Tag Archives: uganda

Buganda Moving

Yesterday I witnessed the largest display of public mourning I have ever seen. Thousands gathered at Kasubi, the burial site of four Buganda kings, to mourn the fiery destruction it endured last week. The New Vision printed estimates of the crowd at 100,000, but I’ve been in a crowd that large before and this was much bigger. There had to have been 100,000 in and around the Kasubi quadrangle alone.

Although both the Vision and the Monitor printed stories this week on the kingdom and the government beefing up security for the Friday prayers, the last day of mourning and the most public commemorative event yet at Kasubi, these forces managed to keep the situation just barely within control. Two died and more than 150 were injured, but considering what I saw yesterday, these numbers represent security blessings.

Along with three friends, I weaved through the crowds up toward the front near journalists and ministers of parliament.

There people pushed, shoved, shouted, sweat, fainted, climbed the trees, mourned and sang as security guards from both kingdom and government blew futile whistles and waved threatening batons at the throng. When the Kabaka showed up, it was difficult enough simply to stand up, much less see him and his entourage. The lucky few who caught a glimpse spurred a huge roar from the crowd before succumbing to waves of rowdiness and returning to the task of avoiding a fall.

What I didn’t realize until after the Kabaka left was that the logistical problem with this crowd was singular and fairly simple: this was a parade forced into a space where it could not realize its desire to move. The crowd cleared out of the enclosed stagnation to march through Nakulabye back to Mengo, where it eventually dispursed.

This physical expression of political desire for movement and change has people talking. For now I think we can simply be happy that, for the most part, things didn’t get too out of control.

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Buganda Mourning

No pix on this yet, but mourning has been ongoing in Buganda. People continue to visit Kasubi and tomorrow will bring more functions there. Meanwhile, the whole city seems to be attired in some manner of bark cloth, and the Kabaka cries in unison with his kingdom.

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Buganda Burning

Close on the heels of September violence in Uganda, fresh fears of conflict between Buganda and Uganda’s central government now dominate the evening news on every channel here in Kampala. It’s not clear how the enormous blaze began at a UNESCO World Heritage Site called Kasubi Tombs last night, but the Daily Monitor reported this story on the front page today, quoting officers and other people who suspected arson.

Of course people suspect arson. Of course they want to start rumors about how the central government maliciously burned down their ancestral burial place. These things are not surprising in a country where the president has been in power as long as Museveni has, especially if that country also has politically flaccid monarchies jostling for prominence. But realistically, Kasubi residents kept fires dangerously close to an enormous grass-thatched hut, so accidental fire is also a distinct possibility here.

What concerns me much more than the cause of this fire is the willingness of Museveni’s goons to use whatever violence they want to when someone gets in their way. Mourners at Kasubi apparently crossed the wrong boundaries, resulting in the shooting deaths of two people today when Museveni went to survey the damage. Is this a foreboding image of things to come in 2011 elections?

Or is it simply another symptom of the violence that bubbles just below the surface of any politically charged situation? If the riots at Makerere University are any indication, it’s more likely the latter. A colleague and fellow scholar of Uganda suggested in November that the September rioting was more economically than politically motivated, and she showed convincing evidence to support that theory. Regardless, the availability of violent means and the willingness to use them, particularly on the part of security forces and presidential guard types, remains of grave concern.

For more on these and related stories, see my Delicious links (in the sidebar).

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Obama’s Chapatti

I have recently had great opportunities to learn from a really good drummer in Nakifuma. His group, the Nakifuma Super Dancers (love that name), won a local competition to get on the stage of a larger program run by a Kampala vernacular radio station, Bukedde FM. I was thrilled when group asked me to join them for the big show! The event is called Embuutu y’Embuutikizi, and this time it was held here:

This is Mandela National Stadium, locally glossed as Namboole, as that’s the area where it’s located. I had never been inside before this event, so it was kind of a cool opportunity to see Kampala’s largest stadium.

