Posts Tagged ‘migration’

Fortress Brussels

January 28, 2018

A few years ago I saw something strange. A boat. In the water. Ok, that’s normal but this was strange: it was a patrol boat of the Spanish Guardia Civil, flying a Spanish flag, in the Port of…no, not Barcelona or Malaga or Cordoba or Bilbao or any other seaport of that magnificent country. It was in the Port of Dakar.

What the devil is a Spanish police patrol boat doing in the territorial waters of Senegal? Turned out that it was just another manifestation of the intense and heroic efforts by the European Union and its member states to keep as many Africans out of their Fortress as possible. The same efforts that put Brussels in bed with autocrat-run Turkey and one of the nominal governments of Libya, destroyed thanks to the heroic efforts of no fewer than the three former administrations of France, the UK and the USA. Another part of this Fortress Europe strategy is the blackmailing of countries like Mali and Niger: we will give you aid if you stop your people from coming here. Niger’s people smugglers now must trace far more dangerous routes than before, thanks to government crackdowns, sponsored by the EU. Brussel’s aim is to ensure more people die on their way to the Mediterranean Sea than on their way to a southern European shore.

It’s all a far cry from the start of the EU, a collaborative effort around (re)building industry and achieving food self-sufficiency. At roughly the same time the Geneva Convention on Refugees was adopted, a suitably clear and concise document. This was, of course, also the time of the Cold War. The refugees that made it into Western Europe came, mostly, from the “enemy” camp. Hungarians were welcome in 1956, when they fled the Soviet assault on their country; one of those refugee families would later produce a president – Nicholas Sarkozy. In “our own” camp, Portuguese conscientious objectors ran away from their country, run by a fascist dictatorship, because they did not want to fight Portugal’s colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guiné-Bissau. And there was a broadly-based welcome for people from Latin America on the run from US-installed military dictatorships. All in the 1970s.

Ségou, on the river. Dreadful place, innit?

It’s almost 30 years since the end of the Cold War. “We” won and now “we” are touting ourselves as the best society the world has ever seen. It follows, therefore, that Everybody Wants To Come Here and “we” must be selective about who “we” let in.

The only people being selective here are the “we” in this last paragraph. Selective of the facts. Speaking from the region I know a few things about, West Africa, the truth of the matter is that the vast, overriding, overwhelming majority of people…does not move. And if they do, they tend to go to other parts of the continent, or to China, the Gulf States…and yes, Europe. The picture of migration worldwide is decidedly mixed. However: the idea that Europe is some kind of a massive people magnet reminds me of that infamous French colonial drawing, where The Light (from Paris, of course) illuminated the entire Dark Continent – or at least the bits that had been visited by migrating French army boots. In short – it is an over-estimation of one’s worth and borders on the delusional. Seen from here, you don’t look all that great. And that’s before we even take a closer look at how you have been behaving to your own people of late.

This will not be a review, short of saying that what you see here is the cover of the most riveting piece of political reporting since Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail. It is also a damning indictment of how EU bigwigs treat the poorer members of their community – and how petty, vindictive and downright brutal they get when these members turn out to have ideas of their own. Fear and Loathing, indeed.

I visited Thessaloniki in 2012 for a world music trade fair called WOMEX. It was wonderful. But even then the austerity programs were kicking in and the people responded by staging the largest street demonstration I had seen since the epic 1981 marches against those US cruise missiles. A sea of red flags. Similar happened in austerity-hit Portugal. Varoufakis recounts in detail how the EU/IMF “rescue package” was part of a bailout plan to save…not Greece, but French and German banks that had taken irresponsible risks and found themselves overexposed. Politicians in EU member states sold another bailout of financially irresponsible banksters by inventing the story that this was all about…saving Greece. In short, they lied. Most mainstream media slavishly copied the lies without doing their job, something that happens with depressing frequency.

When the bailout did not work – and Varoufakis extensively explains why this is so – they did it again. And lied about it – again. The engine room of this elaborate deceit is a thing called the Eurogroup, a gathering of Europe’s finance ministers, accountable to no-one. Even though it is – sortalike – formalised in the Lisbon Treaty I would not hesitate to call the whole structure de facto illegal and a flagrant violation of the EU’s founding principles. The president of this informal group of financial terrorists was, between 2013 and January 2018, a Dutch politician by the name of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who emerges as a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work. He clashed frequently with Varoufakis, on the basis of politics disguised as policy. The Eurogroup consists of people who like to present themselves as technocrats but are in fact hard-headed ideologues, tightly moulded in the TINA frame (There Is No Alternative) of no debt relief, screw your people, cause misery, keep taking the poison and keep lying to your national electorates why “we” are strangling one of our member states to death. Read the book for the details, fascinating and shocking in equal measure.

