Archive for the ‘Liberia’ Category

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.

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.

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.

 

Hero

March 25, 2014

What do Charles Taylor, Robert Mugabe, Laurent Gbagbo and Thabo Mbeki have in common? Apart from the fact that all have been presidents (one still is and will be until he dies) and all have to a greater or lesser extent autocratic tendencies and three out of four have proved to be prone to violence. Well? Here it is: they all hate The West and the Evil People who populate it although some (Mbeki) are better at hiding it than others (his northern neighbour). And because they all hate that monstrous entity that spreads disease, pestilence, death, destruction and bad entertainment around the world wherever it puts its jackboot, they all have earned the adoring admiration of the magazine I used to write for and from time to time write about: New African, NA for short.

Once upon a time the magazine sailed a journalistic course with regards to Côte d’Ivoire but then I wrote a letter to the editor (never published) reminding him that since Laurent Gbagbo employed exactly the same anti Western rhetoric as its other heroes (if not similar repressive methods like Mugabe) they should support him to the hilt. I remain, until this very day, deeply disappointed that I have never been given credit for the swift change in editorial line that NA performed in order to chime with the magazine’s central narrative: The West is plotting in more than a thousand ways to keep the Black Man Down.

It did obediently reproduce a piece about the Ivorian crisis penned by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, the contents of which came straight from the Public Relations Department of the Front Populaire Ivoirien, Gbagbo’s very own ZANU-PF. To this day, the FPI remains firmly convinced that its leader won the elections and that France’s former ADHD president Sarkozy put Ouattara on the throne with United Nations complicity. And that’s another thing that all these have in common with NA’s central narrative, which is a seductive mix of perpetual victimhood based on kernels of truth without any self-reflection. It produces a deeply disempowering political agenda.

The reason I am writing all this is that I have discovered that NA has added a new hero to its expanding Heroes’ Pantheon. His name? His Excellency, Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Jahya Abdel Aziz Jemus Junkug Jammeh, President of the Republic of The Gambia! He ticks all the right boxes. Came to power in a coup in 1994 and has since developed the mindset that running his country, into the ground as it happens, is his inalienable birthright. He has turned the country into his private property and a police state. Also a haven for money laundering and arms smuggling. And sex tourism for middle-aged women from the UK, Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere. Business Is Booming.

Jammeh’s greatest claim to fame dates back to April 2000, when he ordered the army to open fire on unarmed schoolchildren on a demonstration, while exclaiming his most memorable quote: shoot the bastards. He had a few more executed in 2012 as his jails were facing a capacity problem. Now that’s what I call efficiency. He also supports at least one of the factions that is causing frequent havoc across the border in Senegal’s Casamance Province, effectively holding the government in Dakar hostage: if you allow too much Gambian dissidence on your territory, all hell will break loose in your beloved Casamance. So far, it has worked like a charm.

 

But why has His Excellency etc etc etc earned himself the adoring admiration of New African magazine? Because he hates The West and the Evil People in it. He has become worried about the fact that The West takes a disproportionately large part of Africa’s wealth. This Must Change. He advocates a program of redistribution that he may, one day, want to apply in his own country. Apparently, The Gambia is sitting on oil and His Excellency etc etc has discovered…the Gambian People. To whom the oil belongs. Interesting thought. He has made other striking revelations in the past, such as not needing doctors to cure AIDS; he can do that himself. (I seem to remember Thabo Mbeki had a rather tenuous relationship with the scientific explanation of the disorder…) His Excellency etc etc also likes to employ unregistered armies, like Charles Taylor, to further his objectives. As far as anyone can see he only has one, the same as Mugabe: staying in power until he dies. He has more things in common with the Dear Leader in Harare: he recently left The Commonwealth because it is colonialist and the two are also united in their intense homophobia. ‘Worse than pigs and dogs,’ in Mugabeland; ‘vermin’, in Jammehland.  Both were upstaged recently by Uganda’s gay-hating president Yoweri Museveni, whom NA dislikes intensely because he is deemed a “stooge of the West” but who knows, things may change…

