Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Patterns of Exchange

A few weeks ago, a Liberian man passing through Accra, Ghana for a few days on his way to a medical conference in Nairobi, Kenya started feeling unwell and feverish. He called the WHO in Nairobi and informed them he wasn't well, suspecting Ebola. The WHO contact in Nairobi called my aunt, a doctor who works for the WHO in Ghana. My aunt hastily organized an Ebola response team and ambulance and dispatched it to the hotel where he was staying. The doctors and ambulance arrived at the hotel equipped with masks, hazmat suits and protective equipment only to discover that the man had gone to the mall! The doctors then managed to contact him at the mall and eventually conveyed him to the isolation unit at the hospital where he was tested for Ebola. The tests eventually come back negative but he remained in quarantine for the full 21 days until the all clear was given.

This, of course, was the height of irresponsibility. The man clearly knew enough given his symptoms to seek medical advice and to contact the WHO in a different country. But I can't believe that he then decided to leave his hotel room to go to a shopping mall. Ghana certainly dodged a bullet, we are lucky that he didn't have Ebola. Indeed given the traffic between Liberia and Ghana, we have been lucky that Ebola hasn't made its way to the country yet. Based on air traffic patterns, Ghana has been modeled as the most likely country to experience Ebola importation. We have seen the effect of a single infection in the most developed countries, and the contrast in countries with poor public health infrastructure.

My aunt had just returned from a harrowing five week tour of duty helping run the WHO Ebola response in Liberia. The thing she emphasized most about her experience was just how easy it was to inadvertently get infected. The example she cites was someone simply dropping something at the end of the 19th of the 20 steps one has to go through when removing one's protective equipment and bending down to pick it up, thereby getting infected. The Spanish nurse who caught Ebola while attending to two Ebola patients in Madrid believes she might have inadvertently touched her face while disposing of an infected glove.

Upon her return to Ghana from Liberia, the WHO wanted to send her to manage the separate outbreak of Ebola in Congo. She demurred, deciding instead to help set up the UN regional Ebola response center in Accra. I wonder, however, whether she will also decline to go to Uganda to deal with the recent outbreak of the Marburg virus there if asked. Everyone in the family is hoping she stays in Ghana, we certainly need her expertise dealing with the ongoing cholera epidemic that has been plaguing our country.

Containers: Eddie's African Grocery

II. Borders and Boundaries

Item: Thomas Eric Duncan (the Liberian man who died of Ebola in Texas) was a refugee in a camp in Danane in Cote d'Ivoire for a few years after the start of the Liberian civil war launched by Charles Taylor.

One of the success stories so far about the present crisis has been the prevention of the spread of Ebola from Liberia and Guinea to neighboring Côte d'Ivoire. The obvious response is that the borders between the countries were eventually closed. It is worth asking however why there was no transmission before the border closures and, well, there is a political angle to explore.

Nimba county in Liberia used to be a source of mercenaries employed by disaffected supporters of the deposed (and disgraced) ex-President Laurent Gbagbo to destabilize Côte d'Ivoire. In the aftermath of the Liberian civil war, there were lots of ex-combatants searching for employment and, for some, the way of the gun was a lucrative comfort. Ivorian president, Alassane Ouattara, had no tolerance for such things: instability is bad for business and Ivory Coast is all about business. He cracked down with a carrot (tempting the opposition back into the political process - and declining to prosecute most of their misdeeds), and the stick (the Liberia-Côte d'Ivoire border is now one of the most impregnable borders in West Africa). Even before the Ebola outbreak, the effect of this policy on cross-border interchange (and trade) has been severe. One wonders when normalcy will return.

Item: Thomas Eric Duncan would later migrate to Ghana where refugee life was more congenial (and the language and cultural barriers less pronounced). The photos of him that were used by the media, showing him dressed in green attire, were taken at a wedding he attended in Ghana a few years ago.

The Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana was set up to host Liberian refugees in 1990. It was always intended to be a temporary camp but events had a way of imposing permanence and it quickly grew into a sprawling city. The Liberian civil war officially came to an end in 2003 after a few false starts, especially the chimera 1997 elections 'won' at the barrel of a gun by Charles Taylor (campaign slogan: "He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I'll vote for him"). The UNHCR began winding down operations there in 2007 although many NGOs of all stripes continue to advocate for camp residents. Authorities in Ghana have never been keen about the camp and throughout its existence have repeated calls to shut it down. Popular prejudices in Ghana attribute a lot of the rising urban crime to Liberians (and the perennial scapegoated Nigerians). Many Liberians have indeed returned to rebuild their country but the ties they forged in Ghana have endured.

H.B. Duncan Enterprises Containers: Motors and electrical shop

While Ghanaians were refugees in the rest of Africa in the 1980s (after all that is where the notion of Ghana must go came from), there has been relative stability since, and Ghana became a destination for political and economic refugees (for Liberians and Sierra Leoneans throughout their civil wars, for Ivoriens during their conflicts in 2002, 2005 and contested elections, and even for Sudanese in 2005, for the Togolese in a couple of spasms after Eyadema's demise and subsequent elections, for Nigerians whenever their economy has sputtered). By and large, we have opened our doors during crises perhaps because we aren't that far removed from crisis.

I read somewhere (UNHCR perhaps?) that the average length of stay in a refugee camp was 18 years. I couldn't quite bring myself to believe this statistic - that's basically a whole generation. I thought that if the figure was accurate, it only meant that the never-ending Palestinian experience was skewing the numbers of these protracted situations. But then I considered my own family experience, and remembered that it was 18 years after we fled Ghana's 1982 coup regime that my mother returned to live there. Of course our exile in France and England wasn't anything like a refugee camp but the point remains that upheaval can have generational effects. I have now, after all, spent most of my life outside Ghana. Collateral damage as cultural exchange, I suppose.

talking drums 1984-06-04 what makes people leave Ghana - nigeria trials changing the rules in midstream

III. Markets are conversations

The World Bank periodically publishes studies about regional integration, (see De-fragmenting Africa as an example). As befits a bank, it is mostly concerned about "removing barriers to trade". The point is well taken and many studies now focus on transportation. Working roads and railways would indeed be good things; these days infrastructure development is all the rage (sidenote: some of us remember donor nations telling us in the 1980s and 1990s that our economies could not sustain even dual carriage motorways). Of course more and better roads are not the only obstacles to overcome.

Surface transport in West Africa is very expensive compared with the rest of Africa and the developing world. The causes are cartelization and restrictive regulation of the trucking industry. High freight charges do not reflect high transport costs so much as high trucking profits that can be traced to the lack of competition in the industry. Trucking industry profit margins in West Africa were found to be on the order of 80 percent, compared with 20–60 percent in southern Africa.

Surface transport in West Africa is also very slow compared with the rest of Africa and the developing world, because of frequent delays associated with administrative processes.

- Ecowas’s Infrastructure a regional perspective

In 2003, one of my cousins started a factory in Accra processing kaolin (soft white clay), wholesaling for the multinationals like Unilever. I had thought in the years since that he would try to go upmarket and add higher value processing so that he wasn't merely selling raw material. He certainly has maker aptitude (a chemical engineer by training) and I've seen some of the ingenious centrifuges he and his partners have designed for use in the factory. Still, working without the precision machinery that German engineering easily affords, he has added new products to the initial portfolio: calcium carbonate from oyster shells, gypsum for fertilizers and so forth. One can see a path of incremental growth on this foundation. Government industrial policy is supposed to foster such development.

Somehow instead, he has made it into the trucking industry and now supplies heavy duty trucks and mining equipment, a sideangle that has become very lucrative. There is a gold rush again in Ghana (the former Gold Coast) with lots of Chinese and Indian prospectors competing with the local Galamsey (there's also a current scramble for offshore oil with Cote d'Ivoire gearing up to join Ghana's recent operations). There is perhaps a precedent here, not necessarily in the scramble for Black Gold, but rather in the move to transportation from an initial focus on trade. A lot of the big Nigerian trading family fortunes were consolidated in the last century by moves into the trucking industry. They initially started as pure traders (mostly agricultural) but then quickly found that it was more lucrative to be in the trucking business. Margins of 80 percent are nothing to sneeze at in any economic venture. Thus there are huge incentives to prevent things like rail and better highways that all agree are key to increased regional integration.

Beyond the petty corruption that keeps things stuck at the border (informal payments and delays), there is also Big Money that adds inertia to tariff policy and regulatory processes. This is the additional context (whose parochial concerns are hurt by increased regional integration) that is missing when you read through the admittedly interesting research notes such as Removing Barriers to Trade between Ghana and Nigeria.

Both countries account for about 61 percent of population and 68 percent of GDP in ECOWAS...

Beyond trade, substantial migration flows between both countries have existed for a long time. Recent estimates put the number of Ghanaian emigrants in Nigeria at 125,000 (IOM 2009), which represent 13 percent of Ghanaians living outside Ghana, and the number of Nigerians living in Ghana at more than 50,000...

Ghanaian manufacturers believe the key barriers to increasing trade with Nigeria include substantial informal payments and delays — regardless of whether documentation is complete — transit charges, and requirements for product registration...

The [ECOWAS] protocols also establish the right of citizens with a valid travel document and health certificate to stay for up to 90 days in another ECOWAS member state before being formally required to apply for residency... Such application should be automatically granted. The revised ECOWAS treaty of 1993... stipulates that ECOWAS citizens should be treated identically to national citizens in establishing and running a business.

