Posts Tagged ‘Bram Posthumus’

The Volcano

June 22, 2022
That’s the one, with my lovely hotel Casa Alcindo in the foreground

Seeing the triangular cone looming over the island of Fogo, Cabo Verde on a simple postcard was already impressive. Seeing a bit of it (most was hiding under a thick layer of clouds) for the first time, I was awestruck. Here was this large thing rising from the sea, as I watched it from the ferry that had taken me across a fairly calm Atlantic Ocean from the capital Praia to this island. The point of getting here was walking up that mountain, incidentally the highest peak of all of West Africa. For some of you perhaps underwhelming but for a fellow who grew up in a country that is known the world over for being totally flat 2,829 metres is a lot. I did a bit of mountain walking in the south of Poland and the east of Zimbabwe but that’s the point: it was walking, not climbing let alone mountaineering proper, for which I am totally unfit. My (admittedly totally irrational) fear of heights kicks in on the third floor of a building.

So was I here to prove some point or other? Nope; the idea did not even occur to me until I was well on my way to the top that fine morning of Sunday June 19 and well out of my flatland comfort zone. Mind you, a lot of West Africa (bar Guinea of course and impressive rock formations in Mali among others) is pretty flat, too, or gently undulating savannah.

Fogo is different. First of all, this is an active volcano. Records may have begun at some point in the 17th century and we have a fairly good idea of the bursts of activity this mountain gets into. One occurred between 1769 and 1857, when in the space of less than a century it erupted seven times. Then, for almost an entire century, nothing happened. Until 1951 and that’s the biggie the island remembers all too well, just like the one this century.

To all intents and purposes this volcano has been picking up speed of late, putting less and less time between the last eruption and the next. 44 years between 1951 and 1995 and only 19 between the last one that rumbled on in 2014 and 2015 and destroyed most of Chã das Caldeiras, where I am staying. José Doce, the guide who took me up the mountain, predicts there will be another one in two years’ time. So that’s just 10 years…

The village has been picking up where it was forced to leave off. New buildings have gone up, including the very welcoming Casa Alcindo. The nearby guesthouse that José runs was spared the destruction. “The lava just went around my place,” he says with a bit of mystery. I asked him if he had some kind of a deal with the volcano, since he had already told me about his prediction of the next eruption. He smiled.

José, ahead of me, on the way up

So how did I fare? Was this the half-imagined leisurely walk up the slopes of a bad-tempered fiery mountain? No, not really. The first bit was done at the brisk pace José set, which acquainted me with his style of guiding: gallop ahead (he is from here, knows the mountain inside out and has an excellent condition), then use the time I need to catch up – and sometimes a little more – texting and phoning and on we go.

The path turned into a field of ash that had been dumped at an angle, which meant we had to negotiate it using the well-known zigzag walking route, as we steadily went higher. Of course, your feet zigzagging through volcanic ash close to a ridge means that your job is to stay on the right side of that ridge. If you don’t you will roll a few hundred metres down – not quite to the village where you have come from but enough to sustain some pretty serious damage.

It was just before we got to a rock-strewn path (of sorts) that I realised that this was really very high and that this trek was going to be a trifle more challenging than I had originally thought. It began to interfere somewhat with the ability to appreciate the breathtakingly beautiful landscape around me. And below.

As in, more than just a couple of hundred metres below me. That’s a lot of metres, as José barreled ahead once again, although his inquiries as to whether I was alright increased in frequency. We were now on this steep path, manoeuvering from one rock to another. I was holding on to these rocks as I walked, sort of, in order to ensure that whenever I did put a foot wrong I would not immediately plummet to my death: José was just answering another text message. A legendary Genesis tune popped into my head, Dance On A Volcano, the one that talks about blue and red crosses for your friends that didn’t make it through. It also contains the exhortation to not look back “whatever you do…”. It’s a fantastic piece of music that does little to steady the nerves when you are negotiating rocks on your way up to…

…another ledge. Looking down to the distance already covered and the receding village below was becoming a bit of a hair-raising business. Had I gone quite mad? Or was I being bold and determined? Whatever it was, José’s incessant texting was getting on my nerves but perhaps that’s why he did it in a bid to make me tell him to hurry up because by now I had just one goal in mind: to get to that bloody top up there. We were also above the clouds that were covering the ocean to the right of us. Indeed, the village had started to resemble something you see from an aeroplane. I promised myself that I was really going to admire the landscape once we had got, er, there

Which turned out not to be the summit proper. Right behind me (propped up against a rock and taking this pic) was a sheer rockface, still a good 300 metres or so above where I was. You need ropes and stuff to get there. I decided that this had been quite the climbing session for one day and that descending was now in order. Once the obvious exhilaration (Yes!!! I made it!!! Well, almost…) had cleared and I had managed to make myself a little comfortable as I looked at the ragged rocky landscape surrounding me while clouds started to move in – all pretty awe-inspiring stuff – the question was: OK,  we’re here now. What next?” We go down via the other side,” José announced casually.

