A Distant Look Back at Missionaries and Attrition—Part I [—at A Life Overseas]

March 30, 2019 § Leave a comment

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The opinion is often expressed that the present-generation missionary does not view his work as a work for life.         —William Lennox

Not every former missionary gets an obituary printed in The New York Times, but in 1960, William Gordon Lennox did. Born in Colorado Springs in 1884, Lennox attended Colorado College, but when he applied to the Boston University Divinity School, he was rejected because of his deficiencies in Latin and Greek. For his fall-back plan, he earned a medical degree from Harvard Medical School, followed by spending four years as a medical missionary in China. It was during his time there that he saw epilepsy firsthand, and upon his return to the States, he devoted himself to the study of the disease, as a teacher and researcher at Harvard. In time, he became known as the “father” of the modern epilepsy movement in the US.*

Also, along the way, he wrote The Health and Turnover of Missionaries, in 1933. I referred to this book in my post “What Is the Average Length of Service for Missionaries on the Field? The Long and the Short of It, ” and having found a copy since then, I’d like to share more from this extensive study.

Before diving into the more recent findings, Lennox begins by taking a broad look back at “the entire journeyings of the missionary host.”

  • In the more than 100 years of Protestant missionary work preceding the book’s publication, approximately 75,000 missionaries had gone out, providing around 1 million years of service.
  • Their efforts resulted in 110 national Christians per missionary, or 8.3 for each year of work.
  • These missionaries served an average of 12.5 years, with those married averaging 13.7 years, and singles, 8.5 years.
  • By 1923, there were over 29,000 missionaries—representing 826 societies and committees in Europe, the United States, and Canada—serving abroad.

Continue reading Part I at A Life Overseas. . . .

(William Gordon Lennox, The Health and Turnover of Missionaries, Methodist Book Concern, 1933; “William Lennox Obituary,” The New York Times, July 23, 1960 (at Lasker Foundation, retrieved from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine)

[Photo by Made By Morro on Unsplash]

 

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No Matter Where We Are, We’re All Looking at the Same Moon . . . Unless It’s Made in China

March 13, 2019 § Leave a comment

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The Saying

Who said, “No matter where you are you will always be looking at the same moon as I am”?

Romance writer Nicholas Sparks in Dear John? Nope. Immigrant mouse Fievel Mousekewitz in An American Tale? Nope again, though I’ve seen both credited. “Anonymous” is the best source I’ve found (though I’m open to any well-documented suggestions).

My searching, though, did turn up an interesting passage from African-American abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth, in her Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave. The words aren’t exactly the same, but the sentiment is there—regardless of how far apart people are, they can still feel connected when they share the sight of the moon overhead.

In her autobiography, dictated to Olive Gilbert, Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) tells about her mother’s lessons for her and her younger brother. Mau-mau, as her daughter called her, had “some ten or twelve children” in all, but the older ones had been sold and taken away from her. Though Mau-mau Bett, the daughter of slaves from Guinea, spoke Low Dutch, Truth presents her words translated into English:

‘My children, there is a God, who hears and sees you.’ ‘A God, mau-mau! Where does he live?’ asked the children. ‘He lives in the sky,’ she replied; ‘and when you are beaten, or cruelly treated, or fall into any trouble, you must ask help of him, and he will always hear and help you.’ She taught them to kneel and say the Lord’s prayer. She entreated them to refrain from lying and stealing, and to strive to obey their masters.

At times, a groan would escape her, and she would break out in the language of the Psalmist—‘Oh Lord, how long?’ ‘Oh Lord, how long?’ And in reply to Isabella’s question—‘What ails you, mau-mau?’ her only answer was, ‘Oh, a good deal ails me’—‘Enough ails me.’ Then again, she would point them to the stars, and say, in her peculiar language, ‘Those are the same stars, and that is the same moon, that look down upon your brothers and sisters, and which they see as they look up to them, though they are ever so far away from us, and each other.

Thus, in her humble way, did she endeavor to show them their Heavenly Father, as the only being who could protect them in their serious condition; at the same time, she would strengthen and brighten the chain of family affection, which she trusted extended itself sufficiently to connect the widely scattered members of her precious flock.

It’s an idea that crosses continents, languages, and cultures. It’s lasted hundreds of years and very well should last forever. Many miles. One moon. What could possibly disrupt that mathematical simplicity?

Maybe some extra moons?

