Posts Tagged ‘Bram Posthumus’

Four Easy Pieces – end

December 25, 2012

If you look for a divide between “left” and “right” today, you may find that those who think they are on the left say: we need special treatment because we have been victims in the past. Those who call themselves right wing say: we are being discriminated against now and nobody cares about us. Quite apart from the merits or demerits of the arguments, the omnipresence of the word victim is a devastating indicator. “Left” and “right”, “progressive” and “conservative”: all inhabit a society that has no interest in justice. Western society, deeply narcissistic, is looking for therapy.

However, no matter how nicely you dress it up, exclusion continues to rest on external features: chiefly – but not exclusively – skin and sex. Sure, the “progressives” will protest: but but but…we’re only against those who have all the power and are benefitting from unearned “privilege”. And yes, the “conservatives” wail: but but but… we’re only against those who really don’t want to belong here. Both arguments were used, to great effect, in the 1930s. The difference between them? Simple: the clearly delineated segments of society that were singled out for exclusion – or worse. Changing the target population does not signal progress. It signals the exact opposite.

However, it is especially distasteful when done for an alleged “progressive” cause. I found this assessment of the New Labour government on a British newspaper discussion site. I will let it speak for itself: ‘New Labour [was] a reactionary pro-market, oppressive, and even murderous, government which… managed to conserve the appearance of being progressive for many years by using the false veneer of identity politics… Many of us hate the way identity politics has been used to actually replace social justice.’

There is a word underpinning this sentiment: betrayal. While you were managing your supposedly progressive identity sweepstakes, you betrayed the original ideals of the progressive movement. And the results are in: today, the part of the world we call The West consists of a series of balkanized surveillance states where up to 20 per cent of the population has been cruelly written out of the script: uneducated, unemployable, a permanent underclass. Unrestrained commerce rules supreme, even after the monumental banking cock-up of 2008. Congratulations comrades! You were going to fight resurgent fascism – how, exactly?

What you need is a rigorous return to basics. This means the following: you are a member of a community, a society first. You are male, female, black, white, gay, lesbian, migrant, religious, atheist, et cetera second.

It is past time for the Left to rediscover why it was created in the first place: to bring about a more egalitarian society for all. Here is a clue, a paraphrase of that famous James Carville slogan that sums up four lost decades and which the Left needs to re-appropriate: ‘It’s the society, stupid!’ And once again, that means all of it – not just the part that looks and thinks like you.

New Dawn anyone? Let us hope so. All the best for 2013.

After a night's work: dawn. April 14, 2011, 6am, Nzérékoré, Guinea

After a night’s work: dawn. April 14, 2011, 6am, Nzérékoré, Guinea

 

Four Easy Pieces – 3

December 24, 2012

Early evening, October 4th, 1992. It’s five months after my return from Zimbabwe. Resettlement is not proceeding well. But this evening, all private musings become irrelevant background.

There is a massive accumulation of noise. Sirens, hundreds of them. Police, ambulances, fire brigades.All hurry to a place where apparently something absolutely massive has happened. And so it has. A cargo plane belonging to the Israeli airline El Al has lost two engines, made a last attempt to return to Schiphol Airport and has plummeted to the earth, smashing through a ten storeys high apartment block in Amsterdam’s Southeastern Bijlmer district. Fire, death and destruction. The Bijlmer Disaster, as it became known, leaves 43 people dead – probably more.

The Bijlmer is an area planned and designed in the 1960s to provide modern comfortable housing to city dwellers. It was spectacularly unsuccessful. After all, when left to its own devices, an ideology that seeks to uplift an entire society eventually gets to suffer from hubris. Of this Amsterdam social democratic hubris, the Bijlmer remains a powerful symbol.

The area stood largely empty for years. In the 1970s, it became home to many thousands of Surinamese, who were leaving their newly independent country en masse. It is at least ironic that the Independence of the sole existing Dutch colony on the Latin American mainland had been ordained, post haste, by the most progressive cabinet in Dutch history. And then, in one of those inexplicable historical twists, the Surinamese were joined by the descendants of some of their forebears, whom the Dutch had forcibly moved to Latin America, as slaves, mainly from Ghana. The Bijlmer became the destination of choice for African migrants, with papers or without. At the time of the crash, no-one knew for sure how many people were inside that stricken apartment block.

