Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Will they ever learn…?

August 14, 2021

These are the pitfalls of writing a wrapup of an entire continent in a single piece…. From yesterday’s Guardian, no less…

…in which the Sahel, a region twice the size of Germany, France and Spain combined is reduced to a single paragraph, where hardly anything is accurate. Here it is.


“In the Sahel, the economic impact of the pandemic has further weakened administrations that were already struggling to find resources for security forces, and has aggravated tensions between communities that have helped Islamic extremists make inroads in recent years. Across the region, as elsewhere on the continent, trade routes have been blocked, investments abandoned, and the flow of the remittances from overseas workers and the diaspora on which millions depend for everything from school fees to food has been significantly reduced. Overseas aid is also likely to be reduced. Local and national elections have been postponed due to the virus, raising tensions and causing instability.”

Oh dear, this is looking grim. It is almost universally…er, how do I put this politely…massively exaggerated? Not as close to the truth as it hopes to be? Distorted? Yup. All of the above. Let’s have a look, then.

One: the violence. The impact of the pandemic in the areas where the fighting is happening is…nil. Sure, there has been more police repression in the cities as a result of Covid measures being introduced but villages do not get attacked because there is a pandemic but because the State is absent. To the best of my knowledge, none of the major cities have seen terorist attacks since 2016, I’d say, with the last major one on the coast. And these tensions predate the pandemic by half a decade or longer. Besides, it is becoming clearer that a lot of what the villagers suffer is the result of ordinary banditry, nothing to do with Islamic extremism. Jihadists are absolutely a factor and a presence and they have an uncanny aptitude to home in, laser-like, onto existing tensions and exploiting them. Of that, there is no doubt but the impact and influence of ‘the fools of god’, as they are known here, must not be exaggerated. And it must certainly not be reduced to the only story to be told about the Sahel, as far too many media do.

Two: trade. Sure, the trade routes may have been hampered because the borders have been closed but they were never blocked. The coastal countries that closed their borders to the landlocked Sahel made it clear that this would not affect vital supplies like food and medicine. This is why there was never an empty shelve in any shop or supermarket. To see that you must go to Brexit Britain. Trade may have been reduced in some areas as it was made difficult for traders to transport their wares in person. But they took to using tried and tested smuggling routes to get their stuff from one place to another.

Three: have elections been postponed? Not to my knowledge… Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea (not in the Sahel, I agree) held highly controversial elections last year. Niger elected a new president and in Bukina Faso we wil not have elections because none have been scheduled. The two exeptions are Chad and Mali. This is because there were two coups (Mali) and a (mind you: just re-elected!!!) president was killed in battle and then replaced by his son (Chad), another well-established tradition although sometimes the son is so deeply detested that the people put a stop to it, as they did in Senegal in 2012 and arguably in Mali last year.

Investments, remittances and aid have indeed been significantly reduced. But this is the effect of measures taken in countries that have been much worse affected by the pandemic than has the continent of Africa, exceptions duly noted. And here also we must be precise. The issue of remittances will have had the largest impact by a country mile. Family members sending money back home keep entire towns alive and thriving, from Louga in Senegal to Kayes in Mali and the many villages across this vast region.

As for investments, one should be told where these were supposed to go, so we can assess the impact. For instance, a lot of investment in Mali and Burkina Faso goes into mining, which tends to have a detrimental effect on the environment and the surrounding communities, while the employment it creates is negligible. And regarding aid… Suffice here to repeat, once again, that were it to stop today hardly anyone here would notice, with the exception of the well-heeled but tiny middle class this industry has spawned. You would see a few fewer FourWheelDrives out on the streets and the roads but I am sure people will quickly find better things to do with their time than sit in endless workshops that cost the earth and achieve nothing.

In a famous TED talk, the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – and The Guardian worships the ground she walks on – warned against what she termed “the single story”, gross simplifications of complex places and peoples. Perhaps the Guardian could heed her advice and stop pontificating about an entire continent in pieces like these, just like we are currently being spared the dreadful spectre of writers poducing 300 to 700 page bricks about this continent. And to the best of my knowledge this is only done to “Africa”. Why is that? Someone produce a 700-word paper on that, please.

Could this be another turning point?

February 7, 2021

A few fairly random thoughts following the trip back into West Africa…

The most overwhelming feeling on return to Mali after some time on the Old Continent to the north of here is how normal it all is. Bamako is bustling, the traffic is the same controlled murderous anarchy I left behind half a year ago, radios in shops and cafés play the same autotune-riven stuff I once described in this old piece and remains the main staple of locally produced pop.