The Variation

According to China Daily, scientists in China have plans to put an artificial moon in place above the city of Chengdu by the year 2020. Covered with a reflective coating, the satellite would be able to reflect sunlight onto the earth’s surface at night in the same way that the real moon does. But the made-in-China moon would be eight times brighter, says Wu Chunfeng, head of the Tian Fu New Area Science Society. Other improvements over the natural moon are that it’s location and brightness could be controlled and it could be turned off if needed.

If successful, the moon over Chengdu would provide lighting one-fifth as bright as regular streetlights, and could save $174 million per year in electricity costs. If the first, experimental, moon is successful, says Wu, the plan is to launch three more in 2022, with those three being “the real deal with great civic and commercial potential.”

If you think it sounds like a bad idea—or maybe too good to be true—you can join the skeptics in the following video:

But don’t count the Chinese out just yet. They already have some experience in creating less-than-celestial bodies. As reported by Bloomberg Businessweek, China has built two islands, one circular, like the sun, and the other in the shape of a crescent moon. Located in Sun Moon Bay in the waters off Hainan, the two pieces of land cover approximately one square kilometer (about a third of a mile). The moon island was begun by private developers in 2015 (go to the Bloomberg article for a photo), but China has since banned such commercial projects because of environmental damage.

China has more credentials on the sun-building front as well. In 2006 (back to China Daily again for details), scientists in China brought its “artificial sun,” the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), online. EAST is a tokamak magnetic fusion reactor located in Heifei that last year reached a record 100 million degrees Celsius (over 180,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s over six times hotter than the sun up in the sky.

And finally, in January, China became the first country to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. BBC reports that one of the purposes of the Chang’e-4’s mission is to gain “insights into the internal structure and history of the Moon.” Sounds as if that knowledge could come in handy for building a new one.

The Music

But until China’s lunar creativity comes to fruition, Mau-mau Bett’s words will still hold true. And the belief they represent will continue to be the stuff of longings, of comfort, and of song:

(Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828, with a Portrait, Olive Gilbert, ed., 1850; Zhang Zhihao, “Man-Made Moon to Shed Light on Chengdu in 2020,” China Daily, October 19, 2018; Sim Chi Yin, “Dubai Has Palm Islands, but China Has a Sun, Moon, and Flower,” Bloomberg Businessweek, March 4, 2019; Cao Zinan, “China’s ‘Artificial Sun’ Achieves Major Breakthrough,” China Daily, November 13, 2018; Paul Rincon, “What Does China Want to Do on the Moon’s Far Side?BBC, January 4, 2019)

[photo: “Moon,” by Milos Golubovic, used under a Creative Commons license]

Their Abuse Happened over 25 Years Ago, So Why Were Those MKs Still Talking about It on the Today Show?

March 3, 2019 § 1 Comment

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A group of five women, all daughters of missionaries, recently went on NBC’s Today to share their stories of sexual abuse in New Tribes Mission boarding schools. One dorm father, whom the women from Fanda Missionary School in Senegal name as their abuser, left the school in 1988. Another dorm father, named by the women from a school in Aritao, the Philippines, was removed from his position in 1993.

It’s been more than 25 years since the latest of their abuse took place, yet these women are still bringing it up. Why?

In their interview, Today‘s Kate Snow asks the five to pick a word to answer the question “What’s this about for you?”

“Truth,” they say. “Justice.”

When Snow commends them for their strength in speaking up, Kelly Emory, who is not only a victim but also a daughter of the accused abuser at her school, says,

I’m strong for the little girl that was never able to say anything, and I’m strong for her, and I’m a strong woman. And I’ll do my best to protect anybody who sees this and wants to speak out. You can come and talk to me. Come and talk to me. I will protect you.

Another of the group, Jaasiel Mashek, in an article at NBC News, says, “If we don’t speak up, it’s going to keep happening. And we’re going to pass on that mentality of covering it up to the next generation. It’s got to stop.”

That’s why they’re still talking. They don’t want it to happen again. They don’t want the rest of us to forget. They don’t want us to think that silence is a remedy.

After the interview aired, Larry M. Brown, CEO of Ethnos360 (formerly New Tribes Mission) responded with an apology and a thank you, writing,

We wish to express our deepest gratitude to these women who came forward and others who have raised awareness of abuse. It is because of their willingness to share their painful stories that . . . preventative measures have been put in place, and we want to publicly thank them.