A few days later, the right-wing national daily De Telegraaf, had a picture on its front page of a long line of people waiting to get a paper that would qualify them for some compensation or other, in the aftermath of the crash. The newspaper, not known for its subtlety, asked its readers to note the faces in the line. Black faces. All pronounced to be illegal inhabitants of the disaster area. This is the precise moment that a well-orchestrated campaign began against immigration, with no end in sight.

And so it finally was back with a vengeance: identity politics, of the wrong kind – but identity politics all the same. After all, “we” had been very busy teaching people the virtues of identity politics – of the right kind, n’est ce pas? This old-but-new identity politics, the one “we” had thought we had kicked out of the house, has grown worryingly large, especially after those other plane crashes, this time deliberate, that destroyed the Twin Towers in New York. Immigrants, asylum seekers and Muslims – more and more groups have begun to qualify for exclusion. That is the central message of Geert Wilders, an abnormally successful populist politician in the Netherlands. What you see here is identity politics coming full circle. Fascism: say hello to feel-good fascism, and there is nothing the latter can do about the former: ideologically, politically, morally.

Is there a way out of this mess? Yes, I think there is. It’s called: back to basics. Final part tomorrow.

Four Easy Pieces – 2

December 23, 2012

Of course: it was the Left that had sent me on my way to Southern Africa. Teaching in Zimbabwe was my minute contribution to the project of constructing a Southern Africa where racial superiority thinking would be a thing of the past, sort of. Nearly every country in the region had shed it – at least formally – and in the late 1980s it was already crystal clear that the last remaining bulwark, apartheid South Africa, would be next.

That was the message of a massive musical extravaganza, the Harare leg of a series of world-class concerts called Human Rights Now. It had been organised by Amnesty International in 1988. I was fortunate enough to be there. Peter Gabriel! Tracy Chapman! Bruce Springsteen! Oliver Mtukudzi! And the high point? Music I had never heard before – mbalax, made by the man I share this city with and had the pleasure of interviewing earlier this year: Youssou Ndour.

But there were other matters I was blissfully, stupendously unaware of, and not just inside Zimbabwe itself. Under my radar, something was happening to the movement I felt myself part of. This became much more evident when I had – reluctantly – returned to Europe. I noticed screed after column after thesis, with increasing frequency and loudness, denouncing a portion of society deemed congenitally “racist”, “sexist”,  “homophobe”. That portion was, inevitably, the only group that was able, by dint of breathing in and breathing out, to be all these things at the same time. In one phrase: people who looked – more or less – like me.

With hindsight the following question is legitimate: could it be, that when we progressives were busy throwing out one reprehensible form of thinking like apartheid…through the front door, through the backdoor, off the balcony if necessary…could it be that we were simultaneously inviting into the living room another form of reprehensible thinking? One that did not sound exactly similar but was, in point of fact, exactly the same? I think now that the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes”.

My other city, Amsterdam, where I was born, had a proud tradition of social-democratic rule. It gave us, among many other things, housing projects for the working classes that are still the envy of the world. It would have been utterly inconceivable for those who designed these plans that their ideas about “uplifting the masses”, to use that ancient phrase, would have excluded specific groups because of how they looked. That was precisely what fascism had been about and wherever it reared its head, progressives joined forces to ensure it did not  gain power again. Today, the left is powerless to defeat it. Why? Because it has been dabbling in what I prefer to call: feel-good fascism.

Sometimes, a dramatic event can serve to highlight this like no other. Part three, tomorrow.

Four Easy Pieces

December 22, 2012

Mutare is a charming town in the east of Zimbabwe, a six hours’ bus ride from my former home in a remote rural area. It was April 1992 and I was strolling along the High Street for the very last time, a long goodbye to the music venues, some (rather dodgy) hotels, the shops, department stores, restaurants and market stalls. And of course: numerous friends.

My contract with this nation’s Ministry of Education had come to an end. I had worked as an English teacher in two very different schools. One was a well-established Roman Catholic mission school, the other so fresh that on my first visit it still smelled of bricks and mortar, like Zimbabwe’s Independence itself. These were rollercoaster years. Triumph and optimism played ball with disappointment; there was comedy and tragedy in spades and there were, for a lot of us, the traces, never fully erased, left behind by a single road tragedy in August 1991.

