"We saw. What was left was tiny...."

One tries not to be too concerned with this sort of thing, but seeing both of these stories in the same week was irresistible. We also couldn't let the first of these, which has been all over the interwebs, go by without mentioning that some ten or eleven years ago Mr. AK718 himself traveled to Casamance in Senegal to debunk the pernicious myth of the penis-shrinkers, scooping this story by more than a decade. He demonstrated that such accusations of witchcraft are invariably used to drive out envied undesirables; they are always an attempt to target "the other," often newly arrived or prosperous immigrants generally disliked by the community. The strategy works well, because claims of diminished sexual function and even allegations of organ shrinkage are difficult to prove, since any red-blooded male asked to show the evidence will, after pulling down his trousers in public, quite naturally point at the member in horror and propose that it is usually much more robust and imposing. Even an honest and generally upstanding citizen like myself has been known to say things along the lines of "you should have been here yesterday."

However, for those who feel they really have been victims of this particularly pernicious sorcery, there is always a solution.

UPDATE: People have already written to in to ask how the whole penis-shrinkage witchcraft operation works. I suspect this means they are just too lazy to read the linked article, but let's run through a scenario, using you and me as examples:

I don't like you, and I want to be rid of you. I therefore publicly accuse you of having exploited your magical evil powers of penile shriveling against me, perhaps choosing a moment when both of us happen to be in the village square.

I jump up and down, agitated, pointing at you. "That [man / woman / ex-girlfriend] touched me, and now my thing has been withered away to nothing," I say. People gather around in horror. "Is it really true?" They ask. "Yes, yes, it's true," I scream. "Last night I went home and it wasn't even working at all. Be very careful. Don't let that horrible sorcerer touch you. The same thing could happen again. We must burn / hang / shoot him, before the entire village becomes just a bunch of dickless wonders."

You, the accused, the real victim, no doubt protest, but nobody wants to go near you. They are already wondering how they will bundle you up for burning, without touching you. "This is ridiculous," you say. "I have done nothing."

Then you make the fatal mistake. "Show us the evidence," you insist. I whip it out. "Two days ago," I say, "it was mighty, like the baobab tree. But then last night there was nothing there at all, just a bald spot. Thank God today, at least, there is just a little bit coming back, but as you all can see, it is very, very small! Nothing like before." Everyone notes that, indeed, there is little to see.

At this point the enraged crowd lynches you in the town square and I have succeeded. Soon after your death, perhaps at the barbershop, or while watching a football game with the fellows, I will boast that my full girth and function have been mercifully restored to me. No need to show you all, but I assure you that I am once again as fit and robust as any young man!


Home of the Brave Polarforskers

Tomorrow is the World Premiere of ICE PEOPLE, the movie I helped make in the second half of 2006 in Antarctica. This is a special event not only because that project inspired me to begin this blog, or because the director Anne Aghion, after six trips to Rwanda and months in a tent in Antarctica together, has become a great friend, but because this is a really beautiful movie. My west coast readers should rush to see it at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas during the San Francisco Film Festival. Anne will be present for Q&As following the first two screenings.

Saturday, April 26th, 6:45 p.m. (Theater 3)
Monday, April 28th, 3:30 p.m. (Theater 1)
Wednesday, April 30th, 1:15 p.m. (Theater 1)

If, like me, you tragically cannot attend, you can watch the trailer, and then start agitating to get your cinema to bring ICE PEOPLE to your local screen.

There is a double irony in my unavailability for this historic event: I am at the moment working on a film being produced by the chairman of the board of the very same San Francisco Film Festival, and we are away filming for that project in Oslo, Norway, port of departure of the greatest expeditions in the annals of polar exploration. Roald Amundsen sailed from this elegant Scandinavian capital for his successful assault on the South Pole, in the same ship, the Fram, built by his mentor Fridtjof Nansen for Nansen's earlier death-defying attempt to reach the North Pole.

My buddy Roald's personal side street, named in his honor, with the National Theater in the background.


A Weekend with the Locavorians

Touring about the idyllic Berkshires in southwest Massachusetts, especially in the company of Alejandro DeOnis, one quickly comes to the conclusion that the movement we've all been hearing so much about, based in part on the prolific writings of Wendell Berry, and involving a mixture of getting back to the land and consuming locally, is starting to have the traction of a good four-wheel-drive pickup truck. I've always thought of the Berkshires as a summer playground for affluent urban summer weekenders, but a recent visit focussed on what the permanent residents of these soft, rolling mountains are up to gave a quite different impression.

