Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Prince and The Honey

A sequel of sorts, this time the tale is of The Prince and The Honey. One morning, not too long ago, The Little Prince was overheard plaintively saying as he tucked into his morning oats, "Daddy, I don't like the smell of this honey"...

"You what?", thundered the harried father. "Ebei, what little Lord Fauntleroys am I raising here? It's a pandemic, Oliver Twist. I'm in exile. I'm not complaining about what I am missing from the shores of Lake Bosomtwi. Your Akim Swedru lineage is not about delicate sensibility."

But it turned out that The Wicked Mother had replaced the contents of the bottle of Good Flow Austin wildflower honey with an obviously less than adequate Round Rock honey. The 10 mile discrepancy in taste was duly spotted; the Prince had promptly called out the deception. Identity theft. Imposter honey.

The wicked mother quickly snatched her honey back, apparently it's a natural cure for all manner of allergies - they were living in the allergy capital of the land of America. The father placated the son by locating an unadulterated bottle of original honey - the nectar of princes, and fruit of his last pre-lockdown trip. The Princess smiled to herself that her little brother was following in her regal steps.

The mother was slightly chastened that her deception had been exposed, but had the readymade explanation that she was actually protecting the prince, who was still prone to breaking things, and had preemptively decanted her counterfeit honey from its crystal bottle - the Round Rock brand aspired to high class glass, into the old faithful plastic bottle that the family knew and loved, the good flow, as it were.

The father accepted that explanation - he was known to engage in parental deceptions of his own, but he decided to troll the mother by nudging the princess, and loudly saying to the prince: "Likely story...". He winked, accepting as he did this, that he would face the inevitable marital repercussions later, but winding Mother Bear up would be worth it in this case and, well, it was a covidious pandemic, what else does one do to entertain oneself and pass the time?

The father then opened up a browser and, after a quick search session and one-click tribute to an Amazonian tribe - there was a transfer of filthy lucre to their leader, Count Bezos - a whole paycheck's subtribe collected a not-inconsiderable amount of black gold coins in exchange for food. A supply of the Good Flow honey was duly sourced for the next few months.

And everyone lived happily ever after...


Dew drops by Gabriele Schwibach

The Prince and The Honey, a playlist

A soundtrack for this anecdote (spotify version)

Woe is me, this life of fairytales I am living is not for the faint of heart, what with peas and brown sugar princesses, not to mention princes and honey for the bears. What about the hard knock life, I ask? What next, I wonder? Am I to be the boy who cried wolf?

Bonus soundtrack

See previously: The Princess and The Brown Sugar

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time

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Monday, September 21, 2020

Rules and Regulations

There are passports, and then there are passports. Keeping on top of our covidious dilemma requires locking down and, as with all thing bureaucratic, where there are regulations there will inevitably always be loopholes. The fine print is an iron-cast existence proof of any law.

Consider the passport. So you want to add regulations on visitors from a particular country. Let's take a wild example, the USA (a fantasy I know, everyone wants US tourist dollars, or to come to America's great land; per Mr Trump, they'll even pay to build a wall around it). Anyway, let's assume a ban on the US as a thought experiment, indulge me if you will.

Recall that the index cases that imported COVID-19 to Ghana and Burkina Faso were diplomats and businessmen who skirted what screening procedures had been hastily established at the start of the outbreak. Now you may counter, temperature screening doesn't work, asymptomatic transmission etc. Still: the VIP lounge gap, or its equivalent, will exist in some form, and certainly did in those instances, my compatriots are paying the price.

What more people carrying diplomatic passports? Forget the bluster of a trade war, sanctions and what have you, a large part of the current US-China dispute involves the quarantine procedures China would like US diplomats to follow. The State Department and the CIA aren't used to having to follow plebian rules. Quarantine? Rules are made to be broken. There are procedures, and then there are procedures.

ziploc display tsa state college airport 2007

Or take the military, let's say, for whatever godforsaken reason, your country has a security arrangment with the United States (Cold War legacy, the new Great Game, Africom entanglements, what have you). That means bases, compounds, black sites etc. Troop rotations willy-nilly. Japan, South Korea and Djibouti really don't want US military visitors at this point; they are covidious vectors and will do grievous damage to whatever protocols you have established for your own populace. You don't have to have watched M.A.S.H. or read Catch-22 to know how hard it is to keep soldiers from fraternizing - military discipline is not quite compatible with social distancing. The quotes from soldiers and their families about life in South Korea are replete with complaints about restrictions: "they wear masks here", "you can't go anywhere", "they take these things really seriously"... The Germans are quite furious at that soldier who broke quarantine to bar hop and spread the viral love. I am fairly certain that the infection rates among the US military approaches that of the more traditionally vulnerable populations. There are soldiers, and then there are soldiers.

