Sunday, October 08, 2017

A Familiar Arc

I found myself working from home yesterday (on Saturday!) so I only managed to start watching the Ghana-Uganda world cup qualifier match in the 91st minute. I was shocked initially to find a scoreline of 0-0, I had fully expected to see Ghana with a comprehensive lead. After all, that was the only way in which the team could even hope advance to the world cup. Our destiny was in our hands, everyone knew that. Execution in this game, and a little bit of luck in the other group game was the forecast. I checked the game clock and, yes, it did read 90:32. We were in extra time with 3½ minutes to go. No time to wonder about whatever must have taken place in the previous 90 minutes. We do like making things difficult for us. Minnows though the Ugandans are in football, the same team did hold us to an ineffectual draw earlier. But wait, what was I seeing? It looked as if Uganda were the team doing all the pressing. Both teams needed a win in order to keep any chance alive.

Why do we make things so difficult for ourselves, I kept asking? But then at the back of my mind, I know that we have Accra Hearts of Oak's motto in mind: Never say die. Anything thing could happen. "We need the ball, we need the ball.", I implored YouTube as the clock kept ticking. Still the Ugandans controlled possession, pressing forward with the desperation I was rather expecting from the Black Stars. 91 minutes... 92 minutes... 93 minutes... And then with 25 seconds to go, Thomas Partey, our in-form striker from Athletico Madrid, somehow got the ball and took it on himself to give it the old try with a long shot on goal that bounced viciously, the ball rebounded off the Ugandan keeper and a Ghanaian player, I didn't catch, was first to react on the follow-on and tapped the ball sweetly, improbably, but definitely into the back of the goal. We scored!

And so I screamed.

I screamed.

I screamed.

I screamed with that abandon, that primal excitement of unabridged happiness. We've done it. Never say die. We did it. No one was around to witness my joy, but I did notice the squirrel outside my home office had stopped quizzically as I jumped around, nay, as I leaped and stormed out of the room.

"I can't believe it.... Hallelujah...." And so forth...

I thought to the last time, I had screamed so loud, incidentally also in the last minute of a Ghana match - against Uruguay, when first Stephen Appiah's left hand shot was parried on the goal line and then Mensah's header was batted back by Luiz Suarez's handball. Back then, I could taste the semi-finals and even the finals, we feared no one.

I run back into the room to see the celebrations. I could taste it, we needed Congo to not drop the ball against Egypt but we would do the business and surely defeat Egypt in our last match. And then the scene that greeted me was perplexing. The Ghanaian players were surrounding the referee. My heart dropped, a stolen victory. The commentators couldn't believe it and the replays were showing that the linesman had raised his flag for offside. Perfidy.

That was when I welcomed back that old friend of mine: the familiar arc of disappointment. Our close companion in the ongoing Ghanaian narrative. And how could it be otherwise I suppose? And I knew, all too well, the inevitable aftermath.

Our dream had ended. Talents that should undoubtedly be showcased on the greatest of world stages would have to be spectators. My allegiances for the next World Cup would have to be reassessed. True we were clearly robbed and yet, why where we ever in this position? Why months earlier had we drawn with these same opponents at home, at Baba Yara stadium? I know so many who couldn't even bear to watch this match because they feared this result. A draw or defeat when only victory would do. Oh well, I wallowed and reacquainted myself in the comforting contours of disappointment.

Hours later, I couldn't bear to read about the controversy or about whatever had transpired in the previous 90 minutes. I read talk about an earlier disallowed goal or the penalty that wasn't granted. Or the theory that that the referee had disallowed the goal not for the linesman's spurious offside call but, rather, had blown his whistle for full time as the ball was headed to goal but before it had crossed the line. I read people bringing up that we had a good case if we appealed. Remember that South Africa and Senegal would have to replay their qualifying match because of atrocious officiating that even got that (Ghanaian!) referee banned for life. And so forth... Now that Ghanaians have taken to the internet in droves, our infectious argumentativeness and conversational craziness is in full display on social media. I savoured the taste of disappointment, that ache at the back of my throat.

Ghanaians are good at recriminations. Scapegoating comes naturally to us, born of fragility and proximity to poverty. Our existence is oft-precarious, so, well, we excel at recriminations instead of getting on with things. Its not a pretty cultural trait and it comes out at the worst times in our culture, say at funerals. At its extreme, we even see lynching and mob justice on our streets.

It is tempting to read a lot in a football match or indeed any sport event. When things are going well for a community, sports can be the great signifier. Perhaps it is for the best that we can't dream about Russia 2018. Germany went back to the drawing books after repeated misfortune in past campaigns and now has a nigh-unbeatable team. One hopes we can move on, learn our lessons and get on with it. Still, our expectations have been reset since we emerged as a force in 2006. Who could forget the excitement of Ghana vrs USA, The African Nation and The American Dream. We almost made it in 2010, and even in 2014, we gave Germany their toughest match on their road to victory, unlucky as we were to be in the Group of Death. With a little luck everything could be very different. But there lies the way of our good friend disappointment.

Hours later, it would be about the panic about that horrible fire and explosions at Atomic junction. The calls from family, the worry about all those we know who might have been affected. Going forward, searches will no longer bring up uplifting images of Atomic Junction, nuclear power in an African suburb, rather we will be recalling our dearth of infrastructure, the mushroom clouds of burning gas and fuel, and the hopping fires amidst a surging mass of humanity. Our struggle with development and modernity remains fraught, safety a perennial afterthought in our race to catch up with the future. It is no consolation to the victims of this case, whenever we have close encounters with the abyss, we always thank the rain.


Egypt just beat Congo in the other match. The raised hopes turned out to be moot. Embrace me, my friend disappointment, come close to me.

Haste not in life

Soundtrack for this note

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Functional Defenestration

It’s almost been a Friedman unit since I published anything in this joint so, with due deference to that old standby public service pamphlet, What everyone should know about blog depression, and a head nod to Bertrand Russell's note In Praise of Idleness, here goes some throat-clearing toli.

I. Defanging Satire (or Editorial Genuflections in the Internet Age)

Defanging satire in the age of the internet (New Yorker edition)

A highly paid editor at The New Yorker is now intervening to neuter the bite of Andy Borowitz's normally savage satire. The first injury came a few months ago with the retitling of the column and RSS feed from "The Borowitz Report" to "Satire from The Borowitz Report" as if to say “we must protect you from being a moron in a hurry”. Then the lasting, almost fatal, wound was the recent move to change the contents of the feed summary, which used to be the first few sentences of the article, to instead actively bash you over the head with a spoiler warning that each article is "a satirical report". Apparently the reader needs to be informed upfront that they are about to read a humorous article and protected from the dire possibility of being spoofed.

In other words, even for the most potent source of written content (and the New Yorker proclaims itself to have "the best writing anywhere"), it now of paramount importance to maintain its listing as a Google News "source" (and now with Facebook's Zuckerberg apparently faking concern about clickbait and fake news and the like, the audience needs to be coddled). The bean counters (and search engine optimizers) have run the numbers and, on the evidence, it is clear that telegraphing an article's intentions, and blunting its impact is worth the downside risk and what, I rather think, is grievous damage to art.

Up until a few months ago, the feed summary would have been the following (a pithy defenestration of age-old hypocrisy)

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report) — The pornography industry has likely suffered permanent damage as a result of its unfortunate association with the Texas senator Ted Cruz, industry sources said on Tuesday.

It is soul-deadening to contemplate the considerable effort expended to actively sabotage noble hatchet jobs.

The only concession to art is that the editor didn't additionally prepend "Satire" to article titles as I noticed smaller publications starting to do routinely 12 or so years when Google News started being a dominant source of web traffic.

And here Dear Reader, as I wrote the foregoing sentence and began winding up to a thoroughgoing rant, I realized that I had been down this path before. Indeed I left a community (Blogcritics) back when its writing guidelines started to ask that writers explicitly tag their work and the site started messing with titles. The injunction then was that we needed to telegraph and prefix "Satire" to titles '(if you "make things up" or "bend the truth" notably to make a point, or for comedic effect)'.

Searching through the archives, I even found a cri de cœur written on the topic, Husbanding the Blogcritics Commons, a jeremiad-in-vain as it soon became a case of This Boring Headline Is Written for Google.

It is a disappointing development a decade later, that ostensibly powerful media outlets have thoroughly succumbed, even as one cannot deny their economic logic, pace Buzzfeed. And yet I remain a maximalist on the issue.

The story, I suppose, is about capitalism in the internet age. Per Jeff Hammerbacher by way of Allen Ginsberg, it is a case of "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads". Per contra, we could harken back to Slim Charles's folk wisdom from The Wire: "Game's the same, just got more fierce."

The existential question posed is how do we weigh the competing demands of popularity (as expressed by the Google News imperative) against whimsy (as expressed in satire). Sacrificing whimsy at the altar of attention is not a price worth paying, and I am yet to be convinced otherwise. Needless to say, I dissent.

II. Attention Mongering

Apropos attention, for a good decade, say right up to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and much to my consternation, a note I had hastily written On the importance of biting satire was regularly the top search result on Google about satire. It has since found its proper obscurity, but my unexpected Googlejuice in the interim meant that the occasional student writing a term paper on “why satire matters”, “significance of satire”, “importance of satire” etc. would start mining this blog.

The early web was a great equalizer, one in which my rants occasionally trumped the combined insights of Jonathan Swift, Will Self and the like, hell even the encyclopedic Wikipedia was lagging in the Anglophone internet. Even as Jon Stewart and company started a revival of the satiric tradition in America, the clicks kept coming my way.

