish community and ex-communicated.  He was reviled and feared as a supposed atheist, even though his philosophy puts the existence of God beyond all human contemplation or questioning.  It's not hard to imagine how ideas could have been so dangerous in the religious powder-keg of 17th century Europe - however, I can't help feeling they would hardly raise an eyebrow in our society and, what's more, few people would bother to read and understand Spinoza's philosophy, nevermind feel threatened by it.  I think ideas can still be very dangerous in our 21st century world, but somehow I feel the philosophy has been lost and the only voices that get heard in the modern world, are those of the prophets or 'prophetic order' that Spinoza opposed. 

I'm not going to go into great detail regarding the things I have learned from reading about Spinoza, suffice to say I took pages and pages of notes as I was reading and, although I don't really agree with Spinoza's philosophy, his ideas have given me some food for thought and helped me conceptualise some of my own philosophy. 

The book starts with Aristotle's philosophy of 'substance' which is the essence of existence and doesn't ultimately change in its nature, although the attributes or 'modes' of the substance can change form and appearance.  For Spinoza the substance is God and this brings him immediately into conflict with his co-religionists and with Christianity.  Spinoza's God is not some separate entity, sitting on a cloud somewhere, listening to our prayers and making judgements.  For Spinoza, God is removed from the human mind and becomes the essence of everything which exists, man, beast or object - for Spinoza God is existence. 

Spinoza's famous words Deus sive Natura, 'God or Nature' sum up his philosophy quite well - ie. God is nature and the substance is God or nature.  No wonder his philosophy was considered to be a heresy!  This reminded me of a book my parents (rather mysteriously) had at home, called the Bhagavad Gita.  I used to love looking at the pictures in this book when I was a child and Spinoza's idea of God being the essence of everything, reminds me of the illustrations in the Bhagavad Gita of Paramatman with flames of God inside all the people and animals (I don't remember them being inside inanimate objects).

Spinoza was also famous for using an 'axiomatic method' or geometrical analysis of his thought, which he was often later derided, as a proof of the craziness of his theories.  Indeed, Spinoza's summation of human existence and his desire for 'clear thinking' (ie. not tainted by emotion or passion) does seem quite mathematical in a way that you know will never be possible where people are involved.  Although a lot of things can be mathematically explained or analysed, I really believe there are things out there that can't be explained - total superstition, I know, but Spinoza's methodical approach to reason and existence seems more of an ideal than a reality. 

I was interested by Spinoza's concepts of 'adequate' and 'inadequate' ideas.  Adequate ideas are those which are essentially true - ie. the existence of God, things which don't need to be proven.  Inadequate ideas are things which are invented by the human mind, all imagination and passion is deemed to be inadequate and that's where I have difficulty with Spinoza, as imagination and passion are things that, rightly or wrongly, rule the lives of many 21st century people. 

For Spinoza, using maths and geometry to describe his philosopy was more adequate than using ideas or human language.  Language was, for Spinoza, the most inadequate way of describing God and existence and, I must admit, I agree with him here.  If you think of the Latin mass and Buddhist chants, religion is not really concerned about whether or not people understand the language they are using during ceremonies, language itself is only a series of sounds that don't really mean much, it's the ritual chanting and mindlessly repeating of phrases (or song) that gives the ceremony it's spiritual aspect.  I think part of the problem of modern religions is that people try to make sense of it all, when really rituals are meaningless. 

I'm not religious, but I would consider myself to be spiritual in the sense that I enjoy a beautiful sunset, or an inspiring piece of music - language is beautiful too, but I agree with Spinoza that the meanings we attach to words can be quite arbitrary and, I guess, words will never adequately describe the feelings of a spiritual experience.  Words are part of the science of man and I really wonder whether or not science and religion can ever been reconciled, they seem to be in such polar opposition. 

Another important concept from Spinoza's philosophy is the idea of conatus - roughly translated, I think this means our 'determination to exist/survive'.  Spinoza believed that all human beings desire existence and we will go to great lengths to ensure our self-preservation.  For Spinoza a truly free man is one who has aspired to self-preservation, including the accumulation of power to reach a state of being where he understands the true nature of existence and is no longer enslaved by inadequate ideas.  Essentially his philosophy is about the triumph of reason over passion. 

Although he liked using geometrical equations to explain his ideas, Spinoza denied the ability to express God in terms of number.  I think this also angered his contemporaries, who were very much into the idea of one God, or a trinity within God etc.  This aspect of Spinoza's philosophy reminds me of Islam and how unneccessary it is to express Allah in terms of a number or an image.  For Spinoza, depicting God in an art form was irrelevant superstition, as was the idea of Christ taking God's mortal form on earth and commonly accepted beliefs such as the value of prayer etc.  One thing I really like about Spinoza is that he genuinely believed in a secular society, yet one which was tolerant of other religious beliefs.  This seems to be a very Dutch thing and I think modern Dutch society reflects this Golden Era of Dutch thinking. 

I guess Spinoza was a bit of an optimist - he believed that when enough men (no mention of women) achieved a higher level of understanding and rid themselves of inadequate ideas then they would form a society that was, almost effortlessly, just and without conflict.  Maybe in an ideal world . . . for Spinoza achieving true intellectual freedom from inadequte ideas is the highest ideal, whereas he believed, far too many people welcome intellectual slavery as the end of fear and conflict.  I think Spinoza's ideas could still be dangerous if interpreted by political extremists in a prophetic way.  There is SO much more to Spinoza's philosophy than I can do justice to in this short blog, but I'll leave you with a quote from his Political Treatise

'If slavery, barbarism and desolation are to be called peace, peace is the greatest misfortune that men can suffer'

Image credits

The Dutch flag and the image of Spinoza are both from Wikimedia Commons and are copyright free.

The image of the sunrise is my own photograph from my walk on the Camino de Santiago, like all the walks I do, a very spiritual experience.  This photo was taken at about 7.30 on a chilly October morning in the Rioja.