Nestled between the palatial vacation estates and the old-money getaways are numerous farms where patches of mature, diverse forest butt up against open rolling pasture and temporarily fenced fields. Here chickens, guinea hens, pigs, goats and cattle take turns munching and manuring, enriching soils that later this spring will be planted with a wide and tasty array of heirloom vegetables. Many of you are probably thinking: "What's the big deal? Sounds to me like a description of a farm." But that's only because our childhood vision of a quack-quack here and a moo-moo there dies hard; the modern consumer has been carefully shielded from the true image of what the places where their food is produced actually look like. The Iowa of today, for instance, is consumed by corn. One crop, one vast acreage, one big conglomerizing agribusiness concern. Farms in California grow hundreds of acres of bland, identical, difficult to bruise tomatoes engineered to arrive in your supermarket intact and flavorless, twelve months out of the year. Like the old colonies, disastrously monocropped with exactly one export, like Cuban sugar, Honduran bananas, or Bahian cacao, American agriculture has in recent decades headed inexorably down the path indicated by profits and the economies of scale necessary to maintain them. Diversity today means having more than one genetically modified strain of corn planted on your land, not the Old MacDonald paradigm of dozens of different tasty animals gabbling about together beside beds of all sorts of vegetables, herbs and fruits ripening in the same bed.

Alejandro, inspired, in large part, he told me, by reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, about which I have previously written, abandoned Brooklyn with his affianced, Chase, to head for the hills. Soon his emails were full of stories of assisting at difficult calvings and receiving payment in meat for his participation in slaughtering a cow. This isn't about vegetarianism, organics, or even really opting out of the rat race. Call it a culinary lifestyle experiment, essentially based on the logic that life will be better and more healthy if you are in a position to supervise and participate in the birthing, growing, killing, nurturing, harvesting and preparation of your own diet.

Lord of the Harem, master of all in his domain

At the Moon in the Pond Farm we were welcomed by Dominic the farmer and urged to take an entirely unsupervised stroll around the property, a patchwork of fields and forest. Contrast this hospitality and conscious transparency with the categorical stonewalling of those public relations specialists who routinely deny the media access to factory farms, and actually refused to let Michael Pollan's observe the slaughtering of his own cow, a head of beef he owned fair and square, having purchased it as a calf. Dominic uses a highly flexible and portable lattice of solar-powered electrical fences to rotate his animals--cattle, goats, pigs, chickens, sheep--through the land, depositing nutrients, clearing brush and clipping the grass so it constantly rejuvenates. Liking the look of the animals and their obvious contentment in their happy surroundings, I loaded up a cooler with goat, lamb and beef stew meat, a goat shoulder and some home-made chorizo. Dominic has an enormous new walk-in freezer and very reasonable prices for meats raised with so much care and love.

If they look this regal and healthy, you can bet they will taste delicious. These beauties were guarding the farmhouse at the North Plain Farm, where the animals literally seemed to be running the show. Talk about free range! The yard was awash with inquisitive, pecking chickens, and pigs rooted for lost kernels of grain in the mud just beside the driveway. Much of the meat produced here goes to the most discerning New York chefs, cooks who really care what they are putting on the table. I can't afford to eat in those restaurants, but I could afford to buy my own chickens, which went into the cooler with the rest of my haul.

When paying for my meat at the Moon in the Pond Farm, I saw a strange banknote in the change jar, and asked what visitors, from what distant foreign land, had dropped off the unknown currency. It turned out to be a berkshare, the locally issued and accepted alternative to the no-longer-so-mighty Federally issued greenback. Local merchants, banks and farms can opt to accept these non-dollars, putting their money where their mouth is, as it were, in this literally local economy. The Berkshares feature local heroes, like DuBois, Melville and Rockwell. Given their uselessness in Brooklyn, I was forced to accept my change in dollars,but I felt sheepish about it. Promising to return with a list of orders from hungry Red Hookian neighbors, we rolled back down the Taconic towards the Big Apple.