But the point of it all is this.

Varoufakis argues, forcefully, that extreme austerity imposed by external financial terrorists causes widespread misery and pushes people over the edge. And then, society shifts towards political polarisation. The sea of red flags in Thessaloniki was one example of this but it can also take on more sinister tones. The counterpoint to resurgent socialism is the worrisome rise of fascism, not the cotton candy variety of lightweight intellectuals like the late Pim Fortuyn and the still very alive Thierry Baudet in the Netherlands, not even the clownish two-trick pony Geert Wilders no, this is the violent, iron-clad boots variety of Golden Dawn, who have committed murder. The focal point of this resurgent extremism? You guessed it: migration. Increased hardship frequently goes hand in hand with blaming “foreigners” for problems they had no hand in creating.

Why people move (my photo, taken at a market near Tenado, Burkina Faso)

It is this kind of extremism, fomented by bad policies emanating from disconnected “technocrats” that Varoufakis warns against. Fortress Brussels ignores this at its peril. But this is not about Brexit, that unilateral folly of very English self-sabotage. Brexit addresses none of these issues. It is an unwelcome and time-consuming inconvenience for the EU, it will be grotesquely damaging to what is left of the United Kingdom, and it is most likely to be temporary (at least until Scottish independence…).

No, this goes much deeper and concerns entrenched dogma that must be urgently challenged. The damage that the Washington Consensus did to the nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia has been incalculable and it would be a fine day to see the perpetrators of this crime held accountable in a court of law. Now that the Washington Consensus has moved to Brussels, the damage is being done to countries on Europe’s southern flank, the same region made to cope, on the cheap, with a mixture of refugees looking for safety and others looking for opportunities.

The only answer thus far has been to reinforce the Fortress. The Mediterranean has become increasingly militarised and the EU has extended its border operation southwards, as far as Senegal and Niger. Like the imposed austerity, this is an Extremely Dumb and Colossally Expensive Idea. Cheaper and more intelligent answers exist: debt rescheduling/forgiveness and providing stimuli to the economy in the case of near-bankrupt states; the re-instatement of the – sneakily abolished – 1951 Geneva Convention in the case of refugees; the creation of avenues for legal, circular migration for the “problem” of people moving to Europe. Once again, for the hard of hearing, people generally do not willingly exchange their place in the sun for a precarious existence in Europe’s cold, dark, grey, hostile and sometimes even murderous streets. For the vast majority of the people outside looking in, you don’t look all that great.

Les Grandes Personnes de Boromo, at the opening carnival of the – very aptly named – Festival Rendez-vous chez nous, Ouagadougou 2017. Pic: me.

Fortress Brussels has been rattled but not enough. There have been a few stabs at the bubble of self-delusion, hypocrisy and lies that surrounds the policies of austerity and the militarisation of the borders but it has not yet burst. However, burst it must. The betrayal of Europe’s foundational principles has been ugly, continuing down the same path leads to an outcome that is both ghastly and familiar. This is no exaggeration. As the ideological technocrats continue to do their destructive “work”, as chunks of societies splinter and become uncontrollable extremist fragments, as the narrative about people moving to Europe becomes ever more toxic, as identity politics takes the place of progressive discourse, as Fortress Brussels continues to push dumb and expensive ideas instead of the much cheaper and far more intelligent – and available! – alternatives, Europe risks, in all seriousness, a return to the situation the EU was constructed to prevent. By its own hand.

 

Advertisements

Purity

July 3, 2016

Brexit on 23 June follows a trend across Europe, supposedly in response to the existence of an overweening and undemocratic European Union. (Very briefly: I do believe the EU suffers from hubris, I do believe the EU is in great danger of becoming a corporatist neoliberal venture for which it was never intended and of which the euro is the symbol. But I also believe that in spite of the urgent need to fundamentally reform the European Union the world is infinitely better off with one than without one.)

I want to go somewhere else with this piece. The trend across Europe and elsewhere in the western world is the arrival/re-appearance of nationalist and anti-migration movements. This is echoed in another trend, happening across the globe from West Africa to Southeast Asia.

