Mama Meli Update Part 2

Reading this week:

  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

We return after last week’s update, where Meli has wound up in the care of missionaries in Kawimbe!

But at last we’re finally to Mrs. Purves. I like this woman a lot. The above photo was pulled from a 1902 article in The Chronicle written by a Mr. Nutter. One of those kids could very well be Meli, but Meli is never, as far as I can tell, mentioned by name in The Chronicle, even though other children are. From what I found, Mrs. Purves joined her husband in the Central Africa mission in 1894, where he had been serving for at least a year. Mr. Purves is described as maybe even a bit abrasive in his outgoingness, and served it seems as a general sorta engineer-type before eventually becoming ordained (if anyone is writing a paper or something off of this, please fact-check that first, I wasn’t too interested in Mr. Purves when I was doing research). Their home base seems to have been Niamkolo, and Mrs. Purves laid I think the first stone in Niamkolo Church. She accompanied her husband when he made an expedition to negotiate with Chief Ponde and try to open a mission there, and would eventually join him as they were the first to preach in Bembaland (again more fact-checking please). She seems adventurous and dedicated, and by the time Meli was in her care she had been in the area for five years, which made her one of the longest-serving missionaries in a place with an alarmingly high death toll for Europeans.

The next event is the one that really caused me a lot of head-scratching about what exactly the missionaries thought they were doing in Africa. Meli, safely ensconced at the mission, was walking about one day when her cousin spotted her. The cousin was pretty stunned, because the family had all thought Meli was dead from a slave raid now five years ago at this point. It was at this point Meli’s sister, “the mother of Mulenga Chisani,” is sent to verify the story, and as Meli tells it, “we sat looking at each other” for two days. With everyone satisfied that Meli is the long-lost Mwenya, Meli’s uncle (I think) sends Meli’s older brothers to retrieve Meli. It is at this point, that the missionaries don’t let Meli leave. They instead say “this person was brought to us. We therefore cannot let you take her. If you really recognize her as your family, go and tell Chief Changala himself to come and bring a cow with him to redeem her.”

From the June 1902 issue of The Chronicle.

The family is unable to muster a cow in payment, and when the Chief protests that other people get to retrieve their family members, the missionaries then reply “you may not take her now because she is very hardworking in the house and at school.” While doing this research, I mostly conceptualized the missionaries of the London Missionary Society as fellow development practitioners. There is a lot of overlap between what they were doing and what modern-day development specialists are trying to do, and however flattering or not you find that comparison I think I would agree with your assessment. Their main mission was of course to save souls and get converts, and at that they were pretty dismal. In a 1903 article in The Chronicle, the mission tallies their success at a whopping 22 converts. They fret about their convert-to-cost ratio, while simultaneously saying that is a terrible way to measure mission success. So I think partially because it is a good thing to do anyways, and also in reaction to their low convert numbers, the Central Africa mission really heavily touts their anti-slavery successes. But here is the head-scratcher: why would a mission that is so proud of their anti-slavery mission refuse to return a little girl to her family unless they were paid, especially since it seems the reason is that she was such a hard worker around the house?

I have a few theories. The one I have the most evidence for comes from an article Mrs. Purves herself penned for the May 1898 edition of The Chronicle, titled “Some of Africa’s Slave Children.” I know she was thinking about whether or not they were enslaving these children themselves, because she notes explicitly that “we did not look upon these children as slave[s because we paid] them cloth or something else equal to it as payment for their work.” But in this article, she relates the story of Maggie, who’s father had died and “according to native custom, her uncle claimed her as his child.” But then that uncle, according to Mrs. Purves, had tried to sell Maggie into slavery before being stopped by the colonial magistrate. This makes me think that the missionaries demanded a cow to ensure that the family wasn’t trying to claim Meli just to turn a quick profit by making it more expensive to get her back from the missionaries than what they could get by selling her back into slavery. I am in no position to judge how much of a worry that really should have been, but I could see the logic. Another theory I have is that they were just really worried about converts. Their first convert in the Central Africa mission was a man named Kalulu. Kalulu had only been baptized in 1891, and was himself a former slave that one of the missionaries had ransomed. Most of their other converts were people close to the mission, either in its employ or employee’s family members. I wonder if the missionaries weren’t just inclined to keep children like Meli close just to up the chances that they eventually converted, as she in fact did in 1910.

But with the ability to go home denied to her, Meli was still at the mission in 1900 when Mrs. Purves leaves with her husband, putting Meli in the care of Mama May. The Mays I dug up a bit more information than I did the Purveses. They were quite the couple, and I kinda really do admire Mrs. May. The above photo comes from The Chronicle (of course), and was published as they were about to set off for Central Africa. If it was a recent photo, John is 31 in that picture (a year younger than me), and had spent some time as a marine engineer working on “men-of-war and torpedo cruisers.” He decided to pursue missionary work, and graduated London University in 1894. There, I assume he must have met his classmate, Elizabeth Burton. I wonder how they thought about what they were getting themselves into. In March 1897, The Chronicle notes that “Mr. John May, B.A., was appointed to the Tanganyika Mission, Central Africa.” Two months later, on May 4th, John and Elizabeth were wed at the Ipswich Presbyterian Church, and two days after that John was ordained as Reverend May. One month after that, on June 8th, they were both outbound on the steamer Illovo, headed for Kawimbe. In the article that published the above photo, The Chronicle notes that “never before had so large a party set out for that distant mission field, a mission which had passed through such various changes and vicissitudes, and for which so many lives had been laid down.”

The Mays would have personal experience with that death toll. By the time Meli was in Mrs. May’s care in 1900, the Mays had already buried one child, a still-born son. By the end of that year, the Mays would be burying a second child, John May Jr, who died at six months old on December 17th, 1900. When I was doing this research I went back and looked through the photos I had taken of that graveyard we were shown in Kawimbe, and the only one I took a particularly good picture of was the above one, which I can now identify as that of John May Jr.

One major aspect I was unable to really come to a conclusion about when doing all this research as about how special Meli was. She was clearly a remarkable woman, as her later life showed, and by the time she was in the missionaries’ care she had been through a great deal of trauma. But she was far from a unique case; like I quoted before, Mrs. Purves detailed a number of enslaved children that had been freed by the missionaries, and Meli never made it into The Chronicle like those other children. Mrs. Purves also describes marrying some of these children off, to people who worked for the missions. Mama Meli is usually billed as something like “the only known freed slave buried in Zambia,” and that “only known” is doing a lot of work because clearly there are other former enslaved people who lived out their lives and died in Zambia. If Mama Meli’s story hadn’t been recorded by her grandchildren and been published in Marcia Wright’s book, I suspect she would be “just” another one of those children that Mrs. Purves posed with in the photo.

