Saturday, December 08, 2007


I present the following item from the Remembrance of Rogues Past collection: a campaign watch for the YEAA '98 campaign, namely the Youth Energetically Advocating Abacha shell organization that supposedly was spontaneously formed to campaign for that suffocating, murderous and dictatorial rogue, General Sani Abacha — late, unlamented and so forth.

Abacha watch YEAA 1998

I'm a avid collector of this kind of historical artifact and you'll sometimes find me bidding for a mint copy of the Franco sings for Mobutu album, to take a recent example and different rogue (quite a good album actually). The Abacha watch, while in the mode of praise singers and sycophants, is not your standard piece of dictator chic, it's much more functional and thus perhaps more insidious. In any case, it's worth some brief notes.

Back in the twilight zone of military rule in Nigeria circa 1998, it appeared that the dictator was feeling some pressure to make gestures towards democracy. The response was of course to think about how to hand over to himself, accordingly he devised lots of gestures. Having outlawed all organized opposition, the general decided to organize two approved political parties, "one a little to the left and the other a little to the right". Manifestos and constitutions were written, ostensible political philosophies were crafted and so forth, all by the military. The remaining question was who would lead these newfangled parties and there were any number of sycophants auditioning for the right to head these organic parties sometime in the future, if indeed elections would ever be held.

This is where the Youth Energetically Advocating Abacha came in.

The first order of business, as if this stage managing wasn't enough, was to start a whisper campaign urging both parties to nominate said dictator as their flagbearer. When more than whispers were needed, YEAA was to be the public face of the campaign, ready to whip naysayers into place. The idea was to coronate Abacha and win by acclamation the nomination from both of the parties a little to the left and right. A man of the people, he simply wanted to underlie that the youth wanted him to serve them and, moreover, that they were energetic — an obvious warning to anyone who might oppose the general. The thought was that he would face off with himself in new elections and succeed himself, or something of the sort - the main point was to hold elections.

On the one hand these actions were crude and ridiculous, on the other, they are simply sad. Whenever I look at the watch I think to the whole contingent of lobbyist firms, replete with consultants, who came up with the strategy and the inspirational name (Yeah!), the graphic designers called in to design the logo with the arrow and the wheel mechanism (perhaps fitting, for Nigeria under Abacha was on a road to nowhere), the coinage of the snappy slogan, the time spent uploading artwork and discussing typography with the design firm in California, the negotiations with Singapore factories for the production of watches and other insignia (for there were many containers worth of this stuff produced, T-shirts, key tags etc.), the shipments to Nigeria, the distribution of this largess around the country... The watch is like an open wound in the Nigerian body politic, testimony to the workings of a global criminal enterprise.

No one advocated for Abacha unless they were paid. Youth Energetically Advocating Abacha is a simple byword for coercion, cynicism and an illustration of the lengths to which people can go when in the grip of greed. The depressing thing is the sheer energy of this huhudious regime and the scale of the graft (billions of dollars were stolen for sure) — one wonders how many millions were spent on similar minor accoutrements. What a waste but perhaps such is the world of riches.

From all accounts Nigeria is much changed these days and a few of the victims of the regime are even (belatedly) getting their day in court. Perhaps it's best to move on and call this ancient history, perhaps one's outrage should be curtailed; let's leave it for the historians.

For the record, the battery never worked.

II. Measuring Time

Helon Habila in his second novel Measuring Time continues to make a claim for prominence in the roster of young lions in African literature. Instead of the claustrophobia of Waiting for an Angel (which I recently discussed) he stretches his shoulders and decides to take on entire decades of African history.

His writes in a deceptively simple style and focuses on storytelling. There's no overt lyricism; he'd claim that he is simply channeling the many stories that come to him. Still his is an ambitious agenda and he covers a lot of territory, after all his subject is modernity in Africa and all that means.

The options available to the two twins who tell the story of Measuring Time is a simple statement about Nigerian society. On the one hand, there is life as a mercenary soldier following warlords like Charles Taylor from Chad and Libya to the messy Liberian civil war. For a political junkie like me, this would be enough to focus on for an entire novel, for Habila this is merely interstitial.

On the other hand, the bulk of the book and the other twin's story is about stagnation and making do at home. There is lots of striving but precious little light. Yet the stories of the past need to be told, the politics need be engaged in - however programmatic they may be, the youth need to be taught, we all need to fall in love. There's no time to dance or to succumb to navel gazing. Life has to be lived in full.

In his populist writing mode Helon Habila is perhaps heir to Cyprian Ekwensi whose favourite subject was city life. Like Ekwensi he has a talent for empathy with his characters and draws you in with detailed portraits. He really knows how to capture moments in time. I am also reminded in this novel of another ambitious second novel that packed a lot of ideas albeit in a different genre, Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days. But perhaps we shouldn't tie a talent like Habila to others. He's writing delicate novels of ideas disguised as unvarnished, personal stories of Nigeria; the whole world is his.

III. Wasted Time (a soundtrack)

Me'Shell NdegeOcello - Wasted Time

Wasted Time, my favourite song from her appropriately-titled album, Bitter, finds Me'Shell in a suitably bitter mood. She has an unerring way of capturing an atmosphere in song. Bitterness is a transient emotion but one that is intense when one is in its grip. It's the only vaguely uptempo song of the album, building up the groove slowly as she reflects on a break-up. It's not quite a lament and she hasn't yet resolved the episode. It is a raw meditation on wasted effort. Fittingly the song cuts off abruptly, unsettling the listener. Wasted time never to be recovered.

Update: A good friend sends along a Cambodian twist for the collection: a Dictator Hun Sen "fashion" watch. He notes, "Never tried wearing it. Battery assumed dead".

Dictator hun sen fashion watch

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Monday, October 29, 2007

By Way of Ionesco

It must have been a few months ago, I was heading home after work; it was the usual thing, a perfectly ordinary evening. As usual, I was fumbling with my various bags, headphones and such. As I switched trains at Oakland, my sharp elbows ensured that I obtained a seat; I find it pays to be equipped at rush hour. I settled down, rummaged around and found my book. I opened it and relaxed; there's nothing like getting lost in a good book on the commute. A muffled announcement predicted a delay. Oh well, I settled in for the long haul. After a few moments, I heard someone muttering from across the aisle: "Ionesco" or something.

"Yes, yes", I gestured at the distinctive cover of my book, "Ionesco".

The guy continued talking but I couldn't quite hear him since I was listening to music. As I fumbled around with the controls to the cd player (no ipod as yet), it struck me that I had been speaking in French. What I had actually replied was "Oui. Oui. Ionesco... C'est La Cantatrice Chauve."

As I finally removed my headphones (those tangled wires), I realized that the other guy had also been speaking in French.

Well, no matter. If you're reading a French book on the subway, odds are that a passing Frenchman would notice and engage you. Perhaps you look vaguely francophone. It would stand to reason that you would start to speak in French also. Indeed the reason I had been reading that book was one of my periodic attempts to keep up my French. Still it was uncanny how I had unconsciously slipped into that other language, perhaps a switch had been involuntarily flipped as sometimes happens to polyglots (pdf). I don't get to speak the language much these days - I am awful about keeping up with the part of my family in France. True, every few months or so I dream in French (don't ask, don't tell) but I know that my fluency in conversational speech is at risk.

So anyway, there was a little pause as we both assessed each other. A couple of relatively thin thirtysomethings, hungry engineer types. Not many people chat on the subway, one is always wary about being solicited or otherwise bothered. As the song goes: don't talk to strangers. How often, however, does one find someone interesting on the commute?