Meanwhile another one of the locals who had passed me by on the way up as if he was strolling through a city park – a bit like the young French couple that had also overtaken us – ran down an ashy path back to his village. Not walked, ran. I supposed he’d be equally amazed at the ease with which women cycle around Ouagadougou with a huge bowl of freshly harvested strawberries on their heads and a child on their backs…

And then I looked over the ledge that marked the partition between two portions of this mountain and my heart skipped a beat. I was looking into a frighteningly deep hole. Smoke was rising from the bottom. So that’s where that smell was coming from! I had been imagining someone roasting a chicken for me but no… his was sulphur from the very source. Are we really going there?

“Follow me,” José said. And what followed was a surprisingly easy walk under that sheer rock that marked the volcano’s true summit, at least for now. I had no idea that these fire-breathing things were such complex geological compositions. But hey: I had more or less scrambled my way to the top and I was now going to beat a more dignified retreat, being well aware of the notion that when you put your foot wrong on the way down the risks are potentially even larger than on the way up.

Spoiler alert: I did not die.

We negotiated that ledge, got onto that easy path that was glued to the crater rim (only one small stretch of it had a railing made of metal to hold on to) and continued our descent past natural vents that José pointed out to me. Warm air streamed out of holes and crevices. “The volcano is respiring,” José assured me, as we left the heights behind where the clouds were swirling around the rocks. This is also the moment he told me that the next eruption would take place in 2024. “Remember, you heard it from me first.”

Ash Highway, José is speeding ahead of me

Then came a fun part: Ash Highway. No zig-zag walk this time, or negotiating ledges and all the rest, nope. Just plunge in and go down a vast black slope that has an angle of about 45 degrees. The ash will come up around your ankles and sometimes your lower calves but it will also facilitate your descent. It’s the quick way down and gets you covered in the kind of stuff volcanoes just love throwing out in huge quantities. Ash Highway ended near the crater that had been formed in the 2014 eruption and the closer I got to it the more I became aware of how blooming large this thing was. Certainly, it sits way below the summit on the floor of the oldest crater but it is massive and it just makes you realise how major that last eruption must have been seven and a half years ago.

The rest was relatively uneventful, as we walked (leisurely at last!) through this moon-like landscape, strewn with rocks. I was trying to imagine the extreme violence with which these must have been thrown out as the earth emptied its bowels over the villages in the caldera.

We got back to my lovely little place, José having done his routine trip (“Sometimes I go up and down three times a day…”) and me feeling quite humbled by the experience. Had I gotten rid of my fear of heights? Maybe I had just learned to deal with it slightly better. Although………

Back in the hotel, I heard from two other visitors that there was, in fact, a challenge that made the volcano look like that walk in the park. Turns out you can actually scale the outer crater rim and get to the second highest peak that is part of that rim, at a mere 2,692 metres. This includes 600 metres of almost vertical rockface. You have metal hooks and ropes to help you climb up. Once at the top you have a fairly conventional path all the way down to the road. “It’s really easy once you are there,” one of the visitors told me. “Of course, if you make one mistake you are dead.”

Quite.

Like the two I had seen walking up the volcano earlier this morning they had also been able to practice in their home country, Spain. Yes, you have serious mountains there, like this one here. Not fair.

José. Born here, working here as a guide. Runs a guest house too.

I’ll keep a safe distance from that outer rim, then. I am already pretty pleased with myself for having done the mountain and do not really have the ambition to push the envelope that much further. Or maybe…?

Naah. I’ll enjoy the pictures, including the ones I could not stop making, even when perched precariously (or so I thought) on a rocky outcrop. Because it is stunningly beautiful here.

The 75 dollar racket

February 4, 2022

The former temporary Arrivals building at Robertsfield International Airport is now a Covid 19 test centre. Every arriving passenger is required to go through a test before being allowed onto the next stage in the gauntlet Liberia’s principal airport tends to throw at you, even though those responsible for said gauntlet are generally very relaxed and very nice about it. They also plan the procession well.

So once you have been let out of the aircraft, you are not directed to the brand new Arrivals building (now fully operational) but herded into that temporary terminal, which may once have been used exclusively by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. From the early 1990s to 2019 the “KLM building” served as the Arrivals terminal, while the government was constructing – from scratch – a brand new one. The original hall was comprehensively destroyed during the wars that laid waste to this place between Christmas Eve 1989 and the summer of 2003.

Now, once you’ve been herded in you find yourself in a room where there are nice people sitting behind glass panes asking you for your passport details. If they don’t find what they are looking for you will be directed to another nice person who will take those details. This keeps you and nice person busy for the next 10 minutes. You then go back to the first nice person behind the window pane where your picture will be taken, biometrically. Congratulations, you have now been registered into the Government Of Liberia Covid Response Action and you may proceed.

To the next room. (I still cannot quite fathom how the airport authorities once managed to cram so many rooms into this relatively modest building; the new Arrivals building literally dwarfs it. Anyway.) Here, you are made to stand in a line – you do quite a lot of that on arrival here – before an open counter where a very nice and pleasant young man will ask you to part with seventy-five dollars for the privilege of having a Covid 19 test taken.

