2017-03-26T23:49:22.825-05:00"When you are surrounded by vultures, try not to die", goes the Ivorian proverb, a touchstone for many post-colonial Africans. Changing the perspective somewhat in light of the unnatural longevity of Africa's leaders, I've been pondering the survival tactics of these scavenging creatures that have been our omnipresent companions. Cast yourself back to the middle of one of those lost decades in Africa and consider a magazine cover from 1984 featuring a representative trio of the time: Biya, Buhari and Rawlings. These names are still in the news thirty years on, but their paths have diverged. Most have stayed true to authoritarian form - albeit pretending to shed skin on occasion, and yet some have been reformed. Mitterrand, Thatcher, Gorbachev and Reagan have passed on but their African contemporaries have endured. What accounts for this tenacity? If the initial frame was the good, the bad and the ugly, something more elemental proved a better fit. Consider the following as fragments of an African leader bestiary of sorts. Conversion Narratives Muhammadu Buhari is the exemplar of reform and reinvention. In his early career, he was an unabashed coup maker, repeatedly stopping Nigeria's nascent though imperfect democratic experiment in its tracks (1966, 1975). A severe military man, he came out of the shadows as head-of-state leading the December 1983 coup that ended the Second Republic. His mantras, such as they were then, were all about cleaning house, stopping Shehu Shagari and company's corruption (although the military proved in practice to be the most vicious and corrupt actors in the country's history), and most notably, a War against Indiscipline. He would be later be memorably satirized by Fela (who he imprisoned) as a Beast of no Nation.Make you hear this one / War against indiscipline, eeiNa Nigerian government, eei / Dem dey talk eei "My people are useless, my people are senseless, my people are indisciplined". The tumult that the grim-faced military put the country through under Buhari is not remembered with fondness by anyone, even if what followed (Babangida, Abacha) was perhaps more catastrophic in economic terms. These stronger, and more venal, predators stepped into his opening and overthrew him in short order in 1985. This was a rather friendly palace coup - a disagreement among wolves as it were, and he wasn't liquidated. Licking his wounds and withdrawing from the fore of Nigerian political life, Buhari was able to craft a second life. There has been reform and, with the passage of time, and three attempts (in 2003, 2007 and 2011), Nigerian democratic hopes, long disappointed in the intervening three decades, were pinned on him and his party in the 2015 presidential elections. There was no one Road to Damascus moment, but rather a pragmatic adjustment to multi-party democracy, the man calls himself a "converted democrat". The Nigerian political machine has accommodated him as much as he has accommodated the system. Given how large Nigeria looms in African fortunes, one prays for success of this experiment. Blood J.J. Rawlings had his two coups and 18 years in power in Ghana, ostensibly shedding his military uniform after a decade in 1992, and handing over to himself in a couple of shrewdly rigged elections to bring in the millennium. Dictator-no-more was the story although the authoritarian instincts persisted during the 1990s even in his civilian guise. The thin reed of political relevance that he stands on these days is making the occasional unreflective pronouncement about the probity of others, all the time hoping that no one confronts him about the bloodshed he amnestied his regime for. Surely the best indicators about Rawlings' enduring legacy were the 16,878 votes cast for his wife in the recent 2016 presidential elections. A full 0.16% of the electorate still paid obeisance to unbounded vanity. By and large, Rawlings as a phenomenon is healthily ignored. Still, as befits spent, but still viable, carrion, there will always be the occasional discarded carcass of the Ghanaian body politic th[...]
2016-12-17T13:21:02.223-06:00The two men sit outside a container waiting there in the middle of the field. There is an ease about them. We've caught them at a comfortable lull in the conversation or perhaps they are pondering a fond memory or the whereabouts of so-and-so. Their posture is relaxed, their clasped hands are mirrored. They've shared many stories, they'll share many more. The one, perched on a couple of cement blocks, sports a plaid cap, a light pink polo shirt and slightly loose black trousers. Second hand. The other's multi-coloured off-brand Kangol bucket hat underlines the point. They are not rich obviously, for it goes without saying that the rich do not sit waiting outside containers in the middle of fields. The power lines loom overhead, the hum of Tesla's crucifixes perhaps crackling occasionally to punctuate the high voltage cancerous flow. A basin sits to their right and there are a couple of piles behind them, clothes, it appears, that they are in no hurry to wash. The puddles of (dirty) water we assume do not disturb them now if they ever did. They are at ease in their patch of the the world. If it weren't for their skin tone, one would be tempted to call them Vladimir and Estragon, for indeed they do appear to be Waiting for Godot. The earlier photo, taken at a further remove, is more classical. With its wider angle it captures more of the bluer sky, and places the men in their proper scale and perspective: insignificant like the discarded beer bottle at the curb, twenty meters away from the faded green container. Although it was winter in South Africa and it had snowed in Johannesburg for the first time in years, the environs of Cape Town could count on the milder weather that the men are enjoying. I understand why the photographer zoomed in, however. It's those details: that package at their feet, that blue plastic bag stuck under the locked container, the expressions on their faces, it's not so much resignation and despair as wist. Rather than the theater of the absurd, call the scene a mere portrait of modernity. I welcome other readings. ... The Khayelitsha township near Cape Town, South Africa remains a foreboding place: poor, underdeveloped and a visible reminder of the lasting legacy of apartheid. Still, even among the informal slum surroundings that might depress the most hardy, there is a dynamism among the people that live here that belies the script that many have written for them. Amidst the tin shacks (these days without the asbestos roofing of yore) and the containers those improvised, repurposed and ubiquitous containers and under the shadow of the electrical pylons and power plants, you'll find shops, churches of sorts and, more importantly, the people with more ideas than you can absorb. There's no time to dwell on any notion of nostalgia or the tragicomedy of poverty. This is the terrain of the hustle. I trust the future is being written in Khayelitsha. Soundtrack for this noteOmar - I Don't Mind The Waiting The album is titled There's Nothing Like This. I still can't believe it never received a US release. Dave Barker & The Upsetters - Sitting And WaitingLee "Scratch" Perry was on a roll The O'Jays - What Am I Waiting for?Survival is the name of the game. Courtney Pine - I'm still waitingThere's a sweetness and sense of ease that runs through the Closer to Home album. Obligatory disclaimer: I skipped the obvious songs about waiting since I was aiming for optimism rather than the blues (Prince's Still Waiting, Bob Marley's Waiting in Vain or say George Michael and Aretha Franklin's I knew you were waiting for me etc.) Also: these photos were taken by The Wife during a research trip in July 2007. I still haven't geared up to write up my own observations from my time in South Africa. File under: South Africa, slums, photography, culture, Africa, life, poverty, containers, observation, perception, travel, Khayelitsha, toli[...]
2016-11-07T14:22:49.513-06:00You noted the date when FedEx delivered the package ten years ago.Opened the brand new passport, its crisp, blank pages Pregnant with expectant travel. Pinpricked numbers and black hieroglyphic in relief, Black soul symbolism: That proud Republic of Ghana inscription.Skipping past the thumbnail photo With your regulatory unsmiling gaze,You scribbled your endorsementAnd signed with the obligatory blue ink.Passport expires: November blah-blah-blah 2016 2016. Wow. Ten years to contemplate. Will Ghana have achieved escape velocity?Developed and escaped mindless poverty?And finally entered the realm of normalcy?Or regressed to the grip of that previous, vicious, venal cabal?Their petty, mercenary corruption typically banal.Who knows what the future holds?Will we still be living under the shadow of George W. Bush?Looting and shell games, a firm voice as we brag:Mission accomplished, torture swept under the rug No matter. Create that reminder. Duly entered in Google Calendar 14 months prior to said expiry date.It pays to be prepared, best not to tempt fate.Then, two years ago, that other business to relateYour easy access to the United KingdomThe trauma of losing LondonUnlike that other writer, your time away wasn't subject to expiryStill that officious immigration officer made sure to give you the third degree"You can appeal or seek redress at the British embassy"The gatekeeper's smirk as he policed his border's agencyHis message: "Best of luck, there goes your notional residency" No matter. 18 months ago, the first murmurs of discontentTroubling phrases overheard:"Everything must be biometric", "No budget for printing paper to be spent""They've stopped issuing passports". "Unless you've got family connections, you're out of luck." "God help you if yours expires, you'll be stuck"A sickening sense as you contemplate: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration wishes to inform Ghanaians resident abroad and the general public that due to circumstances beyond the control of the ministry, there is currently a shortage of machine readable passports, and that has severely impacted the ability of the missions abroad to provide machine readable passports at the present time... All Ghanaians wishing to travel home on any emergency, upon request, will be issued with a travel certificate to enable him or her make the trip home. A special letter will be issued to any such applicant to be presented to the passport office in Accra for a new biometric passport to be issued him or her to facilitate the return journey. Finally, we urge all our nationals to bear with us as we find lasting solution to the problem. No matter. You've borne so far with this duty abrogation18 months spent watching, waiting for said lasting solution. Your routine, monthly, and then weekly, Check the website, call the embassy And so you'll wake up on this Tuesday in NovemberStranded mid-Atlantic, a man without a country, A veritable exiled soul. clutching your passport,That expired token of Ghanaian identity. Deportation implied, yet exit prohibited For lack of stamp or date validated And now that Gee has diedAnd left you forlorn and brokenheartedYou have to put aside thoughts of being funeral minded.It has now come to this, in your moment of grief, You'll have to request an emergency travel certificate in order to go homePray and hope that the airlines and Homeland Security will grant you reliefTo even allow you to board without a leg to standAnd wonder if still others will let you pass through their lands. "I see here that you propose To transit through these British principalitiesWith this so-called travel certificate"A hearty laugh from deep inside the belly of Her Majesty's border representative Imagine: being rejected out of hand Denied entry to one's own country For lack of an officious stamp You've joined the ranks of the sans papiersOut of status, now a cause of airline delays No recent, non-specific general threat.Instead wist, and a tinge of regret, Or rather, dismay is truly al[...]
