Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Learning to appreciate Africa – in a Dakar school

April 29, 2018

Nine and a half years, just after I had moved into my Dakar Yoff Ouest Foire apartment under pretty dramatic circumstances, I went out to explore my new neighbourhood. A few hundred metres from my street, slightly tucked away by the side of the street but otherwise easy to find was this restaurant.

restaurant Figo

Figo. It would soon become my second living room, with two important differences: this one had WiFi and served food.

Atouman Diagne and Fatoumata Bathily, the couple running the restaurant, were working in similar establishments in Italy when they met. They made plans. Plans to start something similar back home: a smart place in an area where there was a shortage of smart places – Yoff Ouest Foire was just such a neighbourhood: upwardly mobile residents at night, office workers during the day. In one word: a market.

Resto Figo opened its doors not very long before I had arrived and I rapidly became first a client, then a regular, then a friend and finally – as we joked frequently – part of the furniture.

restaurant Figo

This and previous pic: Martin Waalboer. The loveliest people in the world. Fatoumata, Atouman and in the middle their eldest son, Aziz, who’s quite a bit bigger now and has a few siblings…

Atouman and Fatoumata have ideas that go way beyond serving lunch, pizzas and dibi, a local speciality that consists of a pile of roast meat with mustard and spices. One of these offshoots is a primary school, called Arcobaléno (Rainbow), which serves kids from this upwardly mobile neighbourhood. I once spent a delightful few hours there making an ass of myself as I was getting the kids to sing…er…Jingle Bells. In English. (At the school’s request, may I add in my defence.)

But on a more serious note, there was something bothering Fatoumata as she went about setting up and running the school and working out the educational program. Where was Africa?

The children, she told me, at the Arcobaléno, and indeed elsewhere, were of the opinion that there was nothing of any value to find in African history or culture. This was genuinely shocking but at the same time understandable when you are, say, five or six and grow up in a household that will without any doubt serve up generous portions of that uniquely Senegalese delicacy known as thieboudieun (literally: rice and fish) but where the television will be tuned to France24 for the news, Youssou N’Dour’s TFM or the absolutely execrable Paris-based TRACE Africa for entertainment and to TV5 in the morning for an endless parade of hugely irritating (but that’s just me), mostly American, French overdubbed cartoons, something a few Burkinabè friends are trying to remedy. 

What to do? Enter these two.

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You know, there are, to be sure, loads and loads and loads of mass-produced soaps from Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Burkina Faso and there is of course the colossal Nigerian film industry, which travels quite well – literally, as you can be sure to come across a Nigerian film once you get on one of the region’s many intercity buses.

But switch on a television set in a city across this continent and the lack of African characters will strike you. Television is, increasingly, people’s principal source of info and entertainment and it has an absolute dearth of material reflecting life on the continent and especially directed at children. This is the gap that the producers of Kady & Djudju are trying to fill. The idea is Fatoumata’s; an entire team works on the realisation of the characters, the clips and the series.

This is for kids, who are not used to seeing characters on their little screens at home who look like them. This is why these two are so important.

The first series was broadcast on national television, RTS. The videos dealt with a lot of practical things: waste, recycling, keeping safe on the streets… The one that got tongues wagging dealt with a subject Senegal has been busy sweeping under the carpet for years: organised child begging.

For the producers, this series of practical issues are important but they are also an entry point. Next step: showcasing, highlighting and getting young children to appreciate the richness of their own continent, its people, its history, its heroes and heroines (like this one I published recently) achievements, stories and why not – natural beauty.

Well, that’s precisely what they are doing – in their own school…and this event, which happened just a stone’s throw away from my old apartment gave me the chance to talk to you about this important and extremely necessary work. Here’s hoping I can continue to be of use.

And Figo? Well, judging from a visit only seven months ago I’d say: looking better than ever. It’s got a proper roofed terrace now and a small stage where people perform at times. The thieb is still there, as are the pizzas, the dibi and of course the bissap, West Africa’s perfect answer to thirst.