Well, the conversation began in earnest. Ionesco it was. His plays, his ideas, the theatre.

What do you know, I was sitting across from someone who had directed four Ionesco plays; a fellow Ionesco afficionado no less. I'd acted in Les Chaises during my brief theatrical career at school. Heck I still sometimes view the world through his jaundiced lens. The guy was clearly a creative type, steeped in the stage. A man after my heart. And he knew his stuff it seemed.

Pretty soon we were getting into the intricacies of Ionesco's world. What we liked: the playfulness of the language, the sense of rhythm, the stacatto effects that leapt from the page. The often startling juxtaposition of mundane minutiae with profundity. The pauses and the fumbling to find meaning and the consequent resort to words that obscure rather than reveal. Heady stuff in other words.

My spoken french is a little rusty and, a couple of times, I too struggled to articulate some of these thoughts. It's one thing to write or read about the intricacies of art and another to verbalize them even forgetting the setting. Still it was coming back slowly: the quintessential abstractions of extinct philosophers. The accent too - I was a scion of la Lorraine, straining my 'ains'. Perhaps the long lamented fluency would be returning soon.

Somehow we got onto the nomadic element in Ionesco's writing and the fact that he was Romanian and first gained fame writing in french in a piece about observing the English. What is it about outsiders being such stylists? Why are they often the best bridges and windows on society? Perhaps the margins provide a good standpoint for cultural observation. But what are the downsides of the lives of exiled souls? Does multi-lingualism or the crossing of linguistic borders sharpen one's outlook? We weighed the evidence. I brought up Nabokov who in later life turned out to be perhaps one of the great stylists of the English language. He wasn't impressed, he felt that Ionesco got closer to the gypsy element of modernity than Nabokov ever did. I demurred, both, I thought, were modern travellers that disdained boundaries and pushed the forms in which they wielded their pens. The response: well Ionesco carried less baggage. Anyway we got back to the plays.

la cantatrice chauve

He liked Rhinoceros and Les Chaises for their theatricality but for him La cantatrice chauve was the most playful with the language. We went back and forth on whether it was a play best performed in French. He didn't like the English productions he'd seen and claimed that they got the zaniness all wrong. I thought that so long as you got into the spirit of things, it didn't matter. To him the confusion started with the way the play's title was translated: he preferred The Bald Prima Donna to The Bald Soprano. Thus we found ourselves seriously arguing away in French about which English translation of a nonsensical phrase a Romanian playwright had promulgated was truer to the essence of the play. I can't imagine how we must have sounded to the rest of the train car: flurries of French intermittently interupted by English exclamations: "The Bald Soprano" or "Mais non. The Bald Prima Donna". C'est ridicule, n'est-ce pas?

Funnily enough we never actually mentioned the word absurd although the theatre of the absurd was our ostensible subject. Nor indeed did we get to Beckett who looms large in such matters. To my mind, Ionesco is the more formidable pillar of that theatre, if only because his conceptions weren't as arch as those of Godot's father. The discongruities of modern life are presented simply and with wit. I love Beckett to death yet his edifices were intricate constructions. Ionesco makes the absurd more mundane, it is through almost imperceptible distortions that you find yourself in the realm of the improbable. Each step on that road makes sense.

There was a brief diversion onto Sartre - we discussed Huis clos, and judged him impractical. More to the point, his dilemmas weren't weren't of the everyday variety nor indeed did they work on the stage. No, not quite.

I hipped him to the show I'd seen in Boston a couple of years ago, Ionesco not Ionesco, three rarely performed plays. The takeaway message: Ionesco as the aspirin for modern day life, the playwright of the fringe, the governor of the borderlands. You are easily underestimated if there is a humour to your approach and many did underestimate the fugitive notions of the man.

I forgot myself for a moment, soaking in the discussion, and looked around. The rest of the car looked utterly bemused at the sight of these young men vigourously discussing French literature in their midst, throwing out existential themes — the left bank transplanted to the subway car, heck all we were missing were the berets. No matter.

It was the week of the French elections and I mentioned the story about those old campaign posters of Mitterand that were being resurrected twenty years later as ironic commentary on the choices facing the French. He liked the idea and applauded the juxtaposition. A Fran├žois Mitterrand 2007 campaign seemed appropriate for this dark time. We wondered how many votes he would get.

The Cold War deserved a Ionesco. The nuclear age deserved a Ionesco. Gremlins and parasites, thine playwright is Ionesco.

ionesco collage

We wondered who were the heirs to Ionesco's ethos. We decided that there was something to be said for plays even in this TV and film era. That the stage often had the right level of pathos for the strange incongruities of the human condition. As we parted (he gave a card, I told him to google me), we resolved that we should get back to the theatre, support it in whatever way we could. Who knows maybe we'll put together a production some time soon. It need not be Ionesco. Heck we would write our own plays.


When a week or so later, I received that secret tape of Negroponte meeting Gaddafi, I was struck by the element of malign play among in their discourse and world views. As I transcribed, I found it was all there: words intended to obscure, words that ostensibly communicate were instead combined into phrases that mangle reality: constructive engagement, collateral damage and so forth.

The playground of misdirection is often dominated by politicians but others too have their niches. The lowly bureaucrat and the well-meaning citizen play their part is adopting the language of bromides. Ionesco would have loved the notion of recent non-specific general threats and the obfuscation of the language of homeland security.

Pamscadise by kwesi yankah

In any case, it stands to reason that I am now being read by folks from both the US Navy Marine Corps and Libyan embassies around the world. I do try to bring people together in my writing. A belated welcome to the toli. Enjoy your stay. Excellent. Excellent discussions.

Salut Alex.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Conundrum 65: Taxi Driver Braking Style

The burning issue that has been exercising my mind for the past few hours is the way in which taxi drivers apply brakes to their cars. Thus I give you another entry as part of an occasional series, briefly noted...

So. Why do taxi drivers brake the way they do? What accounts for their peculiar relationship with their car's braking system? Why is that taxi drivers never want to idle their cars? And so forth...

zebras and kitsch

When a cab driver sees a red light, she will do one of two things:
  1. Accelerate and simply speed through the light - daring oncoming traffic in a game of chicken.
    This behaviour is almost de rigeur if you want to obtain a taxicab medallion - an initiation rite of sorts. When your car is branded as a taxi, it is a signifier, almost a warning signal of recklessness to other drivers, and you can trade on this reputation to bully through most intersections. Such are the fringe benefits of every profession.
  2. Slow to a stop at the light if it is obvious that one can't beat the light.
    In this scenario, you'll almost see the subliminal scowl on the driver's face in the mirror and the accompanying sound of disgust under their breath.
It is the manner in which taxi drivers slow to a stop that is the source of today's conundrum.

A taxi driver never simply slows down to a stop like other drivers. There's an eccentricity to the gradual manner in which they apply their brakes. It's a little hard to describe exactly how they brake but it is different enough that I always notice it; let's simply posit for our purposes a Brake Eccentricity Index ™ and assign taxi drivers the maximum value, 10, on an admittedly arbitrary 10 point scale. Still, why do they brake in such an unnatural fashion?

Theory 1: Maximize the fare

I should be a little bit more precise about this, namely that I've mostly observed eccentric braking styles in cities that have metered fares for taxis. Of course correlation is not causation but I've always thought that it was the fact that meter fares are lower when the taxi is idle than when it is moving that drove taxi drivers to this behaviour.