The clear alternative to all this military industrial complex business, as I've previously suggested, is to embrace the glorious visions of The New Warfare.

zip-loc display state college airport 2007

"Ghana demands that on arrival you go into a 14-day quarantine in a hotel monitored by the security services." Many in the Ghanaian diaspora are complying and returning home. Inquiring minds want to know if US diplomats are subject to the same requirements. Is the VIP lounge at Kotoka International Airport still operational?

Even if you have the best regulations, you will depend on the human factor, and the practices of those who have to implement them. Australia's resurgent outbreak - apart from the disastrous meatpacking plant and food pipeline processing outbreaks, has also been partly blamed on the free market, and the privatization imperative. In Victoria unlike in other regions, they had outsourced the company that was providing security for the quarantine hotels that had been set up. A few slips in the procedures by the security guards, a little laxity in casting a blind eye to the guests, or even, as has been piquantly suggested by the tabloids, a romantic, or more properly a lustful assignation, and weeks later, a cool 5 million are having to go into severe lockdown. There are regulations, and then there are regulations.

Spain is trying to get the UK to reverse its hasty restrictions and not tar its lucrative tourist islands with the broad brush of the Catalonia outbreak. The argument is that the islands are safer than mainland Spain and even the UK. I'm sympathetic but, well, these are the breaks. There are restrictions and then there are restrictions.

the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2

Saudi Arabia, for whatever reason, didn't cancel the 2020 Hajj but instead severely limited numbers in the face of the pandemic. Only 10,000 pilgrims were allowed and "the only foreigners allowed to attend are those who reside in the kingdom". Ergo, there was a quota and some gatekeepers got to decide who were the lucky people who get to participate in this potential superspreading event.

I read all the reports that I could and didn't see any mention of a lottery to help this decision, instead I read considerable griping about those who got selected, even as the cover story was that it would be primarily health care workers who got the nod. The Hajj is a religious obligation and the many who didn't make it on their assigned year may be rueing this gap in their future. There are pilgrims and there are those who get to watch the pilgrims.

The CDC belatedly declared that it could block evictions as it wouldn't do to force people onto the street during a pandemic but, again, the details matter as with any rules or regulations:

Some judges say the order, which was announced on Sept. 1, prevents landlords from even beginning an eviction case, which can take months to play out. Some say a case can proceed, but must freeze at the point where a tenant would be removed — usually under the watchful eye of a sheriff or constable. Other judges have allowed cases to move forward against tenants who insist they should be protected, and at least one judge, in North Carolina, has raised questions about whether the C.D.C.’s order is even constitutional.

The uneven treatment means where tenants stand depends on where they live.

Or consider the matter of Covid certificates. Back in July, we read the story about Big Business in Bangladesh

The Bangladeshi authorities have arrested the owner of a hospital who they said had sold migrant workers thousands of certificates showing a negative result on coronavirus tests, when in fact many tests were never performed...

There is a huge market for these certificates among migrant workers from Bangladesh hungry to get back to work in Europe, doing jobs like stocking grocery stores, bussing tables in restaurants or selling bottled water on the streets. Many Bangladeshi workers have recently flown to Italy, where they said that employers required such certificates before allowing them to go back to work.

As the saying goes, trust in Allah but always tie up your camel at night.

One reason that the US response to our covidious predicament has been bad is the confusion from leadership about rules. Donald Trump is allergic to any rules, impunity runs through his veins, along with vanity and hurt pride, and we are all paying the price.

"People need a bit more than a suggestion to look after their own health,” said Dr. Mackay, who has been working with Australian officials on their pandemic response. "They need guidelines, they need rules — and they need to be enforced."