One day before Brexit, the wonderful Pakistanti Qawwali singer Amjad Sabri was murdered by self-styled Islamic radicals in Karachi. Earlier this year the world witnessed the destruction of Palmyra by Islamic State (or ISIS), an act of vandalism rivalled by the blowing up of the Bamiyan statutes by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and the vandalism perpetrated on Timbuktu by self-declared jihadist invaders in 2012.

What do they all have in common? I would argue: the idea of purity. Or, to put it better: nostalgia for purity, the illusion of purity. It never existed but they want it back.

The rhetoric is interchangeable. Prior to the referendum that returned the tragic Brexit vote, British nationalists talked about reducing immigration, taking back control from a monstrous – and what’s more: foreign – bureaucracy and return to the green and pleasant self-ruled lands of old times. Without too much interference from outside and even fewer migrants thank you very much. Elsewhere in Europe, extremist politicians talk about sovereignty, the need to curb immigration and to stop the EU. ‘I want my country back,’ is their rallying cry.

Sufi music is abhorrent to the Taliban because it pollutes the otherwise pristine and sweet unspoilt sound of prayer. Monuments and tombstones and artefacts make the mind of the beholder stray from the correct path of a blemish free faith where no idolatry takes place.

It is the illusion of purity: an unspoilt people, an unspoilt faith, the pristine English village, the Khalifate. That dream of purity can only be fulfilled through destruction and vandalism. What is tainted and unclean must be removed. Whether it’s a monument, music or an institution like the European Union. Sacrifice is unavoidable, even if it means putting an entire economy or a future generation in jeopardy. Purity requires the use of a wrecking ball. Brexit and the blowing up of monuments are two sides of the same coin.

***

None of this is new. But it has become more virulent and more aggressive of late and moves to counter it have been shockingly inept. Why? I believe that this is in part because of the overwhelming victory of globalisation and its attendant ideology (neoliberalism) and in part because of the total collapse of the countervailing progressive movement.

The Thatcher/Reagan revolution informed by the unfettered free market ideology peddled by the likes of Milton Friedman has been successful beyond its wildest dreams. It has reversed virtually everything that an organised and united people’s force fought for during a century and a half. Unions everywhere, anti-colonial movements everywhere. Today, neoliberalism is continuing the business of taking us collectively back to the 19th century. States have been rolled back, utilities that provide life-saving basic services  (water for instance, health care) have been or are being privatised, structural adjustment programs have ravaged economies from Latin America to Asia via huge chunks of Africa – the list is long. The very welcome demise of the dictatorial and inept Soviet Union and its European satellite states in 1989 cemented the Thatcher/Reagan victory.

The progressive movement has struggled to find an answer to this free market steamroller. Instead, it has adopted most of the steamroller’s principles (the main one being that Greed Is Good) and has been looking for a visage, something to mask the fact that it may look progressive but is the exact opposite. The visage was already present in its ranks and was eagerly adopted as its faux progressive front. It’s called identity politics.

Starting with second wave feminism in the late 1960s it has since morphed into a multitude of movements that have their own navel and their own victimhood as their unique focal points. They have rendered the old and lofty principle of international solidarity obsolete. To mask this simple fact, Diversity was invented, which incorporates (and I use this word deliberately) an in-crowd of people who all look different but who mostly and basically think the same thoughts. Progressive it is not: this movement has attached itself eagerly to the globalisation agenda. And as I have argued earlier, it is precisely for this reason that it fails to counter resurgent European nationalists, religious extremists and the other purity seekers. 

***

Purity is the reaction globalisation has engendered. Races should not mix. People should not mix. Cultures should not mix. Musics should not mix. Countries should not mix and most certainly not be “overseen” by some supranational busybody. It is telling to see that extreme rightwing groups in the United States combine utter hatred for the United Nations (another international bogeyman) with a stunning lack of knowledge about the organisation. Donald Trump is their champion and, as if to illustrate my point, the other presidential candidate is a shell for corporate America with a ghastly track record as former Secretary of State. I live in a region that has to deal with the atrocious fallout of the criminally catastrophic decision to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Ghadaffi (someone they were previously more than happy to do business with), of which Hillary Clinton was an active and enthusiastic supporter.

Because of the Left’s astonishing incompetence in reviving the forces of solidarity that used to cut across all identity lines (race, sex, sexual orientation and everything else) both forces – globalisation and the purity movements – will continue to run amok and crash into each other. The have-nots have been divided by identity politics and will not stand together again. It is curiously ironic that the likes of Brexit are driven by another type of identity politics, a variety the faux progressives disapprove of: rural, working class or former working class and (dare we day it) mostly white, subject to a condescending sneering campaign by those in possession of the correct identity politics. This has backfired spectacularly.