- Removing Barriers to Trade between Ghana and Nigeria Strengthening Regional Integration by Implementing ECOWAS Commitments
beads and necklaces ghana containers 2000

There is a notional vision of open borders, common currencies and even political union embodied in Ecowas and in the wider African Union. In general, the Francophone countries in ECOWAS have been more integrated but even they have been subject to things falling apart periodically. Ghana and Nigeria have historical ties and ought to have every incentive to strengthen them. The concern is that there are many regional integration processes that are currently being disrupted by the Ebola outbreak. Let's hope that the cultural ties are resilient enough to survive the challenge and quickly rebuild.

West Africa is the part of Africa with the strongest market traditions. I'd argue that the accompanying social engagement is what Africans have to teach the rest of the world and that conversational banter is often lost in the modern world. Trade and markets are not the only lens through which to view patterns of exchange.

Item: when a BBC journalist asked a Sierra Leonean how he prepared for the three-day nationwide Ebola lockdown that took place in September. The reply was "I have bought enough credit on my mobile phone".

Social living is the best.

Soundtrack for this note

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Trend-surfing Alacrity

For years I've resisted writing anything about Liberia or Sierra Leone. Too painful, too raw, too soon. The pen keeps calling however...

I figured Liberia and Sierra Leone deserved a couple of decades of peace and quiet but, as they say, 'Tings deh happen. Expect some toli.

I saw Rev. Jesse Jackson today with the Texas Ebola victim's family. Really? Some of us remember his history with Charles Taylor during Liberia's descent.

The Country Preacher ought to steer clear of anything related to Liberia and Sierra Leone. It's unseemly.

Suggested reading regarding Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson (Pat Robertson!) and Charles Taylor: The Quiet American by Graham Greene

The salient quote: "He was impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance" - Graham Greene on the eponymous quiet American

Was it Stalin who talked of useful idiots? They always seem to materialize before and during wars.

Consider a taxonomy of useful idiots: the ignorant, those who should know better, the reflexively-tribal, and the professional opportunists.

Servants to power, we are all striving simians on the savannah at heart, looking to Alpha authority.

Apologists for war (think Iraq, think War on Terror) and apologists for unfettered capitalism have had a rough start to this century

Most useful idiots lie low when things go awry. That, paradoxically, is the only time they are of any interest.

Only posterity is unkind to the man of conventional wisdom, and all posterity does is bury him in a blanket of neglect - John Kenneth Galbraith

Professional opportunists are singular gremlins in human society and deserve close study. Sadly, we simply shake our heads at the spectacle

The professional opportunist knows no shame and depends on our short attention span. Hey! Look over there...

I looked.

Most professional opportunists escape scrutiny and scorn because there's always a core of past competence that one can point to.

The notion of shame has become a vestigial sentiment in many Western countries; some call it a casualty of modernity. I dissent.

Coming from a shame society, it's hard to watch bad behavior tolerated with benign neglect, or even rewarded.

My mother emphasized the necessity of permanent outrage. Will I be able to convey that to the children I'm raising in America?

I know my place in America (at the intersection of Tenuous St and Hired Immigrant Worker Alley) and accordingly keep a low profile.

Also civility.

Let's posit a corollary to the quantity theory of insanity. Perhaps a coefficient of opportunism? Argh, forget it: rusty mathematics.

Just because a lizard nods its head doesn't mean it's happy - Ghanaian proverb

observers are worried

Observers are worried

I'm reposting these (slightly annotated) twentysomething thoughts on opportunism here for archival purposes. With a little distance, I realize that this product of few fevered minutes of short form writing essentially revisits a theme I'd previously covered. Timing is everything I suppose.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Ziploc Factor

The most attractive aspect of patents is their expiration. Built-in expiration, that "limited times" proposition, is similarly the appealing aspect of the Faustian pact one makes for copyright. In that vein, I would venture that one of the best things to have happened since the start of this century is the expiration of the patent for the ziploc. If you frequent the same supermarkets as I do, you would have noticed the ascendance of the ziploc form factor over the past decade. At first the spread was likely due to increased licensing in anticipation of the expiration of said patent, then, of course, once the crucial patent expired, the flood gates opened and generics came into play, to the extent that these days I can barely find regular plastic bags in store aisles. Permit me to present another item as part of an occasional series on bags, this time a brief cultural history of the ziploc, a foray into the grooves of technology and hardball business. Plastic bags I say, locks, knots, zippers, all have been changed. Ladies and gentlemen, consider the ziploc factor.

zip-loc display tsa state college airport 2007

I. Radical Transparency

The ziploc resealable plastic bag, sometimes called zip top, zip lock, one zip, slide lock, snap bag, zip-loc (if inclined towards hyphens) or zip snap depending on the brand or technology underpinning you lean towards, crossed the chasm of cultural inevitability in the summer of 2006 when liquids were banned on many flights due to a case of pure bureaucratic terror - call it a liquidity crisis in the skies if you will, for we were living in a era of recent non-specific general threats. Homeland Security restrictions made themselves felt, and within days the nascent ubiquity of ziploc bags could no longer be denied - indeed they were officially mandated. Air travel, already a ludicrously fraught endeavor after September 11 2001, now gained a set of extra contortions that have spoiled things for all who can't afford their private jet - and for all intents and purposes that is everyone. The ziploc was the palliative.

zip-loc TSA poster

The British were the first to impose restrictions since the ostensible liquid bomb plot had British airports as their target, but it was the TSA list of permitted and prohibited items that really soured things:

All liquids, gels and aerosols must be placed in a single, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag. Gallon size bags or bags that are not zip-top such as fold-over sandwich bags are not allowed. Each traveler can use only one, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag.

Early versions of the TSA list mentioned zip lock although later versions now mention zip-top - as we shall see this little-noticed change in nomenclature is significant in our history, but let's not get ahead of ourselves at this stage. We'll also skip over the size restrictions for the time being and concentrate on the specification of the bag which is a technology prescription backed with the coercive powers of American law enforcement: "clear" for transparency and ease of observation if not confiscation, and ziploc for ease of opening and sealing. The snappy slogan is "Bag and zip for a short trip" and undoubtedly some poor sod had to come up with a breezy mnemonic for the public education campaign on the new requirements:

3-1-1 for carry-ons (3 ounce bottles, 1 ziploc bag, 1 bag)

The equivalent British poster from the BAA doesn't have the same marketing flair (but who can compete with American salesmanship?) and gets the essential point across: the requirement is simply "a transparent, resealable bag". In practice of course, this boils down to a ziploc bag. The Brits sensibly don't refer to a brand in the BAA rules

Customers may take with them in their cabin bag limited quantities of liquids, gels and aerosols, including travel-size toiletries such as shampoo, suntan lotion, creams, toothpaste, hair gel and hair spray. Containers holding liquids must not exceed three American ounces or 90ml.

zip-loc BAA poster

Liquid containers must be carried in a separate clear plastic zip-top bag that does not exceed 20 cm x 20 cm or 8 inches x 8 inches or quart size. Items must fit in the bag comfortably and the bag must be completely closed.

The earliest revision of the British policy noted:

Only one bag per passenger is allowed. The bag must be clear and re-sealable, such as 'ziplock' bags or bags with pressable seals. Larger bags or bags that are not sealable, such as fold-over sandwich bags are not allowed
The ziploc regulation is one that requires constant reinforcement and it gives rise to frequently inventive exposition by TSA officialdom. Thus if you were to pass the TSA stand at State College airport, Pennsylvania, some time ago you might have spotted the following three-dimensional illustration of permitted and banned items.

zip-loc display state college airport 2007

The three bulging Hefty One-Zip bags were meant to augment the above 3-1-1 poster. Presumably the security attendants got tired of having to explain the cryptic 3-1-1 propositions and opted instead to show graphically to the traveling public the sorts of items that were and were not permitted.

Again note the type of ziploc bag that was used, it is more properly called a zip top. Recently at JFK airport, there was an information officer prowling the unsurprisingly long lines at the TSA whose sole purpose was to dispense Hefty One Zip bags. I don't want to suggest cronyism in the choice of brand of plastic bag but it was interesting to me that each time I've observed such actions, the brand of bag being proffered was a Hefty bag; there really must be a marketing effort at work.

II. Deformation and Displacement

The Hefty One Zip bag has a zip handle at its top, a satisfying target to clasp as you close - a moveable stub, in short, to enforce the close action. The most widely used ziploc bag on the other hand - made not coincidentally by Ziploc, simply has those pleated, interlocking grooves. By most reckonings, the Hefty variant is the gold standard of the form yet, in many ways, the broader Hefty versus Ziploc story is a reversal of the Coke versus Pepsi narrative. Indeed the owners of the Ziploc brand seems to have chosen the better name - ziploc has become the generic term for plastic, resealable bags, and as far as adoption goes, the 'worse' technology appears to have triumphed in the marketplace. What lies behind the workings of the ziploc factor? To find the answer, we need to undertake a minor diversion into the realm of patent histrionics...

ziploc sliding clasp fastener

The essential ziploc innovation is US Patent 4262395 Sliding clasp fastening means. Filed in 1979, it was published in 1981. It refers to mating strips, coupling heads and sundry means of fastening through a sliding motion. Like most innovations, it didn't come in a vacuum; its inventors stood on the shoulders of giants. It builds on the work of the slide fastener, patent 4004327, filed in 1975, Japan. In the US, a further improvement was submitted in 1990 by Hefty, Patent 5007143 - Rolling action zipper profile and zipper thereof.

