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This weekend I had a birthday, and even though the week is already halfway over, I’m still feeling happy.  My friends threw a sorta-surprise birthday party at midnight, which included this groovy cake with psychedelic colors:

When I first came to Harvard as a fresh freshman, I had no idea if I would find real friends and relationships in college.  I was hoping for the best, but that first year of college is pretty socially demanding and hard to navigate, as any college-kid you know can probably confirm, and we were all more concerned with making friends than with keeping them.  During those first months of school, everyone had a ton of “friends.”  But while we were bouncing between room parties and study groups and sports practices and formals, the substance and mettle of those relationships hadn’t been tested yet.

The last three and a half years have been full of fluctuations for me.  I studied abroad in Paris last fall, and I felt like a freshman all over again when I came back to campus in the spring.  Then there are the natural ebbs and flows of friend-groups; for example, in field hockey off-seasons, I don’t see my teammates nearly as often.  Even though most of us long for relational consistency, I think that friend fluxes are a natural (and sometimes inevitable) part of life.  But on Saturday night, as I looked around at my closest friends, I felt so blessed and full to the brim.  To the casual onlooker, I was just shoveling rainbow cake into my mouth, but on the inside, I was thinking: the people in this room are all people I love.

I’m so grateful I can write that sentence before I graduate, and mean it.

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Everybody’s been saying that this is a mild winter, and maybe they’re right.  But it still seems freezing and grey to me, and I’ve definitely had the January Blues.  Last week, I woke up early and looked outside my window, only to see a completely frozen world – there was white ice on the ground, an opaque grey sky, and leafless trees dotting the street.  Everything looked the exact same color, and I felt a sinking sadness in my heart at the bleak sight of winter.  So I did what any normal 21-year-old would do – I called my parents on the phone and cried.

But this story has a happy ending.  After my phone call, my parents were so worried about my wellbeing (SAD is a true phenomenon!) that they sent me a sun lamp, and it came in the mail only two days later.   Now I use it in the mornings when I’m checking email: a simulated sun on the desk beside me.  And it has actually helped!   My roommate and I also decorated the living room with a tropical/Bohemian flavor, so we can pretend it’s summer all year round:

Well, everyone on this blog has been raving about their courses for the spring, and since I’m also thrilled about mine, I’ll mention them briefly.  First, some backstory: My roommate and I are both in the humanities (she’s into photography and I do English), so a lot of our classes have been theory-based over the years.  But that’s not just characteristic of the humanities – my friends who are government or economics majors encounter an almost equal number of classes full of theorizin’ and philosophizin’.  The idea is that when we get into the real world, we’ll be able to practically apply these complex frameworks of meta-knowledge.  While that might be true, I’ve been increasingly attracted to classes whose content is facts-based and has a more direct, unambiguous application – classes that are oriented toward a practicum of some kind.

The first exciting one I’m taking is called The African City.  Contrary to many opinions, Africa is full of more than savannah, grasslands, deserts and jungles.  This class focuses on the urban centers of my most beloved continent.  We’re learning how to use Geographic Information Systems, which is a kind of data mapping system that employs Google Earth & other topographical maps.  Using GIS technology, you can get an immediate, visual representation of data spreads like population density across Africa, or sites of armed conflict. For this class, we each pick one city that we really care about, and we research that city for the entire semester.  Each week, we’ll be focusing on maps of different kinds – transport routes, cultural flows, ethnic & linguistic groupings, and lots more.  I’m so thrilled about this class because my city of focus is Dar es Salaam – a city that I hope to live and work in someday.

Another great class I’m taking is called Africa & Africans.  When I first came to college, I definitely didn’t expect to be studying Africa in school.  Africa was just my home, and I wasn’t even sure it should be a school subject!  But that was totally naïve, and I’m realizing how unfamiliar I am with a part of the world that I love dearly.  This semester, I’m taking a class on the history of sub-Saharan Africa over the last century.  It’s taught by Caroline Elkins who just happens to be an expert on post-colonial Kenya, so I’m in good hands.

The final class I’m super excited for is called Creative Nonfiction – it’s a writing workshop where we get to improve our journalistic writing.  I’ve already taken one writing workshop at Harvard, which was probably my favorite class of all time, so I’m looking forward to the follow-up.  And as I mentioned above, I love that the skills from the class are immediately applicable in a straightforward way.