I want to thank them, too. I know I still need to hear their voices. Their stories are not new to me, but I’d already swept them to the corners of my memory, stripped of faces and details, kept where I can know that they exist without having to acknowledge them often. But I need to remember, really remember, because otherwise it’s too easy for me to give in to my tendencies to ignore hard things, to avoid confrontation, to give the benefit of the doubt when faced with suspicious activities, to hope that things will take care of themselves, and to protect the mission. In this I’m not alone.

And sadly, children in New Tribes Mission haven’t been the only ones to suffer abuse—sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, or spiritual abuse—from missionaries. In 2008, the production company Good Hard Working People produced the film All God’s Children, focusing on accounts of abuse that took place from 1950-1970 at Mamou Alliance Academy, a Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) boarding school in Guinea. The film is available online in 10 parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10.

In the following video from The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS—now thirtyone:eight), Wess Stafford, president emeritus of Compassion International, tells of his own experiences as a victim of abuse at Mamou:

Beverly Shellrude Thompson, one of several former Mamou students we hear from in All God’s Children, gives another reason for speaking out, saying that “truth-telling is an integral part of my healing, because as a child I didn’t have a voice.” In 1999, she helped launch MK Safety Net to provide a forum for MKs and TCKs to share their stories, to network, and to learn how to bring their concerns to church/mission leadership. Former Fanda students have contributed to a similar site titled Fanda Eagles.

As part of the process of addressing the problem, New Tribes Mission and C&MA have produced public reports detailing the abuse at Fanda and Mamou and examining how the organizations responded. The investigation of Fanda was conducted by GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment):

New Tribes Mission

The Christian and Missionary Alliance

Other groups, as well, have created their own reports on the abuse of children on the missions field. These include

The Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE)

The United Methodist Church

The Presbyterian Church (USA)

In calling attention to this information, I want to make it clear that I am not on a vendetta against missionary boarding schools. I know many fine people who serve overseas in such places, selflessly and righteously watching over and educating the children in their care. But while writing this post gives me pause, I am convinced that these accounts still need to be heard.

I understand that not everyone agrees. “Some,” say the writers of the Presbyterian Church report, “strongly believe that the Church would be better served if those who believe they have been abused or are aware of past abuse would keep such information to themselves.”

They then go on to present and dispute three myths:

The current mission of the church will be hurt by revelations of past abuse on mission fields.

The reputations of former missionaries, current staff, or advocates will be damaged by the investigation of allegations against them.

What is in the past is best left alone.

That is why those five women aren’t staying quiet. It’s because the truth needs to be told, and because these myths aren’t true.

(Kate Snow, et. al., “Ungodly Abuse: The Lasting Torment of the New Tribes Missionary Kids,” NBC News, February 7, 2019; Larry M Brown, “NBC Story Follow-Up,” Ethnos360, November 15, 2019; James Evinger, et. al., Final Report of the Independent Abuse Review Panel Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), PCUSA, October 2010)

[photo: “New Gallery Peckham,” by J Mark Dodds, used under a Creative Commons license]

Embracing the Struggle

February 14, 2019 § Leave a comment

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I’ll take inspiration where I find it, even if it’s from a book’s back cover . . . quoted at Amazon.com.

The book is Bo M. White’s A Time to Question Everything: Embracing Good News and Bad Days. White is the director of study abroad at Baylor University and has traveled to over 40 countries in his work with NGOs, international non-profits, and international education. The bio at his website says,

Married with two children, Bo has lived near Chicago, St. Louis, Phoenix, and Kansas City, but a little street in Central London remains a significant place because it’s where he explored the power of story with great intensity, studying at the University of London within walking distance of the former residences of Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and T. S. Eliot. It’s where he first explored in any serious way the idea of grace attending an RML group at St. Helen’s Church at Bishopsgate. And it’s where culture was explored through a law internship that took him inside London prisons, a University class that took him inside many of London’s incredible theatres, and a chance to see himself and his life outside America for the first time.

The book-cover blurb goes like this:

Bookstores and blogs display stories of people who go from bad days to good days, encouraging people to break out of their slump, pick themselves up, and make something awesome happen. Readers are supposed to get inspired and fix themselves. A Time to Question Everything, instead, offers space to bring personal demons, doubts, and disappointments to the table, daring people to believe that embracing the daily struggle of faith is indeed the good life. Unlike any other world religion, the Christian faith celebrates grace, not self-improvement. The heart of A Time to Question Everything is this sincere question: can grace hold the weight of this messy life?