Brexit is a tragic mistake. Purity, be it racial, ideological or religious is a dangerous illusion. The progressive movement is dead and its faux progressive identity politics driven replacement an abysmal failure. We need something new. Maybe it is already there, unable to stop the steamroller but at least attempting to slow it down. New bold citizen-led movements show a way forward, like the one that removed autocrat Blaise Compaoré, then resisted a coup attempt by his presidential guard, and a new one, aimed to get genetically manipulated cotton removed. All three in Burkina Faso. We could do with a lot more like these.

Les Coxeurs

May 30, 2015

It must have been fifteen years ago, or thereabouts, when I first made contact with “les coxeurs”. Or more precisely: they made contact with me.

My taxi was approaching the sprawling bus station of Adjamé, the busy hub that connects Abidjan with other parts of the country. It being hot and humid, the windows were, of course, open. Perfect opportunity for a young guy to earn a few cents. He stood by the side of the road and spotted, hawk-eyed and unfailing, me and my luggage in the taxi. Made a beeline for the car and stuck his head as far in as possible.

First. And he is not going to let go. There are scores of young men – always young men – like him and the competition is merciless.

‘You’re going where’?

By this time you, the passenger, must have an answer prepared or have made good friends with the taxi driver so that you will find your bus station with a minimum of stress.

My destination was Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire’s slightly weird but extremely charming capital. And I knew the name of the company that was going to take me there. So the answer was simple: ‘Thank you very much. It’s all been arranged.’

Do not, under any circumstance, make the mistake of releasing any more information than that. Anything that goes beyond a simple, accurate but necessarily incomplete statement of fact is an open invitation for le coxeur to enter into a prolonged phase of negotiations, during which nothing you say will made the slightest blind bit of a difference because his only objective is to earn a few cents. From the conductor for bringing in a passenger. And from you because he will be carrying your luggage while still fending off the competition.

‘You’re going with them? No good. I know a better company.’

‘Is that your destination? I know the company that can take you there.’

‘No, it’s not that way. The buses to [insert destination] are over here.’

‘You want to take that bus? No but that one has already left. Come with me.’

The repertoire is inexhaustible, while you, the passenger, are not. Anyway, I made it to the terminus of the UTB, l’Union des Transporteurs de Bouaké, one of the largest and best in Côte d’Ivoire and having left les coxeurs behind I could now mentally prepare for the fourteen, fifteen, sixteen road blocks ahead that were sure to make this otherwise pleasant 300 kilometre trip a sheer hell of exhaustion and harassment by what’s known as corps habillés. Uniforms. A lot harder to shake off.

*

Today, as the population grows and the supply of work does not keep pace, les coxeurs are everywhere. I saw them at work in Bamako, where they, hawk-eyed and alert, observe taxis coming in from a major intersection. Their targets have to wait for traffic lights before they can make their turn towards the station and then they must wait for the endless stream of mopeds to end. Meanwhile, the young men beeline their way to you, at considerable risk to themselves because traffic is fast and brakes are rarely applied, even less so for pedestrians, et alone young men, who are, as we should know by now, disposable. [links here]

Most of them are in their Twenties. Badly dressed, wearing very old slippers (not helping when you do this kind of work) and barely literate. But they are fast and strong: speed and muscle, it’s all you need in this business.

Young, poverty-afflicted men, never figure in any state plan for “development”. They do not exist in the policies of the development industry that has been blighting this continent for more than half a century. So, at a very early age these young men learn an indelible lesson: you’re on your own. Fend for yourself. Which they do, efficiently and if necessary, ruthlessly. Here, as shouters and haulers of passengers, there as petty criminals, elsewhere as the easily recruited (money!) security detail of some politician or religious leader, yet somewhere else as passengers on a bus, a lorry or a boat to a place that will bring work, or, ultimately, with guns and knives in the gangs of criminals that devastated parts of West Africa in the 1990s and are currently wreaking havoc in Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and elsewhere. The boundaries between these categories are thin. But the main actors all have the same thing in common: a relentless entrepreneurship, whether we like it or not. They never mattered to us; we do not matter to them.

*

At one of Bamako’s large roundabouts, the one that has the iconic Africa Tower in the middle, a bus was waiting to fill up. It took two hours. I know, because I was on it and we had left the station with barely ten passengers. Les coxeurs did their job; of course they do not limit themselves to bus stations, wherever there is a crowd waiting for transport – they’ll be there.

