Timbuktu

May 5, 2015

Thanks for your patience!

Travel, illness, a crashed computer and lots of other work have all contributed to this blog lying dormant for four months.

Time to revive it.

 

Mild. That’s the word I would like to use when describing Abderrahmane Sissako’s depiction of recent  events in Timbuktu. This is not the first time Sissako tackles a theme rooted in either a historical fact or current circumstance. “Bamako”, his 2006 production, staged a trial against the International Monetary Funds and the World Bank, the lead agencies of an aid industry that is the bane of this continent. As in “Timbuktu”, he affords himself acres of artistic licence, so what we get to see are his interpretations of fact and circumstance.

In early 2012, northern Mali was invaded, first by a Tuareg rebellion and then by jihadist gangs. It was, in brief, the fallout from the West’s catastrophically ill-conceived removal of its earlier friend and ally Muamar Ghadaffi, whose army had been home for many Tuaregs. Jihadists from Algeria and elsewhere saw the opportunity of a gaping security hole that was opening up in northern Mali and struck. They overran Timbuktu, the City of 333 Saints and destroyed buildings, graves and objects of world-wide cultural importance.

Timbuktu was hit especially hard in the way people’s lives were disrupted or destroyed. ‘We are losing our soul,’ as one old inhabitant put it. “Timbuktu”, the film, shows some of that, in particular the harsh stoning of an “adulterous” couple, the relentless beating of a female singer (played beautifully by Fatoumata Diawara) after she had been arrested for illegally performing music, the heartless abduction of a local girl by an English speaking jihadist fighter and the destruction of art.

Should “Timbuktu” have been a Western shill, as some writers have suggested, the jihadists would have been portrayed as unreconstructed monsters without any redeeming features. Instead, they are presented to us with their weaknesses and their pasts. The will to communicate and dialogue is emphasised throughout, especially by the city’s imam who seeks to reason with the jihadists every time they violate local custom. To me, the essence of “Timbuktu” runs counter to the instincts of the alleged leaders of Western nations, who have developed a vicious tendency to bomb everyone who disagrees with them.

The jihadist leader, Abdelkrim, is seen dancing in secret – we are left to determine whether it is ballet or the much older traditional whirling of the Dervishes, imbued with the kind of mysticism he wants to expunge. When he is driven to a sand dune and walks behind it to light up, his driver tells him: ‘Don’t bother. Everybody knows you smoke.’ Some of his fighters are clearly more comfortable discussing European league football than the sharia principles they are supposed to ram down everybody’s throat. Not exactly your average portrayal of a hate-infused fundamentalist. Sissako maintains the human scale in his story.

from Mondoblog

from Mondoblog

The film’s centrepiece revolves around a conflict between Amadou, a fisherman and Kidane, a herdsman whose favourite bull strays into Amadou’s nets. The fisherman kills the bull and Kidane, an otherwise tranquil man and loving husband, gets into a fight with Amadou and kills him. Accidentally or not, again we are not sure.

I will confess that I found the storyline that followed this scene rather confusing. First, it takes the Islamic Police no time at all to find and arrest Kidane. How were they so sure it was him? And then there is his confession and the verdict: compensate Amadou or die. Kidane has not got the wherewithal to do the former. I was left wondering what a traditional tribunal would have had to say. The sequence ends with a botched rescue of Kidane by his wife Satima and an unknown biker we have seen riding around a few times, an interesting “foreign” element if you like, just like the mad mystic woman from Haiti who somehow ended up here after having escaped the earthquake in her country and who challenges Abdelkrim’s gang with the recklessness of someone who knows she cannot be touched or harmed. It is in her lair that Abdelkrim performs his dance…

 

from Mondoblog

from Mondoblog

“Timbuktu” is a work of art, beautifully filmed (perhaps even too beautifully if that is at all possible), with long stills that reminded me of my favourite film director, the late Andrej Tarkovski.

So here is one recurring criticism that can be put to pasture. There is this one here, for instance, a critique that provoked an explosion of discussions as it made the risible claim that Sissako had made a film to fit Western tastes for an “eternal Africa” where everyone is a fisherman or a herdsman, blissfully ignoring the fact that literally everybody in the film is using a mobile phone to communicate. Orientalism, or “othering” to use that ugly neologism, “Timbuktu” does none of these things.