It’s because I’m not sure how special Meli was that I find the next episode of her life somewhat confusing. In 1901, Meli says, “Jones Changolo [also known as Silanda] sent word to Bwana Goven Robertson to say that he intended to become engaged to me and sent a nsalamu [token payment to indicate interest in marriage]” (there’s a whole side-drama with his family, who did not approve of Meli because she couldn’t cook nshima, and that could lead to a whole discussion about the sorta cultural upbringing Meli experienced, but alas I don’t know how to shoehorn it in here except for this parenthetical). Bwana Robertson is Rev. W. Govan Robertson, and given that there had been other marriages I am a bit confused about why, as Meli details, he apparently had to go ask the local Mambwe elders how the engagement customs go. But I guess the missionaries viewed Jones as a favorable choice, because he worked as a carpenter for the mission (at least they knew him well, and also he was a carpenter, I am assuming he did some work for the mission). Mrs. May and Rev. Robertson have a meeting with Jones and ask “if his intention to marry [Meli] was serious.” He apparently said “Yes” and went home, coming back the next day with ten sheep as an engagement gift. Meli was also at the meeting with May, Robertson, and Jones, and, as Meli recalls, “as I was dressing, Mama May came to see how I was doing and she gave me some oil to rub on my body.” Meli was probably about 11.

I’m torn here in how to tell the story. If I was writing a novel that was ungenerous to women and had never heard of feminism, the easy spin would be that a grief-stricken Mrs. May had more or less “adopted” Meli as a substitute for her own children (this ties into wondering how special Meli really was to the missionaries). Mrs. May would in fact (according to Meli) say that she wanted to marry off her “daughter” before she left. Mrs. May was not lacking for reason to grieve. It was in the months before Meli was engaged that Mrs. May had lost her second child. It was Mrs. May that called back Jones so they could hold the wedding, which happened in 1902. Mrs. May was leaving Africa because her husband had died on August 21st, 1901, leaving her six months pregnant. She wanted to stay in Africa, but as she would note later for The Chronicle, the conditions at the mission just didn’t support lone women. The story of a grief-stricken woman, however, doesn’t quite jibe with the other evidence in The Chronicle: “Many young missionaries in similar circumstances would have lost heart for the rest of their life-work were they to have suffered, as we know Mr. and Mrs. May did, in the loss first of house and home by fire, immediately after their arrival at their station, and later on in the loss of their two little ones. Not so they, however: it only seemed to make them brighter and more unselfish than ever.”

Join us next week for our exciting conclusion!

Mama Meli Update Part 1

I have some significant updates to the story of Mama Meli! When I wrote about her and trying to find her grave, I was doing most of my research on my phone while living in a mud hut and also mostly just trying to find cool locations to add to Atlas Obscura, so please forgive my mistakes in that post. I’ve been digging back into the story for a final project (Hello Professor Lombard!; I assume you will find this), and whoo boy have I found out a whole lot more information.

When I first read about Mama Meli’s story, I was more than a little confused about the timeline. The story to me read like she had gotten captured, her captors quickly tried to hustle her to the border, and they got caught by one of the types of British colonialists in the area. I thought this happened when she was about 10 or 12, over the course of like a month. Then, I assumed, since her parents had been killed in the slave raid, she was sent off to live with the missionaries at Kawimbe Mission. I lobbied some criticism about the fact that when her relatives came to claim her, the missionaries demanded payment of a cow. And then I mostly busied myself with looking at old gravestones.

I have learned so much more! The first big change between then and now is I have access to a library with a copy of Strategies of Slaves & Women: Life-Stories from East/Central Africa by Marcia Wright. In the last blog post I name-checked Women in Peril; that is Marcia Wright’s first book on the subject, which is wholly included in Strategies, but Strategies includes much more information. The second big change is that the library also has access to The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society, which is an absolute treasure-trove of information on the Central Africa mission of the LMS (I link HathiTrust there, but they’re also on Google Books).

From Strategies, I learned I had very much misunderstood Meli’s story. Wright estimates that Meli was captured in probably 1894 or 1895 when she was about 5. Meli’s story is so very much wrapped up in the story of Kawimbe Mission, and so I find it fitting that Meli was likely born very close to the founding of the mission in 1890. Another intriguing bit was that Meli was probably something of a political prisoner. Meli was the youngest daughter of Mumembe, and was born with the name Mwenya (in her oral history, Meli/Mwenya refers to herself as Meli, so I am going to stick with that). Around the time when Meli was born there was Chief Ponde of the Bemba who was launching raids and attacks into Mambwe and Lungu territory. Meli’s older brothers were often called to fight in defense (I think) against these attacks. Chief Ponde was also having some marital troubles with at least one of his wives. This wife ran away at some point during the course of all this fighting, only to be knocked up by Meli’s oldest brother. This made Chief Ponde mad, and he swore that he would get retribution against this brother. Mumembe, fearing for his son’s life, hustled him way up north into Mambweland so Ponde couldn’t get to him.

Fwambo village, from the April 1897 edition of The Chronicle

A few years later, Chief Ponde was (still?) at war with the Mambwe chief Fwambo. Chief Ponde was set to launch an attack against Fwambo, and the brother decided to actually go fight for Ponde, figuring that if he did well in battle he would be forgiven. The fight was somewhat disastrous. Fwambo was well fortified, and apparently it was cold up on the plateau where Fwambo was, but since Fwambo’s men were used to the cold they routed Ponde when they launched a counter-attack while Ponde’s men were still warming themselves. I also found it pretty intriguing that the missionaries from Kawimbe mission sent armed men to help defend Fwambo as well. This was far from the missionaries’ only interaction with Ponde; they had a range of relationships with the Bemba Chief. The missionaries had been harassed by Ponde, received messengers and entered into negotiations to set up missions in Bemba territory, and Mr. A.D. Purves (watch for his wife later in this narrative) bought the only known contemporary war charm from the man.

Anyways, despite Meli’s brother distinguishing himself in battle, Ponde failed to forgive him, and I guess remembering about his wife having gotten knocked up, vowed to attack Mumembe’s village in retribution. It was in this attack that Meli was captured. It is also likely that Meli’s mother was killed in this attack. After being captured, she was taken (along with other captives) to Chief Ponde’s village, and then given to a family. For the next five years or so, she lived the life of a slave. It’s with this first family that Wright identifies Meli as something of a political prisoner here because when she accidentally burns down the hut of the family she was given to, the father is about to kill her when his wife reminds him that Meli is “the family of a Chief” (uncle maybe? I was a bit unclear).