I wish my dentist was this conscientious

In the strongest indication yet of the global economic meltdown, this postcard arrived yesterday in my mailbox, the first one that I have ever received addressed to Pascual Hernandez. The medical profession is out trolling for clients, and they are casting their lures very far indeed. Pascual is the guy I bought my house from, almost six years ago, and he had been an absentee landlord for most of the decade before that. After an estimate sixteen years, I hope his teeth are okay.


Tapiwa Mubwanda Murdered

I realize antarcticiana is at the moment running the risk of morphing into Zimbabweana, but since the scandalous aftermath of the sham elections there shows every sign of devolving into a pogrom, and because the major media are largely yawning in the face of yet another African catastrophe, and most of all because a very good friend in Harare continues daily to risk life and limb, going out into the streets there in a desperate attempt to alert the outside world to the violent shenanigans of Robert Mugabe's Zanu PF, I feel obliged to bring you yet more sad news from that failed state.

Violent reprisals against known opposition activists of the MDC, who likely won the recent elections outright, have begun. Although official election results continue to be withheld, a runoff election has been scheduled, and the campaign of intimidation against putative MDC voters is underway.

As part of that campaign, this last weekend, in rural Zimbabwe, Tapiwa Mubwanda was Murdered.

I'm withholding the most gruesome photographs I was sent because my sister's children sometimes read these pages. These are video stills grabbed from footage shot by a local Zimbabwean.

Tapiwa's body at his home

Tapiwa Mubwanda's widow: "We were on our way from Masikote, they grabbed my husband and said you are the MDC people I want to fix you today. I ran away because I wanted to take my child to a safe place because I realized that if I stayed they were going to kill me. Then I had to go back and see what was happening to my husband. When I got back my husband was lying down, bleeding from the mouth, blood on the stomach, I removed my blouse and put it on his stomach to try and stop the bleeding and make him better."

Mubwanda's brother survived: "They [said] 'you voted for the MDC now we want to do this in order to teach you to vote, you wasted your vote by voting for Tsvangirai. He will never be the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe will remain, so we want to teach you to vote so when we have the run offs that means you will be aware, you will know how to vote.' I was struck by a stone on my forehead, that’s when I fell down. After falling down I didn’t know what was happening because they came to me, attacking me with sticks all over my body, even now I am not feeling ok, I’m very painful. Now I can’t help it, I’ve got to go home, my brother is going to be buried there and I have got to attend that burial, but I am feeling very painful."

UPDATE: I might have mentioned, in my slagging off of the major media, that thankfully one can still usually rely on the Guardian. Today, they have the story.


I toast you with a lovely glass of fresh milk!

James and Jessica

My main man James, the cameraman I've had the great pleasure of repeatedly working with in Rwanda over the last few years, is getting married. Congratulations, James! Now, I myself am not married, and although most of my friends and associates seem to be dropping like flies, remaining unmarried in your forties in Brooklyn is scarcely unique. It is more so, perhaps, in Rwanda, where James, in his late thirties, lately had been feeling the heavy burden of bachelorhood. In Kigali many and most marry rather younger. Anne Aghion and I joked about it with him on every trip, lamenting James' status each time we revisited Rwanda, and debating whether it would be Fleming or Gakwerere who would first walk down the aisle. It was a race that James seemed both likely and eager to win, and I told him if he came to New York I would have him married off in no time. A few trips ago Anne even tried to fan the kindling of romance herself, introducing James to the lovely and eligible Chantal, a divorcée schoolteacher from a hillside adjacent to where we spent much time filming. James gave good flirt, but he judged her fickle, and a little too country, I sensed. She ended up marrying some hick from a few hills over, and we put her out of our thoughts.

Then, just before I left Rwanda at the end of my last visit there, James confided that he had a new lady-love. Is it serious? I asked. Umhmmmmmmmmmn, said James. James grew up herding cattle as boy in exile in Uganda, and he tends to avoid the word "yes," in favor of a sort of throaty, affirmative bovine hum. Is she beautiful? I asked. Mmmmmmhmmmmmm, he said, and then burst out laughing.