Another criticism relates to Mauritania, where Sissako was born and where most of “Timbuktu” was filmed. Commentators have asked why Sissako has not dared to speak out against the persistent slavery practices there. Mauritania outlawed it in 1981 (the last country in the world to do so) and then took another 26 years to criminalise it. It is a good point and perhaps Sissako, said to be a cultural advisor to Mauritanian president Mohamed Old Abdel Aziz, will be compelled to make such a statement, in another film. At the same time, it strikes me as irrelevant. I do not recall any such calls when “Bamako” was released, partly of course because that film targeted the “correct” usual suspects – World Bank and IMF – and attacked them with a ferocity that makes “Timbuktu” a paragon of subtlety and, in my view at least, a better film.

from AlloCiné

from AlloCiné

That leaves France, where the film was mostly financed and where it has been very warmly welcomed (seven Césars, the French Oscars). France is part of that international community that first allowed Mali to slide into the abject mess that it is today because it was an excellent hole into which the hundreds of millions in aid money could be sunk. Mali was, therefore, immune from criticism. Then, in January 2013, France briefly became the heroic liberator that shot the jihadist gangs out of Timbuktu and then, unforgivably, botched its attempts at reuniting Mali at Kidal, a rebel stronghold until today. Today, France is regarded with utmost suspicion in Mali and all she has to blame for that is herself.

French critics have been praising “Timbuktu” to the heavens – and indeed, one of the critiques I mentioned earlier quotes a piece of astonishing silliness in Le Monde in which some hack maintains that “Timbuktu” is in fact a tribute…to France. In fact, the film steers clear of any overt political statement, which is perhaps why some have found it necessary to accuse Sissako of having made the film to whitewash France and/or Mauritania, both engaged in what is called the War On Terror. The point would have been legitimate, had he made a documentary, which he did not. But don’t take my word for it – go and see it for yourself.

 

Fighting the Void

January 14, 2015

In the aftermath of another unspeakable massacre in northeastern Nigeria, a earlier orgy of butchery at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan and a relatively small one in Paris last week the worldwide handwringing continues, in tandem with the gloating (in some isolated quarters) about these deaths. What they all had in common was that the victims – ordinary folk from towns and villages, schoolboys, journalists and artists – carried no arms. Their killers did.

In Paris, the murder of 17 people in three days by armed thugs was unusual; massacres of such magnitude are rare in Europe although they do occur from time to time, as they have in Scotland, Germany and Norway. But as the identity of the Paris killers emerged, the media wheeled out the same tired old predictable tropes as they went into their habitual overdrive. I consider 24-hours-a-day rolling news one of the worst mental afflictions that humankind these days has to endure. (Thanks, Ted Turner.) Another affliction is known as “Social Media”. Yes, I am a part of it but it is deplorable to see an ever-expanding tin foil hat crowd that used to have a corner in a London park, a megaphone and perhaps two minutes of the public’s attention now dispose of a worldwide forum, seven days a week, to throw raw sewage into any online discussion. Read the Al Jazeera commentaries and weep.

Every sane person on the planet knows that invoking Islam when burning innocent people in their own homes, sending a 10-years-old girl into a crowded market with bombs strapped to her little body, or indeed mowing people down in their place of work…that none of this implies that Islam endorses murder. Similarly, all are aware that full freedom of speech exists nowhere, a situation that I personally find deeply unsatisfactory. Censorship is alive and well, from religious restrictions in many parts of the world, via the plague of political correctness in much of the West and all the way through to states that have been in the business of shutting down free speech everywhere since forever. Charlie Hebdo has a history of at times pretty serious investigative journalism. Here’s a rundown of those who have tried, unsuccessfully, to shut it down and the list leaves out members of the French establishment who have been no friend of free speech. Freedom of expression will always be negotiated under ever shifting circumstances and conditions. Discussions about the existence, yes or no, of freedom of speech and its limits are part of these negotiations.

Street art, Dakar Biënnale "off", Biscuiterie de Medina, 2014

Street art, Dakar Biënnale “off”, Biscuiterie de Medina, 2014

But what about those killers? It took a Burkinabè newspaper editorial to cut through all the post-Paris-massacre teeth-gnashing and get straight to the point. There is no reason, Aujourd’hui (Today) argues, to run around in circles asking the same “Why did they do it???” over and over again because the answer will remain the same: a roaring, deafening silence. Referring to the Paris killers the paper said: ‘This type believes in nothing. They don’t believe in God. They don’t believe in the devil.’ This stance, I think, will allow us to move past the distractions (Free speech! False Flag! Religion!) and move into a much more action-oriented “How.” How does a society, any society, prevent this sort of thing from happening?