The only people bothering with – nominally mandatory – face masks are the rich, who sport it when they drive around in their expensive FourWheelDrives. Alone. “It has become a status symbol for the elites,” was one perceptive remark I heard from long-time Mali veteran Aart van der Heide, on returning from his last visit to the country, late last year. He is right.

Although not entirely absent, few among the ordinary folks wear them. The defining issue is not whether or not they make any sense; that is a debate to be had by those who can afford the luxury of wasting everybody’s time. The defining issue is cost. If you have a family of seven (say) and you have to furnish them daily with that standard white-and-blue stuff that pharmacists sell, you will be left with no money to buy food. Ordinary folk go to Bamako’s heaving markets and do so unprotected.

This was Amsterdam’s world-famous Schiphol Airport, early in the morning of a late January day. In normal times, this place would be featuring hordes or businesspeople hurrying to their planes, copies of their obligatory pink financial daily tucked under their arm. The chances of these scenes returning are fairly slim and that is a good thing. Which does of course mean that in future I shall have to be as good as my principles and take the train to Paris for my flight to Bamako. As it happens, the COVID19 measures prevented overland travel and this was an old ticket, only halfway used. I repent and shall not do it again. Incidentally, my in-flight experience reminded me again why I have not flown Air France for literally decades: the plane was absolutely packed with passengers, “like sheep” as one rightly complained, the food was bland and quite frankly awful, the service correct but perfunctory…

The first night back in Bamako was spent in a mental time capsule. I was thinking back to the time when I was observing the wealthy, smug, self-referential Amsterdam elites doing their shopping in an upmarket Economy market in the city centre, which is selling food at the eye-watering prices only they can afford. I was thinking about them whilst sitting behind a large beer (one euro) in one of Bamako’s culture centres and watching a large crowd of boys and girls dressed to the nines (clearly an evening out) but wearing plastic flip-flops and imitation luxury shoes that would probably fall apart on the way home. The music was the usual totally eclectic mix only they understand, veering from seriously traditional stuff featuring chant and percussion that effortlessly segued into Ivorian coupé-décalé (zouglou does not work here), reggae, then rap and back to classic Mandé music. All in the space of half an hour and thanks to the DJ who was egged on to make his musical mixes as fast and outrageous as possible. A brilliant time was had by all. Social distancing resembled that of the Air France plane.

The airline, through no fault of its own this time, lost my luggage for a day. Which meant, among many other inconveniences, a missing phone charger. The Amsterdam mindset immediately kicked in, as I asked around for a place where I could buy one. The Bamako mindset returned the question with direct clarity: you said it’s in your luggage, right? So, wait for it to come back and in the meantime… (hands over phone charger) use this one. I know of an artist living in Ségou, who probably owns every single type of charger that has ever been on the market and helped me out similarly when I needed a particular type to fire up a rechargeable bicycle lamp…

From Bamako to – indeed – Ségou, where I found similar scenes at the Centre Culturel Kôrè, pictured here, which had organized an evening of storytelling, an art form to which I really do want to devote more time… Now, because this event was part of the largely foreign-funded Festival Ségou’Art and we had members of the country’s elite attending, the wearing of face masks was mandatory and the checks at the door rigorous. It did not, for one single second, diminish the fun the mostly young audience were having watching the shows, launching comments, hooting and shouting and singing along if a song came up they knew. (Most of these were of the traditional village type with a contemporary twist.) When the show was announced over they immediately filed out of the Centre with astonishing discipline, something I have witnessed in other places, as well. Maybe something to emulate for the youth of The Netherlands, when they consider going on the rampage again because their hours out on the streets have been temporarily limited…

Truth be told, Malian youths went on a spree back in July, smashing and looting, but this had little to do with a slight inconvenience in their otherwise cosseted lives but because they had connected with a crowd that wanted to remove a government that was killing their future. This provocative juxtaposition is, of course, a deliberate exaggeration.

During an off concert I only heard about the day before…

From the silence of Covid-ridden Europe to the life-affirming noise of Africa, where public life no longer suffers the devastation brought about by government measures in response to the pandemic, with the exception of South Africa I will immediately add. It resembles, by and large, a continent going about its large and expanding business, from music to IT service, from selling food to transporting people in ever growing numbers – and everything else you wish to imagine. It’s all happening and resembles, coming from the weird shutdowns that continue to hobble economic life from Lisbon to Stockholm, a return to something more than just business as usual.

