Monday, August 31, 2020


Ukraine has popped up several times in my life. The first time was when I was visiting friends in Curitiba, Brazil, and we walked through Tingui Park to kill some time. This park was created in honor of Ukrainian immigrants who moved to Curitiba during the 19th century where they built a replica of the chapel of St. Michael. Last year I watched through the HBO miniseries Chernobyl and was fascinated-terrified. (It’s such a good series, though; I highly recommend it.) And just recently, I spoke with a Canadian organization that promotes Ukrainian culture.

Zakarpattia Oblast, Ukraine

While some linguists attribute the origin to mean “borderland,” others lean towards it meaning something closer to “region” or “homeland” instead. It is noted that the older accepted usage in English of “The Ukraine” is incorrect grammatically and politically (I’m guilty of saying this I think, but not anymore because I’m reformed). It’s just Ukraine. Plain and simple.

Ukraine is located in eastern Europe, surrounded by Belarus to the north; Russia to the north and east; Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula to the south; Moldova and Romania to the southwest; and Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland to the west. The Black Sea lies to the south, and more specifically, the Chorn Sea to the southwest and the Sea of Azov to the southeast. It’s the second largest country by area in Europe with several major river systems that flow into the Black Sea. There are a few mountain ranges in the west (Carpathian Mountains) and the south (Crimean Mountains) with plateaus, steppes, and a highland area. It’s mostly in a temperate climate zone with Crimea dipping into a subtropical area, which helps create diversity in flora and fauna.

Chernobyl nuclear plant

Evidence of Neanderthal settlements date back to 40,000-45,000 BC. Mammoth fossils have also been found in the area, and it’s also thought that this area may have been one of the areas that had domesticated the horse. It soon became the object of envy for several empires and kingdoms as they started creating colonies along the Black Sea. During the 5th and 6th centuries, migrations of people from Ukraine to the Balkans helped establish many of the Slavic countries, while the Antes (predecessors to the Ukrainians) moved into the area. Kiev was established during the 6th century along the Dnieper River and became an important city-state as part of Kievan Rus’. By the 10th and 11th centuries, it rose to one of the most influential and powerful states in Europe. Vladimir the Great’s reign, which introduced Christianity, also became known as the Golden Age of Kievan Rus’ (right around the end of the first millennium), but by the 13th century, they were dealing with a Mongol invasion. Around the middle of the 14th century, the kind of Poland got in his head to invade the Kievan Rus’ (which had become part of Lithuania at this point). It took nearly a hundred years, but that land was finally transferred to Poland. At the same time, Crimean Tatars raided Ukrainian lands a crap-ton of times, taking an estimated 60,000 Ukrainians. After this, the Cossacks began to emerge as a military power of sorts. The mid-1600s introduced a 30-year stretch called The Ruin because it seemed that everyone was fighting over who wants to control Ukraine: Russia, Crimean Khanate, Poland, Cossacks, and the Ottoman Empire, basically ending with dividing it between Russia and Poland (who didn’t see that coming?). Crimea was annexed to Russia in 1783 following years of ethnic fighting, and the Russians took over much of Ukraine, creating Novorossiya (“New Russia”). They started forcing people to switch over to Russian and prohibited Ukrainian. During much of the 1800s, Ukraine was mostly rural, and many of its citizens chose to move to Siberia and the far reaches of Russia (my guess is that they’re all introverts). Ukraine entered WWI on both sides: aligning themselves with either Austria or Russia; in the end, both empires fell. Part of the country was taken in as part of Poland, and the other part was a founding member of the USSR. Between the wars, a powerful underground Ukrainian culture movement was brewing, and they struggled with the aftermath of the Russian Civil War and Stalin’s Russia. Kiev became the site of a significant battle during WWII, where nearly 600,000 Russians were either killed or taken captive. Although parts of Ukraine were fighting alongside Russia, other parts were being occupied by Nazi Germany, which didn’t go well for the Ukrainians. As they were trying to rebuild after the war, Ukraine was also hit with a famine which complicated things. Russia handed Crimea back over to Ukraine (well, Ukrainian SSR at the time). Between the 1950-1980s, Soviet Ukraine built a reputation as an important center for arms manufacturing and high-tech research. But in 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster would put it on the map as the world’s worst nuclear accident (that is, until the Fukushima incident in 2011, but please, watch Chernobyl on HBO). In 1990, Ukraine gained its independence as Russia broke up. Most of the 1990s brought an economic slowdown, which didn’t make the people very happy. In 2004, a seemingly rigged election (involving poisoning the opposition candidate) led to the Orange Revolution. A lot of debate over whether they want to be tied to the EU or to Russia created quite a bit of civil unrest, especially in relationship to the Orange Revolution, and Russia took back Crimea over this (it’s kind of a complicated situation, and I realize this is completely over-simplifying it).