The enforcement part of it is key, when you are demanding shared sacrifice, the notion that there is impunity can be very damaging. Leona Helmsley gained notoriety for quipping "only the little people pay taxes", Martha Stewart claims to this day that she "didn't cheat the little people". Dominic Cummings is presently reviled primarily for disdaining the rules that he drew up while others complied at great cost. This is the terrain I've explored, at length, of shell games and shame cultures:

The forcing function of shame can be a great moderator. Hypocrisy observed and widely broadcast is the essential mechanism. A prime example from 2,000 years ago: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her".
A hypocrite

All this to say that, where there is rule making, there will be grey areas and all that follows. There will be corruption, there will be lobbyists greasing palms, there will be gremlins, and there will be parasites, as in any complex ecosystem. Gird your loins my friends, and watch the covidious fine print.

Note: the one unalloyed covidious dividend is the relaxation of the rules on liquids during travel, call it the hand sanitizer loophole to the homeland security theater. I'll close by singing a paean In Praise of Loopholes

Rules and Regulations, a playlist

As ever, a soundtrack to this note. (spotify version)

See also: The Ziploc Factor

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

African Ceremonies

I give you African Ceremonies, my photographic examination of some of the ties that bind us in Africa and the diaspora...

Back in 2006, I gathered some photos I'd taken into a slide show about African ceremonies. It was intended as a companion piece to an article I was writing about building software to support communities and how to highlight the periodic social events that all communities require - said article has sadly remained dark matter. Well that's my cover story, another theory is that I had 15 minutes to procrastinate...

A curious few who happened onto the photos asked for a little narration to underline what I was getting at, and to explain some of what was taking place, the traditional weddings were intriguing it seems. There was also a withering comment about why I labeled it "African" rather than the more specific "Ghanaian" - but I'll dodge that one now as I did back then. I was vaguely hoping to start a trend and was hopeful that others from the continent or diaspora would add their own visions of their own ceremonies. I was early on the web and, for the longest time, if you searched for Ghana weddings, my happy day would have been your top search result (sidenote: a lazy Ghanaian journalist once did that search and used one of our photos to illustrate a story about sham Green card marriages which almost gave my poor mother a heart attack as she opened her newspaper one morning to see her son and daughter-in-law in glorious print and juxtaposed infamy - I really must dig up that paper from my archives).

I am well aware of the types and faces that we traditionally see of Africa. I've been pleased, in the years since, to see Africans adopt Flickr, Instagram, and what have you. As internet penetration advanced, and especially with the adoption of mobile phones, we are all putting out our own images and telling our own stories. Here comes everybody, as a prescient Clay Shirky intoned.

There is a tension however about putting one's family snaps out there, I am mindful of privacy concerns that may arise and have taken down promptly whenever alerted. I've found though that my loved ones have actually appreciated my amateur social historian impulses and the value of a simple link. Even when I've recorded painful interludes and genuine grief, the memories of our rituals and traditions have been the social capital and comfort that we draw on to go forward.

Then the pandemic intervened and, in this covidious interlude, I've had further time to pair all those images with a very special piece of music, a stunning version of Better Days Ahead by Gil Scott-Heron, recorded Live at the Fox Theatre Boulder Colorado in 1979, I believe - hat tip to Kalamu.

Herewith then an attempt to turn my amateur snaps into a "photo essay", a personal tour of African ceremonies...

  • African Ceremonies - a photo essay
  • African Ceremonies (Better Days Ahead by Gil Scott-Heron)
    I also give you the linked video for viewing and listening pleasure. My liner notes follow below. At the very least, the music should be your blanket of soul. I found the juxtaposition of the images and the song moving for, even as I contemplated how things have fallen apart, I could harken back to these mementos of togetherness. It is no article of faith to expect that there will be better days ahead even as we ask: what paradise have we lost?

African Ceremonies (Better Days Ahead) with Gil Scott-Heron's accompaniment


People like Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith make coffee table fodder out of photography books like African Ceremonies and Africa Adorned. Those books are visually wonderful and they deserve all the acclaim (and money) they get. To my eyes however, their approach is a little too stylized; there's a loss of social and cultural context, and a sense of titillation. They omit the Coke bottles or cans, the white plastic chairs, the satellite dishes in the background or the goat-herders with the cellphones.