Zimbabwe was a “donor darling”, in reception of huge amounts of aid, no questions asked, certainly not about the murderous military campaign president Mugabe’s army had just finished in the South and the West. With the aid came hordes of development workers and volunteers. People like me: adventurous, reasonably professional, not armed with sufficient knowledge of the country to understand what was really going on there…but crucially, with impeccable left-wing political credentials. In short, not particularly suited to deal with a country freshly out of its war for independence and inhabited by people with street cred well beyond their age.

Still, now the contract is over and I am making my last Mutare round. Inevitably, I meet other volunteers. Small talk.

‘So you’re leaving?’ followed by ‘And what’s next?’

Well, I quite like this work to put it mildly. So my reply runs like this: ‘Well, I’m going back home but I hope to be back soon, in some other posting, I’m sure something will come up. So yes, I’m looking forward to more development work.’

‘You can’t,’ one of my alleged colleagues states, matter-of-fact.

Slightly taken aback and definitely not taking the hint, I venture: ‘I can’t…why not?’

‘Because you’re white – and you’re male.’

We say our goodbyes, me gobsmacked, she in excellent spirits, on her way to her next assignment.

Fast forward 20 years and I am working in Dakar as an independent correspondent. My reflections on what had been bothering me about the movement that calls itself “progressive” had brought me back to that Zimbabwean street and I realise that this was the very first time I had come across a phenomenon that has strangled to near-death that part of the political spectrum that thinks itself “of the Left”. Part two, tomorrow.

Gays and a London magazine

December 12, 2012

In the next few weeks/months (whenever I feel like it) I’m going to write some occasional comments on a magazine I used to write for. It’s a monthly called New African that offers the reader a combination of pure journalism and seriously agenda-driven writing. Making the distinction between the two can be difficult, although in this case, it’s not. Alright, here goes. 

 

New African’s editor Baffour Ankomah has decided to add a new dimension to the magazine’s tradition of heaping praise on some (not all) violent power grabbers like Charles Taylor and Robert Mugabe. In February this year, Ankomah wrote another one of his popular editorial commentaries, known as Baffour’s Beefs. Beefs has two key stylistic elements: it uses a lot of words and takes forever to get to the point. But there is never any mistaking of the target of his rhetorical long-distance arrows. This time it was gays.

Mind you, the targets are always arrived at by way of others, in this case David Cameron, the UK prime minister. Cameron said earlier this year that he was making aid disbursement contingent on African nations showing respect for (among others) gay rights. (You know my view on aid so we’ll leave that issue to one side for now.)

Beefs asked the question why Cameron ties giving aid to promoting something that ‘affronts the innate values of the African…’ This is a nasty little rhetorical trick he uses on occasion, to great effect. In this case, the implication was crystal-clear: molesting a gay man or a lesbian is akin to socking it to The White Man, who, and this is an important subtext to a lot of New African’s output, is racist, colonial…let’s say: Not A Very Nice Person. The writer carefully offers an extraordinarily mealy-mouthed ‘That however does not mean that we should persecute gays, as in Uganda or Malawi….’ but the point that gays are fair game has been made and will be repeated later.

In December, to be precise. Subject matter of Beefs this time: who will be the new Head of the Church of England? One main contender was John Sentamu, with whom Ankomah has a long-standing feud, originating in the former’s criticism and the latter’s starry-eyed admiration of Zimbabwean president Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Comrade Bob, like a true born African, does not like gays either.

So: why did Sentamu not become the new Head of the Church of England? We’re hundreds of words into Beefs when the cat finally comes out of the bag: Sentamu is against gay marriage. That is why he did not get the job. You see, white men are not only Not Very Nice – they also shag each other. And here, Ankomah uses his trick again: Sentamu remembered that ‘…he was African after all…’, hence his anti-gay and gay marriage stance. Oh really?

Early 2011, I had the pleasure of interviewing the long-serving Cameroonian lawyer Alice Nkom, the first African woman ever to have been called to the bar in her country and a tireless campaigner for the rights of her compatriots (my radio report is the bottom link on this page). She famously defended the late crusading journalist and fellow citizen Pius Njawe. Equally famously, she defends the rights of sexual minorities in her country, where a widespread theory circulates that claims the French colonizers only granted independence once they were sure their successors were all gay… Back on Planet Earth, here’s a lengthy quote from my interview with Maître Nkom. Read this slowly.