The image of Adriaen van Ostade's Peasants in a Tavern is also copyright free and I think it sums up the opposite of Spinoza's philosophy, which is the triumph of passion over reason - I think we can all relate to that after a few too many on a Friday night on the town :-)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The Netherlands - Limburg Beef Stew with Apples

As I was learning about Limburg, I came across a really interesting website called   It's available in English and Dutch, which makes me think it must be hosted by someone in the Netherlands.  Anyway, as I spent last weekend with my sister, chilling out in Leeds, I decided to cook a traditional Limburg Beef Stew with Apples.  The full recipe can be found at

To be honest, it's dead easy to make, so the recipe is only really needed as a rough guide.  Something I've meant to do in the past is photo-document the entire process, so I've done this here, as a kind of experiment.

First, the ingredients.  Some beef casserole pieces, 2 or 3 onions, some nice (in my case, Irish) butter, 3 green apples, 5 cloves, 3 or 4 bay leaves and two tablespoons of sugar and of vinegar. 
For my mash, I prepared potatoes and parsnips - the parsnips weren't part of the original recipe, but I like to mash them with potato, as they give it a slightly sweeter taste.  I also added a spoonful of butter and a splash of milk to my mash to make it softer. 

The next step was to fry the meat in butter until it browned, then adding the chopped onions until they softened.  This took about 15 minutes in all.  After that I added the cloves, bay leaves, sugar and vinegar - stirring them into the mixture.  I topped this with two cups of water (I decided not to use any stock, as this wasn't in the original recipe and I think this was a good idea). 

I brought the stew to the boil and then covered and simmered it for one hour.  The original recipe says simmer the stew for two hours and then another hour with the apples in - but I decided this was too much and it still turned out really yummy.

After stewing for one hour, I prepared the apples, mixing them into the stew.  I thought the pieces (which you can see in the photo) were way too big, so I took them out again and halved them, although I'm not sure it made much difference in the end, as the apple stewed so well, it formed a kind of sauce with the liquid and spices.  I stewed the mixture with the apples for a further 45 minutes.

Whilst the apples were stewing, I boiled the potatoes and parsnips and prepared the mash, then served it all up and, although it doesn't look like much, after nearly two hours work - it sure tasted delicious!  One thing I might add next time, to see whether or not it works, is a sprinkle of cinnamon on the cooked meal, might be quite nice and I think apple and cinnamon go well together.

Image credits

The Liimburgish flag is copyright free and the photos of the Beef Stew with Apples were all taken by me. 

Sunday, 20 December 2009

The Netherlands - Limburg

When I was learning about Mongolia, I learned about Mongolia's most
western province, Bayan-Olgii - geographically remote from the rest of
the country and also culturally different because of its majority
Kazakh population.

Coming from Donegal, which is Ireland's remotest county, overlooked by most tourists, but with a stunningly beautiful landscape and a culture
that is not really southern or northern but just - unique - it's occured to me that every country must have its Bayan-Olgii, ie. a province or region that is slightly different than the rest of thecountry.

These borderlands or remote areas can often be the last refuge of criminal gangs and those who are opposed to the centralised power. I'm thinking of places like Battambang in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge are still hanging out in the forests on the Thai border, far away from the authority of Phnom Penh.

I guess the Bayan-Olgii of the Netherlands would be Limburg. Only nominally Dutch, Limburg has a distinct culture, its own language -Limburgish - a different landscape with hills being the norm, a predominantly Catholic population and close ties to the 'other' Limburg, which lies to the west, in Belgium.

It almost seems like an accident of history that a Dutch Limburg exists. All of the Netherlands became a United Kingdom in the early 19th century (including the modern-day Netherlands, Belgium and
Luxembourg). When the Catholic south decided to break away from this United Kingdom, the eastern part of Limburg, centred around Maastricht, decided to remain part of the Netherlands. This was formalised in the Treaty of London (1839).

Modern-day Limburg is a bit of a mystery to me. On one hand there is the jewel in the Dutch crown, Maastricht - a city I've always associated with the treaty that gave birth to the Euro - by all accounts one of the most amazing places to visit in the Netherlands.

On the other hand there is Roermond, near the German border, with its bad reputation for drugs and crime. It surely must be the unluckiest place in the Netherlands - the history of Roermond includes such tragic events as the Netherlands greatest witch trial in 1613 with 64 presumed witches being burnt to death. It's kind of unfathomable from a modern-day perspective and the superstitious part of me can't help wondering what sort of bad feeling or 'karma' an event like that would leave behind.

Limburg suffered quite a bit during the Second World War, being caught between the Allied Belgium and Nazi-controlled Netherlands. The province has several war cemeteries, especially related to the disastrous Arnhem campaign of 1944, in which an estimated 17,000 British troops were killed.

Roermond was also the scene of a fatal IRA shooting in 1990. Being so close to the British army bases in neighbouring Germany, this part of the Netherlands was a place that off-duty soldiers would come to relax. In this case, the 'off-duty soldiers' turned out to be Australian tourists who happened to be driving a UK-registered vehicle. Tragically two of them died as a result of their injuries.

On the 13 April 1992, the biggest earthquake since the 18th century recorded in Central Europe, at 5.8 on the Richter scale, hit Roermond, not to mention the frequent flooding from the Meuse and Roer rivers!

Traditionally quite a poor region, Limburg's erstwhile poverty is reflected in the local cuisine, with every part of the animal being used and ingredients such as blood sausage being very popular. I found a great website with traditional Limburger dishes at

Finally, I don't know if it works in Limburg's favour or not, but you might remember the country classic 'Mississippi' from the '70's  It's by a band called 'Pussycat', made up of three former Maastricht telephonist sisters and various young, mustachioed men!  They were phenomenally successful at the time, sold millions of copies and toured the world in the late 70's. Enjoy!!

Image credits

The Limburgish flag is from Wikipedia and is copyright free.

The lovely image of Maastrict is from Flickruser  M J M an image scientist, dreamer and father from Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Thanks M J Mfor sharing this image with us using the Creative Commons License.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The Netherlands - Een Hart van Steen - A Gothic tale from Haarlem

I was a bit too excited about the prospect of reading a novel by a well-known Dutch writer and my preliminary research brought me to a recent novel called Een Hart van Steen, or A Heart of Stone, by well-known writer Renate Dorrestein, although this is her first novel to be translated into English.