Although I’ve usually seen it written as Kiev, I think there’s a debate on whether the capital city should officially be called Kyiv (at least in English, perhaps). This city, located on the Dnieper River, is one of the most populous cities in Europe. As a capital city, it has special legal status. Since the river essentially divides the city in half, places in the city are known as being on the “Right Bank” and “Left Bank.” Historically, the city was settled on the right bank but expanded on the other side of the river during the 20th century. Today, it’s an important city as a cultural, economic, governmental, and educational and scientific center. The horse chestnut is one of the symbols of the city that you’ll often see engraved throughout the city.

If you're looking for IT jobs, you might want to look at Ukraine.

During Ukraine’s Soviet years, it was the second-strongest economy in Europe. After the country gained its independence, they struggled for about a decade to get their footing. Just as soon as they finally started getting their feet underneath them, they were really hit hard by the Global Economic Crisis of 2008. Ukraine has a strong industry in vehicle production, and that includes trucks, spacecraft, satellites, and launch vehicles. Now, Ukraine has risen in the IT market and has also made strides in infrastructure, renewable energy, and in Internet/telecommunications. However, corruption and political instability still gives cause for a widening gap in income inequality.

Although Ukrainian is the official language, Russian is still widely spoken in many areas of the country, especially in the eastern and southern regions of the country. Ukrainian is used pretty much throughout the rural areas everywhere, with Russian being spoken in the eastern and southern regions, and some central cities. There are quite a few Hungarian speakers in the Zakarpattia Oblast in the southwestern corner of Ukraine. And in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Ukrainian is the official state language, but the local Crimean Tatar language is also protected (even though the majority of Crimean Tatars just use Russian in everyday life).

St Sophia Cathedral in Kiev

An interesting poll in 2006 asked about Ukrainians religious beliefs and over 62% responded that they weren’t religious, non-believers, or were not really affiliated with any particular religion. Ten years later, they polled them again 70% responded that they were believers of some religion in general, with only 2.7% responding as atheists (at least we’re represented). Over 80% are Christian, with the majority following Orthodox, and a smaller number of Greek Rite Catholics, Protestants, and Latin Rite Catholics. There are even a few Muslims, Jews, and Hindus in Ukraine.

When I was reading about Kiev, two famous former residents stuck out to me. The first was Jan Koum, founder of WhatsApp, who was from Kiev. I just started using WhatsApp a few years ago to communicate with friends in Brazil. While it’s not quite as used in the US, it’s widely used in many countries with a weaker cellular infrastructure. The second was the Pritzkers of Chicago. Their family originated from Kiev and moved to Chicago around the beginning of the 20th century and is now one of the wealthiest families in the world. J.B. Pritzker is the current governor of Illinois, where we used to live and where Spotify somehow thinks I still live.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, August 23, 2020


What a week. It was our first week back to school, so it felt like a month of Mondays at times. Actually, all in all, it wasn’t too bad. Our kids’ school district went to 100% remote learning, and I’m completely grateful for that. It didn’t go without its problems, however. But we made it through, and next week will be easier. I think. I hope.

Interesting flavor combo, but super dry. I think I will experiment around with this still.

But today, I’m making Ugandan food. I started out with Ugandan Pineapple Nut Bread. Now, I forgot to put one of the ingredients (wheat bran) on my grocery list for my husband to pick up, so I had to be creative and hoped for the best. But I pulled out a large bowl and added 2 c of whole wheat flour, 1 c of breadcrumbs (to mimic the bran, which I found out my husband hates), 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp salt, and 1 c roasted peanuts (that I crushed a bit) into the bowl. After I stirred everything together, I added in 2 beaten eggs and a cup of crushed pineapple. It was at this point I started to doubt this recipe. I don’t know this for a fact, I just know it to be true: I think it left out any kind of liquid. So, even though it called for the pineapple to be drained, I added the pineapple juice back into the mix. Once I mixed that all together, I added it into a greased loaf pan and baked it at 350ºF for about an hour. It was just too dry. I think the flavor might have been there, but it was just too dry. I also don’t think the breadcrumbs were a good substitute (probably would’ve been better if I had just used white flour). Can’t win them all, I guess.

