What did I learn: GABON

This month I learned more about Gabon – a country I had very little knowledge about when I started!

I focused a lot on politics in Gabon, especially President Ali Bongo – who holds power despite ill health, and inherited control of the country from his father Omar Bongo on his death (while Ali’s mother has taken her career in a different direction). The 2016 election still resonates deeply around Gabon’s politics and culture – the opposition almost ousted Bongo democratically, but vote rigging and then a violent crackdown balanced the tables back in Bongo’s favour.

France’s role in Gabon also kept coming up – like most of French Africa, Gabon is economically and fiscally tied to the former colonial power, and Gabon is particular was the poster child for La Françafrique – France’s neocolonial method of keeping control and access to resources in its former colonies.

Gabon’s own natural resources play a big part in the country’s story – the export of oil and timber, the deposits of uranium (including a rare natural nuclear reactor), and Gabon’s interesting new position as a climate leader, where it uses a carbon-negative status to garner international investment.

Gabon’s thick forest is also home to incredible natural wildlife, some of which is vanishingly rare in the rest of the world – forest elephants, beach hippos, and western lowland gorillas. There’s some amazing videos of them in the wild (including the famous mirror test). I also got a chance just a few days ago to see some of these Gabonese animals in-person at the Calgary Zoo – they’re part of an international western lowland gorilla breeding program, as the species is critically endangered. I even got an up-close from a soon-to-be mother who had propped her feet up on the glass to relax.

Nature and politics aside, Gabon also has some really interesting culture and media – lots of good podcasts, radio, tv shows like Mami Wata (please point me in the direction of episode 2!), movies like Boxing Libreville, Yannis Davy Guibinga‘s photography, and Angèle Rawiri’s novel The Fury and Cries of Women. There’s also great music, including modern pop from Shan’L, Arielle T, Latchow, J-Rio, 80s disco from Ondendo, and traditional musical instruments like the ngombi harp and the ngongo mouth bow. On top of that, I got to learn more about beautiful traditional weddings and Bwiti healing.

As for Gabonese cuisine, I definitely got to try a lot of new things – nyembwé chicken with rondelles was really tasty, and iporo is a great way to cook cassava leaves. I also found some good instant fufu and a great baked banana recipe. However, I may have had my biggest culinary failure of this year (not great since it’s only February) – I learned a hard lesson about checking an ingredient’s freshness with odika chicken.

This month: GABON

By funny coincidence, for the second February in a row, I’ve pulled a sub-Saharan African country out of my hat – I think I subconsciously need a break from the Canadian winter. This month I’ll be learning more about Gabon!

So, what do I know about Gabon, off the top of my head? Sadly, almost nothing – as I said when I covered Mozambique and Togo, I have some serious blind spots in my education about Africa. I do know that Gabon was a French colony, but even for that region of Africa, my knowledge about Gabon is particularly blank.

I could name you a basic fact about the surrounding countries – Cameroon has strife between its French majority and English minority, Equatorial Guinea is a particularly authoritarian state and one of the rare Spanish-speaking African countries, and that for a short time both Congos were officially called the Republic of Congo (though they’ve never been one country and were under different colonial powers). But Gabon? I could point to it on a map, that’s about it.

That’s why I have this project – this is going to be a great learning opportunity!

What did I learn: NEW ZEALAND

Possibly the actual location of heaven – Source

This month I got to learn more about New Zealand. This is the first country I’ve pulled for Locally Foreign that I’ve actually been to! Because of that, my dad’s connections to NZ, and me being from a closely-related country, I started with a fair amount of base knowledge. However, there was so much more that I got a chance to learn about.

I really gravitated to learning about Maori history, politics, and culture. That included the use of Aotearoa as the country’s name, the revitalization of te reo Maori, the Treaty of Waitangi and Maori law, ta moko tattoos, the haka, Maori heavy metal, and reading The Bone People. I also got to learn about the Moriori, as well as New Zealand’s own colonies: Niue, the Cook Islands, Tokelau, and previously, Samoa.

