Meeting the Spirit Man in Caliquisse

Ray Maxwell is a retired Foreign Service officer who now works in the Washington, D.C., Mayor’s Office of Public Records. They tell me this note may appear in the January/February 2018 Foreign Service Journal.

My journeys to Caliquisse to meet with the Homem Grande represent Foreign Service life at its best.

In Portuguese Homem Grande means “great man.” But in Guinea-Bissau, where I was posted, it means the big voodoo/spiritual/mystic guy, and Caliquisse is the capital of the spirit world.

Now I was not particularly a believer in this stuff, though I did read a book on Santeria as an undergraduate that resulted in a spring break trip to visit the above-ground crypt of Marie Laveau in pre-Katrina New Orleans.

In Guinea-Bissau, a warehouse theft that we couldn’t solve resulted in my boss’ decision to consult with the Homem Grande to find out who was ripping us off. A very religious guy, and very observant, my boss also had an obsession with “local culture.” So one Saturday, six of us piled into two vans and headed to Caliquisse to call on the local oracle.

After a huge midday feast at the home of a local Cape Verdean merchant, we picked up gifts for the mystic—rice, live chickens, a leitao (baby pig) and several bottles of cana (a Cape Verdean sugarcane liquor)—and started on a trek into the bush.

When the road ended, we continued driving until we reached a clearing. Then the guide took us by foot several hundred yards to a wooded area, where we found a large tree with a hollowed-out base—one of those ugly trees that grows the delicious cabaceira, a white tangy powder, in a large green pod. There, we awaited the arrival of the spirit man.

He finally arrived, greeted us and offered a sip of cana from what appeared to be a very questionable container. I very politely declined. Through a translator, we explained that we needed to know who was robbing our warehouse. (My boss believed our warehouse employees were guilty, but I maintained they were innocent and it was an “outside” job.)

The spirit man nodded, took another sip of cana and pulled a long, rusted knife from a sheath. “Oh shit, he’s gonna kill us!” I thought. But the knife was for the hen we brought, the galinha de terra, the reading of whose entrails was to provide the answers we sought.

With a quick snap of the wrist, he decapitated the bird. While holding its still-twitching body in his left hand, he cut open its underside with a smaller knife. Here, he began the close read.

Looking carefully at the chicken’s ovaries (I found that out later), he revealed to us that bandits were entering the warehouse through the roof, and that it was definitely an outside job. I took a deep breath of relief.

Then he asked us if we wanted to know anything else. My boss and the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations project director asked if they would have sons. Yes, the wise man replied, sons for both. But in exchange for this advance information, both would be required to bring their sons back to Caliquisse for a visit.

He looked my way, but I kept my mouth shut! (I had attended a lecture earlier on the practice of making deals with the spirit world. To break a promise is very bad ju-ju—better not to make the promise than to make and not keep it.)

The translator advised us that once we uncovered the plot and learned the details of the robberies, we would have to return to the Homem Grande with more rice, cana and chickens. Satisfied, we piled into the vehicles and went back to Bissau.

Was he right about the thefts? The weekend before my end-of-tour departure, I returned to Caliquisse and the Guinea-Bissau spirit world to pay my debt in full. The Homem Grande had been right, and our problem was solved.

Diplomacy is usually about interactions with host government officials, and we had plenty of those experiences in a country that had its first legislative elections and its first presidential election during our two-year watch.

But the opportunity to engage with the local culture, and perhaps even generate local folklore, is its own diplomacy.


A trip down memory lane…

Here’s my blog post from November, 2013

Library Student Day in the Life

Home studying most of the day. Short trip to the Instruction Manual Factory retirement processing office to drop off old divorce papers. Reviewed notes from 555, including Access practice. Reviewed notes from 551, including thesaurus construction project. Gathered some thoughts for tomorrow’s meeting with the oral history folks at ADST. Mostly dithered with 644. Had a brief Baghdad flashback, nothing to be too concerned about, though. They come and go. Here is a link to a review of the play we saw Sunday, The Iceman Cometh. Highly recommended.


And from 2015

The agile librarian recuperates after a fall

I haven’t written anything in over a month, two months, because I haven’t had too much to say, just very busy with life and living. Oh, and there is the blackout walking home for lunch, and the breaking of the wrist in the resulting fall, and the lengthy recovery and the therapy to learn to use my wrist again. More detail here. Do y’all know how versatile a joint the wrist is?