This will never not be delicious. It's amazing.

My main dish today is Chickennat. I rubbed my chicken pieces (I used boneless thighs) with some salt and pepper. In a large pot, I melted some butter in it and added the chicken and some onions. I covered it and let it cook down on low heat, adding in a little chicken stock a bit at a time until I added in the whole two cups. After about 15 minutes, I ladled out a ½ c of broth and mixed it with the peanut butter to thin it out a little bit before adding it back to the pot and brought it up to a boil. I removed another bit of broth and mixed it in with 2 egg yolks, stirred and added it back to the stew bringing the heat back down to a simmer. I let this simmer until the chicken was done but taking care that it didn’t rise above a simmer. When it was done, I garnished this with chopped parsley leaves and served it over white rice. I really liked this, and I think everyone did except my son.

Such a flavorful way to get your veggies in.

As a side dish, I made Ugandan Curried Cabbage, an homage to the number of Indians who were living in Uganda for so many decades. So, in a large saucepan, I heated up some vegetable oil and sautéed some onions until they started to look transparent and then added in some minced garlic with it. Then I threw in some grated carrots, thin-sliced green pepper, and a little salt to it and let it cook for about five minutes until the carrots started to get soft. After stirring it up, I added in a little curry powder and ground ginger and then added in my shredded cabbage. I tossed a little lemon juice in after that and stirred continuously over medium heat for about five minutes. I added 2-3 Tbsp of water and covered it, letting it cook on low heat to let it steam. It’s done when the cabbage is soft and bends easily. I used some of the core pieces, so some pieces weren’t quite as soft as others. Regardless, I really liked this. I think it would be good with some potato in it and maybe even some chicken or shrimp perhaps. It could be its own meal.

And we have a winner!

As an after dinner treat, I made African Ginger Chai Tea. I brought water and milk to a boil, stirring often. Then I added some ground ginger, ground cinnamon, ground cloves, ground black pepper, and ground cardamom and 6 teabags of black tea. I continued to stir for about 3-5 minutes before removing the tea bags. You can add sugar to suit your taste, which I felt you really need. But once you get the sweetness just right, this is amazing. Everyone agreed with me on this. And it just hit me that it’s the black pepper that gives chai its bite. I had no clue up until now. Eight thumbs up on this one.

I enjoyed this meal, despite what the others in my house thinks.

I’ve always wondered what I’ll do with this blog after I get done with it, besides making a book about it. After reading about Ugandan cultural arts this week and finding out I can access a few books by Ugandan authors through the Kindle store, I’m starting to think about doing a project on African authors. I have a few ideas I’m coming up with, but finding out what’s on other country’s required reading lists for high school and college is something I think would be interesting to delve into. Like I really need another excuse to buy books.

Up next: Ukraine

Saturday, August 22, 2020


Of all African countries, Uganda has one of the strongest musical cultures. The country is divided into four regions, and each one is fairly distinct with their own cultural traditions based on the original tribes that lived there. But music and dance are interwoven into many of the major life events, like marriage, birth, death, and holidays.

Drums of all sizes can be found in Ugandan music and is really at the heart of each piece. Some drums, like ones used in royal music, can be enormous, while other drums are much smaller. There are also a number of other percussion instruments, string instruments (like lyres and a type of fiddle called the kadingidi), and lamellophones (like the mbira). Vocal music, especially as a call and response form, is also very important in Bantu and Buganda music.

When it comes to dance, each tribal area has its own styles that told their stories. In the Buganda region, one of the most common dances is the bakisimba dance. The amaggunju was a dance that was specially performed for the Kabaka, or the king, in the royal palace.

Bakisimba dance

Uganda’s music was highly influenced by the musical styles of other areas of Africa (like soukous from the Congo and Afrobeat from West Africa), the Caribbean (ragga and dancehall from Jamaica), and the US (hip-hop and gospel). I found quite a few Ugandan musicians on Spotify and listened through several of them. There’s such a diversity in genres, and many of these artists span more than one. Since there are quite a few artists, I thought it might be more helpful to break them down by genre and list other key genres they perform in parenthesis:

Bebe Cool

Reggae/ragga/dancehall: Bebe Cool, Bobi Wine (also Afrobeat), Papa Cidy (also Afrobeat and Kidandali), Eddy Kenzo (also Afropop)

Afrobeat: Jose Chameleone/Chameleone, Iryn Namubiru (also R&B, reggae, Afropop)

Afropop: David Lutalo

Afrojazz: Fred Masagazi

Afrigo Band

Kidandali: Afrigo Band

Kadongo Kamu: Herman Basudde

R&B: Aziz Azion

Hip-hop/rap: Bataka Squad, Navio

Up next: the food

Thursday, August 20, 2020


Ugandan art, like most African art, was mostly overlooked by the Western art world until the 20th century. The earliest art consisted mainly of rock drawings and roughly carved heads and other sculptures. Essentially, utility and functionality was key to these early traditions, putting their artistic touch into tools like baskets, ceramic pottery, jewelry design, batik staining on fabric, and other utensils used in the home.

