Many people are familiar with the 10 books written by Cristina Kessler, primarily for children and young adults.
Kessler’s name became well known in the Virgin Islands in 2015 with the publication of “Hope is Here,” which tells the true story of a small brown bird – a whimbrel named “Hope” – that makes yearly journeys from the Arctic Circle in western Canada to a pond in St. Croix, and back to the Arctic. The book, commissioned by former USVI first-lady Cecile deJongh for her annual Christmas book giveaway, made it into the hands of primary school children throughout the territory.
Kessler’s reputation, however, goes far beyond the U.S. Virgin Islands. Her first novel for young adults, “No Condition Is Permanent,” which deals with the topics of cross-cultural friendships and ritual female circumcision, met criticism because as Kessler said, “It was before its time.” Her next two YA novels, “Our Secret, Siri Aang” about rhino poaching, and “Trouble in Timbuktu” about the ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu, won seven special honors and awards between them.
Kessler writes about places she’s lived and traveled, and she’s been to plenty – 110 countries, by her last count, none for much longer than two years. However, she’s spent the last 17 years living on St. John, and it’s given her time to reflect and gather stories about her own life and the lives of remarkable women she’s met along the way.
She’s collected these stories in her newest book, “Tales of an Ikut Swami.” If you don’t know what an “Ikut Swami,” is, you’re in the same boat Kessler was 35 years ago, when she moved to Lombok, Indonesia, with her husband Joe. Joe had taken a job with the humanitarian agency CARE, and when they arrived, Joe’s secretary handed Cristina her visa, which stated her occupation as “Ikut Swami.” When Cristina asked what it meant, she was told it meant “Follows the Husband.”
As a feminist, veteran Peace Corps volunteer, writer and photographer, Cristina was highly offended.
“Take it back,” she told Joe’s secretary. “They can put None or Nun for all I care, but Ikut Swami has to go.”
The secretary informed her that was impossible.
Over the 20 years that Joe was with CARE, the Kesslers moved around the globe, with stops in Honduras, Niger, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Mali, among many others. Cristina came to realize that being an Ikut Swami gave her extraordinary freedom to choose causes to champion and make them happen.
In her book, Kessler recounts a thousand-mile journey in 1978 on a Nile steamer in Sudan, where Sudanese women helped her out by lifting white-hot coals by hand from their own cooking burners and then placing them on her burner as Kessler struggled to heat up a can of spaghetti.
She tells of the challenges of living next door to a ju-ju woman in Bamako, Mali, who practiced traditional medicine, banishing demons and sending supplicants into trances.
“I’m so glad I didn’t hurt you,” the woman told Cristina, just before the Kesslers left the country to move to the Virgin Islands.
She writes about a project she completed on behalf of the St. John School of the Arts, interviewing women about the importance of hats in traditional St. Johnian culture.
The tales in the collection vary in their moods. Parts are eye-popping, parts are hilarious, and parts are awe-inspiring. All of them, however, focus on projects she has taken on and women she has met along her journeys.
One of the projects that makes Kessler most proud is an initiative to provide wheelchairs for 3,000 women in Ethiopia.
After moving to Addis Ababa in 1998, she teamed up with a group of Ethiopian women to start a bilingual magazine called “Women to Women.” Through the publication, she met Shitaye Astawes, who now serves as the executive director of the Ethiopian National Association of Persons with Disabilities. Struck with severe rheumatoid arthritis as a 12-year-old, Astawes went from being a top student in her school to being bedridden for the next five years; when an uncle confronted her about finishing her education, she found her way back to a classroom.
In collaboration with several other women, Kessler and Astawes launched a program called Women on Wheels, an organization whose mission was to provide wheelchairs to Ethiopian women. Kessler said she was feeling proud about first acquiring 17 wheelchairs for donation until “Shitaye gave me a lecture. She said, ‘You do a lot, or nothing. Women who have wheelchairs are going to be robbed of their wheelchairs.’”
Kessler had no idea how to “scale up” the project. “That was back in 2001; I just started Googling.” Her search led her to Ken Behring of the Wheelchair Foundation, established in 2000. Kessler obtained 1,500 wheelchairs through the foundation and secured a donation of 1,500 more through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Flying on Behring’s jet, she traveled to Liberia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Egypt, Jordan, and Ukraine delivering wheelchairs.
Kessler said the time was right for writing the book.
“It can’t be a better time to celebrate women. And the other message of this book? If I can make these projects happen, anyone can. I hope that’s what a reader takes away. I also want to celebrate how women connect around the world, regardless of all that makes them different.”
She knew it was time to release the book when something very strange happened.
“After the hurricanes, and 93 days with no power, chapters just started showing up on my computer screen. To me it was a sign that the time had come to put the book together and share it.”
Although she’s done a lot of traveling since moving to St. John, living in one place for 17 years has been a stretch for Cristina. She found many good uses for her time – raising funds with all the elementary school kids on St. John to build a well in a Maasai village in Kenya, leading writing workshops for St. John seniors, and teaching writing workshops for kids in fourth through sixth grades. But she’s itching to get back to Africa.
Joe Kessler recently announced his retirement as president of Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park. He’s officially retired at the end of the year, and the Kesslers are planning to take up to a year traveling in Africa, and another year touring national parks in the U.S.
“Change is good,” says Cristina. “It’s time for a new chapter and new adventures.”
“Tales of an Ikut Swami” is available in print and online formats from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kessler’s website https://www.cristinakessler.com/. Print editions are on sale at Chelsea Drug Store and Freebird Creations in Cruz Bay.
Shared content for Virgin Islands Source and St. John Tradewinds.