The Surfing Hippos of Loango

These are some really hip hippos!

Since I’m feeling a little under the weather on the day of this writing, I decided to pick a topic that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. Bonus points that it’s a subject that doesn’t require too much research or, frankly, deep thought. So here goes.

I was watching an episode of an amazing five-part documentary series called Our Great National Parks, which is narrated by Barack Obama. You can find it on Netflix, and I highly recommend it. And the best part is that it’s about great national parks not just in the United States, but all over the world, including Loango National Park in Gabon.

Gabon is not a country that I hear about very often, so it was fascinating to explore it a bit via this documentary. In particular, I was taken by the footage of Hippos surfing in the Atlantic Ocean waves. These creatures love the water, but usually stick to inland rivers or swamps. But for some reason, the Hippos in this neighborhood are even more hip than usual they like to keep it salty. And they’re fun to watch. From a distance. If you don’t have the opportunity to see the fantastic documentary, at least check out this amazing Youtube video, and this one.

Possibly the first photos of these Hippos’ antics were taken by Michael Nichols, a photographer and journalist, who traveled to the area with Michael Fay, a researcher for the National Geographic Society. Those photos were taken in 2000.

Nichols’ beautiful images of that region drew the attention of Omar Bongo, who had been president of Gabon from 1967 until his death in 2009. Bongo was inspired by them to create a system of national parks, and by 2002, 11 percent of the country is now protected wilderness. He was hoping that the country would benefit from ecotourism, but according to this article, Gabon is still hard to get to and travel through, still lacks the infrastructure, and is plagued by corruption, so the idea of making Gabon the African Costa Rica is having trouble gaining traction.

Let’s hope that situation turns around, because if not, these parks may be deforested and mined and eventually destroyed, and these very cool hippos will be left with nowhere to hang ten. That would definitely harsh my mellow, dude.

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Meet Jonathan

He has walked this earth for 189 years.

Jonathan was born in 1832, give or take a year. He can be forgiven if, after 189 years of walking this earth, he’s a little vague on his exact “hatchday”. He’s the oldest known living terrestrial animal in the world. (Heaven knows what’s floating down there in the depths of the ocean, though.) Jonathan is a Seychelles giant tortoise.

Imagine all the history he’s been around for. He was born before the American Civil War, before planes and telephones and moving pictures. He has probably borne witness to a lot of tortuous women’s fashions. And the fact that he still could care less about any of that stuff is part of his charm.

When he was about 50 years old, he took an epic journey. One can assume that no one asked his permission to uproot him. (What nerve.) He went from the Seychelles Islands, which are in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa, to Saint Helena Island, where he lives now, which is in the South Atlantic, off the west coast of Africa. As the bird flies, these two islands are 4,223 miles apart, but since planes were still the stuff of fantasy, his trip would have been a long, slow one, most likely by boat around the tip of Africa.

I wonder what he made of that. We’ll never know. Jonathan tends to keep his own counsel.

Poor Jonathan didn’t get a name until the 1930’s. The governor of Saint Helena named him. That kind of makes sense, since he’s been living on the grounds of the official governor’s residence ever since. I’m glad he got a dignified name. A guy this old shouldn’t be called Pookey or Torty McTortface. Before that, I guess he just responded to “hey you”.

Hard to say how much longer Jonathan will live. One tortoise was rumored to have lived for 255 years, but there’s no actual proof. Hard to say how far he has advanced into his geezer-hood. He is blind from cataracts and no longer has a sense of smell to find food, but he has excellent hearing and seems to be well taken care of. He still likes to breed. More power to him.

He has also been honored with his picture on the back of the Saint Helena five-pence coin. That’s the least we could do for our terrestrial animal patriarch. May he live many more happy years.

And say what you will about this old guy, he still has a stronger chin than Mitch McConnell.

Update: 12/5/22 Happy 190th birthday Jonathan!

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Djenné’s Great Mud Mosque

The largest mud brick building in the world, and it’s gorgeous.

I’ve learned a great deal about the Republic of Mali in recent weeks, because I’ve been reading a book that takes place in that fascinating country. (More about that book in an upcoming post.) As much as I love to travel and learn about different cultures, I must admit with embarrassment that until this time, I couldn’t have found Mali on a map.

I think a certain level of Afro-ignorance is the case for most Americans, and I have no idea why. The entire continent of Africa seems to be this big blank spot in our education. I mean, most of us might be able to find South Africa and Egypt with its pyramids, and maybe the Nile River, and we’ve at least heard of Morocco, and we know that someone once said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume…” but yeah, that’s about it.

