Archive for January, 2013

Bread – a (not so) simple tale

January 30, 2013

It happens sometimes that a friend asks me: is there anything you miss about Holland? And as a matter of fact, there is: brown bread and decent cheese. You can get cheese at fiendishly inflated prices in an upmarket shopping space like the unspeakably dreadful Dakar City; full of folks full of themselves. It is, mercifully, located many miles from were I live.

But OK – cheese is sort of doable. It’s the bread that’s the real story here.

You see, this used to be a French colony. Food-wise, this is not a catastrophe, you add French cuisine to the magnificent Senegalese national thieboudiën (rice, fish, spice, vegetables), and all is well.

Except for breakfast.

Alright, we agree on the coffee. But that is where me and the French part company. Croissants, confiture, you must be joking. And the worst of all: baguettes. Yes, I like them, freshly baked and crisp.

But not everyday.

And this is where I accidentally made a discovery. I went to a small bakery down the road and pointed at something that did not look like a baguette. The young man at the counter asked : ‘But…do you know what that is? It’s mburu duggub. Millet bread.’ ‘It’s not baguette,’ I replied. ‘I want to try this.’

I took it home…

From a small corner in my modest kitchen

From a small corner in my modest kitchen

…and it turned out to taste a million times better than those wretched…anyway: I don’t want to alienate my French friends too much.

Now, millet is grown in Senegal. Wheat is imported, to the tune of millions of euros, every year. My simple economic mind thinks that here is a golden opportunity to kill three, nope, four birds with one stone.

1. Buy duggub, save a Senegalese farmer who would otherwise close business and come to town.

2. Save huge amounts of money on wheat imports.

3. Create more rural employment and build a healthy section of your very own economy.

4. Improve the quality of breakfast.

Oh and, er, educate the mills that produce flour. I remember a debate in the press here, last year, about this very issue and why the moulins were refusing to process local produce. Technically difficult, they claimed. Even when the bakers, as we speak, are threatening to go on strike because the price of flour has gone up – again.

Technical difficulties? Balls, I’d say. In the words of a famous TV series character: make it so. But only when the consumer wants it. And that’s another bottleneck: the obsession with price. Understandable but in this case, quite wrong. What you spend on better bread, you’ll probably save on the doctor.


Same story about shoes. Why buy cheap Chinese stuff when a village called Ngaye, in your very own backyard produces some of the finest shoes anywhere on the planet? Yes, they are more expensive but they last five years instead of three weeks. And why not restore the cloth manufacturing industry, as this entrepreneur wants to do, and serve the market with quality material – made here?

The possibilities are endless. The riddle is why it’s not happening. Consumer habits? Yes. Entrenched interests, especially among traders and importers? Certainly. Outdated (French!) legal frameworks that put massive obstructions in place for anyone who wants to start a business? Part of the picture too. There’s probably more.

A lot of big business started in the proverbial garage. Why not a bakery? The address: La Villageoise, Autoroute de l’Aéroport, Yoff Mbenguene, Dakar. Spread the word.



January 12, 2013

The Guardian’s Comment Is Free page asks today whether its contributors agree with the French army coming in to help the Malian Army (more precisely: what’s left of it) to prevent the Islamist extremist invaders from moving into Central Mali.

Do you support France’s military intervention in Mali, was the question. Depressingly, the debate descended into familiar territory: Islam bashers who make no distinction between Muslims in general (most of whom have no truck with the rabid variety of their faith that has taken hold of Northern Mali) and the West bashers who see that declining part of the world as the Root Of All Evil. 

Since things appear to be moving a lot faster than previously thought, let me make just a few points…

First off: I admit to an element of sentimentality here. I have been to Mali a number of times, have held numerous interviews with some of its most prominent musicians and not even that long ago declared Bamako the musical capital of the world. That said, there are other considerations.

The current catastrophe taking place in Northern Mali is both old and new. First element: the Tamasheq (or Tuaregs). They have staged uprisings for almost one hundred years, first against French colonisers, then against successive Malian governments. The Tamasheq resent their marginalisation, the cutting up by artificial borders of the lands where they used to roam freely and they surely don’t want anyone interfering with their various businesses, which also include all manner of smuggling rackets.