So here’s to you Atou and Fatima – and hope to see you all again soon!

Whites on screens

October 1, 2017

On the major media networks the roles of Whites when it comes to Africa is pretty easily summed up. Experts and helpers. Journalists usually don themselves, à la the inexplicably Pullitzer Prize-crowned Jeffrey Gettleman, in the garb of The Expert of the land where they were parachuted, three days or three years ago. The (mercifully former) NYT Nairobi bureau chief has gone on to write his memoirs (of course), with “Africa” as a backdrop for his massively more important and exciting life. One reader was not terribly impressed… https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/08/25/beach-reads-jeffrey-gettlemans-love-africa/?utm_term=.506f3171fc5e

Whites as Helpers (doctors, nurses, relief coordinators) aka Saviours and as Experts; sometimes they are one and the same person. These categories cover pretty much all of the mainstream – especially Anglophone – coverage of ‘Whites on Screens – the Africa Edition’. Oh but there’s now a third category: the Travel Heroes – increasingly Travel Heroines – who traverse the continent piloting sturdy-looking motorcycles or heavy weather vehicles, and always the centre of undiluted African attraction and adoration.

Compare and contrast that with the tapestry of White Lifeforms offered by film directors from the African continent. Just a random fistful. Ready?

A washed-up hippy-like young man with dubious connections in the drugs trade, a small-time crook and womaniser who gets involved in a deal that nearly goes fatally wrong and needs the forceful actions of the locals to save his inconsiderate ass. Classically lovelorn, he kills himself on a motorbike on the Senegalese tourism coast. (Wulu, by Daouda Coulibaly, Mali)

A ruthless female CEO of an international resources company, who organises violence on a large scale in order to thwart the plans of a patriotic president to keep his country’s resources under his country’s control (African Thunderstorm, by Sylvestre Amoussou, Benin)

A journo and expert (yep, rolled into one), who has his own ideas about the representativity of the community he must depict for the umpteenth aid organisation propaganda gig he is filming – and forces a teenage girl who wants to appear in the video as the Pearl of the Ghetto to get rid of all that finery, put on some cheap jeans and a torn T-shirt and cover her face not with make-up but with dirt (N.G.O. Nothing Going On, by Arnold Aganze, Uganda)

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There’s more.

Two utterly hapless “advisers” to a Chinese company that is set to destroy a pristine forest and cause widespread pollution at the behest of a local boy come good who has transformed himself into a ruthless tycoon-cum-politician. All they do is sit, nod and smile, as they get paid for not having the faintest clue about what’s going on (Le Forêt de Niolo, by Adama Roamba, Burkina Faso)

A superficially respectable middle aged gentleman whose company is used as a cover and money tap for drugs transfers (Wulu, by Daouda Coulibaly, Mali)

A heavily accented European middle-aged businessman who uses a string of cynical one-liners that only help to accentuate the impression that he has absolutely no idea of the mores, the cultures, the politics and the business of the country where he works (African Thunderstorm, by Sylvestre Amoussou, Benin)

A young, idealistic millennial who falls in love with one of the local guys hanging around in a trendy bar who tells her that he is running an NGO. (These are organisations that cling like barnacles to the entire continent). She gets conned into organising support for the enterprising young man who will not use the money for the NGO – but for attending a trendy but expensive culture festival with his mates (N.G.O. Nothing Going On, by Arnold Aganze, Uganda)

No saviours here, nope. No experts. Mostly oafs, bullies, small-time criminals, big-time crooks, losers and adventurers, displaying varying levels of haplessness concerning the continent where they have landed or washed ashore. In sharp contrast to the experts, saviours and heroes (of all genders) that the mainstream media offer, these characters were all multidimensional, multi-layered. In short, they were…interesting!!

So, dear reader, if you want to get a truly interesting picture of the kind of White Lifeforms that somehow manage to exist on the African continent, I suggest you turn to filmmakers from that continent. White Life in Africa is not terribly glamorous, it is rarely generous, it is very frequently ill-informed and it is mostly irrelevant. They do get things right on occasion, which is nice – but it’s not the rule.