 

Fisticuffs broke out at the end of those hours. It was time to get paid. Driver and conductor were dishing out some notes. 500 francs. 80 cents. Unlikely to go to any of the young men individually. They will have to share. But lets be charitable and say that they were fighting over about 200 francs each, barely enough for a bowl of rice with nothing else. There may not be another opportunity today. Or maybe there will be. But you cannot be sure. You live another hour.

Masks in a church – 2

November 18, 2014

De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam is the temporary home to an exhibition of masks. On display until February 15 next year, so there is plenty of time for you to make up your own mind. This is my take on the event. Second and last part

The curators have found two ways around the essentialism described in the first part. One is the – once again – laudable effort to trace the names of the artists who made the masks and statutes. So we learn that there were at least two master artists among the Dan in the great western forest region: Sra and Tanpiémé, working in the 19th century. He great 20th century artist Pablo Picasso got his ideas for cubism from Africa, as we know. In fact, we can home in on the exact encounter that gave Picasso his idea. It was a mask from the Dan. It may even have been one made by either Sra or Tanpiémé. What we can say with certainty is that Picasso’s style would not have existed without the masters from Côte d’Ivoire. (I am not aware that Picasso ever acknowledged as much but perhaps someone can help me out here. Thanks in advance.)

Many of the original artists are not traceable, though, and the way around this has been to attribute a particular style to them and then announce that this work was made by a Master of… And thus we have the Master of Curves or the Master of Essankro, a place in the Baulé region of central Côte d’Ivoire. His mask adorns the flyer about the exhibition, which has not been a random choice. Because, as the Dutch art critic Bianca Stigter very perceptively writes in her review of the exhibition, the choice of objects appears to be informed by European artistic sensibilities. By any (European) standards, the works of art from the Baulé can be described as “refined”, very likely in keeping with the influential aristocracy that their region has produced. And that seems to be the case, Stigter notes, with a lot of the art on display. The curators keep pounding it into her head, she writes, that these are really works of the highest quality. Words like “elegant” abound. Indeed, she counters in her piece, the quality is undeniable but the point of reference still appears to be the great 20th Century masters, including Picasso…

And this is where a lecture of these pieces from an Ivorian point of view would have been very warmly welcomed. The country has no shortage of thinkers, arts critics, lecturers, historians and arts historians who would have shed a light on these works, much brighter than the Amsterdam autumn air that fell into the church on this November day.

Jems Koko Bi

From the exhibition folder: Diaspora, a work by Jems Robert Koko Bi

 

There was, however, another saviour: Jems Robert Koko Bi, a contemporary sculptor whose work provided a radically contemporary context to the other works of offer. His life (born in Côte d’Ivoire, lives in Germany) and his work liberate the exhibition from its frozen-in-time character and launch it straight into the now. His faces, carved from trees with a chainsaw and his piece “Diaspora” from 2013 transcend the whole “Dan”, “Lagoon”, “Lobi”, “Baulé” issues. They entirely cease to matter. Watching the short film about him, I could focus on the individual work by an individual artist with a contemporary – and cosmopolitan – life, even though the interview was done in English, with which he was uncomfortable. Stroke of luck or stroke of genius? In any case, including his work saved the exhibition from being solely about somewhere in “Magical Africa” and gave it meaning beyond its essentially ethnographic nature, in spite of the best intentions behind it.

 

Arrival (not the ABBA album)

November 11, 2014

It is 4am. A lone plane descends towards the runway of Madrid’s Barajas International Airport. Origin: Dakar. It taxies to its slot. Doors open and some 150 bleary-eyed passengers walk into the corridor that leads to the main arrivals hall. But it will be a while before they get there.

At the end of the corridor they are held up by two little men, who have their little uniforms on and have been driving to the exit point with their little electric trolley. They proceed to check everyone’s passport with meticulous care. To be more precise: they proceed to check very much in particular the passports of the African passengers, including an elderly man dressed in a traditional boubou and a bonnet, clutching a single plastic bag. Clearly, this man constitutes a clear and present danger to the Continent of Europe, as is the lady who is trying to stay upright because she is tired, walking on high heels and increasingly annoyed.

The little men in their little uniforms with their little lights in their little hands and watching all the travel documents with their little spectacles on their little heads (as if these documents have not already been checked by the Embassy, the Airport Authorities in Dakar and the Airline) have identified four or five men who merit a little extra attention. As the rest of crowd disappears into the bowels of the gigantic arrivals terminal, they are questioned on the spot, a procedure that takes not a lot more than 20 minutes before they, too, are being released.