Short-term is practical. When empty-brained loons destroyed Timbuktu in 2012 and in January 2015 tore through Nigerian villages and shot an editorial team to pieces, the question was: where was the army? Where were the intelligence services? In the first case, the Malian army was fatally weakened by decades of policies, dictated by international donors on whose money the Malian state depends, which never took national security into account. Nigeria, in its turn, has no such excuse and neither do the likes of France. The claims that intelligence prevents similar outrages to occur more frequently may well be true but the fact that the Paris killers were known but not apprehended before they could come into action suggests, in the famous Napoleonic sense, incompetence verging on criminal negligence. Similar was reported about US Intelligence services prior to the September 11 attacks. This will not do. Effective armies and intelligent intelligence are crucial to a nation’s defence; actions that distract from keeping the public safe are borderline treasonous.

Long-term is the more difficult challenge. There are fundamental questions to be asked about the kind of society people want to live in. Are we happy in a society that consigns up to one-fifth of the population to irrelevance because they are considered too stupid or under-educated (Netherlands), or because they live in the wrong postal code (Paris) or because they live in a region that is considered politically irrelevant (Nigeria)? Because this creates tens of thousands of lives filled with resentful nothingness, a Void. And from there, people can easily be sucked into Another Void where nihilism rules and murder exists purely for its own sake, as Aujourd’hui asserts.

For some societies, it may already be too late to have proper protection against the products of The Void; it has been allowed to balloon to unsustainable proportions with extremism on the one side and populism on the other. All this has been made infinitely worse by a crop of leaders who have unleashed criminal and illegal wars because, wait for it, “God told me so”. With politicians like these, who needs enemies? The future of the leading nations of the West does not look good. At all.

Ouagadougou, October 2014. Pic: koulouba.com

Ouagadougou, October 2014. Pic: koulouba.com

So what can be done, then? Forgive me for banging an old drum here but this is where the Left has, unforgivably, dropped the ball. Left-wing politics, where one would traditionally look for answers to these serious redistribution issues has disappeared up its own politically correct arse. It has ditched its social democratic roots, embraced the free market and hung the label “progressive” on a political patronage system created around self-declared representatives of groups that had declared themselves, rightly or wrongly, historically deprived. Crucially, none of these claims were interrogated. You cannot ask hard questions when identity politics has all the answers. It is exactly the same trick employed by the defenders of the assassins of Paris, Nigeria and indeed the criminal, murderous loon Breivik in Norway. The Left, as I have argued before, can only be repaired by a return to basics but does it want to restore its long-lost credibility? The answer seems to be a resounding “No.” 

Where to look, then, to fill that Void? Some claim to have found the answer, parading with knives and guns and beheading people under a black-and-white flag. These are the lost pirates, rebels without a cause, the nothing-believers, as Aujourd’hui calls them. Very frankly, they are a distraction. Where we are heading, I predict, is back – or forward! – to classic class warfare. For a picture of what that entails look no further than the burnt-out buildings I am seeing when cycling through the Burkinabè capital, Ouagadougou. These carefully selected targets all belonged to the ruling class. In different places and in different ways, History is already busy repeating itself and dear reader, do not, for a single second, believe that you will be safe.

A perceptive 2015

December 26, 2014

het spookbos

One afternoon last May, I took this picture from the veranda of the charming hotel I was staying in Joal-Fadiouth, a few hour’s south of my former home, Dakar.

Looking at it on my laptop a few weeks later I was astonished. Surely, those trees were not there?

Evidently, they were. My memory was playing tricks or – more probably – I had not been watching properly. I toyed with the idea of calling the image “The Phantom Forest” but that wold be unjust to the baobab trees who have been there for centuries. (Not that they’d care much…)

And now I am in Ouagadougou, where a lot has been happening recently as the rest of the world was busing looking elsewhere – or couldn’t be bothered to look – or was in fact watching things but chose to ignore what was happening in front of its nose.

Reality, like those trees, does not care. My job is in essence to look, to look again, to look harder and then ask the inevitable question: ‘Have I missed anything?’

The answer is equally inevitable: ‘Yes, you most probably have.’

Here’s to a perceptive 2015.

White Saviours (part 1,753,535 and counting…)

December 22, 2014

Picture the scene. I am walking down the street as a young boy shoots out from between a few parked luxury cars. He looks at me, puts his thumb index and middle fingers together in a gesture that suggests eating and brings them to his mouth. To make sure that there is no equivocation.

He wants to eat. And he’s just found the perfect individual to pay for that: a lone white man walking down the street with a rucksack. The target is correct, has always been correct.

A couple of things happen here, in this little scene on a street in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. First, it confirms my worst fears about dependency syndrome. This country has been infested with denizens from the aid industry for decade after depressing decade. Not only has it achieved depressingly little, it has inculcated in many minds that wherever white people are around there is free money available and this in spite of the fact that the aid industry has gone truly global with India, Brazil, South Africa, Japan, China, The Middle East and Angola joining in.