In Canada, we have an image of New Zealand as having much better relations between settlers and Indigenous people than we do. However, there is still plenty of racism against Maori (including formal complaints when te reo is used on TV) and it still doesn’t shake the reality of both Canada and New Zealand as settler colonies in the first place, with all the violence, displacement, and cultural damage that entails. But between the later arrival of Europeans, the power of the Maori during the New Zealand Wars (both weakened and honed from the previous Musket Wars), and the cultural and linguistic closeness of the iwis, it feels like Maori are in a position to advance self-determination in a way that is less readily available to other Indigenous peoples right now. The huge revival of Maori culture and language, especially in wider New Zealand society, and the Treaty of Waitangi as a living document in current law are powerful examples that the rest of the world can learn from.

I also got to learn about other bits of life in New Zealand – there’s more good podcasts than you can shake a stick at, including two great history ones, a look at New Zealand’s housing crisis, its relationship with China, or reflections on the tragedies of the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings or the 2011 earthquake (and the slow work repairing its iconic ruined cathedral). I also got a chance to learn more about the unique wildlife of Aotearoa, see some of the sillier side of politics, and check out two blockbuster Kiwi films; The Piano and What We Do in the Shadows.

As for food, the biggest thing I noticed was how many dishes are contested between New Zealand and Australia. I didn’t get a chance to attempt pavlova, but alongside Anzac biscuits, Minties, and flat whites, there’s a lot of antipodean overlap and arguing over who invented what. I was shocked that “regular coffee” (aka drip coffee) is almost unheard of in NZ. I also got a giant box of snacks (1,2,3), took a crack at trying non-sauv blanc wines, warmed up to Marmite, and attempted to make Kiwi onion dip while missing an ingredient.

This month has really made me want to go back to New Zealand now as an adult – catch me on the hiking trails! Kia ora, Aotearoa!

Mt. Eden, Auckland – Source

This month: NEW ZEALAND

Happy new year, here’s to an upwards trajectory for 2022! This month, I get the first country that I’ve actually visited: New Zealand!

So, before we get into this month, what do I already know about New Zealand?

  • I’ve been there! It was a family vacation when I was 11 or so, but there’s only so much you can absorb at that age, but we went all through the North Island. We went to Bay of Islands, Auckland, Rotorua (I remember the sulphur smell through the whole town from all the geothermal vents), Napier (all Art Deco buildings), and Wellington. I have two particularly sharp memories – seeing cute Little Blue Penguins at an aquarium, and getting violently carsick off my parents’ attempt to drive a sharp mountain route on the opposite side of the road. Sadly, I don’t think I have any pictures left of that trip.
  • That trip came about because my dad had routine business trips to New Zealand when I was a kid in the 90s – he’d have to go for two weeks every other month when a major deal was happening and come back jet-lagged out of his gourd (worse because there were no direct flights from Canada in those days). He may be a good resource this month – he’s spent a lot of time in Auckland and Wellington and still has many friends and contacts from NZ.
  • Apart from my personal experience, New Zealand is probably the most “local” and least “foreign” for me as an anglophone Canadian – we share a lot of the same British colonial history, and in particular, we have a similar simmering inferiority complex to our larger neighbour – Australia and the US – and suffer the indignity of being mistaken for them. I don’t know a lot of the specifics of New Zealand history, however, so I want to learn more!
  • I’m really interested to also learn more both about Maori culture and about the relationship between the Maori and the Pakeha (non-Maori New Zealanders). The Maori seem to have a much stronger position constitutionally than Indigenous people have in Canada – I definitely want to learn more about Maori history, and more about the Treaty of Waitangi, which I know is the legal basis of Maori/Pakeha relations but not much more. I’m also aware that New Zealand had considered changing its flag away from the very colonial one it currently has, and the idea has been floated of changing the country’s name to Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand – however I’ve lost track of where either decision has ended up.
  • NZ’s current PM, Jacinda Ardern, has made international media for being outspokenly progressive, but I don’t know much more about New Zealand’s politics – if they have even a fraction of the ridiculousness that comes up in fellow Westminster political systems like Australia and Canada, there’s going to be some good stories.
  • When I lived in Victoria, BC, the earthquake in Christchurch was a role model / cautionary tale for when/if the Big One was to hit the west coast of North America.
  • As for Kiwi cuisine, I know they’re major fruit exporters, and their lamb is particularly well regarded. They also have a penchant for Marmite / Vegemite, which did not appeal to me as a kid, but I’m willing to give the old college try now as an adult. I also would love to see what truly NZ-distinctive dishes are out there.
  • New Zealand’s most famous culinary export is their wines – I absolutely love Marlborough sauvignon blanc, with that very distinctive gooseberry/”cat’s pee” flavour. I think I’ll try out some other types of wine from NZ – apparently there’s some good red wines coming from there now.
  • I know very little about the South Island – I know it’s mountainous, so good hiking and skiing, and less populated, but not much more. How much cultural and political difference is there between the South and North Islands?
  • There’s plenty of internationally famous Kiwis, like Edmund Hillary, Lorde, Russell Crowe, Taika Waititi, and Peter Jackson (and Kiwis being sick of being connected with the Lord of the Rings movies), but I really want to learn more about “New Zealand famous” artists, comedians, and musicians – ones that are beloved at home but not really known abroad. Same goes for Kiwi movies and tv – I saw Whale Rider when it came out in theatres many years ago, but that’s about it.
  • New Zealand’s All Blacks are one of the best rugby teams in the world and is famous for the pre-game haka – I definitely want to learn more about that history.