I don't know if I ultimately managed to convince 15 readers of the paramount importance of savage satire as opposed to the milder form that Americans favor, but I feel my ultimate insight is worth restating:

I like my satire savage. It should be vicious, biting and deeply heartfelt. The targets should feel a sharp wound. The whimsical and comic artefacts of the best satirists are side-benefits; their purpose is really to serve as social barometers and canaries in the mineshafts of our communities.

III. On Satire

Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that that so few are offended with it. But, if it should happen otherwise, the danger is not great; and I have learned from long experience never to apprehend mischief from those understandings I have been able to provoke: for anger and fury, though they add strength to the sinews of the body, yet are found to relax those of the mind, and to render all its efforts feeble and impotent.

Jonathan Swift - The Battle of the Books
Satire is an art form that thrives best on a certain instability and tension in its creator. The satirist is always holding him or herself between two poles of great attraction. On the one side there is the flight into outright cynicism, anomie and amorality; on the other there is the equal and countervailing pressure towards objective truth, religion and morality.

Will Self - Junk Mail
[Will] Self sees himself paradoxically both as a moral satirist and as a social rebel who is more interested in shocking his middle-class readers than in reforming them. "What excites me," he has said, "is to disturb the reader's fundamental assumptions. I want to make them feel that certain categories within which they are used to perceiving the world are unstable"

— Gillian Glover, as quoted in Brian Finney's The Sweet Smell of Excess: Will Self’s Fiction, Bataille and Transgression.
Of all the gifts of the pen perhaps the most fraught with danger is that which resolves itself into satire. It is indeed difficult to distinguish between cynicism and satire, perhaps the former is born of disappointment perhaps the latter is born of humour. Let it remain so and it cannot be called debased, let it become cold and let it die.

— Patrick Braybrooke writing on Hilaire Belloc as Essayist in Some Thoughts On Hilaire Belloc

Instability fundamentally disturbs markets which is why even the threat of boycotts so unmans even the most cynical modern corporations. The reverse of the coin however is that whimsy, that most valuable human concern, and its close counterpart satire thrive as disturbances to the mundanity of life. Reconciling whimsy in all its messiness to the demands of hard-nosed capitalism remains a struggle and yet struggle we must. For better or worse, we must humanize capitalism.

IV. Orphaned Thoughts

I once spent forty minutes on a subway sitting opposite a group of engineers and salespeople that worked at Functional Fenestration. They were attending a conference in Oakland about window hardware and automation, of all things. I was fascinated with their technical argot, the intricacies of the actuators, track and carriage systems and door automation that they were discussing. I marveled at the engineering arcana, and the fact that the windows and doors that we take for granted could have such complexity. Their deconstruction of the merits of some of their competitor's offerings and their strategizing about how to market the new feature of whatever widget they had just come up with (a slide handler if I remember correctly) drew me in. The intensity of the back and forth between the marketers and the technical folks reminded me of a comedy of manners of sorts, office politics writ large. Hypnotized as I was by the language and the context, I immediately imagined a novel or short story, something in the vein of Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist and the title came unbidden, Functional Defenestration.

Most ideas are destined to be half-formed and ultimately, I never got beyond the few pages scribbled in my Moleskine, a meditation about a man unmoored by capitalism. The first sentence remains:

Man, it was hard to compete against those guys at Functional Fenestration, they were intense.
Run with it.

Soundtrack for this note

A playlist for those tilting at windmills.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

An African Leader Bestiary

"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.

talking drums 1984-05-28 Cameroon executions Biya - Buhari - Ghana's PDC-WDCs Rawlings

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, eei
Na Nigerian government, eei / Dem dey talk eei
"My people are useless, my people are senseless, my people are indisciplined".
talking drums 1984-01-09 coup in Nigeria Africa's day of shame
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.


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 that he can feast on.

talking drums 1984-06-25 why Ghana is not stable - Nigerian journalist's trial Rotimi

His progeny, the NDC, had another bite at power, feeding at the trough of pork barrel politics for the past 8 years. But looting and purely transactional deal-making can't stand for long in a country as politically sophisticated as Ghana. For a cabal that originally proclaimed populism if not socialism as their ideological markers to be revealed as a pack of common traders, if not mediocre, wannabe oligarchs, ought to be humbling. That is, of course, only possible if they were capable of shame and the jury is still out on that. The real sadness about Ghanaian politics is that a healthy opposition is needed for democracy to thrive.


And so we come to Paul Biya... What can one say? Well Monsieur Biya is having the last laugh - all at the expense of the Cameroonian people. It has been the most charmed life for the past 42 years, living most of the year in luxury villas in France, Geneva, Brussels and the like. Where some American presidents could golf their way while bombing others, insouciance a l'Africaine is really a quite rarified thing. Like Omar Bongo, he didn't have to take up arms to remain Prime Minister or President. He wasn't a strongman per se, but one-party systems have their own logic. It has rather been the shrewd exercise of patronage politics and cronyism, his modus operandi is to buy everyone off and compromise everyone. He skillfully adapted to the veneer of elections and multi-party democracy that became obligatory with the donors after the changing winds of Africa 1989. If five years of Biya was already enough in 1987, what could one say now, thirty odd years later?

west africa 1987-11-09 5 years of Biya Cameroon Nigeria election momentum Sierra Leone economic saboteur

To his credit, the Biya brand of autocratic rule hasn't caused as many direct deaths as others on the continent, but there has been quite severe collateral damage to the Cameroonian soul. Cronyism causes pervasive decay and long periods of decay corrupt everything in sight. We all vie to see how obsequious one can be, bowing down cravenly to gain favour with the old man. A quarter century ago, everyone was asking whether Biya could survive the transition to multi-party democracy? He laughed then and is laughing now. We have long stopped asking that question, instead articles marvel at his longevity as we wait him out

The danger, of course, is that a hollowed state could well be his legacy and, as with Bokassa and Bozizé in the Central African Republic, Houphouët-Boigny in Cote d'Ivoire, and especially Mobutu in Congo, we may still be picking up the pieces long after he is gone. Boko Haram, for example, may not be bought off as easily as recalcitrant French politicians. Sectarian and economic grievances long suppressed are fertile ground for opportunistic mischief. All it will take for Anglophone Cameroon, to take a recent troubling example, to explode is the rhetoric of the right populist. We have seen in our neighbourhood what a few bloody minded people willing to do their worst can do. The recent examples are not pretty.

For too long the original sin in African politics was our colonial legacy and the external meddling. We can no longer blame Francafrique. Paul Biya's generational mismanagement proves that we were never innocent, indeed it is all sin.

west africa 1991-10-14-20 Cameroon Can Biya survive Nigeria Babangida at the UN

Further Reading

  • En Attendant Le Vote Des Betes Sauvages by Ahmadou Kourouma

    The definitive anthropological study of the bestiary of Africa rogues that have led the continent astray. The English translation is fine, we are all waiting for the wild animals to vote.

  • A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

    There are no winners in the African Game of Thrones

  • Farting Presidents and other poems by Tope Omoniyi
    A lovely chapbook full of quotable witticisms
    or who does not know
    that rotten eggs and doublespeak
    are recipes for the broth of chopped justice
    logs in the eye or a nation?
    and well-deserved anger
    And I wonder endlessly how the hell
    Chicken generals figured they could run a nation
    from their DIY book of trash
  • A Goodbye to Arms by Kwesi Brew

    Where the green khaki struts and grinds
    its marijuana terror into unarmed hearts,
    They come as men-at-arms
    Badged as justice, grim of face.
    And then at last, dissembling cloak removed.
    A pack of common traders stained in violence

    Wresting bread out the mouths of babies
    only to give it back to them at a price
    so kind are they who betray us.

    from Return of No Return

Soundtrack to this note

sundry beasts
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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Waiting for Godot (Khayelitsha)

Waiting for Godot - Khayelitsha, South Africa

The 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.

Waiting for Godot - Khayelitsha, South Africa

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.

Khayelitsha slum

Still, even among the informal slum surroundings that might depress the most hardy,

Khayelitsha shacks precarious

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)

Khayelitsha shacks

and the containers

Khayelitsha containers and housing

those improvised, repurposed and ubiquitous containers

Khayelitsha container housing

and under the shadow of the electrical pylons and power plants,

Khayelitsha tower

you'll find shops,

Khayelitsha containers Dumakude herbalist shop

churches of sorts

Khayelitsha african gospel church

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.

Khayelitsha bhango cash store

I trust the future is being written in Khayelitsha.

Soundtrack for this note

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.

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Monday, November 07, 2016

Identity Crisis

You 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 endorsement
And 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 relate
Your easy access to the United Kingdom
The trauma of losing London
Unlike that other writer, your time away wasn't subject to expiry
Still 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 agency
His message: "Best of luck, there goes your notional residency"

No matter.

18 months ago, the first murmurs of discontent
Troubling 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 abrogation
18 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 November
Stranded 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 died
And left you forlorn and brokenhearted
You 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 home
Pray and hope that the airlines and Homeland Security will grant you relief
To even allow you to board without a leg to stand
And wonder if still others will let you pass through their lands.

"I see here that you propose
To transit through these British principalities
With 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 papiers
Out 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 all you have left.
Deftly pickpocketed of your national heft
Statehood denied, this open wound leaves you bereft
Afflicted by the stamp of malaise,
Robbed, assaulted by bureaucratic neglect
You're a rootless cosmopolitan,
A true casualty of identity theft

Consider yourself trapped in a ludicrous legal limbo
You're being taught the finer lessons of Ghana must go

containers: sign artist

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Monday, March 28, 2016

Broken Record

The 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.

when the rains came to accra april 18 1960

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

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Ghanaian Fictions

"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

helen takes on extra staff

Soundtrack for this note

Nancy Wilson - Easy Living
I 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.