The notion here is that by keeping the taxi moving for as long as possible you will reap fiscal rewards. Amortized over the length of a typical shift, perhaps you can sneak in an extra hour of fares at the higher, mobile rate. If you consider driving a taxi as a purely revenue maximization enterprise then the optimal economic strategy is all about minimizing engine idle time and maximizing the amount of time the car is moving. The braking style then is simply a matter of arbitrage; 5-10% extra revenue will be nothing to sneeze at (handwaving at the exact amount).

One piece of the puzzle however is that I sometimes observe as much even in countries where taxi rides are not metered transactions. What gives?

Some control experiments: presumably there should be increased eccentricity in braking style the larger the difference between moving and idle fares. Drivers in cities with greater idle premiums would exhibit a higher brake eccentricity. Anecdotally New York and Boston are more prone to the phenomenon than San Francisco.

The web being what it is, an armchair economist such as myself can validate such intuition...

Consider this table taken from the San Francisco Taxicab Industry Report 2006 via the invaluable Taxi Library site. It is a survey of rates charged in various US cities.

taxicab rates 2006

We'll codify a proxy for our braking eccentricity quotient as the ratio of mileage rate to waiting time rate. In New York, this ratio is 10 (mileage rate per mile is $2.00 and waiting time per minute is $0.20). In San Francisco, the ratio is 5 (mileage rate per mile is $2.25 and waiting time per minute is $0.45). This would confirm the greater propensity of New York cabbies to work the brakes and even assign them 10 on our admittedly arbitrary index.

Out of interest, we have the following results: Chicago at 5.45, Houston at 5.67, Los Angeles at 5.5, Oakland at 6, San Jose at 5.95. In my experience, Oakland taxi drivers are more eccentric than San Francisco cabbies so this seems to be about right. The rate structure of fares provides serious incentives to taxi drivers to do everything possible to keep in motion, it is no wonder that they are irritated at having to wait, idle time literally robs them of revenue.

Theory 2a: Minimize fuel consumption and/or 2b. minimize wear on the car's brakes

Part of the utility function that a taxi driver has to account for is the impact of fuel consumption. With conventional internal combustion engines, the fuel that is used when the engine is idle is pure waste, hence it makes sense to minimize fuel consumption as part of the profit maximization function.

Wear and tear on the brakes is also something drivers need to worry about; perhaps it is indeed easier on the brakes to slow down the way they do. No one tells you that when you learn how to drive so this might well be a trade secret of sorts.

This last theory is counterbalanced by the frantic way brakes are applied when the driver misjudges and almost causes an accident (all too frequently judging by the statistics of road accidents involving taxis). Frequent near misses and even accidents are almost a cost of doing this kind of business and in those cases, brakes are manhandled. So a question for auto engineers, what is the best way to apply brakes? Incidentally I wonder if there is any research on the incidence of heart attacks amongst taxi drivers, but I digress...

Some control experiments:
  • hybrid cars are slowly being adopted into taxis fleets, these are cars in which the cost of idling has essentially been eliminated. Minimizing fuel consumption in one's Prius is thus a matter of running for as long as possible on electricity rather than on the conventional gasoline engine. Presumably Prius taxi drivers would not be as prone to brake eccentricity and the new technology might provide an insight into the relative importance of the fuel consumption factor. One should monitor the situation as hybrid adoption rates increase.
  • rising petrol prices should increase the fuel consumption premium so there should be increased eccentricity when we have higher prices. Metered fares after all aren't indexed to petrol prices and are only updated episodically. Anecdotally again, I've been noticing more braking shenanigans during the Bush years with the concomitant high oil prices.
With this in mind, perhaps we can add some additional dampening factors to our braking eccentricity index. I welcome your mathematical input.

la paz


The obvious thing to resolve this conundrum is to simply ask taxi drivers why indeed they brake the way they do. The thing is that whenever I've observed this behaviour, I've typically been annoyed because I tend to lean towards the first theory, namely that the driver is engaged in an attempt to wring an extra dollar or so out of my inconsiderable wallet. With that at the back of my mind, it will come off adversarial to ask the driver about this, no matter how academic the concern is. Also you might change the behaviour merely by asking and make the driver self-conscious. Moreover, there's always something more pressing to talk about: politics, the economy, real estate, cars, relationships etc. In any case, small things like taxi driver braking styles are appropriate fodder for blog entries. I hope I've made a plausible economic case of cabbies being rational economic actors but of course I may be missing the plot. Perhaps others can come up with better analyses. The floor is yours...

On Metering and Automation

Now you might well wonder why indeed I'm spending time and virtual ink on this matter. Well it is in aid of a book of toli. The low end theory posits that one should temper the human factor to encourage adoption. Thus I've been digging around matters of human factors and automation. The obvious case study of the human factor in technology adoption is with taxis and the introduction of metered fares. A little digression and that's all she wrote.

The idea of meters, of standard fares introduced through regulation, meshes with an attempt to eliminate the vagaries of human discretion and bargaining around the negotiation of payment for rides. Prior to their introduction, one was at the mercy of one's skill and knowledge of prevailing rates when discussing fees with cab drivers, and often one would be at a considerable disadvantage in the conversation. The drive towards standardization and automation was almost inevitable in many communities; electronic meters were the technical solution to the legal and cultural problem. By metering you could reduce the amount of price discrimination that taxi drivers could do and gain some amount of consumer satisfaction at not having to bear the mental transaction costs.

Recently also there has been the introduction of GPS-driven radio dispatch into the taxi business in. One virtue is that this might prevent certain dispatchers from rewarding their favourites with the best jobs. I know that in the Boston area, Haitian cab drivers would always curse the often 'native' dispatchers, claiming that they wouldn't give them (the immigrants) jobs even if they were closer to the customers. Presumably technology in the form of location-aware optimization algorithms could add a measure of impartiality to the dispatching process along (potentially) with some extra efficiency. Of course as with all things in which the human factor applies this is not the end of the story. Wherever there is human discretion we will see the usual social and cultural cues and biases assert themselves in one form or another. For one, it all depends on what is coded and who gets to make the decision.

Indeed New York city taxi drivers will be going on strike against GPS devices in coming days:
The Taxi Workers Alliance opposes the installation of high-tech touch-screen video systems that will allow passengers to watch television, make credit-card payments and — using a global-positioning device that tracks the cab - follow their ride on an electronic map.

Some drivers have said that the global-positioning devices and the automated trip recording system are an invasion of privacy, and that the use of credit cards would diminish drivers' incomes, given the card transaction fees.

They also say they will take in less money because the system requires drivers to log on before each fare, and they object to the television noise and the heat from the monitors.
This last case is interesting in the bundling of two technologies, electronic payment systems and location aware devices. In both arenas, the proponents highlight the benefits in terms of consumer convenience: additional payment options and additional information (map data) that can empower the rider in the transaction with the driver. For example, a tourist, able to see a realtime map of their journey, will now be more liable to ask "Why the hell are you going in this roundabout way to my hotel?" and reduce the unscrupulousness of drivers.

Detractors similarly highlight the effects of payments and transaction costs. By introducing credit cards into the billing systems, the authorities are passing on increased costs to drivers, a tax of sorts. A slight digression here: the taxi profession has typically been a cash-is-king affair - hence for example its appeal for the informal sector often the domain of transients and immigrants etc. (e.g. for an extreme case of 'informality' you can read James Ellroy's novels on the appeal of taxi ranks for the Mafia).

Both sides of the debate conflate things. Who really wants to watch television in a cab? That is surely a byword for yet more advertising. And yet that is what Mayor Bloomberg is touting even as the agenda of the authorities is plainly to exert additional control on the profession. On the one hand, the argument about privacy that the drivers advance is probably not the core objection, it is rather the issue of control, about losing discretion in the way they do business and the burden of additional transaction costs (which can even be mental costs).