And here’s some more shocking news. There are many many many many Experts, Helpers and Saviours actually existing on the African continent itself! This may astonish you if your media consumption consists of the likes of CNN, BBC, RT, even Al Jazeera or a major daily newspaper. But they exist, in the thousands. You hardly ever hear about them because they are, in most cases, not white. They were born there, they live there and they do their damnedest to make things work. Oh and they have no intention whatsoever to leave. How many, you ask? I’d say pretty much all of them. The Africans you see arriving in Europe on your television screens – if they make it at all – constitute a tiny tiny tiny tiny minority.

The story of this continent is long and old and the Whites you see on your screens are cameos in a tale that began long before they were here and will continue long after they have gone. (And before you ask: yes, that includes me.) It is high time attention concentrated on that epic home-grown African tale and that we collectively stop paying idiotic amounts of attention to the bit players in that tale.

 

New takeoff

October 1, 2017

Yes, it’s been more than a year. No, I can’t adequately explain why the long gap. True, there were times that I had no longer any idea what to do with this blog. A free-floating association of ideas about things that go on in the world and especially in that rather large West-African corner I know a few things about and consider my second home. Lack of time played its part, lack of inspiration sometimes and one simple fact of life that holds true for every single free-lancer everywhere: paid stuff goes before everything else. It’s that basic.

But anyway, without much fanfare or any further ado – here’s the re-take-off. And let me jump straight into a nice little thing: identity politics – or more precisely: why on earth are (most) Western media pretending that Whites have the answers to everything?

 

The Façade – Part 5 and end

May 23, 2016
A slightlycloser look at thew Henro Konan Bédié Bridge across the Ébrié Lagoon, the third in the city. Bridges Numbers 4 and 5 are reportedly being planned.

A slightly closer look at the new Henri Konan Bédié Bridge across the Ébrié Lagoon, the third in the city. Bridges Numbers 4 and 5 are reportedly being planned. Photo taken from the conference room of the Grand Hotel.

 

I will forever be thrilled by arrival in Abidjan, a metropolis I have come to adore over the years. It’s fast, it’s dynamic and it’s getting bigger, better and busier. At least, on the outside: more roads, more shopping malls, more high-rise office blocks, more flyovers, more luxury boutiques and fancy restaurants. But none of this can hide the staggering difference in standards of living that blight this giant city. You get a good hard reminder of that once you arrive in Abidjan’s main bus station – Adjamé.

Or at least: what’s left of it. It is just after 11pm when we pull into a section of town that looks as if some shacks have been dumped there from a great height. Where are all the old-fashioned, loud but rather well-organised garages that used to line the road here?

Gone.

In its place, a sinister new order, of which I become dimly aware once out of the gate of the enclosure that is home to the hangar where the bus has been parked. The building must sit right on top of a sewer; the stench is everywhere. As I approach the gate, I am told not to talk to anyone, except taxi drivers. The latter announce themselves either seated behind the wheel of their – invariably orange-coloured – Toyotas or pointing at their vehicles. It has been raining and there is no paved road; the “street” in front of the badly lit hangar is muddy, wet and slippery. I get accosted by a tall man as my luggage disappears in the direction of one taxi. Big head, unkempt hair, needs money. I give him my small change, a move that I will come to regret a little later.

‘Don’t use too many words here,’ says the elderly driver, as he tells me to get into the car. Only the most basic of exchanges will suffice. Another man needs a ride. Urgent negotiations ensue as the atmosphere  turns a shade or two darker. My taximan wants to know if I object to someone joining us. Of course not. An elderly gentleman gets in the taxi and we advance, retreat, advance, retreat in a maze of other taxis, saloon cars, buses, lorries, parked haphazardly (or so it seems) in the increasingly menacing darkness. Apart from the engine, there is no noise outside.

The driver, whose name is Moussa, appears to know where he is going while I feel we continue to move ever deeper into this otherworldly labyrinth. A few lone lamps; little islands of light in the otherwise impenetrable darkness.

