Mar. 15, 2005


by Leland Kinsey

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Poem: "Yogurt" by Leland Kinsey, from In the Rain Shadow. © University of New England. Reprinted with permission.


Each day my cousin's wife boils
the goats' milk to make the yogurt
she is locally famous for.
Many pans sit cooling in the kitchen
every morning after she has reduced
and sterilized the day's batch,
then inoculated it with previous yogurt
so her long strain is maintained.
She likes the word inoculate
since as a nurse she inoculated
thousands of children and adults
against various diseases
including helping to eradicate
the last pockets of smallpox,
but in this it's aiming toward
an end other than prevention.
She makes the day's deliveries
before shopping for the evening meal.

Her mother made deliveries of yogurt,
feta cheese, and hard ricotta,
at hotels and shops in Umbaya
near Lake Nyassa, both as a girl
carrying her mother's goods,
and as a wife to earn house money.
Now aged, in her daughter's house,
she helps pot each day's product.

She served yogurt every meal: with cereal;
with sharp spices, covering sliced cucumbers;
dressing a salad learned in India; sweetened, with mango
or other fruit as rich dessert; plain.
She gives lessons to women in shelters
and at farmers training sessions, a use
of milk for home and sale, a product
to supplement their lives.

The owners of a resort
in a national park asked her to teach
the chef to make a yogurt palatable
to guests rather than the bitter gruel
of his daily offering. She showed
him care of boiling and long cooling
and with her starter what a fine concoction
came to table. The value of the lesson
was direct, our whole stay written off,
days of viewing remote wild places
and animals, paid for by this mild domestication.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's March 15, the Ides of March. The word "ides" comes from the earliest Roman calendar, said to have been created by Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome. The word "ides" is from the Latin "to divide." The Ides were meant to mark the full moon, but since the solar calendar months and lunar months are of different lengths, the ides lost its original meaning. On this day in 44 B.C., Julius Caesar was on his way to a Senate meeting in Rome. He met up with the soothsayer who had warned him days before to "Beware the Ides of March." Caesar pointed out that the Ides had come, and the soothsayer replied, "Yes, but they have not yet gone." Caesar breathed his last breath a short time later, stabbed to death by a group of conspirators after entering the Senate house.

It's the birthday of novelist, short story writer and poet Ben Okri, born on this day in Minna, Nigeria (1959). Okri writes about Nigeria, and about poverty, corruption and war. He said, "Africa is the only place I want to write about. It's a gift to the writer." His novels include The Landscapes Within (1981) and Dangerous Love (1996).

Nigeria was in the midst of a civil war when Okri was a young boy. He had a hard time concentrating in school with all the fighter planes flying overhead. Between 1967 and 1969, one million people lost their lives during that war (the Biafran War). Okri's education took place while his relatives were being killed. He had friends who got up and left class to go and fight the war.

At home, his parents, Grace and Silver, told African tales and legends. Okri spent a lot of time reading books he found in his father's library: Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Ibsen, Chekhov and Maupassant, and the dictionary.

Okri began writing fiction in his late teens when he held a day job as a clerk in Lagos. He was supposed to be writing letters to paint distributors. Instead, he wrote fiction under his desk. He published a few stories in local newspapers, and on the busrides home he saw people reading his work in the evening paper.

One of Okri's stories kept growing longer and became his first novel, Flowers and Shadows (1980). At the age of 19, Okri packed the book in a suitcase and went to London. He said, "I went to London because, for me, it was the home of literature. I went there because of Dickens and Shakespeare. No, let's say Shakespeare and Dickens, to get them in the right order."

Okri studied at the University of Essex and returned to London to write. He said, "I lived rough, by my wits, was homeless, lived on the streets, lived on friends' floors, was happy, was miserable." He also worked as a BBC broadcaster and as poetry editor of West Africa magazine. "I had very high standards and I was finally fired because I wasn't publishing enough poetry."

In 1984 one of Okri's stories, "Disparities", won the PEN New Fiction contest. He published his first book in the United States, Stars of the New Curfew, four years later and won the Booker Prize in Britain for his novel The Famished Road (1991). Okri's most recent novel is In Arcadia (2002).

Ben Okri said, "Literature doesn't have a country. Shakespeare is an African writer. His Falstaff, for example, is very African in his appetite for life, his largeness of spirit. The characters of Turgenev are ghetto dwellers. Dickens' characters are Nigerians. Do you see what I mean? Literature may come from a specific place but it always lives in its own unique kingdom."

It's the birthday of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, born in the Waxhaws area near the border between North and South Carolina on this day in 1767.

Andrew Jackson was elected President in 1828. His election was a victory for the common people. He was the first populist president who did not come from the aristocracy. Jackson said, "As long as our government is administered for the good of the people, and is regulated by their will; as long as it secures to us the rights of persons and of property, liberty of conscience and of the press, it will be worth defending.

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