A pointless, annoying, irritating and counter-productive exercise, at the entrance of a country where I had gone to be part of the annual World Music Expo, an event that highlights some of the best international music from around the world and a focal point for artists, managers, agents, record labels, music distributors, journalists and radio makers. Imagine being one of those and being welcomed to this country by two uniformed jobsworths holding up the normal flow of human traffic into an airport? What image does that project?

EUAU

Seen at Dakar Biënnale. By Kiluanji Kia Henda.

I’ll tell you what image that projects. It projects the image of a tiny, frightened little continent that is rapidly losing its relevance in the greater scheme of things. Other parts of the world, Asia in front, are surging ahead and in order to keep up, economically and demographically stagnant Europe needs contributions from everywhere. The way not to achieve this is by treating all incoming visitors with a different skin tone as potential criminals.

The idea that this is being done to appease a virulent strain of political populism that looks for scapegoats is suspect. Xenophobia has been built into Europe’s border protection and immigration systems and it stretches all the way to the West African coast where I frequently see Spanish Coast Guard ships on patrol. But here’s the clue, my dear little frightened European continent…

Africans back winners. This is why Chinese, Turks, Brazilians, Indians and even North Americans are doing rather well here. They are turning away from Europe and are taking their business with them. Shopping in Paris? You must be joking when I can get the stuff relatively hassle-free in Istanbul, Dubai or Guangzhou. Having to fill in a boatload of forms just get a visa to some European hellhole or other? Get out of here. I’ll fly Kenya Airways to Beijing, Emirates to the Middle East and Turkish Airlines to pretty much everywhere.

This is the message to this little, frightened, xenophobic European continent, exemplified by those pathetic little passport-checking uniforms and their pathetic little electric trolley, with which they took off after they had done their pathetic little job. You are increasingly being seen as an irrelevance, an unimportant little place led by politicians without an ounce of vision, only frightened of people from the outside world and determined to keep as many of them out as possible. In short: you are, increasingly, being seen as a loser.

You haven’t got much time left, Europe. It’s shape up of ship out. And as things currently stand, it will be the latter and you will not be greatly missed by the rest of the world. Ask those passengers on that flight from Dakar.

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.

Deadly Geography

December 8, 2012

Sometimes, reality hits home when you move temporarily away from it. In February, I was covering the first round of Senegal’s presidential elections – out of Dakar.

Coming back from Tambacounda (where I met two excellent rap artists) and Kaolack (where an office belonging to the then ruling party was burnt down) I was looking at the landscape from a bush taxi and thinking: this is all very empty. Sand. Savannah. A few trees. A few homes. And a town or two.

Our taxi took a brand new ring road around the town of Diourbel, 146 kilometres from Dakar. Then we joined the old road to Thiès, which runs next to a railway rack. It was astonishing how fast places were filling up. Sand and savannah were still there but the rhythm of the settlements increased – dramatically.

Long before we got into Thiès, we were driving through what was basically giant sprawl. The final stretch from Thiès itself to Dakar, 65 kilometres, is fast becoming one massive megacity.

Not much later, a story in La Gazette (called Deadly Geography) made the point. It said that more than half of the entire Senegalese electorate was living in three rather small districts: Dakar, Thiès, Diourbel. Tambacounda district, which has far more surface area than those three combined was home to…less than 4% of the country’s electorate.

The strain is obvious. Newspaper Le Populaire reported this week that the National Statistics and Demographic Office had calculated that between 2000 and 2009 rents some parts of Dakar had gone up by almost 40%. Forty per cent! Friends keep telling me to NEVEREVEREVER abandon this apartment I’m renting because I will never get this much value for money again…

Question: where did these eye-watering rent increases take place? Sure, Central Dakar, where the expensive offices are. But also in Guédiawaye and Pikine. That’s where the poorest people in town live! If this is the free market at work, someone’s clearly having a laugh.

The strain is obvious in other ways too. Power cuts at any moment. Water pressure in many parts of town (expect the expensive ones) is now so low that this shower you have in your bathroom is…decoration, basically. Any agglomeration that grows at such breakneck speed cannot possibly expect service provision to keep up.

Yes, we know. Cities continue to grow fast because rural folk look for opportunities not available in the village: money, jobs, and so on. Some succeed, a lot more don’t. Fact is, very few go back. I met the grand total of one on my country trip: Vincent had left behind his dreadful and badly paid job as a night guard and had started farming. He was glad to be out of Dakar. But there are very few like him.