The part here that struck me is that “embracing the daily struggle of faith is indeed the good life.” That’s the kind of thing I was trying to say nearly two years ago in my post “Surviving? Thriving? How about Striving?” at A Life Overseas. In it I express that when we’re in a situation where thriving seems out of reach, we shouldn’t give up but should see striving as a worthy alternative. Striving—or “struggling”—is a natural part, a positive part, of living, whether that’s at home or abroad.

In a comment following my post, Erika Loftis wrote,

I understand what you mean by striving. But striving also sounds like “trying” and it’s the trying that seems to be the weight dragging us all under water. Trying to keep our neighbors impressed with us, trying to learn language, trying to keep people from thinking we are too rich or too poor. Trying trying trying . . . I wonder if striving, in the holy sense, comes from some semblance of settled and embracing our life and surroundings. . . . If I’m honest, I had a strong reaction, a sense of hope seeping away, that I or anyone around me, has any chance off this well beaten path towards burn out (which is sort of the modern day martyr . . . except for anyone who knows the burnt out/burning out missionary). If striving is the best we will ever achieve, we will stay on this path of strive/trying and ultimately end up at the bottom of Burn Out Canyon. Strive/Trying to still be a Christian. Or not trying anymore. . . .

I responded,

I certainly don’t mean to add to anyone’s burden by saying “strive more” or “try harder.” Instead, my hope is to say that striving is not less acceptable than thriving—it’s just where we often find ourselves.

“I wonder if striving, in the holy sense . . .” Yes, “holy” striving is what I want to practice, and I guess I’m still figuring out what that looks like. Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light, but I’m not always able to take hold of that truth. The burdens we pick up can sure feel hard and heavy. I hope that we will all keep trying (and ultimately I’m talking about our walk with Christ, not about a particular ministry or situation), while trusting that God’s grace will meet us more than halfway.

I wish that at the time I’d been able to make my point more clearly by crafting a phrase as good as “embracing the daily struggle of faith is indeed the good life.” Embracing . . . that’s even better than simply accepting. Struggle of faith . . . that’s a good way to sum up striving. The good life . . . that’s what we all want, and we need to know that that good life is defined by grace, not by more and more effort.

I haven’t read A Time to Question Everything yet, but I’m not above judging a book by its back cover, so I’ve added it to my Amazon Wishlist—which really should be renamed my Amazon wish-everything-here-was-free-and-I-had-three-extra-hours-a-day-to-read-all-these-books list.

I actually don’t think I’ll ever get to all the titles in the depths of my collection, but I am making some progress. And at least for now, this one’s at the top.

(Bo M. White, “About Me,” Bo M. White; Bo M. White, A Time to Question Everything: Embracing Good News and Bad Days, Wipf and Stock, 2018)

[photo: “Bristlecone 2,” by David Wood, used under a Creative Commons license]

Barnga: A Card Game for Culture-Stress Show and Tell [—at A Life Overseas]

February 2, 2019 § Leave a comment

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I’ve reworked my original Barnga post from six years ago and put it online at A Life Overseas. Head on over there to read all of it. Here’s how it begins:

Have you ever wanted to show, not just tell, people what culture stress is like? Have you ever wanted them to experience it a bit without them having to travel overseas?

Have you ever heard about Barnga?

Barnga is a simulation game created by Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan in 1980, while working for USAID in Gbarnga, Liberia. . . .

[photo: “Shuffle,” by Melissa Emma’s Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]

School, 2, 3, 4

January 26, 2019 § Leave a comment

 


“More than 145,000 Rohingya Refugee Children Return to School in Bangladesh Refugee Camps as New School Year Starts”

More than 145,000 Rohingya refugee children living in camps in south-east Bangladesh are now attending UNICEF-supported learning centres, as a new school year begins.

Following a huge effort from the humanitarian community to construct a network of around 1,600 Learning Centres throughout the camps—providing vital access to education for children who fled violence in Myanmar—attention is now turning to providing education for thousands of other children who still lack access.

The aim is to eventually reach 260,000 children with education this year through an extended network of 2,500 Learning Centres run by 5,000 teachers and Rohingya volunteers.

. . . . .