And of course, a very serious look at the crucial differences between Canada and New Zealand:

Locally Foreign: 2020/2021 in Review

My first year of Locally Foreign is coming to a close – I’m including the first month I did in December 2020 as part of it. It’s been incredibly fun to start this project – I’ve had friends and family join in (especially to play 20 Questions to guess next month’s country) and this has turned into such an enjoyable hobby. I’ve read a lot of good books, tried new food, listened to new music, and learned so much about different parts of the world.

This year (and a month) I covered 13 countries. My random selection pulled a good variety of countries: 2 Latin American, 1 Caribbean, 3 European, 2 Mid-East/North Africa, 2 Sub-Saharan African, 2 Asian, and 1 Pacific – though I do “re-roll” if I get a country too close to a recent one. For 2020/2021, I covered:

My goal each month is to learn new things about the given country – sometimes I’m starting with almost no knowledge (like Mozambique), and sometimes it’s a place I’m already familiar with (like Finland). A familiar country can pose it’s own challenges; and it can be an embarrassment of riches with countries that have a big online presence in English or French. I haven’t yet run into what I’m calling the “mega-countries” – places like the UK, US, India, or China – those may be genuinely overwhelming when I do come to them.

However, that’s the fun of it – I’m not trying to become a scholar and expert on each country I cover. I just want to get a glimpse and come away knowing a little bit more than I did before, and have a bit more richness of experience in my daily life.

Here are some of my favourite things from this last year:

While I’m not a cooking blog, food definitely makes up a big part of my posts. I tend to split food posts up into recipes I cooked myself, restaurants I’ve gone to, and snacks imported from that country. Here are some of my favs:

Each month had more than just recipes and books – even at the superficial one-month level, I was able to learn so much about each country’s history and culture, and examine my own biases and blank spots. At the end of each month, I summed up what I learned. For countries I knew little about going in, like San Marino, Mozambique, Togo, Albania, and Uzbekistan, I got great introductions to their history, arts, geopolitics, cuisine, philosophy, conflicts, and more. For more familiar countries, like Finland, Chile, Thailand, and Trinidad and Tobago, I was lucky to get a richer and more complex understanding and engage more with content created by people from those countries, instead of about them. Israel was a look into the internal complexities, conflicts, and culture outside of the Israel-Palestinian conflict that dominates most of our headspace. I had only heard of El Salvador in the context of gang violence, and that month helped bust a lot of stereotypes I held. Algeria made me think critically about settler colonialism – what, if anything, is the difference morally between French Algeria and Canada, and what narratives do we construct to justify our history?

Nauru was probably the most genuinely impactful month in my own life. The story of this tiny country, which had the sudden rise and dramatic fall of a lottery winner, is deeply interesting on its own. I also had the good fortune to get to know Nauruan writer and teacher Elmina Quadina, who shared her own experiences (and a great recipe). But the biggest impact was reading The Undesirables by Mark Isaacs – an exposé into Australia’s refugee detention camps on Nauru and Manus. This is a live issue, with people still being held in contravention of international law. After reading that book and talking further with Isaacs, I got involved with #OperationNotForgotten, run by MOSAIC and Ads Up Canada. This program is hoping to resettle the remaining refugees through Canada’s private refugee sponsorship program. I’m now on a settlement team here in Ottawa, and we’re working with with someone currently on Nauru that we are hoping to help get to Canada, and once here, help them settle in. The first few people have already arrived in Canada, and we’re hoping to welcome the rest as soon as possible!