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Monday, March 14, 2016

Mango Madness

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.

Let's celebrate George W. Bush's brand of mango madness. Soundtrack: Mango Meat by Mandrill.

Alternatively: Legend In His Own Mind by Gil Scott-Heron

Mangoes in Auntie Akwele's Garden
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Friday, January 29, 2016

Tickling John Bull's Lizard Brain

Sometimes 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:

Targeting John Bull's Lizard Brain - Daily Mail Monday January 18 2016 pages 8-9

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.

  1. Cologne sex gangs could come here under EU law, PM is warned
    Predatory 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.
  2. Muslims are impossible to integrate says Czech president
    As 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.
  3. '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.
  4. 'There is nothing we can do'
    This alarming pull quote emphasizes just how besieged 'we' are on all fronts, from "sex gangs" to wasted money.
  5. Ghettoes and excluded localities
    The locus of the problems 'we' are facing from "them" is outlined here. The language of the "surge... of refugee arrivals.. wave of mostly Muslim migrants" embedded in the article is overkill. "Ghettoes and excluded localities" does the job.
  6. Half of EU aid wasted, stolen or lost in red tape
    The plain message being articulated is that the English common man is being cheated. Our money is clearly being wasted by bureaucrats, and, further, we have been told "there is nothing we can do about it". It is galling to say the least. This is in clear contrast to those Guardian-reading liberals who would speak in praise of red tape
  7. Build fence 'using petrol tax'
    This inset's purpose is to sow confusion and it does so brilliantly combining an anti-tax agenda (for the proposed taxes would be "wasted, stolen or lost in red tape"), with protectionism (the need "to build a fence" to protect against the "sex gangs") with skepticism about the environmental agenda of the EU big dogs, the "petrol taxes". The small print of Wolfgang Schaeuble lurking in the story should raise the reader's hackles.
  8. Trixie the half-dressed blonde nun proxy
    Trixie, of Call the Midwife fame, is essentially the visual relief from the text - the right brain complement to the editorial assault on our senses. The title may well be "Midwives swing into the 60s... and face a tear jerking tragedy" but what grabs attention is Nurse Trixie herself - and it is unclear if she is dressing or undressing. The main takeaway is that there is a state of undress and the concomittant vulnerablilty. It doesn't hurt to have a nudge or wink towards sex: cleavage sells, sex sells after all. Still, the helpless blonde needs rescuing from the text-heavy affronts raised on the left brain. It is all of a piece.
  9. Thalidomide Scandal
    Ignore the rest of the title, the eye certainly ignores the preamble (Mail TV critic sees hit show return and tackle the Thalidomide Scandal)
    Disease is the inevitable metaphor for 'Them', those foreigners, those migrants, those sex gangs. In the past it was plague, last year it was Ebola, this year it is Zika, but the allusion is to the thalidomide scandal of yore - dead or deformed babies. The actual content of the review doesn't matter as much as the juxtaposition of Thalidomide with the Muslims, the sex gangs, and the red tape. It reinforces the point: we need urgently protection to build a fence against these depredations. It is galling that "there is nothing we can do' to protect defenseless infants or their mothers. The midwives need our help to avoid a tragedy. Save the children.
  10. A picture of chaos and disorder
    The helpful caption to this troubling picture makes the point: "Under attack: hundreds of women were sexually assaulted by migrants in Cologne on New Year's Eve". "We" are under attack. The gangs of youth standing ready to assault women that New Year's Eve might well be aimed at those half-dressed midwives. Their stances are mirror images. The eye flips from left to right and the sense of impending action, sexual violence and all, is emphasized.
  11. Asbestos exposure
    The "important information" of this advert is the equation of those "ghettos and excluded localities" replete with "sex gangs" with the perils of "asbestos exposure", mesothelioma and "thalidomide". The ambulance chasing firms got their money's worth in targeting the working man, while the editors scored a metaphorical triumph.
  12. Average pay at Goldman £250k
    Outrage is compounded by the injustice and inequality of this world. In this Great Recession, the symbolism of bankers continuing to grab all the loot even as wages stagnate for the rest of us is telling. Again, if one casts one's eye to the other side of the spread, we are visually reminded that 'There is nothing we can do'.
  13. Scots earn more per hour than English!
    This last item caused my in-flight commotion. Having been buffeted by all the preceding into a state of panic, the English reader is jolted into a state of blinding outrage. Poor John Bull has been repeatedly set upon, the Union Jack that those ungrateful Geordies tried to disdain in that referendum, the petrol taxes and EU wasted aid all adds up to seeing red. The exclamation point adds the requisite amount of indignation. The intended turmoil has been successfully sown: fear and loathing accomplished. The (almost redundant) punctuation mark is a knowing wink from the editors. You can imagine their craftsman's satisfaction at their day's work.

A decade ago, I published a piece that held the Ebola and Marburg viruses as proxies for Ronald Reagan and Jonas Savimbi's depredations on Africa and Angola in particular. The contrast between those 8,000 words and the brutal efficiency of these two Daily Mail pages is telling. I am further confounded because, in my views, I am the antithesis of everything the Daily Mail editors appear to advocate for, yet, well, I recognize the genius of their game and they very sincerely moved my emotions. The rhetorical precision that lies in the nationalist, populist and protectionist appeal to John Bull is compelling. Well played Dear Editors, the 2016 Toli huhudious awards have a nominee if not a front-runner, and we were only 3 weeks into the year.

Jingo Perils - Some Light Reading

Hilaire Belloc wrote an allegory On Jingoes: In The Shape Of A Warning in my favourite book of essays On Nothing and Kindred Subjects, a volume, as it happens, on nothing and kindred subjects. This whimsical folktale tells "the sad and lamentable history of Jack Bull, son of the late John Bull, India Merchant". This purported son, becomes bamboozled by the opportunist Sir John Snipe and the advice his retainers, Hocus and Pocus, who he called Freedom and Glory for some misbegotten reason. The story ends in the same vein as his earlier cautionary tales and I strongly commend it to you. Belloc was prescient as always: ruin lies in the way of the jingo... Sadly it is a message that the Daily Mail prefers to relearn by experience rather than avoid.

An anxious playlist

As usual, a soundtrack to this note:

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Trouble Ticket

A 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 phone
Let's file a service request
You prefer the old designation:
A trouble ticket
Ah: musical notification
Open the unread mail
"Hi Orangutang,
Are you able to reboot... ?"

Oh, hell no.

Memories of childhood taunts
Visions of lynch mobs
His last name: Bundy!
You briefly saw red
At this monkey business
Clicked that Reply button
Far harder than it deserved
The sinews loosened
Keyboard avenger:

Believe me Sir,
I would never have opened
A service request
Had I not tried
I am curious however
About your rendering
Of my name (below)
Am I to assume
Slips of the Freudian sort? ...


That furious reply
A firing offense
For you, right after that guy
Don't click Send
Take a deep breath
And 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 slack
You might well be criticized for a hair trigger tendency
Or unjustly fired for writing the word niggardly


Just a few minutes later
Chimes sound again
The inbox darkens
Message quoted below
"My spell checker
fouled up your name!
Sorry about that!"
Great catch, I'll say
The mood lightens


That's clearly better
Don't hold back the nervous laughter
For indeed, would you really rather
Prefer Freud to an errant spell-checker?
Better the benefit of the doubt
Than yet another racial bout

So. Like your three year old daughter has began to say
In that amusing and delightful way
With that high-pitched, nasally voice
It's really the obvious choice:

You remember incidentally
That you once wrote
That self-same case study
In that note
Titled Cultural Sensitivity in Technology
About this curious artifact of software modernity:
The occasional regret
of auto-correct

You are truly your father's son
You never, ever, jump the gun
"Remember: anger and the African man."
Pragmatism born of painful experience
There's even continuing historical evidence
That lesson of the United States of America
Always defuse tense moods with quiet laughter
And, above all, maintain that calm, level-headed posture

Still, it's really a curious situation
How one responds to real, and potential, provocation
The option is denied of righteous indignation
The 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 activity
To be followed undoubtedly with notoriety.
You're a Harvard man, don't be so crass
You don't want to be like that famous professor
A cause célèbre, but branded by some as the aggressor
And even requiring a presidential beer summit.
After all, it's merely a trouble ticket.

Your strategy for the incident report
Never mention it, simply avoid the court.
So. Delete your impertinent second sentence
That premature act of literary vengeance.
But keep the Sir designation
Your passive aggressive intimation
Or, 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 belong
The bewilderment in determining right from wrong
But do look him straight in the eye
If, and when, he deigns to come by.
The two of you might well have a laugh one of these days
Replace the veil, return to your mild-mannered ways

The reverse of the coin termed white privilege
That undercurrent, or rather subtext, of repressed rage
It's ugly, and surprisingly close to the surface
Even for you, there's a hint of coiled menace
You think of yourself as above the fray, literally mid-Atlantic
Yet for a moment there, you were about to get very frantic.

While you wait for your replacement phone
You'll navel-gaze and write a short poem
Choosing a typically idiosyncratic meter
And rhyming scheme, that occasionally peters
And turns to, let's call it, doggerel.
But, hey, that's alright because well:

The resolution to this new trouble ticket:
Incident closed: operator error
A case of an errant spell checker.