This isn’t a one-time thing–Bukedde puts them on from time to time. But it is one of the biggest I’ve ever noticed. It starts with a traditional music competition in the morning, and that’s the part we played for. By the time we took the stage, there were about 300-400 people down on the field in front of the stage. Other fun and festivities throughout the day include performances by kadongo kamu players and big pop musicians. I think Bobi Wine was the headliner, but I didn’t stay around for 14 hours after we played to check it out.

As with any big event, the people-watching and the food options are really interesting. I especially enjoyed the Obama Mobile Takeaway.

Brilliant.

In the end, the competition was cut short because it got started late and took too long. So the judges arbitrarily chose some finalists and wrapped it up. I think I was the least disappointed in the group, though. The competition wasn’t the main event of the day, and I got to play with some of my favorite musicians in front of a whole bunch of people. Plus, Obama’s chapatti is delicious.

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To the Village!

Today I’m off to Masaka for a wedding of two spirit mediums. This is a truly rare event, so it’s really exciting from a research perspective. But if you need other reasons to get excited about leaving Kampala…

But for something much more exciting than Kampala congestion, see Sean Cooke’s other gorgeous photos. The wildlife stuff is particularly good. He’s captured some of the most popular reasons for people to visit Uganda. Enjoy!

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On the Laughter of Children and the Value of Play

Recently the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) quarterly newsletter published a short piece that I submitted based on an interesting experience I had during field research earlier this year.  Only SEM members could see that version, so I thought some folks might like to see it here: the text appears below, followed by some follow-up commentary.  I also dig the colorful Nc20909 as it originally appeared.

Introduction

Childhood and children, as topics of ethnographic research and representation, do not appear at all on graduate reading lists today.  This want of attention to our own passage, this willful looking-away from ethnography’s mirror, must say something about us.  Interbelline anthropologists, such as Malinowski, Fortes, Firth, Richards, and Evans-Pritchard, observed children in the contexts of kinship, ritual, education and socialization (Levine 251).  Mead believed in the potential instructiveness of childhood studies, characterizing “world cultural variation in child rearing as a laboratory in which ‘thousand year’ experiments were being conducted by different peoples.”  Ethnographic fieldwork in distant places could be “brought back to the Western world for the resolution of issues like whether ‘permissive’ rearing was advisable for US middle-class children” (ibid. 250).

The contributor of this edition of nC2 puts children at the center of the ethnographic record, as felicitous music teachers and as agents in his own enculturation process.  His is a willing looting-to that invites reflection on our filed practices.  Is the way we deal with children in the field a meme of “table etiquette,” whereby they “don’t speak unless spoken to”?  Taken at face value, without a reader’s compensation, their invisibility in published studies presents much of the world as eerily barren of children.  -Jesse Samba Wheeler, Co-editor, Nc2

Reference cited

Levine, Robert A.  2007.  “Ethnographic Studies of childhood: A Historical Overview.”  American Anthropologist

109(2):  247-260.

On the Laughter of Children and the Value of Play

by Peter Hoesing, Munamaizi Village, Namutumba District, Eastern Uganda, January 20, 2009

It is possible, if not inevitable, to be so focused on a particular person or event of interest in our fieldwork that we overlook other potentially instructive opportunities.  Children can all too easily be relegated to ethnographic peripheries.  I offer this reflection[1] as an urge (as much to myself as to others) to embrace the playfulness of fieldwork by approaching children as partners and peers in enculturation.

Much of the day has been spent watching the clan elders build small mud brick huts for ancestral spirits.  I haven’t heard much music.  Mwesige knows how interested I am in ritual drumming and song.  He asks me late in the day if I would like to play drums with him.  We play for about an hour, and people respond favorably.  Children watch closely.  They never play until their teenage years, but I can tell that they soak up a lot by watching and listening long before that.  They know the rhythmic idioms well.  When I play something that’s out of character with nswezi idioms, they respond with laughter.  As long as I stay within idiomatic boundaries, they watch me like they watch other drummers: with wide-eyed fascination.

Drumming lessons in Eastern Uganda provide me with learning experiences in the ethnomusicologist’s ideal classroom: the same place where my field consultants and teachers learn.  As people gather to watch possession ceremonies, drummers offer children their first opportunities to get close to the action.  Adults are so spatially focused on gathering around the spirit mediums to sing, shake rattles and promote possession that young people cannot see what happens inside that circle.  Newer to these performances than many of the children, I join them and use drumming to gain access to musical dramaturgy.  The laughter of children as they observe my lessons acts like an idiomatic boundary between what I can and cannot do in terms of rhythmic variations.

