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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Anonymous said...

aah, the roads issue.

Seeing as how my father has spent the last 30+ years of his life building roads in Ghana I should probably do a post about this at some point.

It is interesting how even now we have to argue and show insane evidence that we need wider roads and more lanes in order to get the funding for them. That said, they are slowly coming.

Koranteng said...

You really should write about it. I've heard about it from my lawyer dad who's seen most of the plans and suggestions that never got funded or that were poorly built, but we have nothing on your or even your father's perspective.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link. Since you mention livestock, last week in Kinshasa I followed a car with two pigs in the back.