"Just because a lizard nods its head, doesn't mean it's happy"
You smile at your rejected naming choice: Mister Bundy

Soundtrack for this note

Also: reboot a phone?

masks from Maame

Steps to reproduce
- Clean install of Mozilla Thunderbird (English)
- Compose an email with the name of the chief toli monger in the body
- Check Spelling
Result: Orangutang is suggested as a replacement
Workaround: add said name to the user dictionary
Proposed fix: add said name to the standard dictionary

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Monday, April 06, 2015

To Make The Road Fearful

Prosecutor: 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 foreigners involved, from Ukrainian and South African mercenaries, ex-CIA agents, through Al Qaeda types seeking blood diamonds from Lebanese and Belgian jewellers, Russian arms dealers, to meddling rogues and financiers like Blaise Campaoré and He of the Little Green Book, Colonel Gaddafi? There was enough culpability to go around. Despite all these difficulties, the lawyers had to tease out a grand narrative among the mountains of evidence, demonstrate a chain of custody, and establish clear findings of fact among the details. A challenging mess in short.

So. The Charles Taylor trial wasn't easy to digest but it had legal, journalistic and historical merit, not to mention an unexpected literary benefit. And it is this last aspect that transfixed me and kept me reading rather than grieving and despairing of humanity. It turns out that there's a certain poetry in these mundane transcripts, a kind of found art in the minutiae of these annals of cruelty. Where else would you find a more perfect sentence?

Prosecutor: Mr Witness, what did Reflection tell you about who shot Superman?

No fiction could equal this notion of Law and Order meeting The Last Philosophers in a comic book trial. Frankly I was hooked; I can't praise that sentence highly enough. Everything about it compels you to read or listen on. The text, the sub-text, the über-text, the text qua text! The formality of address is merely the beginning (Mr Witness). The testimony sought by the authority figure, The Prosecutor, is the second hand memories of The Witness about what someone named Reflection (Reflection!) confessed about the implied assault on (or death of) someone named Superman. Who is this person named Reflection? What was his relation to Superman? Why, to start with, does the prosecutor care about Superman? And, pray tell, did Superman die of the attack?

II. Conflict Readings

The child solder narrative in African literature

Some of our best writers have tackled the war, warlord, and child solder narratives in African literature. The pinnacle of the genre of course is Ken Saro Wiwa's Sozaboy which deals with the Biafra conflict. There are also great works that focus specifically on the Liberia and Sierra Leonean imbroglio. Ahmadou Kourouma's masterpiece Allah n'est pas obligé is the best of the contemporary novels, a stunning achievement full of coiled menace and casual cruelty. Denis Johnson's reporting in Seek is hallucinatory; in particular, the reporting on Prince Johnson's torture and execution of the erstwhile Master Sergent, and then President, Samuel Doe, and the piece on Charles Taylor's Small Boy Units are unmatched in their immediacy (that phrase, Small Boy Units, being another grotesque, yet inspired, coinage). He sought out extremes and was unmanned by what he found. Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny Chien Méchant is simply scary - there's a fine English translation, Johnny Mad Dog. Helon Habila's Measuring Time treats the theme in a measured manner (it is a mere subplot of his grand novel) while Iweala's Beasts of no nation revels in surface style and linguistic gymnastics. Jean-Claude Derey's Les Anges Cannibales is a beastly mix of journalism turned novel and Léonora Miano's Les aubes écarlates stands out in its depiction of the dark episodes. Dealing with the militias in Congo-Brazaville, Alain Mabanckou opted for restraint in Les Petits-Fils Nègres de Vercingétorix. Ishmael Beah's memoir, A Long Way Gone, by necessity of the form, can't take as much novelistic license, hence it is a more sober, if still harrowing, affair.

The unbearable reality these works address speaks for itself; the attending book covers merely highlight the distressing story. Journalists are typically the first to write about such things - although, often, their writings, being in the service of 'news', aim for the dispassionate rather than the urgent. When the writers have turned to fiction, the worlds they created were uniformly haunting; when they have drawn on their experiences, the reader yearns to escape their suffocating worlds. And it is this unreal reality they confront that we read at length in these trial transcripts of the Special Court. In contrast, we dare not turn away.

III. Naming Conventions

Let's start with the names, a mixture of military directness, macabre grimness and sheer horror. One can only find death and desolation in Operation No Living Thing or Operation Spare No Soul. And consider the cynical precision of Operation Stop Elections which introduced, and institutionalized, the alarming spectacle of random amputations as shock and awe. But what of Operation No Monkey, or the obvious invitation to marauding looting embodied in Operation Pay Yourself?

And what about the names of the wicked? Consider a few of the huhudious nicknames and noms de guerre: Jungle, Black Jesus, Savage, Crazy, Red Goat, Rocky, Rambo (there were many Rambos in the conflict - the one that that first caught my attention was the fearsome RUF Rambo), Zigzag Marzah, General 50, General 245, Five Five, General Dry Pepper (not to be confused with Dried Pepper), Captain Blood, Leather Boot, Gullit (lots of football nicknames as it turns out), Dawn-Dawn, Waco-Waco (there's joy in repetition), Butterfly, KGB, Zino, Black Diamond, the notorious Adama Cut Hand, The Devil, The Killer, Scare the Baby, Monkey Brown and groups such as the "Black Gaddafa", the Black Guards and the West Side Boys. And yes of course the aforementioned Reflection and Superman. To think that General Butt Naked didn't even figure in the trial (his murdering ways were confined to Liberia).

The mere names of the characters and the setting would be enough to summon a play by way of Ionesco. They need not be doing anything out of the ordinary to garner attention (imagine Scare the Baby discussing with Butterfly where to take Superman and Red Goat for dinner) let alone when those now questioning them are constrained with legalese ("my learned colleague", "I submit to you", further and better particulars etc). Adding the very surreal subject matter of this raging civil war serves to surface all the incongruity of a heightened theater of the absurd. Naming alone can drive the narrative.

A poignant counterpoint to these names of awful men and women is to consider their victims. It is truly sobering to read the listings of victims painstakingly compiled by the commissions and courts.

A._ (Female) age 13 - 1991 in Pujehun - Assaulted and raped.
F._ (Male) - 1998 in Bombali - Forcibly conscripted.
F._ (Female) age 12 - 1999 in Western Area - Abducted and detained. Raped.
G._ (Female) - 1995 in Moyamba - Forced to labour and sexually enslaved. Assaulted.
F.A (Female) age 10 - 1995 in Kono - Sexually enslaved. Tortured.
F.A (Female) age 16 - Forced to labour. Assaulted, tortured and raped.
A.B (Female) age 57 - 1997 in Port Loko - Displaced, extorted and property looted. Forced to labour. Assaulted and raped.
Charles, Bockarie (Male) age 53 - Displaced. Limb amputated.
Charles, Eyaja (Male) - 1998 in Kaiyamba, Moyamba - Tortured. Killed.
[ snip... lengthy and distressing listings of victims ]
help me o lord talking drums july 1985

The undeniable villain is Mosquito, Sam Bockarie, a man who wrecked bloody havoc and inspired so much fear for so long. He is cited as "a Battlefield Commander of lethal prowess and a deviant of unknown quantity... [who] committed human rights abuses with total abandon". Even more than the RUF's leader Foday Sankoh, and the ostensible target of the trial, Charles Taylor, his specter haunted the proceedings. Like the mosquitoes he was named after, he was not afraid of blood and indeed sought it out and seemed to relish vicious warfare and unrestrained cruelty. Sidenote: Bockarie suffered a very convenient death once it became clear that his ultimate boss, Charles Taylor, would be facing legal troubles.

Prosecutor: Just pause, Mr Witness. First you talk - once you spoke about the Master, that Master came. Who did you refer to when you said Master?

Witness: Sam Bockarie. I had said it once or twice here in this Court that we used to call Sam Bockarie Master, so any time I use Master I will be referring to Sam Bockarie. Then Father, we used to call Charles Taylor the Father. So at times - I am still used to calling him that way, that's why.
A lot of effort is spent on identity issues, naming is a fluid thing and prosecutors always have to double check what names are being used and when.
Witness: Later on, some of my friends called me Uprising.
The names are what witnesses hold on to to make sense of things.
Witness: Well, yes, like I recall CO Big Darling, one who was called Big Darling. And there was another called CO Nyamator and there was another with a nickname called CO After the War. So those were the kind of names they had. There was also another called Rebel Baby, CO Rebel Baby.

The Liberians were often the first to resort to nicknames for whatever reason.

Witness: Well, CO Lion was a Liberian vanguard and they were the ones who came to help train us in Sierra Leone to fight the war.
Context is everything.
Prosecutor:So, Mr Witness, just so we're clear, who were you with at that time?

Witness: I was with RUF Rambo at that time to attack Hastings and Jui.

Prosecutor: What other commanders were with RUF Rambo?

Witness: Rambo Red Goat, Crazy and others

Suffice to say that this parade of absurd names often diverts attention from some of the more consequential actors (such as Eddie Kaneh, Mike Lamin, Issa Sesay or Ibrahim Bah) and colors our perception of the acts that took place. And yes, for the record, Reflection was a radio operator for Benjamin Yeaten, Charles Taylor's right hand man. And Dennis Mingo (alias Superman) was a bad man: 'one of the foremost perpetrators of abduction-related crimes against children, including forced recruitment and forced drugging'.

IV. To Make the Road Fearful

should there be chaos in our beloved country

The word "fearful" has a heavy burden in the history of the conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone. It was the adjective of choice for Charles Taylor and his acolytes for describing a crucial element of their wartime strategy. It is read entirely too often in the transcripts, a mournful thread running through the narratives that emerge. It is always uttered as an explicit invitation to murder and terrorism - with civilians as the frequent targets.

Taylor told one group of RUF soldiers, the "Black Gaddafa", that their mission was to "sabotage the movement of the enemy in Sierra Leone" by setting up ambushes and making areas 'fearful'. The witness said that Taylor and Sankoh ordered the troops to attack SLA and ULIMO forces, as well as capture civilians.