So NA went to The Gambia and did a MAC (Mutual Adoration Chat), went on to publish a few quotes on oil and a letter castigating someone who had the gall to criticise this hero of the fight against colonialism, slavery, exploitation, greed and racism, which as you know are the only relevant hallmarks of The West and its Evil People. I, for one, am pleased to see His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Jahya Abdel Aziz Jemus Junkug Jammeh, President of the Republic of The Gambia, curer of AIDS, swift dispatcher of school children, brave protagonist of proxy conflict, expert emptier of prisons and champion of the downtrodden included in NA’s Heroes’ Pantheon. Maybe he could accompany the editor on one of his frequent trips to a certain Heroes’ Acre in the Zimbabwean capital where some heroes are notable for their absence. Not that this should detain this new beautiful pair as they gushingly report from Paradise On Earth.

The Taylor verdict: victory for justice?

April 26, 2012

Right. Can we just step away from the euphoria for a little while? Charles Taylor has been declared “guilty” for having aided and abetted murder, rape, the use of child soldiers, pillage and other offenses.

That’s good, no? This is an important day for international justice, you say? I’m not so convinced. Not because I don’t want to see Charles Taylor tried and convicted for what he did. I do, but not in this manner.

Let’s talk a little history here. Having shot his way to power and secured an election trough massive voter intimidation (“He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I’ll vote for him”) in 1997, Charles Taylor unleashed a reign of terror and dreadful incompetence, from which his country will take decades to recover.

This happened in Liberia. Charles Taylor was not on trial for any of that.

Special Court

The Special Court for Sierra Leone has now established that he aided and abetted, and in some cases was involved in the planning of a large number of human rights abuses in neighbouring Sierra Leone.  The prosecution has spent inordinate amounts of time, effort and money to establish evidence leading to the guilty verdict. In Liberia, his (and indeed other warlords’) atrocities are a matter of public record.

But once again, Charles Taylor is not on trial for what he did to his own country. And this is where the story gets messy.

Of course, principally, Charles Taylor brought disaster upon himself. His ultra violent and catastrophically inept government invited the inevitable next invasion. With the help of the neighbours, principally Guinea and at the very least the tacit approval of the USA and the UK (both of which had meanwhile adopted “anyone but Taylor” policies), two rebel movements forced him out in August 2003.

Prosecutor

And now it gets even messier. A former Pentagon lawyer called David Crane managed to get himself appointed the chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). He indicted Taylor for the crimes for which he has now been found guilty. There was one problem though: no neighbouring state was going to hand him over to the SCSL. Not Ghana, which he visited as head of state. Not Nigeria, where he was given asylum. It took a clearly stage-managed “escape” and “re-arrest” to get him into the hands of the SCSL, conveniently just in time for then president Olusegun Obasanjo’s state visit to then president George W. Bush.

Questions

So, here are the unanswered questions. One. Why was the chief prosecutor in such a hurry to have Taylor indicted? Two. Could he not have waited until the Liberians themselves had given the sign that they were ready for their man to be put on trial?

True, a war crimes tribunal is controversial in Liberia but Liberians have now been forever deprived of what we may call closure. That obviously was of no concern to Crane. Neither, by the way, are 157 dead Guineans. In an infamous 2010 report Crane and his colleague Alan White whitewashed Captain Moussa Dadis Camara and his junta’s role in the stadium massacre that took place in Conakry on September 28, 2009. So forgive me for reaching for a bucket when I hear this man intone before a BBC camera that ‘this is an important day for the people of West Africa.’

So what have we got here in the end? A US and UK-funded Court that neatly fitted the geo-strategic policies of these two countries. A torturous road to a guilty verdict that leaves millions of his victims out in the rain. A smug looking international community that can claim its first scalp “since Nuremberg” as the activists never tire of telling us. Well if Milosevich had not died he would have been the first one and I can still hear the assessment of a Serbian foreign ministry official ringing in my ears when he said that Milosevich’s delivery to The Hague was not so much an ethical issue as “a matter of foreign trade”.