Broadly speaking, these devices take the notion of the zipper and apply it to plastic bags. If you read, you'll dive into a world of pairs of flexible plastic strips, reclosable interlocking male and female elements, extrusions and welding. In the US, since the 1980s, these ziploc patents stood their owners (ultimately controlled by Hefty) in good stead, and they were embodied in the marketplace as the Hefty One Zip bag which reigned supreme as the dominant resealable bag. There was, and continues to be, a hefty premium for a Hefty bag. There is a price to pay in order to get the satisfaction of that sliding, often purple, clasp fastener. The purple nub, standing out as it does atop the closing plastic strips at the top of the bag, gives a good closure indication and symbolizes the fulcrum of a conventional economic monopoly.

The chinks in Hefty's armor, the ziploc factor, as it were, came in two forms. The first weakness was in the name. The most serious competitor was the Slide Lock bag, later renamed Slide-Loc (since lock was a generic term), then still later renamed Ziploc. Simply put, ziploc is the better name for the resealable bag. The zip in the Ziploc name references the gold standard of the zipper (and the Hefty competitor), and the lock aspect identifies the sealing function of the bag.

ziploc rolling action zipper

The second chink built on the insight of the plain meaning of Slideloc/Ziploc name, namely that simply sliding an interlocking groove was good enough to produce a lock; you literally did not need a zip (or zip handle) to form a lock. True, the kind of seal that you get from snapping and sliding a groove in a plastic bag is not as tight as if you applied the pressure of a zip fastener, However, you can get a tighter seal if you increase the number of grooves that formed the lock. The pragmatic solution embodied in most ziploc bags that don't use zip handles is to simply add more grooves.

Slideloc/Ziploc versions of the bags started to get wide distribution in the late 1990s as the 20 year limit on the patents on the basic technology was coming up. This being American capitalism, of course, everything would get resolved in the courts (after the lawyers took their cut). Hefty, after issuing various cease-and-desist notices to the companies that were intruding on its turf, eventually filed a lawsuit based on the later 1990 patent.

The lawsuit, Pactiv (formally Tenneco) v. S.C. Johnson & Son and KCL Corporation was decided in November 2000 and found that ziploc slider bags didn't infringe on the relevant patent. It was a simple complaint:

The manufacturer of Hefty One Zip reclosable plastic storage bags, claims that the Slide-Loc reclosable plastic storage bag, manufactured by defendant KCL Corporation for defendant S.J. Johnson & Son, Inc., infringes U.S. Patent No. 5,007,143
The case turned on a matter of overreach, if a zipper handle is the core innovation of a process and a design omits that essential element, how can one claim that one's so-called intellectual property is being copied?
The fundamental difference between the '143 patent and the Slide-Loc in this regard, essentially ignored by Pactiv's experts, is that the '143 patent describes closing by a rolling action, whereas the Slide-Loc closes by deformation and displacement, with incidental rolling taking place at the very end of the process. The fact that some incidental rotation occurs does not alter the fact that the Slide-Loc closes in a very different manner than the '143 patent describes.
ziploc slide fastener

Deformation and displacement was thus the technical loophole that ushered in the era of ubiquity of the ziploc. By side-stepping the necessity of the zip handle, competitors could avoid the encumbrance of the Hefty patent monopoly. The long inhibited competition in the recloseable bags could proceed and the floodgates opened. Eagle-eyed billionaire investors sensed blood in the water long before the verdict was issued and, in 1999, you might have noted that Huntsman Packaging Corporation acquired KCL Corporation, the Indiana-based manufacturer of reclosable polyethylene bags that was subject to the lawsuit. The press release touted its "patented and proprietary technology in zipper and slider closures" and development of "patented slider technologies for both vertical and horizontal 'form-fill-seal' bagging processes".

Huntsman is of course the largest private chemical company in the US. Jon Huntsman Jr, billionaire heir to his father's fortune would go on to have presidential ambitions in 2012 - although the Republican Party ultimately wanted more red meat and less timidity. S.C Johnson & Son of course make everything from Windex, Pledge to Raid and are a veritable marketplace of consumer products. Hefty (originally owned by Mobil) is now owned by Reynolds Consumer products. I lay these items out to give a sense of the stakes involved in our ziploc contest. We have oil companies facing off against chemical companies and multinationals spun off from heavy extractive industries (oil, aluminium etc.) engaged in an ongoing battle.

The mythology of these brands is instructive
American ingenuity mixed with a bit of elbow grease. Reynolds Wrap foil was invented after aluminum was no longer needed for military use... Hefty waste bags were first developed with excess material from an early plastics innovator, creating another household essential.

The rest as they say is history, marketing and execution. The big boys jumped in, you can see any number of patents by Proctor and Gamble, Glad and the like that tackle the general notion of flexible storage bags. One wonders why Velcro which specializes in touch fasteners didn't get into the act (brand dilution perhaps?)... There were also those who saw the business opportunity in marketing ziplocs as part of the packaging machinery that all manufacturers use. We have specialized companies like Zip-pak, Mini-grip and GT Zip that target industrial clients.

The engineering questions were difficult ones: how to efficiently evacuate air from a bag (an important worry if perishables were to be stored in them), how to create a tight enough seal, how to track the alignment and integrity of the seal, how to tweak the manufacturing process so that the marginal cost of adding a ziploc to one's bag is negligible. There were also usability questions, what kind of closure indicator to use? How, indeed does one indicate closure? It is obvious, if a zip handle is present, to determine with a quick glance if a bag is fully closed or not; not quite so with a plain ziploc. Is an audible signal appropriate? Is paying attention to the satisfying snap sound a good approach? As evidenced by the resilience of the Snap and Seal brand I keep encountering, that is an approach that is succeeding. There's also an arms race on ziplocs, some tout double zips, sometimes there are three seals. On the most recent ziploc I purchased, I see no less that 7 interlocking grooves. Like razor blades, more grooves are thought to be better.

III. War of the Fasteners: Knots, Rubber Bands, Ziplocs and Twisties

Ziplocs (mostly without handles) have been widely licensed and have found their way into the list of household essentials. In this era of liquid threats, it is a good thing to have some ziploc bags on hand when you travel by air. Articles abound about the applications: ziploc your stuff at airport security, Camera Zip-lock to protect in wet, dusty environments, multi-port laparoscopic surgical access devices, urn for ashes and so forth.

war of the fasteners: knots, rubber bands, ziplocs and twisties

The burgeoning ziploc tag at Delicious and the ziploc images at Flickr show how far these interlocking rib and groove bags have penetrated our cultural consciousness.

The convenience of ziplocs and their reassuring snap as their interlocking grooves are conjoined has changed the nature of the fasteners we use for our containers. We are spoiled with a wide variety of touch fasteners, from interlocking rib-type seal to plastic, paper, or clad-wire ties and on. Rubber bands have never quite worked as fasteners, we use them in to shift gears and such but we not generally as bag fasteners. Where once we used knots, in recent times we have graduated to twisties and to those little jagged plastic clips that we use to close bags of bread - sidenote: is there a better name for those nubs? Bibs or chokers perhaps?

Twisties, of course, are another great innovation in the vein of the ziploc but even they have their limitations: they are separate objects and often get separated from the bags they are meant to close. Thus there is almost always a little cognitive pause as you search for the little twistie ribbon on the kitchen counter or dining room table. Where exactly did you put it? It is always underneath. How much time is wasted in the search for the twistie? Is this inefficiency the driver of the faster adoption of the ziploc. Some baggies also attempted to prescribe a way to better preserve their contents, asking you to fold over the plastic before applying the twistie.

zip lock usage

The ziploc brooks none of these limitations. Like its zipper grandfather, the ziploc has the virtue of remaining part and parcel of the container - thus there is nothing to lose. Thus although we can read about epic battles such as that of Twist-Ties vs. Plastic Clips: Tiny Titans Battle for the Bakery Aisle, I'd hazard that the ziploc will be ultimate victor.

One downside of the ziploc and that other magical innovation, Velcro, is that the knowledge of knots and crosses that humans have passed down since time immemorial is now being lost. Only sailors, sadomasochists, magicians have the need for training in knots. One should perhaps add special forces grabbing enemy combatants for erustication to the coterie of knot aficionados - and even in the accounts of extraordinary rendition that we do have, the norm is for plastic hand-cuffs - or metallic if the gloves come off and stress positions are emphasized. Other than shoe laces then, the modern man has no more need for learning the time-tested art of knots - and no, tying up the boot of your car with your weekend haul from Ikea doesn't count - I should know, I was quite hopeless a few weekends ago.

Before concluding we should return to the liquid terror that prompted the ziploc's ascendance. When exactly will we get to the end of that pesky liquid ban? There have been many false sightings on that front since 2006 and everyone keeps hoping for a revision (see for example: EU to ease airport liquids rule in security revamp) but it is hard to see sanity returning, it is George W. Bush's most durable legacy. I imagine Al Qaeda or ISIS types periodically seeing these reports and saying "Why don't we send around a few emails around mentioning liquids, bombs and planes?". Our friendly NSA will duly notify the security establishment and the security tax that the entire world faces will continue. I fear the ziploc will be mandated long after my lifetime.