2016-05-09T17:54:46.322-05:00The rainy season is so-named because it comes every year, hence one would expect that the authorities would plan for it, but this was the scene on the front page of the Daily Graphic in 1960 when the rains came to Accra with the resulting floods. The headlines 56 years later will likely be the same even with last year's disaster relatively fresh in our minds. The satirists have already laid their bets: Accra mayor begins ritual of dusting off his annual 'flood speech' as rains set in. Of course the collateral damage has already been felt this year. One prays this year's death toll will be minimized. Now I hear you: it's complicated. Flood management is difficult even if you're not in the Third World (and you don't have to go the extreme of mentioning Katrina and Sandy and other extraordinary acts of nature to make the point). Flash floods do happen. And yes, you can't simply throw out all the people who have encroached and built on the areas that are ostensibly meant for drains. You need to find a sustainable solution. Oh sure, after every disaster, the bulldozers appear and the Accra Metropolitan Authority workers along with the police knock down the kiosks and other dwellings that have sprung up upending home and livelihood for the unfortunate. And sometimes it is just a matter of excessive garbage, blocked drains and/or the negligence of those who got the juicy contract to maintain the same. Or... I know, I know: everything is local. And anyway why worry about such things from a remove of 6,479 miles? My mother has accumulated dozens of newspaper columns on this very topic over her 50 year career. And as evidenced by the 1960 front pages, the headlines were writing themselves long before she started. It's a matter of meteorology (it always rains heavily), geography (Kwame Nkrumah circle was always a flash point; the location of the rivers and lagoons in the city), physics and architecture (the design, placement and configuration of streets, houses, roads and drains), engineering (how well those roads and drains were constructed, whether corners were cut after the no-bid contract was awarded, whether proper materials were used) and ultimately slum politics (the perennial tension between the drainage of the Korle lagoon and the growth of the nearby slums full of voters - whether you call one of those touchpoints Agblobloshie, Old Fadama or Sodom and Gomorrah features into the lens through which one views this intractable issue). But there is a difference between an act of god and an eminently predictable seasonal occurrence. We'll bemoan the lack of a maintenance culture, pay emergency rates for things that ought to be run-of-the mill repairs. Before and after the fact, everyone "knows" what needs to be done. At what point does damage move from collateral to intended? We cheapen Ghanaian lives and compensate with congratulatory funerals while patting ourselves on the back about our unique culture. I dissent. The refrain I've grown up with is that history should not keep repeating itself. And yet we keep sounding like a broken record when the rains come to Accra. And for bonus points note the other headline on the 1960 front page: "Fast Train Services Planned". We're still waiting for Godot on that front. It's not as if the plans haven't been there as far as the development of Accra goes. Through each era, under each government, no matter how progressive, incompetent (as currently) or indeed how repressive (as thankfully in our past), the plans have always been there. Sisyphus must have been the patron saint of urban planners in Accra. A lamentable soundtrack for this note Gotta Broken Heart Again by PrinceI should feel bad repurposing this sweet pop trifle but it fits better than New Edition's N.E. Heartbreak. From A Whisper To A Scream by Allen Toussaint Esther Phillip's version was my introduction to the late Allen Toussaint's great song. It's perhaps serendipitous in the context of this playlist that there's also a horror movie [...]
2016-03-24T11:42:06.002-05:00"Bank of Ghana maintains policy rate at 26%". The good news? "Inflation rate declined to 18.5% in February". Let's sing the inflation calypso. If you're a retiree or living on fixed income, 18.5 percent inflation must be doing wonders to your oh-so-substantial pension. #Ghana What kind of rate does a businesswoman get from a bank when the prime rate is 26 percent? And how do you service that loan? #Ghana It's not as if government services are exactly stellar, not as if water and electricity are reliable, not as if... arghh I give up #Ghana Economic fictions, electoral fictions, fictitious employees doing fictitious jobs, fictitious politicians making fictitious claims... #Ghana How does one anesthetize oneself from fictitious realities? One answer, per Gifford, is "Ghana's New Christianity". Other growth industries? Perhaps the reason our literary fictions have been slow in gestating is that we have a surfeit of fictions in our daily life. #Ghana Ghana seems to be in a state of fiction - we must have all agreed to the author's premises. Suspension of disbelief is our coping mechanism. "To understand what a mafia state is, we need to imagine a state run by, and resembling, organized crime" #Ghana? If amnesia and nostalgia are preferred US coping mechanisms, Kwesi Brew dryly noted Ghana's Philosophy of Survival Soundtrack for this note Nancy Wilson - Easy LivingI prefer the version on her masterpiece: But Beautiful. It must be easy to live in Ghana, such beautiful fictions. Sidenote: I've been cheating a bit these days imparting my toli in tweets. Like all writing mediums, the constraints of the very short form can be liberating. Still I will try to collect the occasional bite-sized nuggets here. File under: Ghana, economics, politics, rogues, strategy, culture, observation, perception, waste, Africa, toli[...]
It strikes me that we don't talk enough about George W. Bush. He remains an erasure even as we all reap the fruits of his legacy.
The signal foreign policy achievement of the Bush administration was allowing the importation of mangoes from India.
Ghanaians will point fondly to the George W. Bush highway (fruit of the Millenium Challenge Accounts). As for the rest of Bush's legacy?
Recall that in 2005, the editors at CNN and Time magazine declared Bush the "fourth most fascinating person of the last quarter-century"
The headline on July 3rd 2007 read "Bush Commutes Libby Sentence, Saying 30 Months 'Is Excessive'" but it was the small things that rankled.
There were so many "last straws" under George W. Bush that I suppose this Great Recession (or Lesser Depression) remains an afterthought.
Gil Scott-Heron's band used to be called the Amnesia Express, proof of how keenly attuned he was to that deep vein of the American zeitgeist
The defense mechanism to George W. Bush's tenure has been amnesia and nostalgia. I had rather expected tissue rejection. The USA confounds.
Incidentally Indian mangoes have faced stiff competition from Latin American mangoes in the US due to transport costs. A race to the bottom.
George W. Bush has indeed proven to be a hard act to follow. Discuss this paradox among yourselves.
An elephant which is lean is still fatter than a cow. Ga proverb, Ghana.File under: politics, America, Bush, USA, culture, observation, amnesia, perception, Fallen Angels, hatchet job, toli
2016-02-03T09:23:58.050-06:00Sometimes you find yourself starting to clap even though the setting isn't quite appropriate; you simply can't help it. In this case, it was definitely problematic; the setting being the middle of a transatlantic flight and, with me looking, as I do, like a slightly older version of the underwear bomber, it certainly wasn't prudent. "No sudden moves" has been my catchphrase when traveling, but there I was a week ago, unable to stifle the handclaps or bravos that I felt were in order. How often does one get to celebrate the beauty of a perfectly executed journalistic intervention. For there is an art to putting a newspaper together, and, in this age of decline, I was compelled to salute the editors of the Daily Mail for their achievement. I am writing of course of pages 8 and 9 of the Daily Mail from Monday January 18 2016. Behold some media toli: This wonderful two page spread is a deftly-executed visceral appeal directly targeting John Bull's lizard brain, specifically that area near the outer reaches of the jingoism gland, that murky corner somewhere in the liminal sections of the cerebral cortex - tickling the nativist quadrant of the medulla if you will. I am summoned to metaphorical excess at the accuracy of the editorial imperative displayed. It's like one of those newfangled drug cocktail therapies designed to overwhelm the many devious defenses of the E.coli bacteria. It's the bundling at work, the combination therapy if you will, that marvels. The choice of headlines, the placement of stories - a masterpiece of juxtaposition, the pull quotes accentuating fear, disgust and sexual anxiety at once, and the graphic design adding to the reader's sense of learned helplessness. Everything is connected and works together to reinforce the dismal political message; the keen editorial sense on display in service to agitprop. No search engine optimization can match the tabloid efficiency on display here. I dare anyone to scan these pages without experiencing agitation and confusion - this is the clear intent of the editors. I've annotated the features that caused my unbidden standing ovation. Cologne sex gangs could come here under EU law, PM is warnedPredatory immigrants are threatening the homeland with their rapist impulses. Grooming be damned, the font size emphasizes the immediacy of the danger to us 'here'. The "under EU law, PM is warned" parts of the headline are necessary but secondary additions to the main theme, the imminent threat of those "sex gangs". It is clear that David Cameron needs to stiffen his resolve against EU law lest the "Cologne sex gangs" smuggle themselves past the concrete jungle outside Calais, through the Channel Tunnel and onto fair England's land. Muslims are impossible to integrate says Czech presidentAs an editor, I have always found it best to get someone else to make the desired piquant quote for you and this headline is no exception. The provocative paraphrase of the authority figure, the Czech president (a "71 year old Left-Winger" whose opinion would normally be dismissed in the Daily Mail's thinking) underlies the essential trifecta: Muslims. Impossible. Integration. We might as well give up. The headline omits the 'practically' precursor that softens the 'impossible' task, but well, the headline writer has exercised editorial discretion. Clean hands after all that dirty work.'Effectively throwing money down the toilet'This pull quote about waste of the bathroom sort raises the issue of disgust at bodily functions. The proximity of the scatological angle is intentionally tied to the specter of the sex gangs previously raised. Outrage is a close companion to disgust.Note: for the visually minded, the toilet and sex gangs are complemented to the right on the opposite page by the photo of woman in a state of undress - a presumed target, but we'll get to number 8 in due course.'There is nothing we can do'This alarming pul[...]
