Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Road Trip

It was a mere road trip to fetch my grandmother from our family's village in the Volta region for the New Year, yet it ran the gamut of emotions. Some impressionistic travel toli from the archives...

I. Sick


The motorcyclist didn't even try to avoid them - indeed it seemed as if he sped up to reach them. Coming up behind him, and taking furious evasive action, we barely missed adding to the desolating impact. A contest between a Honda motorbike and a hen and her four chicks will always be unequal. A week-old chick, half the size of a tennis ball was the fatal casualty, collateral damage to glib insouciance. The reaction to the death was all too familiar. The hen felt the maternal loss - there was that squealing sound, and the mortified look at the crumpled flesh was a recognizable universal. Yet there was no time to dwell on the damage and she gathered the remainder of her brood to continue crossing the road - presumably she would return later if at all possible, braving the traffic. We all felt sick in the car; we all felt angry. What kind of man enjoys running over a chick? As we overtook him, the wrathful thought crossed my mind, a slight swerve and it would be the same kind of competition between our four-wheel drive and his motorbike, roadkill revenge on this chick murderer on the main street of Anyiwarase. Such are the conflicted musings of a backseat driver... Instead, we mournfully averted our eyes as we passed: they say that, much like revenge, wrath is for the weak. In any case, the next town was coming up.

the chickens of berkeley - call them free range

II. Sour


The mood in the car turned eerily reflective as we drove through the village of D. It took me half a minute to remember that its townsfolk had attempted to murder my uncle in the last elections, which explained the pregnant silence of his brother, who slowly drove the car through its only paved street - he'd had to retrieve him back then, bloodied and all - and the stillness of his 89 year old mother, who is still feeling the wound to this day. Try as I might, and I tried twenty times in a row, no photos that I took would come out right. It was as if the Gods of Nikon decided to forbid me a photographic record of this hamlet of trauma. Oh well, it would have to live on in my memory, live and not Memorex.

We noted that the electricity that my mother had sought to have delivered to the village had indeed been installed, and that the school now seemed well appointed and equipped and even had a fresh coat of paint. It was their just reward, a shower of love. The village is a religious settlement, home to an evangelical sect; the unkind call them a cult, but surely brands do not matter in Ghana's new Christianity. "Welcome to D. City of God. A holy town", proclaims the sign at the village entrance. "One whose folk do unholy things", I thought to myself...

Nothing was said for a long while in that car. Call it group therapy for three generations, a commemoration of a town we must pass whenever we want to see loved ones.

To salve myself, I remembered a lyric, nothing hits your heart like soul music, and contemplated a playlist - the lead track would have to be Portishead's Sour Times. My thoughts then turned to the climax of that Clint Eastwood b-movie, you know, the one in which the avenging gunfighter makes the all-too-fallible members of a town paint it entirely in red as if to commemorate the blood that spilled on the ground. Oh, and in that vein perhaps Gil Scott-Heron's Paint it Black, would fit the bill. And so forth... There was perfect silence until we reached the bridge.

digable planets

III. Sweet


We stopped after we crossed the bridge at Atimpoku. As we slowed, thirty-five or more traders, mostly young girls, scampered in our wake and surrounded the car, arms outstretched, wares on the head, and tongues wagging. Some insistent, some seductive, some combative, the whole, a joyful cacophony.

Atimpoku bridge


They shouted, "Papa-le, Novi, Big Man. Hey. Honey. Over here..." Rolling down the window, I could see and smell the alluring prizes they presented: abolo and the red lobster, shrimp and crayfish - freshly caught and smoked from the river. And the pears of course. Indeed some shoved their wares into the car. Well the bargaining began in earnest. In Africa, a market forms wherever there is slowed traffic; one's car window becomes a temporary shop, the products thrust in your hands for brief evaluation. You have to bargain hard even though the prices are ridiculously low from your dollar-based standpoint. It is expected that even big men will barter.As they say, markets are conversations...

Stopping at the bridge to buy abolo and shrimp was a ritual my uncle and I have always performed. I remember especially vividly the road trips the two of us took in the late 80s and early 1990s. Back then, with the poorer roads and cars, we were guaranteed to break down and the food would prove essential as we waited at the roadside for someone to stop and help. As the bundles of food produce were handed over, the thought vaguely crossed the mind that most of these girls should be in school rather than hawking their wares. The warm, breadlike abolo — baked rice flour wrapped in fresh plantain leaves, smelled and tasted as I remembered: at once sour and sweet. And the shrimp! Well... There's a reason we always ate them even during the cholera scares of a decade ago... Ah foolish me, forgive me for thinking that cholera scares were a thing of the past, apparently they're back these days.

volta river boats


Of course the packaging of the food wares on hand recalled the eternal tension between tradition and modernity. On the one hand, the organic plantain leaves that no one can imagine buying abolo without, and, on the other, the now-ubiquitous plastic bag or cling wrap surrounding the shrimp. Or indeed consider the sachet water industry that the young girls, the kayaye, that ply our streets embody. You can't avoid plastics it seems; the populace has seeming voted with its pocket books for sachet drinking water and the cottage industry it has spawned. We really must challenge ourselves to do better when it comes to packaging of our foods. The market hasn't changed in over a century except perhaps with this non-biodegradable detritus that mark out our modern age.

