Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Brexit, a playlist

We don't have a Plan B by Redhead Kingpin
Stuck on you by Lionel Richie
Can't stand losing you by The Police
Looking at the front door by Main Source
Chaos and Disorder by Prince
Let's stay together by Al Green
I can't see myself leaving you by Aretha Franklin
Stay with me by El Debarge
Knockin' at the wrong door by The Rollers
Mistake by Fela Kuti

Bonus beats:

Weary by Amel Larrieux
Let's call the whole thing off by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

Liner notes:

I was an early victim of Theresa May's 'hostile environment' immigration policy, and lost my notional residency in Her Majesty's lands some time ago, hence I'm quite ambivalent about the exhausting spectacle of self harm that the past three years of English politics have provided. True, the political sketch writers have been having a field day as everyone has done their worst - with the promise of more to come. Satire is a soothing balm for dysfunction, but to paraphrase Theresa May, dysfunction means dysfunction.

The closing track of this playlist, Mistake, recorded live at the Berlin Jazz Festival, was originally meant to be part of the appropriately named Zombie album (prescience about "the withdrawal agreement"?). As is typical for a Fela track, languorous horns float in and out atop the loping drums throughout, and it is only after 8 minutes that Fela gets to decrying colonial thinking.

Mistake you go make, people go laugh at you.
After they laugh at you, them go smile again

Still, he is quite optimistic in the end: "after mistakes... everything's all right". As for the rest of the tracks, they are self evident. Nominations for additions are welcome.

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Monday, March 11, 2019

Side by Side

A few juxtapositions briefly noted - part of an occasional series.

Novelistic Lives

novelistic lives
  • The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall
  • The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  • The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin
Another candidate on the same bookshelf was Milan Kundera's Life is Elsewhere.

House Readings

House readings
  • La vie de boy (Houseboy) by Ferdinand Oyono
  • Housegirl by Michael Donkoli
  • The Housemaid by Amma Darko
My favourite book on much the same theme is Empress of the Splendid Season by Oscar Hijuelos.

Office Tales

Office life, office politics, the organization man, managing humans, the bad child's book of beasts
  • Office life by Keith Waterhouse
  • Office Politics by Wilfrid Sheed
  • The Organization Man by William H Whyte, Jr
  • Managing Humans by Rands in Repose
  • The Bad Child's Book of Beasts by Hilaire Belloc
Belloc's inclusion turns these office tales into a survival guide.

Contrasting Fortunes

I grew up in a newsroom hence print newspapers retain their fascination for me. In this age of declining print journalism, I am still cheered that there are some stories whose impact is best dealt with in newsprint. The touch of a great editor melding words and images is a thing to behold.

apartheid legacies in Stellenbosch

Surprisingly, although it was part of the same story, it was not the front page display of last Sunday's New York Times that was vital to me, nor indeed the online version, A battle defined by Property Lines and Race. Rather it was the contrast between the images of those erecting a shack on page 12 and the relaxing tourists in the streets of Stellenbosch on 13 that silently made the poignant case. The complexities of the enduring legacies of apartheid were succinctly illustrated. Who gets to share in the wages of wine and spoils of the soil?

In the same vein, I had a strong sense that the Brexit referendum would go the way it did simply by reading the inside pages of the Daily Mail in January 2016, something that amounted to Tickling John Bull's Lizard Brain. There, skillful juxtaposition had a visceral impact even on a jaundiced reader.

The most effective juxtaposition I can remember was executed in the war context in the reporting of the Israeli attacks on Lebanon in 2006. The accompanying article, In Beirut, an Abyss Between Elegance and Chaos, didn't need much more that the contrasting photos.

"One man struggles, while another relaxes", goes the refrain in Massive Attack's Hymn of the Big Wheel. This is the nature of The Great Game.