Now, with Locally Foreign, there’s always stuff I wish I could have done better or stuff I missed out on. I had a few things that I ordered come too late to include in that month, most notably the excellent novella Neighbours: The Story of a Murder by Mozambican author Lília Momplé. I was also hoping to get an chekich bread stamp for my Uzbek non, but it got hung up in customs.

Looking back, there’s a few subjects I could have done better on. I absolutely dropped the ball on Israeli food – there’s so many good recipes like shakshuka or the immense variety of Jewish cuisine from the Diaspora that has returned to Israel, and I really did not do justice to that cuisine!

I also debated on how much I wanted to focus on conflicts, poverty, or oppression – I certainly don’t shy away from posting about real issues in countries, but I feel that’s also the only things we read about some countries in the media. Looking back, I also noticed I only really post about LGBTQ matters in countries where the situation is either positive or improving – I guess it’s because I’m well aware already that homophobia runs deep in many parts of the world.

All in all, it’s been a great first year, and I’m really excited for what I’m going to learn next year! For everyone that’s followed along, commented, or contributed – thank you!

Addendum: The chekich bread stamp has arrived from Uzbekistan! Seems like a good excuse to make another loaf of non!

What did I learn: SAN MARINO

Wrapping up this month with San Marino! I didn’t know too much when I started this month, apart from it being a microstate embedded inside Italy. So, what did I learn?

Well, I got a better sense of microstates as a whole, for one. As for San Marino itself, it was very interesting to look into why it’s an independent country, how the voting system works, the issues facing historical preservation, and its current-day politics, including the recent abortion referendum and high-level corruption prosecutions.

I also got a little look at some of San Marino’s history, including early medieval treasure, the history of its independence, how it got sucked into WWII (including having its railway destroyed), and the near-civil war of the Rovereta Affair.

For such a small country, I also got a taste of some good cuisine, including a big order of chocolates and baked goods mailed direct to Canada, plus being generally successful at making piada, and a bit less so at making pasta for nidi di rondine (but I did manage béchamel from scratch!)

There’s also a good variety of music coming out of San Marino, from big Eurovision hits, rock, rap, 60s pop, classical music, and a great international opera competition! It’s also a beautiful place, great historic buildings and stunning mountainous views.

One of the interesting things underlying this month was San Marino’s pride in its democracy and independence, even as Italy does impinge on San Marino’s sovereignty at times, including stopping San Marino from having both a casino and radio station, or how all of San Marino’s judges must be Italian (which may actually be a benefit, given the challenge of being objective in such a small population).

And someday, maybe someday, they’ll finally win a footie match.

This month: SAN MARINO

I spun the wheel again and got my second microstate – this month I’ll be learning more about San Marino!

So before I begin, what do I know about San Marino off the top of my head?

  • I know it’s one of the two independent countries fully enclaved inside Italy, the other being Vatican City.
  • I don’t know too much about the history Italian unification, and what led San Marino to retain its independence, but I’d like to find out. It’s also resisted being conquered by many of the other forces that have come through the Italian peninsula.
  • It’s very small and mountainous, and I’m guessing it’s pretty economically integrated into the surrounding parts of Italy.
  • Likewise, I’m guessing the cuisine is similar to surrounding regions, though I wonder what’s local to just San Marino?

That’s about it! I’m excited to learn more – I bet there’s a lot of really interesting history in particular. I also wonder how the Sammarinese feel about Italy?

What did I learn: UZBEKISTAN

A Tashkent subway station – Source

Another month is coming to a close! So, what have I learned about Uzbekistan?

Uzbekistan, and the five “Stan” countries as a whole, were a big blank spot in my mental map when I started this month. I knew a little bit about the Silk Road, the breakup of the USSR, and the loss of the Aral Sea, but not much more.