‘Have you got some small change?’ he suddenly asks.

Damn! No. That’s with the beggar boy at the hangar.

‘I’m afraid I just gave away my last pocket money,’ I answer back when out of nowhere a fierce looking young man appears, armed with a large piece of wood and a mad glint in his eye. He guards an improvised barrier and wants 100 francs. 15 cents. He brandishes his weapon.

Moussa rummages around in his dashboard compartment while I look at the man with the club. It’s as long as his calve and as thick as a grown man’s thigh. If he weren’t lolling about on his feet, as I begin to notice, he would be able to do some serious damage.

Moussa manages to find 100 francs and I pass it on to our self-appointed guard. He lifts the rudimentary wooden barrier and we’re out.

‘What if you don’t pay?’ Moussa doesn’t even bother to answer the question.

‘There’s many of them. They have come here since the government cleaned out another part of town. They all use drugs. They form gangs. And now that the authorities have destroyed the bus station they’re all over this place.’ I will find out later that this particular gang guards all the entrances and exits of this bizarre transport maze and apparently make enough to finance their drug habits.

Adjamé’s former bus terminus is, for now at least, the place where the people go that the government does not want you to see. The homeless. The insane. The drug users. The drug pushers. And that’s not even mentioning the lads they call les microbes, violent young criminals like their colleagues in the North of the country. They have established a reign of terror in Abobo, another one of Abidjan’s sprawling suburbs. How many of them have been active participants in Côte d’Ivoire’s conflict? Hard to tell but their existence is a major problem, primarily for Ivorians themselves. After all: visitors rarely see beyond the façade; they don’t go there.

Abidjan Plateau, the Façade in all its glory. Picture taken from behind the open air theatre at Treichville, accross the lagoon. The structure in front is the roof of that theatre.

Abidjan Plateau, the Façade in all its glory. Picture taken from behind the open air theatre at Treichville, accross the lagoon. The structure in front is the roof of that theatre.

The pretty façade of Abidjan – that is the picture the current government would like you to retain. This is relatively easy when you get your visa electronically through a company run by one of the president’s business friends, get whisked around the town in a luxury car – I have seen stretch limousines cruise here, the ultimate sign of decadence and stupendous self-indulgence – and sleep in one of the luxury hotels dotted around town.

The leading clan loves its glitz and its glamour. Last March, the Children for Africa Gala Dinner (for the charity of the same name run by Côte d’Ivoire’s First Lady) and the African CEO Forum were star-studded events with celebrities, high profile politicians, captains of industry, diplomats – all present in numbers. A few dead people on the beach, as occurred on March 13, will not change the mood: Chinese, Turkish and increasingly also American and British businesspeople are joining the Ivorians, the French and the Lebanese already there. They all share Abidjan’s absolute obsession with making money. But the powder kegs are there for all to see, of one bothers to look: the deprivation, the corruption, the failed (and some would argue not even attempted) national reconciliation, the failure to punish the criminals on the winning side for crimes committed during the 2010-2011 conflict, the blatant inequality. That façade can easily be smashed up again if these things are not addressed instead of being swept under a thick red carpet for the happy few.

There are many mad guys with giant clubs. There are at least two politicians (one in a jail in The Hague; another in Yamoussoukro and one step away from the presidency) with proven track records of turning random men with clubs into militias, decked out with better kit and something resembling an ideology. Sweeping mad men with clubs up from one place and dumping them in another, as current government policy seems to be, does not make them go away. In all likelihood, they get ever madder. And get bigger clubs.

Lines

December 30, 2015

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It was on the edge of the desert, the last settlement before the journey truly would begin. A sign in Hamid El Ghizlane read: Tombouctou 50 days. That’s history now: the camel routes have been replaced by aeroplanes and FourWheelDrives.

It was early 2015 in Hamid El Ghizlane and bitterly cold. With all my clothes on and buried under three thick blankets, still the bones would wake up freezing. Indeed: like six years previously, at a very similar festival near that other city, 50 days away, I had come woefully ill-prepared. Again.