Taylor’s case had less to do with ethics and a lot more with making sure he was kept out of the West African region. The correct objective – achieved in the wrong manner.

This is a quest for justice that’s gotten lost in a maze of foreign policy interests, personal career opportunism and the fact that the paymasters of this court would not have accepted another result.

Conspiracy? I certainly don’t think so. But a victory for international justice? Sorry, not to me.

A new Liberian police officer

June 2, 2011

We (that is photographer Martin Waalboer http://www.martinwaalboer.nl) and me had found a new Monrovia taxi driver. Nicolas. Tall-ish figure, forever clad in simple jeans and t-shirt. Exuberant character – if he agreed with what you said he’d show you a broad and slightly mischievous grin, and shout from behind the wheel: ‘I love this man!!!’ If confronted with a problem, he’d be on his feet and swaying about, like a merry-go-round slightly out of kilter, looking askance at the person or the thing that has caused him this problem. An extremely likeable loose canon – that’s the best way to describe him.

Nicolas was swaying about when confronted by a police officer. We had just been to the Freeport of Monrovia and were coming from the northern part of Monrovia into the centre. The two are separated by the Montserrado River and the bridge that spans this river has been immortalised by the late Chris Hondros’ picture of the fighter jumping up as he made his way across.

So, coming off that bridge, we were stopped. Traffic police. Would Nicolas be able to produce his driver’s and taxi license, the latter as proof that he had paid his taxes? Pay! Your! Taxes! It is the main mantra of this government. Help Mama Liberia develop and Pay! Your! Taxes!

Nicolas could not provide his papers. ‘Park the car,’ he was ordered. Now ordinarily, Liberian police officers bark orders and expect to be bribed. But this was a new officer. He came to us and apologized for the inconvenience ‘on behalf of the Liberian government’ but the rules said that if someone was driving around without papers, he was in breach of the law. Fair enough.

By now, a small crowd had gathered around the problem. Nicolas was by now awkwardly swivelling on his feet, pleading with the officer, who was not to be persuaded. Then another fellow marched into the scene and demanded to know what was happening. He would then inform his superiors, whoever they were. When told about Nicolas’ problem, he volunteered to take Nic’s car and drive us to our destination. ‘That would be ethically wrong,’ said the officer. We were beginning to like this man.

The to-ing and fro-ing went on for a while and by then we had decided that we would walk the short distance to our resting place and pay Nicolas when he’d solved his problem. The car would stay here, that much was sure and no matter how much we liked our increasingly agitated loose canon, we had other things to do than listening to an argument that was going nowhere. Mr Volunteer Driver then offered to take us in another car but since he had been disruptive and had not bothered to show an ID, we politely declined.

So on our way we went, leaving Nicolas to argue his case and the officer to stand his ground. No sooner had we turned the first corner or there they were. One grinning driver and the same earnest officer sitting next to him. ‘He has just shown me his papers,’ he said. ‘The man is a credible citizen of Liberia.’ We thanked him profusely, for his service but of course basically for his impeccable conduct. Liberia needs loads of people like him.

Into the car. Nicolas cannot stop grinning. ‘They were in my dashboard! I forgot!!!’ Christ, man, you put us through all this because your left hand has no idea about what your right hand is doing? ‘Yeah, man, they were there all the time! I forgot!’ Fine, Nic, just make sure you remember were you out your papers next time you take us on a ride. ‘So you have another job for me?’ Maybe, you loveable idiot, you, but not just now.

He took us to our destination and drove into the court. Reversed, and went out and only then did we see the slogan on the back of his car. Every car has one.

‘No food for lazy man.’

Or

‘Allah is the greatest.’

Or

‘Stomach takes no holiday.’

This one had us rolling about laughing because it summed Nicolas up better than this entire story. On the back of his car was written, in big red letters: God Knows Why.

photo: Martin Waalboer

Relentless Trends 2: surplus men and jobs

January 7, 2011

Last year, in March, we (that is: the intrepid and unbeatable journo team consisting of photographer Martin Waalboer and myself) walked into West Point, one of the worst slums in the Liberian capital Monrovia.

