Badgers

Foreword to The Badgers Stories

by 

Sophia Ajania

Hello, Everyone – My name is Sophia!

This serves as the Foreword to The Badgers Stories.

(For ‘The Badgers Stories’ website kindly click here).

These fictional stories by Karim Ajania (who also happens to be my dad!) are based upon actual life experiences when Dad was around 7 years old, growing up in Kenya – when he spoke “pidgin” English.

Me – in Skidmore sweatshirt – with my sister Davina – in Kenya

A little about me:

I am a student at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, upstate New York.

I love tennis and have played it for as long as I can remember – since my dad put a tennis racket in my hand at two years old. Both my sisters are also competitive players.

My older sister, Davina, is pictured above (far right, sticking her long, spotty neck over the fence – it must be feeding time again).

Davina, pictured above (far right, sticking her long, spotty neck over the fence – it must be feeding time again).

I have trained in tennis camps from Florida to California, Barcelona to Croatia. I love the game.

My dad’s dad was selected for Wimbledon Juniors when he was my age and a college student in Pune, India.

A Note From Davina

Hello to The British Toast Rack Society!

Just a quick note in response to Sophia’s wittiness from our adventure to Kenya.

I have an exclusive never-before-seen photograph of Sophia kissing the only thing willing to kiss her in Kenya…

That’s all! Enjoy the The British Toast Rack Society website!

Cheerio!

Davina

_______________________________________________________________________ 

A little about the Badgers stories:

I have read The Badgers Stories from my dad’s perspective as a child.

There is a definitive thread here that is consistent throughout every time period:

Simply put: He was annoying then and he is annoying now.

As I read these Badger tales my heart went out to all the people in the stories – from Indian shopkeepers to English schoolteachers – who had to put up with him. To all these people I offer my unreserved gratitude and praise. How extraordinary and remarkable you all must be!

A little about my dad:

Seriously though, I would like to list some of the wonderful qualities of my dad here…

…Uh, actually I thought about it for a few minutes… Nope. Nada. Can’t think of anything… Sorry.

He was annoying then and he is annoying now.

I will tell you that he has put me through a lot of torture throughout my life as a result of his very lame jokes and his even worse puns! All my sisters and I can do is groan and if it gets too bad we just leave the room. My dad is the only person I know who will actually laugh at his own jokes. That’s a good thing – because nobody else does.

Children’s Stories

Childhood at the age of about 7, when my dad begins these Badgers stories, is a magical time.

Dad, age 7, before he went to school in England

As you will read in the Badger tales (get it?), my dad left for school in England around the age of 7. This cultural juxtaposition is what gives these Badger stories such richness and humanity.

Dad describes this stark transition period during his childhood in Cicero’s Corner:

One moment I was playing soccer barefoot in Nairobi, speaking excellent Kutchi and accent-less Swahili and very poor pidgin English in an embarrassing sing-song sprinkled with lots of  “golly gosh” and “goodness gracious, isn’t it” – then suddenly – at age 7 – I get shipped off to school in London and I am learning Latin and Greek and Tudors and Stuarts.
DandS

Me (left) and my sister Davina (right)

My own childhood was also filled with stories. When I was about 6 or 7 we had a family vacation at an old farmhouse in Normandy, France.

“A Farmyard in Normandy”, oil on canvas, Claude Monet, 1863

In ‘The Badgers Stories’, there are references to the Norman conquest of 1066 and to painters and artists.

I recall during this summer in France, our visiting the Bayeux tapestry (pictured below) and Dad explaining the dramatic lead-up to the war between William of Normandy and Harold, Earl of Wessex. And I recall our visiting Brittany and seeing areas where Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin painted Breton Women.

We were standing out in the country and this magnificent rainbow began to form out of the sunny but misty sky. We stared at it for a few minutes and my dad asked me:

“Sophia, how do they make rainbows?”