That’s right. 75 bucks. This is a clear and present violation of an agreement reached in January last year by ECOWAS ministers, who told the world (see article 16 of the linked communiqué) that in their member states the cost of a Covid 19 test should not exceed 50 dollars. So, against the wishes of an organisation that counts this country among its member states, Liberia has decided to rip off the travelling public to the tune of 20 dollars. Yes, I paid about the same late 2020 back in Abidjan, an altogether more pleasant affair, but that was weeks before this price control measure was announced.

I am now led past the counters while cracking jokes about getting my money back with the pleasant smiling young man who’s just taken a chunk of my travel budget. A left turn and I reach the entrance of another room. Here, passengers are made to wait in a relatively short line before being sent into…yet another room. (I knew you knew.)

Welcome to the heart of this operation. The Covid 19 Testing Place.

Five not terribly discreet cubicles have been created here and I am requested to direct myself to number 5, where another nice young man, having taken possession of my passport, is preparing his swab, readying it for the short journey up my nose. Left and right. It’s getting routine by now but it remains unpleasant. After all, I had one similar to this taken prior to departure at the princely sum of 69 euros.

KER-CHING!!!!

I have clearly missed a trick here, which I tell the pleasant young man who is busy packing my swab into a small transparent tube whilst training his eyes and then one of his fingers (as soon as his hands are free) to a single five dollar note atop a small pile of scraps on his desk whilst pronouncing his desire to get rich too.

I pretend not to have taken the hint and prepare to leave when it dawns on me that a) he is still holding my passport b) five euros – I have no dollars – is a small price to pay for getting it back and c) this very pleasant team could in all probability and very easily change my test results and then demand a far heftier payment to have it changed back to what it was when I had mine done 35 hours earlier.

Getting the increasingly uncomfortable feeling that I’m being had, I proceed to yet another room a section of the same room opposite the heart of Operation Rip Off Passengers, to wait for my receipt and the result. From behind the counter, more very pleasant young men shout the names of their victims much in the same way the police at borders crossings in this region shout your name in order for you to have your processed passport back.

Oh yes, passport! Must not forget this.

Names get called, people saunter up to one of the counters and leave with their expensive trophies. They then form another short line (the last one!) before a table. Behind that table sits a unexpectedly earnest man who is concentrating very hard on doing vague things to your papers and receipts and then encircles the planet’s new magic word for 2022: “negative”. Have we really come to this…?

Welcome to president George Weah’s Liberia. Bring cash. Lots of it. You will need it. As does he. And his staff. Of whom there are many.

Mali: the death of 1991

August 19, 2020

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) is gone. And Mali will be none the better for it. Parallels with the exact same event, in March 2012 will inevitably be drawn. Yes, some things are the same: working conditions and pay of the soldiers supposed to fight Mali’s asymmetrical wars were terrible – they still are. Corruption and poor morale permeated the Army in 2012; they still do.

Other things were also present in 2012 and have become considerably worse. Insecurity, previously mostly a problem of the North, has spread to the centre and is now threatening Bamako. Is it the jihadists? Well, that’s what the Islam-obsessed West wants to believe. But truth be told, jihad is either a poor disguise or an ideological fig leaf for mostly criminal activity, born out of a complete lack of any perspective, thanks to the now ousted government and the ones that preceded it. Will this coup make these things better? No, it will not.

Corruption stalked the land in 2012 and still does. The roads in Bamako have fallen apart during this last rainy season because they are not maintained. Why are they not maintained? Because the money that is supposed to go into this rather crucial repair work disappears. This country relies on donor money for just about everything and the fact that we are living with terrible roads, appalling electricity delivery, grotesquely bad drinking water services, dreadful education and dire health care is testimony to the fact that the donor money earmarked for this work never arrives where it should. We send the money and close our eyes. Will this coup make that problem go away? No, it will not.

So we have spreading insecurity, corruption and the absolute point blank refusal to deliver basic services to the population. Anything left, then? Oh yes, religion has risen, as I have argued in various places. The opposition movement that was clamouring for IBK’s departure has in imam Mahmoud Dicko the leader that fills the gargantuan hole where a government should be. And more than anything, that hole is moral. Will this coup address that moral deficit? No, to all intents and purposes the ones who organised this chain of events are very much part of the problem.

1991 ushered in an era of democracy, we are told. The popular uprising + coup that put an end to the repressive reign of General Moussa Traoré was most decidedly welcome. But democracy is not the same as ‘doing whatever the hell I want’…and that’s what we have seen Mali’s new elites do and that behaviour has been extensively copied.

At the heart of Mali’s problems lies the absence of moral leadership that should have come from Generation 1991, of which IBK was a part from the very beginning. But there are no ideals, no agenda, no moral leadership…just greed and money. Yesterday’s coup has laid to rest three decades of increasing moral bankruptcy. Will it invent some moral leadership? Posing the question is answering it.