One more little story before I sign off — last night, I went to see a band called Augustana play in the city, and they were wonderful.  I adore loud shows because the music shakes everyone in the audience in the exact same tempo; I always imagine that our hearts have been transplanted by the bassline, so we all have the same heartbeat for the length of the song. Anyway, the band has a song called Boston, which made everyone happy, and it portrayed this city in a pretty light.  And then on the T ride home, the subway was crammed with exhilarated Bruins fans, who had just won the game 4-3.  I was the only one on the subway not wearing a Bruins jersey, but in that moment, I think I felt just as happy and proud of Boston as everyone else.

 

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Deejay Kulture

Sorry for dropping off the Internet!  I was spending a warm and sunny Christmas in California, followed by a sunny January at my grandma’s house in Florida.  Some people prefer a “white Christmas,” but I feel so lucky that I got to wear flip-flops all through the break.  Here’s me and my brother during the first week of the new year — can you tell it’s January?

I wasn’t all that excited to return to snowy Cambridge, but my first week back was amazing.  Harvard has a new initiative called January Arts Intensives, held during the week before school starts.  The classes are small (about ten people each), and we receive intensive instruction in a special art technique.  The week-long class wasn’t graded, which makes it feel less like school and more like recreation.

I signed up for the coolest class: How to Deejay.”  I’m not your typical-lookin’ deejay, but I’ve always been in love with music – I religiously read Rolling Stone, SPIN and Pitchfork, and I spend any extra money I have on new tunes.  I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t play an instrument of any kind (not even the recorder! and everyone learned the recorder in grade school), so this deejay class seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn how to “make music” without actually playing an instrument.  Each class is taught by an expert in the field, and mine was led by the phenomenal Boston DJ and ethnomusicologist, DJ Super Squirrel.

Over the course of the week, we learned about mashups and remixing as an ideology that extends into an infinite number of fields (not just music!)  Remixing can happen in films, in visual art, in performance, in poetry and lyrics — and even in fields beyond the arts, like science, where major solutions are often found in the intersections of very different projects & studies.  Remixing appeals to me on a really fundamental level, because I’ve always felt like I come from a mashup of cultures.  Sometimes I don’t even know where my loyalties lie — I feel so invested in each community and place that shaped me.  At the end of our deejay class, I made a sweet mixtape that blended some of my favorite Kenyan pop songs with US dance music.  The result sounded as muddled as my own identity, but at least it was danceable.

For most of the week, we used this mashup software called Ableton, which is apparently what all the eminent DJs use (even artists like Girl Talk and Skrillex!).  But, in the interest of authenticity, we also learned how to scratch using records and turntables – the old-skool way.   I discovered that I have no natural skills in the scratching department.  You gotta use your left hand to push the record while you flick the fader back and forth with your right hand.  Unfortunately, I can’t make my hands do different things at the same time – but it was still fun spinning Nastymix records like I knew what I was doing.  In my daydreams, I’m just as amazing as these guys:

 

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Good Vibes

One of my favorite songs of all time is Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys, and it’s been stuck in my head for the past couple of days – probably because Thanksgiving break was crammed with good vibes.  I took the Greyhound bus all the way from Boston to Virginia to visit some family friends, and life was awesome all weekend. The sun was shining, and I didn’t set my alarm clock once. I felt like a love-sponge, just soaking up affection and good food.  Our Thanksgiving feast included all the components of a typical American meal: turkey, cranberries, stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, and two kinds of pies.  And at night, we had traditional Dutch treats called Oliebollen!  Oliebollen are little round donuts, filled with raisins and spices.  I almost died of happiness and good vibrations while I ate them.

I helped create this poignant Thanksgiving artwork.

Unfortunately, the bus ride back to school almost took away all my good vibrations.  We stopped in New York in the middle of the night to switch buses – but Greyhound, Inc was temporarily out of bus drivers.  So we waited on the floor in sleepy, grouchy suspense until some more bus drivers showed up at dawn, and I made it back to campus just in time for my morning classes.

Speaking of good vibrations, a few weeks ago the Harvard Global Health & AIDS Coalition staged a ‘Pool Party Demonstration’ outside of Merck Pharmaceuticals, near the Harvard Medical School  – an effective and creative way to protest.  While Merck has been instrumental in developing ARVs and other HIV-related drugs, they’ve refused to join the Medicine Patent Pool so far.  The Patent Pool tries to ensure availability of HIV drugs to low- and middle-income families across the globe, and Merck’s cooperation would be invaluable toward that end (you can read more about the issue here).

Pool party with a purpose.

Listening to speeches!  I’m wearing the hawt green shades.