"Move that away", you almost hear them demand as they take the "authentic" photos. The end result is based purely on an aesthetic sense (albeit a very acute sense) and a view from the outside-in. Still I'm grateful that someone is documenting these affairs; so much of Africa's past has been ephemeral and lost in oral tradition. But the result is otherworldly and, I hesitate to bring up the word, exotic...

You don't need to point to the nativist stylings of Leni Riefenstahl whose penance for the Third Reich propaganda was a retreat to the most "traditional" Africa and a celebration of the Nuba of Sudan. It's a very different feel from the photos of African photographers like Seydou Keita or Malick Sidibe which are full of knowing wit that comes from breathing in life in the society.

This is also true if you monitor contemporary photos about Africa. The aesthetic of many of the photos in the Images of Africa pool at Flickr is quite different from that of those taken by "the locals" even if said locals have begun posting to that and other forums. This is understandable, holiday pictures of a safari, of wildlife, or of those who put on performances for your benefit will obviously be far different from the kinds of things you notice if you were involved in the occasion. Still as more Africans add to the collective pools, things are changing. The aesthetic of the more professional local photographers, say the "African Futurist" or say Blackwize is as vibrant as can be. I'm not a visual person, but whenever I've ventured into Instagram and such, I've never been disappointed. You can get a keen sense of the modernity and normalcy in their visions.


Take a ceremony like this, from Sandema in Northern Ghana (of which I'll later share a quite harrowing story).

Builsa Feok Festival

The setting is the Feok Festival of the Builsa people where they re-enact the story of how their ancestors fought off the slave raiders. If you're ever in Ghana in December and can make it up north, you'll definitely enjoy the occasion: the elaborate choreography and exuberance of the warriors showing off their forebear's proudest moment.

Builsa Feok Festival Sandema

Note if you will the Adidas and Nike trainers - how inauthentic, right? Angela Fisher would surely make them get some real hunter shoes, savanna grass and antelope hides or what have you before taking her photos.

Builsa Feok Festival

One of the backstories to the photos is that these guys are all ex-policemen despite their posturing as "traditional" warriors. These days they settle scores with AK-47s instead of the cudgels and shepherd's crooks they carry here. Capturing them on the one day of the year when they ostensibly forgo their hair-trigger militia tendencies misses half the story. In many ways, they are seen by the rest of the country as a lost cause, almost akin to the Somali warlords - i.e. people to be mostly ignored or, at best, bought off to keep quiet. A quite dangerous state of affairs, but that's another story...


We do like our chiefs and the pageantry that comes with durbar rallies. Throughout our history we have put them on a pedestal or palanquin.

Northern chiefs Ghana 1954

Durbars and the ceremonial umbrellas that accompany them are a recurring motif in our art.


But that is because everyone likes to dress up for parades

Royalty Arrives

There's always a commotion when royalty, loosely interpreted, arrives on the scene.

Nana (Chief)

We love marches and carnivals.

Madam President Kufuor Asantehene

We fuss over our chiefs

chief  nana gyamfi arrives 3

Grown men become supplicants when chiefs arrive at an event

chief nana gyamfi

It's the hint of black gold

10 IMG_4402 The Ashanti King, 31 december 2006. Photo by Natalie Mossin

The Agotime kente festival is another wonderful and picturesque occasion when the entire town comes out to celebrate their master weavers. You can tell how important these few hours are to community.

The Dipo ceremony of the Krobo girls is one of those rites of passage that wouldn't be out of place in coffee table books.


While I like these glamourous and photogenic ceremonies, they are fairly infrequent. The majority of my experience of ceremonies has been of the more personal variety, and not quite so dramatic: births, engagements, weddings and funerals... Ceremonies are rites of passages and have importance in our communities given the impermanence and fragility of life in our part of the world.

Let's start with an engagement ceremony - or "knocking" as we call it in Ghana. In our traditions this is where the two families ostensibly meet for the first time.

bearing gifts

The man's family goes bearing gifts to the woman's family to "knock" on the door, introduce themselves, declare intentions and ask for woman's hand on behalf of their son. Basically it's the traditional wedding.