2015-11-21T23:29:35.342-06:00A tech support guy (last name: Bundy) sent me an email that started with "Hi Orangutang, Are you able to reboot..." The Trouble Ticket Arrgh, broken office phoneLet's file a service requestYou prefer the old designation:A trouble ticketAh: musical notificationOpen the unread mail"Hi Orangutang,Are you able to reboot... ?"!!? Oh, hell no. Memories of childhood tauntsVisions of lynch mobsHis last name: Bundy!You briefly saw redAt this monkey businessClicked that Reply buttonFar harder than it deservedThe sinews loosenedKeyboard avenger: Believe me Sir,I would never have openedA service requestHad I not triedRebooting.I am curious howeverAbout your rendering Of my name (below)Am I to assume Slips of the Freudian sort? ... Stop That furious replyA firing offenseFor you, right after that guyDon't click SendTake a deep breathAnd a moment to reflect: "Words are like bullets. When you release them, you can't call them back"The boy who cried wolf, they didn't cut him any slackYou might well be criticized for a hair trigger tendencyOr unjustly fired for writing the word niggardly Stew ThenJust a few minutes laterChimes sound againThe inbox darkensMessage quoted below"My spell checkerfouled up your name!Sorry about that!"Great catch, I'll sayThe mood lightens Phew That's clearly betterDon't hold back the nervous laughterFor indeed, would you really ratherPrefer Freud to an errant spell-checker?Better the benefit of the doubtThan yet another racial bout So. Like your three year old daughter has began to say In that amusing and delightful wayWith that high-pitched, nasally voiceIt's really the obvious choice:"Awkward". You remember incidentallyThat you once wroteThat self-same case studyIn that noteTitled Cultural Sensitivity in TechnologyAbout this curious artifact of software modernity:The occasional regretof auto-correct You are truly your father's sonYou never, ever, jump the gun"Remember: anger and the African man."Pragmatism born of painful experienceThere's even continuing historical evidenceThat lesson of the United States of AmericaAlways defuse tense moods with quiet laughterAnd, above all, maintain that calm, level-headed posture Still, it's really a curious situationHow one responds to real, and potential, provocationThe option is denied of righteous indignationThe fallback civility, a source of frustration.Your tribe's peculiar daily dilemma:Better neutered than six feet under.Or, perhaps, with a little less drama,In the twilight of this, the age of Obama:The poorhouse, or staring at ceilinged glass.Best not to prompt a human resource activityTo be followed undoubtedly with notoriety.You're a Harvard man, don't be so crassYou don't want to be like that famous professorA cause célèbre, but branded by some as the aggressorAnd even requiring a presidential beer summit.After all, it's merely a trouble ticket. Your strategy for the incident reportNever mention it, simply avoid the court.So. Delete your impertinent second sentenceThat premature act of literary vengeance.But keep the Sir designationYour passive aggressive intimationOr, should I say, capitalized rejoinder.Also, delete the offensive text,That implied reminder.You don't want to hear later:"He's not a team player". This treacherous modern world to which you belongThe bewilderment in determining right from wrongBut do look him straight in the eyeIf, and when, he deigns to come by.The two of you might well have a laugh one of these daysReplace the veil, return to your mild-mannered ways The reverse of the coin termed white privilegeThat undercurrent, or rather subtext, of repressed rageIt's ugly, and surprisingly close to the surfaceEven for you, there's a hint of coiled menaceYou think of yourself as above the fray, literally mid-AtlanticYet for a moment there, you were about to get very frantic. While you wait for your replacement phoneYou'll navel-gaze and write a short p[...]
2015-04-08T21:32:22.943-05:00Prosecutor: Mr Witness, what did Reflection tell you about who shot Superman? The transcripts of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, commonly called the Charles Taylor Trial, were a fascinating and disturbing glimpse into the conduct of a very dirty war. Nihilism was the trademark of most of the civil war's protagonists. The trial records feature not just garden-variety graft and basic criminality (the 'crime' part of war crimes), but mostly hallucinatory bloodlust and premeditated savagery (indiscriminate killings, routinized rape, summary amputations, forced drugs, cannibalism, etc.). War is hell; civil wars are hell; the descent of Liberia and Sierra Leone was an uncommon hell. Still if you read the transcripts as I did in real time through the daily updates, you would have been confronted with a grand and unique body of literature, a mix of Kafka, Beckett, and plain Gothic horror presented in bureaucratic form. Truly, everything is in there. For most observers, it was the child soldier narratives that were the most upsetting - overwhelming testaments to innocence lost and unconscionable cynicism, if not evil. For me, it was the observations of daily life during the wider Dante-esque free-for-all that resonated most. Additionally, there was a wealth of stories and conspiratorial detail to attract those afflicted with the journalistic impulse. The setting was legal, with built-in confrontation and dramatic tension: Defense versus Prosecution moderated by The Court. There was the examination of Witnesses and Victims while Defendants looked on defiantly, denying everything, all of this shaped by the stylized conventions and terms of art of international law. The chaotic events described were mostly awful and occurred episodically over fourteen years, with protagonists from over a dozen countries, and affected millions of people; it was an international disaster through and through. There was poverty and illiteracy on display - those already-poor countries became poorer still - and, indeed, could no longer even be called 'developing', during those wartime years. The language barriers were many, often obscuring comprehension during the trial - the creole and pidgin, and the many local languages of Liberia, Sierra Leone (Krio, Mende etc), Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire contending with the English, French and Dutch of The Hague to create a legal Babel of interpretation. The heavy accents essentially leap off the transcript pages. There were heaps of military jargon to further confuse things - for, although unconventionally fought, this was a bloody military war. And there would be smidgens of pop culture references, the warlords and their recruits (or rather prey) were young and enamored with football, reggae, hip hop and action movies (Stallone and Schwarzenegger would turn out to be big influences). There were also fatally compromised actors in this drama. Many witnesses and defendants had considerable blood on their hands, a sizable number would often be lying through their teeth or, at best, furiously seeking to diminish their responsibility. And worse, many potentially valuable witnesses had come to bloody ends. Oftentimes the only remaining witnesses of crucial events would be lower level protagonists, say the drivers who drove the warlords to their nefarious meetings, or the radio operators who would arrange communications. Witnesses were often still traumatized about their experiences. The concept itself of a Special Court and its legitimacy kept being brought up. Why was the trial focusing on events in Sierra Leone? What about all the atrocities in next door Liberia? Why confine prosecution to those "who bear the greatest responsibility" while allowing many murderers impunity? What about the truth and reconciliation committees that had been set up in those countries? What about the motley cast of forei[...]
