Archive for May, 2015

Les Coxeurs

May 30, 2015

It must have been fifteen years ago, or thereabouts, when I first made contact with “les coxeurs”. Or more precisely: they made contact with me.

My taxi was approaching the sprawling bus station of Adjamé, the busy hub that connects Abidjan with other parts of the country. It being hot and humid, the windows were, of course, open. Perfect opportunity for a young guy to earn a few cents. He stood by the side of the road and spotted, hawk-eyed and unfailing, me and my luggage in the taxi. Made a beeline for the car and stuck his head as far in as possible.

First. And he is not going to let go. There are scores of young men – always young men – like him and the competition is merciless.

‘You’re going where’?

By this time you, the passenger, must have an answer prepared or have made good friends with the taxi driver so that you will find your bus station with a minimum of stress.

My destination was Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire’s slightly weird but extremely charming capital. And I knew the name of the company that was going to take me there. So the answer was simple: ‘Thank you very much. It’s all been arranged.’

Do not, under any circumstance, make the mistake of releasing any more information than that. Anything that goes beyond a simple, accurate but necessarily incomplete statement of fact is an open invitation for le coxeur to enter into a prolonged phase of negotiations, during which nothing you say will made the slightest blind bit of a difference because his only objective is to earn a few cents. From the conductor for bringing in a passenger. And from you because he will be carrying your luggage while still fending off the competition.

‘You’re going with them? No good. I know a better company.’

‘Is that your destination? I know the company that can take you there.’

‘No, it’s not that way. The buses to [insert destination] are over here.’

‘You want to take that bus? No but that one has already left. Come with me.’

The repertoire is inexhaustible, while you, the passenger, are not. Anyway, I made it to the terminus of the UTB, l’Union des Transporteurs de Bouaké, one of the largest and best in Côte d’Ivoire and having left les coxeurs behind I could now mentally prepare for the fourteen, fifteen, sixteen road blocks ahead that were sure to make this otherwise pleasant 300 kilometre trip a sheer hell of exhaustion and harassment by what’s known as corps habillés. Uniforms. A lot harder to shake off.

*

Today, as the population grows and the supply of work does not keep pace, les coxeurs are everywhere. I saw them at work in Bamako, where they, hawk-eyed and alert, observe taxis coming in from a major intersection. Their targets have to wait for traffic lights before they can make their turn towards the station and then they must wait for the endless stream of mopeds to end. Meanwhile, the young men beeline their way to you, at considerable risk to themselves because traffic is fast and brakes are rarely applied, even less so for pedestrians, et alone young men, who are, as we should know by now, disposable. [links here]

Most of them are in their Twenties. Badly dressed, wearing very old slippers (not helping when you do this kind of work) and barely literate. But they are fast and strong: speed and muscle, it’s all you need in this business.

Young, poverty-afflicted men, never figure in any state plan for “development”. They do not exist in the policies of the development industry that has been blighting this continent for more than half a century. So, at a very early age these young men learn an indelible lesson: you’re on your own. Fend for yourself. Which they do, efficiently and if necessary, ruthlessly. Here, as shouters and haulers of passengers, there as petty criminals, elsewhere as the easily recruited (money!) security detail of some politician or religious leader, yet somewhere else as passengers on a bus, a lorry or a boat to a place that will bring work, or, ultimately, with guns and knives in the gangs of criminals that devastated parts of West Africa in the 1990s and are currently wreaking havoc in Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and elsewhere. The boundaries between these categories are thin. But the main actors all have the same thing in common: a relentless entrepreneurship, whether we like it or not. They never mattered to us; we do not matter to them.

*

At one of Bamako’s large roundabouts, the one that has the iconic Africa Tower in the middle, a bus was waiting to fill up. It took two hours. I know, because I was on it and we had left the station with barely ten passengers. Les coxeurs did their job; of course they do not limit themselves to bus stations, wherever there is a crowd waiting for transport – they’ll be there.

 

Fisticuffs broke out at the end of those hours. It was time to get paid. Driver and conductor were dishing out some notes. 500 francs. 80 cents. Unlikely to go to any of the young men individually. They will have to share. But lets be charitable and say that they were fighting over about 200 francs each, barely enough for a bowl of rice with nothing else. There may not be another opportunity today. Or maybe there will be. But you cannot be sure. You live another hour.

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.