Sometimes for the more showy, you can hire carriers, a band or people - color-coordinated of course, to carry the gifts your side is bringing to the table and to come and sing praises. On the whole though it's an opportunity for the families to get to know each other. Depending on the tradition, attendance by the couple is optional, this is all about the two families becoming one.

bearing gifts procession

More often though, you carry them yourself.


In the Ga tradition, the groom's family arrives at the gate of the bride's father's residence and "knocks" requesting entry. Typically you offer a nominal payment of 100 cedis (about $10) for entry.

gifts loud entrance

You're making an entrance. In some traditions, there is a big to-do about the entrance. They won't let you in, pretend no one is there. Or the reception is grudging, "who are you people?". But it's all a theatrical pose.


I know that in some traditions they bring out multiple ladies from the house and theatrically ask that you identify the desired, to see how well you know her. We come bearing gifts whether Schnaaps, cloth, jewelry, suitcases and cash. Gifts are symbolic although there is much ado about the list - e.g. approx 100 cedis ($10) to enter the gate, a suitcase for the woman's belongings, pieces of cloth, a ceremonial white bible, a few crates of drink, a stool etc.

gifts cloths drinks

We have spokesmen, or Okyeames, recounting the praises of the participants, using very ornate and flowery language. "Our son has spotted a beautiful rose in a garden." Knocking ceremonies, are mostly run by women, and indeed are for women, attendance by the men in optional.

back and forth

One last thing: this was also the point at which one would openly discuss the lineage and antecedants of the couple - e.g. in the past this was the moment at which we checked with the family elders to prevent inbreeding.

Sometimes you get priests running things - with Ghana's new Christianity, you get a lot of prayer interludes. Occasionally it's silent prayer but often the exhortations are quite intense - and lengthy.


preacher man

ep church pastors

There's lots of fuss about the little things, the white bible, the ring, the cloth, the cakes, the little envelopes stuffed with cash bribes for members of the family,

Checking the ring

the suitcases (sometimes a brand of suitcase is specified).

suitcase watch

Sometimes the setting is quite fancy.


At other times, it's more casual and modest.

abutia celebrations

You have the families facing each other.

why have you come?

I'm often to be found dealing with logistics in these events

madam barrels

Being behind the scenes means that I can catch the little moments.

barrel fever

One year, you're relaxing in the background after working for days setting things up for the occasion.

joyce laughs

Six months later, it's your turn, and it's a case of pre-event jitters and last-minute butterflies.

joyce anticipates

Eventually we manage coax a smile out of you and you know you'll be beaming when the deal is done.

joyce waiting

Now I shouldn't joke about these things since I'm certainly not immune to them; when my time came I had the jitters too.


Even though I knew what the result would be.

The people who come bring a lot of energy to the gathering. You may not see them often during the year but they want to affirm their membership in your community (I realize I'm writing here with software engineer's terminology, but you can sue me, my life informs my work).

Abutia relatives

Some come with glint of mischief in their eye, or maybe a sense of the cantankerous.

fo smiles

and perhaps pearls of experience

abutia relatives

We all make an effort to dress up for the occasion.

kweku theo

Our seamstresses are kept busy

mabel walks

Lace style and pageantry is in order

lace style

lace pageantry

As are the kente stylings.

mum at inauguration

Funeral Minded

The iconography of funerals I've attended rhymes with that of engagments. Even in our moments of grief, tradition demands surety. Consider an Abutia clan funeral ceremony that takes place the day after the burial. The clan visits the bereaved family bringing gifts to commiserate, bring comfort, and share in the community's loss.

asempapa clan ceremony 2

There is much singing and improvisation

asempapa clan ceremony 3

It punctuates the family meeting

family meeting

The music is a necesary soothing balm that is missing in our current zoom funerals even as some restrictions are beginning to be lifted.

asempapa clan ceremony 14

It was a painful moment for all of us, we had lost Da but you can see the exact second when my Aunt's grief was sublimated and she lost herself in the dance, in fond remembrance of her mother.

You're always surprised about who is most involved in the event. The dark matter of communities surfaces at such times. These social events are about participation and identification. Formalisms like invitations are a little much in Ghanaian traditions. If you hear that so-and-so has a baby or is getting married, it is your obligation to show up. You can imagine the uncertainty this causes. If you're organizing such an event, you should probably double your expectations about attendance. Like the South East Asians, it becomes a numbers game.