There’s one particular rhythm that I’ve been trying to get right for several days now.  Even when I play all of the variations progressively, this one rhythm continues to give me trouble. “You’ll get it,” says Mwesige as he keeps playing.  After several unsuccessful attempts, he walks away for a bit.  The kids laugh.  With each unsuccessful try, they laugh again, especially after I realize this and playfully digress into something completely out of character with the music.  One of the children picks up his sticks and plays his rhythm on the smallest drum (is this kid mocking me?)  His enormous grin reminds me not to take myself so seriously.  I play along with him for a bit.  Something seems to click, but I can’t put my finger on exactly what.  I take a look at my transcription before asking Mwesige to come back one more time.  I’ve corrected something and found a rhythmic hook to hang my hat on in terms of left hand playing.  I’ve been focusing too much on the right hand and not really thinking about this in the left-handed way that Mwesige works with in all of his playing.  When he comes back, I get it right immediately and then stay on it for a bit just to solidify it.  The kids love it, but they don’t laugh—they clap.  So do the ladies.  Those who have rattles shake them vigorously and many women ululate.  I decide to relish my success and quit for the day while I’m ahead.

By paying attention to this mode of reaction among the children, I continue to develop my ability to play idiomatic variations for nswezi possession rituals.  When my teacher leaves me to figure something out on my own, the laughter of children guides my trials and errors until I can get it right.  Their playfulness encourages exploration.  When I forget myself in this kind of play, my hands find new idiomatic possibilities even in places where my conscious mind least expects them.

Ethnomusicologists have spilled a lot of ink about the nature of enculturation, but what can the people in the midst of that complex process teach us practically?  This village classroom reveals many more teachers than the individual who actually demonstrates on the instruments.  The model of neophytes learning from and being initiated by adepts certainly works, and it operates here as well, but it does account for opportunities in which a novice can learn from other novices.  During a day of building and other important non-musical work, musical play offers a welcome diversion for all.  Learning opportunities abound in this ritually sanctioned space for play, but only if I am willing to learn from other learners as I participate in their process of enculturation.


[1]The sections in italics are excerpts from my fieldnotes.

Follow-up

Although Jesse’s introduction provides apt context for this piece, I think there are some notable exceptions to what he’s saying about the absence of children in published studies.  First, what about Ryan Thomas Skinner’s children’s book?  It’s not ethnography, but Skinner is an ethnomusicologist and this book project makes a sophisticated ethnographic commentary on children and enculturation.  What about Kyra Gaunt’s award-winning book?  Moreover, ongoing research on youth cultures might be considered ethnography specifically about children.  The point of this piece, however, is that children ought not be artificially separated from social spaces where we do ethnography.  Their presence and their actions, as the above narrative suggests, are not merely instructive; for the non-native language speaker, they can often be the most accessible point of entry.

I recognize the negative ways this might be read:

Option 1: non-native ethnographer can’t get competence and resorts to hanging out with children and playing off their laughter for lack of something better to do.

Option 2: non-native ethnographer, even if the linguistic competence is there, runs the risk of non-verbal (but nevertheless clear) responses, potentially misunderstanding cues and jumping to hasty conclusions.

These readings miss the whole point of what it means to learn something from a fellow participant in any process.  If the laughter of children and the value of play do not do enough to keep the interest of fun haters shrewd observers, let me appeal to a humanistic cost/benefit analysis: we were playing at the time anyway, learning the parts, and the presence of children and other laughing observers brought immeasurable joy to that self-conscious experience.  I suspect it was that willingness to forget myself for a moment that enabled me to turn my rhythmic thinking around and, in the end, “get it.”