But there was music. It sent lines across the vast open space between this Moroccan village and that city on the other side. Guitar lines. Bass lines. Vocal lines. Threads of melody, interspersed with hand claps, drums and percussion. We liked it so much that in the cold and pitch-dark night we threw off our jackets and danced.

And danced.

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There were guests. From Europe, from the neighbours, and from Tombouctou, no longer 50 days away. Three years ago, Tombouctou was battered by the twin force of an extended family feud and an empty-headed reading of the religion that has also thrown its lines across the sand. Islam. But instead of feasting their ears on the worshipping chants and marvel at the sight of the sacred tombs, vandals tore through the old culture of the city. It survived. The Festival of the Desert, which is now twinned with the one at Hamid El Ghizlane (or Taragalt, to give it its old name), is still looking for a home.

But still we listened, and we danced.

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I recorded a lot of it. A conversation with Ibrahim, one of the festival directors, spontaneous music outbursts, an interview with some lovely lads from the village, wanting to make it big. Génération Taragalte, they called themselves. They knew their music. They knew their heroes: Tinariwen, from another place in that large space of sand, rock and guitar strings, spinning musical lines thousands of miles long.

50 days. A split-second when a single chord transports you back to the other side of the desert where the Festival of the Desert spun its yarns of peace and understanding and love until some misguided fools shot holes in the fabric.

A group of women were busy putting it all back together in Hamid El Ghizlane/Taragalte. Zeinab and her friends were weaving a Carpet of Peace, made with fabrics brought in from Mali. They asked visitors to come with clothes they no longer wanted, so they could weave that also back into the Carpet before sending it across the Sahara. More lines. I recorded a lot, there, too.

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I lost some of it when my harddisk crashed, months later. Fortunately, we humans have another harddisk, equally faulty but capable of making connections, freely, randomly, dreaming up lines unexpectedly – mostly to ourselves.

And so we have come to the other end of 2015. It’s warm where I am right now. A mere 300 miles from here, 7 hours by bus, is my house. Burkina Faso, a new place, a new home, which I share with someone who is well on her way to becoming a star in her own right. But that’s another story.

Here’s to 2016 then. When more lines will be drawn, more connections made, more music will emerge, more perspectives will be challenged and more surprises will strike for which we, only human, are singularly ill-prepared.

Small matter. It’ll all make sense later.

Office. Ouaga.

Office. Home. Ouaga.

Happy 2016 to you all.

An open space

September 28, 2015

Part 5 – Somebody else’s wars

Three chapters in Making Sense of the Central African Republic deal with what you can call the tail end of the concessionary model, the ultimate consequence. It happens when others, whether or not invited to do so, start using your territory for fighting their wars.

In 2003, Jean-Pierre Bemba, a warlord from neighbouring DR Congo, and his Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo held swathes of northern DRC and adjacent parts of the CAR by crossing the Ubangui River and settling troops there, in part to prop up to soon-to-be-deposed president Ange-Félix Patassé. Bemba is currently on trial for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Committed, not in his native DR Congo (where his movement was the de facto government in the provinces it controlled) but in the CAR. Even international justice appears to use the country as a try-out territory… The interim government has created a Special Criminal Court for the CAR itself but there is no money to pay for it.

Bemba is by no means the only one to have used the CAR as a backstop for his wars. A recent report by the International Crisis Group mentions Baba Laddé, a Chadian rebel who launched a rebel war against president Idriss Déby Itno in 1998 and spent four years (from 2008 to 2012) in the CAR. When he left, he did not take all of his fighters with him. Where are they now?

The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army is another one that used the CAR (the eastern portions this time) as a rear base, a refuge and a place to regroup until the country it finally inherited, South Sudan, got its ill-fated independence in 2011. And then there is this lot:

Since 2009, the originally Uganda-based Lord’s Resistance Army is in the CAR. Its leader Joseph Kony (the subject of an abjectly ill-guided campaign to somehow “grab him” in 2010) is reported to travel freely between northern DRC, eastern CAR and Sudan where his friends are; Khartoum keeps him alive and stocked with supplies. To complete this picture of somebody else’s war, it is not the CAR army that fights the LRA – it’s the Ugandan Armed Forces; teaming up with them are the US Special Forces, about 100 of them.