IBK’s government was besieged by three different contesting groups. One, the M5 Movement, did not know what it wanted. I know this because I asked them: “OK, you want IBK gone. Fine. Then…what?” To which came this shocking answer: “Oh, we don’t know. It’s all in the hands of God.” Well sorry folks, but that just will not do for a country of 22 million souls, some of whom are looking at you for guidance.

The second, the Army, has solved whatever issues it had with the government by removing it. This was about pay and positions. The head of the Presidential Guard was fired on the eve of the coup and you can bet your last euro that he wasn’t too damn well pleased with that… He also has friends in Kati, from where this coup came, just like the one in 2012. The soldiers have no truck with a political opposition and religion is something between you and Allah.

However…imam Dicko and his entourage see things very differently. They are the only ones who actually have a plan for Mali, which is to turn it into a Sharia state. To be sure, this is an idea that appeals to conservative tendencies present among the majority. But I am not convinced that said majority fully support Dicko’s desired flight backwards into history, before the hated French colonisers were here with their lay republic and their laws and their institutions, none of which are relevant to Malians and their lived daily experience.

After all, Islam is imported, too. And the kind of Islam Dicko wishes to impose on 22 million Malians is not the kind of Islam they aspire to, no matter how conservative they are. Because people also like their music (live, if you please), their drinks (in the privacy of the drinking dens) and their sex (in the privacy of the backrooms behind the aforementioned dens), all of which will be illegal once Sharia law is introduced.

So now you see: none of these agendas run parallel. We had the government and its plan for self-enrichment and lip-service to development, the Army and its nefarious networks and interests, the clueless political opposition and a bunch of adroit political Islamist operators… And then we have the interests of the outside world. ECOWAS has already cut Mali off, like they did in 2012. “We don’t endorse coups,” has been their message to Mali, consistently. The African Union, European Union, UN and the rest of the ‘international community’ will engage in its favourite pastime, prolonged handwringing, and do very little if anything at all. The plethora of military missions will not now be augmented by yet another futile attempt (the European Operation Takuba) and the rest is likely to wind down sooner (Barkhane) or later (MINUSMA).

Post coup, Mali finds itself on its own, borders closed, isolated and alone. Friends will turn their backs until ‘constitutional order’ is restored. In some circles, France will continue to be blamed for everything, which conveniently ensures that the proponents of this noise do not have to reflect on their own responsibilities in all this.

Unless, and only unless…the military finds itself ushered into a position of mediator between what is left of the State and the various insurgencies – and takes this role seriously, only then we just may get somewhere. But for now, we’re in an even greater mess than before.

Malians would be right to think: thanks for nothing, everyone.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 6, 2020

Part one – hand gel.

 

We were late.

While most of the rest of the continent already had been affected, the number of cases in Mali remained stubbornly at zero.

But on March 25, finally, the news came: we have two suspected cases, more to follow. That same day, a run started on…no, not toilet paper, of course. Malians went after a much more useful product: alcohol-based hand gel. When I went out the next day I visited more than half a dozen chemists – one of the former French colonists’ leftovers is a chemist density to match that of Paris – with the following almost identical ritual.

Get off and park bicycle.

Move towards the now ubiquitous water reservoirs that had appeared out of nowhere in front of every chemist, bank, office block, supermarket, and wash hands.

Enter the premises.

Washing hands again, with that hand geld I was hoping to get my…er…hands on.

Being told, always with a smile, that no, sorry, we’ve run out. Désolé…

In one instance even being waved off, ever so friendly, before I asked…

All this in the baking heat because we have not only been officially admitted to Coronaland, we are also in the midst of the annual heatwave, which seems to be more extreme than ever before. It’s a bloody oven out there. 43 at least, cooling to mid-to-high twenties at night. And apart from the faintest of drizzles (normally known here as “the mango rains”) nothing happened.

Nope. Nothing happened.

Well, ok, I got one tiny plastic container with some hand gel like substance that looked suspiciously more like perfume than anything else but hey – if it does the job… In fairness, I must add that there were no frantic scenes of people in near-hysterics buying every toilet roll in sight and there was literally no sign of any panic buying. Just that gel, was all.

Covered in a fine layer of sweat and in great need of some bottled/canned liquid (orange juice, preferably) I finally arrived at the neighbourhood supermarket. And boy, are those sloping streets a pain in the neck with a merciless sun hammering you as you pedal along while taxis and the ubiquitous green Sotrama minibuses whizz past you while you try to remain steady and straight as you are forced into the thick layer of sand next to the tarred road…………

Lo and behold! The supermarket – water reservoir and soap parked outside and could you please wash your hands…? – sold more of the same sort-a-like hand gel thingies I had picked up earlier. But the next day they had found extra supplies from somewhere. In fact, it was a locally produced hand gel, which they proceeded to sell at the extortionate price of CFA8,000. That’s more than 12 euros. You will not find many Malians having so much money freely lying round somewhere. On the other hand, this is a nation of traders. And if you have the chance, do not ever let a good crisis go to waste… Now, do we need those face masks or not?