Pretty sure this is what I'll look like coming out of quarantine.

Today, art is an important part of their cultural expression. And while Ugandan art in the past hasn’t been an area of focus as a modern movement, there is more of a push on a national level to encourage people to join in and be more creative, to create more art and tell their stories.

by Fred Mutebi

One of the most well-known artists from Uganda is Fred Mutebi. He graduated from college in Kampala and then took a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at a university in Memphis, Tennessee. Mutebi is known for creating these multi-color woodcut pieces of art that depict important scenes from Uganda’s history or portraying its landscape. Another well-known artist is Geoffrey Banadda. His style of painting is characterized by a sleek style yet abstract. As a different kind of artist, Raymond Nsereko uses other mediums like fabrics of different materials and designs.

by Geoffrey Banadda

It’s difficult to find information on literature in Uganda prior to Europeans moving into this area of Africa. I imagine it was mainly oral stories: parable-like cautionary tales, riddles, and histories, passed down from generation to generation. For the most part, I believe, written literature didn’t really get off the ground until the 20th century, if not just prior to this perhaps for a few lucky souls.

Today, I think most literature is probably published in English, but perhaps it’s published in both English and Swahili versions. One of the books that I saw mentioned quite a bit is Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s 2014 novel Kintu. It tells the story of Bagunda history, intertwined with doses of mythology, sexism, curses, and drama. It’s won several awards, and I’m happy to find that it’s available on Amazon and the Kindle store for only $10.99, so I might get it once I finish a few books in my queue.

Another book that popped up several times is the 1998 novel Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa. This book tells a coming-of-age story just prior to Uganda’s independence and how the family moves to Kampala just as Idi Amin takes power. Initially supportive of Amin, they quickly realize what a monster of a leader he really is. This one is also available for the Kindle for $12.99, so I might add this one in as well.

Up next: music and dance

Monday, August 17, 2020


Recently, I was watching an episode of the show Adam Ruins Everything about myths and fallacies about giving. One of the topics he talked about is TOMS Shoes, where you buy a $60+ pair of shoes (that costs about $4 to make) and they donate another pair of shoes to someone in need (typically overseas, like Africa or Latin America). He mentioned that these free clothing drives to people in need overseas is a terrible idea, and introduced a guy from Uganda to explain why they don’t need free shoes: They already have shoes and shoe stores. Pictures of kids running around without shoes is using extreme cases as “poverty porn,” which implies the whole country is like that when it’s not. Plus free clothing and shoes disrupts their own textile industry, impacting thousands and thousands of jobs. Those aren’t even their high-priority needs (think bigger impact things, like reliable electricity, clean water, stable/safe jobs), and the best way to help is to send money through reputable charitable organizations.

The name Uganda comes from the Buganda Kingdom, which had its territory throughout most of the south-central part of the country. Uganda is actually the Swahili word for Buganda, and it was the British who used this name as the name of the protectorate.

This small-ish country lies in east-central Africa, surrounded by South Sudan to the north; Kenya to the east; Tanzania and Rwanda to the south; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west. Much of the southeast corner of the country is covered underwater from Lake Victoria, a major water source for this part of Africa (the third largest lake in the world!). Its western borders also cut through Lake Edward and Lake Albert. Although several of these lakes are huge, they are technically a landlocked country. Because of its proximity to the equator, they have a warm tropical climate and their average temperatures don’t change that much throughout the year. Uganda has two seasons: rainy and dry, which generally alternate every few months. The land also tends to be more of a plateau surrounded by mountains.

