Posts Tagged ‘face masks’

The face mask: a status symbol

August 5, 2021

An upmarket riverside restaurant in Ségou. A collection of FourWheelDrives has been parked before the entrance. Inside, a party of clearly well-to-do individuals, dressed to the nines. It is lunchtime and they have come to this place to be very well fed and watered. And another thing they have in common: all wear face masks. Not while they are eating of course; the masks are then lowered to cover their chins. This fashion statement is marginally more ridiculous than the already quite ridiculous habit of shoving your spectacles up your crane when you don’t use them, instead of putting them safely away. As for the masks, only a few have stored them in their bags or inside pockets but they will appear again once lunch is over and they get back into their FourWheelDrives to wherever they are having their gathering.

Here’s another frequent phenomenon: a lone man or a lone woman, behind the wheel of their luxury vehicle. Nobody else is there but they drive around in a face mask. I will confess to having a good old laugh when I see this but it clearly points at a social phenomenon.

One more, then. In spite of all the problems and troubles and asymmetrical violence this country has been subjected to over the past nine years, there is one phenomenon that is inexplicably resilient: the workshop. This whole region is absolutely addicted to the workshop, invariably dedicated to subjects that are fashionable in the donor countries that supply the money for these occasions. We call this ‘development’.

Workshops, trainings, evaluations and assorted other gatherings of VIPs are typically held in an upmarket place in the capital (Bamako, Niamey, Ouagadougou) or any other major urban centre (Ségou, Sikasso, Bobo Dioulasso…) that is still accessible. The deteriorating security situation, something these gatherings are not designed to address, limits the available options. But there are still more than enough accessible urban centres with multiple star hotels, the natural habitat of workshops.

On one such occasion, it was lunchtime, a procession of ladies filed out of the conference room on their way to the tables, where the food had been lovingly and lavishly laid out. My lunch table was, rightly and correctly, relegated to the margins of the establishment. The participants all wore fine clothes, some had elaborate head dresses; quality mobile phones were on display and they all marched to the tables wearing face masks. Yes, every single one of the development-oriented (upper) middle class gentlewomen wore one, without exception. No doubt they proceeded to discuss the plight of the poor, over lunch. I was out of earshot and should, of course, have been out of sight, too.

Alright then, one more…

Recently, we had a Very Important Visitor in town. That fact that this was a Very Important Visitor was made obvious by a Gendarmerie pickup truck ordering everybody off the Boulevard 2000, a very wide and very smooth stretch of road that takes all dangerous traffic (including Very Important Visitors travelling at high speed) around Ségou, instead of through the city, where they have to negotiate a stretch of tar road that has been in an utterly horrendous condition for at least a decade and a half…but I digress, unlike the caravan of the Very Important Visitor.

After we all had been made to stop going about our business, an impressive number of vehicles careened past. I’d say a dozen and a half. FourWheelDrives, of course. Pickup trucks. Even the odd saloon car, obviously in excellent condition. If she brings along a caravan this long I wonder how many cars wil accompany the President if ever he decides to come over here. You may as well close business for the day…

The next day, I saw the same procession move away (slowly this time) from the Governor’s Office, located of course in a very leafy part of town, and it was here that I was able to notice the many lone men and the occasional woman sitting at the wheel of their vehicles. Only a few had someone to talk to during the drive and almost all of them wore…a face mask. I am sure the maskless will get a stern lecture before too long. The visitor, incidentally, was the Minister of Health. She had first paid her respects to the town’s bigwigs and religious leaders, had then paid a visit to the various health facilities, had been able to see for herself the deplorable condition they were in and naturally terminated the tour by promising to do something about it. I was told the same has been said numerous times about the decaying tarred surface of Ségou’s main thoroughfare…

So what is this social phenomenon you may wonder. The penny dropped when I witnessed the following scene in one of Bamako’s upmarket supermarket our affluent friends – and expats – frequent.

A classy lady had parked herself and her rapidly filling trolley in one of the aisles. Meanwhile, her underling, a girl in a dress that was intended to denote her inferior status, was being sent around the shop to get the required items. (In fairness, I will add here that this does not happen very frequently; most of the time the girl is left at home and Madame does her own shopping.) And there, as if to emphasize the different stations of life these two women occupied, I noticed that Her Ladyship was wearing a face mask; her servant was not.

Couple that with the astute observation of an old friend who is a regular visitor to Mali, when he remarked that it looked to him as if the face mask had become a status symbol and the insight became even clearer: that is precisely what it is. It may be the case – not very frequently though – that the face mask wearer signals the aspiration to belong to this exclusive top class club but in almost all instances the face mask says: “I belong to the elites. I’m wealthy. I’m connected. I’m in.” Hence the ubiquitous presence of face masks at summits of heads of state, meetings between important representatives of international bodies and ministers, UN representatives, international NGOs and businesses. Money not only talks these days; it wears a face mask too.

Ordinary people in the streets, in Bamako’s green Sotramas (those privately run public transport minibuses), in the markets, on their motorbikes, working on the land, in the downmarket shops and eateries…do not wear one. My conservative estimate is that 95 per cent never bother with a face mask. And yet these are places where space is in far shorter supply than in the upmarket abodes of the elites.

