Optimist, n. 1. One who usually expects a favorable outcome. 2. A believer in philosophical optimism. 3. Someone who, despite being in the middle of a Zambian hostel with sporadic water and electricity, habitually turns on the wireless networking function of his laptop — thinking that maybe, just maybe, someone has taken the initiative in the last few hours to create a broadband wireless network within a 100-foot radius.

Well, this is the start of my last week in Zambia. After driving myself crazy with work all last week, I decided to (gasp!) take the weekend off. Didn’t do a damned thing, other than post some photos here, buy some postcards, and visit a couple art galleries.

Oh, and finish reading Lost White Tribes, Riccardo Orizio’s questionably executed book on an intriguing subject: Europeans who, during the colonial period, moved to the developing world and, in essence, “went native.” (As in, intermarried with locals, adopted local ways of living, or simply isolated themselves from their Euro peers in some way.) When colonialism ended, most white folks went back to their motherlands, leaving these strange, impoverished “white tribes” behind.

It’s a fascinating topic — I’ve always been interested in microcultures and their ability to persist within a larger whole. (It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why: I grew up in one. I’m a Cajun from south Louisiana, which means I grew up as part of a French-speaking American microculture. Issues of cultural survival, linguistic persistence, and other such Sociology 101 topics are of deep interest to me.)

I’m also, more specifically, interested in the ways European and non-European cultures interact — most notably from my last long-term foreign assignment, my trip to Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, where about 40 half-British, half-Polynesian descendants of the mutineers on the Bounty live to this day.

Orizio’s book didn’t do as much for me as it should have. The stories of the “tribes” are left unconnected — it’s clear their origins were in distinct newspaper or magazine stories cobbled together in a book. But the biggest problem for me was the hyperflorid, hyperstylized writing. I bet it’s lovely in the original Italian, but all the translation going on in “Lost White Tribes” makes all dialogue seem stilted and artificial.

It’s understandable. For instance, when Orizio is interviewing the ethnic Poles who form a strange mountain community in Haiti, he is having Creole French translated into English by a local. Orizio then translated that English into Italian for the book; the book’s translator, Avril Bardoni, then translated that Italian back into English. Creole French to English to Italian to English — it’s not surprising the language sounds fake by the time it’s all over.

Anyway, still a recommended read — it’s only about 200 pages and some of the tales (the Haitian Poles, the Dutch/Bushmen in Namibia, and the Blancs Matignon in Guadaloupe in particular) are fascinating.

A moderately busy week ahead — lots of little things to do if I can squeeze in the time. The one thing I really, really need to do — interview someone at the Central Board of Health — has proven difficult. Five times I’ve set up interviews with people there, and five times they’ve been summarily canceled when I arrived. For three of them, my subject wasn’t even in the country. Harrumph. Oh, well — back to the coal mines.

17 November 2003


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© 2003 Joshua Benton