Apparently her worth drops over time, because after a bit she is sold off to Chona Maluti, an Arab (Wright prefers the term “Swahili” for being more accurate) trader/slaver and elephant hunter. Chona would be killed when he was trampled by an elephant, and Meli would be taken to the encampment of other Swahili traders in the area. It was around this time that she heard that her father had died, and I think she wound up with these traders for about a year. Her nose was pierced “in the Muslim fashion,” and she was renamed Naumesyatu. She was sold to another Swahili trader, who fed her better, and then was sold off again to a set of traders who renamed her Mauwa.

As a bit of an aside, for all the different names that Meli gets, she’s actually a bit remarkable for having an independent identity. From my experience with Mambwe culture, I know that as soon as you have a kid, you are typically referred to as “Father of” or “Mother of” your first-born. So in her story, Meli refers to her older sister as “the mother of Mulenga Chisani.” Later on (I swear I am getting to them), Meli will mention she was in the care of Mama Purves and then Mama May. I found both these women in The Chronicle, but they are exclusively referred to as “Mrs. Purves” and “Mrs. May,” immediately becoming subsumed into their husband’s identity as soon as they are married. Interesting little cultural overlap there, if you ask me.

Anyways. These latest traders who had bought Meli were going to finally try to bring her to the coast, likely to be sold at Zanzibar. During the time Meli had been enslaved, however, the British had set up a boma at Fife (roundabouts modern-day Nakonde, though I’m actually unsure how much they overlap) and declared the slave trade outlawed. And now here is a whole thing I didn’t pick up the first time around. The traders have to get past the outpost at Fife. A man comes along and offers to help the traders out. Turns out, the traders had his kid, and I assume he wanted to use the British people at Fife to get his kid back. So the traders take him up on his offer to lead them past the outpost. Except then this guy just goes to the outpost, and tells them all about the traders, and together they lay a trap. He leads the traders right into an ambush, and during the pandemonium Meli runs into the woods with the other children. They come out later that night when they were hungry, and are picked up by some villagers who bring them to the outpost.

After I assume being fed and taken care of, the children who knew where they were from were sent back home. The rest of the children were eventually sent to Kawimbe Mission. This was about 1899, and the children wind up in the care of Mama Purves. Meli was initially actually identified as a boy and briefly named Jim, before she identified herself as a girl and was dubbed with her final name, Mary. “Mary” winds up getting pronounced as “Meli,” which is how it is written in her oral history, and therefore in every subsequent source, including this one.

Join us next week for the second part of the update! I wrote like 5,000 words about Meli and I am going to milk it!

Niamkolo Church

From Chronicles of the London Missionary Society, January 1902

I’m doing research for a project on Mama Meli, and you better believe you’re gonna get some of that action in the coming weeks, but in the meantime I’m going to post some interesting stuff I have found out about Niamkolo Church. I mentioned the church briefly in my Mplungu post, and this post will consist entirely of me posting in their entirety three articles from The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society, which is turning out to be a trove of information on northern Zambia at the turn of the 20th century. I wish I had the ability to peruse gigantic PDFs back when I lived in a mud hut. I know there’s not a lot of analysis here, but I’m working on finals, and also retyping these articles took me longer than just writing a post probably would have. Also also also, the most intriguing part of all of this are photos/engravings from the church’s heydey. If you Google the church currently, you get modern-day photos, which is cool, but nothing showing the place with a roof. So that should be exciting!

But before we begin, two more things. First, this is the header of one of the issues of the Chronicle, and I just want to say these guys weren’t messing around:

Two, an excellent Instagram is “Sacral Architecture,” which publishes drawings of various religious buildings in Africa, and yes of course they did Niamkolo Church:

Alright! Now we shall begin in earnest:

April 1891 – “Tanganyika Sketches”

[This is before the church was built]

These are sketches of the Niamkolo station, which is situated at the south end of Lake Tanganyika, and were drawn from photographs sent home by Mrs. Swann. In “Our House” we see her with her husband at her side, and Mr. Carson standing a little way off. The little steamer Good News, having met with an accident, had to be docked and thoroughly repaired, which accounts for one of the sketches. Cloth (calico) takes the place of money in Central Africa. Porters and workmen of all kinds have to be paid in cloth. Hence the need for a “Cloth Store” at each station.

February 1896 – “A New Church”

On returning to his station from the Committee meeting at Fwambo, Mr. Jones spent a Sunday at Niamkolo and preached to the largest congregation he had seen in Central Africa. There must have been 700 people present, and it was a cheering sight. On the following Thursday (August 22nd) a memorial stone in the new church was laid by Mrs. Purves. Copies of the new hymn-book, the Society’s CHRONICLE and News from Afar, and the British Central Africa Gazette, together with cloth and beads to represent the currency, were laid in the cavity, the ceremony being witnessed by a large crowd of natives. Mr. Purves had been fortunate enough to discover an excellent quarry near the lake shore, whence huge slabs of grey freestone were dug, which looked as if they had come from the mason’s hand, so regularly did the seams lie. “It is amusing to see the children now busy on the lake shore,” says Mr. Thomas, “building stone houses and churches. The African in that respect is not very much different from the child at home.”

May 1896 – “New Church at Niamkolo”

Dear Mr. Cousins, – At Niamkolo “a notable great frame” has been erected in the form of a stone church, and I should like to tell you something about it. It is as yet but a “frame,” as you will see from the photographs which I enclose, if you can make any use of them.

The sense of wonder is not so easily roused in the African as some people at home imagine. If he has been any time in contact with the white man, he looks upon most of his actions as a matter of course; so that when he can really do something which makes the native open his eyes and mouth, exclaiming “Yanga we!” (“Oh, mother!”) it is a triumph. It is no uncommon thing to see strangers standing in front of this building, bowing their heads, and accompanying the motion with a “He! He! He!” of astonishment, and perhaps enter into a hot discussion as to whether there are any poles hidden away in the walls to hold the stones together. He is only accustomed to wattle-and-daub shanties, and a large stone structure with a tower piercing the heavens beats him. One of the men said that Mr. Purves, who had to do with the building of it, possessed the wisdom of the gods who piles up the mountains. A wattle-and-daub house at best will only stand five years, so that on a station the work of building is never finished, unless one deals with more permanent material. So that it was a great find to come across a quarry on the lake shore near the station, whence huge slabs of freestone have been dug with edges so straight as to make one think they had just left the mason’s chisel. These were brought round to the station in canoes, and the main outdoor work during the last dry season was the rearing of this structure. It roused a great deal of interest among the people, and even the children were busy building stone churches on the lake shore. One day, as I was watching them at it, I saw the little naked brats setting to and eating the mortar which they had made by dipping a dirty loin cloth in the lake and wringing it out over some stones they had ground to powder. I suppose it served for nsima (native porridge). It made me think that, whatever the African has not got, he is the happy owner of a digestion that many a dyspeptic at home would covet.