These injunctions would be taken to heart and the accounts of the subsequent misdeeds are often rendered in the most matter-of-fact terms.

Prosecutor: Was this attack only by the RUF or there were others involved?

Witness: the AFRC guys were involved

Prosecutor: Like who?

Witness: Gullit, Bazzy, Hon. Adams, Savage and other commanders

Prosecutor: Who were they all taking orders from?

Witness: Superman

Prosecutor: What happened during the attack?

Witness: We attacked Kono and we took over the town. We started looting and some of the commanders captured girls and made them their wives while some of us were burning houses

Prosecutor: Do you recall how many houses were burnt?

Witness: No I can't remember the figure

Prosecutor: Was there any particular reason you will select a house to burn?

Witness: Yes, one of the reasons was because there specific houses where Kamajors were based and some people pointed at house where people were supporting Kamajors

Prosecutor: Do you know if there were people inside the houses that were burnt?

Witness: Yes. When we set the houses on fire, we will hear the people inside screaming and when the house is burnt, we will see their skulls and bones.

And so with clinical precision, we get to the heart of the matter: blood and sin. Also note the hand of Superman.

Prosecutor: Did you take part in the Bumpeh attack?

Witness: Yes

Prosecutor: Were there opposing forces in Bumpeh when you got there?

Witness: No other forces were there so we attacked the civilians

Prosecutor: So what was done to the civilians there?

Witness: We asked them to leave the town. Some of them resisted, so we opened fire on them, we decapitated some and put their heads on the checkpoint.

Prosecutor: Why would you put the heads on the checkpoint?

Witness: To make the road fearful.

Prosecutor: Why would the RUF attack civilians in Motema and Bumpeh?

Witness: Because ECOMOG were advancing and we wanted to make the place fearful.

Prosecutor: Did RUF have any philosophy about treatment of civilians?

Witness: Well when civilians were based in the communities, they will take information in and out and so if we wanted to base there, we will get the civilians out of the town.

Prosecutor: Did you have any sense in the RUF about civilians?

Witness: We used to say civilians did not have blood

Prosecutor: What did you mean?

Witness: They were not as important as we were

Prosecutor: Did you see any difference in the way the AFRC treated civilians?

Witness: I did not see any great difference except the time we divided along the Freetown highway. We treated civilians in the same way

Prosecutor: Who led the attack on Tombodu?

Witness: Savage

Prosecutor: Do you know what happened during that attack?

Witness: Yes. Savage went there and did mass killings. They had a big valley there where he placed all the civilians. Superman and I went to Tombodu. Savage went and showed us the valley and Superman did not take any action.

Prosecutor: Can you describe the valley?

Witness: It was an old diamond pit.

Prosecutor: When your friends came back with girls from Motema, can you say the ages of the girls they came with?

Witness: Some were 14, some 20 etc. Some of them were in Koidu town with us and some at the Combat Camp. We even had one Michaela who was very small, about 14, who was with one of my friends.

Sexual abuse was pervasive:

Prosecutor: I need to go back to the attack on Makeni, what if anything happened to civilians there?

Witness: Most of the civilians, everybody got married. Whoever saw a woman will take her, some people looted.

Prosecutor: What do you mean by everyone got married?

Witness: We captured girls and made them our wives, we captured SBUs (Small Boy Units), gave them guns and got some civilians to work at our houses.

Prosecutor: What do you mean when you say they made them their wives?

Witness: They took them home, they slept with them

Prosecutor: What do you mean they sleep with them?

Prosecutor: We are all matured people here, so I can't go beyond that, but when you say you have sex with someone

Prosecutor: Who had sex with who?

Witness: The RUF had sex with the girls

Prosecutor: Was anything taken from Makeni?

Witness: At the first instance yes. The first two weeks, people looted and later Issa said he was Temne and those were his people, so he started killing people who looted.

Prosecutor: I think this will be a convenient point to stop.

I second the prosecutor's call to stop, if only briefly, because in reading we can only sink into despair when you consider some of the more infamous cases such as Adama Cut Hand, a girl "in charge of the small boys group that was known as Cut Hand Group" who wore a necklace of human hands and carried decapitated heads of village chiefs. A vision that wouldn't be out of place in Joseph Conrad's opus.

V. Not A Civilian Thing

Let's put aside our sticks knives guns and arrows... no truth to reports on radio gold that there is tension

Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh had very clear ideas about what making places fearful entailed. It is important to remember that much of this infrastructure of terror was planned, and that many of the participants were mere instruments of their will.

Witness: We had a message that was from Foday Sankoh through CO Mohamed for all the stations which were at the front line to go and run Operation Stop Elections, to go into those towns where the elections were to be conducted and to cause panic there so that the people will not conduct the elections.

Prosecutor: What do you mean by to go cause panic there?

Witness: To go and shoot in the places so the people will be afraid; they will run away and the elections will not be actualized.

Prosecutor: Do you know where Sankoh was when he issued this instruction?

Witness: he was in Ivory Coast.

The testimony from compromised characters was always revealing in how they sought to downplay their own roles amidst the mayhem that surrounded them. The case of a close collaborator like Moses Blah, who had been there at the start and would become Charles Taylor's Vice President, is an interesting case in point. From his testimony, it would appear that matters of blood never reached him despite his proximity: he was merely political and had clean hands. Sadly prosecutors didn't question him about his motivations, these lawyers kept to their brief to prove the their limited case against his boss and didn't explore the historical or novelistic context. One has to read between the lines for psychological insight. On the other hand, Blah was prepared to spill the beans about others, or rather talk about the bread and butter of wartime atrocities:

[Moses] Blah recounted a few occasions when punishments were carried out against soldiers, but said only Taylor had the authority to order punishments. Blah was not allowed to investigate members of Taylor's special forces. Blah testified about complaints that the commander of the Executive Mansion Guard abused civilians at checkpoints. Blah further testified that he had seen the head of the Marine Unit eating roasted human hands. In addition, Blah said he heard of an incident where the head of the Marine Unit ate the intestines of a farmer cooked together with the man's cassava harvest. Blah said he was reluctant to complain to Taylor about these incidents because they would be considered an attack on the Executive Mansion Guard unit. Blah recalled Yeaten's involvement in atrocities, and stated that Yeaten never faced punishment.

According to Blah, in 1991 Sankoh complained to him that the NPFL soldiers were committing atrocities in Sierra Leone, including raping women, killing civilians, and looting. According to Blah, Sankoh discussed this problem with Taylor. After this meeting, Taylor complained to Blah about Sankoh and said:

"When you talk about a guerrilla war there's destruction and this is the type of thing - and this type of thing must happen if you are fighting a war. You are not eating bread and butter, you are fighting."

- Taylor's Former Vice-president Describes Training, Arms Deliveries and Atrocities, Claims Cannibalism was Required to Join Taylor's Presidential Guard

The bread and butter, as it were, of this war was making the road fearful, causing panic, and destabilizing people and places.

Prosecutor: What was this Operation No Monkey?

Witness: I was there when Benjamin Yeaten instructed Zigzag Marzah and other fighters to go to Belle Forest and destabilize all the civilians that were in the forest and anybody who refused should be killed and no monkey should even stand in front of them. That was why they named the operation Operation No Monkey. No monkey can stay in that forest. Everybody should move from that forest to come to the safer area, because the LURD fighters were trying to get into Belle Forest to come to Bomi Hills and attack Monrovia and indeed they used the route. Zigzag Marzah went there and did the operation in Belle Forest.

Others would express the same sentiment, although less quotably than Charles Taylor.

"I want the whole world and the Sierra Leone people to know that there is no war without atrocities" - the RUF's Francis Momoh Musah in a statement to the TRC on 2 May 2003

Or consider Gullit and Five Five during a meeting where the infamous amputation strategy was formulated, cynically, and out of frustration.

"When we started cutting hands, hardly a day BBC would not talk about us"

"For any war there must be an atrocity for the outside world to know there is something wrong in the place"

Some would say that these were post-hoc rationalizations for unrestrained savagery, and this is explored at length in well researched appendices in the truth commissions and in the trial documents: Amputations in the Sierra Leone Conflict.

There was little difference between Operation No Monkey and Operation Spare no Soul, these were all merciless affairs.

Witness: Well, I can recall at that time when they said Abacha had died, Sani Abacha. So it was during that time - I can recall that operation because at that time people were happy, the RUF soldiers were, the commanders, everybody was happy at that time.

Prosecutor: And do you recall exactly what happened during that period?

Witness: Well, it was that time - because that time when Abacha died was the time that that mission was arranged, because the Spare No Soul mission, Sam Bockarie said because Abacha had died and he was one of the big men for ECOMOG and that he was dead the soldiers would be weakened, everybody would be discouraged, so if they undertook any operation at that time they would be able to chase the ECOMOG out and they would be able to regain their positions because they were sad at that time and that would weaken them. That was why the mission was called Operation Spare No Soul and they were not to capture soldiers - they were not to capture ECOMOG soldiers and take them to him in Buedu. Spare No Soul meant that anybody who saw any of them, they should kill those soldiers. Any soldier they saw was to be killed. They were not to take any soldier to him in Buedu.

Prosecutor: And do you recall what happened during the course of this operation?

Witness: Yes, Komba Gbundema reported that they killed many civilians and ECOMOG soldiers too during this operation.

Prosecutor: When you say Alice Pyne told you this, how did she tell you?

Witness: Well, she came on and said they went on a mission and said that was how things happened, that they killed many civilians and they said - and she said anybody who saw them, that person was a dead person. And anybody they saw too, that person was a dead person.