Newly repaired and resurfaced, the bridge looked better than I'd ever seen it. Deferred maintenance is the usual fare in our lands but some enterprising soul had managed to secure the funds to rehabilitate this bridge, allowing it to escape the lot of the numerous road and construction projects that have simply stalled in the past few years - even as they had been budgeted for. My uncle regaled me with the toli that the drivers of some of the very heavily loaded trucks that we saw parked nearby in the town, which are ostensibly forbidden from using said bridge, were known to lie in wait and pay lucrative bribes to pass during the night. Everyone knows it but no one does anything about it. Plus ça change, a routine story of law and disorder in Ghana.

The mood lifted as I took in the sights, sounds and smells of life around the river Volta. I remembered the great, restful feeling of earlier in the day. There's a reason everyone who visits loves this part of Ghana.

There's a certain freshness of the air once you cross the bridge and officially enter the Volta region. It's not that development has passed the place by but it does feel more unchanged. The nearby Ho hospital after all is testament to state-of-the art living (even if we discount its notorious 150 percent overhead - white elephant election gifts that World Bank directors would prefer you not to bring up in conversation). I recalled the majesty of the trees in our village commons, near the EP church (Evangelical Presbyterian that is). The trees that used to serve as facilities for the primary school all the way until 2002.

tree in Abutia village commons


I remembered the sight of my grand aunt standing in line to vote in the day's district assembly elections, proud of doing her civic duty even amidst the shambles - the ballots had only arrived at 2 pm, and only in our village, not in the three surrounding villages. Her early-bird attempt at 9 am had been fruitless but hopefully by now she would have managed to cast her vote. Listening to her complain about the Electoral Commission and disorganization, I reminded her that she was the one who always said that democracy was a process, that we always had to fight for it. "Well it's getting tiring".

I was minded of the uncanny places you might come across a 1969 Opel, a vintage collector's item that deserves to be in a museum if not on the road.

1969 opel


I wondered about the lives of those who decide to retire to Ghana's villages. The old men sitting under the canopies throughout the day. Do they have places to go and people to talk to? Elder care ought to be a growth industry in Ghana, and professionalized too. Those traditional bonds that we have long prided ourselves as differentiators are a thing of the past.

old men sitting in abutia


But it was all about talking to family, young and old, and hearing about the changes we'd been going through.

mother and daughter


Our village is always restful.

main path abutia


abutia village


The once dense forest in the Abutia hills is slowly recovering from the depredations of the nearby human settlements.

abutia view hills


Our houses are mostly unchanged.

abutia house


We work with millet and maize in the same immemorial manner as if a little technology couldn't help.

abutia working with millet


Heading back home we reached the Tetteh-Quarshie roundabout, named after our country's famous scion (he brought cocoa, that other black gold to Ghana). Formerly miles of unused land, and notoriously the dumping ground for some of the laziest of Rawlings's death squads in the early eighties (the Affram plains being too far for their cargo of bodies), it has seen development - they now call it an interchange. On its margins still sits the unfinished hotel that the owner of Shangri La started against advice - until the marshy soil sank the buildings as if in rebuke. But there are now additions and, well, the sour memories are being eclipsed by the new additions to its environs, the new sweetness of Better Ghana.

We passed the Accra Mall that, much like Citizen Kofi's, is an attempt to bring an upscale Southern California aesthetic to Ghana. The middle class of a recently declared middle income country deserve their Apple i-shop and finery. Vlisco proudly display their new creations and Woodin had just opened a branch doling out their fabulous fabrics. A store manager would later admit that too many people were window shopping over the holidays. And so we have the mall as a youth hangout, thoroughly normalized in other words. In just a few years, we have developed a mallrat culture worthy of New Jersey. Globalization as the Mosquito Principle.

stunning dress and fabric by Vlisco


We are living multiple realities it seems.

abutia scene


We passed the Villagio sky scrapers under construction that expats are buying sight unseen - rumours of up to a million dollars for the upper floors. The bit about these being all-cash payments makes one wonder about where the money is coming from.

tower construction


Some things are unchanged, mud huts compete with steelworks.

abutia mud hut


Just a few minutes later we passed the gleaming office building that my cousin's husband designed just a few doors down our street. The quite malicious toli is that it was a monument to Mum, that she was behind it, that it was proof of her millions. It's the name you see, The Elizabeth. If only they could see her bank account and what fleeing your home at your prime into 18 years of exile can do.

the elizabeth designed by esem quartey


Shacks overlap with shining glass.

abutia shack


the elizabeth designed by esem quartey 3


Life is sweet in Ghana (for some at least).

abutia shack 2


We came home that's all.