West Point, Monrovia. Photo: Martin Waalboer

The entrance is a small corridor – a fantastic spot for anyone who wants to rob visitors. Emerging at the other side and immediately two burly chaps walk up. Security, they say. Self-appointed, that much is clear. They would be “area boys” in Nigeria, “vigilantes” in other parts of the world. They will guarantee our safety and well-being whilst in West Point, they say, provided of course we stop by on the way out and pay them.

We march onto the beach, we pass a big pile of rotting fish, parked right next to the first iron hovels. Apparently, you can even get used to this without spending the entire day vomiting your bowels out. The smell is pervasive. We walk through a cloud of flies.

Into the labyrinth and the atmosphere is grim. We turn one of many corners and find ourselves in a small open space. There’s a small group of – you guessed it – young men, doing nothing. Well, they’re gambling, what else is there to do? Barely concealed aggression on our approach and of course immediate demands for cash. We move on before things get too heated. But you only have to talk to a few and look beyond the gangster pose – and you’ll soon find out what they really want.

Jobs.

The billboard is a pipedream - but at least these guys work... Photo: Martin Waalboer

Jobs will give them a station in life. But West Point, Monrovia, is the terminus. All ends here. Nowhere to go, except for the sea; nothing to do, except sit around. And most of all: absolutely nobody cares. It is a universal phenomenon: young men, at times individually but most definitely as a group are usually loathed, feared, sent packing, or totally ignored.

The inventor of the youth bulge, Gunnar Heinsohn, whom I mentioned yesterday, argues that for these and other surplus young men, there are basically three options: leave, crime and fight. In Africa, they do all three. Whatever the rhetoric emanating from small, aging, frazzled Fortress Europe, immigration will be with you for a very very long time. It does not matter if you channel it through the tiny and unusable pipelines of asylum procedures (virtually no-one from Africa leaves for political reasons); it does not matter how many ships you send to patrol the coast, how many electric fences you put up – you sent your guys overseas for centuries, now the rest is doing the same. Get used to it.

Monrovia, Liberia, May 1996. Photo: gatsbye53 on Flickr

Crime and war are very much last resorts. Heinsohn cites Kenya and wonders why, given its burgeoning young male population, it took so long for the violence to break out. He says there was still that last piece of land to be parcelled out and when that was gone, violence became inevitable. He also cites Algeria, where before the brutal civil war in the 1990s women had up to 7 children. Now it’s less than two. That, he argues, is the only thing that has changed in Algeria.

Personally I think he’s rather short on other factors that may have influenced this drastic change but he does spin an interesting demographic yarn – even though it is incomplete. Yes, you can leave, you can get into crime or go to war. But you can also create jobs. And this they do: setting up “security” outfits, like the one in West Point; going into the transport business, like the “motortaxi” guys in the picture above; getting into trade (although this is limited as trade is very much a woman’s turf); becoming craftsmen…

Heinsohn does, however, have a point if you consider that yet another form of job creation can indeed be…crime. And from crime, especially violent crime, the step to war is not really such a leap. Remember the main slogan of those fighter boys (and indeed a few girls) during Liberia’s civil war? “Pay Yourself.” A few thousand have made a career out of it; some of them are currently heading to their next “pay yourself” operation: Côte d’Ivoire. Luckily, so far, Côte d’Ivoire has not leapt off the precipice.

Most countries do not go to Liberian extremes. But even in small, peaceful, lovely, religious Senegal, there may be a few worrying forms of job creation happening.

More about that, tomorrow.

Blue Clay People

December 31, 2010

I have just finished reading “The Blue Clay People” by William Powers – about a country familiar and very dear to me.

In his late twenties, Powers gets sent to Liberia as the director of food distribution of a large NGO. Charles Taylor’s violent and inept regime is in its second year, the notorious Oriental Timber Company (OTC) is tearing at Liberia’s bowels: the vast tropical rainforest. And war is once again on the horizon.