The principal business of the aid industry is spending money without a great deal of reflection on purpose and usefulness. The fact that it has also spawned a gigantic Monitoring and Evaluation business merely serves to illustrate the point. What this boy did was making an extremely rapid appraisal of what purpose the presence of an unknown but white stranger could serve for him. It is dependency syndrome writ large.

And it was ever thus. Colonial times arrived in these savannas in the form of the French Army and was swiftly followed by cultural repression, forced labour, commercial agriculture and of course the civilizing mission. After Independence, it merely changed mantle, creating a combination that I consider in fact even more pernicious. Colonialism and its attendant misery was something you could fight. But what on earth do you do with a development industry that carries a similar civilizing mission, consisting of benign condescension and colossal amounts of free and fungible money? How the hell do you fight that?

By Arlene Wandera, Dakar Biënnale 2014. Photo: me.

By Arlene Wandera, Dakar Biënnale 2014. Photo: me.

Aid was one of the pillars under the just-deposed regime of Blaise Compaoré and his clan. Whites played no part in this country’s self-liberation even though I have already seen claims that aid was a factor, admittedly tiny though, in advancing the revolution in Burkina Faso. These claims should be dismissed as the preposterous cant that they are.

Back to that street scene because there is something else happening here. The cars that hid the boy from my view until he came out and claimed money for his stomach, were all locally purchased. And expensive: big 4WDs of the kind that I will most certainly never own. Cycling remains my preferred way of moving around Ouagadougou, in part because I can afford it. Would it ever occur to this boy that the Africans who drive these luxury cars are all, to a man and a woman, an order of magnitude richer than I am?

I cannot tell. Our exchange was over in seconds. Perhaps he has been told by the owners of these luxury cars that he can get stuffed. But let us, for the sake of the argument, say that this idea would never enter his head – and I think this is plausible. What does this tell us about the mindset of a nation that has been aid dependent for five depressing decades at the very least? It means that the poor, like this boy, have simply given up on getting a better life through their own endeavours or the actions of their fellow citizens. Saviours can only be White. I cannot think of anything more pernicious: a nominally sovereign nation lives by the notion that it’s only The Outside that can save it. The Outside gives money, you can attempt to go there and you will have to forget that it was the same Outside that kept a kleptocratic regime in its place for 27 years. It is utterly debilitating.

In Bissau. By Amilcar Cabral. Pic: me.

In Bissau. By Amilcar Cabral. Pic: me.

Still, the revolution arrived late October this year and it was broadcast live, on radio. I hope it will go on to achieve other things, chief among them the realisation that there is dignity to be had from relying on your own resources, brains, energy, intellect, economic power…in short, the death of the idea that (White) Outsiders can solve your problems. Once again: no whites were involved in this revolution, if anything they have stood squarely in its way. And who knows, a couple of years down the road, following the installation of a government that serves the people rather than itself and a few connected local and international friends, I can tell that boy where to find the government agency that helps people like him, who have fallen through the cracks. And what bliss if I can do that while walking down a street free of logo-bedecked luxury vehicles on their way to donor meetings, workshops, training sessions and other talking shops. Burkina Faso would look so much healthier as a result.

Well yes, I know, the IMF, the world’s schoolmarm of budget discipline has already rolled into town with yet another soon-to-be-forgotten bureaucrat lecturing the transitional government. The rest will doubtlessly follow: the UN alphabet soup, EU, the Dutch, the Brits, the Swedes and so on and so forth. Can I just dream for half a day before I get thoroughly depressed again?

Very Important Visitors

November 30, 2014

There’s hardly a bigger headache than heads of state and government descending on a city for a summit. In 1997, Amsterdam was sealed off during an EU Conference that just had to be held in the heart of the old town. February 2008, Monrovia went into lockdown during the few hours George W. Bush came to see his friend Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, ruining my planned interview with the Liberian head of state in the process. And now we have Dakar, suffering under the presence of some six dozen Great&Good who all speak French. Yes, it’s La Francophonie, held in a brand new conference centre built by a Turkish firm for the “bagatelle”, as the French so deliciously call it, of €$75m. Truth be told: the jamboree has made my two last full days in Dakar extremely annoying.

Because the Great&Good That Speak French arrive at the airport, then take the Autoroute and the Toll Road to the conference location: Diamniadio, 30 kilometres outside Dakar. This formerly quiet, sleepy village where this nation’s great Northern and Central/Eastern routes meet is now part of a vast new project: a brand new urban development close to the new international airport that will probably open sometime during 2016.