“Many children have suffered traumatic injuries from gunshot wounds and extreme violence, restricting their mobility and access to services. We see many children with mixed learning abilities, physical disabilities, visual impairment and speech difficulties,” said Iffat Farhana, Education Officer, UNICEF Cox’s Bazar.  “Each of these children has a right to education. With more Learning Centres and more teachers, UNICEF hopes to reach every child to help them learn, grow and realise their potential.”

. . . . .

It is estimated that there are about 500,000 children under the age of 18 living in the camps, with about 300,000 aged 3 to 14.

About 700,000 Rohingyas fled persecution in Myanmar at the end of 2017, bringing the total population of the refugee camps close to a million people.

(UNICEF, January 24, 2019)

(featuring scenes from Shaolin Tagou, the largest Kung Fu school in China, with over 35,000 students)

A Treatise about Frogs: On the Boiling, Swallowing, Eating, and Metaphorizing of Such

January 19, 2019 § 2 Comments

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A Frog in Every Pot

A frog likes water, but not hot water — Swahili proverb

You’ve heard it said that if you put a frog in boiling water, it will immediately jump out, but if you put it in cool water that you slowly bring to a boil, the frog won’t notice and will eventually die. It’s supposed to demonstrate how people often find themselves victims of tragic circumstances that are introduced incrementally—and they don’t realize it until it’s too late.

Whenever I hear this frog story, I think of two questions: 1) Is it true? and 2) Why in the world would you boil a live frog?

The answers should be simple, right? Well, think again.

German physiologist Friedrich Gotz comes close to answering both questions with experiments he conducted 150 years ago, publishing the results in 1869. According to the English philosopher, literary critic, and scientist George Henry Lewes, writing in Nature in 1873, Gotz was testing for the presence of a “spinal soul” in frogs. To that end, he placed a frog in water that was slowly heated. At 25º C (77º F), the frog “manifest[ed] uneasiness” and as the heat increased, “vainly struggl[ed] to get out.” This was in contrast to another frog, exposed to the same conditions, from which Gotz had previously removed its brain. As the water grew warmer, the brainless frog, while responding to other stimuli, “never once attempt[ed] to escape the impending death,” which came about at 56º C (132.8º F).

Put a tally down for “not true,” since the first frog would have gotten out if it had been allowed to, and the second one expired under less than normal circumstances.

In the years that followed, several scientists, in several countries, replicated Gotz’s experiments, with some verifying, and some contradicting his results. In his “On Variations of Reflex-Excitability in the Frog, Induced by Changes of Temperature,” MIT professor William Thomas Sedgwick gave a summary in 1888 of the research. He writes that J. Tarchanow (Russia, 1871) and M. Foster (England, 1873) show that normal frogs try to escape gradually heated water, while A. Heinzmann (Germany, 1872) and Carl Fratscher (Germany, 1875) show that a gradual increase in temperature results in the frogs’ death. Sedgwick concludes that the differences in results come down to the definition of “gradual.” While a gradual increase in the heat of the water may cause a frog to at least try to escape, a “sufficiently gradual” increase will not.

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In a more modern look at the situation, in 1995, Fast Company consulted George R. Zug, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the National Museum of Natural History, and Harvard University Biology Department’s Doug Melton. The two agree that the science behind the boiling-frog metaphor is complete bunkum (with Zug using more colorful language). First, they say, frogs put in boiling water will not jump out, they will simply die (I’ve ignored this half of the scenario until now). Second, a frog won’t sit still long enough to be boiled in slowly heated water.

Australian science broadcaster Karl Kruszelnicki jumped in in 2011 with his own rebuttal of the yay-sayers. Not only does he quote University of Oklahoma herpetologist Victor Hutchison, who declares, “The legend is entirely incorrect!” he also points to a book written by Yale’s Edward Wheeler Scripture in 1897, using it to refute one of the earlier experiments. In The New Psychology, Scripture writes about research (he lists Heinzmann, Fratscher, and Sedgwick as possible sources) in which the water containing the frog was heated at the rate of .002º C per second over 2 1/2 hours. Kruszelnicki does the math for this example and finds it impossible. But in the interesting and well-sourced post “The Boiling Frog Tale Is Not a Myth,” a self-described “second-generation Asian INTP male expatriate” disputes Kruszelnicki’s disputation. He writes that Scripture’s reference is to an experiment by Heinzmann, and a look at Heinzmann’s original text shows that Scripture got the facts wrong.