A few centuries ago, the Quakers brought sanity to the systems of measurement with their reputation for probity in the standards of weights they provided. Eventually, social norms and mores were codified in laws, regulations and sometimes in technological standards. It is interesting that we are seeing lawmakers seeking to impose technological standards to achieve social ends. As we have seen in the case of braking style, there will still be behavioural attempts to game the system — that is the realm of the human factor. In the low end theory framework, the best you can hope for is to temper these things.

This year in Accra, the Accra Metropolitan Authority introduced medallions for taxi cabs and even imposed a dress code on taxi drivers (although from what I understand, the dress code is not that widely adopted). The introduction incidentally lead to an immediate decrease in the typical crime methods where criminals would use cabs for their robberies. By getting control of licensing, the AMA has managed to better understand the scope of the taxi market, the public also can better identify taxis and further norms can be codified. One wonders whether metered fares will be the next regulation to be adopted in Ghana. As anyone would tell you, a large part of the experience of using public transit in Ghana is the bargaining that one must do. Taxi drivers will quote exorbitant fares to those they perceive as well-heeled or unaware of the prevailing rates - and you don't even need to be an obroni to feel cheated at times. Metered fares would have undoubted benefits in reducing this kind of price discrimination and the associated transaction costs but might also remove social and cultural lubricants, those aspects of conversation and market traditions. I wonder if this is a trade-off that should be made. What say you?

I'll close with a further digression... You might have seen me point to this Lion King decorated taxi a couple of weeks ago. The Wife caught it parked next to the zebras and kitsch taxi displayed above. I quite like the serendipity of the photos and the varying images of Africa expressed in taxicabs.

Lion Kings and Zebras and Kitsch, Viewing Africa in London

Abercrombie & Kent are merchants of "Inspiring Experiences of Namibia" hence the zebras crossing they use to advertise their escapist travel services. The Lion King of course is pure Disney nostalgia. Such are the types and faces we use on our taxis about Africa that mysterious land. The fantasy of Brand Africa.

A Taxi Driver Soundtrack

A playlist for this note

  • Loose Ends - Slow Down
    Apropos braking, we'll start our playlist with Slow Down, the brilliant showpiece of Loose Ends' Zagora album. Classic 80s soul music, eminently danceable and with an infectious chorus. It is often paired with the lead single Stay A Little While Child and the titles are fitting for the laidback theme of the band.
  • The La Drivers Union Por Por Group - Trotro Tour Of Ghana

    The La Drivers Union Por Por Group - Por Por: Honk Horn Music of Ghana

    We'll continue with some music by taxi drivers, some honk horn music from Ghana. It's unlike almost anything you've heard, simply consisting of the horns and drums that you might here on the streets as these drivers vie for your trade and seek to attract your attention. This horn group has a 50 year history amongst other things, wielding their honk horns against the colonial regime. They continue to make music from the most unlikely of instuments.

    I quite like 'Driver, Take Me, The Train Has Left Me Behind' and the Kpanlogo Por Por Medley but perhaps it is "Trotro Drivers, We Love You So" that is the best song on the album. You can listen to the slightly more conventional yet still exuberant Trotro Tour of Ghana here.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Rapid Transit

I. Wide Load Coming Through

wide load coming through
A truck loaded with corn is parked on the side of a road in Mogadishu, Somalia. The delapidated city is the capital of the failed Horn of Africa state, where motorists have the choice of driving on the right or left hand side of the road, such is Mogadishu's anarchy. (Reuters). Circa 2004.
I've always wondered about this clipping, taken a few years ago, that The Wife used to have on her wall. At first I thought the scene was staged and that no one could possibly load a truck in this manner except to get the attention of foreign journalists. But it struck me that Somalia has indeed been party to this kind of nonsense for a generation or more thus anything goes - not to mention that this scene is only a matter of degree away from what I've witnessed in my own country, Ghana. It is the very definition of absurd.

II. A Heavy Load

a heavy load

A relatively famous scene from the Libyan desert circa 1978 (actually isn't Libya mostly desert?), fodder for picturesque postcards... I find the image interesting for the wide variety of bags that are attached to the truck. As you might know bags are my kind of thing.

III. Rural Concerns

goats in transit

credit: Robin.Elaine

sheep in transit

credit: Johanne, licence: CC

A few months ago, there was lots of discussion about the transport of cattle in Africa. When you have mostly agrarian economies, you use whatever is expedient to transport goods, hence the sight of cattle on roads or on our trucks is nothing special. In the West per contra, you almost never see the animals from which your food is derived. Agribusiness is the rule rather than the exception. You receive your cold cuts of meat in the sanitized glass displays of your grocery store. The network of cattle cars, hog "finishers", meat renderers are an afterthought. Even the word butcher seems to be coming into disfavour such is the alienation from the practice; blood is taboo and it's simply the "meat department" in the grocery store.

The last few centuries have seen a sharp decrease in the segment of humanity that has to deal with food production. In the developed world we are reaching neglible percentages and in recent decades, especially in China and India, millions are trading in rural areas for urban slums. We are slowly losing the folk memory of agrarian past. Yet when it comes to food, we still have the visceral connection to the means of production in our ancestral past. That is why it is still theatrical when, every few summers, the French farmers go on strike and bring cattle into town to protest in front of city halls. The strength of the farm lobby will remain undiminished since they can always call on that hard-wired cultural connection.

IV. Infrastructure

Man Sedon

credit: ellaroo

Ever since the troubles in Cote d'Ivoire started, there has been a massive increase in the road traffic in Ghana as the landlocked countries of West Africa, Mali and Burkina Faso chief among them, have been forced to divert their essential trade routes through Ghana. Even after the past few months of stability, it is a case of once bitten, twice shy - the Ivoriens may have blown it for good. The result has been that Ghanaian ports and roads have been struggling to cope with the extra flows.

Thus such scenes are a commonplace on the roads from the coast to the north: the heavily loaded trucks and the boys hitching a ride wherever they can. "Man Sit Down" is the slogan, fasten your seatbelts, you want to say.

For 30 years in Ghana and much of Africa, we were told by the traditional donors that there was no point to build dual carriageways and that our economies wouldn't support it. Apparently the great infrastructure buildout that separates the developed world from the developing world wasn't on the agenda. Instead we needed to open our markets, lower trade barriers, do structural adjustment and so forth in order to be good global citizens. Now our aid partners are changing their tune and well, those unfussy Chinese have had 15 years of slowly building up expertise doing infrastructure in Africa. They'll be the ones getting the contracts. Now even the DFID (England's development agency) is thinking about sanctioning major infrastructure as opposed to the small scale and NGO-focused approach that has been in vogue... We may even get a West African highway and the long-overdue regional integration out of this situation... Incidentally, only the Chinese seem to be interested in funding railways and it has been a very lonely 6 years for our Minister of Railways and transportation.

African leaders didn't inspire much confidence in the past but the messy business of development is all about infrastructure. The hope is that with the renewed focus on infrastructure in Africa we'll eventually have decent roads and transportation options and the rest will follow: cars that are roadworthy, drivers that are car-worthy and so forth. Baby steps...

Soundtrack for this note

Portishead - Roads

I've been thinking about Portishead - the band that is, and have been trying to find a way to weave them into the fabric of the blog. Roads, a deeply personal song seems apt as a soundtrack for mass transit. I still remember hearing their debut album, Dummy, for the first time. It was a promo cd lying around the radio station (WHRB) on a pile presumably to be discarded. I threw it in the player and was frankly stunned when I listened to it.