And I replied pretty confidently – I was around 6 years old, of course…

NipRainbow

Doodle by Dad from his Drop and Ray dot com website

(Kindly click here for the Drop and Ray dot com website)

“Oh, you see there is this guy who is a painter with a very tall ladder and he just goes up the ladder behind the clouds with his many buckets of different paint – red, yellow, green… and he then paints the clouds and lets the paint trickle down… and that is how they make rainbows.”

Well, the conventional response to a child saying this is something patronizing like, “Oh, the little girl said something so cute – did you hear that? Aww… isn’t that so sweet?”

My dad’s response was full of conviction:

“That is exactly right Sophia! That is exactly what happens!

And that is the truth because it is your truth and you need to cherish and protect that truth – don’t let anyone take it away from you.”

And then he got out his sketchpad and his charcoals (he’s actually a pretty good artist) and began to draw the ladder and the buckets of paint and the clouds exactly as I described it to him. He sketched what I depicted to him as a professional reporter might do when covering a serious story and wanting to record an accurate eyewitness account.

To paraphrase the TED talk by Janet Echelman, my dad was “Taking Imagination Seriously.”

(To read dad’s interview with his Harvard classmate and friend Janet Echelman kindly click here.)

Imagination and inter-disciplinary learning are related in that it takes imagination to build a bridge between learning disciplines. I cannot think of a better illustration of this idea than when my dad read the story of Babar to my sisters and me. By the way, he also wrote and sketched and illustrated other stories just for my sisters and me.

We were the only kids on the block with hand-written, hand-illustrated bedtime stories.

Even though my sisters and I are now adults Dad still hand writes and hand draws stories and sends them to us.

Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

He read us all kinds of books like Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, in which my favorite character was Toad of Toad Hall  because he was so mischievous and annoying to Badger:

‘What?’ cried the Badger, greatly scandalized, `You backsliding animal, didn’t you tell me just now, in there—-’
`Oh, yes, yes, in there,’ said Toad impatiently. `I’d have said anything in there. You’re so eloquent, dear Badger, and so moving, and so convincing, and put all your points so frightfully well—’”

I have used that so many times over the years on my dad:

“Sophia – but you said to me you would never…” – begins my dad, perplexedly.

“Oh, yes, yes – in there I did say I would… I’d have said anything in there. You’re so eloquent dad, and so moving, and so convincing, and put all your points so frightfully well—“ I laugh!

Babar the elephant by Jean de Brunhoff

Babar was our favorite children’s story for several reasons. First, we could all read it in the original French because my sisters and I were educated at the French Lycee.

Second, it was beautifully illustrated because the author Jean de Brunhoff was an artist as well.

Listening to these unique stories reminds me of the way my dad weaves circumferential or seemingly tangential topics into a core subject, as he often does in his writings.

The Babar story illustrations also matched my dad’s very cheeky sense of humor.

For example, here (below) is an illustration by the son of the author of the Babar stories, Laurent de Brunhoff, entitled The Creation of the First Elephant – do you see what I mean?

firstelephant

The author of Babar, Jean de Brunhoff, had studied art at the prestigious Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, and was able to study Indian paintings at this academy.

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarotti

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarotti

One of the paintings Jean de Brunhoff studied at the academy was that of the first Mughal Emperor of Medieval India – Babur – after whom Babar is presumed to have been named.

Babur the First: Indian Mughal Emperor

So then dad would take us from Babar to Babur, and the glorious age of Indian Mughal history and the Turks and the Persians and the architecture of Chanderi – a village carved from rock.

Mughal Emperor Babur leads his army into battle, 1526

He’d quote the magnificent poets of that age such as Attar and Rumi, Sadi and Hafiz (I’ve actually been reading Hafiz again recently, and Rumi is a favorite of mine). Sufi, Persian, Turkish and Indian (Classical Sanskrit) poetry and literature too. With the kind of folk-tales and folk wisdom that characterize The Two Fishermen of Mahabalipuram

And then – back to home-base again:

The encroaching battle between the rival armies of Lord Rataxes and King Babar.