 

To be continued.

Robert Mugabe: compassionate, violent, retired

November 22, 2017

I never met ex-president Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. But there was one occasion, an extremely tragic one, when we came within touching distance of each other.

He had come to visit the school where I was working as an English teacher. To be sure, the entourage was impressive: helicopter, convoy, security everywhere. But he was humble and clearly touched, as he went from parent to parent, holding their hands, looking into their eyes, sharing their grief. The parents, poor farmers from villages close to the school, had lost many of their children just a few months earlier in Zimbabwe’s worst bus accident, on August 3, 1991. Some families had buried two, even three of their loved ones, young talent they had pinned their hopes on; young talent we had been teaching.

I was impressed with his humanity. After all, he must have known what they felt. Robert Mugabe lost his son while in a Rhodesian prison in the 1960s. The white minority regime at the time did not give him permission to attend the funeral. I’ll let that speak for itself.

Compassion. It is a side of Zimbabwe’s former president that is not frequently shed light on. It is a side he showed at Regina Coeli Secondary School and it was a side known to the late Heidi Holland, who wrote Dinner With Mugabe, based on her encounters and interviews with him, his family and associates. She recalled how he had stopped at her house. ‘He was supposed to catch a train and after dinner I drove him to the station, leaving my baby at home alone because there wasn’t time to bundle him into the car. I was driving very fast, being rather anxious. The next day he rang me from a public callbox, asking me whether my baby was alright.’

(Photo credit: JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images). Montage, as I understand it, made by Zambia Observer

Manicaland, Zimbabwe’s breathtakingly beautiful eastern mountain province, looms large in the country’s liberation struggle from white minority rule. Mugabe transited Manicaland as he left Rhodesia for newly-independent Mozambique, with the help of Chief Rekayi Tangwena, a legendary local leader in a place not far from Regina Coeli. Once in Mozambique, he joined the group leading the struggle for Zimbabwe, which ended in 1980. Mutare, the provincial capital, is where he caught his train. And as I was teaching there, many were able to point towards the mountains and caves where they hid during the long, dangerous and bloody liberation struggle – the same places where some of the surviving children found refuge after the bus accident.

‘It was not him who joined the struggle,’ Holland told me looking back on Mugabe’s political career, ‘the struggle found him. If left to his own devices, he would have become a headmaster, very prim and proper. He cared about education.’ Indeed: stories about his early years in State House tell us that after work in office he would gather the house staff and run classes with them.

The struggle found him because in spite of his humble beginnings he was well-educated and well-travelled, having worked in Ghana where he met his first wife Sally Hayfron. She supported him all the way through: from his return to Rhodesia, his imprisonment of more than ten years, the armed struggle and then finally to their triumphant arrival at State House, when his party had beaten all the odds and won a resounding victory.

Mutare. My former shopping centre. Photo from Wikipedia.

‘Why do you put the picture of this guy on the wall? It’s never there.’

‘Don’t worry about it. Once the election is over I’ll remove it again. I just don’t want my house smashed up because his picture is not on our wall.’

Family scene in Mutare, early 1980s. The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front deployed vigilante groups throughout the land whenever there was an election and punished anyone who did not demonstrate enough enthusiasm in support of the party and its leader. A few hundred kilometres to the southwest of Mutare, in Matabeleland, the army’s notorious North Korea-trained Five Brigade was on a coordinated killing spree that left up to 20,000 people dead. Their crime: being close to what was considered an armed uprising against the government. It was a confrontation that was fuelled by the deep personal rivalry between Mugabe and the late Joshua Nkomo, who had led another liberation movement with a different ideological orientation. There were South African machinations behind it, as the apartheid state was destabilising all of its neighbours, through proxies, terrorist attacks and in open warfare until their 1988 defeat at Cuito Canavale in Angola put an end to its army operations abroad.

There was certainly trouble in Matabeleland but the government’s response was of a cruelty that scarred the province forever and strained relations with Harare. The name given to the mass murders was “Gukurahundi”, which translates as “the first rains that wash away the dust and the dirt”. It would not be the last time that Mugabe’s government would refer to people as garbage to be removed. “Operation Cleanup” was supposed to rid Harare’s streets of prostitutes. “Murambatsvina” was an electoral operation that physically removed hundreds of thousands of people from their (often makeshift) dwellings, preventing them from voting in their constituencies and thus handing the party and its leader another victory. In rural Zimbabwe, self-appointed war veterans terrorised the people into what was termed “voting correctly”. During another election-related wave of violence (this time in 2008, a particularly brutal episode), schools, once the pride and joy of the country, were turned into torture centres. And yes, sometimes I wonder what happened to the classrooms where I worked all those years ago.