Back to the Transport of the Great&Good. For several days, from 6am to 11pm, the Dakarois are offered the irritating soundtrack of wailing sirens and the endless whistleblowing of gendarmes preventing people from going about their normal routine of crossing the road where and when they please. Feeling on the street, predictably: ‘Francophonie? Horse manure.’ Yep. The sooner you all *BEEP* off back to where you came from, the better. And do hold your next EU, UN, Commonwealth, Francophone, Whichever conference in a remote National Park somewhere with very few people. You’ll be less of a nuisance there.

Back to the Diamniadio Jamboree and here’s an  excellent observation from a Senegalese commentator: is it not remarkable how little attention has been paid to – by far! – the single most important event in West Africa this year: the revolution in Burkina Faso. Even with Burkina’s  interim president Michel Kafando present among them, it was only the French leader Hollande who named the event. Hollande “forgot” to mention, though, that in October he had, de facto, offered the vacant job of Head of La Francophonie to the now deposed “pompier-pyromane” Blaise Compaoré…

With jihadists in its front yard and Dakar an open international space, security is a major concern for the Senegalese authorities. But it has clearly gone completely overboard by banning an anti-Francophonie Summit, a measure that was – rightly – condemned as anti-democratic. The government of president Macky Sall demonstrates regularly that it has a tenuous relationship with the concepts of democracy, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Still, in fairness, Senegal remains miles away from that hotbed of media and government-fed paranoia, that mortal enemy of personal Space and Liberty as it ogles the private lives of citizens and visitors alike, that surveillance-obsessed, control-addicted nation that harvests personal data on an industrial scale. I am, of course, referring to the United States; with the CCTV states in northeastern Europe, France included, not far behind.

Masks in a church – 2

November 18, 2014

De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam is the temporary home to an exhibition of masks. On display until February 15 next year, so there is plenty of time for you to make up your own mind. This is my take on the event. Second and last part

The curators have found two ways around the essentialism described in the first part. One is the – once again – laudable effort to trace the names of the artists who made the masks and statutes. So we learn that there were at least two master artists among the Dan in the great western forest region: Sra and Tanpiémé, working in the 19th century. He great 20th century artist Pablo Picasso got his ideas for cubism from Africa, as we know. In fact, we can home in on the exact encounter that gave Picasso his idea. It was a mask from the Dan. It may even have been one made by either Sra or Tanpiémé. What we can say with certainty is that Picasso’s style would not have existed without the masters from Côte d’Ivoire. (I am not aware that Picasso ever acknowledged as much but perhaps someone can help me out here. Thanks in advance.)

Many of the original artists are not traceable, though, and the way around this has been to attribute a particular style to them and then announce that this work was made by a Master of… And thus we have the Master of Curves or the Master of Essankro, a place in the Baulé region of central Côte d’Ivoire. His mask adorns the flyer about the exhibition, which has not been a random choice. Because, as the Dutch art critic Bianca Stigter very perceptively writes in her review of the exhibition, the choice of objects appears to be informed by European artistic sensibilities. By any (European) standards, the works of art from the Baulé can be described as “refined”, very likely in keeping with the influential aristocracy that their region has produced. And that seems to be the case, Stigter notes, with a lot of the art on display. The curators keep pounding it into her head, she writes, that these are really works of the highest quality. Words like “elegant” abound. Indeed, she counters in her piece, the quality is undeniable but the point of reference still appears to be the great 20th Century masters, including Picasso…

And this is where a lecture of these pieces from an Ivorian point of view would have been very warmly welcomed. The country has no shortage of thinkers, arts critics, lecturers, historians and arts historians who would have shed a light on these works, much brighter than the Amsterdam autumn air that fell into the church on this November day.

Jems Koko Bi

From the exhibition folder: Diaspora, a work by Jems Robert Koko Bi

 

There was, however, another saviour: Jems Robert Koko Bi, a contemporary sculptor whose work provided a radically contemporary context to the other works of offer. His life (born in Côte d’Ivoire, lives in Germany) and his work liberate the exhibition from its frozen-in-time character and launch it straight into the now. His faces, carved from trees with a chainsaw and his piece “Diaspora” from 2013 transcend the whole “Dan”, “Lagoon”, “Lobi”, “Baulé” issues. They entirely cease to matter. Watching the short film about him, I could focus on the individual work by an individual artist with a contemporary – and cosmopolitan – life, even though the interview was done in English, with which he was uncomfortable. Stroke of luck or stroke of genius? In any case, including his work saved the exhibition from being solely about somewhere in “Magical Africa” and gave it meaning beyond its essentially ethnographic nature, in spite of the best intentions behind it.