Tier upon tier the building went up, while scaffold rose above scaffold, until the heavy beams were laid across the walls, and the couples spanned the abyss. These the natives swarmed and laid on the pliant twigs, to which the grass was fastened by means of fresh bark form young trees. This was the offering of the villagers. They brought in all the trees and twigs, and roofed the building without any pay. Finally the more daring spirits working at the tower completed their dizzy task and capped it with a glass [sic, grass?] roof.

A round cap on a square tower does not look artistic, hence the necessity of some friend to open his heart and send out a number of sheets of corrugated iron to replace it. H.C. Marshall, Esq., the representative of the British South Africa Company nearest us, has kindly promised a bell for the tower, so that when it arrives no villager can say that he did not hear the call to service. One cannot boast that this temple was reared without noise, for a good deal of shouting had to be done to keep them up to the level, and at first a good deal of pulling down, but it is something to be thankful for that it was completed without a single accident. It has proved a fine object-lesson for the training of hand and eye, and will act as a beacon to voyagers on the lake, and, above all, a guide to the hearts of children yet unborn to Him in whose name the house has been built.

The spiritual temple is slower in the building than this stone one. During the year seven have been admitted into full membership at Niamkolo. May be, one is over-particular in rejecting the stones until they are trimmed in the accustomed way; while, on the other hand, one shuns the accusation of first making them church members, and then making them Christians.

[Here Niamkolo Church stuff, and all paragraph sensibilities, end]

At our new station called Kambole, on the Ulunga plateau, a large church, built of wattle and daub, was finished by Mr. Nutt, before he had to leave for home after the second attack of haematuric fever. He will be greatly missed, for he was a most enthusiastic African, and full of energy. Mr. Jones is now left there alone, a day and a half’s journey from a white man. However, just lately he has been kept far from being dull. Ponde, the Awemba [Bemba] chief I visited last year, made an attack upon the village of Kitimbwa – the paramount Chief of Ulunga – which is only some four miles distant from the new station. There has been a good deal of raiding carried on between these two parties of late, but the final provocation that led to the attack was the fact that one of Kitimbwa’s sub-chiefs had, a few days before, taken two women belonging to Ponde’s village, and the very day he was presenting these to his head chief, Ponde, together with another small Awemba chief, called Zisampa, appeared near Kitimbwa’s, and found the village – although a large one – an easy prey. Instead of making the attack at deep dawn as is their custom, they besieged it about 10 am, when most of the people were away at their gardens, and the chief was left with a few people in the village. Kitimbwa was killed, and a number of those with him, although it is said the chief lost his life dearly, having shot the son of Kitimkuru, the great Awemba chief, who was among the besiegers. The people in their gardens, instead of running to aid their chief when the weird alarm was sounded on the drum, fled and left him to his fate. Mr. and Mrs. Purves, who were up spending a short holiday with Mr. Jones, heard the war beat, and wounded women with their children soon after fled to them for refuge, and the next two nights they had a very anxious time, for on the first night the Awemba camped at the village of Kitimbwa, close by, and during the night a man, supposed to be a spy, attempted to climb the stockade; having refused to say who he was, or to speak at all, he got a cold reception from one of the men on guard, and disappeared. I sent forty men up from the lake as soon as possible, and they remained there until they knew the Awemba were well on their way home with their spoil of cloth and powder, a large number of women, several heads, and the body of Kitimbwa. This was cut up and burned on the ruins of an old Ulunga village which they sacked years ago, on the boundary of their country. The body of a chief taken in war is burned outside their own territory, lest his spirit should return in some other form and wreak vengeance. Mr. Jones, in a letter to me, said: “Yes, Kitimbwa has gone to his account, the only chief who has actually and openly opposed missionary work in the district. Is not that a significant fact? Better for him if he had done otherwise. Most of his villagers are now in this boma, and all say they want to settle here. Whether they will or not depends upon the measure of safety that will be guaranteed to them.”

Here, to my mind, is strong evidence that the Awemba do not wish to molest the white man. No doubt they have a wholesome fear of the gun; but here was Mr. Jones, with a mere handful of people round him, and a strong temptation offered in the way of cattle, although flushed with their unexpected success, they left him alone. The sight of the village after the attack, with mutilated bodies lying within and without the stockade, haunted one day and night for a long time. Surely the cup of this dominant tribe must be about full, and this extensive upland, and well-watered country, which remains a hunting-ground of the Arab slaver, must come under a better rule. It seems that at last the British Administration has given his quietus to Mlozi, a powerful Arab slaver at the north end of Lake Nyassa, the head and front of the offending in the Karonga war eight years ago, described by Captain Lugard in the first volume of his “Rise of our East African Empire.” There is a rumor that the British South Africa Company, under whose aegis this region has recently come, intent do settle the Awemba problem next year. Then there will be a fine opportunity for a mission to enter, for the country is healthy, and the people are a physically fine race, brave and industrious. Who is to enter in and possess the land? Already the French Fathers have established a station on the edge of it. However much we might wish, we are in no position to move a step in the matter, as things are at present reduced to one man on each station except this one. Since I came out six persons have left for home, and no new man come to take their places. Fever, after two years’ conflict, has driven me from the lake up to the hills, wehre Ihope to share the work in the coming ear with Mr. Carson at Fwambo. A fine, comfortable brick house which he had built, or at least the natives, who, he said, needed but little superintendence, was ready to receive me, with a flourishing fig-tree in the square in front. To my right a road recently constructed stretches away for some distance in the direction of the lake, but one cannot hope to see Mr. and Mrs. Purves coming along, as they cannot leave the station for any length of time. Another long stretch runs in the direction of home, and it is in vain that one strains his sight along this for coming of the much-needed reinforcement. If it was not for the native teachers we should be at a loss what to do. The charge of the outlying schools both here and at the lake depends almost solely upon them. One can but do his best, sitting at times under his fig-tree, though the vine may be absent, and labor and wait for the fulfillment of that fine prophecy: “But in the latter days it shall come to pass that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and peoples shall flow into it. And many nations shall go and say: Come ye and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths… And He shall judge between many peoples, and shall reprove strong rulers afar off; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” -Yours truly, W. Thomas.