Of course, things are far from ideal. I already mentioned the ubiquitously appalling behaviour in urban traffic and we are still having to deal with every other ill under the sun, from the very true menace of armed militias to everyday petty corruption and a massively dysfunctional infrastructure. And yet, in spite of all this, it feels like a continent going places, while in Europe I cannot shed the impression that this is the end of the road. The European run has been impressive, just like the cost it has imposed on the rest of the world and it is high time to make space for others. What exact shape that will take is impossible to predict but you can take the end to excessive decadence like flying dozens of times each day to easily reachable destinations as a welcome sign of the times. We can do with a bunch of those planes over here, after all…

Abidjan miniatures 2

December 25, 2020

Espace Diaspora. Slightly tucked away just off the main road through 7ième Tranche, one of Abidjan’s sprawling neighbourhoods. Tables and chairs outside, when it’s not raining. More tables and chairs in a low open building down below (like so much here in Abidjan, Espace Diaspora sits on a gentle slope; go a couple of hundred metres behind this place and you will find the truly steep slope of a large moat).

As you enter, the main attraction is to the left: a kitchen (called “Diaspo”), where the usual Ivorian delicacies are being prepared – roast chicken, roast fish, atiéké, alloco, deliciously spicy tomato-based relish, tasty fresh pepper, need I go on? Next to it is a large covered wooden veranda, with comfy chairs, settees and tables. The entire place breathes conviviality, a highly prized commodity here. Oh and there is of course a massive screen to show video clips and of course…football matches. English Premier League, if you please.

As a colleague of mine and me sit down around a few drinks, we chat. In English. This does not go unnoticed. An elderly gentleman who was chatting with friends on the next table approaches, and asks us how we are. In English. We thank him and have a little conversation. In English. Turns out that he is a nurse and has worked for many years, in South London. He’s come to Abidjan to see his family and his place. Nope, no plans to return for the time being. In fact, he thanks his lucky stars to be here, what with the UK beset by a raft of Biblical Plagues: Covid19, Brexit, a Tory government, and yes: an upsurge in increasingly in-your-face racism. We wish each other a good evening as he returns to his friends: elderly gentlemen all, and very likely having had similar stories to tell, from France… After all, it is Espace Diaspora, n’est-ce pas? This is what people build with the money thay have earned overseas.

“He’s one of those who keeps the NHS alive and gets abuse on the streets for his troubles,” remarks my colleague. Only too true. On the rare occasion that my skin colour comes up as I walk down Abidjan’s very busy streets, it is meant as a way to identify me (they don’t know my name, after all) and to ask how I am. “Bonjour le blanc. C’est comment?” And you reply by saying “Oui, mon frère, ça va bien. Et la journée, ça se passe bien?” Maybe we have a little chat. Maybe we don’t. And then we go our separate ways.

Our Ivorian London friend is clearly in his element and why shouldn’t he be? His Espace Diaspora is a lovely little place, even though the slope on which it sits does nothing to accommodate my back, which it is escalating its protests as the evening progresses… Meanwhile, familiar noise never stops wafting in from the street, with taxi horns blaring, kids playing on a side street, people chatting, the women in “Diaspo” busy with their pots and pans, vendors advertising their wares or services…bliss.

Let us be very clear here. There exists a very nasty anti-foreigner undercurrent, especially in the southern part of this country. It becomes manifest during elections, when unscrupulous politicians (but I repeat myself) tap into this and foment communal violence. Plenty of unemployed youths around looking for a fast buck to earn by burning, smashing up, looting or stealing. A complex web of xenophobia, a tangled pre- and post-Independence geo-political heritage, political short-termism offers only a part of the explanation. But it does fit with what former president Henri Konan Bédié encouraged in the mid-1990s with his deranged ‘Ivoirité’. Subsequent governments have done little or nothing to counter the anti-northerner/foreigner rhetoric or have indeed escalated it. This can and does spill over into deadly violence during elections. Why this happens should be the subject of a long explanatory note and I know Ivorian colleagues who are attempting to decipher how exactly this works. But the point is that this is is not the norm, cannot be in a country where fully one-third of the population can trace their origins across the borders and where intermarriage is wholly unexceptional.

And one other distinction must be made: only on very rare occasions is this rhetoric and violence directed against Whites; controlled on-and-off xenophobia (for want of a better term) is almost always directed against fellow West Africans. Under normal (i.e. non-political) circumstances, this colossal metropolis of maybe six million is a remarkably relaxed place, where people do not go around telling people with a different skin tone to “}@(# off to your own country” or get told off for not speaking English in an English public house. Instead, here we get an English conversation in a country that speaks French everywhere and more than 60 languages that were already here before the French arrived.

