Saturday, December 17, 2016

Waiting for Godot (Khayelitsha)

Waiting for Godot - Khayelitsha, South Africa

The two men sit outside a container waiting there in the middle of the field. There is an ease about them. We've caught them at a comfortable lull in the conversation or perhaps they are pondering a fond memory or the whereabouts of so-and-so. Their posture is relaxed, their clasped hands are mirrored. They've shared many stories, they'll share many more.

The one, perched on a couple of cement blocks, sports a plaid cap, a light pink polo shirt and slightly loose black trousers. Second hand. The other's multi-coloured off-brand Kangol bucket hat underlines the point. They are not rich obviously, for it goes without saying that the rich do not sit waiting outside containers in the middle of fields.

The power lines loom overhead, the hum of Tesla's crucifixes perhaps crackling occasionally to punctuate the high voltage cancerous flow. A basin sits to their right and there are a couple of piles behind them, clothes, it appears, that they are in no hurry to wash. The puddles of (dirty) water we assume do not disturb them now if they ever did. They are at ease in their patch of the the world. If it weren't for their skin tone, one would be tempted to call them Vladimir and Estragon, for indeed they do appear to be Waiting for Godot.

Waiting for Godot - Khayelitsha, South Africa

The earlier photo, taken at a further remove, is more classical. With its wider angle it captures more of the bluer sky, and places the men in their proper scale and perspective: insignificant like the discarded beer bottle at the curb, twenty meters away from the faded green container. Although it was winter in South Africa and it had snowed in Johannesburg for the first time in years, the environs of Cape Town could count on the milder weather that the men are enjoying. I understand why the photographer zoomed in, however. It's those details: that package at their feet, that blue plastic bag stuck under the locked container, the expressions on their faces, it's not so much resignation and despair as wist. Rather than the theater of the absurd, call the scene a mere portrait of modernity. I welcome other readings.


The Khayelitsha township near Cape Town, South Africa remains a foreboding place: poor, underdeveloped and a visible reminder of the lasting legacy of apartheid.

Khayelitsha slum

Still, even among the informal slum surroundings that might depress the most hardy,

Khayelitsha shacks precarious

there is a dynamism among the people that live here that belies the script that many have written for them.

Amidst the tin shacks (these days without the asbestos roofing of yore)

Khayelitsha shacks

and the containers

Khayelitsha containers and housing

those improvised, repurposed and ubiquitous containers

Khayelitsha container housing

and under the shadow of the electrical pylons and power plants,

Khayelitsha tower

you'll find shops,

Khayelitsha containers Dumakude herbalist shop

churches of sorts

Khayelitsha african gospel church

and, more importantly, the people with more ideas than you can absorb.

There's no time to dwell on any notion of nostalgia or the tragicomedy of poverty. This is the terrain of the hustle.

Khayelitsha bhango cash store

I trust the future is being written in Khayelitsha.

Soundtrack for this note

As is my custom, a playlist to augment this thoughts.

Obligatory disclaimer: I skipped the obvious songs about waiting since I was aiming for optimism rather than the blues (Prince's Still Waiting, Bob Marley's Waiting in Vain or say George Michael and Aretha Franklin's I knew you were waiting for me etc.) Also: these photos were taken by The Wife during a research trip in July 2007. I still haven't geared up to write up my own observations from my time in South Africa.

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Monday, November 07, 2016

Identity Crisis

You noted the date when FedEx delivered the package ten years ago.
Opened the brand new passport, its crisp, blank pages
Pregnant with expectant travel.
Pinpricked numbers and black hieroglyphic in relief,
Black soul symbolism:
That proud Republic of Ghana inscription.
Skipping past the thumbnail photo
With your regulatory unsmiling gaze,
You scribbled your endorsement
And signed with the obligatory blue ink.
Passport expires: November blah-blah-blah 2016

2016. Wow. Ten years to contemplate.
Will Ghana have achieved escape velocity?
Developed and escaped mindless poverty?
And finally entered the realm of normalcy?
Or regressed to the grip of that previous, vicious, venal cabal?
Their petty, mercenary corruption typically banal.
Who knows what the future holds?
Will we still be living under the shadow of George W. Bush?
Looting and shell games, a firm voice as we brag:
Mission accomplished, torture swept under the rug

No matter.