During our years under military rule the only outlet we had were these ceremonies, and once democracy returned and a middle class began to reassert itself, there has been a burgeoning industry of event planners. We believe in textiles, food and such.

Funerals are a big part of Ghanaian life although they aren't much photographed. Back when party politics were banned, the only real social occasions that mattered, and that couldn't be controlled, were these traditional ceremonies. I hope some anthropologist does a study of the funeral culture of Ghana. Economists also would have a field day: entire industries have sprung up that deal with the financing of funerals and the strategies for avoiding bankruptcy. Given the other strains on mortality in our society, funerals are a growth industry even in a covidious time.

We wear different colours - darker cloths typically black, red depending on the age and status of the person who died.

Members of the family and close friends would wear the same print.

edem and sisters

mould aunts

frank cousins

It is well known that the Ga have made an industry, and art, out of their coffins, and well entrepreneurial spirit flourishes where there is a need.

coca cola coffin starbeer coffin

We also mark the anniversary of the death as the 1 year and 10 year dates are important in our traditions. Our lost ones live through us and we remember and celebrate their legacy. These celebrations of life happen not just in Ghana but in New York, New Jersey or London.


At the other end of the circle of life are outdoorings, the naming ceremony for newborns. These are traditionally held on the morning of the 8th day of life.

The Okyeame pours libation and formally presents the newest member of the family.


The colours are typically blue and white.


the children look on and learn

symon libation

The grandmothers are beside themselves. They like to see that things are done properly.


We forget the daily grind of life in the diaspora


and embrace a certain aesthetic of ease on these occasions

madame high heels

Ceremonies qua Ceremonies

Mobile phones are de rigeur these days


The food is always something else, we like to throw a spread...

grilled fish gari foto, kebab, tatale and "ghana salad"

I normally make a nuisance of myself in the kitchen

food spread roast

It's all about the chairs however...

over there

lots of chairs


We spend lots of time in the heat, under canopies

bible study class 10

plastic chairs, sunlight and waiting for tardy drinks

in the corner

A surprising amount of time is spent simply waiting

Kente, Lace and Champagne

Some sights are enough to get you to declaim spontaneous poetry: Kente, Lace and Champagne

There's an art to waiting

watching waiting

asempapa clan ceremony 21

For impatient youths, it can be trying: long periods of inactivity

uncle sena

followed by brief spasms of meaning


But as you get older,

fred setho francis

you realize it is well worth it.

the boys

And almost all our ceremonies end with fun.


We're entertained by the drama in the dance

dramatic dance

We hire some drummers

drum group

a combo of highlife musicians

highlife musicians

(or hip-life djs in recent times)

Highlife Musicians

The Ewes (my maternal tribe) have this propensity to break out into circle dances characterized by everyone pulling out white handkerchiefs.

Boborbor and Agbaza dances happen whether at funerals or weddings.


grace bobobor

It is often spontaneous expression.

abutia dance

joyous and playful

abutia dance

We shake a leg - the Gas (on the paternal side) have this propensity for all manner of leg twists and raises.

shake a leg

The maternal side add their Abutia flair

bible study group dance 15

We dance like we come from Tuobodum.


We thank the gods for life.

bible study group dance 9

collection dance 9

Even on the streets of New Jersey, even if we don't wear the traditional clothes, we dig in and get down on it.

opong dance

London too has got soulful expatriates.

mum kofi ben danceLondoners dance

Hell, even in Boston, people are known to get down on these happy occasions.

African immigrants have made it to Greenland after all.

bobobor 3

In all of these ceremonies I come out of my normally reserved shell to enliven the occasion. I'm known for my village moves back home

asempapa clan ceremony 10


I dance with every woman from 3 to 100.

me may

I make people smile at my antics, but, well, I can't help it.



dancing fun

So yes, things may fall apart but these ceremonies keep things together.

me abena waafas

Dresses hand sewn by seamtresess with craft and delicacy
We dance in the grand estate and enjoin all in the revelry

These African ceremonies are our relief from immigrant pain
We toast our brethren and sistren with kente, lace and champagne


I nominate this note as part of the Things Fall Apart series under the banners of Social Living and The Comfort Suite

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