We showed up with beach balls, sunglasses, and multicolored towels, and set up our waterless pool party in the grass below Merck Labs.  I was impressed with how congenial and relaxed everyone was, while still being insistent about their goals.  We chanted and talked and wrote letters to Merck management, and some Harvard med students gave speeches from inside the blow-up pool (everyone told them to “Get in the pool!”).  The demonstrators showed that it’s possible to be passionate without being violent, and to make your voice heard without being antagonizing.  Of course, some policemen showed up pretty quickly and watched the proceedings with folded arms, but they didn’t seem too concerned.  The demonstration actually got a lot of local publicity, and a  follow-up event is scheduled for World AIDS Day this coming Thursday, December 1st.  If you live in the Boston area, feel free to join in – and no matter where you live, there are so many ways you can show your love & support for those living with HIV this Thursday.

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As usual before an interview, my body temperature was high, my confidence was low, and my brain was fluctuating between clutter and utter emptiness. When I got to the interview room, I nudged open the door, tripped on the carpet, and gave a sweaty handshake to the three interviewers.

“Have a seat,” said the dude in the middle. I did.

“Why do you think you’d be good for this summer position?” he asked, flashing me a vaguely patronizing smile.

The interview should have been a breeze. I was trying to go to Botswana to teach English, and I had a lot of great answers to his question. For example, “I’m an English major,” and “I’m familiar with Africa” – those would have been good answers. Instead, I treated my interviewers to a series of Um’s, Uh’s and Likes, before launching into a modest plea: “Well, I’m not great at teaching, but I do love kids! Well, what I mean to say is, I like teenagers.” They stared at me bleakly, and I felt my soul shriveling up into a little ball of defeat.

That was last semester, and that’s how all my interviews went. I know Harvard kids are supposed to be great at interviews, but I like to think of myself as an interviewee-in-training. I applied to a kabillion summer programs (well, three or four), and got rejected from all of them. As summer got closer and closer, I wrung my hands and thought, What am I going to do? Everyone else will be saving the world and/or interning at prestigious institutions. But about three weeks before summer began, the African Studies department sent out an email soliciting kids to apply to fully-funded language programs in Africa.  I applied on a whim, and the rest is history.  I had the happiest summer of my life on the Kenyan coast, studying Swahili through Yale’s summer program.

This past weekend, my roommate and I planned out a walking-tour of the Cambridge/Somerville area. We spent Thursday night on Google maps, designing a long route through the city, choosing cafés and landmarks to see along the way. I’ve had the chance to see a lot of Cambridge already – a concert here, a meal there, a grocery trip to Whole Foods. But my sense of spatiality is underdeveloped, and it’s hard for me to visualize how those different locales are related to each other. Every café, shop, park, club and alleyway that I’ve visited are just atomized places in my head, connected by a mysterious network of streets.

Our walking-tour actually went pretty smoothly. My roommate was in charge of the route and kept referring to the maps on her iPhone. We walked through plenty of classic New England neighborhoods, strolled by some train tracks, and admired some graffiti. At different points during the walk, we’d emerge into an area that I recognized – somewhere we’d been before – and amazingly, it fit into my mental map of Cambridge. As I recognized more and more places, a cohesive scheme of the city began to emerge in my head. (“Holy cow, this is Porter Square!”) It was weird and satisfying to finally understand how all the places connected.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that sometimes things don’t make sense until way, way later. Sometimes the events of your life will seem really random, and disappointments will feel absolutely crushing and nonsensical. But I think that eventually the pieces fit together into something kinda unified, something kinda beautiful.  So keep trying risky things, keep applying to programs, keep going to interviews even if your pulse rate gets dangerously high.  Keep moving along.  In retrospect, all the failures and dead ends usually make a lot more sense.

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November is probably the most crowded month for Harvard kids.  We start referring to our iCals with growing frequency, trying to fit every single activity (including eating and sleeping) into a 24-hour matrix that feels far too small.  I mean, Free Time is never a readily available commodity on campus, but it goes completely out of stock in November.  The shelves of Free Time are empty, and the Free Time vendors just shrug their shoulders and say, “Come back next month, and we might have more in stock.”  So I’ve learned that sometimes, during the most crammed weeks of the semester, you’ve gotta steal your Free Time – seize any hours of freedom that you can find!