I feel that we lose out so much by not reading other countries' writers and, it's not that we don't read foreign writers in the English speaking world, but the ones we do read are predictable and, most likely, being read by every second person on the daily commute to work. I wanted to read something that I wouldn't have otherwise read. Entering Dorrestein's world was certainly an eye-opener.

I studied literature and linguistics at university and I have mixed feelings about novels. Spending four years dissecting and analysing text, it almost takes the pleasure away from reading and most of my post-college years, I've felt more comfortable reading history books or books on politics or culture.

A Heart of Stone was a harrowing world to enter. The topics dealt with in the novel were quite dark and disturbing and, if I can come to any conclusions about the cultural difference of this novel, then I would say that the topics Dorrestein deals with, especially the torture of a small child, are things which are fairly taboo in my society and not something I would expect to read about in an English novel.

Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice to say the descriptions in the novel made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and the eerie whining of the sand dunes and cold, wet nights in Haarlem evoked a landscape of pure fear and a darkness I wouldn't otherwise have associated with the Netherlands.

The story was incredibly powerful and I really empathised with the main character, Ellen, and the short straw she'd drawn on life.

The narrative was set back in the 70's and Dorrestein raises some important questions about post-natal depression and how this wasn't properly understood back then. She also raised issues of societal responsibility. When Ellen tells her favourite teacher about the abuse at home, she's told to be more discreet and not to be washing her family's dirty laundry in public. Ellen quite humorously puts this down to the fact that her teacher's subject is 'Ancient Greece', therefore any modern tragedy would seem trivial compared to the endless wars and family vendettas of Greek history.

There has been a lot of controversy in England this year about Baby P and the Haringey Council. Abuse is so often overlooked or trivialised. I guess there is an expectation from the general public that the authorities will somehow unfailingly uncover abuse in families. The reality however is a lot more complicated and although it might be something of a cliche, you really don't know what's going on behind closed doors.

Ellen finds a kind of peace at the end of the novel. The psychological journey she has to go on to get there is as intense as the gloom of her parent's home, the Bureau van Bemmel. Truly a modern Gothic tale, I found it to be very well-written and morbidly engaging.

Image credits

The fascinating image of the heart made up of stones on a beach is by flickruser Coletree - he is from China, loves Hong Kong and wants to travel to Iceland.  Coletree you need to check out my blogpost about Iceland :)  Thanks for sharing this photo with us using the Creative Commons license.

Monday, 14 December 2009

The Netherlands - Stamppot, Mata Hari and the Elfstedentocht

I've just been reading about a fascinating tradition up in Friesland, or Fryslan, to give it its proper name in the Frisian language. It's called Elfstedentocht which means 'Eleven Cities Tour' (nothing to do with elves, helaas!).

It starts in Leeuwarden and involves skating along canals and across lakes, through 11 Frisian towns, a total of almost 200km. With almost 15,000 people taking part, it sounds more than a little bit dangerous and requires a minimum ice thickness of 15 centimetres along the entirety of the course.

Not surprisingly, it rarely freezes that much in Fryslan these days, what with global warming and the rest of it and, in fact, the last time the canals, rivers and lakes froze to a satisfactory degree was in 1997. (It happened twice in the eighties, once in the sixties.) 

That's what interests me most about this tradition. In the years that it does happen, the excitement surrounding the race must be phenomenal.

The Frisians have a distinct culture to the rest of the Netherlands and I've been very aware of their language since my college days studying comparative linguistics - they say Frisian is the closest living language to English (well, I guess they mean Old English).

Leeuwarden is the capital of Fryslan and also the birthplace of Mata Hari, the young, glamorous dancer who had lovers on both sides of the military divide in World War One and ended up being executed by the French for being a spy.

Call me a big softie, but I can't help feeling sorry for Mata Hari. It sounds like her marriage was an unhappy one and, whatever your moral position on her behaviour, she certainly made an impact on the world.

As part of my learning experience, I undertook to make the Dutch favourite Stamppot. This was a relatively easy one to make, as it merely involved boiling potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, carrots, savoy cabbage, leek, onion, turnip and parsnip, then mashing them all together and topping it with smoked sausage (you should use rookworst, but I used chorizo as an easier-to-find option). I've never cooked butternut squash before (although I'd often looked at it in the supermarket and thought Yum!) and I didn't know how to prepare it.

Luckily, I found a YouTube video with instructions on how to do this and I imagine it'll become a regular addition to my diet.

I found the recipe at

Image credits

The image of Mata Hari is from a postcard and is in the public domain, as its copyright has expired.

The beautiful image of the person skating on a lake in front of a windmill is from flickruser Lukas Vermeer - I love photographs that can tell a whole story and this one really encapsulates the mood of a lone skater in mid-winter.  Check out Lukas' photostream for more of his amazing images

The image of my Stamppot was taken by me.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

The Netherlands - Voetbal, Vermeer and Trockener Kecks

Since I started learning about the Netherlands, there has been a lot in the news, blogo- and twittispheres about next year's World Cup in South Africa.

I must admit, I'm not a big fan of football or voetbal, as the Dutch call it. However, the Netherlands is the first country on my learning journey, where football has come to the forefront and I feel the need to give it due respect.

One of the most famous footballers and, later, managers to come from the Netherlands is Guus Hiddink. I'd never heard of him before this, but the more I read about him, the more I find his story fascinating and he certainly seems to have had many ups and downs in his career.

He played for De Graafschap (a team from Hiddink's home province, Gelderland - nicknamed the Superboeren or 'Super Farmers')  for many years before moving, like a lot of 70's players, to the US and then returning to De Graafschap for the last two years of his career as a player. He then went on to manage a lot of national teams, including the Dutch national team, in the 90's, but I'm guessing his legacy will be getting the South Korean national team to the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup in 2002, hosted by South Korea and Japan.

He's become somewhat of a national hero in South Korea and is the first foreigner ever to be given honorary South Korean citizenship, not to mention a lifetime of free flights with Korean Air and a holiday villa on the popular South Korean holiday destination, Jeju-Do (Jeju Island). 

