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Holiday windfall

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It’s New Year’s Eve and as I look both backward over the last twelve months and forward to the new year (2016 has a lovely ring to it, doesn’t it?), I am deeply grateful for the many gifts that add meaning to my life: my family - starting with my husband (my hero), our daughter (my amazing bibi), and our son-in-law (my sweetheart); my extended tribe (with a Swedish arm that keeps growing and now includes three little ones); and last, but not least, the fabulous pile of books I found under the Christmas tree. They were all beautifully wrapped in glittering paper that caught and reflected the multicolored mini-lights we string up every year along the branches of a fir cut in the woods.

What a windfall! I was overjoyed to receive four African novels. Corresponding to numbers 2 through 5 on the twelve-book list I mentioned in my last blog post, ('Studying African novels') they are: 

Studying African novels


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The first weeks of November have seen me walking more frequently and eagerly than usual to our rural mailbox even though the wind at this time of year can be bone-chilling as it blows off the harbour and slips icy fingers down my neck, cupping my cheeks in an unwelcome greeting. I could have driven of course but that seemed unnecessary when the return journey only takes less than ten minutes on foot and my eagerness made for a brisk pace.

I wasn't already expecting holiday mail, although some members of my far-flung tribe have been known to mail greetings and parcels well in advance. No, it’s because I decided a while ago to take a (self-directed) course on African novels and ordered the first of twenty-four (yes, two dozen!) last month from the U.K. (after giving thanks to the gods of Internet and Amazon; how else would I have obtained my reading materials when I live in a remote, coastal village in Atlantic Canada?)

Of necklaces, neck lace, and necklacing


I never used to be big on necklaces. Heavy things dangling around my neck weren't really my thing. Too often, thin chains became hopelessly tangled up. But then I found (on an Air Canada in-flight store of all places; I must have been bored as I don't usually shop on planes) a nifty little case. Three straps ending in snap buttons keep everything nice and separate.


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My jewelry travel case on a box covered with Malian patchwork-fabric.


Brooches are lovely and much less complicated. One of my favorite brooches is shaped like a swallow; it's pinned to the right panel of my travel case. I've worn this blue-, white-, and gold-enameled bird so many times in Africa that I feel 'homesick' every time I look at it. 

My daughter loved jewelry when she was growing up. The more, the merrier, as far as she was concerned. I didn't think necklaces were a good idea for a little girl, so we settled on 'neck lace'. Do you know what I mean? It's like a removable collar, draped around the neck. Here's a picture of my daughter (posted with her permission). The double-layer lace was fastened with a button on the back of her pink dress (oh, yes, she loved pink) and was tied in front.  

Gifts from book publishers


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I feel very grateful to have met so many developing country book publishers during my career as an independent textbook publishing consultant. Book publishers are often called gatekeepers, but to me, they are so much more. Fearless visionaries. Passionate supporters of the written word. Gifted minds with eclectic tastes and a never-ending curiosity about the world. Well-read, articulate, and fierce advocates of stories that need to be told, beauty that deserves to be promoted, and wisdom that is worth sharing. No wonder theyalong with their indispensible partners, booksellersmake great friends! 

A very selfish benefit of befriending book publishers and booksellers is their propensity to give away books. Every since my mother taught me to read, the summer before grade one, I have loved opening a present and finding it was a book. 

Collecting textbooks and grade one smiles


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'What did you find most rewarding about your textbook consulting missions in Africa?' I've often been asked that question. 

Well, for starters, I always looked forward to meeting African book publishers. I have a deep respect for publishers anywhere in the world and feel fortunate to count several among my friends. Invariably, an interview in a hot, book-filled office in Cotonou, or Dakar, or Yaoundé, or another African city would leave me feeling disheartened. 

It's hard enough being a publisher in the western world. But in Africa (especially in its francophone part, my primary geographic area of expertise) the challenges are immense. Low purchasing power, dismal literacy rates, single approved textbooks per subject and grade, government monopolies, and competition from from foreign publishers result in limited access to the main market (textbooks for primary school children). Add poor distribution networks, the high cost of imported printing materials and equipment, along with difficult access to financing, and it's surprising that an association like 'L'association des éditeurs francophones au sud du Sahara' lists thirty-three publishers, representing thirteen countries, on their website (at http://www.afrilivres.net/editeurs.php).

Photos and getting stuck in mud


For some time now, I've been meaning to post old photographs from my years in Botswana. Here is one of my favourites. A framed copy of it has been hanging in my office for years. Each time I moved and set up a new office, one of the first things I did was to find a spot for this photo.