Soundtrack for this Note



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Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Parenthood

So The Wife and I were blessed with a baby girl yesterday. A bundle of joy, 6 and a half pounds of loveliness, we couldn't be more elated. We'll have the outdooring (naming ceremony) in due course. Like all new parents, it's all about change, lots of change to our life, and an abundance of love.

The Wife had also been labouring to deliver her book manuscript to the publisher and, in the race between baby and book, our child barely won by two nagging footnotes, it was a close run thing, you know. The one was all sweetness and the other is to be titled, Bitter Roots. My own role was minor: a shoulder to rest on, a hand to squeeze, a chauffeur, cheerleader, cook and a proud husband - oh, and a copy editor.

I expect to be spending lots of quality time with the new addition to the family so blogging and everything else will be fitful at best, and diaper-constrained for certain. In mitigation, I've written a whole lot already over the past 6 years and even have some toli queued up for episodic release.

In the meantime, allow me to bask in parenthood.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

He of The Little Green Book

Events are fast outpacing the best laid plans of both dictators and mere toli mongers, thus, although the theme fits the bill, I have had to bring forward the piece I promised almost four years ago as a follow up to the theater of that secret video of Gaddafi that was leaked to me. The current atrocities and low rent circumstances however necessitate light verse, or even doggerel, rather than the intended prose poem. Thus I give you another entry in the Things Fall Apart Series, file this under the banner of Fallen Angels.

I. He of The Little Green Book


He of The Little Green Book was in Paris the other day
A grand tour, part of an awakening some might say

Hospitality and social graces were extended his way
Amnesty International had to make do with dismay

Inconvenient topics, blood and sin, never to be discussed.
He went hunting, or, as his hosts put it, faire la chasse.

The tumult of the entourage and the ceremonial band
The customary bodyguards, as always, were close at hand.

He pitched his travel tent on the lawn of the Grand Palais
And lectured his hosts on human rights throughout the day

An oasis of oil and gas under his land
He'd built up a legacy of blood-soaked sand.

Self-importance, one can always understand
The revolutionary principles, however, damned the man.

Epigrams, ludicrous even without translation
And with translation, worthy of the blandest corporation.

Claimed to be a Guide with revolutionary notions
To life, the Brother Leader presented solutions

You've heard no doubt about the "Third Universal Theory"
And of course "The Solution of the Problem of Democracy"

"The Authority of the People" was his starting point
His modus operandi however was blood, from joint to joint

The social and economic basis of this here distributed theory
Was, in practice, a political axis of corruption, not the first in history

Newspapers throughout Libya were organs of adulation
He of The Little Green Book, officially venerated as a philosopher-king

...

Back home in Ghana at the depth of our despair
When books were scarce, and food shelves were laid bare

He of The Little Green Book made a donation
A token of the good Colonel's appreciation

A thousand copies of The Little Green Book
Brotherly solidarity, extended to the Ghanaian pocketbook

The generosity of his wisdom, to be shared far and wide.
Our universities, the recipients of his vacuous bromides

We'd learned heavy lessons about what he called revolution
"Crush the dissent", "Don't brook any opposition".

Thus, ever since the Flight Lieutenant's arrival
We'd had to develop a new philosophy of survival

At markets, we would fight over corned beef and sardine tins
Throughout I kept asking myself: why are these men laughing?

Rawlings and Gaddafi on cover of Talking Drums magazine 1986-01-13 - Ghana stands by Libya in US dispute - Doe pledges reconciliation


...