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Ugandan Journalism and the Production of Power

You wouldn’t have to be living under a rock to have missed what was going on in Uganda over the last two weeks.  Major North American news outlets provided lackluster coverage in rather inconspicuous places, and it seems the largest networks now have bigger fish to fry jerks to gawk at.  Admittedly, I’m a bit more closely tuned in to Ugandan news than the average American, but I’m no less interested in a concept we have in common with Uganda: free speech is supposed to be a cornerstone of both constitutional governments.  Permit me this temporary departure from strictly artistic concerns in favor of a concern that many artists share.

Uganda is a tricky setting for examining this issue, because on the surface, major media appear to be reporting the facts.  This seems to be the case even when police make outlandish claims about how many citizens can suddenly get a hold of illegal firearms (note: while it’s true that a small number of firearms were stolen from police stations, that doesn’t seem to add up as the sole cause for the total number of people injured and dead).  Good thing that by Sunday, things appeared to be back to normal.  President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni must have cleverly used that magic “combination of political might and political nuance to handle the situation” as his supporters put it (via Voice of Africa).  It’s the ratio that’s really troubling; Museveni seems to lean more toward might all the time.

French intellectual Michel Foucault famously wrote in several different ways about the relationship between force and authority.  For the purposes of examining the contemporary Ugandan situation, we can boil Foucault’s observation down to this: true and effective authority cannot rest on force, brute strength, or military power (the power over life and death) alone.  Museveni apparently knows this, which is why he also makes every attempt to control something else Foucault wrote extensively about: the regime of truth.

Evidently Museveni thinks he will be able to control the flow of information to bolster his government during turbulent times.  His supporters think along the same lines, making it hard to believe that every journalist held for any charge was held on Museveni’s orders.  He may in some cases be an unwitting accomplice to his loyal followers power hungry police brigades who, while attempting to restore order to the streets of Kampala, have violated journalists’ constitutional rights.  However, if current reports about the growing importance of citizen media or indeed the increasingly sophisticated commentary of the blogren are any indication of things to come,  neither Museveni nor the police will be equipped to quell social unrest by controlling mass media outlets and the journalists who write for them.  Dare I ask what their next steps would be?

Museveni is no fool.  While for various reasons his government has not put a stop to an LRA conflict that remains rather distant from the capital and the state house, he has been in African politics long enough to know that there’s a difference between an extended bush war and an all-out civil war that plays out in urban violence.  For now, an already war weary Uganda seems to be finding ways to keep the peace even at the cost of many of its independent news media.  Museveni has played a role in making this a one-sided conversation during the past week, and perhaps people accept this on the surface as they draw on all too recent memories of the role that radio played in the Rwandan genocide of the mid 1990s.  Citizen media, on the other hand, behave on their own terms.  People can blog or microblog anonymously, and Ushahidi maps crises like this one outside the scope of any single government’s reach.  Then again, I haven’t seen any tweets or blogs on these issues from those I follow on those media since about five days ago.  Have things really calmed down that much, or are we seeing a new caution among the blogren borne out of fear, censorship, or both?

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New Directions in Research

Okay, so I’ve been teasing along with this for months now, dropping hints about a return trip to Uganda.  At first it was simply hopeful (as in someday), but it’s been more than that for weeks now.  The truth is, two weeks after I got back from the last trip, I received a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) Fellowship.  I haven’t exactly kept this a secret or anything.  It’s just that this is a windfall that I had written off as so unlikely it would never happen.  It’s humbling to know how many more deserving applicants could be out there.

One of those applicants comes from FSU’s beleaguered Anthropology Department.  I claim Anthropology as a kind of disciplinary home away from home on campus, and I have great respect for their students and faculty.  So it is with bittersweet admiration that I congratulate  Bryan Rill.  Bryan works on issues that are very close to home for me, and I can think of no more deserving candidate for this fellowship.  Congratulations, Bryan.  While we’re at it, congrats to your colleagues on three NSF Dissertation Improvement Grants.  Maybe FSU will see fit to reconsider some if the more unfortunate budgetary decisions of the past few years in light of your achievements and those of the distinguished anthropology faculty.  Maybe.