Social Enterprise Instagrams

Reading this week:

  • The Emperor’s New Road by Jonathan E. Hillman
  • Shadow Cities by Robert Neuwirth
  • Blinded by Humanity by Martin Barber
  • Africa uprising: Popular protest and political change by Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly

I was at a little bit of a loss as to what to write about this week. I haven’t done much and we’re about to embrace the crush of writing papers that I should have started weeks ago, but haven’t. I thought about writing on my reflections on Thanksgiving, and how my single favorite expression of American-ness is that people, as soon as they find out you don’t have a place to go for Thanksgiving, will invite you to their place, even foreigners who don’t celebrate the holiday (there’s a lot to unpack about the history of genocide against Native Americans, but still the invite-you-over bit is nice). Or maybe review the various Thanksgivings I’ve had over the years, with my fellow Navy peeps or abroad in the Peace Corps. I even pondered if there was something to write about the Berkshires, where my super amazing girlfriend and I went, I think primarily for sheep photography opportunities, as demonstrated at the top.

Instead of all that, I’m going to briefly make fun of the Instagram accounts of various social enterprises. As detailed in my blog post about development apps, I had an internship where I looked at development grants. As part of this, I looked at these organization’s websites, and I was always somewhat intrigued as to the bevy of social media profiles they inevitably displayed on their webpages. My thesis here is gonna be that I’ve never seen a good corporate instagram. Like, LinkedIn I understand. Facebook has an excellent argument, because for a lot of the places where these development-focused social enterprises work, Facebook kinda is the internet due to their Free Basics program. But Instagram? Why are any of these peeps on Instagram?

The absolute easiest victim I’m going to have here to today is Potential Energy, who took the classic route of having some engineers design a “better” (I shouldn’t put that in sarcasm quotes, it’s well-designed and pretty great) cookstove, figuring like, marketing and supply chains and all that would be easy. A quick Google search reveals that the top-followed brands on Instagram are almost all fashion or beauty brands, which naturally play well to Instagram. But cookstoves? What are you going to post about with a cookstove? The whole NGO sphere probably needs a real strong rethink about how they market themselves. It’s been sufficiently skewered elsewhere, but in the same way that I’m someday going to make a submarine movie with no external shots, someday I’m going to start an NGO and include no children (smiling or otherwise) in my marketing materials. Clearly Potential Energy has similarly failed to come up with anything to do with their Instagram (their latest of six posts was two years ago), but nonetheless they still link to the thing right on their homepage.

My personal favorite social enterprise Instagram account is actually Orb Energy. They’re not actually so social enterprise-y, they are in fact a pretty run of the mill solar installer, but hey solar is great and they do some neat financing stuff. They’ve neatly solved the problem of what to do with their Instagram account by just posting photo after photo of solar installations, and lemme tell ya: oooh baby. Sure, they’ve only got 266 followers, but taking photos of their latest rooftop solar project and slapping that bad boy up on Instagram has to be pretty low overhead, and if you’re a fan of just panel after panel of sweet sweet photovoltaics, this is the account for the #SolarInfluencer in you.

Two of the companies I find most impressive for their absolute dedication to the craft despite the complete lack of any possible benefit are PCI Global (who also has a Pinterest???) and the RAND Corporation. Both are big ole’ corporate entities who clearly have dedicated social media teams, producing high quality content and thought-out infographics. They deliver this hot hot content to their combined sub-5K followers, which puts them firmly in the micro-influencer category, good for them. I wonder how these social media teams are assessed on their annual reports. Clearly it’s not on a cost-benefit analysis, as far as their Instagrams go. I personally like to think these are a small band of people absolutely dedicated to their craft, valuing the work for its artistry instead of any commercial success. Except I hope they get paid well. It’s pretty good stuff!

And with that we’ve pretty much reached the limit of the the kinda intelligent things I have to say about social enterprise Instagram accounts. I rounded up a few others I thought were good examples of I dunno, something. SafeBoda I like for its clear orange aesthetic and how it features its employees with nice messages about safety. Grillo I was going to mock for not having posted anything (at time of writing) for over half a year, and mostly featuring pictures of sensors. I have a few others (Keheala, Zola, VisionSpring) in case anyone wants more examples of the genre, but really it’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel here. Kinda weird, and also why would anyone do that?

Cat Café 3

Reading this week:

  • Invisible Governance: The Art of African Micropolitics by David Hecht & Maliqalim Simone
  • This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

I have named this blog post “Cate Café 3” because it is the third time I have been to a cat café. Frankly I have not gone nearly enough. For those that didn’t bother to click the last link, the first time I went to a cat café was in Singapore, the second time was in Washington DC, and the third time was in our very own New Haven.

The cat café here in town is called, appropriately, Mew Haven. They run on the DC model, where they partner with a shelter and you can adopt the cats, vice the Singapore model, where the cats were exclusive to the café and were featured on all the merchandise. I follow both Crumbs & Whiskers and Mew Haven on Facebook, and frankly Crumbs & Whiskers has much better photography. This led me to incorrectly believe that Mew Haven would be an inferior cat café experience, which was probably part of the reason that it took me a year and a half to get to the place. I could not have been more wrong in my impression! Mew Haven was great!

But first the getting there. I finally booked tickets for my girlfriend and I when I guess the unbearableness of not having a cat became too much, and also it was something to do to get out of the house and also I have been feeling like I should contribute more to my community in the monetary sense and the cat café is a good cause. It’s on the other side of town, so a scooch after lunch we piled into the DeLorean and set off. We had never been to that side of town and were surprised to discover a sweet little downtown area with a dance studio and a hip-looking coffee shop and a vintage store. Very nice!

They’ve got some COVID protocols in place, and so the sessions are only 50 minutes long, making me antsy to get in. But they had to process people so it took a few minutes, but all happened smoothly. And then we were in with the cats!

It was a really good cat café session. They had something like 17 cats all crammed into there, and a large number of those were kittens who were very playful. Unfortunately they don’t let you pick up the cats, in which case I would have tried to hold all of them at once, but it’s probably for the best. I entertained myself trying to get two cute little kittens to bother an adult cat who was trying to take a nap, while my super amazing girlfriend quickly found a friendly momma cat and dedicated a good chunk of time to petting her. I also found out on this excursion that my girlfriend has a particular for large cats, and there were some excellent chonkers to keep her quite happy.

I was sad that at the end of a very short 50 minutes our time with the cats had come to an end, and we had to shuffle out of there. The Mew Haven cat café is very well run and has excellent cats and I can’t recommend them highly enough if you just want to get more cats into your life. Someday, when the lease allows, I’ll just go ahead and get an in-home cat café, but until then I’m willing to outsource to Mew Haven.

