The Lasting Impact of Maathai’s Song in a Minnesota Winter
Colleen Scheck, Producer
It’s a sticky, stifling day here in St. Paul — “Africa hot,” an old friend always used to say when intense summer heat made its brief annual stop in Minnesota. That recollection reminded me of my deadline for Trent’s request to write about our interview with Wangari Maathai.
The day we interviewed the Nobel Peace Prize winner, over three years ago now, was about as opposite as possible from today. Eight inches of slushy snow greeted us that morning as we drove to the Holiday Inn in Minneapolis where Maathai was staying. We still managed to arrive early enough to soundproof the room, set up mics and laptops, test levels, and make sure Krista had some breakfast.
The hotel space we’d reserved — a dark, bland, deflated suite on an upper floor (to avoid traffic noise seeping in) — was sadly the best, most convenient option given Maathai’s tight schedule. That drab room was brought to life, though, the moment she entered in a vibrant red-blue-gold dress and headwrap, her simultaneously gracious and powerful person filling the space.
During the interview, I sat in the bedroom area on the floor transcribing on my laptop. My fingers were tired by the time we started to wrap up, 90 minutes later, and then one of my favorite SOF moments happened.
Krista concluded the interview, and Mitch asked Maathai for music recommendations, specifically songs she remembered singing during her environmental activism in Kenya, that we could maybe include in the program. Her reply:
"I would have to ask them (laughs). Because we do sing sometimes, but those are very local songs. Like, one song I always sing when we are together with the women — here comes my faith — because there is a lot of our — people are still very religious, and so quite often when I’m talking to them I use religious songs. And one song that we always sing is one that says ‘there is no other god, there is no other god but Him, there is no other power but Him.’ It is like a chorus. You want me to sing for you?" After drinking a sip of cold, bad hotel coffee, she continued, "And this kind of song would be appropriate because when we are singing, when we are moving, we always want it to be peaceful, non-violent, so singing religious songs was very common…. We go?"
She cleared her throat, and off she went (her song is included in this video).
I’ve listened to this song so many times in the past three years. I remembered Trent saying he’d sing it to his young boys, and now I do the same with my 6-month old son when rocking him to sleep. I don’t get the words right, but I don’t care. It reminds me of strength, wisdom, compassion — things I hope to inspire in him.
Stories from Google Alert: Kaye in Lesotho
Trent Gilliss, online editor
A few days ago, a “Speaking of Faith” Google alert highlighted Kaye Thompson’s blog entry about her first year in Lesotho, Africa. Her reflections on serving in the Peace Corps is refreshing, honest, and vulnerable. I appreciate that. And, I found her description of cooperation among medical professionals and local healers hopeful and inspiring:
I helped my clinic sponsor a day- long meeting between the traditional healers of the area (35 came) and the clinic staff. Because the head of the clinic is a wise and open-minded nurse, she stayed out of any judgment towards the healers and honest sharing was encouraged. The healers come from a variety of traditions to include intuitive healers, those that speak with the ancestors, those that have apprenticeships with other healers, and those that go to a program to receive more formalized training. They work with dreams, herbs, spirits and prayers. Unfortunately some of the practices are harmful and impede healing with Western medecines. The healers spoke of their feelings of being marginalized by the medical community, their belief that they can cure AIDS, their wish to be able to work more collaboratively with the clinic, and an overall sense of relief that these two communities were finally in dialogue. It was a huge success with hopes for a repeat in the future.
Dancing with Sidi Goma: The Black Sufis of Gujarat
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer
I recently attended a dance workshop in Saint Paul with Sidi Goma, a troupe of African-Indian Sufis from Gujarat, India who were visiting Minnesota to perform at a local festival. I’ve explored a variety of mostly West African dance styles, but this practice was entirely new to me.
The Sidi people migrated from East Africa to India 800 years ago and it isn’t clear which modern-day African countries they originally hailed from. The Sidis express their mystical Sufi Muslim faith through an exuberant dance and musical tradition. The idea, as I understand it, is for the performers to connect with the Divine and inspire the audience to experience a kind of divine transcendence through this joyful expression.
As you’ll see in the video we’ve posted of the workshop, the dancing and rhythm picks up speed and culminates in a crescendo. I wondered whether there’s a connection here with the whirling dervish who practice the sema — a form of ecstatic worship we explored in our program on Rumi. Some of the Sidi dancers’ movements are inspired by animals — notably birds. You’ll notice how they use their eyes as much as their limbs. It actually reminded me of the popping and locking break dancers are known for.
At the end of the evening, another workshop participant fetched a cowbell from his backpack. The bell is a kind of percussive instrument sometimes attached to an African drum called doun doun. It seemed like the Sidis were unfamiliar with the cowbell, but their faces beamed with delight when it was played along with their instruments. Only one member of the group spoke English but we all danced and relished in the music together — a refreshing minder that movement and rhythm can transcend verbal language.