In an age of radical transparency it is all about the ziploc factor. Whether it is food packaging or cosmetics, all hail the ziploc. I wonder, Dear Reader, where you stand in the Hefty versus Ziploc contest, and what uses you put your ziplocs to? Deformation and displacement, young man, deformation and displacement.

The Ziploc Factor

Soundtrack for this note

  • Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth (ft. Grand Puba) - Skinz
    Better yet you could pass me a ziploc A bag of boom, and a 40 then some boot knock
    I've always loved this fragment of Grand Puba's celebrated verse in this 1993 ode to prophylactics, Skinz - a song about the importance of contraception in which they hilariously explore options from aluminium foil to ziploc bags before returning to plain old condoms - Catholics beware.
  • Prince - Ripopgodazippa
    Every stripper's favorite track, sexy funk that appropriately enough featured in that cult b-movie, Showgirls. The sound of the zipper

Obligatory disclaimer

In my line of work, software, expiration is typically seen as the only attractive aspect of patents.

There's a patent officially filed under my name filed from my last few months at IBM. It seemed then, as it seems now, like much ado about nothing (a tweak to the kind of auto-suggestion that you see every time you search) but I suppose technology companies like to build up defensive portfolios of patents, weaponry that they can lob over the wall when convenient. I plead guilty that I succumbed that one time. In contrast, one of the more interesting ideas I came up with back then was rather treated as an "invention disclosure" to be kept in IBM's back pocket, and was never filed with the patent office. I hope someone builds it.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Could have been / Should have been

We've been at the part of the World Cup, ever since the group stage ended, where many of the spectators have been muttering the "could have been / should have been" mantra. Fans don't need prompting from sensationalist reporting about implosions, denigration of the coach's strategy, team cohesiveness, slips of concentration or the vagaries of the drama of the game. Us football fans simply know. We could see for ourselves and feel it in our bones. We know what could have been, we know what should have been.

Every team had its chances - unlike in other world cups, this has been a wide open competition. Read the reports in zonal marking and you won't see much onesidedness. Even where there were clear gaps in class vis-a-vis their opponents (say Honduras or Australia), the teams in question had opportunities. The Socceroos were thrilling and gave palpitations because of their athleticism and Cahill's finishing ability. Those who pooh-poohed the Iranians' defensive-mindedness will admit that when they finally broke out they were potent. The Ivoriens will wonder how they let the Greeks back in with minutes to go. The Mexicans, Chileans and the Colombians will know that they will never have collapsed like the Brazilian hosts did today... It could have been, it should have been.

All is not lost

Closer to home, Ghanaians are ruing the missed opportunities and thinking about how they were the only team to really frighten the Germans. Even more-so than in 2010, when we could taste the semi-finals and beyond, Ghanaians were expecting to return with silverware - Group of Death be damned. Those seven minutes when Ghana had Germany on the run and could even had piled on and added a couple of goals to their lead will be an enduring memory. It could have been, it should have been.

I still feel that Sulley Muntari getting his second yellow card during that game hence missing the crucial midfield battle against the Portuguese was the turning point, but even then Ghana had its chances against Portugal as we did in every game that we played. It could have been, it should have been.

I think to the sense of predatory anticipation every time Costa Rica's Joel Campbell touched the ball. I wonder why it took Wayne Rooney 75 minutes to realize that he had to come back to make deeper runs to shrug off his man-to-man marker - something that took James Rodriguez 25 minutes in Columbia's toughest match. Why didn't his manager simply signal from the bench since his star was being anonymous. The Hodgson Puzzle perhaps, and there have been many other puzzles this time. It could have been, it should have been.

I think to the fluency of the passing when teams really gelled. Colombia, The Netherlands and others. And Ghana. And Ghana... The 4 man game that Asamoah Gyan, Andre Ayew, Kwadwo Asamoah and Sulley Muntari sometimes offered was thrilling. I recall Kwadwo Asamoah's brilliant crosses and that last ditch tackle at the end of the Germany match. Turns out that that was not enough. It could have been, it should have been.

Soundtrack for this note

Abbey Lincoln - Should've Been (listen here)

One of my favorites from A Turtle's Dream. I still miss her desperately.

It's the sound of sorry
Looking yonder with regret
Sorry 'cause of what you got
And what you didn't get

Could've been another song
Would've been a sing along
Could've been, would've been
Should've been

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Deferred Maintenance

Deferred maintenance is a norm where I come from; we tend to demur on the necessary until we are confronted by the looming or, more frequently, the actual, catastrophe. Indeed, quoth my mother, "if you are seen painting your house, people will stop by and ask if you have a funeral". That's just the way things work. Still I was struck by the following photos which depict the Jamestown Mantse palace in Accra; the first delapidated in 2001:

Jamestown Mantse Palace 2001

and vaguely restored in 2010 (restored enough that it features on calendars these days).

Jamestown mantse palace 2010

There's a comment to be made about what the former photo says about the institution of chieftaincy among the Ga. One can't imagine the Ashantis ever letting Manhyia Palace fall into similar disrepair but that is by the by...

There is a wider cultural point, I suppose; there are opportunity costs for maintenance, moreover, it is hard work, and unsexy at that. Some cultures simply have norms that emphasize mundane processes and others where the constraints of societal life drive different behaviours. Inertia is an essential part of the dark matter of communities. What interests me most is exactly how a society moves towards cultivating the maintenance ethic.

In the software profession, we often talk about "technical debt", acknowledging its almost inevitable presence as well as the inertial forces that contribute to its growth. Just recently, I was burning the midnight oil and paying for design and architectural decisions postponed for a couple of years. It was painful to deal with, but with hindsight, plainly unavoidable. My sleep-deprived self was conscious enough to bemoan my plight. It takes maturity and discipline to instill this ethic.

In Ghana, sadly, the escape valve for a surprising amount of deferred maintenance is often that some benevolent foreign entity can be called upon to fund a restoration. One wishes that the impetus was internal. There is certainly plenty of shovel-ready work to be done in development.

restored houses elmina

That said, I see 'normalcy' taking root in many places. Indeed the rise of the insurance industry can be said to be a marker in that respect. Restoration and maintenance does take place (occasionally) and must be celebrated whenever it happens. Welcome signs on the streets of Jamestown and Elmina.

Soundtrack to the note

  • Bob James - Restoration
  • Bruce Hornsby - That's just the way it is
  • Massive Attack - Inertia Creeps

Sidenote: before parenthood intervened, I used to tend to this virtual joint more often, consider this note some throat-clearing, some deferred maintenance on the blogospheric writing front. It's the World Cup season and I am bound to summon up the creative juices as in times past. Some readings from the archives: Ghana vrs USA and some Dilemmas.

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Monday, June 03, 2013

A Resource Action

You've been surplussed.
That was the word used.

This is a resource action.
That was the phrase used.

Leave. Or find another position.
That was the message.

You have 30 days,
The clock is ticking.

They read the script.
Over the phone.

Out of sight.
Out of mind.

You were checking in the code,
Rushing to meet the deadline.
Heads down, juggling things.
Bugs, emails, instant messages, ideas.
Plans: car, house, family, books.

Then: there was a resource action.

"12 years of my life"

It's over.
Simple as that.

You're not mad;
You're merely sad.

You thought you were a resource,
But then there was an action.

The Corporation.

The language.

"Rebalancing... efficiencies...
Your responsibility..."

The workings of capital
The theory of surplus value

This is a dark matter.


Note the time. Start writing.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007, 12:14:05 PM

You hang up the phone
A fleeting thought:
"No wonder they never sent the new monitor".
And the fuss about that expense report

You fire up the browser
"Let's get some more news about this thing... this... this... 'resource action'".
The blog loads and renders.
7,000 words stare at you.
Written the previous day.

Unsolicited: your contribution.
Unrequited: your capital.

Extracted: your labour.
Redundant: your value.

Ironies are many

No matter.
You check in the code.
Respond to the instant message.
Answer the emails.
You are a resource.

You finish.
Break for lunch.

Things fall apart

This is a dark matter.


You call The Wife.
You need a comfort suite,
And some soul insurance.

This is a dark matter.



The first plank of the web style:
Identify all important resources.

First pass at a resume:
Enumerate skills and experience

Second pass:
Strive for brevity

Visualizing Koranteng

You can have me in 30 days.
The clock is ticking.

This is a dark matter.


You get back to work.

Email arrives. Inbox:
"The Company's Africa work sounds so cool!"

So. Africa. The Company. Work. Sounds. This! Cool?

You have 30 days,
The clock is ticking.

You're still a resource



You were a resource
But they've taken an action
A judgement of value: surplus.

No matter.

It's your turn now.
You'll publish another resource.
Add value to the global surplus.
Your hyperlinked testimony,
Your resource action.

This is a dark matter.


Music. Pet Shop Boys:
"There's lots of opportunities.
If there aren't, you can make them"


Music. Vesta Williams:
"Once bitten, twice shy"


Music. Gil Scott-Heron.
"She could hardly understand
that she was really sweeping up
pieces of a man."

This is a dark matter.