Seleka, the group that zapped across the CAR in the first three months of 2013, consisted in part of Sudanese and Chadian regular and irregular soldiers/rebels/freelancers and was certainly influenced by the foreign policy agendas of particularly Chad. The CAR is very much Chadian president Déby Itno’s backyard and since Chad is France’s lynchpin in its other operation (Barkhane, against terrorism in the Sahel), Déby can do what he pleases. It explains, in part, the great hostility towards parts of the Muslim population perceived to be either not from the CAR or collaborators of the hated Seleka.

And finally, one can argue that various international players use the country as a laboratory for their operations, whether they are geared towards a fictitious stabilisation, enforcing an unenforceable peace, maintaining a non-existent peace, or all or none of the above. It has, unsurprisingly, rendered people deeply suspicious of what exactly the motives of these foreigners are.

 

An open space

September 18, 2015

Part 2 – Insecurity

 

The bar is a few yards away from the one road that cuts through the centre of this small town. It is full of young men, with little to do but drink, talk (mostly very loudly) and go for a piss. Some have a little swagger and I later understand that this is probably because they were part of the Anti-Balaka militia that swept through this place in 2014, swept aside the Seleka rebels that had inflicted terrible pain on the local population one year previously. The Anti-Balaka chased away the Muslims, burnt their homes, their shops and their mosques, in revenge for the fact that some of them had worked with the foreign-backed Seleka, which also had Chadians and Sudanese among their ranks. But with the Muslims leaving, the commercial class was gone too. So the economy collapsed virtually overnight.

Very few women are out on the street, where a tiny market takes care of basic necessities: some food, petrol smuggled from Cameroon, washing powder in small sachets, water and the ubiquitous mobile phone top-up service. It all makes for a decidedly tense atmosphere. One wrong look, one remark taken the wrong way and there will be violence. Brawls are frequent and there have been deaths in the recent past.

‘He’s been in the war, right?’ I ask a local man who is working as a driver for one of the NGOs here. ‘That’s right,’ he replies. The signs are unmistakable: there’s the swagger, in some more exaggerated than in others. Some still wear the tell-tale bandana around their heads. And then there are the eyes. Blazing eyes that manage to look determined and detached at the same time. Drugs, likely. But also the experience of having dished out and received violence. If there was a higher purpose to their fights it was determined by others. For themselves, the purpose was looting, as defined by the most telling name given to one of those sprees in West Africa: Operation Pay Yourself. Various informants told me that while the larger purposes of these last two gangs (and indeed, a few others have sprung up since) may have been different, the behaviour on the ground was the same.

Mosque and homes destroyed in Bocaranga. Picture by Femke Dekker.

Mosque and homes destroyed in Bocaranga. Picture by Femke Dekker.

‘Yes, they are still among us,’ said one of them, when I asked whether Anti-Balaka were still here. And the reason why they can afford their beers is simple: they steal. Theft is endemic in the areas where they are still in evidence. And if they don’t steal, they rob or they beg. Like Olivier, who had an entire story ready to relate to me on the short trip from Restaurant La Terrasse to the Hotel du Centre, back in Bangui. He said he was paid 250 CFA a day (less than half a euro) to look after parked cars. He said he was sleeping in a single room with many others (he didn’t say how many). He said – and then he took his bandana off – that a wall had fallen in that room because of the rains and a brick had hit him on the head. There was nothing to see. With eyes that asked for pity and were menacing in equal measure, Olivier got what he wanted, without telling me what had really happened to him, in spite of my repeated invitations. He knelt at my feet, for less than two euros. Which was the worst part of it all.

Rampant crime means insecurity, a topic that Making Sense of the Central African Republic deals with extensively. A people that has seen mostly predatory behaviour perpetrated by outsiders, a practice stretching back two centuries, finds solace and shelter in the invisible world. Last year, Catholic missions became refugee camps when another wave of violence hit. 