But back to librarying. During my recovery, I have been maintaining a part-time schedule at the reference desk of a nearby university library. It’s been a distraction from pain, but it has also been an instructive period of the semester when students are cranking out research projects and leaning heavily on the librarian at the desk. And I have learned a thing or two, about research design theory, about ethnography and user experience (which necessarily includes librarian experience), and about using QuickTime, ScreenFlow and Youtube, all of which has informed my agile practices in the library. So it has carried me off in a different direction, in several different directions. For starters:

1. Digitization/electronification of information has liquidified the learning resources/assets that used to be part of our domain. We used to be “administrators” of learning assets. No more. Now information is being accessed everywhere and all the time. The definition of “the library” has changed.

2. As librarians, we were pretty much content with getting students started with developing their research question and initial search terms, then setting them free to conduct the iterative research process. No more. Now students have an expectation that we will provide them information support throughout the research process, and we have an obligation to do so. The identity crisis is over. The librarian, like information, is and has to be everywhere and all the time. The definition of “librarian” has changed.

3. User experience has necessarily become ethnographic. Correspondingly, ethnography emcompasses both the learner and the teacher/librarian, the interaction, the form and structure of the interface, and how both sets work together to accomplish the learning goal/objective.

4. The learners are not just the students, and faculty/staff/librarians are not exclusively the teachers. We are all learning entrepreneurs, putting together various combinations of factors of learning production, some that succeed, others that fail, but all that expand the boundaries of previous static thought. There are no traditional monopolies. And the sage on the stage is no more. Both the classroom and the library are “flipped” in unique and fascinating ways.

5. Learning is rhizomatic, decentralized, and resistant to regulation. It exists everywhere and all the time.

A student came to the reference desk with some questions about research design models. I told her that was not my area of expertise, but I would help her with her research if she would teach me the models. After about 20 minutes of conversation (it was a slow Saturday) she said, “Thank you, this has been very helpful.” I was floored, because I learned a lot more in that 20 minutes than she did.

This is the journey.


And of course, 2016 was all about the election!

An old friend asked me how was I going to spend Tuesday night, out on the town or at home with friends. I affirmed the latter, that we plan to hunker down and shelter in place, with hot buttered popcorn and our favorite adult beverage, as the states report their totals. And on C-SPAN, not MSNBC (which we only have via radio), ABC, CBS, PBS, or Fox.

Let’s travel back in time.

I remember the ’68 elections, not so much for the candidates, but for the tempestuousness of the primaries and the conventions.  A leading candidate had been assassinated, another had been shot on the campaign trail, and the eventual winner, a former vice president, was running against the incumbent vice president. And it was 1968. And I was all of twelve years old.

’72 was memorable. I was taking a social studies one-semester course, The U.S. Today, and we had regular heated discussions about politics. Dudley Sr. High had just integrated the year before, and the racial polarization of the ’72 campaign tended to inflame many of our class discussions. Watergate had happened, and it was absolutely clear that Nixon was guilty as heck. The voters elected him anyway. And we know how that all ended.

The first national election I participated in as a voter was in 1976. Bicentennial. Saw the play in ’73 (1776) and the movie that summer in Chicago, All the President’s Men. It was so easy to pull that lever and vote for the Sunday School teacher. A no-brainer. It was my sophomore year, and I voted in Curtis Hall on A&T’s campus where I was a student.

I voted for Jimmie Carter again in 1980, this time by absentee ballot from the Sub Base in Groton, CT. When you don’t actually go to the polls to vote, it all seems a bit abstract. 1984 was also abstract, and again I voted by absentee ballot, this time deployed on the USS Michigan. I think I may have even voted for a third party candidate, maybe a fourth party candidate.  It was THAT abstract. And the off years don’t really count, right?

By 1988, I was a naval officer and a declared Republican. It was issued in my seabag.  I voted for Bush and the dream of a 600-ship navy.

Bush washed out, but I wasn’t about to vote for a draft dodger. In ’92, I had just joined State,  where it seemed EVERYBODY was a Democrat. The draft dodger won.

’96 memories are hazy. I was at the London Embassy, and a full time student at SOAS, and dizzy as a sprayed cockroach.  I think the draft dodger won again, but don’t quote me on it.