2015-04-06T12:41:12.577-05:00Prosecutor: And who was Doctor Simbo? The working title was Close Encounters Of The Murderous Kind and the first entry of the planned series was in that vein but, once encountered, I felt that he deserved the eponymous treatment, let me know how it fits... I. Close Encounters Prosecutor: And who was Doctor Simbo? Witness: He was a Ghanaian. I first met him in the court transcripts and, within minutes, he evoked the same mixture of horror and recognition that Mr Hyde must have surely raised to Doctor Jekyll. Although I suspected that the name Simbo was a pseudonym, I had no reason to doubt the witness's notion that he was a doctor, nor indeed that he was a Ghanaian. And this last, I suppose, was what first alarmed me, his countryman. His appearance was a mere footnote to an overlong trial, the fugitive glimpse of the man, revealed during a fishing expedition by a prosecutor who really should have stuck to the wealth of stronger material at hand. But I appreciated the strategic ambition of that servant of the International Criminal Court, immersed as she was in all that murky talk of warlords; for there he was outlined in those few furtive paragraphs. Really! What was he doing there in that lugubrious free-for-all? What was he doing there amongst that gruesome lot, knee deep in their ruthless bloodlust? How did he come to be embraced by them, the most notorious proponents of summary amputations, surrounded by the most hallucinatory child soldiers we have seen. Hell, those guys even put the Lord's Resistance Army to shame. I had to reassess things even as I remembered all their victims. But I held on to the witness's statement: his name was Doctor Simbo, and he was a Ghanaian. There are many who think that God watches over Ghanaians, keeping us from the brink whenever full blown disaster beckons. By contrast our Nigerian brethren seem to laugh at brinks and disdain cliffs. We congratulate ourselves that somehow we've avoided the kind of mess that is fodder for cautionary tales about Africa. It's a kind of faint praise really: things could be worse, things could have been much worse. I dissent from this kind of talk even as I recognize its power, for I obsess rather with how much better things should have been, how much better things should be now, and indeed how much better things should be going forward. But well, that's the claim, your mileage might vary. The canonical example is the providential rain that fell one June night in 1982 that prevented the bodies of the three judges and a retired army officer that Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings's junta had ordered murdered from being burnt beyond recognition. It was the dry, hot season and it hadn't rained in weeks. The death squad had set out, list in hand, supplied with curfew passes, operational permits and a Fiat jeep pickup obtained from the Head of State's wife's front yard (we have our Lady Macbeths too). The houses had been pointed out to them previously. They rounded up their prey from their homes and family, ostensibly for questioning (we were months into arbitrary military rule), or, more cruelly, to assist an ailing colleague. They drove their victims to the Bundase Military Range near Dawhenya and the Shai hills, sat them on concrete blocks, shot them, poured petrol on their corpses, and set them on fire. Their disappearance was not supposed to be acknowledged. The country was rather meant to join the company of those with a community of 'disappeared'. The intent was terror, striking at the core of the Ghanaian establishment that was quietly opposing the "31st December revolution", a settling of scores for past slights, and, well, this was only meant to be a beginning. Breast-feeding mothers be damned, the revolution was moving too slowly. "Let the blood flow" was the refrain that was still echoing in the Castle, and[...]
2014-12-18T23:19:23.609-06:00I've been thinking about the verb render and its euphemistic use by 'intelligence' folks. Ionesco loved such words intended to obscure. Render, when used in the context of extraordinary rendition, seemingly refers to the "provide to" sense of the verb. I'm sure however that the "melt down" or "process carcass in order to extract protein" sense of render was the intended variant. The same people that brought us the phrase terminate with extreme prejudice speak softly of extraordinary rendition and coercive techniques. It turns out the extraordinary modifier to rendition was an exaggeration, for the actual policy was rather ordinary once the gloves came off I'm impressed by the techniques suffix to "coercive interrogation techniques". It provides the weasel veneer of bureaucratic justification. The gloves came off metaphor is of a piece with the reluctant avenger, cold warrior and cowboy rhetoric. Also the fighter pilot iconography. As Gil Scott-Heron pointed out the metaphor is always "The man in the white hat", it's never "He died with his pants on". The B-movie Theory They used techniques, after all, this wasn't done without thought. Techniques for God's sake. They had memos, they had a mandate. Techniques They rendered enemy combatants. The analysts were security professionals, the lawyers wrote briefs, memos, and provided sober legal counsel From the president on, everyone always meant well. We should never forget the pervasive fear of those times. We should never forget they say. I'm confounded by Diane Feinstein's phrase in the Senate Committee's torture report: "the impulse to consider the use of every possible tool" Render / Rendition RenderRenditionTechniquesExtractionIntelligenceDeterminationCoerciveInterrogation"Color-coded threat""Stress position" AgencyAuthorizationBureaucraticJustification"Pervasive fear"Suffocation"Every possible tool"MutilationTruthFiction ProgramDetentionCommitteeConclusionValuesExpectationEvidenceDestructionExecutiveClassification ConcernAbdicationDuressOppressionDetaineeSanctionMissionCompletionIndefiniteIncarceration ReviewsRecommendationSecrecyInvestigationFindingsDecisionMedicalPrecisionBattlefieldCondition Field manualOperationContractorDelegationHomelandRepresentationUnreleasedSection"Enhanced"[ Redaction ] WallCollisionSleepDeprivationRectal!Hydration?PainContortionLinguisticDistortion StudyRevisionWartimeAlienationConstraintsCompulsionRestraintsRevulsionEnforcementIntimidation OutsourcedSituationProfessionalAffectationPermanentConditionBloodRepulsionSinConfession DelayedPublicationDamageMitigationSulliedReputationOutrageAttentionNecessityNeglection StatuteLimitationGenevaConventionLiabilityLitigationMissingCompensationAccountability?Desertion BlusteryPontificationMisleadingCompilationSuccess?InflationPlatitudesComprehensionLudicrousPrevarication SecurityProtectionTreatiesObligationCounselDissimulationImpulseMisdirectionDamningDistraction ExtensivePreparationConfinementContractionLiquidNutritionProgrammaticStarvationBehaviorModification GoodwillDissipationDiplomacyComplicationRecklessAccommodationPrideRestrictionShameInflection PatrioticIntentionTenuousSalvationAbsenceRedemptionErasureRestorationJudiciousDiversion HarmfulFrictionLivingInventionMournfulAdjudicationDangerousSubversionPovertyImagination RhetoricalCongratulationObsceneCitationWickedImplicationDoubtfulMediationIgnoredSubmission ImperialContentionObliviousReactionSystematicProtestationRidiculeReceptionArtfulOmission InquiryCondemnationWorldwideSuggestionReluctantIdentificationFadedAdmirationOngoingAsphyxiation CovertDispensationRobustAccumulationIntentionalConcisionCapturedRegulationOversight?Illusion ImplacableOppositionSensibleSupervisionRemarkableDilutionIncomeDistributionUnearnedRemuneration RuthlessOrganizationPolicyGestationUnwarrantedInvasio[...]
2014-10-24T15:05:57.765-05:00A few weeks ago, a Liberian man passing through Accra, Ghana for a few days on his way to a medical conference in Nairobi, Kenya started feeling unwell and feverish. He called the WHO in Nairobi and informed them he wasn't well, suspecting Ebola. The WHO contact in Nairobi called my aunt, a doctor who works for the WHO in Ghana. My aunt hastily organized an Ebola response team and ambulance and dispatched it to the hotel where he was staying. The doctors and ambulance arrived at the hotel equipped with masks, hazmat suits and protective equipment only to discover that the man had gone to the mall! The doctors then managed to contact him at the mall and eventually conveyed him to the isolation unit at the hospital where he was tested for Ebola. The tests eventually come back negative but he remained in quarantine for the full 21 days until the all clear was given. This, of course, was the height of irresponsibility. The man clearly knew enough given his symptoms to seek medical advice and to contact the WHO in a different country. But I can't believe that he then decided to leave his hotel room to go to a shopping mall. Ghana certainly dodged a bullet, we are lucky that he didn't have Ebola. Indeed given the traffic between Liberia and Ghana, we have been lucky that Ebola hasn't made its way to the country yet. Based on air traffic patterns, Ghana has been modeled as the most likely country to experience Ebola importation. We have seen the effect of a single infection in the most developed countries, and the contrast in countries with poor public health infrastructure. My aunt had just returned from a harrowing five week tour of duty helping run the WHO Ebola response in Liberia. The thing she emphasized most about her experience was just how easy it was to inadvertently get infected. The example she cites was someone simply dropping something at the end of the 19th of the 20 steps one has to go through when removing one's protective equipment and bending down to pick it up, thereby getting infected. The Spanish nurse who caught Ebola while attending to two Ebola patients in Madrid believes she might have inadvertently touched her face while disposing of an infected glove. Upon her return to Ghana from Liberia, the WHO wanted to send her to manage the separate outbreak of Ebola in Congo. She demurred, deciding instead to help set up the UN regional Ebola response center in Accra. I wonder, however, whether she will also decline to go to Uganda to deal with the recent outbreak of the Marburg virus there if asked. Everyone in the family is hoping she stays in Ghana, we certainly need her expertise dealing with the ongoing cholera epidemic that has been plaguing our country. II. Borders and Boundaries Item: Thomas Eric Duncan (the Liberian man who died of Ebola in Texas) was a refugee in a camp in Danane in Cote d'Ivoire for a few years after the start of the Liberian civil war launched by Charles Taylor. One of the success stories so far about the present crisis has been the prevention of the spread of Ebola from Liberia and Guinea to neighboring Côte d'Ivoire. The obvious response is that the borders between the countries were eventually closed. It is worth asking however why there was no transmission before the border closures and, well, there is a political angle to explore. Nimba county in Liberia used to be a source of mercenaries employed by disaffected supporters of the deposed (and disgraced) ex-President Laurent Gbagbo to destabilize Côte d'Ivoire. In the aftermath of the Liberian civil war, there were lots of ex-combatants searching for employment and, for some, the way of the gun was a lucrative comfort. Ivorian president, Alassane Ouattara, had no tolerance for such things: instability is bad for business [...]