After South Korea, he went on to manage the Australian national team and was very popular there, being nicknamed 'Aussie Guus'. He currently manages Russia but, as the Russian team were knocked out of the World Cup qualifiers by (rather embarrassingly) tiny Slovenia, I imagine he's in for another career change sometime soon.

Something I like about Guus is the fact that he put his foot down on racist banners in the stadium, when he was managing Spanish team Valencia. He's from a little village called Varsseveld, which is in the province of Gelderland, on the border with Germany. You can visit the Guus Hiddink museum there, if you're in the neighbourhood.

Apart from voetbal, I've also been reminding myself about some of the great painters that came from the Netherlands. Probably my favourite is Vermeer, who spent his life in Delft and seemed to capture the eeriness of the Dutch interior, the stale, damp light of a life spent indoors, as evidenced by some of his most famous paintings including The Milk Maid and Girl with the Pearl Earring. I've read the book, of course, and seen the movie, starring Scarlett Johansson.

I've been listening to lots of Dutch music over the past few weeks and I'm posting a link on YouTube to one of the songs that I really like, Ik denk nooit meer an Jou (I don't think about you any more) by a band called Trockener Kecks.  I really love this song, by saying I don't think about you anymore, he's kind of admitting that he does think about her/him all the time. I'm not sure whether the repeated refrain 'noit meer, noit meer, noit meer' sounds in Dutch like the word 'nightmare', as it does in English?  The nightmare of losing someone you really love - poignant.

It's also a beautiful montage of photos of Scarlett Johansson, which I thought was quite apt. Happy listening!

Image credits

The image of Guus Hiddink was provided copyright free by (not surprisingly, a Korean website) through their flickr profile. 

The image of Vermeer's The Milkmaid is in the public domain and is taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Netherlands - Is Santa racist?

Today is St Nicholas' Day - not widely celebrated in Ireland and the UK (or even known about), but a big holiday for a lot of our European neighbours.  As it's St Nicholas Day and Christmas is almost upon us, I want to share my thoughts about Santa's Dutch origins and the controversy over Santa's helper Zwarte Piet and whether or not this tradition is racist.

I stumbled upon all of this, as I've been keeping an eye on the Dutch newspapers and picked up on an interesting headline in the Algemeen Dagblad about how the Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander has just been awarded the Zwarte Piet (or black Peter) award for spending his holidays this year in Mozambique, and not in a former Dutch colony, as tradition might dictate.  Have I been reading the newspapers in Dutch?  Well, kind of . . . . I paste the text into Google Translate, but the English version is sometimes so garbled, I find myself reading the Dutch and comparing the words by direction translation.  I must admit, the whole nature of this scandal is completely beyond my understanding - I'm sure it means something to Dutch people?

Anyway, I started researching the whole Sinterklaas (St Nicholas' Eve) tradition, about gift giving and honouring St Nicholas of Myrna (modern-day Turkey) who is the patron saint of both children and sailors (an important one for a sea-faring nation).  The whole thing is absolutely fascinating and St Nicholas was famous for saving the lives of 3 Moors (North Africans) who were sentenced to death and also 3 young girls, whose father was too poor to pay for their dowry (hence, they would have to be sold as prostitutes) - the main point being that he gave things to the innocent and protected them from harm.  I hadn't realised that our Santa Claus, was a corruption of the Dutch Sinterklaas - I guess, in our tradition, Santa is from Lapland and there is no real connection with the Netherlands.  By the way, in the Dutch tradition, bad children are put in a big bag and taken back to Santa's home, which is in . . . Spain!!  C'mon guys, is that really a punishment?

The modern-day Santa Claus carries a book with the names of all the children who've been 'naughty or nice' and leaves sweets and presents around a shoe (in the Dutch tradition, a stocking in ours) that is left out for that reason.  In the Netherlands, sometime around the colonial period, Santa's helper, Zwarte Piet, appeared (or perhaps re-appeared?) on the scene.  Whether from the myth of the Moorish slaves that St Nicholas saved or, less offensively, because Zwarte Piet spends a lot of time climbing down chimneys, he most definitely has a black face - some say that he is a devil, who has been enslaved to help Santa distribute the presents (and punishments) to Dutch children, with all the echoes back to Odin and the Norse mythology, that Zwarte Piet could also represent.  There is also an interesting theory that Zwarte Piet is Spanish and his enslavement was a parody harking back to the days when the Netherlands was ruled by Spain - I guess a way of poking fun at their Spanish masters.  Also explains why sending children to Spain would have been considered a punishment, as that would have meant being sold into slavery.

Not surprisingly, with the Netherlands record of tolerance and history of colonisation, Zwarte Piet has become somewhat of a controversial figure in recent years.  As he is, effectively, Santa's slave, this depiction of racial slavery is quite upsetting to a lot of people.  Traditionalists would probably say it's a whole hoo-ha over nothing, as a foreigner I can only begin to wonder what it's all about. 

Whatever people think about Zwarte Piet, Christmas and Christmas traditions seem to be incredibly resilient to change.  Disapproving Calvinists sought to replace the traditional belief in Sinterklaas with more appropriate (read Christian) traditions, such as prayer and celebrating the birth of Christ.  I think most people realise these days that the whole Christmas tradition has a lot of suspiciously pagan rituals attached (Santa Claus, decorating and idolising trees, getting incredibly drunk!).  It's a centuries old festival, that was later appropriated by the Church in a, partly successful, effort to christianise it. 

I say, let's just enjoy it - it should be a season of goodwill to all, regardless of race or religious belief. 

Image credits:

The flag is from Wikimedia Commons and is copyright free. 

The image of Zwarte Piet is from flickr user Oscar Diele, who is an online entrepreneur from Amsterdam. Thanks to Oscar for sharing this image with us through the Creative Commons License. 

Saturday, 5 December 2009

The Netherlands - Dykes and Tulips

I've moved back to Europe this month with the Netherlands and the first thing I've discovered is that there are two Netherlands, the Netherlands (sometimes called Holland) which is the country in Europe, and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which includes the country in Europe and overseas territories in the Carribean, namely Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles.