 

Masks in a Church (part 1)

November 13, 2014

De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam is the temporary home to an exhibition of masks, statutes and other works of art. From Ivory Coast. On display until February 15 next year, so there is plenty of time for you to make up your own mind. This is my take on the event. In two parts.

 

The intentions surely were beyond reproach: let’s make a presentation of “African” masks and familiarize the public with their aesthetic value, their creators and their authenticity. The event was sponsored by – among others – KPMG, an accountancy firm, the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts, the Prince Clause Foundation and two largish Dutch public broadcasters, TROS and AVRO, usually on the lighter side of entertainment. (Ironically, these two now occupy the building that was once home to Radio Netherlands Worldwide, the former Dutch international broadcaster.)

Do excellent intentions lead to excellent results? Not always. On the last day of my brief visit to The Netherlands in November I visited De Nieuwe Kerk, an austere Protestant church on Dam Square, in the heart of old Amsterdam. The church forms the backdrop for an exhibition that is entitled: Magical Africa.

That is a bit of an exaggeration. The country in question is not “Africa”, in fact it is, as the folder announces, Côte d’Ivoire, my next station. And then not even all of it: Côte d’Ivoire is the size of France and home to at least 64 languages. The subject matter of the exhibition, masks, statues and a few contemporary works of art, have been taken from four regions: the lagoon area around the largest city of Abidjan on the southern coast, the centre of the country where the second-largest city Bouaké and the capital Yamoussoukro are located, a portion of the Grand West where the Dan and the Wê live and the savannah area of the North, were the Senoufo live and were you find the town of Korhogo. That’s not “Africa”, that’s a few parts of Côte d’Ivoire. I can understand the PR value of the name but it annoys nevertheless.

Magical Africa

Even within that limited setting the differences proved to be astonishing. Compare the fear-inspiring masks that came from the forests that straddle Liberia, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire to the more tranquil poses produced in the centre. The Baulé, who live in that part of the country have been a central presence in Ivorian politics and business for many decades, dominating the plantation economy and delivering the first two heads of state after independence. Aristocracy, if you like, which predates Independence. By contrast, the Dan and the Wê in the forest have been much more marginal to political life and, in fact, have had to live with numerous groups of newcomers, driven there by French colonialists and post-independent governments. It is a political configuration that is reflected, although in different ways, in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. To my (admittedly, still Marxist) mind, at least, material culture informs artistic expression here. It is tempting to call the forest masks “raw” and the central statues “refined” but that feeds into another issue that I will deal with later. Suffice for now that what is missing from the exhibition, as with so much Africa reporting, is context.

Well, there is some, in the anthropological sense of the word. We see words like “Dan”, Sénoufo”, “Baulé” and “Lobi” hung like neon signs over the various carefully assembled works of art and explanations are offered about their functions and their makers. Fair enough. But what does that do with the viewer? Not unreasonably, the viewer will associate a particular work of art with a particular people from a particular region. And will freeze those in time. Again, it stands to reason that this happens but anyone who has ever been to Côte d’Ivoire knows that, self-declared or ascribed origins apart, these monikers are essentially meaningless. There is probably not a single Ivorian alive who can claim to be a 100% pure and undiluted member of any “tribe”. The French word for this mixed state of affairs is brassage and it is a reality inside the borders and indeed across them.

“Tribe”, “origin” or indeed “Ivorianness” (or Ivoirité, as it was called) only becomes an issue when it is turned into a instrument in the hands of unscrupulous politicians on the prowl for cheap and easy vote winners. Toxification of the political debate is the inevitable result, as anyone witnessing the arrival of the Geert Wilders Dog & Pony Show in The Netherlands can testify. The same happened in Côte d’Ivoire in the 1990s. Suddenly people became the champions of the Wê, the Bété, the Baulé, or indeed The True Ivorians.

So my problem here is the essentialism: this is how the Sénoufo portray people during particular festivities or rites. This is how the People Around The Lagoon do things. Reality is a lot more fluid (what to think, for instance, of the Sénoufo who live in the Grand West, or the giant melting pot known as Abidjan?). It is of course a major challenge to point that out during an exhibition and the curators did find at least one credible way around that problem. More on that in the second and final part.

Arrival (not the ABBA album)

November 11, 2014

It is 4am. A lone plane descends towards the runway of Madrid’s Barajas International Airport. Origin: Dakar. It taxies to its slot. Doors open and some 150 bleary-eyed passengers walk into the corridor that leads to the main arrivals hall. But it will be a while before they get there.