So if you happen to be on the long thoroughfare through the Septième Tranche, have a beer with the lovely gentlemen at Espace Diaspora. Chances are that I will be there, too…

Myth and betrayal in an asbestos town (part two)

September 12, 2020

About the documentary Lamentations of Judas, shot in Pomfret, South Africa.

 

“You are all black and yet you were fighting against your own brothers.” In a hall that has been stripped off its windows and roof, we see the men, now old, as they sit behind a table and look straight at the interviewer/interrogator and us, the viewers.

Retrieved from the Rialto Cinema (Amsterdam) Facebook page.

Name.

Rank.

Name of fighting unit. 32 Battalion.

In the service of the Apartheid government’s army, ordered about by white commanders, they fought bush wars in Angola and against the Namibian freedom fighters of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) – known as the Border War in South Africa. Namibia gained its independence in 1990 and as the South Africans were preparing their withdrawal the men and their families were dumped in Pomfret, only to be called upon to repress the people rising against the apartheid government in the black townships. Returning to MPLA-run Angola was not an option. Pomfret became home to some six thousand people, stuck in a rut, forever.

The battalion was formally disbanded in March 1993, just over a year before the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as South Africa´s first democratically elected head of state. Some families left Pomfret behind and moved to other towns in the province.  The men and their sons found work in South Africa’s burgeoning commercial security sector. But others try to find an escape in alcohol and still others have been recruited again and again to do the one job they know in other parts of the continent and the world: Nigeria, The DR Congo, Sierra Leone, Iraq… An unknown number of them (there’s no precise figure, reports range from a handful to 60) were among the crowd arrested by Zimbabwean police on board an aeroplane making a stopover in Harare, on their way to Equatorial Guinea in what is one of the most hare-brained schemes ever dreamt up: the plan to overthrow the murderous regime of president Teodoro Obiang Nguema and his family. The debacle, which happened in late 2004, is described in Adam Robert’s book The Wonga Coup.

The existence of Pomfret and its reputation as a mercenary town, was a major embarrassment to the new South African government, in power since 1994 and no longer in the hands of the white minority. It had outlawed mercenary activity in 1998 and so the remaining fighters of 32 Battalion found themselves not only on the wrong side of history – again – but also on the wrong side of the law.

Inevitably, the men started to build their own mythology. Us, fighting against our brothers and sisters? How dare you suggest this? “This country – South Africa – is free because of me!” says one of the men in the film. Of course, steeped in the relentless propaganda that Apartheid was fighting the good fight against Communism and Soviet bondage, this is a tale that is not difficult to maintain. But how did Boris Gerrets, the Dutch filmmaker, manage to get the men to talk about their lives?

By coming up with a metaphorical device: the Passion Play, based on the evangelical tale of the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus Christ, well known in this deeply Roman Catholic community.

Christ was arrested by Roman soldiers, the result of complaints from corrupt local leaders about his radical views and works. He was to die on the cross as a punishment. As he and his group of disciples, all played by the former soldiers, have their last super, Jesus foretells that one of them, seated around the table, will betray him that same night, denying having ever known him. The men play this scene with great intensity.

 

Source: Witfilm, Netherlands.

Engaging the community of Pomfret in staging that play brought the breakthrough, rendering the film a multi-layered one, with the desolation of this once beautiful and wealthy asbestos town as the background, fragments of the Passion Play as the metaphor for betrayal, snippets of the history in which they got caught up, and, of course, the life stories of the men themselves, beautifully edited. The interviews grow in intensity as the film progresses.

The South African government has been working since 2008 to erase the stain that is Pomfret. Literally. 2008 was the year that the national electricity utility ESKOM cut off power supply, reducing the families to fetching water the old/fashioned way, from boreholes, as the electric pumps bringing the water into their homes stopped working. Then followed attempts to tear the entire place down: homes, the community hall and other public buildings were partly demolished, the hospital and police station closed. The official reason given was the presence of dangerous asbestos but it would appear that the measures against the town had a political imprint. Pomfret had no intention to be moved and got a court to stop the evictions in 2012. It is all well and good for an ANC representative in the province to invite the Angolans to “come and join us in the New South Africa” but they are keenly aware of the fact that they are seen, by and large, as pariahs.