He of The Little Green Book was in Italy the other day
Introducing good old Silvio to a rarefied kind of play

Bunga bunga parties were on the menu
Gas and oil deals discussed, and matters of revenue

On Putin's bed, it was eroticism incarnate
Sexual gymnastics, the orgies very articulate

They were men who thumbed their noses at everyone else
Impunity their lifeblood, they were enamoured of self

A cushy life, lived surrounded by buxom Ukrainians
They were gremlins and parasites, or rather, rogue authoritarians

Mercurial, the journalists would call him, and I think it was a cop out
For he was severe in the application of power, of that there can be no doubt

Adept at the shell game of diplomacy in latter times
Don't forget the expedient dumping of allies at the drop of a dime

There's even an opera about him, Gaddafi, do take a look
Although it points out inconsistencies in The Little Green Book

Fear not, in the pantheon where Chairman Mao had his Red Book
You can share the luminous thoughts of He of The Little Green Book

A slight never forgotten, that's what brought him here
The clannish sensibility of a cold-blooded dictator

He of The Little Green Book thus always made it clear
He'd kill you and your family no matter when or where

Stories of plots to bomb dissidents in Kenya, Egypt or Saudi Arabia
Only made it clear to everyone that the world was his oyster

In newspapers, the subject was always elided:
The khat, and other drugs that made him funeral minded

Conspiratorial notions were his living condition
He ascribed drunkenness and drug-taking to any opposition

...

He of The Little Green Book met Vladimir Putin the other day
It was the usual circus, the large retinue come what may.

Luxurious modesty was how he liked to call it,
He lived for the bustle around him, confident he could take Putin's judo hit

Like a palm tree rising in an oasis surrounded by blight.
The other leaders would be shown in their proper pedestrian light.

The desert savvy, the endurance of those who were truly able
By sheer will to conquer the shifting sands, of that he was quite capable

For months at a time he would go out there on a bend
Then emerge seemingly untroubled if not exuberant.

Men of will who forced their views on clans and the whole world.
The caliber of revolutionary, visionary men on the road to hell.

Take The Little Green Book - a blueprint for life itself,
To be studied and internalized, it even dealt with public health!

An unbroken chain of leadership, he outlasted Chairman Mao.
Who else had such a claim? He even beat Omar Bongo.

And that kleptocrat, only the French cared about him
The real prize, as you know, was to indulge in blood and sin.

No, it was only right, he belonged in the history books.
In any gathering he would stand out, opinions as sharp as his looks.

And he had put them down - the opinions that is,
Distilled them for present and future generations.

The Little Green Book, the wisdom for the ages.
A guide for the world, a guide for revolutions.

Battle-tested in countless countries, comprehensive and worldly
Luminous as only the folk wisdom of desert guides could be.

...

He of The Little Green Book met Tony Blair the other day
That sad sack, for whatever reason, again thought he'd have some sway

He of The Little Green Book couldn't believe the ease of the bamboozle
Of course, we could have told him he was dealing with Bush's poodle

Then later, remember, there was an audience with Condoleeza
And a call subsequently for a United States of Africa

US policy to the dictator was clear: coddle and let's make nice
His gifts, in return, were choice to the talented Miss Rice:

Diamond trinkets, a locket, and a copy of The Little Green Book
A sidelong glance, oil and gas contracts were the inevitable hook

Those Swiss bank accounts, how prosaic wouldn't you think?
Well, even an uncommon criminal needs money to drink

A bloodthirsty murderer that we indulged like no other
Willing to shoot children before their own grandmothers

He'd even bomb bystanders, he didn't believe in innocence
The legacy of a pariah devoid of all human sense

Months later it was declared, and this was no small thing,
Colonel Gaddafi would be the king of kings

Thus, among traditional leaders on the continent, he was elected
Well, according to his bank statements, he was rather self-selected

Gaddafi king of kings


...

But back to that time period I alluded to earlier
In a Ghana fraught with dubious revolution and political theater

Perhaps I should not venture into matters eschatological
As indeed my doggerel rather tends towards the scatological

Let me not lose the rhyming meter, indulge my light verse
I'm congenitally incapable of engaging in anything terse

My father, the law school dean, was very precise
And, truth be told, what he recalled back then wasn't very nice

Thankfully it flew under the radar of Rawlings' dispensation:
It was about the application of the good Colonel's donation

In Ghana's scarcity, nothing went to waste:
'Twas a grim outlook

He'd photocopy his lecture notes for students;
They'd have to do as a textbook

As he thumbed through thousands of the Colonel's pristine pages
He was minded that, in our country, there were even paper shortages

We really had no time for this Third Universal Theory
It was a undoubtedly a low moment in all of Ghana's history

The memory, then, should come as no surprise to you, Dear Reader:
The pages of The Little Green Book were used as toilet paper.

...

The Little Green Book  is dismantled


II. Excellent Discussions


The issue was blood and sin.

III. Lest We Forget


Field notes on a legacy of blood...
Prosecutor: Was there ideology taught in the camp?

Witness: Yes, what we learned in the Mataba was about how to share the wealth of your government - about the distribution of wealth.

Prosecutor: This Mataba, did you receive any books or lesson papers in that ideology?