I found this month geopolitics were a big focus – Uzbekistan’s modern position is a tricky balancing act, situated between Russian, Chinese, and American interests. Notable is the change Uzbekistan is going through since the 2016 death of President Islam Karimov (and the high drama surrounding his daughter Gulnara Karimova). The new government under Mirziyoyev has made some crucial reforms like ending forced labour, letting foreign media in, and allowing religion back into everyday life.

It will be interesting to see if the trajectory of reforms continue, or if pandemic and power structures pull things back. Dissident authors like Hamid Ismailov are still banned from the country, and it isn’t clear yet if encouraging government-overseen moderate religion will stem issues of radicalization, especially with a land border with Afghanistan. There also seems to be a big rural/urban divide, with wealth from exports of cotton, gold, and natural gas concentrated in the cities. Attempts are being made to address the environmental catastrophe of the Aral Sea.

Uzbekistan’s larger history almost has too much to dig into – the history of the Silk Road and the many influences in the region over the decades, Prokudin-Gorsky’s colour photographs from 1911, the ever-changing Uzbek writing system, and stunning places like Registan Square only touch the surface. Adeeb Khalid’s Central Asia proved to be indispensable for getting a sense of the last few centuries and how they created the Uzbekistan of today.

I think I answered my question from the start of the month – why does Uzbekistan have such a huge population compared to its neighbours? There doesn’t seem to be a big trick to it – when the modern borders were drawn inside the USSR, major cities like Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent, as well as the densely-farmed Fergana Valley ended up in Uzbekistan. These places have been major settlements for centuries and the heart of empires – in contrast the more nomadic histories of places like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

I felt like there’s an interesting parallel between the migrations of Koryo Saram and Bukharan Jews. The Koryo Saram, Koreans forcibly resettled into Soviet Central Asia, have largely integrated into Uzbekistan, but some seek (or struggle with) a return to Korea under South Korea’s right of return laws. The Bukharan Jewish community had been in Uzbekistan for centuries, but due to the forced assimilation and prejudice of the Soviet era, almost the entire population has left for Israel, the US, and Canada – where they have rebuilt their communities and kept much of their identity.

I wanted to fight a bit against the easy narratives of “exotic and mythical Samarkand” or “grey Soviet misery” that I kept on coming across this month. There’s much more nuance from the voices of Uzbeks themselves. I got a taste of Uzbek literature and short stories, movies (both action and comedy), and popular music, including modern pop and dance, Soviet disco, classical music, interesting radio stations, and the most successful meme to come out of the country recently.

As for the food, this month I had my biggest culinary victory with Locally Foreign – baking non from scratch. My first successful handmade bread! I also had the biggest culinary fail – navat that just would not crystallize. I loved how the plov turned out, and the moshxo’rda and Korean carrot salad were tasty experiences. I also tried qurt and survived eating shur-donak! I’d also recommend the Uzbek restaurant I went to in Toronto – great manti!

There’s still a lot about Uzbekistan I’m sorry I didn’t get into – I still want to learn more about older history of the region, especially Timur the Great, or Persian connections (al-Khwarizmi was born in what is now Uzbekistan) and deep Sufi cultural and religious influences. I also would like to learn more about Karakalpakstan beyond just the Aral Sea disaster – the distinctive autonomous region covered in the far west of the country. There’s also modern geopolitics I’d like to have dug into more – Uzbekistan as a crucial hub for China’s Belt and Road initiative, or their tense relations with Tajikistan and the now (allegedly) removed minefields along the border.

This month: UZBEKISTAN

I love when the random number generator sends me to the opposite side of the world from where I was – from last month in the Caribbean, we’re now going to Central Asia! This month I’ll be learning more about Uzbekistan.

So, what do I know off the top of my head about Uzbekistan?