FSU has done well in the past few years with national and international fellowships at the undergraduate level, thanks in no small part to the Office of National Fellowships (ONF).  There are, however, strong graduate students at FSU winning other awards.  Jason Hobratschk in the College of Music and Victoria Penziner in the History Department both snagged Fulbright IIE grants this year.  Kimberly Leahy is among 22 others to do the same since 1985, but it’s interesting to note that a disproportionately large number of those have come since the ONF opened.  BTW, I’ve had the privilege of knowing both Jason and Vicky for a few years, and I know both of their projects will yield fascinating results.

These accomplishments and others across campus in the past few years have started to make FSU look more like a Carnegie Doctoral Research Institution, and it seems the university is starting to take that role seriously.  After a tremendous success rate with the pilot of the ONF,  The Graduate School announced the opening of a new Office for Graduate Fellowships and Awards (OGFA)  this semester.  It’s about time.  ONF was really gracious about helping graduate students with fellowship applications (my own included), but even their staff recognized a major gap between their own undergraduate focus and the faculty-only nature of the Office of Research.  I applaud FSU’s efforts to help more graduate students secure outside funding through the new OGFA.  In fact, its sole staff member has already been very supportive as she administrates these new Fulbright-Hays and NSF awards.  Having watched similar programs help generate thousands of research dollars for students at other institutions, I am confident that the OGFA will be a successful project for FSU.

I offer a few critiques here even as I champion FSU’s recent efforts to make graduate research a priority, and I do so at the risk of soiling the extraordinary sense of gratitude I feel for having been selected as a Fulbright-Hays Fellow.  This is the most honest brand of school spirit: ONF is great, but OGFA is proof that we can do better at the graduate level.  The next step must be to support the academic programs and professors that foster bright students and award-winning ideas! (Ahem: ‘Noles Need Anthropology)

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Staging African Music

This afternoon, I’ll embark on a new endeavor that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time: leading an African music and dance ensemble.  This is a near-inevitable feature of academic life for many ethnomusicologists, particularly in North America.  I just had no idea it would happen for me at FSU.  The ethnomusicology program here places heavy emphasis on integrating performance and scholarship and using performance in scholarship.  That’s a major reason why I came here for a master’s degree and stayed here for the Ph.D.  However, a good friend and colleague from Uganda usually directs the ensemble, and when he doesn’t do it, my major professor does.  Needless to say I’m thrilled to have this opportunity.

Ever since I read Kofi Agawu’s book on Representing African Music, I’ve been trying to get my head around what it means for a white guy from Iowa to engage in scholarship on Africa and African music.  This isn’t the first opportunity I’ve had to do that through performance, but I certainly have more creative control over performative representations now.  It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.

One thing that playing in “academic” ensembles has made me think about is the notion that we’re putting folklore on stage.  That can be a problematic experience in many ways, but it’s not a phenomenon entirely unique to academic culture.  In his dissertation, Welson Tremura proposes the term “stage lore” to describe the peculiar effect that commodifying folkloric music has on festival and other staged performances.  Philip Bohlman and others have also commented on this effect, especially as it relates to festivals.  If creating a public spectacle for nation building or staging folkloric performance as a form of respect to indigenous peoples have potential to artificially standardize or “freeze” music (Ted Levin’s term), academic ensembles ought to give us more controlled opportunities to avoid getting locked into myopic caricatures of the cultures we study.  Unfortunately, these “frozen” images of Africa are all too common to the college world music ensemble.

Florida State has broken the mold when it comes to African music and dance.  To my knowledge, it’s the only ensemble in the country that has focused primarily on East African music over the last five years.  (Please, correct me in the comments if I’m wrong about that; I’d love to know about others.)  Fortunately, we’re not tied into that permanently because we have an instrument collection and teaching resources to perform music from all over the continent.  We have had good luck focusing on music from a single country or ethnic group for a semester or a year, and in that way the ensemble has been a good laboratory for students and professors to teach performance skills related to their research interests.

I plan to begin this semester with this kind of lab tactic, but then expand our repertoire to develop a kind of Pan-African performance consciousness among the students.  I’ll begin by bringing in music from my field research: songs of the Baganda and Basoga.  While FSU has plenty of Ganda instruments, I’m excited to diversify our ensemble’s Ugandan offerings with my new Soga skins:

nswezi

You might remember seeing some of these here.  I had the pleasure of learning to play them as I learned songs from several different teachers in Eastern Uganda.