It has been said before: in Mali, Covid19 is an issue that virtually never invites itself in any discussion. Of course it is an issue – for people who travel by air and these are mostly the same people who are found in expensive cars, expensive homes or expensive workshops. Besides, in a country where you are far more likely to die of malaria, water-borne diseases, meningitis or the incredibly polluted air in the homestead or the city, Covid19 takes its place at the back of the queue. Of course, the initial responses were quick and adequate because people remembered the horrors in next door Guinea (and to a limited extent back home) of that other deadly virus, Ebola. But Covid19 is mainly an obsession for those who can afford to be obsessed – and buy the masks at 500 francs apiece, the price of a roadside meal.

A mask or a meal: now you understand the priorities.

(More on Covid in Mali? Read my Corona Chronicles, written last year.)

Could this be another turning point?

February 7, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covid-19 and me and you

October 24, 2020

Well, yes, I promised I was going to shut up about it after my Corona Chronicles from Bamako but I do find myself currently (and hopefully temporarily) in a very strange part of the world. I am watching with bemusement supposedly competent governments thrashing about in the wake of what must be termed a very large but ultimately not very powerful pandemic (the official statistics report death rates of less than 1 per cent of those affected). Coming from West Africa, Europe has all the hallmarks of a continent that has gone quite mad.

Just one example. As I mentioned in my Chronicles, when Mali and its neighbours decided they had a problem, they acted swiftly, decisively and ruthlessly. Night curfews did not start at 10pm in bars with large numbers of people already present, they started earlier, even when it is well-known that when people decide to partake in the rich nightlife of West African cities they do so very late. As someone astutely observed: will the virus know that it can only come into a packed and crowded bar when last orders have been consumed? This literally makes zero sense. You are either open – or you are closed. There is no halfway house here. 

The debate about face masks is even more bizarre. Look, I loathe the bloody things and I think they are not only a nightmarish inconvenience to wear but also an environmental disaster waiting to happen given the widespread human habit of disposing of your stuff anywhere you please but for crying out loud… Message to the navel-gazing Westerners complaining about this: the wearing of a face mask is, for once in your life, not about you. It is about others. It is not about a dictatorial government turning you into a slave. If you think this is what dictatorship and slavery look like you clearly have led an extraordinarily sheltered and massively privileged life. 

I will leave the conspiracy theorists who believe it’s all a China/WHO/Bill Gates/George Soros/5G/Deep State/Democrat/liberal/leftist/UN/Agenda 21/NWO bid for world domination, to one side. While fascinating in the way slow motion car crashes are fascinating, they add nothing to any rational debate about what we are dealing with and what we should do about it. Arguing with people advancing such points is futile. You will waste your time and fail to sway any of the True Believers. Just ask for evidence for their claims. You will invariably find that they are unable to provide such. All this BS should have one destination only: the bin. 

An even more dangerous cult, which should also find its way to the rubbish dump post haste is neoliberalism, the real point of writing this. Covid-19 has done more to destroy the neo-liberal consensus that began with the Greed Is Good regimes of Ronald Reagan and the equally loathsome Margaret Thatcher than any amount of street demonstrations, bedecked in yellow jackets or not. However, the neoliberal consensus still holds sway throughout much of the world and what is happening before your eyes is not a conspiracy but evidence-based fact: protection for the rich and their companies and banks, hell to pay for everybody else. It is Brexit on steroids.

When health workers get empty and meaningless gestures of nightly applause but no remuneration commensurate to their role in this crisis; when bankers are deemed more important than sewage workers; when shareholders and stockbrokers are considered of far more consequence than the mostly invisible people who ensure that your lights stay on, your water is clean, your internet keeps working and your roads are safe; when teachers are considered less important than some bozo gambling your future and mine away shifting billions around the world with the click of a mouse; when airlines are being kept aloft with billions of euros of taxpayers money that then goes to lease firms and moneymen…when you see all this happening in real time, you realise that you live in a system that is not worth saving. 

The banks’ Ponzi schemes that have been the bane of modern post-industrialist society will collapse once again. The Washington Consensus that brought destitution and war across Africa, Central and South America, Asia, South East Europe and the Middle East, has turned out to be fundamentally misguided, as the consequences are finally reaching the richest shores in the world. The criminals who dreamed it up should be persecuted, as the Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako showed in his film, Bamako

The end of the system, which we now know to be built on fraud, idle speculation and lies, will not come about through the swing to the populist right we are seeing in many parts of the world today. Xenophobia, racism and violence are not the answers to the systemic failure Covid-19 is revealing. The populist right of Le Pen, Wilders, Farage, Trump and the rest of the one trick con artists only serves to entrench neoliberalism even more. Like its kissing cousin, identity politics, it is a dangerous and ultimately pointless distraction. What will end the current systemic insanity is a radical swing towards real progressive politics, which has always been international in nature and always has the ideal of creating fair, equal and just societies in its DNA. You may want to call it socialism, which is fine by me. You can either have that, or you will have barbarism. 

Our choice.