Create that reminder.
Duly entered in Google Calendar
14 months prior to said expiry date.
It pays to be prepared, best not to tempt fate.
Then, two years ago, that other business to relate
Your easy access to the United Kingdom
The trauma of losing London
Unlike that other writer, your time away wasn't subject to expiry
Still that officious immigration officer made sure to give you the third degree
"You can appeal or seek redress at the British embassy"
The gatekeeper's smirk as he policed his border's agency
His message: "Best of luck, there goes your notional residency"

No matter.

18 months ago, the first murmurs of discontent
Troubling phrases overheard:
"Everything must be biometric",
"No budget for printing paper to be spent"
"They've stopped issuing passports".
"Unless you've got family connections, you're out of luck."
"God help you if yours expires, you'll be stuck"
A sickening sense as you contemplate:

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration wishes to inform Ghanaians resident abroad and the general public that due to circumstances beyond the control of the ministry, there is currently a shortage of machine readable passports, and that has severely impacted the ability of the missions abroad to provide machine readable passports at the present time...

All Ghanaians wishing to travel home on any emergency, upon request, will be issued with a travel certificate to enable him or her make the trip home.

A special letter will be issued to any such applicant to be presented to the passport office in Accra for a new biometric passport to be issued him or her to facilitate the return journey.

Finally, we urge all our nationals to bear with us as we find lasting solution to the problem.

No matter.

You've borne so far with this duty abrogation
18 months spent watching, waiting for said lasting solution.
Your routine, monthly, and then weekly,
Check the website, call the embassy

And so you'll wake up on this Tuesday in November
Stranded mid-Atlantic, a man without a country,
A veritable exiled soul. clutching your passport,
That expired token of Ghanaian identity.

Deportation implied, yet exit prohibited
For lack of stamp or date validated

And now that Gee has died
And left you forlorn and brokenhearted
You have to put aside thoughts of being funeral minded.
It has now come to this, in your moment of grief,
You'll have to request an emergency travel certificate in order to go home
Pray and hope that the airlines and Homeland Security will grant you relief
To even allow you to board without a leg to stand
And wonder if still others will let you pass through their lands.

"I see here that you propose
To transit through these British principalities
With this so-called travel certificate"
A hearty laugh from deep inside the belly
of Her Majesty's border representative

Imagine: being rejected out of hand
Denied entry to one's own country
For lack of an officious stamp
You've joined the ranks of the sans papiers
Out of status, now a cause of airline delays

No recent, non-specific general threat.
Instead wist, and a tinge of regret,
Or rather, dismay is truly all you have left.
Deftly pickpocketed of your national heft
Statehood denied, this open wound leaves you bereft
Afflicted by the stamp of malaise,
Robbed, assaulted by bureaucratic neglect
You're a rootless cosmopolitan,
A true casualty of identity theft

Consider yourself trapped in a ludicrous legal limbo
You're being taught the finer lessons of Ghana must go

containers: sign artist

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Monday, March 28, 2016

Broken Record

The rainy season is so-named because it comes every year, hence one would expect that the authorities would plan for it, but this was the scene on the front page of the Daily Graphic in 1960 when the rains came to Accra with the resulting floods. The headlines 56 years later will likely be the same even with last year's disaster relatively fresh in our minds.

when the rains came to accra april 18 1960

The satirists have already laid their bets: Accra mayor begins ritual of dusting off his annual 'flood speech' as rains set in. Of course the collateral damage has already been felt this year. One prays this year's death toll will be minimized.

Now I hear you: it's complicated. Flood management is difficult even if you're not in the Third World (and you don't have to go the extreme of mentioning Katrina and Sandy and other extraordinary acts of nature to make the point). Flash floods do happen. And yes, you can't simply throw out all the people who have encroached and built on the areas that are ostensibly meant for drains. You need to find a sustainable solution. Oh sure, after every disaster, the bulldozers appear and the Accra Metropolitan Authority workers along with the police knock down the kiosks and other dwellings that have sprung up upending home and livelihood for the unfortunate. And sometimes it is just a matter of excessive garbage, blocked drains and/or the negligence of those who got the juicy contract to maintain the same. Or... I know, I know: everything is local. And anyway why worry about such things from a remove of 6,479 miles?

My mother has accumulated dozens of newspaper columns on this very topic over her 50 year career. And as evidenced by the 1960 front pages, the headlines were writing themselves long before she started. It's a matter of meteorology (it always rains heavily), geography (Kwame Nkrumah circle was always a flash point; the location of the rivers and lagoons in the city), physics and architecture (the design, placement and configuration of streets, houses, roads and drains), engineering (how well those roads and drains were constructed, whether corners were cut after the no-bid contract was awarded, whether proper materials were used) and ultimately slum politics (the perennial tension between the drainage of the Korle lagoon and the growth of the nearby slums full of voters - whether you call one of those touchpoints Agblobloshie, Old Fadama or Sodom and Gomorrah features into the lens through which one views this intractable issue).