Witness: The ideology was taught in Mataba itself. They had a school to learn the ideology. You learned about the Green Book. How governments are cheating other governments.

Taylor's former vice president: governments of Libya, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast supported Taylor's 1989 invasion of Liberia

Prosecutor: At what age do you say you were abducted by the RUF?
Witness: 11 years.
Prosecutor: Had you been to school up to that time?
Witness: Yes.
Prosecutor: In what languages were you taught at school?
Witness: English.
Prosecutor: From what age did you attend school up to the time you were abducted at age 11?
Witness: I don't know the age at which I went to school. I don't know the age.
Prosecutor: How many years had you been in school by the time you were abducted at age 11?
Witness: Six years.
Prosecutor: After you were abducted, at some point you have told us in evidence you had some lessons from the RUF. That's right, isn't it?
Witness: Yes.
Prosecutor: Were you at some time made to read passages of Colonel Gaddafi's Little Green Book by the RUF?
Witness: The Green Book. They called it the Revolutionary Green Book. They said it was from Libya, from Mohamed Gaddafi. Yes, I read that one.
Prosecutor: In what language?
Witness: In English. Everything was in English.
Prosecutor: So you speak good English, do you?
Witness: The English that I can speak is what I am speaking here. I don't have any other English. As you hear me speaking I don't have it above that and I don't have it below that. That is what I am speaking here.
Prosecutor: So, what was taught in English apart from the Green Book?
Witness: The Green Book when they read it they would read it in English and they would interpret it, because there were people who did not understand English and so they would interpret it into Krio to them, but some of us who were able to read a little bit when they spoke the English we would understand. That was why I said everything was in English.

Transcript of child soldier's testimony. The special court on Sierra Leone, 22 August 2008

[Moses] Blah testified about the first time he met [Charles] Taylor during his military training in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and Tripoli, Libya. In Libya, he trained with a group of Gambians, as well as a group of Sierra Leoneans led by Foday Sankoh. Blah testified that Sankoh referred to Taylor as "chief." Blah recounted that the first time he saw Taylor, Taylor introduced himself as "chief" and named the soldiers the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. Taylor also appointed Blah as Adjutant General of the NPFL.

Charles Taylor trial report (pdf), May 2008

After listening to 91 prosecution witnesses over the past 18 months, Taylor said people had referred to his forces as if they "were brutes and savages: We are not. I am not."

Still, the former president acknowledged that skulls of Liberian soldiers were displayed at strategic roadblocks in 1990.

"They were enemy skulls and we didn’t think that symbol was anything wrong," he said. "I did not consider it bad judgment. I did not order them removed."

Taylor, who earned an economics degree at Bentley College (now University) in Waltham, said he had seen images of skulls used in many "fraternal organizations" and Western universities.

He also acknowledged that atrocities were committed in Liberia by "bad apples" and renegade soldiers, but said he had taught his small band of rebels - from their initial training in Libya - to abide by the laws of war.

"We found out that they were taking place, and we acted to bring those responsible to justice," he said. Rebel soldiers who committed excesses were court-martialed and sometimes executed, but civilian judicial institutions were left in place in areas under rebel control, he said.

Taylor defends displaying of human skulls at roadblocks, Associated Press / July 17, 2009
He of The Little Green Book and his brothers in blood will not be missed.

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Friday, January 28, 2011

All Available Indignities

As the ghosts of numerous tyrants, from Julius Caesar to Benito Mussolini will testify, people are very hard on those who, having had power, lose it or are destroyed. Then anger at past arrogance is joined with contempt for present weakness. The victim or his corpse is made to suffer all available indignities.

The Great Crash 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith

The growth of his power and fame was matched, in my imagination, by the degree of the punishment I would have liked to inflict on him. Thus, at first, I would have been content with an electoral defeat, a cooling of public enthusiasm. Later I already required his imprisonment; still later, his exile to some distant, flat island with a single palm tree, which like a black asterisk, refers one to the bottom of an eternal hell made of solitude, disgrace, and helplessness. Now, at last, nothing but his death could satisfy me.

Tyrants Destroyed by Vladimir Nabokov


freedom kagyah


"The widespread anarchy and the disillusion of the masses... made this revolution necessary. In the years since independence, fundamental human rights were brutally violated by the government. People were denied the right to live in freedom and with mutual respect. They were not allowed to have their own opinions. Organized political gangsterism and the politics of falsehood turned all elections into a farce. Instead of serving the nation, politicians were busy stealing. Unemployment and exploitation were on the rise, and in their sadism toward the population, the small clique of feudal fascists in power knew no bounds."...