Months after the president had left Regina Coeli, my school, news emerged that a quarter of a million euros, spontaneously collected by the ordinary women and men of Zimbabwe to help the grieving parents overcome their loss, had gone missing. The ruling party had stolen it. The rot had set in early and nothing was done to stop it. In fact, when war veterans rampaged through the party’s headquarters in 1997, smashing the furniture and eating the food in its well-stocked canteen, the party mouthpiece The Herald screamed “Hooligans” from its front page. The war veterans had enough of starving to death in the rural areas while fat cats high up in the party hierarchy grew even fatter on the backs of other people’s labour. That, in fact, was the origin of the movement. It was hi-jacked by political opportunists like the late Chenjerai ‘Hitler’ Hunzvi, who forced Mugabe into a terrible deal. Here’s Heidi Holland once more.

‘Dennis Norman, a former minister with whom Mugabe got on very well, was close to the negotiations. He describes how Mugabe attended with two other ministers and then was told by the war vets that he must attend by himself. And rather uncharacteristically, he (Mugabe) agreed to this.’ Alone, the war vets arm-twisted the president into a deal he probably knew the country could not afford. After all, he had just sent thousands of troops into the DR Congo to prop up his friend Joseph Kabila and now he was to hand over truckloads of Zimbabwe dollars to tens of thousands of former freedom fighters he and his cronies had neglected. All the deal did was to inflict more damage on Zimbabwe’s already faltering economy. The ill-conceived and even worse executed “land reform” policy of the early 2000s provided more blows. There are optimists who think that the basics are still there and the economy can be turned around but the task will be immense.

And so, in 2017, twenty years after war veterans exposed his political vulnerability, Robert Mugabe finally gets what he has wanted for two decades: an escape from party politics. It was the army that kept him in power, it was Zimbabwe’s highly coordinated military – intelligence – police – prisons complex, inherited from the illegal Rhodesian white minority regime, that ensured he won election after election. And now that he has rubbed them the wrong way, intentionally perhaps, they have dropped him in favour of Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s equally violent enforcer and eternal Number Two. The head is gone, the system that he built, because and in spite of himself, remains in all its rotten glory. Mugabe may have smiled his wry smile, as he heard the traitorous and treacherous hypocrites in the Politbureau and Parliament rapturously applaud his departure.

The man who spent the last twenty years of his reign being a consummate political survivor, has thrown his last roll of the dice. He will retire, not to Kutama, the village where he spent part of his traumatic youth – he lost his elder brother there after an accident with agricultural poison – but in all likelihood to a carefully guarded mansion, maybe in the same leafy Gun Hill area in Harare where he kept his old friend, Mengistu Haile Mariam, a more prolific murderer than he ever was, for 26 years. An intensely private man with a complex and turbulent past, a messy love life and a deeply ambivalent attitude towards power and politics, will now have the time to ponder what he has done to his country, the excellent, the good, the bad, the terrible and for some, undoubtedly, the unforgiveable. ‘A shame that he had to leave through the backdoor,’ Guinean president Alpha Condé commented shortly after Mugabe’s last-minute resignation. True perhaps, but it was Mugabe who made it so, just as he did throughout his long years at the helm. He should have stuck to education.

The Façade – Part 3

May 18, 2016

Abidjan, Plateau, from behind the green tinted windows of the entirely refurbished Africa Development Bank headquarters. The white structure in the middle belongs to the St. Paul's Cathedral, built in the first half of the 1980s.

Abidjan, Plateau, from behind the green tinted windows of the entirely refurbished Africa Development Bank headquarters. The white structure in the middle belongs to the St. Paul’s Cathedral, built in the first half of the 1980s.

 

Between 2002 and 2011 the North of Côte d’Ivoire was the playground of a group that grandiosely called itself Forces nouvelles (Fn). Their political leader at the time was Guillaume Soro, a young and extremely wily political operator who in perfect tandem with his old brother friend and now enemy Charles Blé Goudé turned the country’s student union (known as FESCI) into a violent militia and went on to expand this model across the rest of the country.

When Fn ran the North it had a single business model: loot. Nobody made his own money doing something productive. The region was carved out into zones, over which presided military commanders. They became known as com’zones. When I visited the area in early 2010, with photographer Martin Waalboer, we got our first glimpse of the Fn when they, cap in hand, walked through the train we were travelling on, asking for money. The second impression was that of Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire’s second city, largely lifeless, half boarded-up and in possession of a non-functioning economy. It did yield a ridiculously cheap rented car, though.

The third impression was that of arrogant indifference among the ground troops about the presence of two foreign journalists in their main fief, only matched by the indignant paranoia of their media chief who we finally got on the phone with the assistance of some local United Nations staff and who only wanted to know how long we had been there. Wise enough, we had decided not to do any work until the Fn chief of the media had barked a few orders down his mobile phone, whereupon our Fn media accreditation appeared pronto from a room at their Bouaké headquarters. Matters were, of course, not helped by the fact that we showed up shortly after another bout of violent rioting, which had rattled the leadership.