The first element of their appeal was a voice that seemed slight, ethereal and perhaps pained (or at the very least emotional). The lyrics come from some kind of turmoil deep inside Beth Gibbons. The drums are in the hip-hop vein, yet laidback and lazy. Geoff Barrows added all sorts of sonic niceties that befit a Bristol crew - samples of film dialogue, Isaac Hayes snippets, scratches, guitars and moog keyboards that made you feel you were in an old-fashioned movie theatre screening a film noir.

Of course we know that this became a "genre" and record companies quickly labeled works of this type "trip hop" that was a subplot to the 90s and indeed Portishead's music would be picked up in movies.

There wasn't a cover booklet with the cd which meant that it took some investigation to figure out the other ingredient that had so tickled my ear. The secret ingredient, the secret sauce, of the group was the theremin: it appears on perhaps a third of their songs - hence the cinematic connection.

Listening to Portishead play Mysterons or Roads is unnerving. You can hear the audience reaction on the Live: Roseland NYC album. The music is well, how to put it, haunting, mournful and more. It's the essence of the noir aesthetic - mood and cinematography translated to sound.

To me the theremin (or its Moog substitute) straddles worlds, creeping up on you and drawing your attention to something that lurks beneath, or that dwells in the shadows. I find comfort in the shadows of this music.

Oh, and I still don't have the dust jacket of that first Portishead album.

Obligatory video links: Roads, Mysterons

Alternate soundtrack: Fela - He Miss Road. Well, that's the African take on things...

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Saturday, August 25, 2007


We the people, having survived for so long on so little, and done so much for so long, are now qualified to do anything... for nothing.
I found the above musing in an old notebook of writings circa 1992. Spring cleaning, even if delayed until summer, does turn up the occasional nugget. It put me in mind of wist, hence some further musings on indigo moods.

effah-sakyi water bowls 1998

The above painting reminded me of the following photo from the African Futurist of fishwives in the morning in Elmina, Ghana.

Fishwives in the morning

The stories they have to tell, the perspectives they could share. I want to have a conversation with them, simply sit with them in the middle of the day - in the brief moment before they get back to the important things on their plate. We the people indeed.

It also brought to mind the women who were dyeing cloths in those courtyards in Bamako, Abderrahmane Sissako's film that is, while the World Bank and international institutions were being put on mock trial in the foreground. The women and their work were meant to be the background and yet, from my standpoint, their stories and experiences were the foreground.

Wist is perhaps the attitude that best suits these unsettled times, we are all holding our breath and tightening our belts, bracing ourselves for who knows what.

In the USA especially, I sense a lot of wist in the air. Conveniently timed gut feelings abound all round, we have banned liquids and have to resort to zip-loc containers and long lines. Americans now need visa stamps and even passports. Heck, you can't even get out of the country if you want to without bribing passport expeditors or calling your congressman. When you take that trip to Brazil, you'll need to give up your biometric data, the reciprocal wages of bureaucracy and inconvenience, just like those visitors to the States have had to since it became a matter of Homelands and Security. If you stay in the country who knows who will be watching you or listening to your conversations. When you're on the subway, you need to be mindful of recent non-specific general threats. Suspicious people are everywhere - they could even be (gasp) next door! I think a lot of wist is in order.

There is a danger however: when wist devolves into nostalgia it becomes reactionary. Too much wist and you start dwelling on those good old days that never really were. Your thinking will get woolly and, without moderation, you are liable to be bamboozled into who knows what and then be left picking up the pieces, singing the inflation calypso as the chickens come home to roost. You really don't want your entire society to start behaving like actors in B-movies. The director may not cut the scene.

Hold on to wist I say. Wist is clear-eyed and lyrical. Wist is wary, wist is weary, yet while being realistic, wist embraces the here and now, the tense present and a better tomorrow. At heart then, wist is an optimistic sentiment.

The dictionaries present the word wist as obsolete and would direct us to its adjectival compere, wistful. Of the latter I prefer the meditative, pensive and forlorn senses, but of the former, it is that still small voice of wist that attracts me, that quiet and attentive outlook.

In my book, wist is stoic and, at its best, eschews melancholy. When wistful, one is pragmatic yet hopeful. The British and the French know a lot about wist as their empires have seen better days. Others however are still seeking the black gold of the sun. Would they take a moment to be wistful? Wist is about humility, about acknowledging the small steps towards the wonders that are still to come.

Wist presents an opportunity for resolve, it is a brief respite in that moment as you gather yourself up for the next task, the next struggle. Wist is a flight to quality, a premium bond for these subprime times. Wist is soul insurance that actually pays you back when you file your later claims.

I'll prognosticate here. Those in the developing world are actually at an advantage in these wistful times. Of necessity, we are aficionados of wist, world-weariness has long been our lot. A lifetime of almost always expecting the blows coming your way will leave you better equipped to deal with this harsh world. The school of hard knocks is our neighbourhood and our response is communal not unilateral. Sissoko would say "we are all responsible". One shouldn't strike out on one's own just because one can, rather we find strength in community. Burning Spear would add: social living is the best.

A Wistful Soundtrack

A playlist full of wist

Musically, the quality of wist is a step up from the blues however the blues tend to get more love since they are more dramatic and keenly felt - wist is merely transitional. In compiling a wistful playlist for this note, I initially thought to songs about holding on. To "hold on" is indeed the most resolute response to wist and I have many songs on that theme (Lisa Stansfield, Dennis Brown, Ann Nesby, Dwele and others can school you for a good hour about holding on). Shuffle serendipity struck however and instead I found my wistfulness encapsulated in the following songs.