2014-10-14T12:38:41.226-05:00For years I've resisted writing anything about Liberia or Sierra Leone. Too painful, too raw, too soon. The pen keeps calling however... I figured Liberia and Sierra Leone deserved a couple of decades of peace and quiet but, as they say, 'Tings deh happen. Expect some toli. I saw Rev. Jesse Jackson today with the Texas Ebola victim's family. Really? Some of us remember his history with Charles Taylor during Liberia's descent. The Country Preacher ought to steer clear of anything related to Liberia and Sierra Leone. It's unseemly. Suggested reading regarding Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson (Pat Robertson!) and Charles Taylor: The Quiet American by Graham Greene The salient quote: "He was impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance" - Graham Greene on the eponymous quiet American Was it Stalin who talked of useful idiots? They always seem to materialize before and during wars. Consider a taxonomy of useful idiots: the ignorant, those who should know better, the reflexively-tribal, and the professional opportunists. Servants to power, we are all striving simians on the savannah at heart, looking to Alpha authority. Apologists for war (think Iraq, think War on Terror) and apologists for unfettered capitalism have had a rough start to this century Most useful idiots lie low when things go awry. That, paradoxically, is the only time they are of any interest. Only posterity is unkind to the man of conventional wisdom, and all posterity does is bury him in a blanket of neglect - John Kenneth Galbraith Professional opportunists are singular gremlins in human society and deserve close study. Sadly, we simply shake our heads at the spectacle The professional opportunist knows no shame and depends on our short attention span. Hey! Look over there...I looked. Most professional opportunists escape scrutiny and scorn because there's always a core of past competence that one can point to. The notion of shame has become a vestigial sentiment in many Western countries; some call it a casualty of modernity. I dissent. Coming from a shame society, it's hard to watch bad behavior tolerated with benign neglect, or even rewarded. My mother emphasized the necessity of permanent outrage. Will I be able to convey that to the children I'm raising in America? I know my place in America (at the intersection of Tenuous St and Hired Immigrant Worker Alley) and accordingly keep a low profile. Also civility. Let's posit a corollary to the quantity theory of insanity. Perhaps a coefficient of opportunism? Argh, forget it: rusty mathematics. Just because a lizard nods its head doesn't mean it's happy - Ghanaian proverb Observers are worried I'm reposting these (slightly annotated) twentysomething thoughts on opportunism here for archival purposes. With a little distance, I realize that this product of few fevered minutes of short form writing essentially revisits a theme I'd previously covered. Timing is everything I suppose. File under: rogues, opportunists, Liberia, Sierra Leone, huhudious, culture, observation, USA, celebrity, hatchet job, Observers are worried, useful idiots, toli[...]
2014-10-08T14:53:12.657-05:00The most attractive aspect of patents is their expiration. Built-in expiration, that "limited times" proposition, is similarly the appealing aspect of the Faustian pact one makes for copyright. In that vein, I would venture that one of the best things to have happened since the start of this century is the expiration of the patent for the ziploc. If you frequent the same supermarkets as I do, you would have noticed the ascendance of the ziploc form factor over the past decade. At first the spread was likely due to increased licensing in anticipation of the expiration of said patent, then, of course, once the crucial patent expired, the flood gates opened and generics came into play, to the extent that these days I can barely find regular plastic bags in store aisles. Permit me to present another item as part of an occasional series on bags, this time a brief cultural history of the ziploc, a foray into the grooves of technology and hardball business. Plastic bags I say, locks, knots, zippers, all have been changed. Ladies and gentlemen, consider the ziploc factor. I. Radical Transparency The ziploc resealable plastic bag, sometimes called zip top, zip lock, one zip, slide lock, snap bag, zip-loc (if inclined towards hyphens) or zip snap depending on the brand or technology underpinning you lean towards, crossed the chasm of cultural inevitability in the summer of 2006 when liquids were banned on many flights due to a case of pure bureaucratic terror - call it a liquidity crisis in the skies if you will, for we were living in a era of recent non-specific general threats. Homeland Security restrictions made themselves felt, and within days the nascent ubiquity of ziploc bags could no longer be denied - indeed they were officially mandated. Air travel, already a ludicrously fraught endeavor after September 11 2001, now gained a set of extra contortions that have spoiled things for all who can't afford their private jet - and for all intents and purposes that is everyone. The ziploc was the palliative. The British were the first to impose restrictions since the ostensible liquid bomb plot had British airports as their target, but it was the TSA list of permitted and prohibited items that really soured things: All liquids, gels and aerosols must be placed in a single, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag. Gallon size bags or bags that are not zip-top such as fold-over sandwich bags are not allowed. Each traveler can use only one, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag. Early versions of the TSA list mentioned zip lock although later versions now mention zip-top - as we shall see this little-noticed change in nomenclature is significant in our history, but let's not get ahead of ourselves at this stage. We'll also skip over the size restrictions for the time being and concentrate on the specification of the bag which is a technology prescription backed with the coercive powers of American law enforcement: "clear" for transparency and ease of observation if not confiscation, and ziploc for ease of opening and sealing. The snappy slogan is "Bag and zip for a short trip" and undoubtedly some poor sod had to come up with a breezy mnemonic for the public education campaign on the new requirements: 3-1-1 for carry-ons (3 ounce bottles, 1 ziploc bag, 1 bag) The equivalent British poster from the BAA doesn't have the same marketing flair (but who can compete with American salesmanship?) and gets the essential point across: the requirement is simply "a transparent, resealable bag". In practice of course, this boils down to a ziploc bag. The Brits sensibly don't refer to a brand in the [...]
2014-07-11T23:26:58.295-05:00We've been at the part of the World Cup, ever since the group stage ended, where many of the spectators have been muttering the "could have been / should have been" mantra. Fans don't need prompting from sensationalist reporting about implosions, denigration of the coach's strategy, team cohesiveness, slips of concentration or the vagaries of the drama of the game. Us football fans simply know. We could see for ourselves and feel it in our bones. We know what could have been, we know what should have been. Every team had its chances - unlike in other world cups, this has been a wide open competition. Read the reports in zonal marking and you won't see much onesidedness. Even where there were clear gaps in class vis-a-vis their opponents (say Honduras or Australia), the teams in question had opportunities. The Socceroos were thrilling and gave palpitations because of their athleticism and Cahill's finishing ability. Those who pooh-poohed the Iranians' defensive-mindedness will admit that when they finally broke out they were potent. The Ivoriens will wonder how they let the Greeks back in with minutes to go. The Mexicans, Chileans and the Colombians will know that they will never have collapsed like the Brazilian hosts did today... It could have been, it should have been. Closer to home, Ghanaians are ruing the missed opportunities and thinking about how they were the only team to really frighten the Germans. Even more-so than in 2010, when we could taste the semi-finals and beyond, Ghanaians were expecting to return with silverware - Group of Death be damned. Those seven minutes when Ghana had Germany on the run and could even had piled on and added a couple of goals to their lead will be an enduring memory. It could have been, it should have been. I still feel that Sulley Muntari getting his second yellow card during that game hence missing the crucial midfield battle against the Portuguese was the turning point, but even then Ghana had its chances against Portugal as we did in every game that we played. It could have been, it should have been. I think to the sense of predatory anticipation every time Costa Rica's Joel Campbell touched the ball. I wonder why it took Wayne Rooney 75 minutes to realize that he had to come back to make deeper runs to shrug off his man-to-man marker - something that took James Rodriguez 25 minutes in Columbia's toughest match. Why didn't his manager simply signal from the bench since his star was being anonymous. The Hodgson Puzzle perhaps, and there have been many other puzzles this time. It could have been, it should have been. I think to the fluency of the passing when teams really gelled. Colombia, The Netherlands and others. And Ghana. And Ghana... The 4 man game that Asamoah Gyan, Andre Ayew, Kwadwo Asamoah and Sulley Muntari sometimes offered was thrilling. I recall Kwadwo Asamoah's brilliant crosses and that last ditch tackle at the end of the Germany match. Turns out that that was not enough. It could have been, it should have been. Soundtrack for this note Abbey Lincoln - Should've Been (listen here) One of my favorites from A Turtle's Dream. I still miss her desperately. It's the sound of sorryLooking yonder with regretSorry 'cause of what you gotAnd what you didn't get Could've been another songWould've been a sing alongCould've been, would've beenShould've been File under: football, sports, drama, regret, world cup, Ghana, culture, observation, perception, Africa, toli[...]