The churches are full to overflowing, accusations of witchcraft are widespread and very frequently deadly, new charismatic churches set up their business and are flourishing. Where no other authority is available except the one that is traditional and limited in scope and size (such as the village chiefs); where there is no discernible state presence (which is pretty much everywhere outside Bangui) people will find ways and practices that can act as anchors in their lives.

Broken bridge near the community of Koui. Pic: me.

Broken bridge near the community of Koui.
Pic: me.

The absence of the state is acutely felt. Even though its presence has often turned out to be an enormous nuisance, the state is, to all intents and purposes the entity that can do something most others can not: provide the basic services that communities need. Water. Education. Health care. Food assistance if necessary. Security. Decent roads. In the CAR, the state has consistently failed in all of these areas. The book argues – and I agree – that this is the malign imprint on society of the concessionary model that France introduced. More on that in the next installment.

An open space

September 15, 2015

Part 1 – Impressions

Along the Boganda Avenue, the main road in the rather run-down capital Bangui, slightly away from the busy traffic, stands a nondescript three-storey block. It is the Administrative Building, the principal physical manifestation of the government of the Central African Republic, CAR for short. The right half of the building is, well, not exactly missing but you can see right through it. There are no windows, parts of the inner walls are no longer there, the wood that used to be the window frames has ether disappeared or has taken on strange forms. Furniture is strewn everywhere.

This is what the government looks like in an open space in Central Africa, larger than France with anywhere between 4 and 5 million inhabitants. We do not know exactly; the last census was conducted in 2003 and yielded a figure of less than 4 million. Since then, two major crises have chased so many people from their homes, their villages and their neighbourhoods that it is impossible to tell who lives where in what numbers.

The CAR has hardly ever lived in the collective consciousness of the world, except perhaps for the time, now almost 40 years ago, when a former army officer who had fought for the French in Southeast Asia crowned himself Emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa I at a ceremony in 1977 that may have cost as much as US$20m, the entire national budget for that year and then some.

And perhaps some may remember the civil wars that have traversed the country between 2003 and 2013, when any number of armed gangs (the latest incarnations were called Seleka and Anti-Balaka) terrorized the civilian population. In the last such display, which has not ended yet, the world’s mainstream media, using their habitual lazy journalistic shorthand, reduced the conflict to “Muslims” against “Christian”. As usual, it is more complicated than that. But how does one make sense of it all?

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That is the title and the subject of a collection of essays that has just been published by Zed Books, of London. The book is Making Sense of the Central African Republic; its editors are two scholars, Tatiana Carayannis and Louise Lombard. It fills a gap in the knowledge of the English speaking worlds about this unknown and little cared-for chunk of central Africa.

The longest chapter in the book is on the CAR’s history. It explains a lot – without justifying current behaviour, to which we will come later. But the present flows from the past and in order to understand why this country is the way it is, an understanding of history is essential.

Reading through it, you will appreciate the fact that for the past 200 years, if not longer, the area that is now known as the CAR has been the theatre of somebody else’s geopolitical designs. The slave raids of the Arab sultanates of the 19th Century, the French colonial project from the late 19th Century to the late 20th. And after independence, in 1960, the agendas of the neighbours, of which the CAR has six: Chad, Cameroon, The Republic of Congo, the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), South Sudan and Sudan. Reading through the book and travelling through the CAR, you realise that this is not a country, but an open space. It has a flag, a national anthem, a capital and a state, whose authority – as the joke goes – ends at the city limits of the capital and even within those limits it is not always assured. Its borders are fiction, which makes the meddling of others so easy.

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The flag is a powerful depiction of the contradictions that history has given this country. Horizontal white and blue and vertical red are the colours of the former (reluctant) colonizer, France. Horizontal yellow and green and vertical red are the colours of independent Africa. Some say that the colours individually also refer to the neighbours and if that were the case there is one conspicuous by its absence: Sudan. There is also a yellow star at the top left hand corner of the flag. It refers to the freedom and the emancipation of the Black people. Why then, are the Pan-African colours at the bottom half of the flag and the French colours at the top? The constant in all this is the red, superimposed on all the others: the blood of the martyrs. It continues to flow.