Everyone knows that Holland only refers to part of the country, the bits around Amsterdam. What I didn't realise was that New Zealand is called after the small province to the south of Holland, called Zeeland. Australia was first called New Holland, a name which didn't stick and puts the naming if New Zealand somehow out of context.

The Netherlands, like other Western European countries, had a long history of colonisation in various parts if the world. In fact, the Dutch seem to have 'got there first' in many places that were later colonised by the British - New York, Australia, South Africa.

Two of the most important Dutch colonies, of course, are present-day Indonesia and Surinam, on opposite sides of the world from each other. Surprisingly, when Japan closed itself off from the aggressive colonisation of Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries, only the Dutch were allowed to keep a trading post there, at Deshima.

I've decided not to go with the Kingdom of the Netherlands for this part of my learning journey, but to concentrate on the European Netherlands - a country which I, like a lot of Irish and British people, have visited (= Amsterdam) and which I (like a lot of people?) know very little about, I mean the rest of the country, outside Amsterdam.

Of course there are lots of cliches about the Netherlands, two of them you can see in the title of this blog.  Although it takes a lot more than cliches to get to know a country, they do provide a starting point and, I guess, they exist for a reason.

The national motto of the Netherlands is Je maintiendrai (like the British motto, it's in French, sounds more formal in French, I suppose) or I will endure. My first question inevitably is ... endure what? The most obvious answer is 'the sea'. From what I can tell, the Dutch mentality is shaped by the country's relationship with the sea. I'm reminded a little bit of Kiribati and I can't help wondering what effect the rising sea levels will have on the Netherlands, Holland in particular. The Dutch seem like a very determined people, despite being a small nation, they have managed to survive the pressures coming from their two most important neighbours, ie. the sea on one side and Germany on the other.

The Dutch also have a reputation for 'dourness' and being tight with money, characteristics ascribed to the influence of Calvinism on the Dutch mentality, but not something I can associate with the Dutch people I know. Religion played a big part in the formation of the Kingdom, but it's never been a big issue and the Netherlands' cliched liberalism, spans centuries of religious tolerance and the rights of the individual. A cliche that isn't true is the idea that Dutch people generally have loose morals.  I can understand this misperception, having lived in Thailand.  Our perception of Thai people is that they are very easy-going when it comes to sexual matters and adept at manipulating ping-pong balls etc., when the reality is almost the complete opposite and Thai people (like Dutch?) are incredibly conservative and reserved, in the private sphere. 

I wasn't surprised to find out that 40% of Dutch people consider themselves to be non-religious, however I was surprised to find out that there are more Catholics than Protestants in the Netherlands, at least on paper, as I've always thought of it as a very Protestant country.

In total contrast then to this sober outlook on life - the supposed stinginess of Amsterdam merchants who built narrow houses with tiny windows, so they wouldn't have to pay too much tax, the sea threatening to overwhelm the country at any time, the pragmatic, direct (sometimes perceived as rude) way the Dutch deal with things - is the national obsession with tulips.

The world's first botanical garden was at Leiden and the birth of the Dutch nation and the growing self-confidence, as the Netherlands took it's rightful place in the world, was thrown into complete disorder in a confusing array of colours that became the 'tulip mania'. The most expensive tulip, the Augustus Semper, was reputed to have been worth 10 years wages to a labourer. Not surprising then that there was a tulip mania in the 17th century, fortunes were made and lost, livelihoods built up and ruined, as a nation famous for its self- restraint went crazy over these, admittedly beautiful, flowers.

Although not worth as much today as they were in the past, tulips are very much part of the mythology of the Netherlands. The Netherlands is still the world's biggest exporter of tulip bulbs.  A national cliche, perhaps, but very much a fact.

Image credits

The flag is from Wikimedia Commons and is without copyright.

The beautiful image of tulips is the featured image on wikipedia's site and was taken by John O'Neill who is a high school teacher from Victoria, Australia (New Holland!) - John has been contributing a lot to wikipedia and you can see more information at his wikipedia user page

Thanks, John, for sharing this wonderful image with us.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Mongolia - Bayartai

And so my learning about Mongolia comes to an end!  I've cooked the food, listened to the music, read a book, various blogs, tweets, newspaper reports - even listened to Mongolian radio streamed live through the Internet. 

I really enjoyed reading Louisa Waugh's account of life in Bayan-Olgii aimag Hearing Birds Fly - she really got stuck in to life in the village and I enjoyed learning about Western Mongolia through her experiences and wisdom.  One of the things that really struck me about her book was that sense of 'being removed' from the lives of those around you.  It doesn't matter how long you spend in a place, you will always be an outsider and that's something most people find it hard to come to terms with.

She also talks about how her language changed after a few months in the village - her language became one of survival - wood, ice, meat, flour - and when her Tuvan colleague suggests going to a disco, she is suddenly taken aback by her forgotten words/thoughts of pleasure - dancing, wine, sex. 

She talks about the importance of rain, and yet again I'm reminded of Lesotho's motto and the attitudes we have in the UK and Ireland to rainy days.  For the villagers in Western Mongolia, waiting for rain to come after a long hard winter, means waiting for life to spring forth, for the valley to turn green and the land to rouse from its weary hibernation.  It's something we take for granted in our Emerald Isles!  I remember my students in Uzbekistan dreamed about going to England, of day after day of rain which, coming from a desert, is hardly surprising.  My Thai students used to dream of snow - they would talk about cold countries like Russia and Finland with nothing less than wonder in their voice.  Yet we do everything we can for a bit of sun, to escape the dark skies and the oppressive wet Sunday afternoons. 

The rhythm of life in Western Mongolia seemed directly at odds with life in Europe.  Whereas we look forward to the summer months as a chance for a holiday, to get away somewhere with the family, in Mongolia the summer means work.  It means fattening up the animals and long days of preparing food to be consumed throughout the long winter.  Everything boils down to the winter preparations, just like in Russia, it's literally a matter of life or death. 

As well as reading Louisa's book, I did a lot of reading on the Internet.  I learned about the Hun Chollai (Stone people) of the Uyghurs, that the soldiers who escorted Chinghis Khan's dead body back from China murdered every living soul they met on the way home (it must have been a very silent calvacade).  I learned about the Mongolian wind horse, something similar to the Greek myths of Pegasus.  I learned about the murder of Zorig in October 1998 and the profound effect that has had on post-communist Mongolian politics.  I learned that the Mongolian currency, the Togrog, is printed at the Royal Mint in South Wales!  I learned all of this and much, much more.