At the end of the corridor they are held up by two little men, who have their little uniforms on and have been driving to the exit point with their little electric trolley. They proceed to check everyone’s passport with meticulous care. To be more precise: they proceed to check very much in particular the passports of the African passengers, including an elderly man dressed in a traditional boubou and a bonnet, clutching a single plastic bag. Clearly, this man constitutes a clear and present danger to the Continent of Europe, as is the lady who is trying to stay upright because she is tired, walking on high heels and increasingly annoyed.

The little men in their little uniforms with their little lights in their little hands and watching all the travel documents with their little spectacles on their little heads (as if these documents have not already been checked by the Embassy, the Airport Authorities in Dakar and the Airline) have identified four or five men who merit a little extra attention. As the rest of crowd disappears into the bowels of the gigantic arrivals terminal, they are questioned on the spot, a procedure that takes not a lot more than 20 minutes before they, too, are being released.

A pointless, annoying, irritating and counter-productive exercise, at the entrance of a country where I had gone to be part of the annual World Music Expo, an event that highlights some of the best international music from around the world and a focal point for artists, managers, agents, record labels, music distributors, journalists and radio makers. Imagine being one of those and being welcomed to this country by two uniformed jobsworths holding up the normal flow of human traffic into an airport? What image does that project?

EUAU

Seen at Dakar Biënnale. By Kiluanji Kia Henda.

I’ll tell you what image that projects. It projects the image of a tiny, frightened little continent that is rapidly losing its relevance in the greater scheme of things. Other parts of the world, Asia in front, are surging ahead and in order to keep up, economically and demographically stagnant Europe needs contributions from everywhere. The way not to achieve this is by treating all incoming visitors with a different skin tone as potential criminals.

The idea that this is being done to appease a virulent strain of political populism that looks for scapegoats is suspect. Xenophobia has been built into Europe’s border protection and immigration systems and it stretches all the way to the West African coast where I frequently see Spanish Coast Guard ships on patrol. But here’s the clue, my dear little frightened European continent…

Africans back winners. This is why Chinese, Turks, Brazilians, Indians and even North Americans are doing rather well here. They are turning away from Europe and are taking their business with them. Shopping in Paris? You must be joking when I can get the stuff relatively hassle-free in Istanbul, Dubai or Guangzhou. Having to fill in a boatload of forms just get a visa to some European hellhole or other? Get out of here. I’ll fly Kenya Airways to Beijing, Emirates to the Middle East and Turkish Airlines to pretty much everywhere.

This is the message to this little, frightened, xenophobic European continent, exemplified by those pathetic little passport-checking uniforms and their pathetic little electric trolley, with which they took off after they had done their pathetic little job. You are increasingly being seen as an irrelevance, an unimportant little place led by politicians without an ounce of vision, only frightened of people from the outside world and determined to keep as many of them out as possible. In short: you are, increasingly, being seen as a loser.

You haven’t got much time left, Europe. It’s shape up of ship out. And as things currently stand, it will be the latter and you will not be greatly missed by the rest of the world. Ask those passengers on that flight from Dakar.

Pestilence

October 15, 2014

This happened about a month ago in Guinea: villagers killed eight people who came to tell them about the dangers of Ebola.

It has been the topic of conversation ever since. Words most frequently used include “brutal”, “savage” and “barbaric”. While these words may accurately describe the killings themselves, they bring us no closer to understanding why this happened. As usual, in the bulk of media reports on events in Africa, there is an essential element missing. History.

From the perspective of an inhabitant of Guinea Forestière, the past 125 years or so have been marked by a litany of highly disruptive events, almost all coming from the coast. The list looks like this, in no particular order:

 

War

Colonial conquest

Forced labour

Land occupation

Forced movement of people

Cultural vandalism on an industrial scale

More war

Masses of refugees from across the borders

Illegal rebel camps

Mass displacement

Environmental degradation…

 

…and, as the French say, j’en passe. By and large, pre and post-independence, men with arms have had a bad reputation here. Historically, they have been mostly seen to vandalise, to rob, to loot and take people away.

It may well be that we now have the first government in history, ever since the French established Conakry late 19th century, that at the very least has good intentions. But that does not negate the view from the forest, which is, based on painful experience, that pretty much everything that comes from the coast, the capital, the government, is disruptive and violent. A convoy of cars appearing out of nowhere usually spells trouble. People have memories. The village has a memory. The region has a memory. Most reporting ignores that.

Here is a thought, then. After all, there is one item missing from that list above and maybe the thinking of the people in that village, Womey, when they saw that convoy appear, was along these lines: well here’s one thing that we haven’t yet received from the coast, the capital, the government: pestilence. And sure enough, that’s what they’re here to give us.