Even after all this time the Sun never says to the Earth,
You owe me. Look what happens with a love like that
It lights the whole sky.  — Hafiz (1326-1390)

Sometimes he would talk about Babar the elephant, and Rataxes the rhino, and he would then navigate us into his wildlife preservation work against the poaching of elephant ivory and rhino horn with his mentor, conservationist Richard Leakey in Kenya. Or, talk about his childhood classmate Michael Werikhe at Hospital Hill School in Nairobi who dedicated his life to the relatives of Rataxes as The Rhino Man. Or, sketch us the distinct differences between Indian and African elephants; or describe how Indian elephants were used as beasts of burden in his grandfather’s village in Gujarat. Or, tell a Sanskrit story about Elephant God Ganesha ( गणेश).

Or, as Dad seems to have done recently, interview an elephant in Jaipur, India.

(Kindly click here for Dad’s interview with an elephant in Jaipur, India).

The “Whole” Child

I used to think all these were simply random and tangential ramblings by my dad.

However, now that I am no longer a child, I understand better that this was a very deliberate and cohesive strategy to inspire the “whole” child. To liberate the child’s imagination and potential. It addresses the issues about education today that people like Sir Ken Robinson have advocated. We need a revolution in education. We’re not educating the whole child.

I was enjoying a story, but also learning about Indian history and African wildlife because it was presented to me in a way that I could comfortably connect with, enjoy and empathize.

We underestimate the capacity of children to learn. And also to empathize and to comprehend. Taken in the right doses, the realities of elephant and rhino poaching, the glories of Sanskrit and Sufi poetry and Mughal history and the exquisite skill of French impressionist paintings and illustrations are all part of an enriching experience for a 7 year old child. Taken in the wrong doses and delivered with a lack of skill and tact, this can be a total disaster.

A child could have horrible nightmares about slaughtered elephants and rhinos.

It is thus incumbent upon the tactful teacher and skilled storyteller to get the right sense of proportion. It is a subtle, nuanced art and requires finesse to deliver it correctly and effectively.

It is also about setting very high standards and being unwilling to compromise.

Manchester

I was in London a few months ago with my dad and we went to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see some magnificent paintings. I have always felt – as he does – that paintings enrich the imagination and the soul. Dad recited me a quote he and Jeremy Geidt often discussed about creativity, a quote from my dad’s favorite historian, William Manchester:

Five centuries after Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, and Titian, nothing matching their masterpieces can be found in contemporary galleries.
No pandering to popular tastelessness and philistine taboos guided the brushes and chisels of the men who found immortality in the Renaissance.
William Manchester

Source: A World Lit only by Fire, page 87

The Banquet in the Pine Forest by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)

Here is an analogy from my own life about excellence and holistic learning:

As a competitive athlete I strive for a standard of excellence in sports.

I relate the holistic concept to cross-training. To be an excellent tennis player, you need to be able to run, to work with weights in the gym, do yoga, to swim – and even to dance.

The holistic approach to training helps to build the “whole” athlete. In the same way, a holistic approach to education – one that addresses the heart and the soul as well as the mind – is a more durable and effective way to learn, in my view.

Fighting and Winning the Battle

It seems to me that you gotta fight.

I don’t play in a tennis match to have fun, I play to win and to win I have to be willing to fight to be able to win. But even more than that, I need to believe I can win. If I don’t believe I can win, I can’t win. It is as basic as that.

You take the top 100 players in the world today and there is a very slender sliver of separation between any of them in terms of skill, fitness and conditioning. But what differentiates a Nadal or a Federer is a fighting spirit, a mental toughness. They have a conviction that they can win.

When I was 9 years old my dad and I watched the most memorable match in my entire life.