An awful conversation
An untimely disruption
A broken connection

A fractured dislocation
An involuntary termination
An extraordinary rendition

A resource manipulation
An ironic meditation
A redundant representation

A corporate decision
Announced with euphemism:
Call it a resource action

Best to rethink things.
After all: "You have 30 days".
The clock is ticking.

This is a dark matter.


Before: they paid you to stay.
Now: they'll pay you to leave?

Ironies are many

Strictly business,
Don't take it personal.
You're not alone.

A full frontal stare,
You dare not flinch.
You're all alone.

A temporary inconvenience
and a matter of soul.
Put your game face on:
"Be humble but be bold"

Timing is everything.
Must be more to the story.

No condition is permanent.
Observers are worried.

This is a dark matter.


It's time to save things
Let's see, the folder: web
The filename: resource-action.txt

That's enough.
Don't be precious,
You'll add the links later.

Note the time. Stop. It's all wasted time.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007, 1:45 PM

You get back to work.

Good father - Confidence - Big Blue truck in Africa

[ this space intentionally left blank ]

This is a resource action
This is the school of hard knocks

This is a dark matter.

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Our Son

We were blessed with a baby boy in the early hours of last Sunday. The Wife, The Daughter and I are as blissed out as can be about the new addition to the family.

Our son! My son! I'm as happy as can be. May your 8 pounds 5 ounces lead you onwards and upwards.

I plan to spend as much quality time with my family as I can. All the observations I've made in the past about the effect of parenthood on one's published output now apply doubly. In this instance however, I have a few pieces lined up that will be published automatically in the next few months as this blog will run on autopilot.

There is much deliberation in the mores of Akyem-Swedru, Accra and Aburi about the naming of children and a certain logic that is often followed (lineage, day names, special names and so forth). Still I am minded of the weight of all of those additional names, those shadow names, that may not appear on one's birth certificate but that still apply to you. Even at my age, I am still learning about names bestowed on me. There is power in naming and I wonder what names others will emphasize for our son. I look forward to his outdooring and to marking all the ceremonies that are to come in his life.

Welcome my son. I love you.

Soundtrack for this note

I'll add the following playlist to augment my previous take on parenthood. The theme is joy. (Listen here).

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Monday, May 13, 2013

Lagos 1975

The city of Lagos, Nigeria, as seen through the lens of a 1975 guidebook.

One of The Wife's American friends spent part of her childhood in Nigeria and mentioned that her mother had written a guide book on Lagos during that time. I immediately asked if I could take a look at it and thank her for allowing me to scan its pages. Hence I present to you a photo album:

Guide to Lagos 1975
Guide to Lagos 1975 001 cover

My customary routine when coming across such material is to wax poetic and at length but I'll strive for brevity this time since the nuances of Lagos and indeed Nigeria are mostly lost to someone who spent his childhood in Accra, Ghana. Many things do resonate since our colonial and post-colonial experiences are similar: the look of the buildings and people, the descriptions of the markets and shops etc. The obvious differences between Lagos and Accra lie in scale and intensity - perhaps this is true more broadly about the differences between Nigeria and Ghana. Accra to this day feels like a sleepy town in comparison to Lagos and of late, Nigerians, rich and poor alike, use Ghana as a rest and recreation area. The streets of Lagos are more crowded and the contrasts are sharper. The rich are richer, the poor are poorer, the hustle is fiercer, the pleasures and the dangers are more intense. In any case, I have a number of friends and family who live in and grew up in Lagos (and a surprising number who are writing about Lagos) who would no doubt find this useful.

Guide to Lagos 1975 029 Tinubu square

A guidebook provides a different kind of insight than a year's worth of Drum magazine focusing, by necessity on practical matters. This is a boon to armchair cultural anthropologists. If you're writing a novel for example, your characters can throw in a tidbit about safe choices for a good musical night out: Fela at the Shrine, Ebenezer Obey at Miliki Spot, Sunny Ade at Banuso Inn, dwell on the prices and the kind of crowd and note the caveat that the music does not get going until after 10.00 p.m. A contrarian would suggest traditional theatre by way of Duro Ladipo, Ogunde or Alawada. Your characters can discuss the virtues of Ben Osawe's wood sculptures or whether to go find that old man on Ikoyi Island whose carvings are imbued with the spirit of Ogun, or indeed that young apprentice who operates in that shack behind Bobby Benson's hotel. It helps to know that the kind of prices charged for a taxi or bus ride even if the price cited in the book should be viewed as a ceiling being geared to visitors. A visitor's guide by necessity points out things of interest to tourists but locals too gain in learning the outsider's perspective.

Guide to Lagos 1975 030 Itoikin River
Incidentally there appear to be a few copies in a few universities. For others, I have also run the scans through some rudimentary optical character recognition so the full text is available here. With those preliminaries out of the way, here's the introduction:
Lagos is the Federal Capital of Nigeria. It is also the Lagos State Capital and has a well established city government. It is the centre for all diplomatic missions and has a large and busy port. Diplomats, government officials, businessmen, workers, traders, travellers, all flock to Lagos, as well as many unemployed hopefuls hoping to make their fortunes. The population is estimated at 2 million and increases daily. The City is undergoing considerable reconstruction and development. The old and the new mingle together: large commercial complexes next to small trading stands; mini skirts and traditional robes. It is a city of sights, sounds and smells, some pleasant, some not so pleasant, but all giving evidence of the vibrance of the city.

The best way to get to know Lagos is on foot, for it is on the street that everything is happening. Lagos is not an easy city for a tourist, but if you are willing to look the rewards are many.

Guide to Lagos 1975 035 jankara market

In 1975 the estimate of Lagos's population was 2 million. The 2006 census placed it at 7.9 million, and by 2011 the UN was estimating it at 11.2 million. Just the following year, the New York Times would cite estimates of 21 million. Regardless of what you think about such wild estimates, Lagos' population has either quadrupled or grown tenfold over a generation. Development of the city has been relentless and mostly unplanned - messy is the word perhaps.

Lagos remains the commercial capital and heart of the country but the Federal capital is now Abuja. The military governments of the 1980s wanted their clean slate Brasília (the more recent parallel of the Lagos-Abuja relationship might be Burma's military building Naypyidaw to replace Rangoon). It is said that Abuja is indeed stepping into its political role these days but Lagos remains a force to behold.

Guide to Lagos 1975 028 Fishing village along Epe lagoon

The advice on walking the streets providing the best vantage point for getting to know the city is well founded. Street life is the essence of Lagos. The helpful hints section is eminently practical and insightful:
Lagos can be very chaotic. You must watch the traffic and be careful crossing streets. Sometimes things take a long time, so you must be patient. It often helps if you are polite but persistent. It is hot but it is important for you to stay cool. If you find yourself in a difficult situation ask someone for help and generally they will. Remember to dash (tip) all the people who offer you small services. They will remember too and be helpful the next time. Nigerians like to laugh and laughter is often the key to solving many problems.
Guide to Lagos 1975 031 Coconut Palm Forest at Badagry BeachGuide to Lagos 1975 027 tarkwa beachjpg

A large amount of research was done for the book and there is a quite sensible and extensive section on the city's history.
Guide to Lagos 1975 007 history protectorate illustration

The most interesting parts of the book are the many suggested tours and day trips (Modern Lagos and Museum, Isale Eko (Old Lagos), Cloth Market Balogun Street, Gutter ("Gotta") Cloth Market, Tinubu to Jankara, Ikoyi Island, Victoria Island, University Of Lagos, National Theatre and National Stadium, Tarkwa and Lighthouse beaches, Badagry, Epe And Yemoji River).

There is particular sensitivity in the architectural tour to the Sierra Leonean and Brazilian influences on the city's architecture. I wonder what gems a present-day architectural tour of Lagos would reveal for the city is in constant flux, always looking forward. One wonders if any of the landmarks pointed out here are still standing.

Guide to Lagos 1975 037 architectural tour of lagos brazilian architecture

It is noted that trade is the lifeblood of Lagos:
If you watch people in Lagos it looks as if everyone is buying or selling something all the time. The shops carry almost everything but the prices are high. The markets also have anything you might need, a bit harder to find, but at better prices if you are good at bargaining.
Of course it helps to have local friends:
It is best to go to Jankara market with somebody who speaks Yoruba.
The large department stores are reviewed including Kingsway:

Guide to Lagos 1975 044 kingsway stores Guide to Lagos 1975 043 shopping at kingsway

The other giants, Leventis and UTC, also feature. These stores (and now malls) compete against the traditional markets.

Guide to Lagos 1975 048 fill it up at Leventis StoresGuide to Lagos 1975 045 utc motors giant trees don't grow overnight
The various maps may not be (Apapa, Ikoyi Island, Lagos Island, Victoria Island) as detailed as today's Google maps but they are highlight much of what was notable at the time.

Guide to Lagos 1975 063 map of lagos island 1975
Advertisements in the book are the usual fare:
Guide to Lagos 1975 005 3m 191 revolutionary  copierGuide to Lagos 1975 024 RT Briscoe Nigeria Printers

The banks, Barclays as ever has a big presence, UBA too and also the insurance companies. Forty years later we are still under-insured and underbanked, the informal sector is still the lifeblood of African economies.
Guide to Lagos 1975 023 royal exchange assurance nigeriaGuide to Lagos 1975 017 united bank of africa
The car companies feature too with dubious Volga executive car alongside Datsuns who were beginning to make a splash.