The fourth impression was that of fleecing. Anybody unlucky enough to have to live, work or travel in the areas the Fn controlled had their pockets picked. Sure enough, the chaps manning the roadblock on leaving Bouaké were in a good mood (and in stitches when, after passing the roadblock, we returned a few minutes later to tell them we had forgotten to buy petrol) – but pay them we did. As did everybody else. And the fifth impression was the desolate stagnation in which the entire region found itself, nowhere clearer than in another major town, Katiola, where the holes in the road were bigger than a regiment of SUVs and the public buildings appeared to be in varying states of decay. A strange state of affairs for a movement that claimed to have taken over this part of the country because it felt the “Northerners” had been systematically marginalised. If anything, the infrastructure that had been put in place in the first few decades of the country’s independence was decaying fast under their writ.

Between Blé Goudé and Soro, the latter has turned out (so far) the smartest operator. He is currently the president of the country’s Parliament while Blé Goudé, a key ally of former president Laurent Gbagbo, sits in a jail in Scheveningen awaiting the continuation of his trial at the International Criminal Court, for  alleged human rights abuses. Soro, meanwhile, could be heading for the highest post in the land, as early as 2020.

He is also the king of the next place we pass on our trip: Ferkessédougou. This town is doing rather nicely for itself thanks to the generous patronage from their illustrious son who has, according to reports, already had a conference centre set up with his name on it. No doubt he has helped himself to some nice real estate in the process. But at least in “Ferké” as the place is commonly known, there is some evidence of the reversal of the calamitous damage the Fn and its com’zones have caused in the region.

 

But what’s worse – they’re still around. Part 4 shortly.

 

Lines

December 30, 2015

IMG_0953

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.

IMG_1091

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.

IMG_1090

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.

IMG_0970

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.

A perceptive 2015

December 26, 2014

het spookbos

One afternoon last May, I took this picture from the veranda of the charming hotel I was staying in Joal-Fadiouth, a few hour’s south of my former home, Dakar.

Looking at it on my laptop a few weeks later I was astonished. Surely, those trees were not there?

Evidently, they were. My memory was playing tricks or – more probably – I had not been watching properly. I toyed with the idea of calling the image “The Phantom Forest” but that wold be unjust to the baobab trees who have been there for centuries. (Not that they’d care much…)

And now I am in Ouagadougou, where a lot has been happening recently as the rest of the world was busing looking elsewhere – or couldn’t be bothered to look – or was in fact watching things but chose to ignore what was happening in front of its nose.

Reality, like those trees, does not care. My job is in essence to look, to look again, to look harder and then ask the inevitable question: ‘Have I missed anything?’

The answer is equally inevitable: ‘Yes, you most probably have.’

Here’s to a perceptive 2015.

White Saviours (part 1,753,535 and counting…)

December 22, 2014

Picture the scene. I am walking down the street as a young boy shoots out from between a few parked luxury cars. He looks at me, puts his thumb index and middle fingers together in a gesture that suggests eating and brings them to his mouth. To make sure that there is no equivocation.

He wants to eat. And he’s just found the perfect individual to pay for that: a lone white man walking down the street with a rucksack. The target is correct, has always been correct.

A couple of things happen here, in this little scene on a street in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. First, it confirms my worst fears about dependency syndrome. This country has been infested with denizens from the aid industry for decade after depressing decade. Not only has it achieved depressingly little, it has inculcated in many minds that wherever white people are around there is free money available and this in spite of the fact that the aid industry has gone truly global with India, Brazil, South Africa, Japan, China, The Middle East and Angola joining in.

The principal business of the aid industry is spending money without a great deal of reflection on purpose and usefulness. The fact that it has also spawned a gigantic Monitoring and Evaluation business merely serves to illustrate the point. What this boy did was making an extremely rapid appraisal of what purpose the presence of an unknown but white stranger could serve for him. It is dependency syndrome writ large.

And it was ever thus. Colonial times arrived in these savannas in the form of the French Army and was swiftly followed by cultural repression, forced labour, commercial agriculture and of course the civilizing mission. After Independence, it merely changed mantle, creating a combination that I consider in fact even more pernicious. Colonialism and its attendant misery was something you could fight. But what on earth do you do with a development industry that carries a similar civilizing mission, consisting of benign condescension and colossal amounts of free and fungible money? How the hell do you fight that?

By Arlene Wandera, Dakar Biënnale 2014. Photo: me.

By Arlene Wandera, Dakar Biënnale 2014. Photo: me.

Aid was one of the pillars under the just-deposed regime of Blaise Compaoré and his clan. Whites played no part in this country’s self-liberation even though I have already seen claims that aid was a factor, admittedly tiny though, in advancing the revolution in Burkina Faso. These claims should be dismissed as the preposterous cant that they are.

Back to that street scene because there is something else happening here. The cars that hid the boy from my view until he came out and claimed money for his stomach, were all locally purchased. And expensive: big 4WDs of the kind that I will most certainly never own. Cycling remains my preferred way of moving around Ouagadougou, in part because I can afford it. Would it ever occur to this boy that the Africans who drive these luxury cars are all, to a man and a woman, an order of magnitude richer than I am?

