Los Angeles County Museum Of Art Inaugurates African Gallery

Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Royal Museum for Central Africa, RG 22725, photo R. Asselberghs, RMCA Tervuren

The Los Angeles County Museum Of Art is inaugurating its new Africa gallery with an exhibition of art from the Luba Kingdom.

“Shaping Power: Luba Masterworks from the Royal Museum for Central Africa” examines the royal art of the powerful Luba Kingdom, which from 1585-1889 dominated central Africa. Its royal lineage was highly regarded and developed an elaborate artwork to reflect its prestige.
The exhibition includes many objects loaned by the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium, like this mask of a legendary hero. Many of the items depict women. While they didn’t rule, they were considered the spiritual guardians of the kingship and the creators of life. A Luba proverb says, “Men are chiefs in the daytime, but women are chiefs at night.” Among the works of art are masks, headrests, sceptres, thrones and cups.

The new Africa gallery is located next to the Egyptian gallery to highlight the influences the two regions had on one another. In addition to special exhibitions, the gallery will also host the museum’s permanent collection.

“Shaping Power: Luba Masterworks from the Royal Museum for Central Africa” runs until January 5, 2014.

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Inconsiderate Chadian Rebels Fail To Scuttle My Holiday Plans

chad rebelsThe Foreign Service isn’t a normal, 9-5 occupation, where one can check out after leaving the office each day. The benefits outweigh the negatives for most, but almost every Foreign Service Officer (FSO) faces moments when they’re forced to decide if they want to prioritize their career at the expense of their personal life.

Most who want to become an Ambassador or Deputy Chief of Mission at an overseas post or high ranking officer in Washington, end up having to do damage control on the family side at one time or another as they pursue their careers. Others who are content to muddle through and pick up a steady paycheck can sometimes, but not always, keep the after hours duties to a minimum.

I faced my first real career crossroads in the Foreign Service several years ago as the State Department’s Desk Officer for Chad & The Central African Republic, when Chadian rebels rudely staged a coup attempt just as I was about to leave Washington for a well deserved vacation in Sicily with my wife, Jen.Coup attempts in Chad are about as predictable as a “Love Boat” episode, so I wasn’t immediately panicked when I heard the news from Kathleen, our political officer in N’Djamena early one morning, less than 48 hours before our departure for Sicily. But my boss, whom I’ll call Cleopatra, just for fun, acted like the love of her life had just told her she was a one-night-stand when I reminded her of my impending trip later that day.

“You’re not going to Sicily,” she commanded. “Humpty Dumpty’s about to fall and I need you here.”

It should be said here that my boss had an unhealthy obsession with Chad’s President, Idriss Deby. Cleopatra was responsible for overseeing well over a dozen countries in Africa, but she was fixated on Chad. President Deby’s rule was more or less a model for bad governance, so she was right to hope that he’d go, but my view was a bit more nuanced.

There are plenty of heavy hitters in and out of government in Washington who believe that, as the world’s lone superpower, the United States can influence and direct developments in every corner of the globe. I don’t subscribe to that theory and I think that we get ourselves in trouble too often by meddling in the affairs of other countries. I agreed that Deby needed to go, but felt that it was up to the Chadians, and not us, to find a way to get rid of him.

I promised Cleopatra that I’d look into postponing my trip but made no promises, as I knew that it would be complicated and possibly expensive. Also, the situation in Chad was so unstable that there was no real way to safely reschedule the trip, since we had no idea when or if the situation would stabilize.

I looked into changing our airline tickets and hotel reservations but discovered that it would cost a bundle to change the airline tickets and some of the hotel reservations couldn’t be cancelled with so little notice. My wife thought that there was no way in hell we should cancel the trip and I agreed, though I dreaded telling Cleopatra the following day.

To pre-empt her concerns, I found a veteran Chad expert from S/CRS, the State Department’s Office of Stabilization and Reconstruction who had recently made trips to Chad and was well versed on the situation to cover for me. She was eager to get a taste for the work of a desk officer – which is kind of like being a middleman who coordinates policy between Washington and the post – and her boss graciously allowed her to assume my role while I’d be gone.

Cleopatra had an unhealthy habit of screaming my name out when she wanted to speak to me, rather than picking up her telephone and calling me, and, after I heard her yell out, “DAVVVVVVVVID!” for the first time on my last day before the trip, I knew it was time to break the news to her.

I told her about the replacement and promised that I’d check in every day via email in case any issues arose, but still, she pouted and acted like a jilted lover. In the span of 24 hours, I’d gone from being her favorite person in the office to a pariah.

After the uncomfortable conversation was over, I went back to my tiny little windowless office and took stock of the situation. I felt bad about proceeding with the trip, but knew that the situation in Chad was going to proceed apace no matter where I was. We had a fully functional embassy in Chad and I was leaving them with a more than competent replacement.

The preceding year had been the worst of my life, as I had spent months struggling with a serious illness that was hard to diagnose. I had been looking forward to visiting Sicily because I wanted to trace my ancestry and because I needed a break.