Guide to Lagos 1975 013 volga the executive car waatecoGuide to Lagos 1975 049 datsun cars crop

The book covers everything from food
Most Nigerian meals consist of pepper soup made with fish, meat, or chicken, accompanied by a large portion of rice, gari or yam. At parties usually a wide variety of dishes are offered... Almost everything is well spiced with red pepper and you must ask if you would like a bit less.
through how to deal with bargaining at markets

Guide to Lagos 1975 032 Side road market scene in Lagos

and where to go to enjoy the nightlife

Guide to Lagos 1975 021 nightlife and cinema crop

It even dwells on the various traditional ceremonies one might witness.
When you drive around in Lagos any evening but especially on weekends, you may find gaily dressed people in small or large crowds, feasting, drinking, singing, drumming and dancing. They may be celebrating the birth of a child (usually the naming ceremony or baptism is on the eighth day), or a wedding, or the death of an old person or the anniversary of his burial. If an old person dies this is not a cause for mourning in Yoruba tradition. Rather it is a reason for joy and thanksgiving because the deceased has had a long and fulfilled life, has had children, and has now, at the right time, returned to god and the ancestors.
One can steal glimpses of Oba's palace and other landmarks.

Guide to Lagos 1975 035 Oba palace

The discussion of religion is astute and practical and a testimony about what would prove to be the real growth industry in the ensuing years.
Apart from the major Christian denominations a number of new sects and movements have sprung up in Nigeria and particularly in Lagos, like the "Cherubim and Seraphim", and the "Aladuras". Apart from some theoretical differences their practices are probably nearer to the traditional African rituals with ecstatic happenings, lively songs in local languages, clapping hands and the use of drums and bells. They have many small churches throughout Lagos. There are also a growing number of churches belonging to the Pentecostal movement.
Sections on elementary Yoruba and masquerades and traditional festivals round out the coverage. Sadly, one doesn't have a time machine to go back to Lagos 1975 but with this book in hand one enters a lost world, vaguely familiar at once, yet alien at times. What have we lost and what have we gained in the intervening years, one wonders? Now that Lagos is being rebranded in this new millennium I'd love to compare a present day guide to what I've read here.

Many thanks to the Pulleyblanks, young and old, for writing and sharing their insight on Lagos. I leave it to others to do a close reading.

Guide to Lagos 1975: photos

Guide to Lagos 1975: text

Soundtrack for this note

  • Tony Allen - Lagos No Shaking
  • Bob Ohiri & his Uhuru Sounds - Nigeria London Na Lagos
    The soundtrack of the place to be.
  • Asiko Rock Group - Lagos City
    Psychedelic disco funk. Brash and loud like the city itself.
  • Lagos All Routes
    This fabulous compilation features a who's who of 70s Afrobeat, highlife and juju including Sir Victor Uwaifo, Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson and Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey this time with his Inter-Reformers Band.
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Monday, April 08, 2013

The Ways of the Porcupine

Notes on reading the novels of Alain Mabanckou.

I. Restraint

A writer who shows restraint on a topic that is prime for exuberant fireworks is a rarity. When that topic is the dislocation of a civil war, you start to wonder. When the writer is known for splendid wordsmithing atmospherics, you take notice at the muted tone you encounter. As you read and can palpably feel the wrenching of the conflicts that the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville that is) was subjected to, you are even more surprised by the self-effacing prose. As you observe the contrast between the close and personal observations - the subtlety in short of the text, and the groundswell of manic viciousness that sweeps a country, you ask yourself if he can keep it up. When the voices of the female characters are realized so poignantly, you scratch your head thinking back to the author's reputation for shrewd depictions of male worlds. What do we have here, you ask yourself? All is not quite what it seems.

When you are branded a young lion, it takes restraint to not growl. When you have been feted as a stylistic innovator, it takes restraint to write within the margins. And so I came to read Alain Mabanckou's Les Petits-Fils Nègres de Vercingétorix. And so I was drawn deep into his world. I had previously read his debut novel, Bleu Blanc Rouge (1998), a bravura work for sure (and more on that anon) and had already placed him in the vanguard of modern African literature. Reading Les Petits-Fils Nègres de Vercingétorix simply marked him as a singular talent tout court. I was plainly impressed by his remarkable restraint. Would that more African writers follow his lead; too often we aim for the epic when the delicate touch would be just as ambitious.

There is a certain virus that afflicts human societies that's ostensibly to do with identity - sometimes it's couched as nationalism, sometimes as tribalism, oftentimes it's plain jingoism. Demagogues feed on it, and sadly many politicians find it hard to resist. It's a seminal disease whose symptoms at its worst involve people who had previously been living alongside each other erupting into murderous violence. The last century was a particularly bloodthirsty exemplar of this. The former Yugoslavia was a notoriously teachable moment about the endurance of such tribalism (Europeans don't seem to like the word for whatever reason). Africans of course are not immune to this disease; indeed, some often paint the continent as a great incubator of vicious innovation in this sphere. In the politics of Congo-Brazzaville of the last thirty years, militias were its expression. Whether it was those favoured by Denis Sassou Nguesso or some of the other rogues that the country had the misfortune to be afflicted with, militias wrought havoc with gruesome efficiency.

Les Petits-fils negres de Vercingetorix

The most interesting question to the reader in me is the form that the artistic response to such events takes. How does one write about topics as loaded as what we now brand as ethnic cleansing? And what kind of literature emerges in the wake of these uncivil wars? Surveying the scene - since similar tragedies have been plentiful in Africa, the literature, on the whole, has aimed for the epic. Sometimes the emphasis has been on the absurdity of the goings-on, other times writers have gone for sober reflection, always, however, the stories come out epic. Think of Ahmadou Kourouma's Allah n'est pas obligé, think of Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny, Chien Méchant, and, less successfully, Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation in recent times as takes on the warlordism and child soldiering. On the other hand, I'd advance as paragons of epic sobriety Helon Habila's Measuring Time, Yvonne Vera's The Stone Virgins and, on Biafra, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun. Standing essentially alone, Alain Mabanckou's strategy is restraint.

Les Petits-fils negres de Vercingetorix

Perhaps the most telling choice he makes is to do with the question of form. Les Petits-Fils Nègres de Vercingétorix is an episodic novel, written in the form of notebooks that a woman is writing to try and make sense of a life that has been upturned. It is about a barely disguised Congo-Brazzaville - a country placed into upheaval by militias and a North/South divide that affects families even to the extent of turning a man against his wife and even his own daughter. The inspired choice of diaries is at once a constraint - it almost obliviates grand storytelling and a kind of epic sweep - and a release, the narrower focus brings a intimate immediacy to the fore. The form allows for ellipses and the gaps are always telling, for when do we have the time and discipline to return to one's notebook? What is left unsaid can be inferred without much work on the reader's part, and, sometimes, the implications are so ominous that you wish that he had inserted a scene to salve the tension you feel.

Here is an African writer eschewing nativism and metaphorical excess a la Ben Okri. There is no fat, there is nothing to trim in the narrative. He doesn't traffic in arch constructions and just gives a story plainly told. The emphasis is on small scale journeys. Restraint in the form then serves to accentuate the dislocation that occurs.

It is a deeply felt book, I'd hazard even that it is the most personal of his books and it is the one in which he discarded the customary humourous mask he proffers. It is also the least 'literary' of his works which it makes it more satisfying to my mind - as he has been embraced by the academy, his novels have taken on more academic concerns. The novel considers what family and friendship mean when ethnicity becomes paramount and driven by parochial concerns. The lens is focused on two families that have crossed the ethnic divide and the repercussions they face as politicians ratchet up tensions. Perhaps the tale is best expressed by considering the two covers of the different editions: the one focusing on a woman and the other on a military parade. The latter, with the military in their shiny uniforms, perhaps representing the dissipation of so much of the continent's promise and energy. The cruelty of the militias that form is unrelenting and ugly and weighs on everyone.

It is fascinating that Mabanckou manages to give entire histories of these cruel militias and the men who used them as shock troops within the constraints of the novel's framework. You wouldn't expect that kind of pointillist historiography from mere diaries. It's as if Anne Frank's limited perspective from her Amsterdam hiding place grows to encompass the entire sweep of the world war. You don't notice it at first because there isn't an omniscient narrator at work, but all the players in Congo's madness are indelibly sketched, and vividly so. They could have been caricatures but instead are characterized with economical writing and steady accumulation of close observation.

I marvel at the power of this elegiac novel. Reading it, we learn that, with restraint, the tales of displacement that are part of the African story can be written with such delicate reflection. How does a seemingly clear-eyed society rend itself so thoroughly? And what are the costs to family and friendships? Restraint, indeed, is what that sterile modern phrase 'ethnic cleansing' deserves. Such is the way of the porcupine.

II. Empathy

All that glitters is not bleu, blanc, rouge. That, in brief, was the message of Bleu-Blanc-Rouge, my introduction to the writings of the man I'll call the porcupine. And what a debut this 1998 novel was. I can't praise it highly enough, for it contains multitudes within it. Read it as a novel about yearning, read it as a novel about immigration, revel in the fond portrait of Congo - wrinkles and all, enjoy the comic set pieces, and laugh, above all, laugh. In all these ways, you will encounter a very assured writer who found his voice early on. In many ways, it is a testament to the anglophone myopia in African literature that this wonderful book is only now seeing a translation into English as Blue White Red.