Arguably, the two most pernicious legacies that Arab slave hunts and French colonialism left behind are permanent insecurity and the concession system. The French decided to leave the exploitation of the country’s riches (timber, ivory and diamonds principally) to private companies, as the colonial state could not even be bothered to do that herself. The companies squeezed as much out of the country and its people as possible, which led to predictable scenes of extreme exploitation that jolted French public opinion into action in ways perhaps not seen since King Leopold’s excesses in the Congo. In 1910, the CAR became part of French Equatorial Africa, a collection of disparate countries including Gabon, the Republic of Congo and Chad. We will come back to the concession legacy later.

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Ouaga in a hurry

June 17, 2015

In Holland there is a saying, that, roughly – and badly – translated goes like this: ‘That one? Too funny. He’s got the laughs hanging off his arse.’ Or, as the case may be – and it is today – He is a She from Burkina Faso.

Roukiata Ouédraogo’s the name. Grew up in Burkina Faso, left for France, worked in fashion, theatre (combining both for a while) – and film. A while ago I had the great pleasure of seeing her in action, alone on stage at the French Institute (yes, they still have them) in Ouagadougou. The show is called Ouaga pressé, Ouaga in a hurry. First presented in 2012, this is a whirlwind tour – aka the life of a young woman growing up, going to school, getting about, dancing to lots of music and travelling (cue the inevitable and interminable negotiations between African women and any airline about the amount of excess luggage allowed).

Ouédraogo does not need many props, just a few suitcases, a box here and there. The lady is centre stage, in a red robe, draped around her generous physique, which she uses to great effect. After all, is her nickname not Petit Modèle…?

We follow her in the family home with the usual copious amounts of intrigue and backstabbing and then in Paris, where she visits the institution that to a lot of women is what the pub used to be for men: that extra living room when your own is getting too small. We are (of course!) in a salon de coiffure, or hairdressing saloon, where you can spend many hours immersed in gossip and self-indulgence. But then another visitor arrives, clearly not from Chateau Rouge, where – naturally – the saloon is located. Nope. This new client is white.

‘You lost here?’ the owner asks innocently.

Ah, no, the Frenchwoman wants something from the saloon. Which she gets, at a massively inflated price. We all have to live, right?

In another scene Roukiata takes us back to her school days when she manages to escape from home and her strict, education-obsessed father (there always have to be one, right?) and manages to get out on high heels and dressed to the nines, with a girlfriend, on a borrowed “moto”, those ubiquitous small Chinese motorbikes that convert most Burkinabè, gentle-spirited and quite relaxed most of the time, into instant kamikaze pilots.

En route, the two get stopped by the police who want to know who the owner is. Embarrassment follows plus a rather triumphant phonecall from one of the policemen, ready to convert the fine (made up and settled on the spot of course) into an order of two fine cold beers. The two make it to the great occasion on time: the school party.

Pic: artistebf.org

Pic: artistebf.org

On her way back, our young heroine needs a taxi, since Girlfriend has disappeared with a boyfriend and the “moto”. Not easy at this time of night. Taxis are scarce and crammed. One stops. With red robe undulating from one side to the other, Roukiata worms her way past the other passengers on the backseat.

‘Excuse me.’

‘Excuse me. Pardon.’

‘Keep your hands off Africa’s treasures!!’ (or words to that effect)

‘Pardon. Excuse me.’

‘Excuse me.’

Comedy gold.

But it’s not over yet. The driver has taken a liking to her and will bring her “a little black plastic bag”, which means: something to eat, wrapped in, indeed a small black plastic bag. She brushes him off but then has to face going back into the house…

Roukiata Ouédraogo is currently on tour in West Africa. Keep a lookout for Ouaga pressé. Definitely recommended.

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.