Add to this the very recent fallout from the death of Libyan leader colonel Ghadaffi, in which France and the USA played a major role. Interestingly, that fallout did NOT manifest itself in Libya’s immediate neighbour Niger; somehow the many Tamasheq officers and soldiers in Ghadaffi’s army made it across either Niger or Algeria into Northern Mali were they staged their rebellion, in January 2012. Prime mover, at first: MNLA the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (or North Mali).

There is a lot of speculation about the riches underneath Malian soil that apparently informs France’s belated involvement. I would say that France’s involvement in Mali is late precisely because there is, as yet, not a great deal to be hauled from under the sand and the rocks. Contrast this with Niger, which exports huge quantities of uranium to France from its, mainly French-owned, mines. Lights out in homes across France is a far more compelling reason to get involved than a few disgruntled folks in another country.

But that equation has changed dramatically, thanks to the arrival of Islamist extremists. There are three groups. Ançar Dine is one of them and the only Tamasheq group among these extremists. It is run by a veteran opportunist, Iyad ag Ghali, who led another Tamasheq rebellion, in the 1990s. Ançar Dine is related, by family ties, to the secular rebellion of the MNLA. When their chef feels there’s more to be had from an alliance with either the Malian state or anyone else, he’ll change tack. But for now, he sticks with the extremists, as witnessed by Ançar Dine’s criminal complicity in the destruction of Timbuktu.



The other groups, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) are foreign-backed, foreign-financed foreign invaders. Some are remnants from the Armed Islamic Group that took part in the Algerian civil war in the 1990s; others come from even further afield. They are financed by Middle East oil money and claim to support Salafism, an incurably backward interpretation of the Koran, utterly alien to the much more cosmopolitan West African version of the faith. They are ultraviolent, intolerant and dangerous – and they need to be stopped. That is the other clash at the heart of the problem.

Third element, the vacuum at the heart of political power in Mali’s capital. Ever since an overambitious army captain, Amadou Haya Sanogo, staged his coup in March 2012 Mali’s political legitimacy has ceased to exist. The army has collapsed and the mostly foreign takeover of the North (an event Sanogo claimed his actions were supposed to prevent) has become fait accompli. Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighbouring countries.

A lot of criticism can be levelled at deposed president Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), while he was being lionized as a paragon for democracy and, er, development. The praise-singing sent me to sleep too…

There was widespread corruption, ATT was being soft on the invaders, allowing drug rackets to flourish – and indeed: he was accused of wanting to engineer an illegal third term. But the place where you settle these things is at the ballot box. An intelligent intervention in the North (and this emphatically means keeping the US military out of this) also depends on the green light coming from a legitimate government in Bamako, which currently does not exist.

So here’s the conundrum. The world will, for now, have to make do with whatever Sanogo decides. In spite of claims to the contrary he still is very much in charge of political events in Bamako; he clearly has political ambitions of his own and his continued presence does not help matters one bit. But the North cannot wait until Bamako has sorted out its political mess; the risk of having a foreign-run statelet run by fanatical terrorists as a fixed presence in the heart of the Sahara is much too great a threat – to West Africa, or indeed further afield.

Mali’s army cannot do the job. It needs help, preferably from its neighbours. There is a little bit of that but clearly not enough. So, what’s left? French intervention, I’m afraid, with all the historical connotations that entails but the North, its many people (Arab, Songhai, Peul, Tamasheq et cetera), its cultures, its long-standing traditions of tolerance, its music – in short: its way of life need to be rescued from the hands, the pickaxes, the guns and the closed minds of these barbarians.

So, do I support the French action in Mali? Reluctantly: yes.

An African musical award ceremony and an American train wreck

January 6, 2013

The Kora Awards (aka “The Koras”) are a celebration of African popular music. They were set up in 1994 to become the African counterpoint to the American Grammy Awards, showcasing the abundance of musical talent present on the continent. Spotlighting good, great, interesting, new, exciting and relevant talents from the continent: what could be better than that? I’ve done a fair bit of that myself, reporting on Ghanaian-American wordsmith Blitz The Ambassador, Ivorian rappers Nash and Priss K, new Guinean star Sia Tolno, the Krar Collective and many more. A great pleasure meeting all those stars – new and old. Long may it continue.