It was between 39-year-old Jimmy Connors and 26-year-old Patrick McEnroe at the US Open in Flushing Meadows in 1991.

The U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows – which I visited earlier this month.

Connors was down two sets and losing the third set, and Patrick McEnroe, young and supremely confident – with several Match Points already – seemed to have it securely in the bag. After all, Old Man Connors was pushing 40 and the young whippersnapper in his 20s was whipping the old guy’s ass!

But in the world of tennis, Connors was like one of the great soldiers and generals, Alexander or Darius or Ashoka. He had fought many battles and he knew that victory could be snatched from the jaws of defeat. And so he demonstrated just that. He used mental toughness and took huge risks with his shots, playing most of them just within the lines. He won the match!

In his tribute to Jeremy Geidt my dad writes about this theme of soldiering as it relates to Shakespeare’s Hotspur. A soldier is someone who must fight his own desire to be complacent, to stay within his comfort zone, to be cynical and give in to the temptation of defeat. There is this common thread in the lives of the great soldiers, historical and fictional, from Macedonia to Babylon – Darius, Nebuchadnezzar, Hotspur, Krishna, Alexander, Arjuna and Ashoka.

They all had one single theme in common: a conviction that they could win the fight. You and I are fighting a battle right now.

It is a battle to ensure that we win the war against complacency and cynicism when fighting to shift the paradigm for African Development.

How are we going to win this fight against all the corruption and chaos in Africa?

Well, never mind about all that right now.

Let’s just first believe that we can win. That is the very first step. How did Winston Churchill defeat the evil of Hitler? By first having the conviction that he could win this good fight.

At the end of his biography of Churchill, The Last Lion, William Manchester recites these words of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin:

“Isaiah Berlin saw [Churchill] as a leader who imposed ‘his imagination and his will upon his countrymen,’ idealizing them ‘with such intensity that in the end they approached his ideal and began to see themselves as he saw them.’ In doing so he ‘transformed cowards into brave men, and so fulfilled the purpose of shining armor.’”

In other words, Churchill defeated Hitler through the power of “his imagination”. I am sure Janet Echelman can relate!

In our modern time there are no better soldiers, and there is no better army, than the Army of Grannies, the Army of Angels that my dad’s friend and African brother Twesigye Jackson Kaguri deploys in Uganda.

Here they are below – aren’t they just beautiful and amazing?

Fighting and Losing the Battle

My dad is the only adult I know who still reads children’s stories and children’s authors.

I was still a child when The Brick Project that he built from the ground up was demolished by the actions of brutal thugs in Zimbabwe.

Here is what one of the teachers in Lithuania said:

When the Zimbabwe police bulldozed and burned and buried the homes of our friends in Porte Farm they also did bulldoze the morale of all the Brick Project students – they turned our school bricks into rubble as well.
The students did not know how to handle this trauma and they did not know how to regenerate their enthusiasm for sustainability initiatives like this one in Zimbabwe. The experience was so very harsh for them because they had so much affection for the people in Porte Farm.
— Virginja Kanapinskiene, Brick Project Teacher Advisor

I did not fully understand – as a child back then – what had happened to his work in Zimbabwe. So I asked my dad what had occurred and what he planned to do about it.

Babar leads his army against Rataxes. Rataxes wins and demolishes Celesteville.

He explained it this way:

He said it was like the time Babar and his army lost the battle to Rataxes and his army.

All of Celesteville (Babar’s village community) was demolished and his General, Cornelius said it was the end – that they had been defeated forever. Babar’s heart and spirit remained undefeated:

“We shall rebuild, Cornelius!” says Babar.

“But they shall destroy us once again…” laments Cornelius.

“Then we shall rebuild once again,” insists Babar.

There was another children’s author, Rudyard Kipling, that helped dad gain perspective after the bulldozing of the community he was working with in Zimbabwe.

(To read the story of The Brick Project’s bulldozing kindly click here).