‘Homosexuality is un-African? No, homophobia is un-African. It has entered the continent in tandem with two imported religions: Christianity and Islam. The most important value of our Constitution is the equality of all people in terms of rights and obligations. This means that regardless of my sexual orientation or my religion I have the same rights to protection of my home and my private life, as everyone else. In consequence, whatever I get up to in my home, in my bedroom, is my affair and mine alone and as long as I don’t call the police because there is danger, absolutely no-one has the right to come and disturb my peace. So when I defend the rights of sexual minorities I am following to the letter the constitution of Cameroon and I am helping the president to guarantee the constitutional rights of all.’

Maître Nkom later added that the persecution of sexual minorities, apart from being unconstitutional, also targets the poorest people in society. ‘I find that personally hurtful and it goes against all the values I have been inculcated with since childhood.’

A lawyer I will never be but I reckon it is appropriate to end here with a simple: I rest my case.

There are more interesting features adorning New African, such as its unwavering support for certain autocrats, its animosity towards the International Criminal Court and, of course, Europe. That’s for some other time. 

The Africa Express

September 27, 2012

Two visits to London, one just been, one coming up.

I always arrive by train – best way to travel from Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris. And the new arrival place is brand new, pristine place called St Pancras International.

It has scared me to death.

Between the time you set foot on it until the time you step out, voices drone on and on and on over the public address system.

Train departures? Sure, we’re in a railway station. Makes sense. But every single inbetween station from start to finish? Spare me.

But it gets worse. In the fog of drones droning on about everything under the sun you get a female voice intoning that “for your safety and security” you must do this or not do that.

There are cameras everywhere, as the drone never ceases to remind me. Twenty. Four. Hours. A. Day. Seven. Days. A. Week.

Surveillance. It’s accepted. That’s scary.

Walking through the railway corridor I see bland corporate stores selling bland corporate stuff at extortionate prices. Except newspapers; these are remarkably cheap.

So I want to get one. I enter a store, grab a paper and want to pay. But the cashier has disappeared. No, not the person working the till having gone out for a ciggie or a toilet break – no: the entire thing. No longer exists. I have to go to a machine and scan my paper. As my hands are full with a bag and a coat, I put both items somewhere so I can scan the paper. As a matter of fact, a very nice man in the shop does that for me. He could have been at the cash register.

I am now busy fishing out coins to pay the 1 pound something for my paper and some other item. Find the coins. Put them in the machine.

The machine refuses. Why? I am informed that there is an “unusual object” on the tray. Please remove.” Annoyance level goes up considerably. First off, you little insolent so-and-so: those are not unusual objects, those are my coat and bag and since the store has provided no other place to put them, they are on your stupid tray. I also object to being told by a piece of soulless technology what to do. Yes, talking elevators is another pet hate of mine.

But the damn thing refuses to take my cash until I remove said unusual objects. Where do I put them? On the floor? On the display over there?

Needless to say, I leave in a huff, paper in bag. I can imagine the other customers looking at me and thinking: unusual object. But the scariest thing is this: it seems that this nonsensical, soulless non-service is largely accepted. At least in railway stations. Why?

Back to the hall and “for your safety and security, cameras are in operation…”

Tune in next time, when I will explain why this piece is called The Africa Express.

A review of The Fear, by Peter Godwin – conclusion

January 18, 2012

Godwin’s descriptions make your heart wrench. What makes The Fear hit home so closely is of course that this time, the violence Mugabe and his generals unleash may have happened to people I have known personally. Or – there is no room for illusions here – may have been perpetrated by people I have known personally. There are literally thousands of these criminals crawling the length and breadth of Zimbabwe. From the local ZANU-PF village leaders who burnt down one man’s house and sent his wife and child scampering for safety, to the ZANU-PF Members of Parliament who were seen participating in atrocities against the people they are supposed to represent, to the vigilantes who burnt the house of the newly-elected mayor of Harare, murdered his wife and traumatised their small son…all the way up to ministers and generals like Perence Shiri and Constantine Chiwengwa who co-organised this orgy of violence, as they did the last one.