So imagine my shock to discover that Mali is home to one of the most famous landmarks in Africa. I’m dismayed that I’d never heard of this majestic structure, let alone seen a picture of it. I’m talking about the Great Mosque in the city of Djenné.

This edifice was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, but was built in its current form in 1907. The original mosque in this location may have been around since the year 1200, but no one is for certain.

I am so impressed with the architecture. It looks as though it was carved from one gigantic block of adobe, but it is, in fact, made of sun-baked earth bricks, mortar, and plaster, with palm sticks sticking out of it to allow for changes due to moisture and heat. It also happens to be the largest mud brick building in the world. I’ve never seen anything that looked both permanent and fragile at the same time. It’s as if it could be washed away in a hard rain, but it’s so heavy and substantial that it’s amazing it doesn’t sink into the ground. In fact, the whole town comes together every year for a big festival in which they effect repairs. I like that too. It’s a community gathering place, and the community takes ownership and pride in its maintenance.

I think it’s stunningly beautiful, but I was amused to read in this Wikipedia article that one man described it as “a cross between a hedgehog and a church organ.” I’m also delighted to hear that at the top of each minaret stands an ostrich egg. You can’t get more African than that.

The only disappointing thing about this mosque is that even if I do have the privilege of visiting Mali someday, I’ll never get to glimpse its grand interior. Vogue magazine messed it up for all of us non-Muslims by taking pictures of scantily clad women inside, thus outraging the public and barring our entry forevermore because of their blatant disrespect. This, to me, is heartbreaking.

Great Mosque of Djenné

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Child Witch Hysteria Revisited

I’ve written about the Child Witch Hysteria in Africa before. It pains me to have to do so again. But the crisis has not abated.

A new, disturbingly detailed report has come out, entitled Branded and beaten: The children accused of witchcraft and murder. It focuses on Nigeria in particular. It discusses how the local Pentecostal Churches, supported by the Nigerian film industry, are perpetuating the beliefs that child witches exist.

The film industry benefits from perpetuating this myth in ticket sales. It’s akin to America’s fascination with zombie movies, but with more disastrous consequences. And false prophets from these churches benefit because people will pay exorbitant prices, often equivalent to more than a year’s pay, to have their children exorcised. It’s an insidious industry that preys on the most vulnerable among us.

Once a child is branded as a witch, usually because of some family misfortune for which he or she is blamed, that child will be tortured to exact a confession. Some of the documented forms of torture include hot irons, hot machetes, acid in the eyes, nails driven into the skull, starvation, beatings, drinking concrete, and/or being forced to sit on a fire. Some of these children are as young as two years old.

I think the reason this cause strikes such a chord with me is that when I was a child, my family suffered a great deal of misfortune. It’s simply by virtue of the fact that I was born into a culture that doesn’t take witchcraft seriously as a general rule (anymore), that I made it to adulthood unscathed. Location, location, location.

Child witchcraft is a sick, brutal, warped cultural belief borne of ignorance and financial desperation. These practices must be stopped. Please join me in supporting Safe Child Africa to protect these children and restore some semblance of life to them.

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Child Witch Hysteria

Every day in Africa, hundreds of children are declared to be witches. Once this happens, their lives are effectively over. They are tortured for confessions, abandoned by their families or murdered by villagers. Schools will no longer teach them. Hospitals will no longer treat them.

These children are blamed for any family misfortune. Disease, miscarriage, unemployment, death in the family…all these things surely must be because the most vulnerable among us is a witch. You can also be considered a witch simply by virtue of being born with a deformity. It is claimed that these children feast on human flesh. They are stigmatized, feared, and cast out by society.

This practice has experienced an extreme resurgence this century, mainly thanks to the movies put out by the Liberty Gospel Church, an extreme Pentecostal sect in Nigeria that combines a weird brand of Christianity with ancient cultural beliefs in witchcraft. One of their movies, “End of the Wicked” goes into graphic details about these witches, and claims that this information is in the bible, and that these things are all facts.

A lot of the adherence to this practice probably has to do with the extreme poverty in which these people live. They are unable to support these children, and witchcraft is an effective excuse for society to abandon them. It’s really the only “acceptable” excuse.

To exact confessions from these kids, people will beat them, deprive them of food, put acid in their eyes, force them to sit on fires, or drive nails into their skulls. Once a “confession” is exacted, many of these children are buried alive, or have stones tied to their legs and then are thrown off bridges, are abandoned in the bush, or are poisoned.