Optimism quickly turned to disenchantment and pessimism. The people's bitterness, fury, hatred was now directed against their own elites, who were rapidly and greedily stuffing their pockets.

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski. Here, he quoted a statement by a youth movement and observed the aftermath of Nigeria's 1966 coup.

There is no one, or hardly any one, so wicked or so stupid as to deny the democratic ideal. There is no one, or hardly any one, so perverted that, were he the member of a small and simple community, he would be content to forgo his natural right to be a full member thereof. There is no one, or hardly any one, who would not feel his exclusion from such rights, among men of his own blood, to be intolerable. But while every one admits the democratic ideal, most men who think and nearly all the wiser of those who think, perceive its one great obstacle to lie in the contrast between the idea and the action where the obstacle of complexity - whether due to varied interests, to separate origins, or even to mere numbers - is present.

The psychology of the multitude is not the psychology of the individual...

Look at a crowd when it roars down a street in anger — the sight is unfortunately only too rare today — you have the impression of a beast majestic in its courage, terrible in its ferocity, but with something evil about its cruelty and determination. Yet if you stop and consider the face of one of its members straggling on one of its outer edges, you will probably see the bewildered face of a poor, uncertain, weak-mouthed man whose eyes are roving from one object to another, and who appears all the weaker because he is under the influence of this collective domination....

Now it is peculiar to the French among the great and independent nations, that they are capable, by some freak in their development, of rapid communal self-expression. It is, I repeat, only in crises that this power appears.

A Force in Gaul by Hilaire Belloc (from On Something)

As the Tunisians, and now Egyptians, are currently demonstrating, this quality of "rapid, communal self-expression" is certainly not a Francophone singularity. History, contra Belloc, has forever shown that crowds can turn from inchoate to determined in mere hours. All tyrants and their Lady Macbeths are on notice. Still, a little sweat on their part, and the dismayed sensitivities of onlookers at the sight of turmoil in their marriages of convenience, are, all things considered, a small price to pay.
He who tests the depth of a stream with both feet must be prepared to swim.

— Ewe proverb, Ghana

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Best of 2010

My customary list of things that moved me in 2010...

Truth be told, I was mostly consumed by the World Cup last year especially since Ghana were bona fide contenders and could have/should have gone further/won it outright. Well the boys did great: Andre Ayew, Asamoah Gyan and all. I still haven't recovered from the Ghana-Uruguay match...

So, the year in numbers: I read 37 books, watched 100 movies (blame Netflix) and attended 12 concerts and 1 play.

I didn't write as much as I hoped and one reason is that I now also subscribe to about 1300 feeds; the resulting onslaught of information coming my way makes me lean towards consumption rather than production. Here's hoping for a different balance in 2011.

Books


Novels led the way in the 37 books I read (Incidentally two of these were e-books: Hilaire Belloc's essays and Charles Dickens's serial novels were great reads for the mobile phone moments, the interstices of modern life). The highlights in print were the young African writers.
  • Nii Ayikwei Parkes - Tail of the Blue Bird
    Call it a case of deep empathy; it was the shock of the familiar. It's not often that I recognize myself on the book shelves. It was bracing to read a young Ghanaian writer, a modern traveler, equally at ease in London, the US, and my childhood neighbourhoods in Accra, and even someone who'll head up to the mountains near Aburi and make them the setting for his novel. Nii Parkes loves language and plain storytelling. My friend isn't afraid to take his time and tell stories and let them take us where they may, with humourous anecdotes and elliptical discursions thrown in for good measure. The genre and the form - the crime procedural, are almost unimportant even if finely detailed, it's the underlying story that matters. We are children of Ananse, lovers of social living, and the stories we can share. I have a deep and specific connection with his artistic impulse even when I disagree with him. To cap things off, The Makings of You, his poetry collection finally got its release in the US. Needless to say my man had a great year. I dig his brand of toli and recommend it to you. A head nod in your direction, brother.
  • Petina Gappah - An Elegy for Easterly (mini review)
    Brian Chikwava - Harare North
    "They" kept saying that I should read the new crop of Zimbabwean writers, that life in the shadow of Robert Mugabe was proving to be a fertile artistic ground, that the future of African literature lay in their palms. And there was a lot to their argument, these two wrote of dark matters and it was a tonic to read them. With a blast of furious energy, their voices asserted themselves immediately. Where Gappah was wry and humanistic, Chikwava's tone was utterly bleak, filled with irony and the darkest humour. Mugabe's victims are manifold but we can always fall back on this artistic response to his reign.