DadatHVD

Dad when he was at Harvard

This is the excerpt he read me from the poem IF which he had taped to his bedroom wall as a young boy:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:
If you can bear to watch…
…The things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools

Dad decided to do just so:

With “worn-out tools” he is rebuilding The Brick Project!

Toast Rack Locations in Kenya

Many of the locations in this series of Badgers stories by my dad are familiar to me from my visit to Kenya last year.

It is important to note that although much of it is based on fact, situations in these stories have been fictionalized – sometimes to protect identities of various parties.

So please take them literarily, and not literally.

Locations like the Norfolk Hotel and the New Stanley Hotel and the Muthaiga Club (all of which utilize The British Toast Rack, I am sure!) are landmarks of Nairobi.

The Norfolk Hotel, Nairobi, Kenya

Ernest Hemingway used to hang out at these places. As did Beryl Markham, Elspeth Huxley and Karen Blixen. Books like The Flame Trees of Thika and West With the Night and Out of Africa may have been partially written in the verandahs of these elegant hotels and clubs.

And I have also visited the Nairobi streets where the Patel family have their shop.

DadKenya

Dad as ‘Badgers’

The Kikuyu Vegetable Ladies

Last August, I read for the first time the Badgers stories you are about to read, on the plane from California to Kenya. A recurring theme is the Kikuyu Vegetable Ladies, whom my dad always described to me as ‘people of profound purity and poetry’ – the ‘salt of the earth’.

 

Young Kikuyu woman carrying heavy load of firewood on her back Aberdares Kenya

Kikuyu woman carrying a load of firewood on her back in Aberdares, Kenya

I kept a blog when I traveled to Kenya last year and this is something I wrote on my blog:

Before I left, my dad handed me a booklet he wrote about his days in Nairobi. They were traditional family stories and included the meanings he had, thus far, pulled away from his life. I am going to quote something he wrote because I feel like it explains what I am trying to say:
“The Kikuyu vegetable ladies, they mix with the earth.
They don’t wear shoes because they are poor. Or is it because they are rich?
Perhaps if they wore shoes, their bare feet wouldn’t mix with the rich fertile red soil in the Shamba where they grow vegetables that they sell door to door.
And if their feet stopped mixing with the earth, they may forget who they are, where they come from, and where they will return and mix back into.”
Histomap

Another childhood memory I have is waking up every morning to something mounted on special foam board by my dad on my bedroom wall called a Histomap.

This is a “map” of history and it maps out how civilizations (the Greeks, the Persians, the Ottomans, the Egyptians, the Mughals…) rise and fall, ebb and flow, like rivers meandering and drying up and then trickling up again. Oh – and did I actually forget to mention Ancient Rome? Yikes! And don’t let me get started on my dad’s weird obsession with Cicero!

Back to the Histomap, which is a visual, graphic illustration of what Gandhi said about tyrants:

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall.
Think of it – always.”

Ghandi loved The Upanishads and The Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit literature. He applied his imagination to overthrow The British Toast Rack – taking simple elements like salt and cotton and turning them into potent metaphors and powerful revolutions through his creative imagination. Like Henry David Thoreau, whom he admired, Ghandi took imagination seriously.

Vishnu and Bali

It is no coincidence that one of Ghandi’s most beloved tales from Hindu mythology is the story of Bali and Vishnu, which my dad is about to tell to you next – a story he has told me throughout my life and a story in which I find solace and inspiration – a story I cherish.

It is the same story that The Two Fishermen of Mahabalipuram were raised upon in the oral storytelling tradition of India.

It is a story that illustrates the ultimate power of the Imagination – or, to paraphrase Janet Echelman once more – a story that “Takes Imagination Seriously”.

For this story of Vishnu and Bali simply click here: Introduction to Badgers – and read on.

Sophia Ajania 

Skidmore College, 
Saratoga Springs, New York 
September 27, 2012