If - Komba Gbundema's group, that is the RUF fighters, if they spared any - if they wanted to for example spare the civilian, that civilian's hand would be amputated. That would be the only way they would spare that civilian.

The horrible acts had a gruesome soundtrack

Witness: What I listened to I heard them saying, "People were daring. Man den get mind o way den wan kot pipul den an, den day say, 'Pull yu han pan di war. Pull yu foot pan di war'."

Prosecutor: When you say, "Pull yu han pan di war. Pull yu foot pan di war", do you know what that translates to in English?

Witness: Well I don't know if you want me to speak English directly, but what I understood by that as I said yesterday because the people whose hands were amputated were civilians, it was the RUF fighters who amputated civilians' hands and their feet and whenever they wanted to do this action that was what they told the civilians, the expression I just said in Krio, which meant that they were not to be involved in the war. They were not to have anything to do with the war. It was not the business of a civilian...

Judge Doherty: Yes, please. Mr Interpreter, please interpret those words which the witness has used.

The Interpreter "Pull yu han pan di war", your Honours, is translated "Take your hand off the war". "Pull yu foot pan di war" is translated "Take your foot off the war".

Such behavior is the signal and iconic legacy of Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh.

Witness: Well, from what I understood, the Kamajors, like they called them, they were the Civil Defense Forces. I did not know that they had gone to any particular training base to be trained as combatants, or as soldiers. So we took them to be civilians who had guns, they had cutlasses, fighting against the RUF. Because they were calling them civilians, they were telling them that the civilians should take their hands off the war and to take their foot off the war, it was not a civilian thing.

Prosecutor: You said the RUF was using this expression. Who were they using it to?

Witness: Any of those civilians whom they captured when they were amputating his hand or foot.

But let us catch up with Superman a few months after the so-called Fitti-Fatta mission failed

Prosecutor: And exactly what was Superman instructed to do?

Witness: Well, Sam Bockarie told Superman that he should set one or two examples on civilians so that will instill fear in the other civilians and they will not be leaking information to the ECOMOG soldiers.

Prosecutor: How was Superman supposed to set examples - an example on civilians?

Witness: Well, he was to kill either one or two or to amputate some of their hands and to tell them to take their hands off the war...

Prosecutor: Do you know whether these instructions were carried out by Superman?

Witness: Yes, after two or three days I heard it over the SLBS radio that around the Kono axis rebels were cutting off civilians' hands and they were killing civilians.

Prosecutor: Is that all that you learnt about what happened?

Witness: After that, I enquired in the station, I went there, and it was not long after that that Sam Bockarie went there and he called Komba Gbundema to be sure that was what had occurred in the place. And Sam Bockarie told Komba Gbundema that that was enough, he said because as long as the whole world had heard about the killings and the amputations let that be enough, let it stop there.

Sometimes "fearful" is rendered as "fearsome", but the result is always the same:

Witness: ...before Issa left he said we were guerrillas and anywhere a guerrilla was you should make the area fearsome. In the RUF when we talk about making the area fearsome it is a word that carries different meanings. It means we should burn down houses, destroy other properties, killing and construct road blockades and destroy bridges. That would help in making the area fearsome. That was the instruction he gave.

In many respects the evidence against Charles Taylor was overwhelming, but his attorneys would argue that it was always second hand hearsay - after all people like Mosquito were dead and could not be cross-examined. Still, the extent of his ambition and hunger for power are brought to light in all the testimony.

Prosecutor: Did Sam Bockarie indicate to you in his discussions with Mr Taylor if there was any discussion about how the attack should be carried out in order to free Sankoh?

Witness: Yes, he said they discussed it. After he had shown those places to him they discussed that we should run that mission to ensure that we free Foday Sankoh and others and on the operation we should ensure that the ammunition is not wasted. We should make the operation fearful than all the other operations that we had undertaken because we want to make sure that we take Freetown and hold on to power.

VI. No Longer Human Beings

in peace and harmony protect our nation

The pathology was widespread and it was all a few could do to simply bear witness:

Prosecutor: Who was Zigzag Marzah?

Witness: He too was a fighter in Liberia under Charles Taylor's government.

Prosecutor: How did you know that he was a fighter in Liberia under Charles Taylor's government?

Witness: Well I used to hear his name, but I never knew him. That was the first day I knew him.

Prosecutor: When you say you used to hear his name, what did you hear about his name?

Witness: Well, I used to hear people saying that he ate human beings, that he did not - he was not hesitant, he would kill human beings and he would eat human beings, and from that time I kept that name at the back of my mind. So when I heard that he was to come and indeed I saw him, I asked - I said, "Where is the man?", and he was pointed out to me and I looked at him, I stared at him, to know what sort of human being he was to be doing things like those. So, that was how I knew him.

Betrayals were commonplace and it turns out that Superman, a man who made his wartime reputation for abducting youngsters and training them to be Small Boy Units was killed by those he thought were friends.

Prosecutor: Mr Witness, what did Reflection tell you about who shot Superman?

The answer is that joint criminal enterprises are often unstable affairs.

In 2002 when the war intensified in Liberia, 2002 to 2003, when I used to go and fight and come back and sit down with him, he used to tell me, "Son, you are really trying for us, but we regret the death of your boss. People misled us to kill Superman." He told me that people told them that they used to see Superman at the American embassy. That was why they killed him, but he regretted. I had nothing to say. I just sat down and smiled. Yes, Benjamin Yeaten himself told me that he regretted why he killed Superman
talking drums 1985-08-05 Liberia Doe shedding military imagetalking drums 1984-08-06 Challenge to Siaka Stevens - Rawlings has no regrets

One of the participants in Superman's death was the aforementioned Zigzag Marzah, head of Charles Taylor's accurately named Death Squad, and his cross-examination is hair-raising. That he is still walking around as a free man is one of the great injustices of the world. The headlines and summaries (e.g. Zigzag Marzah Says Taylor Ordered Cannibalism; Defense Works to Discredit his Testimony) simply do not do justice to the harrowing depths of the actual text. It should be read in full:

Defense: So you're talking about when the NPFL entered Liberia. Are you saying that at that stage Charles Taylor ordered you to eat Krahns?

Witness (Zigzag Marzah): I told you yes, yes. Any activity against which you did not take action was appreciated by him. What Doe did by taking our own people, not just Doe, Charles Julu, he himself went as far as eating some of the Nimbalian children from school campuses. When he kills them they would butcher them in the street. Like AK Pa [phon], he did that there so many times.

Defense: Now according to you at the time that the NPFL entered Liberia you were under the command of Prince Johnson who didn't allow this kind of thing. So help me please, who was it who told you to eat Krahns?

Zigzag Marzah: Thank you very much. Prince Johnson did not go far enough in the war. We were in Tiaplay when Charles Taylor wanted - his Specials Forces wanted to kill him and he ran away from us. But when he came to encourage us mostly Nimbalians to join his forces, that whatever Doe did to your people you should revenge and carry out the same act and what they did to us was what we did to them. We hadn't any sea port or container to put the children there or this or that rather than to go and fight against them and destroy them.

Judge Doherty: Pause, Mr Witness. The question is who told you to eat Krahns? Please answer that question.

Zigzag Marzah: I said yes sir, yes sir. I said Charles Taylor.

Defense: Very well. And did Charles Taylor order you to eat people in Sierra Leone as well?

Zigzag Marzah: Yes, sir, to set example for the forces to be afraid.

Defense: So help me, where in Sierra Leone did you eat people?

Zigzag Marzah: It happened when we were disarming the ECOMOG by his directive. He said that those Nigerians were disturbing the south eastern region, when we captured them we should eat them. Even the UN, when we were disarming them he said he didn't want any of those white people to pass through Freetown to go, so when we get them we can use them as pork.

Defense: Port or pork?

Zigzag Marzah: Pork. Pork to eat. Pig. Food.

Defense: So Charles Taylor told you you could eat Nigerians and white people as pork?

Zigzag Marzah: The Nigerian - the Nigerians and the UN. He said the remaining Africans which will pass with them through Buedu, he will turn them over to the international communities, but the others, like the Nigerians and some other people, we should kill them and do anything we want to do with them and that was what we were supposed to do with them is what I am telling you.

Defense: So, Mr Marzah, Charles Taylor ordered you to eat Nigerians --

Zigzag Marzah: Yes.

Defense: -- and white UN officials. How did he give you that order? Was it in person or was it over the radio or what?

Zigzag Marzah: It was not over radio. When Mosquito went for the first time when ECOMOG were deployed and he gave the instruction for us to go and disarm the ECOMOG he said he hasn't got any room. Even when there is no food guerrillas live by their fellow human beings, so we should live by them when had there was no food. So that was how we were living by them, by eating them. There he is sitting down.

Defense: How many UN soldiers or ECOMOG soldiers did you eat?

Zigzag Marzah: Thank you very much. The ECOMOG soldiers, the Nigerian troops, we eat a few, but not many. But many were executed, about 68. Those who were captured were executed. And the UN troops, the whites, after we had taken them to Vahun to Benjamin Yeaten's base Benjamin Yeaten himself executed about --

Defense: No, no, let's forget about executions --

Zigzag Marzah: Wait. Wait now. You can't eat them alive. You can't eat human beings alive. You have to execute them before you eat them, right.

Defense: Right. And did you cook them as well?

Zigzag Marzah: Yes, I participated. You think if my senior commander does something I will deviate from it?

Defense: So help me, please, just how do you prepare a human being for a pot?

Zigzag Marzah: I am sorry there's no way to demonstrate here because we are sitting.

Defense: Just describe it to us?