Idi Amin

The earliest people to move into this area are thought to have come from central Africa as they were migrating south. Arab traders began working their way inland during the 1830s, followed by British explorers who were looking for the beginning of the Nile River. And you know who always follows the explorers: the missionaries. The Imperial British East Africa Company started negotiating trade deals in the late 1880s, but had to deal with people in Buganda fighting over religion. Eventually, the IBEAC decided they couldn’t work in that environment and left, which left Buganda to be taken in by the British as a protectorate. The British then brought 32,000 workers from India to Uganda to help build the Uganda Railway. While many left after the project, many also stayed. In 1962, Uganda gained its independence from the UK. And that’s when the problems started, and it’s complicated. Buganda was the largest kingdom, and its relationship with the federal government dominated their first days of independence. A few different parties were formed, so there were problems with how many parliamentary seats each party was to get. And some of these issues were basically a tribal divide showing up on a national level now, essentially a Bantu vs Nilotic fight (somewhat set up by the British, knowing the historical rivalry). One of the turning points was when one of the MPs called attention to Col. Idi Amin’s looting of ivory and gold from the Congo. Under the direction of Milton Obote, he arrested several members of the party in power and took over, and then he gave Amin even more power (sure, what could go wrong?) and abolished the constitution. When the Kabaka (their king) tried to stand up to them, Idi Amin is ordered to destroy the palace, and the Kabaka escaped to London. So, in 1971, Idi Amin kicked out Obote and took over power himself. (His name might be familiar to some because of the 2006 movie The Last King of Scotland, starring Forest Whittaker as Idi Amin.) He was really just the worst. One of his nicknames was the Butcher of Uganda for having slaughtered an estimated 80,000-500,000 Ugandans during his eight-year reign of terror. Things slowly started to get better once he was gone, and a decade later, the world was taking notice of the leadership changes happening in Uganda. It didn’t last long though, since they got caught up in the Second Congo War and struggled in a civil war with the Lord’s Resistance Army which killed thousands and displaced a ton more than that. Accusations of election rigging, nepotism, and responses to extreme anti-gay policies still create some political instability in Uganda.

The capital and largest city in the country is Kampala. Originally, this was the hill which the British set up their fort as they were creating the Uganda Protectorate. However, that hill was also where the king would also do his hunting, especially impalas (no, not the car, the antelope-like animal; but its logo makes sense now, doesn't it?). The city has expanded to cover seven hills now as well as being surrounded by wetlands, swamps, rivers and isn’t terribly far from the shores of Lake Victoria. There are several schools of all levels along with museums and theatres, sporting venues, restaurants, and entertainment. The country’s main international airport isn’t in Kampala; it’s in the suburb of Entebbe.

Sesame seeds

Some of Uganda’s biggest exports come in agriculture, and mostly as coffee, fish, maize, tobacco, tea, sugar, cocoa beans, sesame seeds (which I just now found out how sesame seeds look before it’s picked and processed), and other beans. They also have sizable exports in oil, base metals, cement, hides and skins, and flowers. Despite having found oil in the Lake Albert area, they’re still listed as a heavily indebted country, and even though they have some economic growth, they still have a lot of problems with poverty. Much of their problems lie in infrastructure: needing access to better roads, more stable electric grid, clean water, etc.

The vast majority of Ugandans are Christian. And of those, there’s a strong Roman Catholic following, followed by the Anglican Church of Uganda. There are a few other Christian denominations here and there as well as a significant following of Islam as well.

Swahili is the official and most widely spoken language in Uganda. However, English is also an official language after decades of being a protectorate of the UK. There are quite a few languages spoken in Uganda, and although the use of Swahili has created some tensions in certain parts of the country, it is often used as a lingua franca.

Working on catching tsetse flies to study the disease.

One of the things that stuck out when I was reading about Uganda's history was that between 1900-1920, there was an epidemic of African trypanosomiasis, or African sleeping sickness. Now that we’re in a pandemic ourselves, I’ve been reading a little bit about past epidemics. So, sleeping sickness is caused by a parasite spread by the tsetse fly. It starts out as fevers, headaches, joint pain, and itchiness, and then it progresses to confusion, poor coordination, and lack of sleep. While many can survive it, for some it can shut down your organs and kill them. But as we’re only five months into this with no end in sight (at least in the US), I looked at those dates again and realized they dealt with that epidemic FOR TWENTY YEARS. Granted we’re talking about a century ago, and now we have the advantages of modern medicine, but even at that, sleeping sickness is still a very real disease today. Especially in the rural areas of central Africa. I can’t even imagine--and don’t want to--living through a twenty-year epidemic right now.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, August 9, 2020


Yesterday, I took a short road trip where we didn’t get out of the car. There were so many things we were wanting to do this summer, things we wanted to see, places to go visit, but none of it got done. And now, it’s time to start school again. I got this brand new vehicle a couple months back and have barely driven it anywhere. I have another road trip loop planned of taking state highways I’ve never been on. I asked my daughter what she wants for her birthday next month, and she said “Tacos al pastor, and a drive long enough in the car for me to fall asleep.” I think I can do that.
I have eaten way too many of these. I don't think any will last to breakfast.