Colors - a playlist

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Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Legacies (Munhango to Kennebunkport)

My proudest bit of publishing was an alternate history centered on Angola that someone gifted me late one night. "Here's to bad men" was the takeaway of that fevered dossier, a strand of the story of what historians now brand the "lost decades" in Africa and elsewhere. Stories are always unfinished, and the late KB Mensah shared some photos of Jonas Savimbi from his BBC archives that would have fleshed out that script. Also illuminating was Chester Crocker’s High Noon in Southern Africa (thank goodness for vanity, and used book stores). Its title and duel framing was inadvertently revealing; the outlook of cowboy diplomacy hard to resist. We have occasion to revisit the legacies of these political actors. If the prevailing view from Kennebunkport was of a cold-blooded, Cold War, on the ground in Munhango and Cuito Cuanavale, however, there were warm bodies that bore the brunt of abstractions: domino theories, linkage and containment. Collateral damage aside, the rest of us bear witness.

Jonas Savimbi

Apparently enough time has passed since the death of Jonas Savimbi that we are now urged to take a more nuanced view of his legacy. The caricature that was memorialized in the video game, Call of Duty: Black Ops II while apt for a rogues gallery of pulp fiction is said to be too simplistic.

Jonas Savimbi crowd

His family even sued for defamation at the blunt portrayal:

A lawyer for Activision Blizzard, Etienne Kowalski, has rejected the claim, stating that the game represents Savimbi as a "good guy" – and that he is portrayed fairly, "for who he was... a character of Angolan history, a guerrilla chief who fought the MPLA".
Jonas Savimbi gun address

The case was dismissed. The legacy remains contested.

The elder Bush in death will face similar contests despite the patrician image, New England privilege and attendant Yale legacy. Reputations need to be managed.

George Bush, Jonas Savimbi & Chester Crocker 1986

Chester Crocker looked on as Vice President George Bush met with Jonas Savimbi in the Oval Office in January 1986 to discuss the United States' continued assistance to UNITA in the Angolan civil war.

Item: Joseph Mobutu (a.k.a. Mobutu Sese Seko amongst other honorifics) was the most prized CIA asset in Africa from the 1960s until his death in 1997. He was a friend to every CIA director in his lifetime.

Dig: The Bush and Mobutu families spent vacations together.

The late Barbara Bush would recall in her memoir the visits with "President Mobutu, who wears a leopard skin hat and carries a tribal stick. He is very flamboyant, but charming."

Franco et le T.P. OK Jazz sing for Mobutu

High Noon in Southern Africa makes a quite long winded defense of US foreign policy, arguing that it was all in service of "making peace in a rough neigbourhood". Diplomats often have do such things: putting lipstick on a pig or, to mix metaphors, making palatable the unsavoury. Still Crocker doth protest too much. It was never about clean hands, it was naked self interest. Being on the wrong side of history, supporting apartheid, propping up dictators will always be thrown back at one's face.

Ronald Reagan and Chester Crocker

— Ronald Reagan and Chester Crocker at the Oval Office in November 1984 discussing the US policy to vigorously oppose sanctions on the South African apartheid regime.

While Ronald "Ray Gun" was the ostensible target of Gil Scott-Heron's classic 1981 track 'B' movie, there was also this observation:

'The screenplay will be adapted from the book called "Voodoo Economics" by George "Papa Doc" Bush.'

Prescient as always, our Gil, and then this:

... all of a sudden we have fallen prey to selective amnesia - remembering what we want to remember and forgetting what we choose to forget.'

Ah right, Papa Doc and the Tontons Macoutes that ruined Haiti. Lest we forget.

gil scott-heron ronald reagan and john wayne - b movie american nostalgia

Squalid murder for the left of us, flowers to the right.

We've since learned of Donald Rumsfeld's notions that informed Bush the Younger's catastrophic reign:
Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones

The obvious problem with the Rumsfeld taxonomy of knowledge is that it ignores the "unknown knowns", that is, the unconscious biases that underlie an issue. This willed blindspot is the working mechanism of selective amnesia. We are living in a moment where nostalgia is key and we're anesthetizing ourselves with transactional, cowboy politics.