A big industry has grown up to take advantage of those parents who do not want their children to suffer from this stigma. Unscrupulous people claim that they can exorcise the witches, and it will “only” cost a year’s income. If the parents can’t pay, these evil people will hold the child captive, torturing them all the while, until the parents pay up.

According to Wikipedia, this practice is common in Angola, Gambia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Congo, and Ethiopia. This movie on Youtube, entitled Dispatches: Saving Africa’s Witch Children, will tell you all about the practice in Nigeria. I have to warn you that it will also break your heart.

I cannot stress enough the importance of education to combat these horrible beliefs. Until then, though, these children need to be protected, housed, educated and treated so that they can reclaim what little childhood may be left to them.

If you would like to help these children, please join me in donating to Safe Child Africa. Since it’s a British-based organization, your donations will be in pounds, not dollars, but they do accept credit cards.

If you are reading this on a computer or another electronic device, chances are you are much better off than these children will ever be. Take a moment to appreciate that. And please help if you can.

The “witches” of Africa thank you.

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The Plight of the Pangolin

I remember distinctly the first time I saw a picture of a pangolin. I was browsing a coffee table book on Africa at a friend’s house. I thought it was some sort of a joke. They look like the love child of an artichoke and an aardvark. But the situation got even more strange when I went to show my friend the picture, and I couldn’t find it in the book, even after an exhaustive search. My friend asked if someone had slipped me some magic mushrooms.

I didn’t see another one of these strange creatures until decades later, in a Youtube video. Finally! Vindication! But by that time me and my friend had gone our separate ways.

So I was really amazed to see this article in National Geographic that states that the pangolin is the world’s most trafficked mammal. That’s really ironic because I’m fairly certain that if you surveyed a random sampling of Americans, 99 percent of them wouldn’t even know the pangolin existed. In essence, an animal is endangered that few people are aware of in the first place.

They are apparently found throughout sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and they’re prized by the people of China and Viet Nam for their medicinal properties, some of which, of course, they believe enhance virility. (And of course there is absolutely NO medical evidence that this is the case. I would love to know why these people seem to be so dissatisfied with their virility in the first place, but who am I to judge, when every third advertisement in this country is for Viagra?)

To make things worse for these little critters, they are extremely easy to hunt, because they’re toothless and their main defense move is to curl up into a ball. And the females only give birth to one baby, once a year, so they’re having a lot of trouble keeping up with the pace of human predation.

The good news, according to National Geographic, is that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species just voted to shut down sales of pangolins, in whole or in part, across borders. Don’t you just love it when people get together to do the right thing? (Of course, this will make pangolin stuff harder to come by, which will in turn make it more highly prized. But still. It’s a start.)

If you love pangolins, or heck, if you’re even partial to artichokes or aardvarks, please support these little guys by sacrificing your pursuit of virility, gentlemen. If you ask me, it’s not very manly to kill off an entire species, especially one this cute. It certainly doesn’t make you attractive in my eyes.


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Have We Forgotten the Ukraine?

I get it. We have neither the money, the time, the moral currency, nor the manpower to intervene in every international atrocity. God knows we’ve left Tibet dangling since 1951, Burma since 1962 and I could talk for hours about various coups in Africa and the Middle East.

But what stuns me is how quickly we’ve stopped talking about Ukraine. It was only a little over a year ago when unmarked Russian soldiers began entering that country and took over the Crimean Peninsula. Outrageous. Irrational. It would be just as insane if the US suddenly decided to take over Vancouver, just because we have more military might than the Canadians. Many Americans live in Canada after all, so let’s just take it because we can.

And yet no one says a word about the Ukraine anymore. Did we just decide that it would be easier to look the other way instead of getting into a big international kerfuffle? Or is our attention span that short? Are we simply stretched too thin in wars of our own making, or do we just not care about anyone other than ourselves?

I suspect that we’ll spend more time discussing Caitlyn Jenner than the people who have been driven out of their homes in the Crimea. What does that say about us? Putin knows exactly the thickness, or lack thereof, of our moral fiber, and that’s why he knew he could get away with such a b***h move. He knows us too well. So does the rest of the world. And that’s scary.

[Image credit:]
[Image credit:]

Money Well Spent?