  • Sam Cooke - A Change is Gonna Come
    This song is perhaps the definition of soul music - the point at which the genre coalesced and departed from gospel and the blues. It is fitting that wist was the first vein in which Sam Cooke made out his soulful sound. There is both a spiritual and a bluesy feel to the song. Watching Talk to Me last night, that wonderful film about the life of Petey Greene, that ex-convict turned radio disc jockey, it was no surprise that A change is gonna come was the song that he played to sooth the soul on the airwaves in Washington D.C. that night after Martin Luther King Jnr. was assassinated. It speaks about optimism even in the face of setbacks. The vocal performance is one that few can equal although many have tried. A few sublime minutes of yearning and longing.
  • Duke Ellington - Mood Indigo
    The Indigos album is one of my favourites in the Ellington catalog, featuring wistful tunes throughout. The only vocal track on the album is of course Autumn Leaves that paragon of remembrance (see also the autumn soundtrack). Prelude to a Kiss is all about the lyricism of Johnny Hodges, as is the old faithful, Solitude. The song I'll highlight however is the title track, Mood Indigo. An economy of emotion, it features a perfect trumpet solo full of whimsy and reflection by Shorty Baker. That wondrous portion when the rest of the band join in is ecstatic. An earlier performance is on youtube with Jimmy Hamilton Willie Cook (see corrections) doing the deed on trumpet and with a more prominent piano solo by Ellington. Indigos are not quite the blues and the Duke's band prove that indigo is the colour of wist.
    You can listen to the mp3 for the next week: Duke Ellington - Mood Indigo
  • D'Angelo - The Line
    The crown prince of soul put it on the line seven years ago. The elements of the song are simple: Questlove's steady drums, James Poyser and D'Angelo's keyboards and Rhodes, a little boom bap from the bassist and above all the vocals. I hear Sam Cooke, I hear Al Green, I hear Prince, Curtis, Donnie, Marvin and more. It is a tour of the sounds of his favourite vocalists wrapped in his own stylings. It's the moment of truth, the stakes are high ("Will I fall off or will it be banging?"), he steels himself: "all I got to do is hold on". He'll stick to his guns, resolute to the challenge ahead.
  • James Carter - The Intimacy of My Woman's Beautiful Eyes
    Perhaps the hungriest of the young lions of jazz, James Carter can also be the most tender when he want to. The musical scion of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, he isn't afraid to engage in matters of the heart, albeit with a wink and a certain swagger. Hence this song is a study in contrasts: the wistful tone of the music set against the premise of the overwrought title. After a fairly subdued opening solo, the piano takes over and the bassist prods him along and what a piano solo. When Carter's saxophone returns wailing, or rather growling, the notes are urgent, longing and attentive — wistful in short. One hopes his woman forgave his missteps, the music is a plea for a renewed intimacy.
  • Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins - Mood Indigo
    Apropos tenor saxophonists, there is another version of Mood Indigo that I'm very fond of: this intimate meeting of jazz giants. Ellington introduces the theme on piano and the band step in smooth as usual. After a while Coleman Hawkins steps up and delivers the goods. His solo is discursive, breathy and virtuosic. This is someone who has lived body and soul. Duke's accompaniment is subtle, encouraging Bean to find the emotional depth in the melody. Simply magic.
  • Charles Mingus - Goodbye Pork Pie Hat
    Mingus recorded Mood Indigo twice, recognizing as he did, the genius of Ellington's composition. Each occasion elicited typically sensitive bass solos from him. I'll focus here on his own composition, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, his tribute to Lester Young, written right after he learned of Pres's death. It captures the mournful and elegiac tone of loss, Mingus' great band remembering the arch tones and oblique art of their friend who paved the way for them. In the hip-hop vein, I suppose the closest would be Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth's They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.) although that arguably leans more towards nostalgia than wist.
  • Amel Larrieux - Weary
    The lead single of last year's opus, Morning, this song takes on the notion of hard experience in life. She takes her time to warm up as the song progresses and only really starts letting her hair down vocally at the midpoint. She's in control throughout observing the vagaries of the mood, a midtempo soul excursion. Watching the video (slightly lower quality on youtube), you see that she has a lot on her mind ("A woman is getting weary"). Ultimately she finds comfort around her friends and family as it should be. The song ends as it starts with Amel walking down the road. Perhaps the weariness has been lifted, in any cases she has given us music for a long walk.
  • Cannonball Adderley Quintet - Walk Tall
    Like the country preacher declaimed:
    The most important thing of all is that no matter how dreary the situation is, and how difficult it may be, that the song really doesn't matter until the song begins to get you down.

    So our advice to you, the message that the Cannonball Adderley Quintet brings to us, is that it's rough and tough in this ghetto, a lot of funny stuff going down. But you've got to walk tall.

    Walk tall. Walk tall.
Wist, the ineffable sentiment for our times.

See also: Indigos, a playlist

Next: Resisting Nostalgia

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Home Economics

The Wife and I have been thinking of buying a house for the past year and, since spring, have been mostly bemused at the huhudious prices that were being quoted to us (with straight faces, mind you) for mostly depression era houses. Thus we've been getting an education on the hard sell during our few months of attending open houses, and also some lessons in home economics.


The New Mathematics

After last week's action, some new mathematics is in effect. We have the following equation:

Maximum prudent ™ house price = $521,250 = $417,000 (maximum federally-insured mortgage) + 20% downpayment

Note: prudent ™ denotes a conforming loan and home financing deal that wouldn't raise the eyebrows of even the staidest banker.

Note: the days of 20 percent downpayment have been out of fashion for a long time (we live in a subprime era) so we'll relax our stringent banker conservatism and use a 10 percent downpayment as our baseline. This reduces the maximum prudent house price to $463,333.

Note: the conforming loan limit of $417,000 is the maximum federally-insured mortgage above which point we are in the realm of jumbo mortgages which have all of a sudden become quite scarce.

uncompleted mansion

Voodoo Economics

The median price of housing listed in the Bay Area was said to be $785,380 in February 2007 when we started looking in earnest. That was the listing price and not necessarily the sale price but, regardless, that was sticker shock by any definition.

In June 2007, the median housing price paid in the Bay Area was $665,000, a new peak. See also a trend graph of an earlier data set.

The typical monthly mortgage payment in the Bay Area was $3,219. "adjusted for inflation, current payments are 24.0 percent above typical payments in the spring of 1989, the peak of the prior real estate cycle." Jumbo mortgages "represented 62 percent of the purchase loans" made in the area.

taos pueblo

Jumbo Jitters

Putting these things together, it is clear that something does not compute. The force of gravity will make itself felt and the $200,000 gap - the fat on which the housing sector in the Bay Area has been feasting on for the past 15 years - will of necessity be closed. The only questions are how much the gap will narrow and how long it will take.

The typical price of the only reasonable houses we have seen during our search was $750,000 (The Wife has called much of the rogues gallery that were shown to us "illegal dwellings"). We thought we'd seen an overheated market in Boston but the Bay Area has redefined our perceptions on that front. A software engineer and history professor ought to be able to afford a starter house.

The hard sell and the real estate shell game was in earnest and it was as if the whole town was in on the con. The pinnacle was the university housing officer who advised her academic client that we could easily afford a $700-800,000 mortgage - if you ran the numbers, monthly housing payments (circa $5,000) would far exceed the salaries of most academics which prompted said academic's quip "I'm not going to spend that much on a depression era bungalow" to the surprisingly-shocked agent. I suppose I would have put it as the Emperor has no teeth.

Even if we could afford such imprudent things we'd rather spend our money traveling to more congenial settings, we are modern travelers and exiled souls after all. The funny thing is that if you spend enough time talking about housing in the Bay Area, you could almost convince yourself that everything was normal. Nobody blinked in conversation; the stratospheric prices were just the way things were — indeed it was so surreal and you could very easily allow yourself to be bamboozled — there was a week where we almost succumbed. Almost...


There's lots of moral hazard in the mounting chorus to bail out the fiscal wizards. Many are lobbying for the limits on Fannie Mae and the like to be lifted or for interest rates to be cut. Sidenote: the language of financial panics is always interesting: credit crunch, mortgage meltdowns, debacles etc. Fed chairman Ben Bernanke has been known for his "cautious experiments" in the past and will surely come up with some kind of intervention. When well-heeled bankers start invoking the spectre of millions out on the street you can almost hear the subliminal "think about the children" message. John Kenneth Galbraith is sorely missed.

In any case, we continue to search for a home... For the first time last week, we saw advertised a condo in a nice neighbourhood that was priced under the new mathematics at $469,000 - some sellers obviously need to cash out quickly (similar houses were priced at $650,000 just a few months ago). Hopefully we'll start seeing more of these things and it might even become a buyer's market. I won't hold my breath however; there's a surplus of unreality in the Bay Area.

no hurry

In closing I'll note that Ikea was packed last weekend — everybody is doing home improvement, it seems. I don't think much of it was about putting a shine on show houses that you needed to flip ("one last try"), rather I suspect that it was belt-tightening at work, and making do with what you have. Time will tell and we'll be waiting this one out in our rented nest.