Heroes' Acre, Harare. Pic: MastaBaba on Flickr

Like the president, they have visions of themselves lying in one of those special burial places reserved at the bombastic North Korea-constructed national shrine, called Heroes’ Acre. But if there is a God, there will be a special place in Hell for all of those who destroyed thousands of lives and made the lives of countless more a living hell – on earth.

I read this book in Dakar, home to another octogenarian who thinks he is larger than God and in possession of the divine right to govern until eternity. He also got the North Koreans to construct a monstrosity known as the Monument for the African Renaissance  and nobody is any the wiser about the deals he has made with the late Kim Jung Il and his friends.

To be sure, Senegal is as different from Zimbabwe as Finland is from Portugal and president Abdoulaye Wade lacks the degrees in violence that Mugabe so proudly boasts of. Yet, as a presidential election edges nearer in which Wade stands for a highly contested third term, the nation’s Criminal Investigations Division has “interviewed” editors, journalists, website owners, political activists, human rights advocates. One of whom has gone on record saying that said Division ‘is becoming more and more like a political police’. And a campaign manager told me that he was keenly aware of the lengths to which the ruling party was prepared to go, in order to ensure victory. No, certainly not The Fear but these are sinister signs just the same. Lord, deliver us from megalomaniacal gerontocrats!

A review of The Fear, by Peter Godwin – part two

January 17, 2012

‘There is a green hill far away,

I’m going back there one fine day…’

Glastonbury Song, The Waterboys, 1993

The Eastern Highland village of Chimanimani used to be my sanctuary. Take a bus down from Mutare, the prettiest town in the world, and after hours of twists and turns through a magic forest landscape you’d arrive on a large open space, mostly quiet. There was an eland sanctuary close by and a large hill overlooking the town. It is not the one The Waterboys sing about but it always enters my mind’s eye when I hear the song.

Not exactly green but in my memory it was. Pic from http://www.morningmirror.africanherd.com

Chimanimani boasts an old colonial hotel and my most vivid recollection is this: a group of Zimbabwean teachers sitting around the fireplace in the evening, outdoing each other in citing lengthy Shakespeare soliloquies, from memory. Teachers used to be able to afford hotels like these. I know, because I was one. I went to Chimanimani for my Zimbabwean holidays. Peter Godwin spent some of his childhood not far from here.

Yes, I was one of those volunteers that he describes “pouring in from around to world” to help Zimbabwe attain the highest literacy rate on the African continent. In fact, at 92%, it was the envy of the world. I worked in two different schools. Work, optimism, dedication, triumph, tragedy and – more work. All in plentiful supply.

I was vaguely aware of the terror that Mugabe had let loose on the southwestern part of this new nation, a terror Godwin has described in one of his other books, Mukiwa. When I entered the country in 1988, the Unity Accord had just been signed, between Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – People’s Front, or ZANU-PF. What I understood only later was that this created a de facto one party state. There was no unity. This was Mugabe’s victory over his greatest political rival – a victory that came at the price of 20,000 deaths and many more lives scattered.

Fast forward to December 2011. Robert Mugabe’s party endorsed him to run for yet another term as president. He will be 88 this year and can live until he is one hundred. If the elections take place in 2012, then reading The Fear will give you an idea how he intends to win yet another term in office. The Fear deals with the elections of 2008.

This was the second time his God-given right to rule was seriously challenged. Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), roundly defeated him in what, unfortunately, was just the first round of the presidential elections.

Very few in the world can match Robert Mugabe’s skills of political survival. He is on a par with the late Gnassingbe Eyadema (immortalised in Ahmadou Kourouma’s seminal novel En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages). He has the crass power instincts of the Birmese generals although they seem to be loosening up these days. But most of all, he understands power in the way his mentors understand it, the ruling parties of China and North Korea (the one that recently lost its “Dear Leader”). All have used a mix of political manoeuvring, election fraud, intimidation, lies, vicious propaganda and violence on an industrial scale in order to stay in power. Peter Godwin describes how these ingredients were applied to keep one octogenarian autocrat in power in Zimbabwe.