The formal presentation

James in all his finery, gazing at his bride-to-be

Ceremonial milk-drinking. According to tradition, James comes from a tribe of cattle-herders, for whom the herd is almost sacred. Although an urban gentleman and Rwanda television's foremost cameraman, James' savings are invested not in stocks and bonds, but in his own personal herd, guarded by a young cousin on family land in the north. Given the tumultuous world financial markets, living animals, since they produce milk, butter, cheese and meat, are looking like a much better place to have one's money than the abstraction of most of the other financial instruments on offer. Maintaining the cow theme, the ring tone on James' cell is a long and plaintive moo, and on our drives into the countryside to film, James often nostalgically described for us the qualities and benefits of the various sorts of cows we passed in the fields beside the road.


The Mugabe strategy, aka 'Harassed in Harare'

One of the failures of the contemporary model for gathering international news is that, thanks to the convenience of modern air-travel, overstretched foreign correspondents cover vast multi-nation territories. In the old days, they lived in-country. Although playing golf with government ministers and attending an endless stream of cocktail parties at the homes of the ruling elite doubtless introduced a different kind of bias into the reporting of the old-school journalists, at least they picked one story and lived with it. Today's reporters are, literally, flighty, and they stay on the scene only until a new, ostensibly more important story emerges from their region of interest.

The Mugabe henchmen orchestrating Zimbabwe's latest and most flagrant election fraud seem to be well versed in this dynamic. Having issued almost no press credentials they are now pretending such credentials are something working reporters ought to be able to produce. And by endlessly delaying the announcement of "official" results and refusing to take any dramatic action, they are winning a battle of fatigue. Harassed, arrested, molested and congested, the horde of media who flooded into Harare for the latest round of bogus elections is starting to feel the tedium, along with the magnetic attraction those of their breed feel for the airport, whenever the country they find themselves in slides inexorably off of the front page and into the dim interior of the newspaper. Many, doubtless, have already left. Not our trusty Zimbabwe correspondent, permanently on the scene:

Well it is all very Zimbabwean! There is an arrest list out for outside journalists who have been working without accreditation and appearing on overseas channels. This has proved very handy for those of us who were getting a bit bored with our correspondents wanting to be filmed on streets, doing stand uppers and wanting to eat out! Hence mass jitterisation of all foreign correspondents by local fixers. To jitterise: to give someone the jitters. A very successful move leading to mass exodus through all borders. The print guys arrested [including New York Times reporter Barry Bearak] were collateral damage at a lodge where the secret US-funded MDC number-crunchers were staying. Independent electoral observers were picked up trying to leave at the airport and now they are arresting the government-appointed electoral officials for corruption and fraud!

This after not allowing any outside observers, then removing the MDC observers and appointing Zanu councillors and policemen as observers. MDC in court to try and force the presidential announcement. The High court still has the ballot boxes from the previous two elections! So while the MDC yet again try the legal route, the ZEC breaks the law twice by not announcing a recount within 48 hours and not announcing the results within 6 days, allowing Zanu to cry foul, reinvade farms (war vets are announcing reinvasions to stop the whites taking back their land!) and to get war vets to start a bit of select thumpage. Mind you, I look forward to the idea of white land invasions. Rugby songs, a braii, beer bellies and tiny shorts should be enough to scare any self-respecting war vet.

The only official news crews left are SABC, CBC (thanks to their pushy ambassador who watches CBC) and Al Jazeera - now called Al Jazanu due to their very partisan correspondent Supa Manidwanzirwa, a man with all the right connections. Who is CEO of a company that leased bulldozers to the government during operation Murambvatsina and other dodgy business deals. The Al Jazeera team can be spotted anywhere due to their tons of equipment, broadcast van and a surplus of Hugo Boss suits and loafers that never seem to leave the hotel.

So I am now resting. Planning to go to Maputo if I can get new license plates after driving through a big hole and losing mine. Business as usual. Another stolen election.

Glossary of Terms:

Stand Uppers Those brief on-the-street reports done by standing newscasters "on scene," breathlessly giving updates while the mayhem unfolds in the very background of the shot. Known as "stand-ups" in US cameraman lingo.

Fixer On-site assistant to visiting crews, hired to ease a foreign production through the cultural, political and economic minefields of local bureaucracy and generalized mayhem. Jobs including bribing customs officers, exchanging bullet-ridden rental cars, trading cash on the black market, and ordering lunch.

MDC Movement for Democratic Change. The main opposition political party in Zimbabwe, whose candidate Morgan Tsvangirai was the apparent winner of the elections.

Zanu PF Mugabe's ruling party.

ZEC The ostensibly independent Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.