What I can do today is cook food from Tuvalu. It was a little difficult finding recipes for this country. I guess it seemed like the same few recipes are the only ones being shared. So, here we are. The first recipe I made was Coconut Banana Fritters. I had to kind of make up the recipe for this since all I found, oddly enough, was the ingredients list. So, in a big bowl, I mixed all my ingredients together, stirring in between a few of them: 2 rough chopped bananas, ¼ c unsweetened coconut flakes, 2 Tbsp sugar, a large pinch of salt, an egg, ½ c of coconut milk, ½ c all-purpose flour, ½ c cornstarch, and ½ tsp baking powder. I stirred everything together until it was like a batter. Then I heated up my vegetable oil in a skillet (using enough to fry with), and when it was hot, I dropped spoonfuls of batter into the skillet. It didn’t take long for it to brown up; I flipped it to brown on the other side. Once I removed them to cool on a paper town, I dusted them with confectioner’s sugar. These were just amazing. I was skeptical that it wasn’t going to be done on the inside since it didn’t take long at all to brown, but it was good. I did get an oil burn on my shoulder from the splashing when I flipped one of them. So, that was unexpected. Now it matches the sunburn I got on my driving arm yesterday.
Surprisingly good with the salmon. I bet it would also be good with any seafood, really.

The main dish is Tuna Coconut Curry. However, it’s hard to find certain ingredients in the stores right now, so my husband picked up some salmon filets instead for me. I don’t know if salmon travels to the South Pacific or not, but you know what? They do now. I heated up some coconut oil in a large skillet and cooked some onions until they were translucent. Then I added in the ginger, garlic, crushed red pepper (in lieu of Thai bird red chilies), and curry powder and cooked it for a couple minutes. After it had become fragrant, I added in some coconut milk, chopped green onions, some julienned cucumber, and soy sauce and stirred everything together. I chopped my salmon into cubes and then added this to the skillet, letting it simmer for about 15 minutes until the fish was done. This was quite fragrant; my husband said it smelled like a restaurant in my kitchen. And actually, the salmon tasted quite good with this. And I don’t know that I’ve cooked with cucumbers like this before, but it was good. I think you could probably go with any fish for this dish.
My first time toasting coconut, or at least from what I remember.

To go with this, I made Pacific-style Coconut Rice. In a pot, I heated some oil and fried some garlic for a minute. Then I added in my rice and fried it with the garlic, sauteeing it in the oil for another minute. Then I poured in some coconut milk, some water, and salt and put the pot on high heat until the liquids started to boil. Turning the heat down to low heat, I let it simmer for about 15-20 minutes until the rice was done and then took it off the heat to rest. While the rice was steaming off the heat, I took a small saucepan and toasted my coconut. To do this, I added about a half cup of coconut to the hot dry skillet. The coconut will make its own oil. I stirred it around with a wooden spoon until it became a light brown. I thought I had set it off the heat, but accidentally put it back on the same burner, which was still hot even though I just turned the heat off. So my perfect golden color quickly turned to shades of dark brown and black. But I salvaged what I could and sprinkled a bit on top of the rice. It was still tasty, and the sweetness of the rice with the toasted coconut on top made for a nice contrast to the spiciness of the curry.
Caution: this meal will make your kitchen smell like a restaurant.

As I was making these dishes, I was prepared for how coconut heavy this meal was. But it wasn’t all in the same form. Then I realized that even though it came from the same fruit, I had it in four different forms: coconut oil, coconut milk, shredded coconut, and toasted coconut. Each with its own properties, each with its own flavor. And this is what makes this such an important part of island culture and cuisine. And we haven’t even talked about other parts of the plant yet: the leaves, the fibers, etc. There are probably few other plants that have that versatility, maybe like corn or soybeans perhaps. They’re amazing! And with that, I finish covering the T countries.