  • It may be the “stan” country I know the least about, though I know it was one of the five Central Asian countries that formed after the breakup of the USSR, and that they’ve all faced challenges with governance, stability, and corruption to varying degrees of success.
  • I know that it’s a Muslim country, and that Uzbek is a Turkic language. I’m not sure how ethnically homogeneous Uzbekistan is, or how culturally related or distinct it is from other Central Asian countries.
  • I know that the capital is Tashkent, and that the great historical city of Samarkand is in modern-day Uzbekistan. It was a huge hub on the Silk Road and is one of those cities that is spoken about almost in mythical terms – I’d love to learn more about it.
  • I know generally that the territory that is now Uzbekistan has passed through many hands – Persian, Mongol, and Russian, and I’m assuming many more as well. Learning more about Uzbekistan’s history will probably give me a better understanding of Central Asia as a whole.
  • I know that what is left of the Aral Sea is shared between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and it has been shocking to watch sheer dramatic scale of a whole sea vanishing during my lifetime.
  • I have a feeling the food will be nice and hearty for cold November days – a cursory search shows big meat stews and rice dishes with lots of spices. There’s at least one Uzbek restaurant in Toronto, I’ll try to stop by if I can get there this month.
  • By a nice coincidence, last week’s Economist had an article on recent political developments in Uzbekistan – focusing on the country’s shift away from authoritarianism after the death of autocrat Islam Karimov in 2016 and the progress towards free (well, freer) elections and press and a more open economy.
  • Also from that article, I had no idea that Uzbekistan has such a huge population – 34 million, almost as big as Canada! The other “stan” countries have populations closer to 6-9 million, and Kazakhstan, which is physically much larger, has 18 million people. Why is Uzbekistan so much more densely populated?

What did I learn: TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO

Academy of the Performing Arts, Port of Spain – Source

This month I was learning more about Trinidad and Tobago – before starting this month, I knew a little bit about the Caribbean in general, but not much about T&T specifically.

This month gave me a great lesson in Trinidad and Tobago’s past – the two islands switching colonial hands multiple times (including French being spoken on an island never controlled by France, and Latvia having a crack at empire), the history and present of Indigenous Carib people, and how Trinidad and Tobago’s population descended from people taken as slaves in Africa and Indian indentured labourers to create a pluralist country with its own unique identity and culture.

The recent past and present of Trinidad is fascinating – the Black Power Revolution, civil rights movement, and decolonization, but also the post-colonial complexities of race between African, Indian, and creole populations. The 1990 coup attempt was something I had never heard about before, and it has been fascinating to listen to podcasts about current political and cultural matters on Trinidad and Tobago.

I also learned a bit about the difference between Trinidad and Tobago – the different colonial history and the sense of distinctiveness that Tobagoans feel. The currently very live issue of increased autonomy for Tobago really caught my attention. Tobago’s constitutional future seems like Scotland’s inside the UK, and as a legal/political nerd, it’s interesting to hear the process and the political narratives.

On a lighter note, the food this month was incredible – I had more snacks than I knew what to do with! (1,2,3,4,5 posts!) Doubles were delicious, I liked the bitterness of mauby, and I’ve gone back for more curry goat roti. I’ve been using the the various pepper sauces and condiments in my cooking, and it was interesting to try cooking with green bananas and salt cod for the first time. And of course, I’ve now got a great rum punch recipe handy.

I feel like I’ve only barely skimmed the surface of Trinidad and Tobago’s music scene – soca, calypso (including a wonderfully risqué song), chutney, parang, and to mix it up, punk! Great radio stations too, and learning more about the sheer scale of Carnival is neat – I’d love to go one day.

An interesting thing I noticed is all the connections between Canada and Trinidad and Tobago – it’s not something I went hunting for, the long history (good and bad) between our two countries kept popping up. Canada has a history place of migration (either temporary or permanent) and has a huge Caribbean population, with Trinidadians leading the creation Caribana, now one of the biggest festivals in Canada. But there are also dark parts to our history, the racism of Canadian universities against students from the West Indies, and Canada acting as Britain’s colonial right hand, with Canadians running missionary schools and creating the West Indian Domestic Scheme in the colonial era.

But even little connections between Canada show up – Trinidad’s most popular brand of pop taking their branding from a defunct Montreal company, and the importance of salt cod in Trinbagonian cuisine – it would have been historically imported from Newfoundland in exchange for Caribbean rum, which has in turn become culturally important to Newfoundland.

This was a really neat month – I had a lot of fun learning more about Trinidad and Tobago, and I’d love to visit!

Addendum – Coming in just under the wire, I got to try some of the famous red Solo. It tastes like cotton candy meets cream soda meets liquid Swedish berries. It’s really good, but very sweet. Red Solo (aka Kola Champagne) is probably the most famous flavour of the pop brand, and is a cultural touchstone as the best thing to wash down a spicy roti.