Combat Shirt

Reading this week:

  • The Fixer: Visa Lottery Chronicles by Charles Piot with Kodjo Nicolas Batema

In and amongst everything else in the world that’s going on, this is largely an aside, but I want to talk about the combat shirt. I went to the Naval Academy, as I’ve covered before, and that was a really fortunate thing for me, sartorially speaking. It was far from unusual to have to wear a double-breasted suit to class. It was also important to have the fit of your uniform correct, and to be always well presented, and these are the day-to-day skills of wearing clothes well that I don’t think the average college kid is necessarily forced to pick up. I didn’t know how to iron before I had to start wearing uniforms. A lot of modern tailoring descends from military uniforms, and seeing as I am so familiar with them now I have a better understanding of why men dress the way they do. It also gave me a few weird neurosis. For a long time I found garters to be a bit of a turn-off because they reminded me too much of shirt stays:

But like I said, the combat shirt. You’ve seen them, and it’s what Colonel Assimi Goïta is wearing in the picture at the top. I find the fact that he is wearing one more than a little wild. I spotted that picture when I was catching up on old news, and our good friend the Colonel is now best known for being the leader of the coup that ousted the President of Mali.

You can read this rundown of the history of the combat shirt, but they really took off a bit into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you’ll recall your Vietnam movies, soldiers were typically wearing blouses over t-shirts into combat. Those blouses kinda suck under tactical vests or plate carriers, because the front pockets are useless (being covered by the vest) and it’s extra material that is hot and scratchy and all that. But the sleeves were useful to protect the arms, and also the pockets are nice, so what peeps did is cut the arms off the blouse and the body off a shirt and sew them back together to get the best of both worlds.

Since it was special forces guys who first started really being known for these shirts, and special forces guys are generally considered the epitome of cool, as far as military stuff goes, they became the hot hot item and everyone had to have one, whether you were regularly going into combat or not. And that means they have become the de rigueur military look. I am starting to sense I find a lot of things remarkable (though I guess what is a blog for but to remark on things), but I find remarkable how quickly the US military sets the international military fashion scene. Not long after the US switched to digi uniforms the rest of the world did too. And so it is with the combat shirt, as evidenced by the main character in the Chinese movie Wolf Warrior wearing one:

As soon as you know what you’re looking at too, it’s all over Hollywood. The below still is Vin Diesel being Vin Diesel-y in Bloodshot. He’s wearing quite the take on the combat shirt, reduced almost to its bare essence with just the hint of a different material on the sleeves and slanted pockets he doesn’t appear to be using for anything. I think Hollywood is a particular fan of the combat shirt because the light t-shirt material lets you show off the actor’s abs, while the thicker sleeve material helps you bulk up the arms.

The ubiquity of the combat shirt with Hollywood tough guys means it is also used by anyone trying to look tough, namely in this example the armed vigilante “militia” nitwit on the left in the below picture:

All of which brings me back to Colonel Goïta at the top. He actually has an excellent claim to wear a combat shirt. He was trained in the US, making him part of the proud tradition of US-trained foreign soldiers overthrowing their government in coups. He’s worked for years with the US forces that have been operating in Mali, and I assume it’s from them he got the wardrobe. But I find it interesting he’s wearing the shirt in that photo. The combat shirt is, you know, for combat, and he is surrounded by other guys wearing more normal blouses as you would expect from military people not actively running around in a plate carrier. Says something both about the ubiquity of US military imagery and the particular psyche of the Colonel that he chose to wear that particular outfit. I’ll leave it to the reader to figure out what.

The Election

Reading this week:

  • Medallion Status by John Hodgman

This post is for me. It’s me trying to work some things out. I should have written it earlier, when I was angrier and more tense. I’m writing this on Wednesday night, still before it is clear who the winner is but with Biden the clear favorite.

With Biden pulling ahead, and behind me a day of being upset and distracted, I’ve calmed down considerably. But what have I calmed down about? I was hoping for a blue wave, a Democratic landslide, a firm repudiation of the vileness of the Republican party and what they stand for. That didn’t happen. Instead, while Biden has maybe squeaked out a win over Trump, I am still faced with the gut-wrenching reality that millions upon millions of Americans looked at a corrupted orange husk of a man and thought to themselves “that’s our guy.”

I have to keep reminding myself that this is historic, awesome, awe-inspiring. Biden has garnered more votes than any candidate in history, outstripping Trump by millions of votes, the votes of citizens that raised their heads and decided they wanted Biden’s fundamental decency to represent them on the world stage. No one has unseated a sitting president in nearly three decades, and before that it was the Democrats that got regularly knocked out. This is unprecedented, this is historic, this is great. I have to keep reminding myself of that instead of mourning the 55 Senate majority it is now clear we were never going to have.

Fundamentally, I don’t know how to feel. It’s frustrating to work through these emotions. I wish someone would tell me what I have a right to feel, which feelings are useful and should be cherished and which are harmful and should be tossed out. When it seemed like Trump was going to be reelected, I was angry. But what was I angry at? In so many ways, this election doesn’t affect me. I’m a mediocre white guy, which provides me boundless opportunity in America, no matter who wins.

I think to myself that maybe I could have been angry on behalf of all the vulnerable people affected by Republican policies in this country. This is a power of being a white guy; we are lauded when we get angry. It’s seen as machismo and leadership and daring. I could use that anger to protect the little guy. But what did I actually do to protect them? I did not help much this election. It didn’t seem worthwhile to campaign; I live and vote in Connecticut. Besides, I told myself, I was far too busy as a grad student to be able to do anything. I signed up for one phone banking shift, but when the day came I had homework to do and pulled out. When things seemed really bad I would assuage my guilt by throwing $25 or $50 at a campaign or cause I liked.

My worst impulse was feeling like I should run away from America. Facing the possibility of a Trump win, forced to face the cruel reality that enough voters would disagree with me to pick a man I hated, that maybe I could just move somewhere else. Where else? I don’t know. But the mere ability to contemplate just packing up and moving out, doing nothing to help the people left behind to survive in that awful vision is wrapped up in so much privilege and selfishness it’s mortifying to just be able to admit that the thought crossed my mind.

But the thought of staying is also overwhelming. Clearly something must be done. But what? I don’t know. My friend who is a nurse told me about a patient of hers who was hospitalized for COVID, and after the experience still felt that COVID was no big deal. What more could you possibly do to convince a person like that? Faced with their own terrifying mortality, they still can’t accept the truth. How do you sway a whole nation of people like that?

One of the major reasons I am interested in international development is that I fundamentally feel those problems are easy. I am viscerally aware that generations of development practitioners before me felt the same way, and I don’t want to get lost in the nuance. But you look at people in the world and the solutions seem so obvious. People are hungry? Feed them. People are homeless? House them. People are sick? Heal them.

The atrocious part is that these problems that people face there, our people face here. That is absurd. Here, in the United States, for every person facing hardship and need, we have the food to feed them, the homes to house them, and the medicines to heal them. We have the resources to make it all happen, and we simply don’t. I feel so small and powerless against this titanic moral breach in the American populace that lets them look at their own countrymen and say to themselves that those other people don’t deserve help. I would rather run away to Africa to try to solve their problems, because deep down I know that if I fail, I will still be okay. That doesn’t apply in America.