2000. The election of the hanging chad. We had just departed Angola and arrived in Ghana. The Ghanaians were also having elections that fall and part of my job was organizing motorpool trips for embassy election observers all over the country. The whole Bush v Gore thing was a bit of a disappointment for me as it seemed Gore gave up too soon.  People underestimate the strength of the ship of state sometimes, I think.

Something screwy happened to the votes in Ohio in 2004. I supported Kerry. He lost after being swift-boated.

I got onboard with the winner early in 2008. From Baghdad I sent checks to the Obama folks to defeat the draft dodger’s wife. Once he got the nomination, it wasn’t even a contest against the admiral’s son and the crazy lady from Alaska.

And 2012 was an off-election. They don’t really count, do they?

Reflections on November 3rd

Last November I embarked on producing a blog post every day.

Last November was a month of momentous events, and I was working part time and had lots of spare time for blogging. I was also in docent training last November and the old brain synapses were constantly popping and making connections.  It was a fun time.

I miss my time being my own.

Today is the 38th anniversary of the Greensboro Massacre. I lost a friend that day, a mentor, someone whose spirit I admired, whose vigor I envied, and whose intellect I completely looked up to. What might she have accomplished had her fate not been sealed by those bullets? It is a question that haunts me.

The resulting Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the first in the United States. Their website is still up.

The New Liberator blog provides a good analysis. 

New job, new projects, new prospects

It’s been a while since I’ve made regular posts to this blog, which began in 2013 as a series of posts on my career transition. Let me catch you up…

Late last May I started as a program analyst at the DC Office of Public Records. The job was supposed to be primarily about planning the move of DC Archives to its new site, but so far a site has not been established, so the move is likely several months if not years away. Anyway, being there, and me being me, I decided to take advantage of the lull in activity to learn something about the operation of the place.

DC Archives has a rich history of neglect and under-appreciation. Read this 2003 Washington Post article by Sewell Chan @sewellchan to get a taste of it (not much has changed). This series of letters from officials of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) @archivists_org ‏ provides reactions from the profession, and this 2015 article by Matthew Gilmore @MatthewBGilmore provides useful updates. This DC CityPaper article from 2000 written by Elissa Silverman @tweetelissa is also revealing. Here is a Vision Paper by prominent archivist Dr. Gregory Hunter that was not easy to locate. So I will take this opportunity to archive it here!

The place is dusty and moldy, but such is the way of archives. At least I don’t have to “dress up” for work. In my first month I couldn’t take the total clutter of the supply room, and volunteered to give it an overhaul. Not exactly in my job description, but it was clearly affecting operations at every level. So I took it on, and got it done, dead rats under the palates and all. In my second month, I complained about the backlog of donated collections and scheduled records deliveries piled up everywhere and took them on. After making a list and a POA&M (plan of attack and milestones: that Navy training is the gift that keeps on giving!), I offered to “do” the largest collection, processing over 250 boxes in six different locations of the personal and professional papers of a retired (and now deceased) member of the city council that had been around for almost two years, unprocessed. It took me from July to mid-October (not counting the month we took off for vacation), but I got the initial inventory done. Now we are in the description and arrangement phase (as an aside, it helps that I’m taking a course in archives management at my alma mater (CLSC 646). Anyway, for the course we had to choose a type of archives for a lit review and site visit and I chose oral histories of foreign service offices at the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training  @ADSTnews ‏. See the paper that resulted here. I have fallen in love with oral histories!).

I wrote a sonnet that captures some of my initial impressions of the “spirit” of the place. Give it a try:

Back to the subject. With the initial inventory complete, I was unsure of the next step and we hadn’t at that point gotten that far in class. So I was talking with a colleague over lunch and he told me that with large collections of personal papers, one allows the main themes to emerge from the inventory, then organizes the papers along those themes in a second run. So that’s what I did. I started with about 40 themes that covered the whole collection, then consolidated them down to about 20 themes, then assigned numbers to those themes and put those numbers into the original inventory spreadsheet. Then sorted, and presto! We had a plan! (The royal “We,” mind you, it is only me). So each theme is now a group and as of today,  October 27, I have completed arranging the two largest groups at the folder level. The first two groups were both large, and lucky for me, concentrated pretty much over some 70 boxes, so it made sense to move the boxes from their temporary storage on the second floor to the processing area I mapped out on the ground level (not having an adequate processing area has been an excuse not to attack the backlog, but I was new and didn’t yet know the ropes…). But for subsequent groups that are significantly smaller and less concentrated, I will change my operational model and dive boxes directly at their temporary storage site on the 2nd floor. (p.s. I had arranged the bulk of the boxes in numerical order is what I thought to be a safe place (basically where they had been for over 18 months) but in a miscommunication due to some infrastructure work, all the boxes got moved by contractors without my knowledge, losing all the numerical order. Luckily, the boxes were numbered, but it makes the task slightly more tedious when numbered boxes are stacked on top of one another outside the original order).