There was a recent clarification which reminded me of the title of an episode of The Wire: moral midgetry.

America First!

The world is a very dangerous place!

... the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors

... maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!

— Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Standing with Saudi Arabia, November 2018

Arms sales (and preferably ours).

Jonas Savimbi angola tank

The B movie theory: manifest destiny revisited as farce. The politics of rehabilitation, reputation scrubbing, and legacies of blood and sin.

Soundtrack for this note

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Tuesday, December 04, 2018


In lieu of writing (checks to see the alarming length of time since I last clicked publish) as the parental cone of silence has enveloped those routines, I have managed to do some reading of late (and by reading I mean books, not the omnivorous web consumption that is our new normal) (and by books, I mean paperbacks - it's my practice to ensure that I am always behind the latest literary fashion). I've been pleasantly surprised that this past year's crop of books has nothing that should be best left unread, and indeed I recommend all of these. Herewith my year in books.

Readings 2018
  • Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

    An entertainment and a tour-de-force. The sheer bravado, humour and joy at work is remarkable. With every page, I grew ever more convinced that the future of the African novel is in good hands. Sidenote: it is so well crafted that it elicited the finest book review I've read in years. Apparently there's a good translation that manages to capture the frenetic energy and linguistic fireworks. There's a musical rhythm to the writing, classically one might call it a Greek chorus, but I would rather ascribe it to the the swirling multitudes of Papa Wemba. Taking a broader, pan-African view, I imagine a soundtrack by T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo. When paired with Alain Mabanckou's wonderful earlier Verre Cassé (with which it almost rhymes), it is clear that we have been gifted a great cultural movement: literary sapeurs of the two Congos.

  • Petit Piment by Alain Mabanckou

    The master is always more impressive when he writes in a personal mode. The focus on the young protagonists expands the range of the customary humour. Congo's Dickens is at work sketching journeys from the orphanage to gritty streets. Oliver Twist or Great Expectations.

  • Tales from Africa by K.P. Kojo

    Nii Ayikwei Parkes' second collection of children's stories was a nighttime favourite for the kids. Encore!

  • Les aubes écarlates by Léonora Miano

    A Cameroonian take on the child soldier narrative. Haunting stuff that made for gripping reading. I will nitpick the ending - although I later realized that I had missed the fact that this was the third novel in a series. I'm with the 99%.

  • The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla

    Modern Britain is yet to come to terms with race and the probing essays in this collection broaden the perspective, lucid without being didactic, personal yet universal. I await the follow up on that deals with this side of the Atlantic.

  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

    Hey, Oprah recommended it and man did he deliver. Applause all around. There was a vibrant literary scene at Harvard just as the dot com boom got going. Kevin Young, the late Philippe Wamba, and others all had oblique takes our modern condition. Colson Whitehead remains one of the most original of that cohort.

  • Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

    Uganda sliced every which way. Read it. Savour it. Then read it again.

  • Swing Time by Zadie Smith

    A crowd pleaser from our greatest writer. Every detail works. Even this musical obsessive couldn't play gotcha. How's that, not even one anachronism; it isn't fair.

  • The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
  • Late era Barnes is no less ambitious than the young lion who gave us A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. Pointillist precision on display.

  • Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

    A late pass as ever, I'm forever fascinated by what he omits in his published works while grateful for what we do get. Here's willing him back to the blogging front. As Abbey Lincoln sang: Throw it Away.

  • The Cartel by Don Winslow

    Epic in scope like its dark predecessor. The definitive take on the drug wars that are our ongoing predicament.

  • Les Contes d'Amadou Komba by Birago Diop

    I am savouring these modern Senegalese folktales with all their delicious twists. Having been brought up on Ananse stories and Arabian Nights, this is right up my alley. I treat myself to Diop's tasty morsels. He's my Peggy Appiah.

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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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