The first round results were doctored, to make a second round inevitable. This bought the president and his henchmen enough to time to organise a huge wave of systematic political violence. The scenarios were ready; the organisers were ready. In fact, the organisers were the exact same people that still have to account for the massacre of the amaNdebele in the 1980s. In exactly the same vein, they set about, literally crushing the political opposition in 2008. Godwin documents their victims’ stories.

*

The patterns emerge: people who have “voted wrongly” in the first round have their homes firebombed; their bones are broken, the soles of their feet and their buttocks are whipped until they are raw and become septic; their skulls receive heavy blows. The means are crude and effective: iron bars, wooden clubs, whips, ropes, rocks, fists. And no-one is safe: men get targeted but women and children too. Even the elderly are assaulted: Mugabe’s thugs have no problems breaking towering cultural taboos. And the schools? The places where young and eager children once learned to read and write and discuss literature and debate and do sports? They became torture bases. Difficult concept for this ex-teacher to get his head around.

(Third and final part to follow shortly)

A review of The Fear, by Peter Godwin – part one

January 17, 2012

This book is about a country where I lived for almost four years. And even though I am now working from an entirely different corner of the continent almost 20 years later, it is easy to revive the image of my former home. Neat houses sat behind hedges that somehow managed to grow from the sandy soil, there was a shop run by my namesake, a man as generous as he was grumpy. ‘Yes, come and bring your bloody money tomorrow…’. The mill for grinding mealies would growl into action a couple of times per day and then fall silent again. And, of course, there was the inevitable drinking den known as “the bottle store”. Perched on top of a hill close to the river, it was run by a woman who managed to be friendly and imperious at the same time. She lived with her son in a modest compound. When she felt like it, the bottle store was open. When she decided she couldn’t be bothered today, it was closed. No amount of pleading or cajoling or begging could sway her. You just had to find another drinking spot.

There was no other drinking spot.

A dirt road ran right through the middle of this quiet place. Twice every day, this deep, mostly sun-drenched rural silence would be shattered by the arrival of The Bus From Town. Its habitual stop was under a tree almost in front of the bottle store. There it is, engines revving. Passengers pour out of the ageing vehicle and they start pointing at the roof. That one? No! That one, yes, over there! Young guys have climbed on top of the bus and are tearing the sacks and cardboard boxes and huge multicoloured plastic bags loose from the roof rack that runs the entire length of the bus. All done, the driver impatiently revs the engine and then begins the slope down to the river, spanned by one of those small concrete bridges just wide enough for a bus or a truck to pass. He’s gone. Silence reigns again.

Nyautare, Zimbabwe. Incredibly, I found this digital picture of my old house at St. Monica's Secondary School. The picture came from this website: http://zimbabwepicturestory.iblog.co.za/page/2/

The vehicles almost always made it across those brigdes. But sometimes, it went horribly wrong. Once, while negotiating the many twists and turns of the road in this mountain-strewn part of the country in a rented car, I came across something unusual. A crowd, looking at a troop transport vehicle known as a  “Hippo”. It was lying on its side, had missed the bridge. Having taken lifts in these vehicles I knew that there had almost certainly been drinking and dope smoking going on inside. It appeared that there had only been two soldiers on board. Were they dead? No, but badly injured certainly. They were on their way to the nearest hospital, 50 kilometres down the road.

Having read The Fear, Peter Godwin’s harrowing book on president Robert Mugabe’s ultra violent 2008 re-election campaign, I was left wondering if the soldiers, torturers, murderers, arsonists, thugs and rapists were taking mind-altering substances when doing the head of state’s political bidding. It certainly was the case in Charles Taylor’s Liberia. The boys who did the killing and raping during the West African wars told me they remember nothing and that this was due to a cocktail of alcohol, amphetamines and hashish they were fed before being sent on their murderous ways. What did Mugabe’s goons have to ingest, for them to commit their crimes?

There are a few characters in Godwin’s book who can reliably be described as bona fide psychopaths, the ones that can always be relied upon to surface in the service of a totalitarian dictatorship. Godwin describes the actions of one Joseph Mwale, who smashes the car windows of two opposition activists, douses the insides with petrol and watches a young man and a young woman get out and stagger to their flaming deaths. Mwale resurfaces a few more times, overseeing torture. In his final appearance, Godwin spots him on television, licking his “homicidal fingers” at one of Mugabe’s lavish birthday dinner parties…

part two will follow shortly.