This weekend’s readings for class this Monday focus on arrangement and developing finding aids, so it’s pretty cool that there is this alignment between my coursework and what I am doing at work.

Simultaneously, the course requires a 50-hour practicum, which I am doing at DC Public Library. Slightly different, this project is an item-level collection where I am documenting every piece of paper in a single box and doing the complete accession using ArchivesSpace. More about that in a subsequent post…

DC Archives has a small library attached, some 1500 books on shelves (not counting several boxes of books already accessioned as archives that will need to be transferred to the library whenever a librarian can be hired). The boss asked me to draft a collection policy (since I am a librarian by trade), which we got approved downtown, so a project in the near future might be to weed out the collection and whip the library into shape.

The third part of the operations is the records center. I went out to Suitland, MD to do a one-day training at the Federal Records Center in my first month on the job. At some point we will have to tackle the big problem of storage of DC records at several federal repositories that dates back to pre-1985, when DC records were considered federal records managed by National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Our present facility doesn’t have the space to consolidate all our holdings, so stuff remains all spread out and incurring huge monthly rent expenses for DC Government.

OK. Finally, there is a local organization, Friends of the DC Archives @FDCArchives, the present iteration of which emerged from a shadowy origin about the same time as the beginning of the Mayor Bowser administration. They claim no ties to the original Friends group formed in 2006, and they behave more like a citizen’s oversight group that an advocacy group, cross-examining employees at their infrequent and unannounced meetings. Here is their Weebly website (note: not updated since November 2016) and here is a link to their Facebook page, though they have no record of official incorporation as a not-for-profit organization and again, they make no reference to the original Friends of DC Archives that was legitimately incorporated in 2006. See more here: The Founding of the Friends of the DC Archives.

When I worked part-time I missed being a part of the team. But now I am working full time and missing days off during the week to do other interesting things like long lunches with old friends, movies and museum/gallery visits with Filomena, grocery shopping when checkout lines are short, and the possibility of long weekend road trips whenever. Oh well, save those thrills for when I really retire!

another gear shift

Another gear shift. Transitioned this time from half-time reference librarian to full-time work in archives and record-keeping. Commute is good, 15 minutes from door to door by Metro. Walkable on a nice day. Great restaurants in the area, buffet, Ethiopian, Thai. Grocery shopping in the neighborhood. Great barbershops. And last but not least, just around the corner is the House of Prayer for All People and the cafeteria that, in a different city but the same movement, sustained me when I was a struggling undergraduate.

Still staffing the reference desk on Saturdays (#SaturdayLibrarian) but only until the end of July. So I’ll be looking for a new Saturday past time. Maybe a bookstore. Maybe a museum. I don’t know.

Had a fascinating encounter on the reference desk last weekend. Coincidences (the world is small! Yikes!): An alum was working on a DPhil proposal dealing with an obscure 16th century Sufi philosopher king (Shah Abbas) and the Safavid Dynasty that ruled the Persian Empire for 200 years. She’s applying to my alma mater in London (#SOAS); she works for my former employer (who will remain unnamed); and, hold on to your seats, my Arabic tutor in Cairo was a closeted Sufi sheikh who always talked about the glory days when Sufis were in political charge (who will also remain unnamed!). A very pleasant convergence! 😎 I am going to miss that reference desk! 

Finally (I can’t keep your attention forever!), a new MOOC started that I am participating in, Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training. Here is the link if you want to jump in and it might not be too late to join. You just can’t get enough Stoic training these days! Here are links to my favorite Stoic advocate who I discovered during my Navy days, Admiral Jim Stockdale (love that guy!):

Blog post after a long drought

News on the career transition scene. I am starting a new job next month. Shifting more towards archives and record-keeping and less towards traditional (and academic) librarianship, though I hope to keep a toe, if not a foot, in the library door.  More on that later…

Drove home to Greensboro, NC last weekend for a funeral.  My maternal grandfather had four daughters and one daughter-in-law and now they have all joined the ancestors. There is a certain celebration of their lives., especially on Mother’s Day. All strong and determined women. But a certain sadness remains. Missing them. Wishing to hear those voices again, in our ears and not just inside our heads.