Zigzag Marzah: Okay. The way we do it, the way you're standing, sometimes we lay you down, slit your throat and butcher you and take out your skin, your flesh, throw your head away, your intestines, your flesh, we take it and put it in a pot and cook it and eat it. The way you're standing, you cannot stay like that and we eat you. We would kill you first and take those parts that are not good for us and this your palm, your two palms, we would put them together and clean inside your intestine and wrap it around, because it's not correct. It's a hard bone. Charles Taylor knows that. That's how we eat them.

Defense: And did you have a preference for white people, Nigerians or Krahns, which ones taste the best?

Zigzag Marzah: Yes, I have likeness for them, but there was no alternative to do it my own way. There was no was no alternative to do it your own way. As long as it was Charles Taylor who gave instruction and you did anything your own way you would be surely executed. If I'm lying, the remaining UN troops, the Africans that passed through --

Judge Doherty: Mr Witness, pause. You have deviated from the answer.

Defense: Now I mean that wasn't the only instant where you ate human flesh. You also ate Superman's heart, didn't you?

Zigzag Marzah: Yes, by the directive and a ceremony in Ben's yard by the time we turned over his hand to Charles Taylor.

Defense: And did Charles Taylor tell you as well to eat Superman's heart?

Zigzag Marzah: Yes, yes.

Defense: Where were you when he told you to do that?

Zigzag Marzah: Ask he himself. I can --

Judge Doherty: Mr Witness, I've told you before, no facetious replies.

Defense: Where were you when Charles Taylor told you to eat Superman's heart?

Zigzag Marzah: When after he had passed the instruction, because in his security meeting he said whatever instruction comes from Ben should be executed, whatever instruction came from Ben should be executed. Whoever does not go by Ben's instruction would be dealt with. So when we killed the men - the man and he said we should take out the heart and Charles Taylor said we should eat the heart and take the hand to him. So in my presence Ben and I entered at the back of his yard. He went inside in Charles Taylor's house and turned Superman's hand over to him and from there he gave us $200 each, went into his car and bought - he went and bought the ingredients to cook the man's heart with. That's how I believed that that was his instruction.

Defense: So it wasn't Charles Taylor who actually told you, it was Benjamin Yeaten?

Zigzag Marzah: It was Charles Taylor. It was Charles Taylor. It was Charles Taylor. Listen to my explanation.

Defense: So help me one final time because we're running out of time. Where were you when Charles Taylor gave you the instruction to eat Superman's heart?

Zigzag Marzah: At that time we had already executed Superman. We were in Monrovia with the man's heart and the arm.

Judge Doherty: Mr Witness, listen to the question. The question is about a place. Where were you? Where?

Zigzag Marzah: Okay, we were in Monrovia. In Monrovia. In Monrovia.

Defense: Where in Monrovia was it that Charles Taylor stood in front of you and said, "Zigzag, I want you not only to cut off his hand but to also eat his heart". Where were you when Taylor said that to you?

Prosecutor: Objection, your Honour. As stated the question assumes facts that the witness has not testified to.

Judge Doherty: You're being overly precise, Mr Griffiths. You're assuming that the person was in front of him, et cetera.

Defense: Was there ever a time when you stood in front of Charles Taylor physically like now and he said to you, "Zigzag, I want you to go out and eat a human being" or a part of a human being?

Zigzag Marzah: Apart from Superman?

Defense: Anyone. Anybody?

Zigzag Marzah: Okay, thank you.

Defense: Whether he be white --

Zigzag Marzah: Thank you, I understand. It happened twice when Gbarnga fell. I stood physically before Charles Taylor at the time Robin White was interviewing him. They were standing beside a jeep and he was telling the man that he was in his yard. That is the time he telephoned the Death Squad for me to carry out that execution. Anywhere there are human beings, you should eat them. They are no longer human beings. I was not in position to eat them raw, rather than to cook them with pepper and salt and fix some barbecue with them. It was from Gbarnga.

Defense: Would that be a convenient point, your Honour?

Judge Doherty: Indeed, Mr Griffiths. We will take the normal mid-morning adjournment.

The above remarkable exchange is the purest theater that real life can offer. There is drama, humour, horror, absurdity and tragedy at once. If we started out wondering who shot Superman, we are now beyond the gruesome mechanics of the deed, and deep into the aftermath, discussing not just Superman's death but also his dismemberment and consumption. Consider the defense attorney's barely disguised incredulity at the allegations of cannibalism and his dogged persistence in trying to discredit the witness and prove that his client had not given direct orders as alleged. He presses the point repeatedly: "Where were you when Charles Taylor told you to eat Superman's heart?" Consider the gusto and argumentative posture of the witness, a remorseless serial killer who also happens to be very charismatic - he gives great copy is what journalists would say, and polite to a fault (he prefaces almost all his answers with thank you very much). Zigzag Marzah is a courteous zombie by definition, and one who performs his master's demands without question. Add the Judge's interjections, and the Prosecution's objections, and let's not forget the witness diving eagerly into the discussion about the mechanics of dressing and eating humans, the willingness to demonstrate and regale the audience with recipes of pork, salt, pepper, and barbeque techniques. It is a quite remarkable performance.

Zigzag Marzah would carry on in his testimony to insist that he was just following the laws of his "poro society" and engaging in killing and cannibalism with its leader Charles Taylor - recounting several other instances when they had shared meals of human hearts or 'livers' as they would call them. Delivering Superman's hand in person to Charles Taylor was not a sufficiently final outcome, his heart also needed to be consumed. Thus a very perverse tradition of secret societies came to be wartime normalcy.

Every emotion is heightened in the transcript leading to the realization by all at the end of the exchange that everyone has been tainted by what they have heard. If the witness's victims were indeed "no longer human beings" (Charles Taylor's explicit justification for the indignities inflicted on them at, and after, death), then how are we we to classify him, the perpetrator? What did the aptly named Reflection think about witnessing these gruesome deeds? And what about everyone in that courtroom debating the issue? And what about us, the later readers of these transcripts? Well, we were all victims.

VII. The Bitterness of War

let's put aside our sticks, knives, guns and arrows

I've previously discussed the dilemmas faced by my mother and her colleagues working at the BBC's African service in how they dealt with the various warlords in the Liberian and Sierra Leonean civil wars. Were they giving these colorful and ever-quotable miscreants too much oxygen and exposure for their nefarious deeds? Were their stories "news" or was the simple act of acknowledging them making "news"? For the warlords would suspend hostilities without fail when 1700 GMT came around and the first edition of the Focus on Africa bulletin would start. They would get on their satellite phones and call the studio to see if they could get on air to discuss their dirty war. There was considerable discomfort and even guilt in the halls of Bush House.

Witness: Well, we heard that Charles Taylor and his rebels were fighting in Liberia. Then at one time we heard over the radio that he was saying that they were using Sierra Leone as an ECOMOG base to launch attacks in Liberia, so Sierra Leone will face the bitterness of war one day.

Prosecutor: Now, again, Mr Witness, when you heard this BBC programme who did you know was Charles Taylor?

Witness: Well, we heard that he was the rebel leader for the NPFL who entered into Liberia.

Witness: We heard that they were fighting in Liberia. We also heard that Taylor said they were using Sierra Leone as an ECOMOG base and so Sierra Leone will taste the bitterness of war.

Prosecutor: And when you heard this programme on the radio how did you know that it was Charles Taylor talking?

Witness: Well, he himself, when he was being interviewed, when Robin White was interviewing him, we heard his name.

Prosecutor: And Robin White, who was Robin White?

Witness: Well, Robin White was a BBC reporter that we knew about.

There was more than enough prima facie evidence of misdeeds to convict Charles Taylor, yet it was the the blood diamond angle pursued by prosecutors that was the highest profile strand to the case - the glamour of Naomi Campbell proved irresitible. There is lots in the testimony about the mechanics of abductions and forced labor in mines with considerable details of the mining operations, the two pile system and the casual cruelty towards the slave labour workforce. There is a long chain of evidence leading ultimately to the trading of mayonnaise jars of diamonds in exchange for arms and ammunition.

The destructive use of child soldiers loaded with drugs and forced under compulsion of death to do awful deeds is also highlighted at length. We are in the presence of malevolence.

Defense: And how old was this child?

Witness: One year, some months. Close to two years.

Defense: You were at Superman Ground with a child of a year and a few months old and you gave your child to Sebatu, yes?

Witness: Yes

Defense: And in one of your interviews with the Office of the Prosecutor you told them that that child was essentially killed in what you said was a sacrifice ritual by Sam Bockarie, yes?

Witness: Yes

Defense: Was the child killed in 1998?

Witness: 1999

Defense: Do you know what month your child was killed in 1999?

Witness: In March...

Defense: And from the time when your child was killed by Sam Bockarie up until disarmament you have told us that you facilitated radio communication at certain times between Buedu and Superman, yes?

Witness: Yes

Defense: You were conveying messages from the same Sam Bockarie, who killed your child, to Superman, yes?

Witness: Yes

Defense: Did you ask how it came to be that he killed your child?

Witness: I did not ask, but I knew. And the person who was sent to bring the child said so. Issa Sesay too said so, that that was happened to my child. And when I saw my sister she also explained to me that that was what had transpired.

Defense: What exactly did Sam Bockarie do to your child? What do you mean by "sacrifice ritual"?

Witness: I don't want to explain further than that.

Judge: Pause, Mr Anyah. Madam Witness, you have been asked a question and you said you did not want to explain further. Why do you not want to explain further? Madam Witness, would you like a break or would you like somebody from WVS to assist you?

Witness: starts crying. Witness, however, says she is fine and will continue.