Special thanks to The Ordway and Paul Escalante for giving us permission to post this video clip.
Response to “The Ethics of Aid”
Krista Tippett, Host
I’ve been fascinated by the responses that have come in to our program with Binyavanga Wainaina. They’ve come in part from other Africans and from current and former NGOs, missionaries, and Peace Corps volunteers. This felt like a huge and daunting, yet pressing, subject to open up. And that’s clearly what we’ve done — not started a conversation but opened it a little wider; the questions and concerns he articulated are present in many closest to this work.
I’m especially intrigued, as well, by one e-mail we received from New Orleans, drawing parallels between aid to post-Katrina New Orleans and aid to Africa. It is a stunning reflection on how, even domestically, the dramatic gesture is deceptively satisfying. Most of all I’m pleased that so many found Binyavanga Wainaina’s insights emboldening, as I did. His hard truth-telling — even his satire — is the opposite of a call to cynicism. It is a call to attentiveness to the deeper truth of ourselves and the other.
The measure of man’s life lies in perfecting the universe.
—Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, as tweeted by Rabbi Aaron Spiegel
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Today I viewed hundreds of photos looking for an image that might help convey the critical perspective of Binyavanga Wainaina in our upcoming program on the ethics of aid in Africa, and more specifically Kenya. I was left a bit heavy-hearted. And then I saw this inspiring quote from a new friend in Indianapolis. I can’t thank him enough (and, if you’re interested, he’s got a great recommendation for cigars in Indy).
A Soldier to His General
Eboo Patel, Guest Contributor
You might be surprised by what our nation’s most famous Evangelical Christian has to say about Muslims.
I first met Rick Warren at the Aspen Ideas Festival a few years ago, where he was doing a talk on leadership. Somebody in the audience asked him — with no lack of scorn — if he thought everyone was going to heaven. That’s when I realized how much of a risk Warren had taken by coming to Aspen — a town of people with a generally condescending attitude towards Warren’s brand of Evangelical megachurch Christianity.
I asked him about why he chose to come to a place where much of the audience was suspicious of him because of the title “Pastor.” He smiled and said that he liked all kinds of people, including folks with a bias against religion, but he was looking forward to getting on a plane and heading to Rwanda the next day, where he had taken on the massive project of helping a country recover from genocide. “It was faith that got them through, and it’s faith that keeps them going,” he told me.
I was equally struck by the pragmatic and profound way Warren answered the man’s question. He basically said that he didn’t come to Aspen to disagree with people about heaven, but to find common ground about working together on earth — and in his recent travels across the developing world, he had seen enough suffering to make anyone with an impulse to serve put aside their differences and develop practical partnerships that actually helped people.
I caught up with Pastor Rick at another bastion of folks suspicious of faith (I spend a lot of time in those places!) — the Clinton Global Initiative. This time, he was even more forceful about the need to focus our efforts on improving earth instead of arguing about heaven. When he was asked how “the church” could play a role in ending poverty, he responded by saying that the armies of compassion included people of all faiths.
I took him aside after his panel presentation and talked to him about the religious diversity he expressed respect for on stage.
As for how this Muslim views that Christian, here’s what I have to say: We might have different ideas of heaven, but I would happily play soldier to his general in an interfaith army of compassion solving the problems of earth.
Eboo Patel appeared on SOF as a guest in "Religious Passion, Pluralism, and the Young." He’s also the founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core, a contributor to the Washington Post’s "On Faith" blog, and author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.
SoundSeen: Singing in Her Native Language
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
I’ve been logging hours and hours of video from our 2006 production trip to L.A. for the Azusa Street Centennial. There’s so much good footage from the parade and interviews that I have to produce some type of short and give you flavor of what we experienced during that week in April.
Many times, we get into the very American “more is more” approach to collecting sound and visuals for radio and online production. So, in a last-minute decision, Colleen and I bolted with a video camera and a microphone to set up inside the convention center. I’m glad we did.
The international appeal of Pentecostalism was undeniable — people from Burkina Faso, the Philippines, Nigeria, and India, to name a few. But, it was this woman and her husband from Zimbabwe that returned the same smile I had two years ago. Near the end of the interview, she was sweet enough to sing us a tune in her native language, which she would lead her parishioners in during worship services.
We bid each other farewell, and several minutes later she returned wanting to share one more song. How could we say no?
Tesfaye = “My Hope”
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
It’s late afternoon. The SOF quadrant is deserted since most of the staff are working the Minnesota State Fair. And as I was uploading videos, I watched this inspirational story of Tesfaye, an Ethiopian man who watched the deforestation of his home, did nothing, and is reclaiming his land and his memories.
How many other efforts similar to Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement are happening on the African continent that hear little about?