It’s good to see so many insights about the aid industry once again confirmed, even though his book deals mostly with the branch known as emergency aid. We have the privileged lifestyle of the foreign aid workers. Local boys are available for the “Madams” in the aid business; ditto the girls for the “Bossmen”. Just one small example of how the aid industry is, despite all its protestations to the contrary, the latest incarnation of colonialism.

Powers talks about the insidious patron-client relationships that aid reinforces. He talks about the fact that the stuff he helps bring in for free tends to get stolen by the people for whom it is not intended: it happens on his own watch. Yes, it happens by mistake – but much more often it happens by design, witness the manufactured famines in Ethiopia for instance. Linda Polman writes convincingly about that in “War Games”.

As his book illustrates, emergency aid frequently does not work, frequently prolongs violent conflict (as it did when it was first dispensed in Biafra in the 1960) and most of the time interferes with the lives and cultures of the “recipients”. And let’s not even get started on the elaborate bureaucracies that are employed to administer regular aid, the larger chunk of the US70 billion a year aid industry.

Getting it right means that those who work in the aid industry do something they are generally badly prepared for: shut up and listen. Powers manages to do just that in a place that rapidly becomes a home away from home: a village near the eerily beautiful dense tropical rainforest of Sapo National Park, which is directly threatened by the OTC thugs, with president Charles Taylor’s blessing. It is indeed a good thing to know that the trial against Dutchman Gus van Kouwenhoven, up to his neck in the OTC business, will reopen.

At times Powers gets a little too sentimental for my taste, but “The Blue Clay People” takes its place in the line of books such as Michael Maren’s “Road to Hell” (about Somalia) and Linda Polman’s work mentioned above.

It did bemuse me slightly, though, to read that he subsequently took up a post with the same NGO in Bolivia. I would have left the whole  business altogether.

NOW….for later, folks: Happy New Year All. Or as we say here: Deweneti!

Rethink this!

April 2, 2010

After indicating, the large bus swings to the left, right in front of the taxi but the driver’s having none of it. He works his car horn incessantly until we, the passengers, tell him to “take care and slow down”. The mid and tail section of the bus fly past the taxi bonnet with less than an inch to spare. “Plus de peur que du mal”, as they’re fond of saying here but this blog could have just as easily ended halfway the motorway between Patte d’Oie and Dakar Centre. Smashed between an unyielding bus, the crash barrier and the bloody mindedness of a taxi driver.

Here’s the thing. It’s frequently said that a country’s character can be gleaned from the way people drive but this needs a re-think.

Dakar’s roads are murder. Complete and dangerous anarchy. One reason I am not frequently going to Le Plateau is precisely because I don’t want to subject myself to yet another kamikaze driver who thinks nothing of overtaking an overloaded “car rapide” with a lorry ahead, then veers manically to another lane to avoid said lorry while answering a phonecall.

But go into any shop and politeness reigns supreme. You’d get on the wrong side of folks for not greeting them in the morning. However: once a Dakarois gets behind the wheel, he becomes a full-blooded anarchist with one message to the other road users: your job is to get the hell out of my way. And before you start: yes, the women are just as bad.

Monrovia, Liberia. In this massively overcrowded city the most common greeting in a shop is not the delightful “Asalaamu aleikoum”, as is the case in Dakar. You’re either met with compete stony indifference or with a “Whaddayawant?” barked at you. People are, in the main, pretty damn rude in Monrovia. But Tubman Boulevard, the main drag through a large part of the city is as busy as Dakar’s thoroughfares and a masterclass in decent driving. People don’t rush, give way and – something utterly unthinkable in Dakar – stop for crossing pedestrians.

So here it is: driving seems to be the exact opposite of a country’s (or, let’s be fair: a city’s) character. Surely, this cannot possibly be a reflection of residual foreign influence?

[Huge generalization alert!] America – Liberia’s creator – is brash, loud and crass but drives impeccably. France – Senegal’s former colonial power – indulges in the good life and good manners but drives appallingly badly.

But Liberia turns 163 this year and Senegal will be 50 this weekend. Surely these influences fall away at some point?

Well: there you have it. Just a few thoughts after another murderous morning on a Dakar highway.

Oh and by the way: there are decent taxi drivers around. I have his number.