Defense: Madam Witness, you told the Prosecution not long ago this month, the month of June 2008, that Sam Bockarie killed your child in a sacrifice ritual. What does sacrifice ritual mean, Madam Witness?

Witness: He sacrificed him for power. They did not kill him. They buried him alive. From the person who did that are the person whom they sent, he told me...

There is no time to pause on the distressing stories during the cross examination, the defense simply presses on, and the topic turns from sacrifice ritual to herbalists and juju.

Defense: You spoke about some herbalists, seven of them you said, Liberians, that were sent to Sam Bockarie, yes?

Witness: Yes.

Defense: Were they just seven, or were they more than seven?

Witness: There were more than seven, but those who were heading the herbalists, those who were doing the job, were seven...

Defense: And at some point Sam Bockarie sent those herbalists to join you and Superman, is that correct?

Witness: Yes, we went and collected them.

Defense: And what was the purpose of having these herbalists?

Witness: I think I have said that before. They came to mark our bodies, like the other soldiers who were in the RUF, as a protective measure for - so that when they attack, bullets will not pierce them.

Defense: And indeed, this morning you added that the herbalists were sent by Charles Taylor, correct?

Witness: Yes.

Defense: And if what this woman says is true, then it means that the President of Liberia was sending the RUF herbalists to protect them with I think you said juju, yes?

Witness: Yes.

Defense: While fighting war, yes?

Witness: That was what he told me.

Defense: And juju is what?

Judge Sebutinde: Mr Interpreter, who is the "he"?

The Interpreter: Your Honours, it is not actually clear in the witness's answer. In Krio we do not have any distinction between a he and a she. She just said, "That was what he told me."

Judge Sebutinde: Was she talking about a herbalist, or a Gbandi woman?

The Interpreter: Well, I do not know in her answer. That is the train that is continuing.

Judge Doherty: Please clarify the point.

Defense: The person who told you Charles Taylor sent this herbalist was the Gbandi woman, correct?

Witness: Yes.

Defense: And to put my question again, if what she says is true then it would mean that the President of Liberia at the time, Charles Taylor, in 1998 was sending over herbalists to use juju, the phrase that you used, to protect RUF fighters from bullets, correct?

Witness: I said that was what the herbalist woman told me.

The discussion, which sets out on the issue of the belief system that would send herbalists to protect members of a militia from bullets, takes an unexpected turn into matters of interpretation and syntax and dives into languages that do not differentiate gender. Dialog worthy of Beckett (or perhaps Stoppard if you are that way inclined).

There are many close calls with death, especially harrowing whenever Chucky Taylor, Charles Taylor's sociopathic son was involved. Thankfully a few lived to tell the tale.

Defense: During the course of the day, one of your captures while feeding you manages to drop the metal spoon in the pit, you and your colleague manage to break the metal spoon in half and cut your bonds?

Witness: Yes.

Defense: So this is the third time you are escaping?

Witness: No the second time

Defense: How did you manage to escape so many times?

Witness: Human instinct

Defense: Why weren't you executed?

Witness: It was a blessing I had.

Note here how the witness deflects the continued skepticism of the defense attorney who tries to raise issues of credibility. This undercurrent of dramatic tension raises the stakes throughout the proceedings.

Witness: Except when you are telling me now but Sesay Musa told me that his brother was the ambassador and he was a late man.

Judge: What do you mean by he was a late man?

Witness: He said he was dead

Sometimes the testimony devolves into absurd minutiae, consider this argument about the price of pizza in Monrovia (the defense is trying to challenge a witness's credibility, implying he was paid to lie).

Defense: You could eat a lot in Ganta for 25 US dollars, couldn't you?

Witness: One piece of pizza is more than $25 in Liberia.

Defense: US dollars for one piece of pizza?

Witness: US dollars, yes.

Defense: Hang on.

Witness: Yes, yes, pizza, yes.

Defense: Hang on. Wait for me to finish the question before you start interrupting and laughing. Are you seriously telling this Court that a piece of pizza in Ganta costs more than $25 US?

Witness: In Monrovia, not in Ganta. Monrovia. Monrovia. Yes, in Monrovia. And I can locate the areas to you for you to make a background investigation.

Defense: So it would cost more than the rent of one of your motorbikes for a whole day just to eat a piece of pizza?

Witness: When you bring me to Monrovia I would have to eat, eat good food, yes, but from the money I get from my motorbikes I cannot take that to go and buy pizza, but in Ganta I eat what I eat, but at any time I come to Monrovia when - I eat what I want to eat because like I'm here, they brought me here, when you bring me here you have to feed me. What I want to eat is what I ask for, it's what I eat.

Sometimes there are moments of levity although they are quickly challenged.

Defense: If you look at that document in the middle of the page, paragraph 2 says: "Subsistence allowance. Witness: was brought under the protection of the Court on 20 August 2006. To date he has been paid a total of 13,122,800 leones."

What is amusing you about that?

Witness: Nothing made me to laugh about that. It is just my usual habit. I am not laughing. I am chuckling.

If the defense would challenge many of the witnesses, in all too many cases it would be inhuman to question the overwhelming evidence that was being presented against their clients and so the summaries would end: "the Defense had no questions for this witness".

Ultimately, the rebel commander ordered a boy no more than 13 years-old to cut off the witness's arms. After his arms were amputated, the witness testified that "Rambo" arrived at the village, and he was angry with the rebels for killing some civilians and amputating the limbs of others. The witness reported that Rambo gave him money and told him to endure the pain, because that was what God had ordained. The witness testified that before the amputation he was a petty trader, but that since 1999, when this incident happened, his only source of income has been begging.

The Defense had no questions for this witness.

VIII. Reflection


The machinery of the law works slowly and despite my stance of permanent outrage, I've often thought that this slowness, this bureaucracy, was a good thing. It is an antidote to rushed judgement and an aid to careful reflection on tort and damage - collateral and intended. I expect that lawyers are still interrogating Slobodan Miloševic in whatever part of hell he is - his five years facing trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia were clearly not enough. Similarly, Charles Taylor's comfortable jail library ought to consist solely of these trial transcripts.

And yet the trial setting can be a little unsatisfactory for the historian or cultural observer whose intent is to plumb the depths of a tragedy for psychological insight. Memory is difficult - the recollection of often traumatic events can lack coherence. Defense lawyers can seize on the smallest inconsistencies to raise doubt. Prosecutors have to show certain facts as they lay out their case and oftentimes, they stick to a limited brief. The distinction between what can be proved and what actually happened is a sharp one. We have to balance our desire for a full accounting against the right of defendants to have a fair and public hearing and what can be proven in a court of law.

I've focused mainly on one thread in reading these transcripts, the cautionary aspect (with occasional diversions into the absurd journeys that language can take one on). And it is this notion of caution that keeps me at night whenever I've seen the signposts of political violence raised in my own country, Ghana. It leads me to be a scold of sorts and to engage in jeremiads. It is worth emphasizing that it didn't take much for things to fall apart in Liberia and Sierra Leone. It took just a few well-connected rogues with a willingness to do their worst. Charles Taylor, Foday Sankoh and company numbered in the dozens when they started their campaign of confidence artistry, terror and conquest. Their sheer bloody-minded will, a will that went beyond any animating ideology, found fertile ground in the intrinsic cracks in Liberian and Sierra Leonean society and caused a thoroughgoing disaster whose after-effects still reverberate decades later (think of the response to the current Ebola outbreaks).

There are many more lenses through which to view the violent conflicts outlined here. An equally fruitful reading would focus on the the rogues gallery jostling for the loot and influence - an international cast of Liberian and Sierra Leonean warlords, Guinean adventurers, Gambian, Ivorians and Burkinabe meddlers, Senegalese, Israelis, Libyans, Syrians, Lebanese, Saudis or, more broadly, 'the Arabs' as the locals called them, Belgian diamond traders, Bulgarian financiers, Slovenian weapons smugglers, Italian mafioso, psychopatic teenagers with identity issues, ex-CIA officers, Australian mining companies, Swiss bankers, US rubber (and robber) barrons, quiet American country preachers such as Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson, and even the ostensible good guys, the Nigerians and Ghanaians who formed the bulk of the ECOMOG regional peacekeeping force but whose senior officers often took the freelance war profiteer route. As in Angola, this conflict did not happen in a vacuum. The evidence is there for the careful reader.

By and large, the prosecutors efforts to gain convictions for the wider strands of this joint criminal enterprise were frustrated. On the other hand, unlike the Indonesia depicted in The Act of Killing, not everyone is walking around with impunity years later. There has been been some measure of justice in the proceedings even beyond the convictions of a few like Charles Taylor. True, many others have escaped accountability, but, certainly, no one is celebrating their wartime acts and appalling behavior, the perpetrators have been chastened. And if the palliative of truth and reconciliation commissions and international trials is not an effective cure for the damage inflicted, it is cathartic and, at the very least, a step in the right direction.

As Theodore Roethke put it in his celebrated poem:

In a dark time, the eye begins to see

Our novelists have found fertile ground in the soil of this conflict but their creative works needn't stand alone. The stories leap out of the pages and therein lies the enduring legacy of the Special Court on Sierra Leone. I find comfort in the shadows of these trial transcripts. The stories they outline cast a light on modern Africa, unvarnished and denuded of any imputed childlike innocence. While we set about strengthening the cement of our society, let us have no illusions about our frailty. As we pursue the mundane work of development, let us be vigilant in safeguarding our bite-sized triumphs for, ultimately, the game of the rough beast is about who is writing the script. And so I'll write my own script.

Soundtrack for this note (listen)


Previously in Part I: Close Encounters

Next in Part III: Enter Doctor Simbo

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