I've been a big fan of Mongolian music for quite a while now and would really recommend Egschiglen's album Sounds of Mongolia, I'm listening to it now, as I write this blog.  I really hope you can watch the YouTube video I've embedded in this blog.  It's my favourite song, Eruu Cagaan Bolimor which means 'White breasted sparrow'.

Bayartai Mongolia - I hope to visit for real someday!

Image credits

The Mongolian flag is from

The book cover is taken from and the Egschiglen video is courtesy of YouTube. 

Monday, 23 November 2009

Mongolia - Tsuivan

If it's Mongolia, it's got to be mutton! I think my partner, Zhenya, was quite relieved this time round. After the panic-inducing hot spices of Lesothan Chakalaka and the . . . well, corned beef of Kiribati, he was quite into the idea of mutton and tells me that Tsuivan is very similar to a Kalmyk dish.

Tsuivan is a kind of mutton stew with thick flour noodles. As a sort of challenge, I decided to make the noodles myself from scratch, much easier than it sounds actually, as it's like frying chapati or pancake and then slicing it into long rectangular shapes. If you're interested in finding out how to do this, I found a really good website called

Once my noodles were made, I fried an onion, a carrot, a courgette and two garlic cloves. Then I added the mutton, browning it, before pouring in enough stock to fill the pot three quarters of the way up. I added some white cabbage on top and let it boil for about 15 minutes.

Once the vegetables had boiled and shrunk a bit, I added the noodles on top, then covered it for another 15 minutes reducing the heat. It's important not to uncover the pot at this stage, because the steam inside is used to cook the noodles, so they don't stick together in one big soggy lump :-)

I served it with fresh scallions (spring onions), see photo!

I wouldn't say mutton is my favourite meat, at least, I wouldn't like to eat it everyday. Like a lot of my learning about Mongolia, I was reminded of Central Asia. The taste of mutton brought me right back to Samarkand and all the traditional Uzbek plov I ate during my two years there.

Image credits

The Mongolian flag is from

Both photos were taken by me :-)

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Mongolia - Education and Ethnicity in Western Mongolia

As part of my learning about Mongolia I'm reading Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia by Louisa Waugh.

Being a bit clueless about Mongolia when I ordered this book, I was surprised to find that Louisa's year was spent in the majority Kazakh village of Tsengel in Mongolia's most westerly province, Bayan-Olgii. Still, I'm learning about Mongolia, not just the Mongol people, and I sometimes think you can learn a lot more about a country through the eyes of it's minority populations.

Louisa spent two years teaching in Ulaan Baatar before moving to Tsengel and she suddenly finds herself, fluent in Mongolian, but totally lost when it came to Tsengel's two main languages, Kazakh and Tuvan. She can still use Mongolian to communicate, of course, but people will ultimately want to go back to their native tongue, especially at family gatherings and social occasions.

She is befriended by a Tuvan family and unwittingly is deemed to align herself with the Tuvans/Mongolians in the village rather than the Kazakh majority. I'm at the part where she's starting the new school year in September and has moved in with a Kazakh family, so as not to be seen to be taking sides, but also to learn something about Kazakh culture.

Interestingly at the school where she teaches, students are segregated into language groups. Kazakh and Mongolian. The Mongolian group includes the Tuvan students, who are culturally and linguistically related. I guess there are practical reasons for this but, thinking of a context like the one in Northern Ireland, I can't help thinking that segregated education is a key factor in institutionalising cultural differences, rather than inspiring students with a sense of common citizenship (regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds). In the case of Western Mongolia, it also reminds me of Soviet models of education and the way education was segregated in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where I taught for two years.

Most people in Samarkand speak Tajik as their first language, with the national language, Uzbek, being spoken by a minority as their mother tongue. It's hard to quantify this, as most people speak both languages and are bilingual and often trilingual (Russian being a common denominator).

I learnt Russian, as a more accessible language, but I also picked up some Tajik (from friends) and Uzbek (from the telly), both of which I've since forgotten. The schools and university in Samarkand were also segregated into Uzbek groups and Russian groups, with most Tajiks studying in the Russian group. It always amazed me that there was no Tajik group, despite the fact that this is the majority culture of the city, but I guess there's an ongoing denial of Samarkand's status as a Tajik city, which owes its legacy to the stalinisation of Central Asia. If you want to study in a Tajik group, then you need to go to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.

The tension Louisa feels in the village, between the Kazakh majority and the Tuvan minority reminds me of the tensions that simmer in a lot of countries, I'm thinking of the Serbs and Croats, Northern Ireland, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Western China). They can simmer for a long time, occasionally coming to the boil when political interests stoke up resentment or feelings of discrimination finally bubble over.

Image credits:
The Mongolian flag is from
I love the photo of the Mongolian signpost which was taken by flickruser Steve Burt who is from Portland, USA. Thanks Steve for sharing this image with us using the Creative Commons License!

The Mongolian script is from Wikimedia Commons and therefore copyright free. It means Mongol Khel, literally Mongol person.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Mongolia - Cynophobia and Ger-tiquette

Apart from being landlocked countries, I was trying to find something else that Mongolia and Lesotho have in common and I came up with this:

they have similar levels of population.

Hard to imagine this would be the case with Lesotho being the size of Belgium (or a little bit bigger than Massachusetts, for our friends in the US), whereas Mongolia is the 19th biggest country in the world, right after Iran. It's also the least densely populated independent state in the world, with only 1% of Mongolia's territory being classified as urban.

I can't even begin to comprehend a 'space' like that. It must influence everything about Mongolia, from their love of horses, the bird dancing rituals before wrestling, the timelessness of a landscape barely altered by man.

If claustrophobia is a fear of enclosed spaces, then what is a fear of open spaces called? I've looked on the Internet, but no one seems to know the answer to this. Officially it should be 'agoraphobia' which is the fear of crowds (or markets), but can also imply the fear of an empty market, of being alone in a landscape.