Reinvasion Renewed assault on farmland by Zanu PF henchmen under the guise of "land reform." The original farm invasions, in which the enormous landholdings of the white minority were redistributed as a form of political and military patronage, resulted in the collapse of the agricultural sector and famine, since many of those taking title to the land had no farming or business experience.

War Vets Veterans of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle rewarded with properties portioned out during the above-mentioned "land-reform." Distinct from the newer generation of veterans of the Congo war, who returned heavily armed from looting that country's diamond mines and were pacified with acreage or simply helped themselves to a share of property. These latter known as "freedom fighters," and "carpet-baggers."

Thumpage Savage, extended beating is the preferred mode of state-sponsored violence in Zimbabwe.

Braai Afrikaans for barbecue. Fundamental cornerstone of white African social life.

Operation Murambvatsina The wholesale razing of enormous Harare shanty-towns, considered hotbeds of Mugabe opposition, which resulted in waves of refugee flight and the overnight creation of dozens of thousands of homeless.

Maputo Capital of Mozambique. The current preferred tropical bolt-hole and getaway paradise for anyone trapped in Zimbabwe.


Cañones, a photo essay

Just wound up a week of filming in Cañones with Meredith Monk, Babeth VanLoo and Brigit Hillenius in a spectacular corner of north-central New Mexico where the mountains start to slide down into the desert, a country of high mesas dotted with evergreens. It is an open, brilliant, sunlit habitat where cactus litter the forest floor and Townsend's solitaires flit from bush to bush. The gulches carved by the many arroyos are at this time of year full with burbling silver ribbons of snowmelt, fast-flowing watercourses lined with naked, bleached cottonwoods that at 7500 feet above sea level are still awaiting the first buds of spring. Towering red and ochre bluffs, exposed millions of years ago, once home to Anasazi cliff-dwellers, now loom over adobe vacation homes built for those seeking a remoteness they used to find near Santa Fe.

The village of Cañones, where we spent the last five days, is a modest centuries-old community of latin americans that has felt the pressures of a sort of rural gentrification, with the explosion in the price per acre of once impossibly remote mountain land bringing riches to those selling off a parcel or two from the old family spread, but discomfort and resentment to a generation looking to get out of their parents' house, hoping to set up a household of their own, only to find themselves limited by circumstance to living in a trailer in a corner of a field. Unlike the newcomers, spread out on as much land as possible in their eagerness to protect views devoid of neighbors, structures or other impediments to tranquility, the earlier hispanic residents of Cañones are clustered together in what must once have been an extraordinarily remote mountain village, a collection of humble ranch homes and single-wide trailers, where the pavement turns to dirt tracks leading up into the canyons.

The town cemetery is a football-field sized plot in which many of the dead make do with simple wooden crosses, homemade headstones or the tin sign provided by the funeral parlor. Plastic flowers and ersatz memorials create a baroque and desert-durable flash of color at the entrance of town.

I took these pictures yesterday, and in what seems an astonishing coincidence (how often does the New York Times run a story about Rio Arriba County, New Mexico?) Erick Eckholm writes today in the NYT about the plethora of addictions that plague the Hispanic communities of the region. "More than one in five residents is below the federal poverty line and far more are just above it," he notes. Although someone we met here had mentioned that Rio Arriba had the highest rate of death by drug overdose of any county in the nation, I hadn't given it much thought or credence--everywhere I go seems to be the best or worst or tallest of this or that, or have the most or least of something, and often the very same claim to fame seem to be repeated in many different places. But there it was, right in the paper of record.

While it seems a stretch to blame the local heroin devastation on gentrification, some local activists, according to Eckholm, think there may be some relationship: "Many in the fight against drugs," he writes, "...believe the heavy use of drugs and alcohol is rooted in a shared sense of loss, starting when the United States refused to recognize many Spanish land grants in the mid 19th century and building more recently as struggling families, accustomed to farming and ranching, became dispirited as they had to sell land."

I wasn't thinking of the Cañones cemetary in terms of overdoses, or even thinking particularly about death when I took these pictures; I was more intrigued by the aesthetics of these hand-tended memorials. It was only because Brigit and I had some time to kill as we waited for Babeth to return with a fresh videotape that I prowled among the graves. But picking up the Times in the Houston airport on the way back to New York gave them an additional resonance.