I decided to go on the trip, but in order to please Cleopatra, I brought my suitcase in to work and planned to work up until the time I needed to head to Dulles for my flight that evening. I spent the afternoon with my replacement and when it came time to leave the office at the end of the day, I ducked into Cleopatra’s office to say goodbye.

“You aren’t really going are you?” she asked, despite the fact that I was carrying a rolling suitcase.

I reminded her that I’d be checking in every day via email but she just sat at her desk, looking at me in disbelief. She asked me to draft a paper about one of the rebel leaders whom we knew nothing about and looked inconsolable when I told her I had a flight to catch. She was single with no kids and I wondered if there was anything in the world she cared about other than her job.

“Cleopatra,” I said. “This is just another false alarm in Chad. Believe me, Deby’s still going to be in office long after you and I aren’t working here any more.”

History proved me to be correct. That coup attempt and others fizzled and Deby is still in office, longer after both Cleopatra and I left the State Department. But my relationship with my boss was never the same and my next evaluation from her was good but not great. (And in the Foreign Service, only complete reprobates get bad evaluations, so good, not great ones don’t take you very far.)

My wife and I had a great time in Sicily, though, hitchhiking to the villages my grandparents came from, enjoying the food and wine as though it was our job, and trying hard to forget about Chad and Cleo, despite daily missives from her to my gmail account. When I was asked to choose between travel and work, I chose travel, but I don’t think many other FSO’s would have done the same.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.
[Photo via Opendemocracy on Flickr]

The ultimate road trip: 12,500 miles across Africa on a motorcycle

Thomas Tomczyk is serious about motorcycles. He’s done three motorcycle trips across India, from the steamy southern tip all the way up to the frozen highlands of Ladakh. Now he’s starting his childhood dream–an epic trip 12,500 miles (20,000 km) across Africa.

His zigzag tour will take in 22 African nations including South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, the Saharawi Republic, and Morocco. . .

. . .before he ends up skinny, exhausted, and happy at my house in Spain, where my wife will fatten him up with her excellent paella.

Full disclosure: Thomas is a friend of mine. We covered the massive Hindu pilgrimage of Kumbh Mela together in 2001 and barely managed not to get trampled to death by hordes of naked holy men. But even if I didn’t know him, this trip is so thoroughly cool I would have reported on it anyway.

Thomas isn’t just going on vacation; he’ll be visiting innovative grassroots projects that are making life better for the average African. Through his website Africa Heart Beat he’ll be telling us about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, such as creating a job center for landmine victims in Mozambique, an AIDS theater group in Botswana, and a Muslim-Christian vocational center in Mali that’s bringing the two communities together.

“The idea of crossing Africa came to me when I was 10,” Thomas says.”A large map of the world hung above my bed in a small Warsaw apartment. I would study the geography of each continent, its road and railroad network. The most prominent continent would be Africa, placed in the middle of the map, right above where my head would rest on the pillow. The idea stayed in my mind for years. I would eventually learn to ride motorcycles in India and cover the Horn of Africa for publications in Poland and US. In January 2009 my grandmother passed away and I decided it was time to do the trek I’ve been thinking about for so long. Traveling for travel’s sake was past me, and I decided I needed to find a purpose as I travel, something that would give meaning to the journey and benefit others.”

While 20,000 km is a long way to ride, he’s done it before in India. His longest journey there was 20,000 km on a 1950s technology 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet. I’ve ridden that bike and it’s a monster– heavy and tough enough for the task. This time he’ll be probably picking up a KTM 640 LC Adventure, a lighter but rugged off-road bike from a dealer in South Africa when he flies there Thanksgiving Day.

He’ll be crossing some very remote areas but will keep in touch as much as possible with an array of communications equipment. There will be regular updates on his blog, Facebook page, and YouTube channel. On the day after Thanksgiving, when Thomas is safely in Johannesburg and on the first day of his eight-month journey I’ll be writing about some of the gear he’s bringing along and share some advice he has for covering your own journeys as you do them.

Know of a project Thomas should cover? Tell us about it in the comments section!

More Independence Days to Celebrate

August is another Independence Day bonanza. The shifts of power didn’t happen all at once, but 1960 was a big year. If you’re in any of these countries expect a holiday. Maybe there will be fireworks or a parade or a speech or two.

  • August 1 – Benin gained independence from France
  • August 3– Niger gained its independence from France
  • August 5 –Burkina Faso also gained independence from France.
  • August 11–Guess which country Chad gained independence from? That’s right, France.
  • August 13–Central African Republic also gained independence from–you guessed it–France.
  • August 14- Pakistan from the U.K. in 1947.
  • August 15- India from the U.K. in 1947.
  • August 17- Gabon. Can you guess the country and year? If you said France and 1960, ***ding ding ding ! [Did you hear the you win bells?]
  • August 19- Afganistan from the U.K. in 1919. Wow, that’s early.
  • August 24- Ukraine in 1991.
  • August 25- Uruguay from Brazil in 1825.
  • August 27- Moldova from U.S.S.R. in 1991
  • August 31- Kyrgystan from the U.S.S.R in 1991 and Trinidad and Tobago from the U.K. in 1962.

*The information is from the International Calendar published by the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Madison, Wisconsin. They put this calendar together every year and other Peace Corps groups sell it as a fundraiser.