So here’s my conclusion. Will frogs jump out of boiling water? No. Will they die in water gradually heated to boiling? Um . . . maybe.

We’ll probably never have a definitive answer for the boiling-frog metaphor, as slowly boiling live frogs is frowned upon in today’s general community. It is interesting to note, that it was not so popular even back in the days of Gotz, et. al. The Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, published in 1876, records the response of the aforementioned Lewes, to the questions, “But would you give us an instance or two of the most distressing experiments that you have performed? Have you ever performed Goltz’s experiment of boiling a frog till it died?” Lewes answers, “No; but to disprove his conclusion, I dipped a frog [from which the brain had been removed] in boiling water.”

At the same proceedings, British physician Arthur de Noé Walker gives examples of what he considers inhumane experiments, “in the hope of convincing [the commission] how urgently legal interference is called for in order to check and control the practice of performing experiments on living animals.” One such experiment was performed by the French physiologist Claude Bernard, who created gastric fistulas in dogs and inserted live frogs into the openings to observe their responses to the gastric juices. Not only was this cruel, he explains, but it was also “against the order of nature.” “Dogs do not swallow live frogs,” he says, “and frogs do not jump down into the stomachs of dogs.”

This last one sounds like a horrible experiment, but it does serve as a nice segue into my next topic.

(The Prentice-Hall Encyclopedia of World Proverbs, Wolfgang Mieder, ed., MJF, 1986; George Henry Lewes, “Sensation in the Spinal Cord,” Nature: A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Science, vol. 9, December 4, 1873; William Thomas Sedgwick, “On Variations of Reflex-Excitability in the Frog, Induced by Changes of Temperature,” Studies from the Biological Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University, vol. 2, Murray, 1888; “Next Time, What Say We Boil a Consultant?” Fast Company, November 31, 1995; Edward Scripture, The New Psychology, Scribner’s 1897; The Boiling Frog Tale Is Not a Myth,” INTP things, November 16, 2017; Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, George Edward Eyre and William Spottiswoode, eds., 1876)

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Got a Frog in Your Throat?

As odd as it may seem, some people like to swallow frogs—live and whole and with no boiling necessary. Take, for instance, Englander George Augustus Sala, who thought it not unnatural at all for frogs to hop into someone’s stomach. He wrote in 1863,

When you were a little boy at school, you probably ate a good many frogs. Our practice was, when we had caught them, to pinch our nostrils with the fingers of one hand, and holding the dapper little froggee lightly with the other, to allow him to jump down our throats. There was a tradition among us that to swallow live frogs (for the process could not be called eating) made a boy strong and valorous, and almost insentient to the cuts of the cane. As we advanced in years we took a distaste for frogs. We were patriots. We grew to hate frogs because we heard that the French liked them and that they formed a principal item in the diet of that vivacious and ingenious people.

But frog swallowing hasn’t been limited only to the young. The Hungarian-born illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini writes about the “repulsive” frog swallowing performers of his day, finding only one, a Frenchman named Norton, “who presented his act in a dignified manner.” The two performed on the same program at the Circus Busch, Berlin, which gave Houdini a front-row seat. He recounts one instance where the act didn’t go quite as planned:

Norton could swallow a number of half-grown frogs and bring them up alive. I remember his anxiety on one occasion when returning to his dressing-room; it seems he had lost a frog—at least he could not account for the entire flock—and he looked very much scared, probably at the uncertainty as to whether or not he had to digest a live frog.

Modern-day American magician and escapologist David Blain does not share Houdini’s disgust. In fact, he’s devoted much effort into honing his frog gurgitation and regurgitation skills.

Mr. Sala, Mr. Blaine, and Norton’s practices aside, most people see only the negatives of frog swallowing. Take, for instance, the women of northeast Brazil. When they refer to the pain of holding in anger and resentment and quietly tolerating unfairness, they call it “swallowing frogs.”

And wasn’t it Mark Twain who said,“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day”? Actually, no.

Though the saying is often attributed to the American author, Garson O’Toole, of the Quote Investigator, tells us that a similar phrase predates Twain by many years. It appeared in French in the 1790s, with the publication of writer Nicolas Chamfort’s Oeuvres de Chamfort (Works of Chamfort). In 1851, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve published Causeries du Lundi (Monday Chats), which included the relevant passage by Chamfort, translated into English. In it, Chamfort refers to M. de Lassay, whom he uses as his “mouthpiece” in his writings:

Nature, in overwhelming us with misery and giving us an unconquerable attachment to life, seems to have behaved to man like an incendiary who sets fire to our house, after placing sentries at our doors. The danger must be very great to oblige us to leap out of a window.