Dakar was home, this week, to a massive jamboree called Africites, in the obscenely expensive King Fahd Palace (formerly the Meridien). Hopefully the mayors from all corners of the globe and the other luminaries caught a glimpse of “the other side of town”, if only to reinforce their firmly held and often voiced conviction that they are firmly in touch with “The People”.

More to come on cities. Making them places where you can lead a decent life rather than just vegetate is arguably the biggest challenge on the planet, although it appears that they’re having a word about this thingy called climate change in another jamboree far from here. Well, not that far actually: you can fly directly from Dakar to nearby Dubai. On Emirates.

Seriously…..the sequel….

March 6, 2011

(note: I don’t think any of my readers is in need of this but just in case someone suddenly and inexplicably develops a sense of humour bypass, this is for you: do not take anything in these next two instalments of Yoff Tales personally….)

Remember this? That was a bit of comic relief from the Humanities. This being a branch of academe that tends to take itself rather seriously, I was disappointed at the lack of vitriol directed at me.

Maybe they don’t read my blog. Their loss.

Anyway, here is a sequel to that view from the Ivory Tower. It’s a piece from L’Observateur (a newspaper here, owned by international superstar and local media tycoon Youssou N’dour) about mixed marriages – again: in Europe.

Libasse Sarr writes from Paris and reports that African migrants of either sex tend to consider marriage with a European to be (his/her words) “the jackpot”. In answer to that famous Tina Turner song What’s luuurve got to do with it, the answer appears to be, rather disconsolately:

bugger all. Oh dear.

It gets interesting when the writer starts to differentiate between the sexes and unlike those in the Humanities, he’s got the memo: She’s the Boss (broad brush stroke, exceptions duly noted but we’re talking about the rule here). Men have known this since the advent of time and have consistently acted accordingly, mostly by staying out of Her way. This has worked very well. Consider this classic scenario: he gets out of the house early every day, earns the family income, does as he told when in the house and has the good grace to leave the planet five to seven years before she does, so she can enjoy his money in peace.

Now – our good friend and reporter Libasse Sarr has noticed something unremarkable: women migrating to Europe from this neck of the woods have the same memo. So what happens is this: they marry a “toubab” (a term, sometimes affectionate, sometimes mildly derogatory; it means “European”), they get what they need from the arrangement (money, papers, child, whatever) and then string him up. The law is their friend and they know it. In short: jackpot. “Toubab” in question has learnt an expensive lesson and some of them actually share their stories so that others may learn too…not holding my breath personally…

So far there is nothing devastatingly new. But it gets really interesting when we turn our attention to the men who go to Europe from here. Let’s call them Modou-Modou, like Libasse Sarr does. Modou arrives in Europe and thinks he may be able to arrange papers and so forth with a female “toubab”. Jeebus…he now has to deal with two laws that are his mortal enemies: European immigration law and European marriage law.

Good luck with that.

Nobody told him that the memo that obtains at home does not change when he enters another continent. Class, what is the bedrock of West African society? That’s right: it is the extended family. And the extended family (now pay attention class) is a highly complicated organism that HE heads nominally…but SHE runs in practice. These are, de facto, matriarchies. Modou will soon find out that Europe’s no different.

So he gets himself acquainted with a female “toubab” and six months later She kicks his philandering ass out on the streets (de-facto matriarchies worldwide tend to produce rather unreliable men). What follows is usually awful. Memorable quote from a Zambian colleague who visited Amsterdam for a conference, after some observation: “Don’t want to live here – too many broken black men on the streets…”

But don’t get depressed. There is some excellent news in the next instalment!

 

Liberia: two cities

March 16, 2010

The capital: Monrovia. Big. Massive. Loud. Very loud: a cacaphony of car horns, engines, sirens, radios, arguments, shouts: “I say my man I beg you!” Loudspeakers blaring American music clog the ears. Noise pollution. Air pollution. Overcrowded. A fierce and merciless daily struggle for a place on one of the clapped-out taxis on Tubman Boulevard, the main drag. Expensive, for everyone. Did I mention loud? I think I did.

But it’s the seat of government, it’s heaven for thousands of petty traders, it’s the heavily air-conditioned headquarters of the United Nations Mission In Liberia (UNMIL, the peacekeeping operation now in its 7th year), it’s where the Chinese are building roads, apartments, restaurants and offices, it’s where you get your business done. And then leave.