Night out

April 15, 2011

Cold beers! A delight in a place without electricity. Few consumables are more repelling than tepid (or worse: warm) beers.

And so the evening begins in the one restaurant in town that actually serves not only cold beers but also beef and potatoes and various other local and French delights.

And it is here that I meet Mahmoud. He enters with another colleague and immediately zeroes in on me with a story about a lost relative somewhere in Europe and that I should be the one to find that relative.

Sure. Have another beer.

He then tells me that he knows a place that is by far (by far!) the best place in town. Money is not a problem he says. Of course not – I will be paying. He insists, almost violently. So we agree to go to the best place in town – for one drink.

But not after a wild and unstable ride across the sand roads of his town, on his motorbike. It is indeed a miracle he manages to keep the thing from straying into a garden, a house or an animal. But we do arrive at the very best place in town. Where he will continue his drinking spree.

The best place in town is a low-ceiling den next to a rather grandiosely named “Night Club”, where the beer is (you guessed it!) warm. But Mahmoud has a solution to this problem: he switches to whisky. The television is belting out Ivorian happy-go-lucky music: the conflict there is reaching a decisive phase and a bunch of artists has decided to record a song entitled ‘Ca va aller’ – Ivory Coast’s national catchphrase.

Mahmoud is engrossed in his whiskey and he does not see me leave. This town is small and the next port of call is a smallish bar, run almost entirely for the benefit of the students and lecturers of “The Institute”. It is a training centre for vets with a fairly large and vibrant student populaton. We have a lovely little time sitting around a plastic table, talking about the imminent downfall of Laurent Gbagbo in next door Ivory Coast, The Institute, The Netherlands “where you have so much good cattle” and Life After The Institute – which, quite frankly, worries them. Where are the jobs?

It’s a question left hanging in the air when I make my way back to the hotel but before getting there, a sound catches my ear. It comes from the Bar Manding. Fiery percussion, high-pitched singing and a frenzied keyboard that mostly reminds me of the organ frequently used by legendary rock band The Doors. But then on steroids. The band does manage to drown out the sound of the generator. I enter a big square hangar where they are  playing next to a motorbike and assorted industrial debris. Over a royally disgusting warm beer one of the band helpfully explains that this is a general repetition for a Big Launch tomorrow and I am heartily invited. With ringing ears and slightly nauseous I leave the hangar half an our later, on my way, finally, to the hotel.

Which is half-lit. No, actually, just a quarter lit. In the cavernous dining hall, there is an island of light and here I find myself discussing life, politics and the universe with the manager, over a few bottles of not exactly cold but still acceptable beer. A tiny generator outside struggles to light up even that small space. Ah, the melancholy of once-great hotels that still try and keep up past grandeur…Africa is littered with them. And I love them.

One final stop. Next door to the hotel is another night club and since I just got to know the owner from a business exchange earlier this afternoon, it would be nice to pay him a visit.  

“Entry 10,000 Francs,” I am told. That’s a euro and a half for one, maybe two final drinks as I do begin to discover a slight and rather disconcerting wobbliness. It’s after midnight and really really dark. But inside there is upbeat popular Guinean music. It’s produced by the bucketload and I like it: they basically have one band in a studio somewhere in Conakry, which plays two or three standard tunes. They then put different singers in front of the band – and a new hit is born.

The barman comes from Cameroon. And yes, he studies…at The Institute. He likes it here. There is not much conversation as the music is very loud. Hey – this is a nightclub. You’re supposed to watch, be watched, drink and….

‘You must dance with me,’ she says. She is pretty and copiously blessed by Nature. I am reminded of the old Shakespearean punchline about drinks provoking the desire but taking away the performance. Time to make my way towards the exit.

Now I stroll with great calm and dignity towards the hotel, meanwhile feverishly hoping that I am not going to be chased after by the she-person who just accosted me at the bar. Or Mahmoud on his motorbike.

The hotel door is invitingly open. In a few hour’s time, the’ sun will once again shine its light on a dazzling display of mountains and valleys. I only have to open my bedroom curtains. Meanwhile, Dalaba, Fouta Djalon, Guinea, will most certainly party on without me.