    Let me digress about book covers for a minute - as you may know I have an interest in the types and faces that represent writing about Africa. Consider the journey from the cover photo in the English edition of a London market

    Brian Chikwava - Harare North cover of English edition


    to the following illustration in the US Edition

    Brian Chikwava - Harare North cover of US edition


    "Fine", you say, there's a transformation from the photo of a street scene to a quite clever montage in the illustration that further manages to throw in a few more references to London: Big Ben, tube signs and all. "I get it".

    But look closer, if you will, at the bottom corners of the latter, and note the giraffe on the right and the tree in the savanna that has materialized on the left.

    Chikwava's book is a novel about Zimbabwean immigrants in London. True, there are plenty of predators in the book but they are all too human - there is no wildlife to be found in its pages. What scenes there are in Zimbabwe are all urban.

    (Incidentally, I can understand that the same tree and savanna appear on the cover of Gappah's book since at least one of her stories has that kind of backdrop.)

    Apparently it isn't enough to have Harare in the title, and the black head and anomic eyes of the main protagonist as a signifier; that would be too subtle an indicator of Africa. I wonder if that giraffe and savanna detail was part of the cover artist Yuko Kondo's initial vision or whether it was the publisher who needed to remove any doubt about provenance. I wonder, must every African novel face the world with wildlife or the savanna as its backdrop? I'm not a big fan of the safari quotient.
  • James Ellroy - Blood's A Rover
    I am a big fan of Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy and the intricate worlds of bad men (and women in this final part) that he has constructed: "a new myth from the gutter to the stars". Indeed I read this twice in a feverish haze. He didn't disappoint; the trilogy will stand as one of the most ambitious and resolutely executed works of the past 20 years.
  • Geoffrey Philp - Who's Your Daddy? and other Stories
    Call it Jamaican Gothic, a collection of stories full of wit and perception. His roving eye and his sharply attuned ear for dialog make for vivid reading. I also happen to love Geoffrey Philp's poetry.
  • Heinrich von Kleist - The Marquise of O and Other Stories (mini review)
    Luminous stories that linger in the mind. Plots that swirl every which way, with turns at once startling and engrossing. Writing that leaves you breathless, von Kleist was peerless as an artisan of literary tectonics.
  • Geoffrey Household - Rogue Male
    A story so stripped down and spartan that the reader wants to apply metaphor to gain comfort. On the surface it's a hard-boiled thriller about life at the extremes, I came to read it as a prescient warning about the relentless challenge that Hitler's fascism would pose. What is your interpretation?
  • Meja Mwangi - Going Down River Road (mini review)
    A deep dive into the slums of Nairobi. An exacting and brilliant novel that manages to find soul and brotherhood among the futility. Gappah is to Chikwava - and Kenya is to Zimbabwe in our millennium - as Going Down River Road is to Thomas Akare's The Slums.
  • Alain Mabanckou - Black Bazar
    Reads almost like a follow-up of his 1998 tour de force, Bleu, Blanc, Rouge, wonderful writing all around.
  • Emmanuel Dongala - Johnny Chient Méchant
    There's a fine translation, Johnny Mad Dog of this look at child soldiers and the damage they leave in their wake. I read also that it has been made into a film that is about to be released. I have a pending piece on the novels about child soldiers in Africa. Powerful stuff indeed.
  • Sarah Ladipo Manyika - In Dependence
    The Nigerian writers are making us all of us proud. I thoroughly enjoyed this love story full of missed opportunities.

Theatre


The sole play was Marcus Gardley's ... and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, a funny gumbo of a play with soul food, slavery, Greek choruses, and Michael Jackson's Billie Jean song and dance routine at its core. Homeboy's got a unique vision.

Movies


Two trilogies brought forth the heat in my film watching.
  • Carlos the Jackal
    Olivier Assayas's take on that gremlin of terrorists featured a startling and dizzying performance by Edgar Ramirez as the eponymous Venezuelan revolutionary. There was no higher achievement in cinema.
  • Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy saw Noomi Rapace embody that girl with the dragon tattoo with her singular talent. Actress of the year
  • State of Play
    This BBC Miniseries was so engrossing that we had to watch all 6 hours in one sitting. Fodder for those with the journalistic impulse.
  • Prince of Broadway
    Sean Baker's vibrant take on the hustle of Ghanaians in New York is almost too realistic.
  • The Death Of Mr Lazarescu
    Quietly devastating and Kafkaesque.
  • The Secret of the Grain
    I want to eat some couscous with everyone associated with La graine et le mulet.
  • Boardwalk Empire and Treme
    The Wife and I fell for these HBO series, what can I say.
  • Bela Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart
    A great documentary on musical exploration. For me it stepped into high gear from the moment when Oumou Sangare picked him up at the airport. I saw him in concert with Toumani Diabete the previous year; it was a great collaboration, banjo met kora and all was well.