But there is a difference between an act of god and an eminently predictable seasonal occurrence. We'll bemoan the lack of a maintenance culture, pay emergency rates for things that ought to be run-of-the mill repairs. Before and after the fact, everyone "knows" what needs to be done. At what point does damage move from collateral to intended? We cheapen Ghanaian lives and compensate with congratulatory funerals while patting ourselves on the back about our unique culture. I dissent. The refrain I've grown up with is that history should not keep repeating itself. And yet we keep sounding like a broken record when the rains come to Accra.

And for bonus points note the other headline on the 1960 front page: "Fast Train Services Planned". We're still waiting for Godot on that front. It's not as if the plans haven't been there as far as the development of Accra goes. Through each era, under each government, no matter how progressive, incompetent (as currently) or indeed how repressive (as thankfully in our past), the plans have always been there. Sisyphus must have been the patron saint of urban planners in Accra.

Lamentable, a playlist

A lamentable soundtrack for this note(spotify version)

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Ghanaian Fictions

"Bank of Ghana maintains policy rate at 26%". The good news? "Inflation rate declined to 18.5% in February". Let's sing the inflation calypso

If you're a retiree or living on fixed income, 18.5 percent inflation must be doing wonders to your oh-so-substantial pension. #Ghana

What kind of rate does a businesswoman get from a bank when the prime rate is 26 percent? And how do you service that loan? #Ghana

It's not as if government services are exactly stellar, not as if water and electricity are reliable, not as if... arghh I give up #Ghana

Economic fictions, electoral fictions, fictitious employees doing fictitious jobs, fictitious politicians making fictitious claims... #Ghana

How does one anesthetize oneself from fictitious realities? One answer, per Gifford, is "Ghana's New Christianity". Other growth industries?

Perhaps the reason our literary fictions have been slow in gestating is that we have a surfeit of fictions in our daily life. #Ghana

Ghana seems to be in a state of fiction - we must have all agreed to the author's premises. Suspension of disbelief is our coping mechanism.

"To understand what a mafia state is, we need to imagine a state run by, and resembling, organized crime" #Ghana?

If amnesia and nostalgia are preferred US coping mechanisms, Kwesi Brew dryly noted Ghana's Philosophy of Survival

helen takes on extra staff

Soundtrack for this note

Nancy Wilson - Easy Living
I prefer the version on her masterpiece: But Beautiful. It must be easy to live in Ghana, such beautiful fictions.

Sidenote: I've been cheating a bit these days imparting my toli in tweets. Like all writing mediums, the constraints of the very short form can be liberating. Still I will try to collect the occasional bite-sized nuggets here.

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Monday, March 14, 2016

Mango Madness

It strikes me that we don't talk enough about George W. Bush. He remains an erasure even as we all reap the fruits of his legacy.

The signal foreign policy achievement of the Bush administration was allowing the importation of mangoes from India.

Ghanaians will point fondly to the George W. Bush highway (fruit of the Millenium Challenge Accounts). As for the rest of Bush's legacy?

Recall that in 2005, the editors at CNN and Time magazine declared Bush the "fourth most fascinating person of the last quarter-century"

The headline on July 3rd 2007 read "Bush Commutes Libby Sentence, Saying 30 Months 'Is Excessive'" but it was the small things that rankled.

There were so many "last straws" under George W. Bush that I suppose this Great Recession (or Lesser Depression) remains an afterthought.

Gil Scott-Heron's band used to be called the Amnesia Express, proof of how keenly attuned he was to that deep vein of the American zeitgeist

The defense mechanism to George W. Bush's tenure has been amnesia and nostalgia. I had rather expected tissue rejection. The USA confounds.

Incidentally Indian mangoes have faced stiff competition from Latin American mangoes in the US due to transport costs. A race to the bottom.

George W. Bush has indeed proven to be a hard act to follow. Discuss this paradox among yourselves.

An elephant which is lean is still fatter than a cow. Ga proverb, Ghana.

Let's celebrate George W. Bush's brand of mango madness. Soundtrack: Mango Meat by Mandrill.