In that spirit, I rode the T into Boston on Thursday night, to see the Blue Scholars perform at the Paradise Rock Club.  The Blue Scholars are a dynamic musical duo from Seattle, makin’ smart folk hip-hop since 2002.  Sabzi is an Iranian DJ/producer, and Geologic is a Filipino rapper – and together, the dudes are pure magic.  The Blue Scholars use their music to treat relevant societal/generational issues, and I admire the intentionality manifest in their art.  Here’s one of my favorite songs by them, Cinemetropolis, the title track from their new LP:

 

I was lucky enough to attend another nourishing event this weekend (one that filled my tummy and my heart).  On Saturday, the Harvard African Students Association held its annual Fall Feast, which is always one of the best events of the semester.  Students and groups of various African affiliations lend their time and talents to recreate classic dishes from their home countries.   The array was stunning – jollof rice, stews, curries, shawarma, corn-mush, chicken, samosas, plantains – and by the time we got halfway down the line, our plates were spilling over with African delicacies.  We had to go finish our first plates before we could sample the second half of the buffet.  It was a true celebration, and everyone jokingly heralded their hometown food as “the winning dish.”  All the proceeds from the event went to buy food for Somali refugee camps, so they were selling these sweet T-shirts:

I felt kind of weird buying a shirt that said “Fight the Famine” while surrounded by such bounty.  But I think that’s the strange tension that many of us live with, especially as Americans.  We should still enjoy and appreciate things like parties and good food, knowing that they’re undeserved riches; but at the same time, we gotta stay keenly aware of the areas of great need that are sometimes starkly juxtaposed to our own comfortable situations.  It’s a complicated dynamic, and one that I haven’t totally come to terms with yet.  I could only be grateful for my blessings while I chowed down on hometown chapatis for the second time this month.  In honor of that unlikely statistic, here’s the official Chapati song by the Kenyan artist Man Ingwe:

 

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Five Reasons You Want to Live in Dunster

As evidenced by other posts on this blog, Harvard kids tend to love their campus houses.  Each house has its own traditions, mascots, quirks, secrets and sites of pride.  But as I begin my third year in Dunster, I can’t imagine a better place to live! Here are some reasons why the [often shortchanged] house might be better than you think:

1. Underground Passageways

Every part of Dunster is connected to every other part of Dunster through a labyrinth of subterranean tunnels. These passages are fun to investigate all year round, but when winter arrives, their value skyrockets.  As a veteran winter-phobe, I’m adept at avoiding face-to-face encounters with winter.  So when it’s snowing outside, I can actually get from my room to the vending machine, to the laundry room, to the dining hall, to the computer lab, to the Grille – all without going outside or taking off my flip-flops.

2. The Illustrious D-Hall

Dunster’s dining hall is famed across campus for it’s Harry-Potteresque interior and lovingly crafted cuisine.  It also stays open later than any other dining hall – something that many non-Dunsterites appreciate every day.

3. Location, Location!

Some [weird] people claim that Dunster is located really far away from the center of campus.  While the five-minute walk admittedly feels endless in winter, Dunster is not that remote – and it’s refreshingly far away from the fray of the Square.  The courtyard faces onto the Charles River (a beautiful sight in any light).  And Dunster is a mere block away from Petsi Pies – Cambridge’s hipster-haven, a local café with good music, greasy air and sinful pies.

4. Meese

Dunster’s mascot is the endearing, enduring Moose.  We get to wear Moose sweatshirts, wrap our necks in Moose scarves and carry around Moose steins. On Housing Days, we even don our Moose antlers en masse – and you know that’s cool.

5. The Dunster Petting Zoo 

A brand new Dunster tradition!  This past Sunday afternoon, Dunster’s student council organized an autumn Hoedown in the courtyard.  The yard was dotted with footballs, bales of hay, and picnic tables filled with donuts and candy corn.  But when I arrived on the scene, everyone was totally ignoring the Hoedown — instead, they were clustered together in the middle of the grassy lawn.  I ran over to see what was so enthralling, and I wasn’t disappointed.  It was a petting zoo of baby farm animals!  Baby ducks, baby rabbits, baby goats, baby chickens, and even a baby pig named Lydia, who reminded me of a little furry black bullet.  About forty mostly-grown Harvard students were squealing and talking in high-pitched baby voices (Awww wook at the iddy biddy piggy wif its wittle snout!)  I loved witnessing the immense transforming power of baby animals — how we all became undignified and delighted for a few minutes.

Here’s a picture of me holding an adorable baby duckling.  Apparently, the Petting Zoo/Hoedown has now been instituted as an annual tradition.  So if you live in Dunster House, or if you get assigned to Dunster one day — be glad!

Addendum: Yesterday, as you may have read elsewhere, Mark Zuckerberg made his grand reappearance at Harvard – his first official return since he left the school in 2004.  On my way to class in the afternoon, one of the campus streets was lined with multiple news trucks, reporter paraphernalia and police cars.  We asked one policeman on a motorcycle, “Is this all for Mark Zuckerberg?”  He grinned and said, “Yep, it’s all for him.  Just think, a few years ago, he was walking around this campus and no one even cared.”  He rubbed the fingers of his right hand together and smiled slyly: “You make a li’l money, and look what happens!”