Alain Mabanckou Bleu Blanc Rouge

Bleu Blanc Rouge of course refers to the French flag; its embodiment in Parisian streets serves as a stand-in for the promised land (at least for those growing up in francophone Africa). Ostensibly then, there is this loving pull to leave one's land and head to streets paved with gold. "Abroad" is a message repeatedly hammered home to young Africans, and, along with its counterpart "The City", it has been one of the irresistible forces in post-colonial Africa. Our literature has followed accordingly, and the best treatments have always stemmed from authors who have great empathy.

The story of the African diaspora in France has universal echoes and, much like the story of any diaspora amidst their erstwhile colonizers, has built-in drama and comedy (the tension of exile, nostalgic longing and the process of adaptation to the funny ways of the locals etc.). The stories of Africans in England, Spain and Portugal touch on all these areas. Still I relate what Mabanckou does in Bleu Blanc Rouge most closely to what Samuel Selvon did in writing a great comic novel with sharp edges about the Caribbean diaspora in The Lonely Londoners, and with similar humour. Beyond that, Mabanckou appears to do what Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy does in a different medium, illuminate an entire society. He is not content to simply concentrate on what happens once you leave your homeland, he intends to fully explore the life you were leading in said homeland. Indeed he captures so many textures you'd suspect him of being a seasoned anthropologist.

Structurally and thematically we can read the novel in three broad sections.
  • Bleu - the blues of aspiration. Why is the lure of going abroad so strong even when there isn't political exigency driving things?
  • Blanc - the color of snow and the cold life abroad with the Caucasian natives. The hustle of immigrant life is examined.
  • Rouge - the red of conflict and disappointment, in this case dealing with the quiet return home and even deportation.
The young narrator, although ostensibly middle class, has given up on his studies and is making do in his own desultory way. Presumably it is a measure of the futility he sees of getting highly educated only to join the ranks of the hordes of graduate unemployed on the lookout for patronage in a country where cronyism is how things run.

He is inevitably drawn to those who affect to be gentlemen of leisure. What makes the novel indelible is its portrait of the culture that we know as La Sape. The first part of the book might well be the most complete account of the rise of the sapeurs of Congo. La Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (La Sape) is the star of the novel.

Alain Mabanckou Blue White Red

Mabanckou grew up among these iconoclasts. Their sartorial choices were a brazen reaction against the Authenticité campaign that Mobutu had embarked on next door (a campaign echoed initially by Sassou Nguessou close to home). At the same time in their lifestyle, they had taken to heart the dictator's more direct edict: Débrouillez vous. He describes with considerable humour (and without judgment) their seeming cult of materialism, their love of designer labels, of style over substance perhaps, their playful way with language and their dedication to living by their wits.

He regales us with fond descriptions of the origins of the sapeurs, he is especially acute about the difference between the sapeurs of Brazzaville and Kinshasa. We learn about those who lived that life, and their effect on those who grew up among them. The sapeur lore is recounted: the exuberance of their competitions, the mixture of hubris and bravado at work in their core... The set pieces that punctuate the book are a comic delight.

The seduction is quite real and embodied in the character of Moki - Charles Moki, who looms larger than life throughout the novel. Moki, one of those 'Aristocrates' and the most legendary of the 'Parisiens', might be considered the king of those sapeurs. They return from Paris with bags of designer clothes that they sell and exchange, spread money around town, flaunt their peacock wares, and tell tall tales about their life abroad.

There is an acute analysis of their descriptions of the promised land. The appeal of going abroad to Paris or Bruxelles lies in the perception of gold-lined streets in Babylon. A running joke in Marguerite Abouet's Aya de Youpougon series is of the man who is always promising to take you to Paris. In her works, the response is always skeptical yet the comic hyperbole used by those who come back about how things are easy abroad (as rendered by Mabanckou) will wear down even the most skeptical. And so we head abroad.

Paris proves to be a rude awakening. The narrator finds that Moki in Paris is a quite different man and, more generally, that life in Paris is quite different (read difficult) from what he had been led to believe. The contrast between the relative ease of life back home in Congo (even in poverty) and the squalid lives that many immigrants lead is something to behold.

Like Calixthe Beyala whose Le Petit Prince de Belleville paved the way (translated as Loukoum), Mabanckou depicts the reality that immigrants find hustling in Paris. Whether it is living illegally in vacant housing, sleeping in shifts on the floor of a squat, working multiple menial jobs and in the case of many sapeurs, getting embroiled in check fraud and any manner of illegality. The hardships are many and pressure of this fraught existence can weigh on you.

Congo Paris

Consider a sociological text like Congo-Paris: Transnational Traders on the Margins of the Law - a book that The Wife assigns in one of her African history classes. As an academic study of some of the same characters, it covers the same terrain exploring these men doing the gruntwork of globalization and capitalism. And yet I would hazard that far more insight, and indeed fun, would be gained by seeing things through Mabanckou's lens.

A Squatter's Tale by Ike Oguine is in the same vein, dealing with Nigerians who make it to the Bay Area in the US. A similar mix of bemusement and understanding suffuses the narrative. In another medium Alain Gomis's film L'Afrance tackles how one oversight can lead one to fall through bureaucratic cracks into the illegal immigrant category. With Mabanckou, however, one doesn't get the sense of a didactic point being made. The question of values is certainly on the agenda and one might well read this novel as a cautionary tale, but he wouldn't push you in that direction. The reason is his evident empathy for his characters and his ability to find humour even in the disillusionment about what one finds abroad: the drab immigrant life, the hustling for identity papers, the shadow life, the turn to crime etc. Indeed, when things go awry in the inevitable third act the authorial voice remains equanimous. The fall from grace is as entertaining as the rest of the novel.

If Mabanckou was not the first of the growing number of Immigrant Narratives in Contemporary France, he was certainly among the most assured and definitive. He revels in close observation and has a perfect ear for dialog. One finds in him a writer comfortable in his storytelling and deeply empathetic to his characters. One expects nothing less of a porcupine.

III. Provocation

African Psycho is a provocation. Try reading it in public, or leave it on your bus or subway seat, and observe the response of your fellow commuters. The title is pure agent-provocateur evoking, with a clin d'oeuil, Bret Easton Ellis. Everything about it demands attention, from the title, to the plot, the style of the prose and the inspired language. The English translation of African Psycho is serviceable although to my ear it doesn't capture the playful tone nor indeed the fireworks that Alain Mabanckou delivers in this novel.

African Psycho

The edition I have has a cover that showcases the madcap energy of the writing. The covers of other editions emphasize the youth aspect rather than the emotion. Mabanckou drops zingers every so often as if to keep you unbalanced throughout your reading. There is hardly a page without sentences make you gasp at their audacity or laugh at the goings-on.

The plot, such as it is, is detailed nonchalantly. It is the story of a street kid, an orphan sent from foster family to foster family. Self esteem is not on the agenda. He thinks he's ugly with repeated complaints about his 'tete rectangulaire'. A loser prone to self delusion, he is what you'd call minable in French. Full of resentment if not anger and poor as hell, he knows his shantytown well. Unlike many in the slums who seem to be getting on with life, he is a teeming mass of grievances. Looking out to 'le pays d'en face' across the river, there is resentment about the other Congo - Kinshasa, which is bigger and more famous than Congo-Brazaville, heck they even send their prostitutes over here. Our man's gripes echo the blind spots of Patrick Bateman's character in American Psycho although his are more legitimate than the latter's ludicrous obsession with labels, style and crass materialism.

The conceit of the novel is that he aspires to be a serial killer. You'll therefore note the explicit harkening to the themes of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment or even Camus' L'étranger. Unlike those antecedents, the protagonist is all aspiration. He couldn't kill a mouse if he set himself up for it. He'd make elaborate plans and find repeated excuses for why the mouse escaped this time. It's rather like one of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder entertainments. It's as if he initially decided to draw you in with the titillation of the setup but changed his mind, and rather settled to entertain you with a comic meditation on inept aspiration. After all death is far too frequent in African life and literature. The vibrant and showy language also reminds me of Dany Laferrière's Comment faire l'amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer. Literary young lions provoking readers and critics alike before getting down to business.

The porcupine, like the hedgehog in Isaiah Berlin's retelling, knows one one big thing. In that vein, it is plain that Alain Mabanckou cannot tell a bad story no matter how light the premise. He is blessed as a storyteller in much the same way that Evelyn Waugh had an unerring ear for satire. Like Waugh he also had quite prodigious early works (read Bleu Blanc Rouge as his Decline and Fall if you will). Oftentimes, however, to gain literary renown one must aim to be a fox. One never knows what critics or indeed the market will reward.

I have a pet theory that African Psycho was a throat clearing exercise, something he wanted to get out out his system before really stretching his shoulders and demonstrating his versatility beyond 'mere storytelling'. If my reading of the chronology is correct, he would next get a new publisher and start teaching literature in the US, gaining further insight into how to carve his place in the literary world. The provocative fireworks of African Psycho should then be seen as a transition or even a stepping stone. As such it has been a success, indeed, everything published since has been untouchable.