By all accounts Chingis Khan had an irrational fear of dogs. Dogs seem to be all-present in Mongolian society. A common greeting is Nokhoi Khor, which is the polite thing to say on entering a ger (traditional Mongolian home, like a big tent made of poles and wrapped in felt). It literally translates as 'hold the dog'.

Being Irish, children and dogs are brought up (or is that dragged up?) together and, until I went to Uzbekistan, I'd always felt comfortable around dogs. Arriving in Samarkand, the floppy, affectionate puppies of my youth were suddenly replaced by the earless, snarling guard dogs (they chop off their ears, so that every sound will be irritating, which makes them incredibly nasty and fierce.) It certainly reminded me of their primary function and put their essential relationship with man into perspective, in a way I'd never really thought of before.

To learn more about Mongolia, I ordered a cheap second-hand copy of Lonely Planet, dating back to 2001, coincidentally the year I went to Samarkand and, much as I've learned a lot from Lonely Planet over the years, some of the advice made me giggle.

Although it's probably quite practical, the phrases they recommend learning, for when you're hiking in the Mongolian wilderness and finally stumble across civilsation are 'Where am I?' and 'Is that dog dangerous?'. I can't help thinking that if that dog were dangerous, I wouldn't get the chance to ask my question in the first place!

Okay, so I'm being a smart-alec but, to be honest, I think I would have found Lonely Planet's guide to does and don'ts, in a ger, terrifying. I loved the advice to leave your weapons outside. Who goes to Mongolia with weapons, honestly? I could just picture myself, the clumsy foreigner, walking the wrong way round the ger to avoid the dog, stumbling over ropes and people older than me, banging into poles and frantically shaking hands with everyone! Disaster!

I remember taking this kind of advice all too seriously when I went to Uzbekistan, being afraid to blow my nose in public, never knowing where to sit when invited to someone's house. I think people understand that you're a foreigner and can be very forgiving. That doesn't mean you don't make an effort to do the right thing, of course, but trying to remember lists of do's and don'ts can take away from the experience. The important thing is to interact with people and join in the laughter when you get it wrong. Stoopid foreigners don't have many uses, but at least we can be amusing, without even meaning to - oh, and it's nothing personal.

As part of my learning about Mongolia, I've been reading the blog of an American woman, Tara Munch, who is currently teaching in Ulaan Baator. It's called 'So I moved to Mongolia' and her stories about traffic and dodgy door knobs have brought a smile to my face and conjured up memories of Samarkand, the frustrations of living in a country that barely functions, the feeling of not knowing what's going on a greater part of the time, but also the sheer hospitality of the people you meet and the adventure of being somewhere so totally different from the place you grew up in. I like the way she tries to focus on the positive things, too many people end up being grouchy ex- pats! Enjoy it, Tara, while it lasts. You'll have enough time back in the West with all its rules and familiarity :-)

If you want to visit Tara's blog and wish her luck, it's

Image credits

The image of the Mongolian flag is from

The image of the snarling dog is from flickruser misterbisson an information architect and librarian from Manchester, New Hampshire.

The image of the Ger is by flickruser jrubinic

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Mongolia - Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus

Mongolia is a country I've been fascinated by for a very long time. When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with learning languages, attempting Greek, Danish, Breton . . the more obscure the better. I think attempting to learn Mongolian in my first year of college was about as obscure as it got (and I'm pretty sure I didn't get past the first unit in the book).

Apart from this first foray into Mongolian culture, I might have ended up living in Mongolia. After my two years with the Soros Foundation in Uzbekistan, I had the option of doing a year in Mongolia, but chose the easier option and ended up in Thailand instead.

I'm sure that Mongolia and Thailand are worlds apart, but one thing they have in common is that they are both Buddhist nations. From my preliminary reading about Mongolia, one thing that has really struck me as a national 'psyche crisis' was the loss of religion. (I'm not sure what else to call it - in Kiribati it was the rising sea levels, Jamaica was a strong awareness of the past, Lesotho the tragically high levels of HIV infection).

My first experiences with Buddhism were in Thailand, a country that takes religion very seriously. Thailand follows the Theravada form of Buddhism prevalent in South Asia and this was the form of Buddhism that I became most familiar with. Despite not being religious myself, I used to love visiting the temples and sitting in contemplation of the Buddhist statues and the smells of incense. The temples were always open on all sides and sanctuaries of cool stone and shade in the sweltering heat of Bangkok.

Mongolia follows the Mahayana (the Great Wheel) form of Buddhism, due to its close links with Tibet. Even the meaning seems to be different from Theravada Buddhism, the turning of the great wheel of time suggesting something more forceful than the languid contemplation of the steamy tropics. My partner is from a Western Mongolian tribe called the Kalmyks and I have visited their 'Khurul' or temple and begun to understand the differences in the Mahayana tradition with its prayer flags, monks wrapped up in robes, enclosed temples and more than a hint of shamanism in the background.

Mongolia and Tibet share a lot of traditions and, although seemingly quite distant from each other, are culturally close, no doubt helped by the continuum of Tibetan people through the Chinese province of Qinghai, reaching towards the Mongolian border.

In fact, the 'Dalai' bit of 'Dalai Lama' is from the Mongolian word for 'ocean' - a common theme in Mongolia, Chingis Khan is also thought to mean 'Great Oceanic Khan' - I guess the Ocean was the edge of the Earth for a medieval Mongolian. Mongolians used to make once in a life-time trips to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, the fourth Dalai Lama was Mongolian and, when the British (no blog would be complete without them) invaded Tibet in 1903, the Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia for safety.

By all accounts the Chinese were relieved when the Mongolians finally adopted Buddhism, as it chilled them out and stopped them constantly invading China! When the Soviets came to power in the 1920's, an estimated 1/3 of the adult male population in the capital Ulaan Baator were monks. With such large numbers and incredible influence, the revolution didn't dare tackle Buddhism straight away but waited until the 1930's under the Stalinist Choibalsan (a former Buddhist monk!) to purge the Buddhist population, murdering an estimated 17,000 lamas and religious leaders. It would seem that having 1/3 of your male population remaining celibate, and contemplative, flew in the face of Soviet policies of increasing the number of workers available for five-year plans and the exploration of Siberia's wealth of natural resources.