I cannot tell. Our exchange was over in seconds. Perhaps he has been told by the owners of these luxury cars that he can get stuffed. But let us, for the sake of the argument, say that this idea would never enter his head – and I think this is plausible. What does this tell us about the mindset of a nation that has been aid dependent for five depressing decades at the very least? It means that the poor, like this boy, have simply given up on getting a better life through their own endeavours or the actions of their fellow citizens. Saviours can only be White. I cannot think of anything more pernicious: a nominally sovereign nation lives by the notion that it’s only The Outside that can save it. The Outside gives money, you can attempt to go there and you will have to forget that it was the same Outside that kept a kleptocratic regime in its place for 27 years. It is utterly debilitating.

In Bissau. By Amilcar Cabral. Pic: me.

In Bissau. By Amilcar Cabral. Pic: me.

Still, the revolution arrived late October this year and it was broadcast live, on radio. I hope it will go on to achieve other things, chief among them the realisation that there is dignity to be had from relying on your own resources, brains, energy, intellect, economic power…in short, the death of the idea that (White) Outsiders can solve your problems. Once again: no whites were involved in this revolution, if anything they have stood squarely in its way. And who knows, a couple of years down the road, following the installation of a government that serves the people rather than itself and a few connected local and international friends, I can tell that boy where to find the government agency that helps people like him, who have fallen through the cracks. And what bliss if I can do that while walking down a street free of logo-bedecked luxury vehicles on their way to donor meetings, workshops, training sessions and other talking shops. Burkina Faso would look so much healthier as a result.

Well yes, I know, the IMF, the world’s schoolmarm of budget discipline has already rolled into town with yet another soon-to-be-forgotten bureaucrat lecturing the transitional government. The rest will doubtlessly follow: the UN alphabet soup, EU, the Dutch, the Brits, the Swedes and so on and so forth. Can I just dream for half a day before I get thoroughly depressed again?

The hunt

February 8, 2014

‘Aaaarghhhhhh!’

There is nothing more annoying than waking up in the morning and having to go hunting for a missing item that is essential in creating one of life’s basic necessities. But here I was and there it was not. Nothing for it but put on shoes, presentable trousers, ditto shirt and hit the street.

8am This was going to be easy. The first shop just across the road has it. Always does. Except that it did not. Hm. Where next? Ha! I know a neat little supermarket down the road, turn right and

BEEP BEEP BEEP

No I don’t need a taxi, as you can very clearly see, you nut you.

8h15am Lovely supermarket. Really nice place. Neat rows. Well instead of wandering around admiring the neat rows full of stuff I don’t need (unlike some people, I do not treat supermarkets as art galleries or de facto museums), I’ll go and ask that very nice lady who is wearing a supermarket uniform. ‘Have you got…’

‘Sorry, no we haven’t seen that item here for…Asha how long haven’t we seen this for…?’ Anyway. Out the door and

BEEP BEEP BEEP

Hello? You don’t have to advertise services I am not interested in, you case you. Honesty obliges: the audio assault by taxi drivers from behind their wheels has diminished somewhat. It appears word has gotten around that the toubabs (those sun-challenged Europeans) don’t like being barked at while walking innocently along the street. I know many Dakarois share my massive irritation but are, as usual, way too polite to do anything about it.

Anyway. I am outside that very nice supermarket and it’s 8h25. Where next? Short of hitting downtown Dakar, which really is ridiculous considering how easy this thing was available only last month, there are two more places to go.

So off we go. On foot.

8h45 ‘Salaam aleikoum’

‘Maleikoum Salaam’

This is the small overstuffed but very friendly neighborhood super. Greetings are in order.

‘How is everything?’

‘We thank God.’

‘Do you have…’

Yes, he does. It’s right there on the shelf. Except that…it’s the wrong size. Quick. A plan, please. If I just walk from here to the Hypermarket (yes, we have those too), that’s a mere 20 more minutes – but wait a minute. Can I really be from home for so long without inviting unwelcome guests? Ever since a laundry list of stuff was taken from my flat last year I never leave without the essentials on my person. Turn back. Go home. Get bag. Load up all work-related items and I am on my rather less merry way to aforementioned Hypermarket.

9h25 Arrival. The guards by now know that no-one, and that means absolutely no-one comes between me and my gear and I rush to the shelf where much-needed item is surely waiting for me. It is. I thought. It’s not.

Wrong size.

So the plan goes into operation. I return to the neighbourhood super that I’d rather give my business to (9h50), grab two packets from the shelf and think: scissors. Scissors? Yes, scissors. Back home (10am). Open up packet. Grab scissors. Cut into the first paper and right-size it. Two hours and eight minutes later I finally have achieved the incredible.

Well, yes, I forgot putting the scissors in the picture.

Well, yes, I forgot putting the scissors in the picture.

Inexplicably, Yoff had run out of coffee filters size 4. The very next day I went back to the same little supermarket to get some cheese and of course, out of nowhere, they had re-appeared. Never mind. BEEP. No thanks. I’ll walk.