And so like I said at the top I should have written this when I was angrier. It would have felt more meaningful. It’s still not clear that Biden is going to win. But no matter what I get to calm down. Move on with my life. I’ve even wondered if my job prospects next summer wouldn’t be better under a Trump presidency, because even under him I want to work for the government and I feel like there would be less competition under Trump. I have massive privilege that lets me get angry, that lets me spend a day and a half wallowing in anger and frustration, looking for any remaining Republicans on my Facebook to lash out and yell at, before settling in to live the same life I would have led either way. That anger feels unjustified; I didn’t work to earn it, and my life doesn’t merit it. And so I don’t know what to feel. Happy, I suppose.

Sleeping Giant

Reading this week:

  • The Elusive Quest for Growth by William Easterly

This weekend we went to Sleeping Giant State Park here in Connecticut. The “we” here, as is now typical, is my super amazing girlfriend and I, because it is pandemic times and doing adventurous socialization with anyone but each other is somewhat irresponsible. Because it is vaguely related, I would like to take a pause for a meme I just made:

Anyways, Sleeping Giant is not too terribly far from New Haven, where we live and go to school and stuff, but it is outside of the town and outside of walking distance which makes the whole expedition seem like an adventure. The main source of entertainment in Sleeping Giant is walking around looking at stuff, aka hiking, and we came dressed to hike. My super amazing girlfriend was wearing like a technical sorta jacket, and I was wearing my safari jacket, along with some new pants I have recently bought. After navigating the annoyingly complicated system of paying for parking online, we set off to go hike and stuff!

Here we ran into trouble. All paths in Sleeping Giant more or less lead to this cool castle thing they got at the peak of one of the hills, so we were a bit agnostic about which trail we took. Not that the map clues you into such important information as the fact that some of the trails have really kinda steep rock scrambles which look not amazing on a good day but are even worse when it is somewhat wet out and neither of us were wearing particularly good hiking shoes, despite saying just in the last paragraph that we were dressed to hike. So we decided to turn around and head back to the trailhead to take another stab at it.

From there, we tried to follow a different trail which looked somewhat more promising, based solely on trying to divine the nature of the various trails from the map which provided the nature of the trails and little else. This trail was a bit better, but got progressively steeper and steeper until we were more or less scrambling over rocks again, until we reached the very upper lip of this portion of trail to find ourselves on an unpaved road which was perfectly pleasant to walk along.

And walk we did! We had a great time. The park was relatively crowded, and that was a bit uncomfortable at first (I wonder how long it will be until I face the world, find people in it, and don’t recoil in fear and trepidation), but then again the park has acres and acres and you could probably fit a whole lot of people in it and still stay socially distanced. It was also about this time that I tried to engage in a philosophical conversation about the nature of leaf peeping. The super amazing girlfriend, being super amazing, was pretty game for this conversation, but turns out there’s just not a whole lot of depth there. I briefly tried to wonder if going to aquariums shouldn’t be called “fish peeping,” but that’s about as far as it all got.

At the top we got to the castle thing, which was pretty cool. It’s an historic structure, in that it was built some time ago, but it has always just been a cool kinda thing you can climb up to the top of. It’s not like, a defensive fortification or a former home or anything. But the views get progressively nicer as you go up and we spent some time admiring all the leaves, like you do. Earlier on in the hike, I had struck a pose for a picture, which the super amazing girlfriend commented on as being my go-to pose, which is fair because it is, but for my picture at the top I made sure to exaggerate it as much as possible:

After poking around at the top, there was nowhere to go but down, so down we went. It was much like the hike to the top, except no rock scrambles, which was an improvement. There also appeared to be even more dogs on the way down than on the way up, and we got to admire all of them. There was a particular French bulldog that we followed behind for quite some time, and he was very popular with everyone and that was cute to see. At one point he came across an even smaller French bulldog and this was borderline too much. Eventually we got back to the car and drove off into the sunset, or whatever. It was a fantastic day out and it was nice to see the world before it got too bitterly cold for such things.

3D Printing

My printer.

Reading this week:

  • No Time to Lose by Peter Piot
  • The Innocent Anthropologist by Nigel Barley

Look, this was inevitable. I expertly foreshadowed it at the end of my DeLorean Upgrades post, but I bought a 3D printer. Having successfully (“successfully”) produced one thing from a 3D model, it would simply be the thing that I would just keep on doing. I had been admiring various 3D printers online for weeks, and watching YouTube videos, and eventually decided to get a Monoprice Select Mini 2 off of ebay. The one I got was already modded with a variety of what seem to be the “standard” upgrades, like re-running the wiring for the build plate, installing a glass print bed, and some other tweaks around the edges. It arrived pretty quickly and I quickly got to work figuring out how to use it.

I wouldn’t say there was a learning curve, because I managed to print something off quickly after setting up, but the past few weeks have been a learning experience figuring out the capabilities of the printer, how to troubleshoot problems, how to prevent problems, and how to get the best prints considering the printer’s limitations. It’s been a lot of fun and no it totally hasn’t been distracting me from all the real work I need to do for grad school here, like studying or writing papers or whatever. Nope not at all.

The first big project I tackled was getting a switch cover for the DeLorean that actually worked. The thing that is really useful about 3D printing I think is not so much that you can print off random stuff at home, but that you can do iterative prototyping. You can print something and see what needs to be changed and then just print off the next version. I documented how I mangled the switch cover I paid $37 to get printed (leftmost in the picture), and I wound up printing off three more versions until I got the one that worked (mostly). You can see in the above photo some of that process, where I tried a two different hinge designs and had to modify the switch holder until I arrived at the below version, which mostly works. There are still tweaks to be done to it, though at some point I started eyeballing the design of the center console itself and frankly I live in a tiny apartment and don’t have the space or budget for the tools I am tempted to buy. But I think it looks pretty neat!

I guess that is a useful uh, use of 3D printing, but I also like the brand of YouTube videos that start with “is 3D printing actually useful?????” and then have a dude (I realized all the makers I watched on YouTube were dudes and made an effort to add some female makers; Simone Giertz I think is the one “everyone” knows, I have enjoyed April Wilkerson’s videos, and Laura Kampf I have to make more time for) show off like, the little organizer thing he printed. In that vein I am delighted to show off the stand that I designed for the soldering iron I still haven’t used, along with some clamps which I didn’t design and work surprisingly well. I imagine I might use them to clamp down the soldering iron stand when I eventually solder something:

That concludes the useful portion of 3D printing, and I will now move onto the random plastic things I have printed off for both myself and all my friends. Below on the left is a little cello for my roommate who loves to play the cello but doesn’t currently have access to one (she asked if I could print her a cello; she meant it as a joke and full-sized, bit I did my best here), and some parrots for my friend who loves birds and who wanted to get dinner on the night I got my 3D printer causing me to ditch him so I could play with my new toy. The one on the left is actually the second thing I ever printed, and the one on the right is a larger version as I got more familiar with the printer’s capabilities.