It is critical to understand where these killings have come from. History be your guide so that true lessons may be learned – and, may I add, not in the ritual sense so beloved by the development establishment. An uplifting story from elsewhere in the region suggests that this is beginning to be the case.

 

Dreams and elegant perseverance

October 12, 2014

Recently, news reached me of the death, last month, of Simon Pierre Bell, filmmaker, film festival organiser, eternal optimist and a friend.

‘Drop everything and make sure you get here.’ It was not exactly in those terms that he invited me to the first edition of “Images en Live”, a documentary festival that he and his friends had organised in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé but sure enough that is what he meant.

We had met two years previously at a jazz festival in the Senegalese town of Saint Louis and had kept in touch. Bell (which is how he signed off his emails and how everyone called him) was immersed in arts. Film especially, but his curiosity ensured he enjoyed many art forms, including music, hence the jazz festival meeting. And fashion, he had a marvellous knack for sartorial elegance.

“Images en Live” was his idea. ‘We are inundated by work about us, but not by us,’ he told me. ‘We have countless foreign filmmakers coming here to put together documentaries – about us. I think it would be ideal for us Africans to realise our own images.’

There were more layers to his initiative. Not only were these locally made films (including his own); they were also meant to showcase what the young of his city, his country were capable of. ‘People should have some confidence in us. We do what we say,’ he told me on the opening night of the first “Images en Live”. Was that the mildest of rebukes to a political class that talked a lot and had achieved next to nothing? Could be.

Because here’s another layer: creating your own images and showing them to the world is liberating in and of itself. But, insisted Bell, it also does something else: ‘As documentary makers we ask difficult questions to the society we live in and try to change people’s mentalities. You don’t achieve this by importing images.’ The first festival featured at times confrontational but also humoristic insights into life in what everyone (who doesn’t live there) thinks is a dangerous slum, government-mandated house demolitions, adoption, living with polio, story telling, changes in rural Cameroon and much more…

Donors were not that interested, initially. But that did not deter him, in two ways. First off, he, his family and friends managed to finance the entire first edition of “Images en Live” from their own pockets. It took place in December 2009. But second, he coolly went back to the donor community after the success of that first edition and found them more open to his ideas. Lesser mortals like myself would have told them to get lost forever but resentment versus healthy pragmatism? No contest.

Opening night, first "Images en Live", Yaoundé, 8 December 2009

Opening night, first “Images en Live”, Yaoundé, 8 December 2009. Picture by this blogger. 

Films about here, made here, by filmmakers from here required an audience from here. That posed a problem because the number of cinemas that could be used for that purpose in Yaoundé had dwindled to…zero. They had been turned into places of worship, supermarkets, warehouses. Was there a solution? Always.

The two foreign cultural centres in town, French and German, offered their projection halls. Fine for the expats and the local bon chic bon genre who frequent these places. ‘We cannot do without them,’ Bell insisted. ‘But we also have a traveling cinema. We are bringing film to the people! If we don’t do this they will think that film is just for the elites and that’s not true. They should be able to see these images as well, ask questions and contribute to the evolution of this society.’ It was not easy.

One night, behind a parking lot and watched by some disinterested shop owners, the organisers and a dwindling crowd of spectators waited until the crew showed up – hours late – with the projector and the mobile screen. The next night though, revenge was sweet as a much larger crowd of people showed up, watched the films, stayed on and discussed until late in the evening. Luckily, this was within walking distance of his own home, which he had generously converted into a B&B. For me.

 

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The festivals continued, every year, in December. I received an invitation for the second edition and never made it. Flying from Dakar to Yaoundé is insanely expensive and I was unable to cover even less than a quarter of the airfare. After “Images en Live” Second Edition, Bell sent me an email and said this time it had exceeded all expectations: full houses everywhere, projections all over town that had pulled large crowds. So, a visit to number three then? That was on the cards but the one airline that made this connection without taking me halfway around the world folded that year, 2011, thanks to the Ivorian political crisis. We stayed in touch through the internet, on the phone occasionally and kept on mentioning meeting up again, for his graduation earlier this year, for the next festival…

At the opening night of the very first “Images en Live”, I asked him where we would be in five years’ time. He was characteristically optimistic and predicted a festival in full bloom, a window on a centre of excellence in documentary making. None of us had the faintest idea that this next edition of “Images en Live”, five years after our conversation, would happen without him. It will be a tribute, it must be. Here’s to you, Simon Pierre Bell, to your life, your work and your dreams. They will surely live on and you will surely be part of them.

If anyone reading this is in Yaoundé, there is a special evening in his honour on October 14, at the Institut Français.


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