Reading about Mongolia, it's this great loss of the 1930's that strikes me most. I guess every country has its 'psyche crisis' (the Irish equivalent would be the Great Famine), when the very essence of the nation is challenged and changed irrevocably.
Image Credits:
The image of the Mongolian flag is from the website
The two photographic images were both taken by me. The first one is Buddha and the Wheel of Law, which I took in Thailand. The second one is the biggest Buddhist statue in Europe, which is in the Great Khurul (Temple) in Elista, Kalmykia.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Lesotho - Chakalaka and Pap

Chakalaka and Pap was probably one of the easiest dishes I've made as part of this learning experience. Chakalaka is a fiery hot stew made from everything red and orange - tomatoes, bell peppers, scotch bonnets (I know, again!), onion and carrot. I added chicken and the result was a delicious, albeit incredibly spicy, dish. For Pap, I used Polenta, which I have an inexplicable fondness for and which helped cool my mouth down, as I shovelled it into me in sticky spoonfuls.

I think Chakalaka is probably the second hottest dish I've ever eaten. The hottest dish was in rural Thailand and was called Phad Phet, literally 'fried spicy'. Whatever you do, if you go to Thailand, never order anything which is called 'fried spicy'! Mind you, I probably should have used regular chillies, rather than the Scotch bonnets which I seem to be dangerously drawn to.

After much nose blowing, forehead mopping and watching my partner, Zhenya, turn a funny crimson colour, I comforted myself with the thought that my stomach probably needed a good spicy dish to kill any harmful bacteria, or just . . . anything, lying around in there. Am I the only one who finds that palate-blowing spices can be cleansing?

Anyway, we've lived to tell the tale. Would definitely make Chakalaka again, but maybe ease up on the chillies next time! As you can see from my photo, I've tried to make the polenta look presentable, by shaping it in a ramekin, before putting it on the plate :-)

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Lesotho - The Ampleforth Connection

A quick blog about an interesting connection between Lesotho and the UK. Both modern Basotho kings Moshoeshoe II and his son Letsie III were educated at Ampleforth College, the so-called 'Catholic Eton' on the edge of the North York Moors National Park.

Most likely due to intense missionary work, most Basotho Christians are Catholic, including the two modern Kings and it was certainly the first time I'd ever heard of Ampleforth.

I do a lot of work with schools in the UK and it always amazes me how many Catholic schools there are here. Coming from Ireland, it's easy to fall into stereotypes of Britain as a Protestant nation. Not forgetting the influence of Irish migrants to Britain, there seems to be something else going on: an older, aristocratic Catholicism, that has somehow been preserved in the upper echelons of British (particularly English) society. This fascinates me, as does the thought of Lesotho's kings being educated in the wild setting of the Yorkshire moors.

I know this post may not seem to be entirely relevant to learning about Lesotho, but I believe that learning about other countries is in fact learning about your own country/society and, in this case, our closest neighbour, which is Britain. I would say Britain has been in the background of this entire journey so far. Whether it's Hong Kong, Jamaica, Kiribati, Lesotho, Britain's presence is undeniable.

Coming from a small country living in the shadow of Britain, it has been difficult for Ireland to find its place in the world. I guess, as I'm learning about other countries, I'm learning about how other countries interacted with British culture. I'm trying to understand our own reactions to our powerful neighbour, but I'm also finding traces of Ireland everywhere the British have been.

Lesotho is a good example of this. I see a lot of parallels between Lesotho and Ireland and I'm beginning to understand why our two countries have had such a close relationship.
Image credits:
The photograph of Ampleforth College is courtesy of cat-loving grandmother and flickuser Verity Cridland who lives in Yorkshire. Thanks Verity for sharing this image using the Creative Commons License.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Lesotho - Singing Away the Hunger

The tagline for Mpho 'M'atsepo Nthunya's book Singing Away the Hunger is 'read this book if you want to get your life in perspective' and it certainly delivers a story that is hard-hitting, heart-rending, but with moments of humour thrown in.

I had to keep reminding myself that the events of the book were taking place partly during my life time. The high infant mortality rates, the overbearing superstitions and the grinding poverty put me in mind of the Ireland of Angela's Ashes - also not that long ago, by the way.

But apart from anything else Nthunya's story was inspiring. We all know that life has its ups and downs and it almost seems like fate that Nthunya met the American academic, who teased the stories out of her and brought them to the attention of a wider world.

It's incredibly important to hear stories like Nthunya's and I learned a lot about Lesotho, as her book is a kind of cultural record, as well as her own life story.

I learned about the beauty of the Maluti mountains and the almost naive faith of the Basotho people. I learned that it can snow in the mountains, that the Basotho have adopted thick English blankets as a national costume, that Christianity has had a strong impact on some Basotho people, like Nthunya's late mother.

I learned that there is a wealthy, highly-educated elite in Lesotho, especially in the University town of Roma where Nthunya spent many years cleaning rich people's houses.

I also learned about the darker side of Lesotho. A land of murderous uncles and lethal spells. A country with high-unemployment and an addiction to joala (homemade beer). I learned about Lesotho's umbilical connection with the townships of Gauteng, especially Benoni. I loved how she referred to South Africa as simply 'the Republic'. It reminds me of home, how I grew up calling Ireland 'the Republic' or 'the Free State' - an interesting comparison with South Africa.

I also learned some new words like Ntate and 'M'e (words for older men and women). I learned sangoma (traditional healer) and thokolosi (evil spirit), motsoalle (close friend), rondavel (a traditional African round house), papa (a type of porridge, which is the main staple of a Basotho diet).

Most of all, I learned to love Nthunya's story and draw strength from it. The book was published in the mid-90's and I wonder where she is now and how life has been treating her.

Image credits

The image of the flag is as in the previous post. The book cover is an image I took on my iPhone.

The amazing photo of the Basotho village with a rondavel is by flickruser rogiro - he is a professional photographer and has shared this image with us using the Creative Commons license - if you want to see more of his photos, or get in touch with him go to