2014-06-14T16:07:02.550-05:00Deferred maintenance is a norm where I come from; we tend to demur on the necessary until we are confronted by the looming or, more frequently, the actual, catastrophe. Indeed, quoth my mother, "if you are seen painting your house, people will stop by and ask if you have a funeral". That's just the way things work. Still I was struck by the following photos which depict the Jamestown Mantse palace in Accra; the first delapidated in 2001: and vaguely restored in 2010 (restored enough that it features on calendars these days). There's a comment to be made about what the former photo says about the institution of chieftaincy among the Ga. One can't imagine the Ashantis ever letting Manhyia Palace fall into similar disrepair but that is by the by... There is a wider cultural point, I suppose; there are opportunity costs for maintenance, moreover, it is hard work, and unsexy at that. Some cultures simply have norms that emphasize mundane processes and others where the constraints of societal life drive different behaviours. Inertia is an essential part of the dark matter of communities. What interests me most is exactly how a society moves towards cultivating the maintenance ethic. In the software profession, we often talk about "technical debt", acknowledging its almost inevitable presence as well as the inertial forces that contribute to its growth. Just recently, I was burning the midnight oil and paying for design and architectural decisions postponed for a couple of years. It was painful to deal with, but with hindsight, plainly unavoidable. My sleep-deprived self was conscious enough to bemoan my plight. It takes maturity and discipline to instill this ethic. In Ghana, sadly, the escape valve for a surprising amount of deferred maintenance is often that some benevolent foreign entity can be called upon to fund a restoration. One wishes that the impetus was internal. There is certainly plenty of shovel-ready work to be done in development. That said, I see 'normalcy' taking root in many places. Indeed the rise of the insurance industry can be said to be a marker in that respect. Restoration and maintenance does take place (occasionally) and must be celebrated whenever it happens. Welcome signs on the streets of Jamestown and Elmina. Soundtrack to the note Bob James - Restoration Bruce Hornsby - That's just the way it is Massive Attack - Inertia Creeps Sidenote: before parenthood intervened, I used to tend to this virtual joint more often, consider this note some throat-clearing, some deferred maintenance on the blogospheric writing front. It's the World Cup season and I am bound to summon up the creative juices as in times past. Some readings from the archives: Ghana vrs USA and some Dilemmas. File under: maintenance, culture, observation, inertia, Ghana, Accra, Jamestown, values, norms, Africa, toli[...]
2014-09-26T20:45:27.692-05:00You've been surplussed.That was the word used. This is a resource action. That was the phrase used. Leave. Or find another position.That was the message. You have 30 days,The clock is ticking. They read the script.Over the phone. Out of sight.Out of mind. You were checking in the code,Rushing to meet the deadline.Heads down, juggling things.Bugs, emails, instant messages, ideas.Plans: car, house, family, books. Then: there was a resource action. Blindsided."12 years of my life" It's over.Simple as that. You're not mad;You're merely sad. You thought you were a resource,But then there was an action. Unemotional:The Corporation. Cold:The language. "Rebalancing... efficiencies... Your responsibility..." The workings of capitalThe theory of surplus value This is a dark matter. ... Note the time. Start writing.Wednesday, May 30, 2007, 12:14:05 PM You hang up the phoneA fleeting thought:"No wonder they never sent the new monitor".And the fuss about that expense reportHmm You fire up the browser"Let's get some more news about this thing... this... this... 'resource action'".The blog loads and renders.7,000 words stare at you.Written the previous day. Unsolicited: your contribution.Unrequited: your capital. Extracted: your labour.Redundant: your value. Ironies are many No matter.You check in the code.Respond to the instant message.Answer the emails.You are a resource. You finish.Break for lunch. Things fall apart This is a dark matter. ... You call The Wife.You need a comfort suite,And some soul insurance. This is a dark matter. ... So. The first plank of the web style:Identify all important resources. First pass at a resume:Enumerate skills and experience Second pass:Strive for brevity You can have me in 30 days.The clock is ticking. This is a dark matter. ... You get back to work. Email arrives. Inbox:"The Company's Africa work sounds so cool!" Indeed.So. Africa. The Company. Work. Sounds. This! Cool? You have 30 days,The clock is ticking. You're still a resource No.No! Enough You were a resourceBut they've taken an actionA judgement of value: surplus. No.Yes.No matter. It's your turn now.You'll publish another resource.Add value to the global surplus.Your hyperlinked testimony,Your resource action. This is a dark matter. ... Music. Pet Shop Boys:"There's lots of opportunities. If there aren't, you can make them" Resilience Music. Vesta Williams:"Once bitten, twice shy" Adaptability Music. Gil Scott-Heron."She could hardly understandthat she was really sweeping uppieces of a man." This is a dark matter. ... An awful conversationAn untimely disruptionA broken connection A fractured dislocationAn involuntary terminationAn extraordinary rendition A resource manipulationAn ironic meditationA redundant representation A corporate decisionAnnounced with euphemism:Call it a resource action Best to rethink things. After all: "You have 30 days".The clock is ticking. This is a dark matter. ... Before: they paid you to stay.Now: they'll pay you to leave? Ironies are many Strictly business,Don't take it personal.You're not alone. A full frontal stare,You dare not flinch.You're all alone. A temporary inconvenienceand a matter of soul.Put your game face on:"Be humble but be bold" Timing is everything.Must be more to the story. No condition is permanent.Observers are worried. This is a dark matter. ... It's time to save thingsLet's see, the folder: webThe filename: resource-action.txt That's enough.Don't be precious,You'll add the links later. Note the time. Stop. It's all wasted time.Wednesday, May 30, 2007, 1:45 PM You get back to work. [ this space intentionally left blank ] This is a resource actionT[...]
We were blessed with a baby boy in the early hours of last Sunday. The Wife, The Daughter and I are as blissed out as can be about the new addition to the family.
Our son! My son! I'm as happy as can be. May your 8 pounds 5 ounces lead you onwards and upwards.
I plan to spend as much quality time with my family as I can. All the observations I've made in the past about the effect of parenthood on one's published output now apply doubly. In this instance however, I have a few pieces lined up that will be published automatically in the next few months as this blog will run on autopilot.
There is much deliberation in the mores of Akyem-Swedru, Accra and Aburi about the naming of children and a certain logic that is often followed (lineage, day names, special names and so forth). Still I am minded of the weight of all of those additional names, those shadow names, that may not appear on one's birth certificate but that still apply to you. Even at my age, I am still learning about names bestowed on me. There is power in naming and I wonder what names others will emphasize for our son. I look forward to his outdooring and to marking all the ceremonies that are to come in his life.
Welcome my son. I love you.
2014-09-26T10:06:19.453-05:00The city of Lagos, Nigeria, as seen through the lens of a 1975 guidebook. One of The Wife's American friends spent part of her childhood in Nigeria and mentioned that her mother had written a guide book on Lagos during that time. I immediately asked if I could take a look at it and thank her for allowing me to scan its pages. Hence I present to you a photo album:Guide to Lagos 1975. My customary routine when coming across such material is to wax poetic and at length but I'll strive for brevity this time since the nuances of Lagos and indeed Nigeria are mostly lost to someone who spent his childhood in Accra, Ghana. Many things do resonate since our colonial and post-colonial experiences are similar: the look of the buildings and people, the descriptions of the markets and shops etc. The obvious differences between Lagos and Accra lie in scale and intensity - perhaps this is true more broadly about the differences between Nigeria and Ghana. Accra to this day feels like a sleepy town in comparison to Lagos and of late, Nigerians, rich and poor alike, use Ghana as a rest and recreation area. The streets of Lagos are more crowded and the contrasts are sharper. The rich are richer, the poor are poorer, the hustle is fiercer, the pleasures and the dangers are more intense. In any case, I have a number of friends and family who live in and grew up in Lagos (and a surprising number who are writing about Lagos) who would no doubt find this useful. A guidebook provides a different kind of insight than a year's worth of Drum magazine focusing, by necessity on practical matters. This is a boon to armchair cultural anthropologists. If you're writing a novel for example, your characters can throw in a tidbit about safe choices for a good musical night out: Fela at the Shrine, Ebenezer Obey at Miliki Spot, Sunny Ade at Banuso Inn, dwell on the prices and the kind of crowd and note the caveat that the music does not get going until after 10.00 p.m. A contrarian would suggest traditional theatre by way of Duro Ladipo, Ogunde or Alawada. Your characters can discuss the virtues of Ben Osawe's wood sculptures or whether to go find that old man on Ikoyi Island whose carvings are imbued with the spirit of Ogun, or indeed that young apprentice who operates in that shack behind Bobby Benson's hotel. It helps to know that the kind of prices charged for a taxi or bus ride even if the price cited in the book should be viewed as a ceiling being geared to visitors. A visitor's guide by necessity points out things of interest to tourists but locals too gain in learning the outsider's perspective. Incidentally there appear to be a few copies in a few universities. For others, I have also run the scans through some rudimentary optical character recognition so the full text is available here. With those preliminaries out of the way, here's the introduction: Lagos is the Federal Capital of Nigeria. It is also the Lagos State Capital and has a well established city government. It is the centre for all diplomatic missions and has a large and busy port. Diplomats, government officials, businessmen, workers, traders, travellers, all flock to Lagos, as well as many unemployed hopefuls hoping to make their fortunes. The population is estimated at 2 million and increases daily. The City is undergoing considerable reconstruction and development. The old and the new mingle together: large commercial complexes next to small trading stands; mini skirts and traditional robes. It is a city of sights, sounds and smells, some pleasant, some not so pleasant, but all giving evid[...]