A Subprime Playlist

Some music for those inclined to home economics...
  • Dionne Warwick - A House Is Not A Home
    Dionne really came into her own when she sang the Burt Baccarach songbook. It was a sublime case of pathos, operatic pop as it were featuring Baccarach's lyricism distilled in that delicate voice. All her later monetary triumphs stemmed from the magic of those wonderful interpretations.
  • Kool Moe Dee - They Want Money
    I was going to pick Money Jungle by Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach for this playlist - the song (and album) is suitably jarring and tense, but I thought that Kool Moe Dee would be more appropriate. The title of the album is a key indicator: Knowledge is King. Laymen are always the last to get bailouts hence education is key to prepare for the periodic shocks of the grifter impulse. They Want Money is the soundtrack for Jim Cramer's crew, its blaring horns an ode to Alan Greenspan's politically expedient teaser rates, its rapid-fire lyrics are dedicated, with respect, to all those who have been selling a bill of irresponsible goods in the housing market.
  • Simply Red - Money's Too Tight To Mention
    Social commentary of hard times and explicit lyrical harkening to Reaganomics. Mick Hucknell saw the darker side of trickle down economics and told it like it was. There are of course thousands of "no money" blues but when rendered in this pop vein, never have they been so upbeat or danceable. Perhaps one should also mention here Money to Burn by Wrinkars Experience in the reggae vein and round things off with the Wu-Tang Clan's C.R.E.A.M. ("Cash rules everything around me, cream get the money, dollar, dollar bill y'all")
  • Luther Vandross - A House Is Not A Home
    I really need to do an appreciation piece on Luther who, like Aretha, had the uncanny ability to make any song his own. Simply put, his version is the definitive version - it's not even close. Soul music with all the accoutrements, lush and emotional.

A house is not a home, how true.

village huts by K. Baka
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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Africa, 1999

I thought I'd share this poster of African leaders circa 1999 which has been lying around my study for just such an occasion — actually, I was cleaning things and stumbled upon it...

African Leaders 1999 edition

I've been mulling a piece on Africa in 1989 to give some depth to my ongoing series and trying without success to find the equivalent poster from that year - the high mark of rogues in Africa, hence I'll start with a request: does anyone have any similar photos from 1989? Photos of any OAU meeting would work for my purposes. As to the matter at hand, I suppose the more recent history of 1999 will do as a stopgap measure.

So. Africa. 1999. Here goes...

Posters of this sort are quite popular in Africa (large size), you'll find them at many of our newstands. I don't quite believe in the Great Man theory but, when it comes to Africa in 1999, one has to admit that leadership still mattered a lot unlike in other regions of the world. To take an obvious example, no one in their right mind would be putting up similar photos of EU leaders on the walls of their houses. Public apathy to leadership in the West is rightly the norm - modulo the occasional gremlin. In West Africa especially, where we know all too well about Big Men - and they are all men in the calendar, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was barely on the horizon at that point, these posters serve as a kind of palliative: "Get to know your local strongman", wear their political cloths and so forth.

Even the good guys were larger than life in 1999; that was the year Nelson Mandela stepped down as president of the New South Africa proving his George Washington bonafides, the Good "Father of the nation" as the poster notes. In 1999, we didn't have many technocratic Thabo Mbeki or John Kufuor types as we do presently. Instead you'll note a lot of military uniforms and panache. The 2007 contingent are a mostly dour bunch other than say, He of The Little Green Book - Gaddafi that is, or Robert Mugabe, and Bad Bob has always worn a gray suit since hanging up his rebel spurs. That dourness is paradoxical progress, you don't want to live in revolutionary times. By contrast the typical words used in the western press about our leaders in 1999 were things like "mercurial, flair and flamboyant".

Strictly speaking it's not 1999, the calendar was produced in late 1998 as evidenced by the presence of the late, unlamented General Sani Abacha of Nigeria on the right hand side who died just months earlier. When people literally celebrate your demise to the point of dancing in the streets (as they did even in nearby Accra, Ghana), you've obviously been smothering them.

Still the 1999 crop of African leaders were a definite improvement on the 1989 crop but you could still see a high percentage of strongmen, thieves and incompetents. Even with the comforting gaze of Kofi Annan and Desmond Tutu (Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah are on hand to round out the nostalgia quotient), there is precious little comfort in this poster.

The Rogues Gallery

Charles Taylor (top left) was then president of Liberia, a decade after starting his mischief in the sub-continent. He had reached his peak of warlord power having coerced a terrorized populace into voting for him or else. And it was a case of "or else" that he proceeded to display: the white suits were flowing, the timber and blood diamonds were in abundance, the concessions had been granted to Pat Robertson, and the flowering friendships with Jesse Jackson and company proceeded apace. But he wanted it all, so Sierra Leone, Guinea and even Cote d'Ivoire would pay the price. May he suffer a lifetime of legal action, and the company of lawyers and bureaucrats.

Laurent Kabila the First, had been installed a couple of years earlier in Congo and was taking bids on concessions in the fashion of his predecessors in mischief, Mobutu and King Leopold... He was a disappointment to his Rwandan and Ugandan sponsors, refusing to deal with the Hutu génocidaires and indeed allying himself with them at times. The consequence of the free-for-all his inaction spawned was that the armies of 13 countries would scramble to get the spoils of Congo in the middle of Africa's world war. Sadly the headlines are much the same almost a decade later. The heart of darkness...

Gnassingbé Eyadema, the Prince of Darkness is ominous at the bottom right and for once depicted without his dark shades. To this day none of my Togolese friends discuss politics with me, so long a shadow does he (and now his progeny) cast.

Jonas Savimbi, Jerry Rawlings and Gaddafi are their customary gremlin selves - merchants of grist.

Jammeh of Gambia, in army gear (red cap just above the Africa maps), is holding up a little prop (sorry, I meant a little boy) - he wasn't claiming to cure AIDS back then (as was the case last year), but the visions of grandeur and the lucrative arms smuggling were going well.

The leaders of the various Guinea countries were grim. Conte of Guinea was simply corrupt - he still is. Joao Bernado Viera of Guinea-Bissau, having survived a 1998 coup and minor civil war, was cracking down on the opposition - he would fall in mid 1999 (he is back in power currently). The less said about Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea the better - 1999 was a typical year for his brand of malfeasance.

Al-Bashir of Sudan with the army uniforms behind him headed no-nonsense and efficient killers.

Buyoya of Burundi wasn't up to much good.

The military leader of Niger, Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara would be assasinated in April 1999. His replacement wasn't much better.

Kleptocrats and Autocrats

The usual suspects are there. Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya - stylish and mercenary, Paul Biya (and Wife) looting Cameroon, Hosni Mubarak the Egyptian hardman as usual. Like Mubarak, Ben Ali of Tunisia and bad old King Hassan of Morocco kept a lid on things in their countries. Too exuberant your expression of liberty and you risked the secret police. Algeria too was in the midst of that savage civil war; Liamine Zeroual, backed by the army — "Les décideurs" was what members of that cabal were called, was deciding for everyone. Idris Deby of Chad was caught between a rock and a desert and had no imagination. Blaise Campaore of Burkina Faso and Didier Ratsiraka, the canonical Big Man of Madagascar (the nickname: the Red Admiral) had quiet years. Omar Bongo was as usual enjoying and corrupting, spreading enough money around to compromise any opposition - as he continues to do, the Head Suborner. Nothing much to see here, let's move on...

The Disappointments

The biggest disappointment was Henri Konan Bédié of Cote d'Ivoire who was ensconced in that most comfortable chair. Despite being groomed for decades by Houphouët Boigny, he wasn't up to the task. His country is still paying the price for his small-mindedness.