Understandably, the film steers clear of local and national politics and focusses on the men, their stories and reflections on their lives. They are asked whether the Roman soldiers were in the right as they arrested Jesus Christ in the Passion Play. Could they have refused? Well, no: you don’t refuse orders in the military. The words they use for their own work, the grisly details of which remain hidden (except for one man saying “we killed many people”) are “service” and variations on “we were following orders”. The politics, the “South Africa owes its freedom to us” came later. As one of their leaders makes an attempt to explain the hideously complicated historical and geo-political context, one of the men following the lecture-plus-discussion is shown wearing an MPLA cap…

But towards the end of the film the justifications gradually make way for the feeling of having been betrayed. Betrayed, by the men who had recruited them, just like the Zimbabwean ex-soldier-turned-writer Bruce Moore-King says in his graphic account of Rhodesia’s dirty war against Zimbabwe’s freedom fighters and concludes: “We were lied to by our elders.” Towards the end of the film, when some of the men are asked whether they felt they had been used, their initial bravura melts away and the myth crumbles. “Yes,” they say, as some break down and tell us that their lifelong fighting and invincibility – some were child soldiers – have all been in vain. “We suffer a lot,” says one. “For nothing. Nothing!”

What were they…heroes? Clearly, yes, in the eyes of some – including still a few of their own. But they were also villains and victims, simultaneously, and ended up as human wreckage, forgotten by uncaring masters. Listen and do not judge. As the film ends, the man whose musings we have heard throughout, Judas Iscariot, does the one thing these men don’t do: he walks away. How they wished they could walk away from what they did and what was done to them.

Myth and betrayal in an asbestos town (part one)

September 10, 2020

About the documentary Lamentations of Judas, shot in Pomfret, South Africa.

 

The desolation of an abandoned mining camp that serves as the backdrop for a Passion Play with an all-African cast. The life stories of Angolan war veterans, who are the main actors in the Passion Play. The theme: betrayal. More precisely: the betrayal by one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, of Jesus Christ, about to be executed by the Romans who had colonised the Middle East, where the story takes place.

Alright, you have probably lost me there. Allow me to continue and it will all make sense towards the end.

Lamentations of Judas is the last documentary made by the Dutch filmmaker Boris Gerrets, who died in March this year. In a short interview in English the film’s producer, Eric Velthuis explains how he came across a snippet of information about the South African town of Pomfret, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, a stone’s throw away from the border with Botswana. And he was intrigued: had anyone ever heard of a group of soldiers from Angola who had fought for the Apartheid regime and had been left marooned in a dilapidated town next to an abandoned asbestos mine where Portuguese was the main spoken language?

Turns out, quite a few had. There had been stories in various South African newspapers, more about that later. But the idea that African soldiers would fight for a government that made Africans third class citizens in their own country was something that just did not compute in a rational mind.

So they went to Pomfret and were met with a wall of stony silence. Which, given the context, was entirely predictable.

Most of the men, especially the older men who will make their appearance in the film, later, were fighting for the liberation of their country, Angola, against the Portuguese colonial regime. The war had started in 1961 and most of these men were fighting for the Frente Nacional de Libertaçao de Angola (FNLA), led by the charismatic but notoriously intolerant Holden Roberto, traits he shared with all of Angola’s post-independence leaders.

The FNLA was mostly based in the north of the country and consisted for a large part of BaKongo, people who have lived there for centuries. Support came from many different sides but arrived through Zaïre, a country whose leader (Mobutu Sese Seko) was a Western asset in the ‘Cold’ War with the Soviet Union. This put the FNLA at loggerheads – and indeed in hot fighting battle – with another liberation movement, the MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertaçao de Angola), a nominally Marxist movement that was to form the first post-independence government in the capital, Luanda, led by the poet, president and ruthless killer Agostinho Neto. The MPLA received enthusiastic military support from Cuba and rather reluctant assistance from the Soviet Union. (Later, of course, another murderously charismatic individual by the name of Jonas Savimbi would break off his alliance with Holden Roberto, set up his own movement UNITA and become the prime asset of the United States in the deadliest proxy war between the two superpowers of the ‘Cold’ War, which would last until 2002, when Angolan troops killed Savimbi, thus ending 27 years of hostilities that may have killed one million Angolans.)

32 Battallion. Retrieved from za.pinterest.com

Still with me? This is real history, in which hundreds of Angolan men were caught up, ground down and spewed out into that old asbestos camp called Pomfret, and abandoned.

Here’s what happened next, back in those tumultuous 1970s.

The presidents of Zaïre and Angola made their peace, which resulted in Holden Roberto getting booted out of Mobutu’s country and his FNLA fighters left to their own devices (as you will see, this is a recurrent theme in the lives of these men). And in the meantime, two other things happened: a military coup in Portugal (Revolução dos Cravos) in 1974 put an end to one of the last fascist governments in Europe (the other was in next-door Spain) and the new soldier rulers immediately started to remedy the cause that had made them cease power in the first place: those idiotic colonial wars they were fighting on behalf of the government they had just overthrown, in East Timor, in Mozambique, in Guinea Bissau, in Cabo Verde and, indeed, in Angola.