But I cannot possibly be alone in feeling astounded, astonished, gobsmacked to find that the Kora Awards have taken to inviting to their showcase evenings a guest of honour of…now, how shall I put this nicely…questionable artistic merit. For the Kora Awards 2012, held last month in a decidedly glamourous part of Abidjan (google “Hotel Ivoire” to get an idea), the organisers decided to invite a character with a planetarily recognised reputation as a human train wreck. Name? Chris Brown.

Who he? Glad you ask. Since 2005, he has been releasing, in increasing frequency, a series of forgettable r&b tunes (in and of itself an entirely forgettable genre) with titles such as Yo (Excuse me Miss), Beautiful People and Turn Up The Music.

The Koras have acquired form when it comes to this. Two years ago, they made the mistake of inviting another r&b artist, be it one with more discernible African roots. Name: Akon, son of renowned Senegalese percussion player Mor Thiam. He grew up in St. Louis (the one in the US) and has made a fortune recording the same tune about 38 times, each time with slightly different words. To his credit, he has an excellent stage presence and he really likes his country of origin. But Akon did not make it to the Awards either. Private jet supplied to fly him from Dakar to Ouagadougou while he was busy watching a wrestling match in the country’s biggest stadium. Er, by the way: he had already been paid, in full, according to the Senegalese press.

Alright, then. Back to Brown. His biggest and most enduring claim to fame has of course absolutely nothing to do with music. His name will be etched in history thanks to his encounter with a singularly annoying singing drone by the name of Rihanna. A few years ago she “sang” a grotesquely overproduced suicide-inducing dirge in her dead flat metallic “voice”, in which she endlessly repeated the word “ella” for no apparent reason. Since then, no-one has managed to delete her noise from public space.

What happens when two artistic non-entities, egos bloated to the size of Zeppelins, fed on the total absence of any reality check in their lives…what happens when these two meet? Something tediously predictable. In 2009 C&R had a verbal altercation in a car about an affair he allegedly was having, had had, was rekindling – whatever the heck it was. She hit him with her cellphone over the head and he retaliated disproportionally. He got jailed and vilified – richly deserved as far as I’m concerned. She should have gone to jail as well of course but she became, thanks to half a century of highly successful feminist bullying, a “victim” and a heroine for every girl under thirty. Don’t ask me why – it’s the law.

Anyway, back to the Kora Awards in Abidjan. What did our guest of honour desire in return for his uniquely particular contribution guaranteed to bring the tone of the award ceremony down to the level of MTV’s flagship series Jackass? Here goes: a private jet with only two pilots, as Monsieur claimed that four pilots would “interfere with his privacy”, two limos built in 2012, five state-of-the-art buses for his team. Oh and what the French so deliciously call “la bagatelle” of 1.14 million euros.

Astonishingly, the Kora organisers did NOT tell him to get lost. But Monsieur still could not be bothered to show up on time so, incredibly, the Awards Night was postponed by 24 hours, inconveniencing countless artists from across the continent, guests and of course, the organisers.

[Have a look at the Kora Awards site here]

Are these really the kind of guests to promote what the Kora Awards stand for? I submit: no. Brown et al are bellwethers par excellence for the brutal, ugly, relentless and irreversibly terminal decline of popular music in the English-speaking world. If the Kora Awards want to hold on to that old notion of highlighting African music talent (such as the excellent Chadian singer Mounira Mitchala, who won an award in Abidjan), it needs to return to quality and this will have a bearing on whom it invites to its Big Night.

Where I am writing this from, a very nice sea-terrace in Conakry, Guinea, I am currently treated to the latest crop of local popular music. Not all good, some awful, but quite a lot pretty damn excellent and none as humanly destructive as the noise emanating from the Kora Award main guest and his alleged girlfriend. By the way, both showed up in Abidjan together, so at least the fellow did not out-Akon Akon…

Lessons learnt, Kora Awards organisers? Next time, no more nonsensicalities from artists who have nothing of any value to contribute to the colossally rich African music scene? No more private jets, limos, insane amounts of money demands? Just the music, please. That will be more than enough. Let’s hope so.

Happy New Year…

January 3, 2013

…to all readers of this blog. There will be lots more this year. For now, I’ll just leave you with this fond pictorial from the country I will be flying to – tomorrow…


Transportation, Guinea Forestière between Macenta and Nzérékoré

Transportation, Guinea Forestière between Macenta and Nzérékoré