2013-04-23T17:15:43.689-05:00Notes on reading the novels of Alain Mabanckou. I. RestraintA writer who shows restraint on a topic that is prime for exuberant fireworks is a rarity. When that topic is the dislocation of a civil war, you start to wonder. When the writer is known for splendid wordsmithing atmospherics, you take notice at the muted tone you encounter. As you read and can palpably feel the wrenching of the conflicts that the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville that is) was subjected to, you are even more surprised by the self-effacing prose. As you observe the contrast between the close and personal observations - the subtlety in short of the text, and the groundswell of manic viciousness that sweeps a country, you ask yourself if he can keep it up. When the voices of the female characters are realized so poignantly, you scratch your head thinking back to the author's reputation for shrewd depictions of male worlds. What do we have here, you ask yourself? All is not quite what it seems. When you are branded a young lion, it takes restraint to not growl. When you have been feted as a stylistic innovator, it takes restraint to write within the margins. And so I came to read Alain Mabanckou's Les Petits-Fils Nègres de Vercingétorix. And so I was drawn deep into his world. I had previously read his debut novel, Bleu Blanc Rouge (1998), a bravura work for sure (and more on that anon) and had already placed him in the vanguard of modern African literature. Reading Les Petits-Fils Nègres de Vercingétorix simply marked him as a singular talent tout court. I was plainly impressed by his remarkable restraint. Would that more African writers follow his lead; too often we aim for the epic when the delicate touch would be just as ambitious. There is a certain virus that afflicts human societies that's ostensibly to do with identity - sometimes it's couched as nationalism, sometimes as tribalism, oftentimes it's plain jingoism. Demagogues feed on it, and sadly many politicians find it hard to resist. It's a seminal disease whose symptoms at its worst involve people who had previously been living alongside each other erupting into murderous violence. The last century was a particularly bloodthirsty exemplar of this. The former Yugoslavia was a notoriously teachable moment about the endurance of such tribalism (Europeans don't seem to like the word for whatever reason). Africans of course are not immune to this disease; indeed, some often paint the continent as a great incubator of vicious innovation in this sphere. In the politics of Congo-Brazzaville of the last thirty years, militias were its expression. Whether it was those favoured by Denis Sassou Nguesso or some of the other rogues that the country had the misfortune to be afflicted with, militias wrought havoc with gruesome efficiency. The most interesting question to the reader in me is the form that the artistic response to such events takes. How does one write about topics as loaded as what we now brand as ethnic cleansing? And what kind of literature emerges in the wake of these uncivil wars? Surveying the scene - since similar tragedies have been plentiful in Africa, the literature, on the whole, has aimed for the epic. Sometimes the emphasis has been on the absurdity of the goings-on, other times writers have gone for sober reflection, always, however, the stories come out epic. Think of Ahmadou Kourouma's Allah n'est pas obligé, think of Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny, Chien Méchant, and, less successfully, Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation in recent times as takes on[...]
2013-05-11T11:00:44.630-05:00Wherein I reproduce a couple of apparently futile musings on the announced death of Google Reader. I've always preferred that my public utterances be available in a feed and Google Plus by design doesn't provide one. Further I received a transatlantic call yesterday from The Parents who are alarmed and incredulous that such an important and incredibly useful tool - an essential part of their experience of the web, would be summarily executed, as it were. They raised a point that I hadn't considered as I've been thinking about Plan B. It is easy to say that there are other feed readers, but almost all the proposed alternatives will not be free if they operate at Google's scale, and this presents complications if you live in a country like Ghana which is a black sheep in terms of e-commerce. Although my parents are undoubtedly willing and able to pay for such a service, they will be locked out because PayPal, Google Wallet and most credit card payment systems are not available to Ghanaians. I'm going to have do the dance of getting their credentials, signing them up for Feedly, Newsblur or what have you and entering in my payment details. Now that's a workable arrangement for my family, but what about others in similar circumstances? I had posited, with some amount of hyperbole, that this was a massive destruction of consumer surplus but I didn't know the half of it. 1487 Feeds (or Blues of an Omnivorous Reader) A belated, and certainly, redundant comment to this thread. I suppose I am an outlier in terms of usage as Google Reader is my single most used web application (more than even search and email), but I'll have to repeat the question I've been asking myself for a couple of days now: how does one handle 1487 different content sources efficiently across the up to 10 devices that I might use daily? The corollary question also comes to mind: how did I come to aggregate that many sources of data? The answer to both those questions is Google Reader. Chris Wetherell's thesis was that "feed reading is inherently polymorphic" and he would know as he designed Google Reader. As I'm having to now export said 1487 feeds to try out various alternatives, I've been thinking through my usage of Reader and I must agree with him on that front, because what I see is a wide variety of sources organized however I want. Some are blogs, some are news sites, some are topical, some sui generis, some polymath, some from people I disagree with, some are the web output of friends, some from family, some are photo blogs, some are podcasts, comics, or comments. Some are on current affairs, some on Africa (although that tag seems to encompass anything non-US), some on technology, some tagged as general interest, some pure entertainment. Some are high traffic, some are infrequently updated. An example: a friend recently emerged after a 2 year disappearance in the new parent cone of silence. On his return to blogging, he seems to be no longer interested in writing about technology. No problem: simply tag him or add him to a different folder (feeds can be multiply categorized). Some are work related. Some are very narrowly focused. Some are alerts that I want to monitor e.g. feeds in Flickr and Delicious (tags or people or groups), Google alerts. For a while I could easily monitor almost everything of interest about Ghana since writing on Ghana and indeed the Ghanaian web footprint has been so small. Some are forums. Some are for research often more speculative than not (e.g. the two months when I mused abou[...]
2013-03-04T15:47:20.173-06:00Another case of the new formula, another case of a company juicing the books: the diaper wipes that we had settled on for The Daughter got the New and Improved! treatment last week (the exclamation mark is the usual signifier of duplicity). It's the now customary scenario: a company decides to wring out surplus value by squeezing every ounce out of its means of production, typical latter day capitalism at work. Working in an industry that is perpetually focused on the new and shiny, I probably shouldn't begrudge innovation in a mature market, and what is more fundamental than diaper wipes after all. Furthermore The Wife suggested I should censor this particular rant - perhaps wanting me to elevate the discourse and not fall into a parental blogging rut. I had even planned initially to use the title of this piece to dissect exactly why the recent redesign of Delicious left me in literal despair, but, well, my muckraking instincts for economic malarkey would not be denied. I'm knee deep in it, so diaper wipes toli it is... I note: The number of wipes per box is reduced, 64 rather than 70 The formulation is changed - the material is different and the liquid the wipes are soaked in is different. Presumably cheaper ingredients are being used all around. The price per box remains the same. Profit! Counteracting this, my investigations reveal that the size of each individual wipe is slightly increased now a 17.7 by 17.7 cm square as opposed to a 17.7 by 17.2 rectangle. Thus an individual wipe might feel slightly more substantial in your hand. Such are the fringe benefits. I won't repeat my usual analysis of the costs of all the raw materials (although I was intrigued by some of the substituted chemicals) - I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that the research and development costs of this process tweak is neutral in that regard. Doing the math however, even if the same raw material for the tissue was being used, they have managed to get a 6 percent decrease in their costs. This combined with a 8.5 percent decrease in the units per box (their revenues are assuredly tied to the total number of units moved) is the icing on the cake, or should I say, the fruit at the bottom. And the only thing they had to do was change the packaging. The New Formula is marketed as "New and Improved"!, ostensibly "thicker, more absorbent" and the new box has been given a makeover - green graphics evoking the forest plundered in the manufacturing process, marketing copy about how it is good for the environment, bio-degradable, hypo-allergenic etc. Impressionable Youth Most egregious is that the new diaper wipes have a stenciled design of what looks like little Winnie the Poohs to make it more exciting for both the adult wipers and the toddler wipees. The owners of A.A. Milne's copyright (or is it Disney) must be smiling at both the licensing opportunity and inspired product placement, eyeballs are everything and the younger and more impressionable the better. Some surfer of the conventional wisdom says you have to do something 10,000 times (or is 10,000 hours) before you become a pro. Diapers are in most cases a 2 to 4 year part of a parent's life thus one might approach that virtuosity. Incidentally the diaper companies quite ludicrously say that you should expect to change 10 diapers a day (it is obviously in their interest to encourage inflation in diaper changing rates). Crunching numbers as is my wont, in addition to the economic bonanza gained by the process tweak, ther[...]