And in the same year, the South African Army started arriving in Angola because the last thing they wanted was a majority black government in Luanda that was also – horror of horrors – avowedly Marxist in nature. And the South Africans came across some of those old FNLA fighters and adopted them. A Colonel by the name of Jan Breytenbach has been associated with forging them into what they would become: the most terrifying counter-insurgency force in the Southern African region, the 32 Battallion, nicknamed Os Terríveis, the Terrible Ones. “They never lost a single battle,” gushed one commenter under a short South African film about Pomfret that appeared on YouTube in January 2008.

As they were taken to Nambia to fight against the liberation movement there, Angola descended into civil war. Savimbi turned UNITA into the anti-MPLA fighting force that the FNLA never was and president Neto’s government in Luanda ordered a purge (it was literally called A Limpeza, The Cleanup) of the more radical elements in the MPLA. The May 1977 mass killing may have cost up to 30 thousand people their lives. It followed a supposed failed coup and is, up to this day, not discussed inside Angola. It is also the subject of a book I reviewed four years ago.

That’s enough history for today. I will take you back to Pomfret and the film by way of Namibia and South Africa in the second part of this review, comning in a few days.

The dark side of being generous

July 2, 2020

It’s boys. Aged between, say, six and twelve they approach you on the street or call you when you’re passing by. Bright smiles, while they take a break from playing football or just bright smiles beaming straight at you.

“Toubab!” That would be me.

“Hello!” I say back to them, or him.

And more often than not, the next word out is…: “Argent.”

Money.

Sometimes it comes specified: the amounts demanded have ranged from 100 CFA (a mere fifteen eurocents) to fully one hundred times more than that. “Ten thousand francs.”  Eyes unblinking, smile still in place. We are in Ségou.

I have spoken about this in a previous blog and explained this behavior as the result of the extremely pernicious effects of colonialism and its sequel, international development aid. But individual behavior (to be very specific: individual white behavior) makes things worse, especially in places like Ségou, where I am at the moment, a city that used to thrive on tourism before international fear of jihadism and then the Corona crisis put a stop to it.

Now I have previously complained about being seen as a stupid loaded European but very seriously: being regarded as an ATM on two legs is a) annoying but insignificant and b) a symptom of something deeper.

This ‘deeper’ manifests itself in the domestic sphere in ways you only become aware of when you listen to stories like this, told by a friend here in Ségou. It goes like this.

“When Ségou was not yet overrun with tourists, I used to make a little extra money as a schoolboy shining shoes. This still happens today: you go to a place where clients are seated, you ask if they need their shoes polished and when you have done the work you return them and they give you 50 or 100 francs.

One day, one French tourist called me. Remember, there weren’t loads of them at the time so this was special. He was seated on the terrace of one of those posh hotels they have in Ségou. When I returned his shoes to him he gave me two thousand five hundred francs. I was over the moon! I ran home at high speed to tell my parents what had happened.

I showed my dad the money and what did he do? He hit me, saying that I had stolen it. Nobody gives such an idiotic amount to a shoe shine boy. We never managed to return the money since the man had disappeared and it’s stayed an issue for a long time. And I learned a lesson.”

I want you to reflect on this story, as I discussed it with my friend after he had finished his tale. First off, the amount given was indeed completely ridiculous and it did, rightly so, arouse suspicion. Second, while it most probably made the ‘generous’ tourist feel good about himself, it put life at my friend’s home on edge. Not just because the insane amount of money the young boy suddenly carried in his pocket, no. This works on another level, too.

Giving cash to people who are perceived ‘poor’ in places like Ségou or in many other parts of the continent where Africans come into contact with white lifeforms is principally not about the receiver. When you give money to a boy you perceive as poor, and especially when it is a large sum, it becomes all about you, the White Saviour.

And what’s more, as my friend stressed a few times while we discussed his story, it undermines parental authority at home, something that is taken very seriously here. Giving ten thousands francs to a kid, which has obviously happened because how on earth could that boy have come up with such an amount to ask of me…? Giving ten thousand francs instills in this young boy the idea that Mum and Dad don’t provide as well for me as this White Man or Woman could. The White Person is capable; my own parents are not, even though they put food on the table. Look, money! In my pocket.

In short, it reinforces once again the idea that Whites are superior and Africans should be grateful for whatever gets sent their way. In reinforces the racist mindset present through slavery and colonialism and perpetuated through the aid industry. We give – we feel good. They receive – we feel good.