Below is a sheep for my super amazing girlfriend. She was the recipient of the very first print I did, which was a much tinier sheep and in yellow, and since she has been very supportive of my 3D printing and at least once was forced to try to fall asleep against the gentle tones of my 3D printer whining in the background, I made her a slightly bigger sheep and this time in black, which is a more realistic color. The smaller yellow sheep rests on top of it, belying the notion that it’s turtles all the way down.

I have also printed decorative items for myself! I printed the pumpkin because I thought my room needed some Halloween decor; it now rests on top of my webcam so when I am chatting with people I am really staring into the triangular eyes of my nearly-the-right-color pumpkin. The turtle is a somewhat failed attempt, in that it had some neat internal mechanics that my printer couldn’t handle and also I almost instantly snapped off two of its legs, the poor thing. At the bottom is my various failed attempts at printing off the Falcon. I forget what went wrong the first time, but then the printer jammed, and then the print fell over, and finally I decided to print it horizontally, which worked I guess but doesn’t look great.

I got a request to print off a boob planter (like, a thing for plants in the shape of boobs, not a thing in which to plant boobs). I swear this is true and I am not just using my printer to print smut, which I have unfortunately (via this project) discovered exists in bounds on the 3D printing website. Due to various problems with the printer, learning how to use it, and the fact that it is pretty slow anyways, this occupied days of my time and brainspace. The below picture is actually a failed print due to a clogged nozzle, causing it to be very weak. Eventually I got it (mostly) right and it was sent off to the recipient, who is using it in her boob-themed bathroom. The ship I printed for my own benefit because I like ships.

Having done all that, I am trying to branch out with my skillz. My lunchtime YouTube viewing now mostly consists of Ivan Miranda, and I admire the many things he builds that don’t really work, because it inspires me to try to build things that don’t really work. This is why I bought the soldering iron. Below is a stab at a paddle wheel boat which will require a massive redesign. And below that is various iterations of a holder for a motor for a propeller-powered device. These are what I design when I am supposed to be paying attention in class. One of the advantage of Zoom classes is that I am no longer forced to merely doodle in class when I don’t want to pay attention.

I hope you have enjoyed the various pictures of the random plastic things I have now had the opportunity to print. I specifically hope you enjoy it because at this rate my blog will now consist entirely of 3D printing projects, so stick around for that I guess. I am avoiding googling even more expensive printers, because I live in a tiny apartment and just don’t have the room.

Penguin Theft

Reading this week:

  • Shaping the Future of Power: Knowledge Production and Network-Building in China-Africa Relations by Lina Benabdallah
  • Against Elections: The Case for Democracy by David Van Reybrouck

We set out today to steal a penguin. The semester here at Yale as been dragging on a bit (they eliminated all the breaks, for reasons which made perfect sense, but man we don’t get a break), and we needed to switch things up and add some excitement to our life. So we went to Mystic Aquarium with the intent to steal a penguin.

The “we” in this scenario was me and my super amazing girlfriend. She will tell you that we did not in fact set out to steal a penguin, but instead went to Mystic Aquarium because it is a nice place to go and also that she has fond childhood memories of visiting every summer, but she is just trying to cover her tracks. We visited exactly a week ago from when this should be posted, so it was a slightly cool October day up in Mystic, and I was a bit surprised at how many people were there. They had timed tickets, so I had imagined relatively controlled crowds, but there were about as twice as many people as I would have really been comfortable with. And not to complain too heavily about children, but they’re excited to see beluga whales and less excited to stay six feet away from people. I can hardly blame ’em.

My super amazing girlfriend’s loyalties when it comes to favorite animals at the Mystic Aquarium is split between sharks and beluga whales. Luckily the whales are up first and we got to see them get fed and interact with people through the tank. They seemed to be having an alright time, so were a delight to watch, and by hanging out a bit we established ourselves as normal tourists instead of daring penguin thieves. You gotta establish your bonafides, you understand.

The biggest takeaway from the day was actually that the Mystic Aquarium is super into Halloween. There were Halloween decorations everywhere. The polar bear at the front had a giant spider in its mouth. The majority of the fish had to contend with new neighbors in the form of skulls and skeletons. There was an entire skeleton island in the marsh, and the rain forest exhibit featured incongruous pumpkins and unfortunately congruous black cats. Do they buy new stuff every year, or does the Mystic Aquarium have a gigantic warehouse of Halloween decorations stuffed to the gills 11 out of 12 months in the year?

Anyways, back to the heist. After passing by the seal and sea lion exhibits, where we admired their grace, beauty, and the fact that it kinda sounded like they were sneezing whenever they came up for air, we head up the marsh walkway. At Mystic, you split off the marsh walkway to get to the penguin exhibit. We spent a chunk of time here, to scope out the scene, and also (on our second go-around) to call my girlfriend’s sister, who loves penguins. Here I learned all the penguins have names consisting of two colors (“blue grey,” “yellow red,” etc), and are identified by beads on their armbands. We also learned that in captivity they lived for 30+ years and had regular appointments with an eye specialist. Most importantly, we learned that two penguins sitting in a little rock hut and looking out are very cute!

Unfortunately, there were just too many people, so we called off the heist for right then and decided to see the rest of the aquarium. After the penguins and the marsh, the rest of the exhibits were indoors, which we braved out of a love of sharks. I think I failed to take any good quality pictures of sharks, but I did take this photo of a blue lobster which, I am told, is very rare, and must also be a criminal, relegated as he was to an individualized jail. Poor thing.

There were also jellyfish, which I don’t normally really like because I have been stung by them before, but I figured they would make a cool gif. I also briefly was in awe of a living creature of such a different sort than the vertebrates I normally interact with, but that passed as I moved onto thinking about blog content:

After seeing all the indoor exhibits, we went outside and took another lap around the outdoor exhibits, but alas the potential for penguin thievery hadn’t improved any. So we went to go say goodbye to the belugas who, I am sure, were as sad to see us go as we were to leave them, and then exited via the gift shop. I managed to buy a lapel pin, despite them hiding them in the absolute least visible spot. We then set off to eat some seafood, which now that I think about it was probably in bad taste? Tasted good though. I also took this very nice picture (I think) of a pigeon: