Déjà vu all over again

I was sitting with a colleague, an anthropologist, in a little streetside maquis last night, having a post-prandial beer and talking about stuff. Suddenly, I knew what he was going to say next. We had been talking about parental authority over children, and I knew that he was suddenly going to veer off into patrilocalism, that is, the fact that the husband and father is considered not only the head of the household (patriarchy) but also the physical center of the residence unit. Women and children are to locate themselves with the male head of household. This differs from customs in plenty of places in Africa where the women (often multiple wives) have their own households and the husband goes from place to place to be with each wife at a time. In traditional matrilocal societies, the wives’ compounds will be located around a circle, with the husband maybe having a house at the center of the circle or maybe moving around from one to another. In modern Africa, people with multiple wives might well have one in the big city, another in the home village, another in another city where the man does business regularly, and so on. But among the Mossi, apparently, the custom is very strong.

The guy told a story, which I felt I could have repeated with him word for word: a woman lives in the same neighborhood as her parents. She walks by their house every day on the way to the market. She can greet her parents at the gate but cannot go inside because if so it would be like divorcing her husband. One day, her aged father slips and falls in the courtyard, she sees it, runs inside to help him, and bingo! All sorts of trouble ensues. She should have brought her child with her, then she could accompany her/him to visit the grandparents without any consequences.

The phenomenon of déjà vu has been explained in a bunch of ways. I don’t remember having heard this story before, but maybe I have. This is the first extended conversation I have had with this individual, which lasted a couple of hours, but which only provoked this four or five minute episode of déjà vu. Odder still, the emotional context, slight buzz from the beer, temperature, surroundings, my bike locked up in the middle background – all seemed completely familiar, like I was living out the entire scene, not just the conversation, once again. There’s a psychological explanation that has to do with how your brain encodes memories. You are actually encoding a new memory, but due to some crossed circuits (what was in that beer anyway?) your brain treats it as a reviewed older memory. Or maybe time’s arrow doesn’t go straight all the time, dee-dee-dee-dee, dee-dee-dee-dee. It feels very strange.

As suggested, I had my bike with me. I rode it to dinner and then back again, a distance of ten km or so. Mostly, I stuck to well-lit streets with bike lanes. I’m still afraid of hitting a hole in the pavement that I can’t see and tumbling over again. But I made it home OK, and I can report that riding your bike here at night is at least a heck of a lot more comfortable than riding during the day. This morning, I set off for a bike ride to the big forest park north of here. I sat and read The Blackwell Companion to Latin American History for a little while, then rode back. On the way, I saw this river, which I declined to try to ford;

Crocodile River

When my kids were younger (hi kids!) they used to play a game called “Crocodile River”, where they would jump from curb to white painted stripe in the crosswalk and so on, to avoid falling in and getting eaten. And they referred to the Tualatin River near my house as “Crocodile River”. So here is the real Crocodile River, guys. Don’t want to be walking too close to the edge of that.


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