A colleague here at FSU recently went to Morocco, picked up some new instruments and took some lessons, so we’re excited to have a North African component.  However, since we’re both still relatively new to our recently acquired instruments and skills, we want to incorporate some people, sounds, and skills that have a bit more longevity in this ensemble.  One guy has been playing with the FSU group as long as I have and with other groups even longer.  He and I will work with another colleague who has experience teaching Ewe music.  We also hope to collaborate with other local groups on some Guinean music.  Finally, I’m hopeful for a reprise of a performance at last year’s SEM annual meeting: who’s ready for some Bolingo?

I hope to convey to students and audiences that Africa is a big, diverse place.  I hope to give them some idea of what that means with regard to the boundless variety of musical and dramatic expressions found across the continent.  I’ll continue to update here as we schedule more performances, but for now plan on getting your seat early at our biannual College of Music show: this fall it’ll be on November 16 at 8 PM in Dohnányi Recital Hall.

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Ritual and Expressive Culture

Public service announcement: those of you familiar with my travel patterns in Uganda know that I post in clusters because that’s what my internet access allows.  Thanks for sticking with me despite the sporadic nature of my posting habits.  Since I know many of my readers are new to the blogosphere, let me just say this: I hope it isn’t terribly disruptive to your blogging experience.  I’m working to update my blogroll so that when there’s nothing new to read on my page, you can check out other writers, particularly in overlapping Ugandan, African, and musical blogospheres.

During the month of January, I have done even more traveling than usual in eastern Uganda.  I’m attending several different kinds of rituals on these trips.  The first was a funeral for a muswezi healer.  Both that one and the next one installed new baswezi (plural of muswezi) within their clans.  In keeping with my field writing pattern, what follows is a kind of photojournal of my experiences this month.  In contrast to earlier posts and at the request of some readers, I’ve dispensed with trying to make it look pretty and just used big versions of the pictures.  Enjoy!

So much of my experience here has been consistent with patterns that I observed in my master’s thesis: ritual expressive culture brings together music with other arts in an aesthetic common to the entire Interlacustrine Region (that’s academic fancyspeak for the place between all those big lakes in East Africa).  That thesis used musical instruments as one form of evidence for these cultural cross-currents.  Well, I’ve discovered some new instruments that appear to be unique to eastern Uganda, but their appearance remains consistent with other ritual art in this region.  These are called bugwala (singular: kagwala) and they work somewhat like a kazoo in terms of sound production.

kagwala1

They’re pictured above and below with the rukinga headbands found among spirit mediums throughout this region.

kagwala2

At an olumbe (funeral) for a muswezi healer, I got the rare opportunity to see the ritual master of ceremonies “dressing” these instruments.  The man named Kyambu below calls the beads “clothing for the bugwala.”  Here’s his infectious grin as he finishes the work:

kyambuakolabugwala

Some might eschew comparisons to the kazoo (particularly when they want their research to be taken seriously).  I’ve thought about this for a long time, and I think the comparison is apt.  Those who play bugwala are called nabuzaana when they are possessed, because they play out the un-lived dramas and games of children who died as babies.  They beat the ground looking for edible ants, they sing children’s songs, and they go around blowing their bugwala in cacophonous heterophony as people offer ritual contributions for their mini-performances:

bafuuwabugwala

Finally, one of the most interesting things to note about the physical culture of ritual here has been how it marks the initiated.  In some cases it’s clear simply by looking at someone’s attire that he can be musically initiated without having been ritually initiated.  The ritually initiated must wear appropriate garb, because otherwise their patron spirits will either refuse to come or rebuke them when they note the absence of proper attire (or music, or sacrificial animals).  Here a young drummer embodies this divide, which is sometimes generational, sometimes merely experiential, and always notable:

oldandnew

I return to the east this week for some follow-up work on the rituals I’ve attended there and hopefully scheduling more trips to observe other rituals.  January has gone fast, and I’m sure February will go even faster.  However, I plan to be in Kampala more in the coming months, so hopefully that can mean more posts.  Until next time, beera bulungi (be well).

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