Music


I attended 13 concerts - but only blogged about one - adding to the pile of lost reviews that I keep meaning to publish.
  • Amel Larrieux
    The highlight of my year was watching Amel Larrieux perform for two magical nights in August. I still have an orange glow from those sessions. Her 2006 album, Morning, has proven to be a fantastic bed of creativity, reinvented on stage. It was the album of the year in 2006 and, well, let me not beat around the bush, it is one of my two favourite albums of the decade - the other is Voodoo. The listening statistics seem to bear that out. The songs she previewed from next year's album ought to bring her to the wide acclaim she richly deserves.
  • Van Hunt gave a solo performance almost exactly a year ago. He playfully alternated between acoustic guitar and grand piano and treated us to a tour of his soul songbook. It is deep and his musical vision is captivating.
  • José James and Jef Neve For All We Know
    José James - Blackmagic

    José James and Jef Neve For All We KnowJosé James - Blackmagic


    Hands down the most romantic thing I did was to attend the concert José James and Jef Neve gave at the Gould Theater at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The classic setting, and the music, mon dieu, the music. I stand by my immediate reaction:
    Impossibly talented, extravagantly empathetic, lushly lyrical: the golden voice meets the angular piano. Loved it.
    It was really hard to believe that they had only played together twice before stepping into the studio. I'll have more to write about these young lions - José James especially (he had a busy year) deserves considerable critical attention, for this is the future of jazz.

    jose james and jef neve
  • Dwele - Wants World Women
    Dwele still has that swagger - he deserves it needless to say. This year in addition to the seductive poses he struck on stage - a Dwele concert in Oakland is an event to behold. He brought some social observation into the mix - as ever it was over an infectious beat. Consider his take on our ongoing Great Recession in How I Deal
    See, I was employed
    But not today
    See Bush came and made all that go away
    Now I'm the crib with the fakest grin
    Waiting for Obama to kick in
    The chorus starts aptly enough with "I'm losing my power, chasing the almighty dollar". With unemployment at 10 percent and underemployment pervasive, we are all "waiting for Obama to kick in".

    dwele and banddwele singing in the crowd
  • Bilal - Airtight's Revenge
    In concert he was wild and fabulous and the new album was solid. It's great to have him back. The one-two combination of Restart and All Matter was exhilarating, Bilal went into a trance and we followed
  • John Legend & The Roots - Wake Up!
    These guys deserve the Grammys they will be getting in the next few weeks.
  • Hindi Zahra - Handmade
    We managed to catch Hindi Zahra live at Le Bataclan in Paris and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I guess you'd call it world music, it was worldly, grown folks music. Norah Jones watch out.

    hindi zahra at le bataclan 5hindi zahra at le bataclan 3
  • Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - I Learned The Hard Way
    How can one not love The Game Gets Old?
  • Eric Roberson put the Music Fan First and continued to build his independent soul movement.
  • Corinne Bailey Rae, mourning her late husband, found a way to sing again and released a set, The Sea, full of elegiac balladry.
  • It was a year of returns. Massive Attack gave us Heligoland, Sade was a Soldier of Love and Gil Scott-Heron said I'm New Here - his take on Me And The Devil rocked hard.

    Erykah Badu came back to us and even went nude for the love of the music.

    Habib Koite and Bamada were mellow men as befits a band that has been together for 25 years. Like Sade, they were a seamless unit.

    habib koite and bamada smileAbdoul Wahab Berthe - bassist for habib koite and bamada
Finally two acts I caught at the end of the year who will be making waves in 2011:
  • Les Nubians will be giving us a Nu Revolution in coming months. We caught them live as they readied a new stage show.

    Les Nubians 2010
  • I'm looking forward to Rhian Benson's Hands Clean, her first album in 7 years. Asked why she made us wait, she explained, "I had to do some living that I could then put in the album". She gave a short set at her release party in Accra - and even had a couple of wardrobe malfunctions, but it was worth it to hear her sing Say How I Feel and preview a few songs from the new album. Valentines Day is only weeks away.

    Rhian BensonRhian Benson
Song of the year: Bilal - All Matter

Dearly Departed


In letters, Ferdinand Oyono, Robert Parker and gold old José Saramago passed away and are sorely missed.

In music, we lost Teddy Pendergrass - black masculinity incarnate, Gregory Isaacs - the cool ruler with the golden voice, Willie Mitchell one of the best music producers we have known, the ever versatile Lena Horne. The loss I took most personally was Abbey Lincoln; I'll forever miss her vibe.

For a playlist in memory of these greats, consider these albums: Joy, Night Nurse, Let's Stay Together and A Turtle's Dream.

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