IV. Deception

Well perhaps deception is too strong a word especially since the confounding of expectations was welcome. Call it sleight of hand and a very studied and knowing affair, Verre Cassé - now available in translation as Broken Glass, is a literary hall of mirrors, the titular broken shards of glass reflecting fabulous visions at the reader.

At first Mabanckou approaches you with what seems to be a grotesque sort of Arabian Nights - or perhaps we should refer to some of the bawdier tales spun by Chaucer's travelers in The Canterbury Tales. The nightly revelry takes place at a bar and, as you settle down for the latest story, the regulars compete to add outré twists as if to ask can you top this one. From sordid tales about cuckoldry to pissing contests, he literally leaves you in the merde.

Verre Casse

About halfway through however, you you realize that Mabanckou is actually more interested in his narrator than in the baroque folktales spun nightly by the bar regulars. It's the David Lodge sensibility, lovingly, ever so lovingly, dragged into the gutter. Lodge's The British Museum is Falling Down is the best model for what is at work. One could read the latter as a straight comic novel, but the real pleasure and the playfulness comes when you realize that it embeds parodies of some of the most august authors. Lodge's tome spins pitch perfect voicings of everyone from James Joyce, through Franz Kafka to Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad.

Verre Cassé is similarly full of wordplay and literary allusions dropped as the bar tales are told with the studied effort of seasoned drunkard. You'll find puns about Autumn of the Patriarch (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), The Old Man and the Medal (Ferdinand Oyono) and even Camara Laye's L'Enfant Noir. There are no sacred cows; these influences are deployed, probed and deconstructed fluidly. The reader can bask in the oral tradition of storytelling like that of Chamoiseau in the vein of Solibo Magnifique.

You learn that your narrator host is someone whose head is full of literature - a stand-in for the author perhaps, who at this point had come to be teaching French literature in the US. He's drawn you in with humourous observations and is such good company that you'll want to drink at the same bar and, dare I say, read the same books. He had found the formula in this novel and the critical acclaim and major prizes started flowing his way.

The old wives' tale is that the porcupine's quills can be thrown at advancing predators and form the ultimate defensive weapons. The reality is that the prickly exterior is best adapted for camouflage. In the dark recesses of our minds, we know to crouch instinctively when the porcupine gathers himself in a ball. Most of the time however we don't notice him, hidden as he is in the foliage. Such wry deception, you see, is the way of the porcupine.

V. Comfort

Mémoires De Porc-épic is the title of Alain Mabanckou's most magisterial entertainment. No wonder he won all those prizes in 2006. The control of tone shows someone at the peak of his powers. He can be loose and discursive at will and yet turn on a dime and focus the narrative. He'll turn from literary disquisition to plot intricacies that leave you hanging on. You can't call it Congolese Gothic - even if tempted by the plot; you can't call it "magic realism" although he provokes you in passing. No, this is probing, searching and vital storytelling. And yet what do we have in this novel, now translated as Memoirs of a Porcupine? A porcupine unburdens his soul to a baobab tree recounting his life as a double nuisible - an animal double of a man who turns out to be very far from sympathetic, if not outright horrific.

Memoires De Porc-epic

Ostensibly the novel is about the mix of rumour, gossip, jealousy that can overtake a village, the perceived slights - the accusations that poverty and faulty biology can foster. It is also about the compulsion to help one's double no matter what. The premise is surreal but all the outlandish happenings are dealt with in such a matter-of-fact manner that the reader goes along. It just happens. Think about it, a porcupine is talking to that great African confidant, the baobab tree, a porcupine moreover who is perhaps trying to make sense of things, why is he alive when his double has died?

The novel examines matters of identity (see the double motif) and the impact of rumour in traditional societies. If people in the village start dying mysteriously, there must be someone slighted. This leads to tests and various rituals in the community (for example drinking of potions). You would file this under the banner of belief systems, the kind that ethnologists from the West study - they'll call it social anthropology. The porcupine lampoons this kind of cultural subjectivity. Yes the porcupine narrator, in his sophisticated mode turns to lampooning academics. There you have it: the winking eye of Alain Mabanckou, the tall tale you've become engrossed in, the mix of pointed commentary, biting satire, observation of tradition in consonance with modernity, and then the provocation. You're in the realm of the porcupine, and a wily one at that.

Memoirs of a Porcupine

The porcupine narrator is cowardly and needs to be suborned by his other self into violence. The missions accumulate, suspicion grows and disaster falls. Do these things actually happen? Or does he really tell the truth? Identity is refracted, myths are remade, language is made malleable, reflection, humour and violence intertwine. It's the literary hall of mirrors of Verre Cassé this time elevated into a universe that is Mabanckou's own, one that only intermittently relates to our own Milky Way. The novel is destined to be studied and dissected perennially. It goes far beyond Academy bait (it won the Prix Renaudot) into its own category. It was the intense experience of reading these 'memoirs' that led me to designate Alain Mabankcou as the porcupine of these notes.

The porcupine follows his own path. Like the squirrels he is related to, but with adorned with his protective spine, he is playful at once and prickly at the other. Aware that he needs to keep his wits around him, his is careful in his movements; a hard worker, he pays attention to his craft. He's a social creature engaging with his peers and is so comfortable in his skin that the moments of solitude never lead to loneliness.

VI. Musical

There is a certain rhythm to the writings of Alain Mabankcou, unhurried by default, it meanders at times, skipping occasionally or incorporating extra ideas but always returning to the beat like the best sebene. After two very successful novels (Verre Cassé and Memoirs de Porc-épic) largely embraced by the academy that played with all kinds of highbrow literary subtexts, he returned to the musical storytelling that characterized his debut.

Black Bazar, the last novel of his I've read, is akin to a stroll down the streets of Chateau Rouge. It's a return to the themes of Bleu Blanc Rouge a decade later. The emphasis isn't so much on the sapeurs this time as on the entire immigrant community that has asserted itself at the heart of Paris.

Black Bazar fessologue butt aestheticBlack Bazar fessologue butt aesthetic

The chief narrator is nicknamed Fessologue, which I'd rather translate as connoisseur of fine female derrieres rather than what I've seen elsewhere. Sidenote: would you translate Fessologue as Buttocks Man? Wouldn't you instead go for something more delicate: Butt Aesthetician perhaps, or Professor Gluteal Maximus? Digression on a digression: this is the dilemma an English translator faces with sharp and witty Francophone writers like Mabankcou and Patrick Chamoiseau, how does one unpack the playful language of their musical riffs. One hopes the translators come to capture the delicate humour of their knowing argot.

Fessologue then is a comic figure who verges on the tragicomic. A bon vivant sapeur with a heart of gold, he knows he is being used by his girlfriend - cuckolded even, as she has decamped to the Congo. Indeed he might even have been paying and caring for another man's child all these years. That betrayal is of no matter, he wants to do the right thing. The novel follows him his peripatetic attempts to reconcile the codes of his sapeur lifestyle (the constant need for different varieties of crocodile skin Weston shoes say) with the heavy responsibilities he has started to feel (making enough to send that Western Union transfer so that his daughter is cared for wherever she might be) and the pleading for his girlfriend's return. Like many of Mabankcou's characters he is no hero and is unreliable in all too recognizable ways. Hilarity ensues as one might expect. The complications do make indeed for a Black Bazaar.

Black Bazaar

Black Bazar even has a musical afterlife with a wonderful album and a tour of a collective of rumba and soukous greats inspired by the novel (lots of videos here). It is fitting since the novel's language felt alive and seemed to move to its own soundtrack.

I have only read half of Mabankcou' novels and, prolific as he is, there is much more to his catalog. Apparently also the poetry and essays loom large for some critics. He is increasingly busy these days enjoying his prime as it were. His works have been already been adapted on the stage and Hollywood must surely be next. Recently he has translated Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation into French, Bêtes sans patrie in a quite serendipitous meeting of minds. A highly adept wordsmith capturing the rhythms of another. The author of African Psycho - what with its vaguely aspirational homicidal street kid protagonist, was surely the right one to take on the child soldier.

His craft is undeniable and he is one of the best living African writers. I've found that most treatments of his work in English damn him with faint praise. I suppose this is because he writes in French and is pigeonholed accordingly. The obvious antidotes will be forthcoming as it seems the translations are now coming apace. I hope he is ready for the full glare of the attention that will surely be coming his way. I offer these running notes as a marker before the crowds arrive, an attempt at a reader's quiet appreciation. My only critique is that I have found more rewarding the novels that don't explicitly emphasize his literature professor guise. In these notes then, I have emphasized the works that have felt the most naturalistic.

I want to have a drink at the Credit a Voyage bar and exchange tall tales with its owner, l’Escargot Entêté. I want to share a few beers with mon pôte le porc-épic. I want to discuss exiled souls and the quality of wist in African life. I want to joke about the horde of Congolese barbers who loudly accost you when you step out of the metro station at Château d'Eau and contrast them with the lot at Château Rouge. What gives? Is it Brazzaville versus Kinshasa in the Parisian setting? I wonder about the soukous soundtrack that they seem to dance to as they gesticulate and beckon. I can only hope that my friend the porcupine continues weaving his tales. His latest novels are at the top of my wishlist. I'm going to savour them in the ever so fleeting moments when I can lose myself in a book. I'm digging the ways of the porcupine. A head nod in the direction of Alain Mabanckou.

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