All this is learned behavior and therefore it can be unlearned, on both sides. Whites with their Superiority Syndrome, Africans with their forced-upon-them Dependency Syndrome, especially egregious in tourist places like Ségou, which does indeed tend to get infested with mindless loaded do-gooders. Visitor, this is not about you. In fact, while you are here, nothing is.

OK. Here is how I ended one particular Ségou episode. I looked at the spokesman of the football team who had asked me for money, for some time. He looked back. Something dawned. He said: “Pardon.” We made our peace. Walking away, the realization came that he may have been apologizing to me in person. But far more importantly, he was, in fact, saying “sorry” to his parents.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 14, 2020

Part four – what on god’s green earth were they thinking…?

 

Conversation between two medical students overheard on a train in The Netherlands, many many years ago:

“So we’re off to Africa then, for our internship.”

“Yeah. It’s great, man! You get to cut into people.”

To my eternal shame, I was too shocked/too timid to interfere.

And here’s another conversation I overheard, this time not in a Dutch train but a taxi in the Guinean capital Conakry. It is the last week of the year 2003 and the whole West African region is still in shock following a horrific air crash, at Cotonou, Benin. The report on the Guinea-registered plane’s final moments, even when couched in technical aviation terms, is harrowing.

The doomed aircraft. Photo: Torben Guse, retrieved from the website oldjets.net

I vividly remember seeing this piece of junk parked at Conakry’s Gbessia International Airport and thinking: you will have to drag me kicking and screaming into that thing! On Christmas Day 2003 it crashed. What was the considered opinion of the taxi occupants in Conakry?

“It’s a conspiracy.”

“So it can’t possibly have anything to do with non-existent maintenance, untransparent ownership, a transport minister lying about its airworthiness, chaotic overbooking and catastrophically bad luggage loading at Cotonou?”

“No. Conspiracy.”

Alright, that’s settled then.

Two observations.

  1. There is ample historical evidence that the continent of Africa has been used as a testing ground for aspiring doctors and ruthless pharmaceutical companies. The only thing that would keep them in check, especially during colonial times, was their own moral compass – if one were present at all. 
  2. Africa has more than its fair share of conspiracy theories. For 26 years, it was the method of governance in Guinea – that taxi conversation sprung from the rich field of conspirational thinking it cultivated. The crimes of France, well-documented, give rise to the idea that the French are probably also the evil geniuses causing massacres in Mali. Or at the very least sponsor terrorism/jihadism. And outsiders bring diseases, which was, in all probability the thinking behind the attack on a medical convoy in deep Guinea, in the midst of the Ebola epidemic.

And now there’s COVID-19. Like all crises, it brings out the best in some and the worst in others, the latter often in the shape of an endless parade of yet more conspiracy theorists, who blame anyone and their canary for their own bumbling incompetence in the face of a major health crisis. The current occupant of the White House is a prime example.

Social media have exploded with folks babbling incoherently about Bill Gates controlling the WHO, the virus being the Chinese Communist Party’s avenue to world domination, chips being introduced surreptitiously into body parts we did not know we had, vaccines being surreptitiously introduced during routine medical checks by lizard people looking to control everyone and then there’s of course the inevitable dog-whistling misfit bringing up George Soros at every opportunity…

There is no room for nuance in these scenarios. And into this utter and complete mess wade these two:

Have you seen them? They are Camille Locht, research director at Inserm (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale) and Jean-Paul Mira, head of Intensive Care at Paris’ Cochin hospital, where another famous French doctor once walked the corridors…

These two found it necessary to discuss, two weeks ago, on a mainstream French television network, the idea of using Africans as guinea pigs if ever a vaccine against COVID-19 were to be proposed. I find the actual discourse too crass to reproduce here but for those who can follow French, here’s a link.

What? The? Hell?

Which is what the internet thought. And predictably, it fed straight into the ballooning body of conspiracy theories and of course reinforcing old ones. But this is not about damage control through communication, as Inserm attempted to do.

This is about two individuals working in the medical profession, which is, let’s be clear, supposed to be governed by the highest ethical standards, blithely and openly discussing how you can dispatch living breathing human beings to some kind of rarefied abstract space where they become objects for experimentation – as was the case with those two medical students I overheard on that train. It was offensive, dehumanising, monumentally ill-judged and yes, of course: it was racist.