Alternatively: Legend In His Own Mind by Gil Scott-Heron

Mangoes in Auntie Akwele's Garden

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Friday, January 29, 2016

Tickling John Bull's Lizard Brain

Sometimes you find yourself starting to clap even though the setting isn't quite appropriate; you simply can't help it. In this case, it was definitely problematic; the setting being the middle of a transatlantic flight and, with me looking, as I do, like a slightly older version of the underwear bomber, it certainly wasn't prudent. "No sudden moves" has been my catchphrase when traveling, but there I was a week ago, unable to stifle the handclaps or bravos that I felt were in order. How often does one get to celebrate the beauty of a perfectly executed journalistic intervention. For there is an art to putting a newspaper together, and, in this age of decline, I was compelled to salute the editors of the Daily Mail for their achievement. I am writing of course of pages 8 and 9 of the Daily Mail from Monday January 18 2016. Behold some media toli:

Targeting John Bull's Lizard Brain - Daily Mail Monday January 18 2016 pages 8-9

This wonderful two page spread is a deftly-executed visceral appeal directly targeting John Bull's lizard brain, specifically that area near the outer reaches of the jingoism gland, that murky corner somewhere in the liminal sections of the cerebral cortex - tickling the nativist quadrant of the medulla if you will. I am summoned to metaphorical excess at the accuracy of the editorial imperative displayed. It's like one of those newfangled drug cocktail therapies designed to overwhelm the many devious defenses of the E.coli bacteria. It's the bundling at work, the combination therapy if you will, that marvels. The choice of headlines, the placement of stories - a masterpiece of juxtaposition, the pull quotes accentuating fear, disgust and sexual anxiety at once, and the graphic design adding to the reader's sense of learned helplessness. Everything is connected and works together to reinforce the dismal political message; the keen editorial sense on display in service to agitprop. No search engine optimization can match the tabloid efficiency on display here. I dare anyone to scan these pages without experiencing agitation and confusion - this is the clear intent of the editors. I've annotated the features that caused my unbidden standing ovation.