Frederick Chiluba of Zambia (arms crossed and self-confident) was quickly losing his democratic lustre - he would be voted out of office a few years later and continues to face corruption charges.

Abdou Diouf of Senegal is an odd one. Ostensibly a democrat, he eventually handed over but he was increasingly autocratic the longer he was in power.

The Ethiopians (Zenawi) and Eritreans (Afewerki) decided they needed to engage in pointless border wars and old-fashioned trench warfare ensued. Tens of thousands perished.

Museveni was sowing his mustard seed in Uganda - democracy was for chumps in his considered opinion. One party state, baby.

Kerekou of Benin still can't point to any thing that he's done for his country; in 1999, the priorities were clear, it was all about the money.

The Mistakes

These posters are of the cut and paste variety and were put together in a hurry; sometimes one forgets to update things or misattributes. Thus Habayarima Juvenal of Rwanda, who had been killed to kick off the 1994 genocide, is still listed. Paul Kagame should be annoyed.

For Burkina Faso there is also the image of supposedly saintly Thomas Sankara, killed a decade earlier. File under misplaced nostalgia.

The Swazi king and the Lesotho prime ministers aren't listed for whatever reason.


Sierra Leone in 1999 was all complexity. President Tejan Kabba clearly had a precarious grip on power, the evidence being the enigmatic "Sierra Leonean rebel leader" in green beret and army fatigues on the left hand side who appears ominously on the same poster. And indeed Sierra Leone was in the midst of its long civil war.

Sidenote: the only unambiguous good deed in foreign policy of Tony Blair's tenure would come a few years later when he sent a detachment of British troops to save the day in Sierra Leone. For that alone, one might arguably cut him some amount of slack for the later hubris on Iraq. Arguably... But you won't get that argument from me, my litmus test was his eloquent silence as Israel was bombarding Lebanon last summer until the atrocities crossed his very flexible threshold of manufactured disgust. He did do the right thing on Sierra Leone, Africans will give him that...

In the other Congo, the situation was confused and confusing. Patrick Lissouba is depicted in the poster although he had been overthrown by that other gun runner Sassou-Nguesso; his militia did came close to overrunning Brazzaville that year. Years later, one assumes he is still itching for a return from exile.

Somalia, after a decade as a failed state, gets any number of warlords on the poster: Aideed, Ali Mahdi are the convenient stooges.

Not depicted is Monsieur Bin Laden who brought his brand of collateral damage to the continent in the 1998 Al Qaeda attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The grass always suffers... Back in 1998/99, he didn't care much for the limelight.

Passing grades

I wouldn't want my jaundiced commentary to give the impression that there were no good leaders on the poster or in Africa in 1999. Indeed there were many good things happening on the continent and often inspite of the leaders. Also, and this is the great virtue of Africa at that moment, much of the action on the continent was in civil society, in entrepreneurs, in schools and in business. Governments mattered less.

Ange Felix Patasse of the Central African Republic and Miguel Trovada of Sao Tome and Principe could argue for a passing grade in 1999 (later is a different question). Similarly Konaré of Mali - a country that probably has the strongest democracy on the continent, did good. The leaders of Malawi (Muluzi), Tanzania (Mkapa) and Botswana (Masire) were all sense and sensibility. Heck even Chisano of Mozambique was proving reasonable in reconciling his countrymen after their long civil war. For what it's worth also, Sam Nujoma of Namibia did no harm in 1999.

Waiting for an Angel: Reading Africa in 1999

Between a Dream and a Nightmare was how Human Rights Watch described Africa in their 1999 world report. There's a touch of hyperbole perhaps, but there is much to commend in their lyrical commentary. Africa in 1999 was a case of baby steps.

Sidenote: Boston University had the idea to find sinecures for African leaders so that they would have something to do when they retired - basically give lectures about their embezzlement, grand visions and such. When I lived in the Boston area, I never attended the various symposiums that were organized - it irked me no end that these rogues would be feted instead of jailed. Perhaps I've mellowed somewhat, but I now think such efforts are a step in the right direction. Baby steps...

Back to reading 1999... There was the matter of angels and demons, and I've previously pointed to contemporaneous posters showing the way in which religion had gotten a big boost in much of Africa. We were in need of much faith healing and the reason was leadership. Popular culture and the literature reflected as much.

Nigeria, by virtue of heft, sets the tone for much of Africa hence, for the best reading material on Africa circa 1999, I'll turn to Helon Habila's Waiting For An Angel. This was actually a far more assured debut than that of The Anointed One in that is a novel that really sought to capture the totality of a society's experience of that moment.

Waiting for an angel

Habila is an ambitious writer and he presents a series of shifting but interlocking stories - the glue is a doomed journalist and a few students, but he covers considerable territory in his lyrical pages. In a sense it is the moral dilemma of Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, updated for the fin de siecle: will no one do the right thing?

His laconic tone and journalistic eye really captures the mood: the sense of dread and inevitability of life under Abacha. Simply put it was a time of suffocation, of repression and of corruption. To call what Abacha wrought in Nigerian society bad behaviour is to give bad behaviour a bad name. What took place in Nigeria was greed beyond belief and utter wickedness, leavened periodically with tawdry murders. Murder was most foul, theft was most blatant, and all relationships were corrupted.

I can also point to some maternal toli with observations about this period; in 1999, it was a matter of confidence in Nigeria. Nigerians are still picking up the pieces years later.

I haven't dwelled much on the francophone aspects but perhaps a few words are in order. France these days is having a touch of buyer's remorse at its back-scratching enablement of African rogues. One then should also add to the reading list Ahmadou Kourouma's En Attendant Le Vote Des Betes Sauvages completed in 1998. That too takes on the Eyadema figures (and many of those other knaves I've listed). Magic realism was our lot and the great wordsmith doesn't disappoint in his cultural observations.

En attendant le vote des betes sauvages

Where Habila is waiting for an angel, Kourouma is waiting for the wild beasts to vote. A clear eyed look at the poster and at those leaders should explain why these two great stylists of African prose would write as they did about waiting for the next shoe to drop. If the one hoped for change for the better, the other was more cynical about the prospects - and perhaps given the slow pace of change in Africa, Kourouma had the clearer eyes. But as a matter of policy, I'll side with Habila; demons may have more fun but angels are more likely to inherit the earth.

Between a dream and a nightmare is a twilight zone of opportunity; that is the terrain of the great game and the temptations of the rough beast. As we have seen, leaders do matter, but I'd hazard that people matter more. It wasn't so in 1999 but with baby steps, perhaps it is more so today. Would it always be so.

Soundtrack for this note

  • Eric B. & Rakim - Follow the Leader
    Braggadocio and inner turmoil never sounded so good. Certainly Rakim never sounded so good, a microphone fiend he handed allcomers a musical massacre with his lyrics of fury. Follow the money, follow the leader.
  • Prince - 1999
    A double album opus with Linn drum programming mastery, the obvious line to contribute to the playlist is from the title track: "Party over, oops, out of time". I quite like some of the other, lesser-played songs on 1999: Delirious and the very apt Something In The Water (Does Not Compute). What say you Dear Reader?
  • Femi Kuti - Plenty Nonsense
    I was going to pick a Fela track to round of this playlist, perhaps Unknown Soldier - the line about Government Magic always gets me, but I think Femi had already proven himself by then and a more contemporaneous song was warranted. The title should speak loudly to my point: we're doing better these days but we all need to be vigilant about the plenty nonsense that goes on in our lands.
Baby steps.

P.S. It's been suggested that I should get some technology toli out the door, we'll see what we can come up with. Stay tuned...

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