M. de Lassay, a very indulgent man, but with a great knowledge of society, said that we should swallow a toad every morning, in order to fortify ourselves against the disgust of the rest of the day, when we have to spend it in society.

I’ve also seen no evidence that Mark Twain ever said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

(George Augustus Sala, Breakfast in Bed; or, Philosophy between the Sheets: A Series of Indigestible Discources, Bradburn, 1863; Harry Houdini, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods: A Complete Exposé of the Modus Operandi of Fire Eaters, Heat Resisters, Poison Eaters, Venomous Reptile Defiers, Sword Swallowers, Human Ostriches, Strong Men, Etc. Dutton, 1920; L. A. Rebhun, “Swallowing Frogs: Anger and Illness in Northeast Brazil,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 1994; Garson O’Toole, “Eat a Live Frog Every Morning, and Nothing Worse Will Happen to You the Rest of the Day,” Quote Investigator, April 3, 2013; Nicolas Chamfort, Oevres de Chamfort, tome 4, 1795; Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Causeries du Lundi, vol. 7, E. J. Trechmann, trans., Routledge, 1851)

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Tastes like Chicken

It’s not that Twain was averse to eating frogs, per se. It’s just that they needed to be prepared the right way (and I assume he preferred only the hind legs.) In his account of his travels through Europe, A Tramp Abroad, Twain writes that during his trip he longs for the familiar food of the States:

It has now been many months, at the present writing, since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one—a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive—as follows. . . .

He then goes on to provide a lengthy menu of his favorite foods, beginning with “Radishes. Baked apples, with cream. Fried oysters; stewed oysters. Frogs. American coffee, with real cream. American butter,” and “Fried chicken, Southern Style. . . .”

Of course, the French like their frog legs, too. And while they do eat their share of cuisses de grenouille, they’re far from alone.

According to the global study “Canapés to Extinction,” the EU is the largest importer of frog legs, followed by the US, Canada, and Japan—though when only countries are ranked, the US comes out on top. In the EU, France isn’t even the leading nation. That distinction goes to Belgium, and by a wide margin.

And it’s not just the legs of frogs that find their way onto tables worldwide. Here’s a sampling: The “wildlife trade specialists” at TRAFFIC, report that frogs are “an important food source” in West Africa, where they’re dried or fried whole—with or without disemboweling—for consumption. A dish in Indonesia is pepes telur kodok, frog eggs cooked in banana leaves. And a search on the internet will garner videos of a Japanese woman eating “live” frog sashimi (sushi), a woman in China chewing frogs whole, and another woman in China spoon feeding her toddler tadpoles. Who needs a circus when you have YouTube.

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So where do all these frogs come from? Back to frog legs, the top exporters are Indonesia, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, in that order. The world’s leading suppliers used to be India and Bangladesh, but over harvesting decimated their frog populations, leading the two countries to ban frog exports in the late 80s. It is feared, say the writers of “Canapés to Extinction,” that Indonesia may be headed to the same fate.

I would guess that if the residents of a country, such as Indonesia, were to wake up one day and all their frogs were gone, they would bemoan not only the loss of income, but also the absence of the frogs’ role in controlling mosquitos and agricultural pests. But as long as the decrease in the frog population is slow, it’s hard for them to recognize how bad things are getting—maybe even until there’s no turning back.

Hmmmm, that reminds me of a story.

(Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, American, 1880; Sandra Altherr, Alejandra Goyenechea and D.J. Schubert, “Canapés to Extinction: The International Trade in Frogs’ Legs and Its Ecological Impact,” Pro Wildlife, 2016; M. Mohneke, et al., “Dried or Fried: Amphibians in Local and Regional Food Market in West Africa” TRAFFIC Bulletin, vol. 22, no. 3, 2010; 

[photos: “Big Red,” by Matt MacGillivray, used under a Creative Commons license; “Frog,” by Mike Maguire, used under a Creative Commons license; “Frog,” by Jon Wiley, used under a Creative Commons license; “kermit’s legs,” by Chewy Chua, used under a Creative Commons license; “Dried Frogs,” by Shawn Harquail, used under a Creative Commons license]

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