2013-02-08T02:31:01.063-06:00Five times in the last eight years, I've woken up one day having lost the hearing in one ear (the ear in question seems to alternate). It's a matter of physiognomy I've been told: the combination of poor drainage of my sinus cavities (their perversely shaped contours apparently don't help things), small ears, and a latter-day propensity for prodigious production of earwax. These episodes of partial deafness have typically lasted from as little as two hours to a few days. The current assault on my middle ear, however, at ten days and counting, is pushing beyond the realm of temporary inconvenience. It's not just that I haven't been able to listen properly to the new José James album - hearing his golden voice in muffled mono as if coming from a locked trunk packed with ancient manuscripts hurriedly buried in a desert backyard in Timbuktu under Sharia law, is painful enough, it's that, as the days drag on, I'm beginning to contemplate what might happen if modern medicine and my body's defenses don't resolve things successfully. Incidentally, the album is rather ominously titled No Beginning, No End. Perhaps it's in that vein that I listened blithely (with my good ear) to a doctor cheerily informing me today that my hearing will "probably come back", and "most likely after a couple of weeks". Those hedging qualifiers were what I held on to rather than the alarmingly lengthy time horizon she contemplated. I write, however, not to bemoan my lot because, obviously, things could be worse. The surprising thing also, once you get over the bewilderment of sinusidal oppression and hearing loss, is that one is able to carry on living a quite full life. Moreover, there's nothing like a temporary disability to make you rethink things; people don't think enough these days, they just act. I'm rather inclined to take the glass half full notion to being half deaf, heck, if you choose strategically where to sit in a hypothetical meeting, you'd avoid having to hear much that annoys you - and others would be none the wiser. And ear splitting cries, to take another example of occupational hazards, can easily become mere pantomimes, even hot air. But I digress.. I write, rather, because my aural predicament reminded me of Jonas Gwangwa's song and album aptly titled A Temporary Inconvenience. The great trombonist's fulsome sound materialized in my imagination and got me thinking of a trip I made to South Africa in Christmas 1993, just months before the 1994 elections that marked the notional end of apartheid. Perhaps as I convalesce I'll find time to dig up my dusty notebooks and finally write up an episode that left quite an impression on me. A South African playlist immediately conjured itself up. Start with the dearly departed Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, a brilliant jazz pianist whose Genes And Spirits captured the pre-transition mood - a mood akin to pre-millenium tension. Follow up with the the broken strings of Allen Kwela, fondly played wherever we went. Add in a touch of Busi Mhlongo's Urban Zulu for some funkified and righteous dance. And then think to Yvonne Chaka Chaka exuberantly singing Bombani invoking the enduring spirits of Mandela, Tambo and Mbeki père among others. I'd like to think that the song, A Temporary Inconvenience, related to what Jonas Gwangwa and his contemporaries like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba must have thought as they were first heading into exile from the apartheid state. As time passed and the temporary seeme[...]
2013-01-14T10:40:15.530-06:00'Twas the night before Halloween - Halloween's een perhaps? when I first heard the ghost of Ramsey Lewis's version of Nights in White Satin in the cadences of Tina Turner's We Don't Need Another Hero. Or was it the other way round, I wonder? Had time's arrow changed the perspective? As I hummed the stately theme that the violin led in Lewis's take on the tune (from his 1973 Funky Serenity album), I couldn't help but start interposing Tina's voicing of the lyrics "And I wonder when we're ever gonna change / living under the fear 'til nothing else remains". In my trance, the songs seemed separated at birth. How could it be? It was a musical puzzle, what made these anthemic songs congruent? How was it that the limpid and ethereal jazz piano seemed to mesh so well with the soulful and bluesy minor chords that powered that Eighties b-movie soundtrack. When you DJ, you are attuned to beat matching and to hearing samples everywhere. This wasn't quite a sample, the songs are in different genres, but it was something in the mode, something in the mood, and in the voicing of certain phrases that drew me to connect them. Well listen for yourself, perhaps you'll hear what I heard. Consider Ramsey Lewis's Nights in White Satin (1973) in Tina Turner's We Don't Need Another Hero (Thunderdome) (1985). For Ramsey Lewis, Nights in White Satin was on the serene side of Funky Serenity. At that point in his career, he was in the middle of his journey from soul jazz pianist to the cosmic and electric jazz funkateer that his is most remembered as - most notably the Sun Goddess edifice that Earth, Wind and Fire helped him build. In this mode, he would throw in some traditional nods to bop and take a turn towards the Silent Way that Miles Davis had pointed to. Nights in White Satin is a cover tune that starts with some abstract free jazz stylings before settling down for the interpretation. Ed Green's violin intertwines with Lewis's subtle piano and create a jazz twist to the pop tune. We Don't Need Another Hero of course was a great emblem of the MTV era, a song more heard, and a video more seen, than the film it was intended to promote, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Tina Turner in her Private Dancer era was a superstar. The rock and soul legend had crossed over into pop iconhood finally selling the millions she deserved after paying her dues with Ike. The Live Aid performance at the side of Mick Jagger was an apt coronation. But back to the song, whose mournful quality is in the vein of wist. It is propelled by a slow building soulful groove and a voice tinged with experience that underlies everything (I consider Ike and Tina as the musical equivalent of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor). She tops it off by inviting a child choir to sing the chorus and take it down a gospel path by way of Oliver Twist. I started inventing a scenario that connected some dots. The idea was that the members of The Crusaders, Joe Sample and Wilton Felder, who produced Tina Turner during her Private Dancer peak used to play with Ramsey Lewis (indeed I had heard them share a stage fairly recently) and were drawing on those memories as they came up with the groove. Alternately these days you can use an app like Boil the Frog and get from Ramsey Lewis to Tina Turner in a mere 7 artists (George Duke, Al Jarreau, Randy Crawford, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross). This algorithmic journey adds weight to my surmise (Randy Crawford was a member of The C[...]
2012-05-18T12:10:11.282-05:00Until recently, my friend Teju Cole's public persona was that of an enigma in the guise of a sphinx. A veritable chameleon who changes identity with each project, the multiple lives and worlds he inhabits make him a true world citizen, cosmopolitan at heart. And yet he'll insist on normalcy, on being quite specific and local.Luddite that I am, I waited until the paperback was issued to get my copy of Open City. Diaper-changing intervened to delay my immersion into this, his second project, and, further, to prevent me from scratching some words in response. Throughout, I was eager to see what the fragments I had read on Modal Minority had turned into, eager to see how ruthless editing would mold his words in the journey to print publication, eager to see if the omission of the contemporaneous photography would matter, eager to see if the blog/diary episodic feel would leave its imprint on the page. There isn't quite a Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes for literature, but I haven't encountered such high critical approval for a novel in a long while, and deservedly so. In short, the reception to Open City brings to mind that album, Everybody digs Bill Evans - if not its title.ErasuresSo, what are we to make of Julius's world? Mere flanery? A roman-a-clef perhaps? Or should one simply revel in the keen sense of observation at work and, especially, the hypnotic vocal performance? Well he leaves clues all over the place, up front even. Like a Beckett (or, my favourite, Ionesco), he delights in words and worlds that are hidden in plain sight - and, to digress on a digression, part of what is most interesting about the critical response is that critics can't resist projecting their literary heroes onto him (I've heard of Sebald, Coetzee and more being thrown his way - although the Will Self comparison seemed a stretch, psychogeography be damned).But to return to clues to unpacking Julius's world, take this:"I learned the art of listening from him, and the ability to trace out a story from what was omitted"It's right there on page 9. Don't call it a provocation and, certainly, don't call it an obfuscation if he hits you on the head with just what was omitted come novel's end. Focusing solely on the considerable art of listening on display in the novel while ignoring what was omitted misses much of the point. And, well, you, Dear Reader, were warned about the complications.Julius is a great listener, a great observer of people and things and his wanderings form the bulk of the novel. Some might say that Open City is all about listening, call it a guided tour with a peripatetic cipher at its lead. The novel packs erudition in his keen musings, we get to follow him on literal (and intellectual) walks. We learn about a city, its physical embodiment and its history. And yet, the motifs of omission, erasures and absences remain at the core of the novel and are repeated throughout; the gaps in the novel's archeology are equally interesting as what we unearth.It's my belief that the greatest of the "post 9/11 works" was 25th Hour, Spike Lee’s paean to the same open city and its walking wounded. If one is to cast Open City in an analogous light, as a post 9/11 novel, what are its phantom limbs? If you'll excuse a political foray, life in George W. Bush's world was all about these absences: extraordinary rendition, black sites and so forth, the holes where proud twin towers once stood, a return to [...]