Someone just bought the bike from the film Easy Rider for 1.35 million dollars. Stuff like this makes me want to scream. For a little bit of perspective, I did some research. Here’s what I found out. 1.35 million dollars equals any one of the following:

  • 54,000 microloans on, which in turn would allow 54,000 third world families to live healthier lives.
  • Enough food to feed 168,750 people for a day, or keep 462 people from starving for an entire year.
  • Enough mosquito nets to save 450,000 children in Africa from dying of malaria.
  • A full course of vaccines for 270,000 children, as provided by UNICEF
  • 6,750,000 pencils for under-supplied schools.
  • Enough wool blankets to keep 192,857 homeless people warm this winter.
  • 54,000 pairs of shoes for people who have been victims of natural disasters.
  • 67,500 LifeStraws, each of which can provide safe, drinkable water for an entire year.

So if you are the one who bought that damned motorcycle, I sure hope you enjoy the ride.

EASY RIDER, Peter Fonda, 1969

The Wisdom of Maruge


This is Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge. He spent most of his life fighting for the independence of Kenya. For his troubles he saw his wife and two children slaughtered before his very eyes by the British Imperialists. He also spent 8 years in prison where he was tortured. They whipped him, they cut off his toes. They split open his skull. God save the queen, right?

Needless to say with all that going on, he didn’t have the opportunity to get an education. Even if he had had the time, education was not available for black Kenyans when he was a child. But when Kenya became independent and offered a free primary education for all, he was the first in line to sign up. Unfortunately he was 84 at the time. He only wanted to learn to read. Didn’t his country owe him that after all his sacrifices?

After much controversy, Maruge was indeed allowed to attend school, and he did so for several years until his death in 2009. Because of this he was allowed to speak in front of the United Nations about the importance of education and he is in the Guiness Book of World Records. National Geographic even made a delightful movie about him called The First Grader, which is how I learned about this amazing man.

We Americans tend to take education for granted, but for many in the world, especially girls, it is but a distant dream. Some are prevented because they must support their families or the school is too far away or education is not emphasized in their culture. Sometimes it’s a tiny yet formidable roadblock of not being able to afford a school uniform. But the lower your education, the higher your risk of violence, HIV, poverty, and using aggression to solve your problems. The terrorists of this world tend not to be well educated, nor do cult members. Educated people build stronger families, stronger communities and stronger economies. It is in everyone’s best interest that the world be an educated place.

Today is National Call-In Day to urge your Representative to support a US pledge to support universal access to education. It will only take a minute of your time but it could help bring about a more peaceful and prosperous world. Won’t you help? If so, visit the Campaign for Education and find out how to participate. It’s the right thing to do.

Jacksonville, Florida’s Ghanaian Princess

I love cemeteries. They’re so full of history. So when I’m given the opportunity to take a tour of one, I always take advantage of it. Years ago, I took a tour of the Old Jacksonville City Cemetery, and we were led to a little building which, frankly, I thought at first was a tool shed.


But the story behind it is much more interesting. Here lies Princess Laura Adorkor Kofi.

 Mother Kofi

She was sent here from Ghana to encourage former slaves to return to West Africa. While here, she founded the Missionary African Universal Church and had quite a following. She spoke publicly throughout the United States, and was called Mother Kofi by her followers. There is a neighborhood here in Jacksonville called Adorkaville that is struggling to be restored that was founded by her followers. She was assassinated while speaking from a pulpit in Miami in 1928. Thousands attended her funeral.

There is a lot of fascinating obscurity surrounding Mother Kofi.

  • Why did it take 5 months for them to get around to burying her?
  • Why would a black African princess choose, in 1928, to make Jacksonville, Florida, then a deep, dark, racist enclave, her home?
  • With so many followers, why couldn’t they come up with a more attractive mausoleum for her?
  • Why can’t anyone agree on the spelling of her name? Is it Kofi, Kofey, or Koffey?
  • Why can’t you find more details about her assassination? How was it done? Who did it? What became of him? What was the reason behind this heinous act?
  • Why can’t I find anywhere that describes the exact location of Adorkaville on the web? Even the website doesn’t tell you.
  • One would think it wouldn’t be hard to get preservation money for such an historical figure, but apparently some of her followers have broken off and are trying to sell the land out from under the ones who want to maintain it. Much controversy, it seems.

I would love to learn more about this fascinating woman, a woman leader at a time when women were supposed to stay home and behave, and an outspoken black woman in the deep south at that. I think her story deserves to be brought to the wider world. I hope someday all the questions that swirl around Mother Kofi will be answered.

For more details, such as they are, go here.


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