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Veggie Fests and Autumn Bests

This weekend, I tagged along with my roommate to Boston’s annual Vegetarian Food Festival.  She’s a vegetarian and I am not.  But I was lured in by the promise of hundreds of free samples of exotic health-foods: granola bars cut up into little squares, crumbs of 85% dark chocolate, sprouts, quinoa, some magical ‘unsaturated’ tree oil from Venezuela, hummus samplers, and some not-potable chocolate protein shakes.  All these delicacies (and more!) were displayed upon tables in their healthy glory, curated by very healthy-looking individuals.  Among the attendees of the Veggie Fest, I encountered the usual surplus of beards, suspenders and shoes made of natural fibers, as well as a surprising hat made of tree-bark, and some buttons that said “Give Peas a Chance.”  Because I was dressed in really pedestrian attire, I bought this sweet T-shirt:

I felt okay buying this shirt, because whether I wear it ironically or in earnest, it’s sending pretty much the same message out on da streets.

At one point during the Fest, I noticed some chapatis at a faraway food stand.  Chapatis are flat, greasy discs of bread that resemble tortillas, except they come from East Africa.  I’m always craving some greasy Tanzanian carbohydrates, so I made a bee-line for the table.  As I got closer, the banner behind the stall came into view: Taste of Kilimanjaro.  I couldn’t believe it – Tanzanian cuisine for sale at a Boston veggie fair!  Any true array of Tanzanian fare would include a large component of kuku choma  (scrawny pieces of charcoal-grilled chicken, cut into vaguely identifiable pieces and dipped in thick salt).  But since it was a Veggie Festival, I loaded up on beans and chapatis, and enjoyed a true Tanzanian lunch.  I even got to chat with the chefs in Kiswahili.  Since they’d been living in Boston for fifteen years, their pure, grammatical Kiswahili was inflected with American sound and cadence.

Later that day, I Skyped with my parents, who live in Kenya.  They informed me that the city of Nairobi was hosting its annual Barbecue Fest that very same day.  Apparently, all the city’s leading meat companies and “grilling houses” were showcasing their best meats downtown, offering taste-samples for a price.  That’s the kind of irony I love — the polarized food-fairs of my two distant homes, vending totally distinct flavors (both cultural and gustatory).

On Saturday, we had a mini snowstorm, and I was worried that winter had arrived prematurely, but it looks like autumn will be here for a few more weeks.  The trees around campus are all quickly losing leaves, and I like how they revolve slowly and come to rest on the ground like a warmer and more colorful strain of snow – my kind of snow.

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It’s strange to be back at Harvard as a senior.  Many of the buildings, spaces and social settings that once felt forbidding or intimidating are now familiar and sweet, freighted with associations and memories.  For most seniors, I believe the campus feels more comfortable and navigable than ever before.  But this semester, in an unexpected way, Harvard feels brand-new to me again.  I’ve been looking at my peers and surroundings with something like the convict’s heightened consciousness of being alive.  The clock is ticking, and these are experiences to savor – days to feel in their fullness.

My senior friends have already started to talk about their “lasts.”  The Last Fall Semester, the Last First Day of School, the Last Fall Formal – even the Last Move-In Day.  While it may seem like we’re prematurely eulogizing our time at Harvard, I prefer to think of it as a way of noticing – a way of establishing ourselves in the very present moment.  It’s our way of honoring the traditions and quirks of undergraduate life that we’ve internalized over the past three years.

Amid the excitement of year number four, and the relief that comes with reaching long-awaited milestones, part of me deeply envies the incoming class of 2015.  The grounds are graced once again with a Yard full of freshmen, most of whom have only vague plans for the next four years.  To them, college is a series of unknowns stretching into the future, studded with manifold new beginnings.  While they’re picking and choosing their favorite Student Clubs and course-loads, I’m hustlin’ to fill my final Core requirements.

But then a thought occurs to me: In many ways, I can still take advantage of the very same on-campus possibilities as the first-years.  Sure, it’s too late to change my Concentration.  But in most other aspects of campus life, senior status doesn’t preclude me from joining a club or a sports team, or from making new friends, or from trying courses in a different field.  Boston is still waiting to be discovered, and there are still spots on campus that seem mysterious and unexplored.  To my fellow fourth-years, both at Harvard and elsewhere: let’s not forget that we still have an entire year of college left before us, and that new beginnings are for everyone.

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