Up next: Uganda

Saturday, August 8, 2020


One of the greatest tragedies is when a culture that has declared itself the dominant culture forces out the cultural traditions of the now minority culture. But that’s exactly what happened when the London Missionary Society made itself at home in Tuvalu in the 1860s. By enforcing a rule (they made up) that no one can sing their traditional religious songs anymore and can ONLY sing songs they introduce. I would’ve died creating a secret society of people keeping their culture alive. Luckily their influence waned by the beginning of the 20th century, but the damage of losing songs to history was already done. A few songs did manage to survive and were thankfully recorded by an anthropologist/musicologist in the early 1960s.
In Tuvalu, there are a few main types of traditional songs, and many of them are tied in with dance as well as sung for daily activities or rituals. For example, there are women’s work songs, fishermen’s songs, songs for funerals, and praise songs. In some ways, these traditional songs and dances took in other Polynesian traditions. These songs have a strong rhythmic drive, often accompanied by clapping their hands or hitting them against either the floor or a sound box. Sometimes small drums are played too. The lyrics are simply short poems that are often repeated.
For much of the 20th century, traditional dances made a comeback, and they even borrowed a few dances from neighboring Samoa as well. One dance in particular, the fatele, is still performed at community events, especially if high-ranking officials are present. In the traditional fatele, it was performed by women who were sitting or kneeling, but in the modern sense, it’s danced by women standing in lines. Dance songs are a popular genre of music, although some of these songs can still be performed sitting, kneeling, or standing still. 
There weren’t a lot of modern musicians from Tuvalu that I came across. Like, at all. All the ones I found were from other nearby countries. However, one group that I included when I covered New Zealand, Te Vaka, has members from all over Oceania. And that includes members from Tuvalu or who are of Tuvaluan ancestry. My sister introduced me to Te Vaka years ago. Because I enjoy them, and I couldn’t find any others, here they are again.

Up next: the food

Thursday, August 6, 2020


Tuvalu makes use of its exotic landscape and natural materials in its art. And in many ways, their art lives all around them, in their day-to-day functions. Women often use cowrie shells to either wear as jewelry or to work into mats, wall hangings, or fans. (Cowries are actually a type of small- to medium-size sea snails.) Women also make use of other natural materials like different kinds of leaves, fronds, flowers, and coconut fibers to create headbands, headdresses, and traditional skirts and tops. There is also a special type of crocheting is called kolose that is often thought of as a national art.
While the women were making clothing and jewelry items, the men were making canoes for transport and fishing along with fish hooks. They also put together other tools of the trades for fishing and building.
Traditional buildings also utilized native plants and trees. Prior to European arrival, buildings were tied together with braided ropes, but afterwards, they introduced iron nails and corrugated materials for roofing. Today they import different kinds of timber, concrete, and other materials. A lot of these traditional buildings were painted with a white paint made of dead coral and firewood that was mixed with water.
Today, many Tuvaluan artists still tie their works back to the islands, using the land itself as a backdrop to tell a larger story. Some artists have even used their art to make a statement on current issues, like climate change. This goes for foreign artists who are attracted to Tuvalu and Tuvaluan artists living abroad. For example, there are many artists from these islands living in New Zealand who showcase their works. And a Taiwanese artist named Vincent Huang has used Tuvalu as a backdrop toward his fight for climate change awareness.
There’s not a lot of information on Tuvaluan literature, and I’m venturing to guess there just hasn’t been much of a focus on it. Either that, or the books that are written by Tuvaluan writers just aren’t readily available on a large scale. Prior to European influence, there were a great deal of folklore stories passed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next. There’s a certain element of the supernatural blending with the natural that makes its way into many of these stories from the South Pacific (think of some of the themes in the movie Moana).
One of the most celebrated Tuvaluan authors is Selina Tusitala Marsh. Her mother is of Samoan and Tuvaluan ancestry, although she grew up in New Zealand. Poet and educator, she teaches at the University of Auckland there. And from what I gathered, there are probably other writers out there, but most are living as an expat somewhere else.

Up next: music and dance

Monday, August 3, 2020


Tuvalu is an island country that seems like it blends into the other island nations of the South Pacific. And like the islands themselves, Tuvaluan culture blends itself into the broader Polynesian cultures around it. As one of the younger countries in the world, coming in at 41 years old, it’s not surprising that many people are even aware that this country exists. However, they exist in such a way that you may not realize. Keep reading to find out.

Even in the earliest of days, there was quite a bit of canoeing between the islands. And of the nine islands, eight of them were inhabited. In the Tuvaluan language, Tuvalu means “eight standing together.”