  1. Cologne sex gangs could come here under EU law, PM is warned
    Predatory immigrants are threatening the homeland with their rapist impulses. Grooming be damned, the font size emphasizes the immediacy of the danger to us 'here'. The "under EU law, PM is warned" parts of the headline are necessary but secondary additions to the main theme, the imminent threat of those "sex gangs". It is clear that David Cameron needs to stiffen his resolve against EU law lest the "Cologne sex gangs" smuggle themselves past the concrete jungle outside Calais, through the Channel Tunnel and onto fair England's land.
  2. Muslims are impossible to integrate says Czech president
    As an editor, I have always found it best to get someone else to make the desired piquant quote for you and this headline is no exception. The provocative paraphrase of the authority figure, the Czech president (a "71 year old Left-Winger" whose opinion would normally be dismissed in the Daily Mail's thinking) underlies the essential trifecta: Muslims. Impossible. Integration. We might as well give up. The headline omits the 'practically' precursor that softens the 'impossible' task, but well, the headline writer has exercised editorial discretion. Clean hands after all that dirty work.
  3. 'Effectively throwing money down the toilet'
    This pull quote about waste of the bathroom sort raises the issue of disgust at bodily functions. The proximity of the scatological angle is intentionally tied to the specter of the sex gangs previously raised. Outrage is a close companion to disgust.
    Note: for the visually minded, the toilet and sex gangs are complemented to the right on the opposite page by the photo of woman in a state of undress - a presumed target, but we'll get to number 8 in due course.
  4. 'There is nothing we can do'
    This alarming pull quote emphasizes just how besieged 'we' are on all fronts, from "sex gangs" to wasted money.
  5. Ghettoes and excluded localities
    The locus of the problems 'we' are facing from "them" is outlined here. The language of the "surge... of refugee arrivals.. wave of mostly Muslim migrants" embedded in the article is overkill. "Ghettoes and excluded localities" does the job.
  6. Half of EU aid wasted, stolen or lost in red tape
    The plain message being articulated is that the English common man is being cheated. Our money is clearly being wasted by bureaucrats, and, further, we have been told "there is nothing we can do about it". It is galling to say the least. This is in clear contrast to those Guardian-reading liberals who would speak in praise of red tape
  7. Build fence 'using petrol tax'
    This inset's purpose is to sow confusion and it does so brilliantly combining an anti-tax agenda (for the proposed taxes would be "wasted, stolen or lost in red tape"), with protectionism (the need "to build a fence" to protect against the "sex gangs") with skepticism about the environmental agenda of the EU big dogs, the "petrol taxes". The small print of Wolfgang Schaeuble lurking in the story should raise the reader's hackles.
  8. Trixie the half-dressed blonde nun proxy
    Trixie, of Call the Midwife fame, is essentially the visual relief from the text - the right brain complement to the editorial assault on our senses. The title may well be "Midwives swing into the 60s... and face a tear jerking tragedy" but what grabs attention is Nurse Trixie herself - and it is unclear if she is dressing or undressing. The main takeaway is that there is a state of undress and the concomittant vulnerablilty. It doesn't hurt to have a nudge or wink towards sex: cleavage sells, sex sells after all. Still, the helpless blonde needs rescuing from the text-heavy affronts raised on the left brain. It is all of a piece.
  9. Thalidomide Scandal
    Ignore the rest of the title, the eye certainly ignores the preamble (Mail TV critic sees hit show return and tackle the Thalidomide Scandal)
    Disease is the inevitable metaphor for 'Them', those foreigners, those migrants, those sex gangs. In the past it was plague, last year it was Ebola, this year it is Zika, but the allusion is to the thalidomide scandal of yore - dead or deformed babies. The actual content of the review doesn't matter as much as the juxtaposition of Thalidomide with the Muslims, the sex gangs, and the red tape. It reinforces the point: we need urgently protection to build a fence against these depredations. It is galling that "there is nothing we can do' to protect defenseless infants or their mothers. The midwives need our help to avoid a tragedy. Save the children.
  10. A picture of chaos and disorder
    The helpful caption to this troubling picture makes the point: "Under attack: hundreds of women were sexually assaulted by migrants in Cologne on New Year's Eve". "We" are under attack. The gangs of youth standing ready to assault women that New Year's Eve might well be aimed at those half-dressed midwives. Their stances are mirror images. The eye flips from left to right and the sense of impending action, sexual violence and all, is emphasized.
  11. Asbestos exposure
    The "important information" of this advert is the equation of those "ghettos and excluded localities" replete with "sex gangs" with the perils of "asbestos exposure", mesothelioma and "thalidomide". The ambulance chasing firms got their money's worth in targeting the working man, while the editors scored a metaphorical triumph.
  12. Average pay at Goldman £250k
    Outrage is compounded by the injustice and inequality of this world. In this Great Recession, the symbolism of bankers continuing to grab all the loot even as wages stagnate for the rest of us is telling. Again, if one casts one's eye to the other side of the spread, we are visually reminded that 'There is nothing we can do'.
  13. Scots earn more per hour than English!
    This last item caused my in-flight commotion. Having been buffeted by all the preceding into a state of panic, the English reader is jolted into a state of blinding outrage. Poor John Bull has been repeatedly set upon, the Union Jack that those ungrateful Geordies tried to disdain in that referendum, the petrol taxes and EU wasted aid all adds up to seeing red. The exclamation point adds the requisite amount of indignation. The intended turmoil has been successfully sown: fear and loathing accomplished. The (almost redundant) punctuation mark is a knowing wink from the editors. You can imagine their craftsman's satisfaction at their day's work.

A decade ago, I published a piece that held the Ebola and Marburg viruses as proxies for Ronald Reagan and Jonas Savimbi's depredations on Africa and Angola in particular. The contrast between those 8,000 words and the brutal efficiency of these two Daily Mail pages is telling. I am further confounded because, in my views, I am the antithesis of everything the Daily Mail editors appear to advocate for, yet, well, I recognize the genius of their game and they very sincerely moved my emotions. The rhetorical precision that lies in the nationalist, populist and protectionist appeal to John Bull is compelling. Well played Dear Editors, the 2016 Toli huhudious awards have a nominee if not a front-runner, and we were only 3 weeks into the year.

Jingo Perils - Some Light Reading

Hilaire Belloc wrote an allegory On Jingoes: In The Shape Of A Warning in my favourite book of essays On Nothing and Kindred Subjects, a volume, as it happens, on nothing and kindred subjects. This whimsical folktale tells "the sad and lamentable history of Jack Bull, son of the late John Bull, India Merchant". This purported son, becomes bamboozled by the opportunist Sir John Snipe and the advice his retainers, Hocus and Pocus, who he called Freedom and Glory for some misbegotten reason. The story ends in the same vein as his earlier cautionary tales and I strongly commend it to you. Belloc was prescient as always: ruin lies in the way of the jingo... Sadly it is a message that the Daily Mail prefers to relearn by experience rather than avoid.

An anxious playlist

As usual, a soundtrack to this note:

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