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Rainy season road

I'm not sure exactly where I took it; in southern Botswana, no doubt, from the hills on the horizon. When? Early eighties, I believe. The dirt roads were always rough. I stopped counting how many times I got stuck! It didn't take long to learn that it paid to have a shovel and some old lumber in the back of my vehicle. Handy props for getting out of mud pits.

Years later, when I moved to Canada, I realized that getting unstuck in snow required the same basic (patient) technique (although kitty litter proved more useful than lumber). One big difference though: I didn't risk hypothermia when I spent the night outdoors in Botswana, sleeping in the middle of the road. Yes, that really happened. I spread out a ground sheet right behind the car (the traffic was non-existent, so there really was no danger). On top of that came my mattress and my baby's (folding) cot. By the way, the purpose of the ground sheet was to make sure that any wandering snakes would crawl between the ground and the tarp (and not between the mattress and the tarp, which could lead to a fatal bite). No, I'm not kidding. 

The village road


Whenever I think of Botswana, my thoughts fly to the road running through the village of Gabane (15 km west of the capital city, Gaborone). Somehow, it has come to symbolize all that was good, simple, and peaceful about Botswana.

I produced a 'leporello' (a folding or concertina book) while living in Gabane and working part-time for an architect, after my term as an UN Volunteer came to an end. Under 'Art' on the menu above, you'll find all ten pages. Here are the first two: 


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I know my human figures are wooden, at best. They stand awkwardly, their limbs bent stiffly. It was the best I could do at the time. Years later, I took a 'Human Figure Drawing Course' (by correspondence). My daughter, a baby at the time, served as one of my models. On a few occasions, I've thought of painting the village road all over again, with better proportioned and more elegant figures. In the end, I decided I was rather fond of the naive quality of this early effort. 

Scholarly and professional publications


I've always wanted to share the scholarly and professional articles and book chapters that I've written over the years on book publishing (mostly) in developing countries (with a primary geographic focus on francophone Africa). 

It's likely to take me some time to obtain permission from the original publishers/copyright holders to post the full text on this website and/or to track down the URLs for publicly available online versions, although I'm delighted to have already found some. 

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So, for starters, I thought I'd just provide a list of publications along with the above photo of the books and periodicals in which my work has appeared. I've spread them out in my office on a large piece of fabric, a gift from my wonderful, one and only sister (who knows my passion for Africa). The fabric's design and colors remind me of the awe inspiring Bushman rock paintings in Tsodilo Hills, Botswana.

A balcony garden in Botswana


This wasn't intended to be my next blog post. But now that summer has come to my neck of the woods and I'm in full gardening mode, spending as much unplugged time as I can, my thoughts roam to the first garden I created on my own, in Botswana, during my UN Volunteer posting. It was on the balcony of the one-bedroom 'flat' I moved into from my first temporary home at the Government Guest House in Gaborone. I only have one photograph of this first garden. Here it is: 

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I knew my father would have approved of my efforts. He was an avid and talented gardener who took pleasure in having his two daughters help him tend the tulips, daffodils, and peonies brightening both sides of the entrance to our home, prune the climbing roses he trailed over a wide arbour hugging one side of the house, harvest sun-ripened cherry tomatoes, juicy strawberries, and lettuce–until Tommy, my sister's tortoise, ate every single plant–from the kitchen garden, turn over the rich-smelling and somehow mysterious compost, collect seeds, and pot the 'babies' from the spider plants outside our playhouse. I sent him the snapshot with the following caption: 

A tribute to Africa’s beauty and my first art teacher


Africa’s beauty first struck me—and it hit hard, like a well-aimed arrowtoward the end of a long Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Nairobi in 1977. The cloud cover broke, and there it was, near a gracefully curved stretch of dark trees speckled with white birds : a patch of reddish-brown earth, with a group of conical huts inside a circular enclave and patches of bright green grass scattered, like drops from a wet brush. Here is the sketch I made, only a few hours later in my hotel room at the Serena Hotel in Nairobi:


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That initial glimpse of Africa filled me with an intense joy. A few days later, in an excited letter to my parents and older sister back in Vienna, I wrote, "It was like that first meeting with a stranger: the (respectful yet critical) scrutiny, followed by a brief uncertainty, and then immediate sympathy. And as we touched down on the landing strip, in a flatish countryside with vague silhouettes of the mountains, I felt it in my heart : I was going to feel at home in Africa."