Tuvalu is an island country in the South Pacific ocean, surrounded by Nauru and the Marshall Islands to the northwest; Kiribati to the northeast; Tokelau to the east; American Samoa to the southeast; Fiji to the south; Vanuatu to the southwest; and the Solomon Islands to the west. Of the nine islands that make up Tuvalu, three of these are reef islands and the remaining six are atolls. They generally have a wet and a dry season without much of a temperature change in average highs and lows. However, they are primed for dealing with the El Niño and La Niña weather effects, and even struggled through a drought where they had to ration off water several years ago.

Evidence shows that people migrated to these islands around 3000 years ago. Some islands believe their ancestors came from Samoa, others from Tonga. The Spanish were the first Europeans to sail past these islands. The British also sailed past and charted a few of the islands. They named the island of Funafuti Ellice’s Island after an English politician (I mean, he was also the owner of the ship’s cargo, too, so it sounds like he was just sucking up), but the name was later extended to all nine islands. Russians and Dutch expeditions also came across these islands and tried renaming them too. (Sorry, guys. This one’s taken.) For a couple years, Peruvian ships started landing in Tuvalu and other islands during the mid-1800s to engage in “blackbirding,” which is essentially taking people from these islands back to Peru with them to alleviate a labor shortage. At this same time, European missionaries were also landing in Tuvalu and introducing the islanders to Christianity. Once the religion was established on all the islands, it became a British protectorate (not sure if that was coincidental or in the plans). During the late 1800s, there were established foreign traders on the islands who would act as agents for different trading companies. There were also quite a few scientific explorations and travellers who stopped in Tuvalu, including the famous writer Robert Louis Stephenson and his wife. The British actually combined a few of their protectorates into one and created the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony. The US Marines used several Tuvaluan islands as staging areas during WWII. During the mid-1970s, a referendum went to vote, and in 1978, Tuvalu gained its independence. Tuvalu has competed in several international sporting events (especially weightlifting and sprint running), dealt with tropical cyclones and natural disasters, and has been active in the conversations on climate change.

One of the main roads in Funafuti

The capital of Tuvalu is the city of Funafuti, which is actually the name of the entire atoll. Nearly 60% of the country’s population lives on Funafuti, roughly about 6300 people. And while there are actually several villages on the atoll, the capital is often considered as the entire atoll. Not only does it include this atoll, but 29 other islets. There are a couple university extensions on Funafuti, and an airport with limited service (notably, its airport code is FUN, so you know exactly what you’re getting into. Cue up the Spongebob song).

For several years between the late 1990s and early 2000s, Tuvalu had one of the best economies among the South Pacific countries. But the global economic crisis of 2008 was a bit much for them, and growth slowed way down while inflation went up. Agriculture is still really important, especially with the cultivation of coconut products along with the commercialized fishing industry. Because of its remoteness and difficulties in traveling to and from this isolated country, tourism isn’t really all that great, but they do get quite a few ecotourists making their way through Tuvalu.

English is one of the official languages in Tuvalu, although hardly anyone really speaks it, except maybe for foreigners. Most people speak the other official language: Tuvaluan. It’s distantly related to languages in the Polynesian family like Hawaiian, Samoan, Tongan, Tahitian, and Maori. It’s pretty much spoken by everyone, except the island of Nui has its own language that’s a little closer to Gilbertese.

Tuvalu has its own state church: the Congregational Christian Church of Tuvalu. Nearly 97% of the population follow this church, even though their constitution lets you pick your religion or change religions or even decline religious instruction at school. There are also some other Christian churches there, like Roman Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, and the Brethren Church. And with the introduction of Christianity to the islands during the mid-1800s, native animism essentially stopped. Mixed in among these, you’ll also find a small following of Baha’i and Muslim groups.

So, here’s my big thing I found out about Tuvalu. You know when you look at internet addresses, and they all have a domain name followed by the top-level domain: a dot and an ending, like .com (usually companies), .org (usually nonprofit organizations), .gov (government), .edu (schools, educational institutions), etc. But then there are a few other lesser used ones, like .co and .biz, but one I’ve seen on occasion is .tv. Well, apparently, when they were doling out top-level domain abbreviations for different countries, Tuvalu got .tv. And one of the main sources for Tuvalu’s revenue comes leasing out this domain name, which is now managed by Verisign until 2021. They also brought in a lot of revenue at one time from letting people/companies use their area code as a premium rate telephone number (think 1-900 numbers), but I’ve also read they got a lot of pushback being associated with sex hotlines and stuff, and they stopped doing this.

Up next: art and literature