“So live that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan that moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not. like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”
Thanatopsis – William Cullen Bryant

We had our first experience with an AirBnB! It was a lot of fun and a definite enriching experience. We look forward to doing it again.

I wrote a poem each day in April, but May brought with it a bit of a drought. Check some of it out here.  Five years of participation in NaPoWriMo! Let’s hope for five more!


Tomorrow’s briefing: The Rhizomatic Approach & Information Literacy

Abstract. There has been much discussion about the content of the new ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. This briefing does not add to that content discussion. Instead, it focuses on how we perceive the framework itself and how that​ ​perception might influence the way we use it. I introduce the rhizomatic approach, developed by Deleuze and Guattari​ in their philosophical study, “A Thousand Plateaus.” In botany, rhizomes grow as a network of roots with no true center. Using features of rhizomatic learning, i.e., connectivity, heterogeneity, multiplicity, asignifying rupture, and cartography as a way to approach the frames, we see how each frame might relate to any others, how information literacy develops and transforms as it passes through various frames, and how the interplay of the frames (not the frames themselves) captures information literacy as a process.​ ​




It’s been more than a month since my last blog post. It’s been a busy time in the city and a busy time in the household. Things are hopefully settling down to a calmer pace.

We woke up to a light snow dusting here in the Bottom. It’s pretty but won’t last long because the snowing has already stopped. This morning I’m putting final touches on my presentation for the Bridging the Spectrum Symposium at Catholic University this Friday. And I am avoiding social media today (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) as I inaugurate #SocialMediaFreeMonday. I just decided there are too many good books to read and to write to be spending precious time on Twitter and Facebook all the time. And besides, social media is not really saving the world, it is just a big fat pacifier. And don’t we all need an antidote to social media as a daily news source?

My poetry output has slowed down considerably. Hope to give it a jumpstart in February (tomorrow!) with African American History Month. Still haven’t been to the new Smithsonian museum, by the way. But formulating new ideas weekly for my docent work at Library of Congress. Still looking for full-time work, but as the old folks would say, with one eye open and one eye shut, and actually, another one-day-a week volunteer gig would suit me just fine at this point.

Might do some more with this post later…

Monday, December 19, 2016 – another eventful day

A facebook message from a relative turned into one of those how is so and so and how is so and so and I learned that a cousin passed away after a lengthy illness. I immediately phoned his oldest daughter to express condolences and that turned into a revealing conversation about our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents, and of course, the great migration. And as always, more questions than answers.

I recalled, after the conversation, my father’s grief over his sister’s (her grandmother’s) passing. He walked into the house after the funeral and said, “Now I don’t have anybody left.” I remember my six year old brain wondering, momentarily, as six year old brains often do, who and what were we to him. Of course, he was merely lamenting the previous loss of his mother and father, accentuated by the loss of his sister and only sibling. Still, I took it very personally, as six year olds often do. Note to self: be careful what comes out of your mouth around impressionable children.

In 2017, I hope to do a better job of keeping in touch with my Maxwell relatives, especially the direct descendants of my grandfather, Walter J. Maxwell. The fact that folks moved North and West is no reason to not maintain strong links and ties these days and times.

The Russian Ambassador was killed at a public event in Ankara yesterday. Bad news for diplomats everywhere. Bad news for current events in Syria. A ModPo friend posted, “Is the Russian Ambassador in Ankara, Turkey the 2017 Archduke François- Ferdinand ?” Hope not, but we do live in trying times. And several people were killed when a truck drove into a market crowd in Berlin. And I hear there were “events” in Zurich, and in Egypt and Jordan.

The Electoral College met yesterday in the several states, confirming the election results. I am glad to see more sober analysis of the Electoral College as an historic institution, its ties to the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1920 and, ultimately and directly, to the Three-Fifths Compromise, both of 1773 and 1787. It’s an historic anachronism whose time may have come for serious reconsideration. For your consideration.

Last night the Carolina Panthers beat the team from Washington, dashing their hopes of a wildcard playoff berth. I’m not sure what football means anymore.