Harper. At the southeastern tip of the country. Quaint, quiet – a lot quieter than the capital. Clean air, beaches, a fishing village, beautiful architecture you can still see through the destruction and looting and burning that happened here between 1990 and 2003. One locally run restaurant – great food and a lot cheaper than in the capital. Three small places to stay – very basic but at one-sixth of the Monrovia rate. One employer: the local rubber company. Two banks, a few tea shops, some trade, a small market.

Potential aplenty – but no takers. Where are the investors? You can set up an ace centre for water recreation in the port area, there’s a lagoon that shouts out for tourists and seaside restaurants, But for now, there are few jobs and even fewer when UNMIL closes as they inevitably will. Roads are bad, the only fast connection is by air (expensive!) so equally inevitably, people leave when they can. For the capital. And if need be (this is a true story): they walk from here to there.

Migrant success

December 7, 2009

Here’s an idea if you want to get things done in Yoff: learn Italian. That’s a bit of an exaggeration but there’s a fair number of people here who have

–          been to Italy

–          learned the language (putting my poor attempts at the learning the local language Wolof to shame)

–          got a break…

…and then decided: naah, Europe’s not for me, I’m going home.

So they’re back home and running businesses. One of them is another one of my many namesakes, Ibrahim. He holds office behind a desk at the back of a very trendy furniture shop – along L’Autoroute of course. His own. As he was selling me a nice bright red designer sofa/bed, Ibrahim casually told me he’d gone to Italy just to try his luck, like so many before (and indeed after him). He had worked in a factory for a bit, decided that this was not quite what he had in kind for the rest of his life and found himself more lucrative employment. Like all migrants, he is pretty vague about what made him enough money to return and set up his furniture import business but ultimately: who cares? He makes his own money, employs a youngster who enjoys what he’s doing and things are looking fine. Sharp dresser Ibrahim and yours truly had, in the meantime settled on a price for the sofa/bed: just under 200 euros. Not bad. And would I be interested in a pair of very expensive Italian designer shoes? They’re just in…

No shoes, thanks. But the piece of designer furniture from Italy duly arrived at my flat – on a very old-fashioned horse-drawn cart.

 ‘You can breathe here.’ She’s very pretty, has just come off the flight from Paris and sits across from me on the outside terrace of Figo, easily the best mainstream restaurant/bar/meeting point in Yoff. In tune with the times, or “branché” as the French would put it. Yep, it sits on L’ Autoroute, where else. The recent arrival explains to me that she spends half the year in Europe. When she gets fed up with the place she takes the plane to Dakar. And vice versa. Works fine. Oh and by the way, she’s married. Dommage…

The young couple that run Figo had the Italian experience as well. And they decided to bring some of that here. Nice furniture, designer ashtrays (yes, you can still smoke here, a sign of sanity if you ask me) and of course WiFi (always a laptop or two on the premises). They have a lovely stack of MP3s that gets a regular run and includes a generous amount of Senegalese top stars (Youssou N’Dour, Thione Seck, Wasis Diop) plus pop music from the European Mediterranean. Mercifully, virtually no modern r&b, the perpetrators of which should be put on trial for audio crimes against humanity. There’s also an ice installation, very Italian but evidently out of order for the time being. And…. excellent coffee.

Figo seems to be doing quite alright for itself although Atou, the male half of the couple (he basically runs the place) did tell me after a very long night that things are not easy. Not for want of trying. The Senegalo-Italian kitchen is very good. The atmosphere is cool and pleasant. At the weekends you may find a band or a solo artist playing, to attract the clients. Things like these and plenty promotion are needed to keep a staff of at least 10 quite busy. So now you know where I’ll take you on your first visit…

Just two examples of what they call “circular migration”. But migration is a triple edged sword: it’s an uncertain investment, it plunges you between your own culture and the one you’re heading for and consequently it may seem that you don’t quite fit in anywhere.

For would-be migrants to Europe, it seems two messages are coming through. The first is visible along L’Autoroute – with a bit of luck you can actually make it and build up a pretty good life back home. The second is: Europe? Don’t bother. For traders, Africa’s richest and most powerful demographic, Europe is history. Too much hassle just to get into the bloody Fortress and then come back with overpriced stuff. Dubai, Hong Kong and Istanbul – that’s the ticket.

In the end, everyone makes up their own mind of course but I would hazard a guess: most Senegalese have no intention of leaving. Those who do would most likely fancy a life with two places to call home: one in say Italy, the Netherlands (I will one day tell you a story about a would-be Dutch citizen of Guinean origin) or even France if you can’t help it. And another one here in Senegal, because “you can breathe here”. Circular migration: why not? That’s precisely what I am doing.