The upshot of all this is that you will have to work harder than ever to convince an already fundamentally skeptical population that there are perfectly good reasons to allow trials to be executed all over the world – including Africa.  There has, for instance, been an argument about the exclusion of Sub-Saharan Africa from the WHO’s Malaria Eradication Program in the 1960s and whether or not this set back anti-malaria efforts on the continent.

But before any experimentation happens, two criteria must be met. One is called informed consent, which means that whoever volunteers knows exactly what they are volunteering for. And second, all standard safeguards must be in place to protect volunteers against the consequences should anything go wrong, which is the exact opposite of what these two were proposing.  And as a result of their nonsense, rationality, already in the back of that Guinean taxi, takes another hit. Thank you for nothing, you &^#€!&% French dimwits.

The WHO website currently records 109 cases confirmed in Mali, with 9 deaths. Mali’s Ministry of Public Health notes 123 confirmed cases and 10 deaths; 26 patients have recovered.

How do you stop Corona? Screen the whites!

March 5, 2020

A headline at RFI yesterday: Mauritania sends 15 Italian tourists back. The story was that the tourists, coming from one of the most Corona-prone risks zones on the planet had to stay in their hotel until the health authorities established that they did not pose a health risk to the public.

A reasonable position, taken by all countries.

However, the Italians decided to leave the hotel anyway the next morning and thought themselves merrily on their way until they were intercepted at some 90 kilometres from the capital Nouakchott and sent on their way, according to the story. They didn’t see that coming, apparently.

*

So far, the African continent has seen the grand total of about a dozen cases. This is a still from a few days ago.

Senegal has now acquired a second case (another old Frenchman), South Africa one (who had been on holiday in Italy) and perhaps there are a few new ones as I write this.

Do we see a pattern here? I think we do…

And yet, on France24 the other day, we were treated to the spectacle of a presenter asking with barely concealed astonishment why Africa had, so far, hardly been touched by the Corona virus. An elderly expert (France has an absolutely ENDLESS supply of them) of the renowned Institut Pasteur was on hand to confirm that, indeed, this was “a mystery”.

Indeed.

Why does Africa refuse to do what it is supposed to be doing, i.e. to be the uncontested epicentre of the worst diseases, the most frightening epidemics and all the other afflictions that stalk the planet? How dare Africa deviate from its prescribed role in the scheme of things?

A mystery.

Perhaps the good sir had already forgotten that at the height of the Ebola epidemic in 2014 at least three West African nations had managed to stop the disease from spreading: Nigeria, Mali and Senegal. It has been suggested to me that in the case of Mali there has been help from Médecins sans frontiers, which is plausible. But in the cases of Nigeria and Senegal (which I witnessed myself), the virus was contained as a result of quick coordinated action by the health authorities who identified, traced, isolated and where necessary treated individuals found to be with the virus.

Now mind you: this did not happen in some remote village in, say, deep Guinea where Patient Zero was located. No, this happened in giant agglomerations, connected to the entire world, home to at least four million people (in the case of Dakar) and as many as 20 million (Lagos).

These home-grown success stories received accolades from the World Health Organisation for containing a potentially catastrophic outbreak. Mainstream media missed them almost completely, though. Perhaps the interviewee on France24 was unaware of this story as a result, hence his nonplussed-ness at Africa’s virtually Corona-free status.

For those who respond with ‘Ah well, yes, but that’s because they lack the equipment to diagnose…’ I refer you to the previous two paragraphs that you clearly have not read yet.

Not all 50+plus health systems on the continent are the same. The reason why Ebola could strike in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone was because the health systems had collapsed as the result of five decades of criminal negligence in the case of Guinea and more than a decade of civil war in the other two countries. These conditions clearly did not obtain in Senegal and only to a very limited extent in Mali and Nigeria.

What’s that? Oh, sorry, yes! Back to the pattern I asked you about earlier.

This is how they arrive…
Pic: me.

Did you see one? I did. All the Corona cases on the African continent have been brought in by Europeans, mainly Italian and French. So it stands to reason to suggest that the best and the most effective way to prevent the Corona virus from spreading across the African continent is to rigorously SCREEN ALL WHITES that come flying across the Mediterranean for their holidays or whatever it is they do.

Butbutbutbut…doesn’t this look like the reverse of what European nations routinely do to people who do not look…European?

Not really. In this case, the screening has sound logical reasons. While European immigration officers appear to be obsessed by keeping black people out because they are black, African health authorities are wise to isolate whites because they are potential carriers of very dangerous diseases. It’s only fair. After all, there are numerous stories about whites who did carry dangerous diseases and went on to wipe out entire populations in, among others, the Americas.

And that’s not a mystery, mon cher. That’s historical fact.