Posts Tagged ‘music’

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…

A regional Corona song

April 25, 2020

Normal programming resumes shortly. But this one’s good, too.

 

The African continent has many Avoid Corona messages about keeping your distance, washing your hands, coughing into your elbow and more in general not to behave like a complete dick. All set to music – of course.

This one does the same but also calls on all of us to pull together and create a society that’s built around the notion of solidarity, rather than the obsolete Me First model. It’s also a real joint effort, with singers and musicians and producers from Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Benin and Côte d’Ivoire.

Here’s the link

 

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 10, 2020

Part three – They know

 

Some years back, during one of those public debates broadcast by French world service radio (RFI) from time to time, I picked up a memorable one-liner from a member of the audience. The location was Lomé, and so he made a reference to the family that had been running his country, Togo, for half a century, primarily as a client state of France.

“When a member of our ruling elites falls ill, he or she takes the next plane to Paris, where hospital treatment is good and readily available. As a consequence, the state of the health care system in Togo is of no interest to them.”

This goes for many a nation. And so, these current headlines are in an odd way rather satisfying…

The late Robert Mugabe had a subscription to hospitals in Singapore, while his subjects died of preventable diseases in hospitals in Harare, Mutare, Bulawayo and Masvingo.

The rhetorically anti-imperialist first president of Guinea, Ahmed Sékou Touré, died of heart failure in a Cleveland hospital.

Muhamandu Buhari, president of Nigeria regularly goes missing because of health scares. If you want to find him, you must go to London.

Paul Biya, the ailing president of Cameroon (in power since 1982) spends most of his time in or near a hospital in Geneva, Switzerland, a visitor to the country he is supposed to govern.

Depending on convenience and religious/ideological bent, you will find heads of state from the African continent occupying hospital beds in Moscow, Brussels, Riyadh, Beijing and sometimes in locations at either end of the continent: usually Rabat and Cape Town.

All this has now come to an end, thanks to Corona, because intercontinental flights have been suspended. Will this mean that the elites develop an interest in how hospitals in their own countries are run? This is not immediately evident. Just like terrorism, this virus is only an issue when they are directly affected. On the other end of the wealth spectrum, ordinary folks initially regarded Corona (which arrived mostly by plane) as a thing that affected “…them up there…nothing to do with us…”.

Not necessarily our problem….we just get on with our work…

But could this be changing?

There is a short-time perspective to this and a longer-term one.

Right now, there is an awareness among the authorities about the (usually poor) state of health care in the face of a looming menace. Whether said elites have developed a sense of their own responsibility in this regard remains to be seen. But they know. They know that things are not good. Years of neglect, devastating wars in some places, coupled with IMF-mandated austerity measures and the expectation that foreign NGOs would be there to pick up the slack have all played their part. Many large hospitals have developed a bad reputation, as places where you don’t go to get healed – but to die. Rural parts frequently lack even the basics.

There are also medical staff up and down this entire region with high levels of professionalism and a keen sense of public duty.  I have met many of them. It’s a fact that tends to be often forgotten, both here and in the global media. They know. They know better than anyone that they are working under extreme circumstances. They know there are not enough intensive care units, ventilators or even hospital beds available to deal with anything major.

And as a result, everybody and everything banks on prevention. Prevention. Prevention. Prevention. Authorities ban large gatherings (well, some of them at least – I’ll come back to this later), close borders, enforce curfews and start campaigns to encourage social distancing (another headache as we have already seen and will see again later)

Live music, Mali’s pride and joy. Banned until further notice. But they’ll be back…

To date, prevention is working remarkably well. Mali has ample experience in this respect, as do Senegal, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire. There are at present 87 confirmed cases in Mali, with 7 deaths and 22 recovered patients (according to statistics gathered at John Hopkins University Hospital in Washington), 59 confirmed cases according to the WHO. Here’s hoping it stays that way and that there will be no curve to flatten.

But inevitably there will come the longer-term question: will this outbreak be enough to start changing things around and concentrate elite minds towards creating decent basic services, to wit: water, electricity, health care, education, waste management? This, dear reader, is anybody’s guess. And that, in and of itself, is a deeply unsatisfying answer. But I have, at present, no other.

 

To be continued

Elections in Gondwana

September 7, 2019

Journeys by bus take long in this part of the world. Not just because of the hours wasted crossing borders – each border on average takes hours – but simply because of the distances. Bamako to Cotonou is doable but will take a few days, require visas for each country I traverse (three or four, depending on the route) and fingers crossed that the border crossings don’t take three or four hours each. (Travelling on smaller vehicles will also help.)

Invariably, during these long trips we are treated to video. Yes, these are modern buses (made in China, thank you very much) with airconditioning set to an ungodly 17-18 degrees Celsius or less and retractable television screens, usually two.

Yep, these are the ones. Pic from Africa Tours Trans Facebook page. Taken in Bamako, before the Independence Monument.

When the screens come down from the ceiling, expect to be treated to any of the following:

  1. Video clips by popular artists. These can range from excellent to appalling. But that’s alright, usually the music bounces along happily and the journey gets a little less boring.
  2. Concert clips by big names, ranging from Oumou Sangaré to Salif Keita and many many more, with a surprisingly large number of clips from the inimitable Afrikafestival in the Dutch village of Hertme, which has a YouTube channel. (I’m preparing a radio story about this festival, coming up shortly…)
  3. Long, meandering slow-moving films, in one of the many languages spoken here and usually revolving around some village intrigue or other. A lot of these come from Burkina Faso, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire or Guinea. You also have the Nollywood variety, faster-paced and in English, a language most passengers between Bamako, Abidjan, Ouagadougou, Niamey, Dakar and Lomé do not understand, a fact that bothers precisely nobody.
  4. Other stuff. Thankfully, there has been a marked decline in the formerly ubiquitous US World Wrestling Federation (or whatever it’s called) with it fake stage “wrestling matches”, just as there has been an equally welcome decline in the formerly ubiquitous presence of the inexplicably popular Céline Dion on the buses stereo systems, which tend to come on as soon as a clip/film/other thing ends.

We now get Nigerian pop (confusingly called Afrobeats but otherwise very welcome with its laid-back flair), coupé-décalé (noisy and chaotic, a reflection of the place and time it comes from), plenty of classics and a lot of the here-today-gone-tomorrow variety that gets mass-produced everywhere in the world with the added annoyance that people’s singing voices get mangled by some software that seems to be deliberately designed to piss off as many music lovers as possible…

And then, occasionally, there’s a surprise. On a recent trip I was treated to a film called Bienvenue au Gondwana.

This may ring a bell for some of you. If you listen to RFI (Radio France Internationale) in the morning on weekdays, which I do regularly, you are likely to come across the voice of Mamane, a humorist/satirist from Niger. This voice, I will readily admit, is an acquired taste. It does not work for me; on the contrary: I find his vocal mannerism hugely annoying. He is better on the stage where he has a bunch of pretty good routines.

His tales revolve around an African country he invented, Gondwana. It has been run since forever and will forever be run by a figure who is only known as Président-Fondateur. You don’t have to look very far for models – think Félix Houphouët-Boigny and his more-or-less benign autocracy in Côte d’Ivoire, or the rapacious reign of Zaïrean kleptocrat Mobutu or indeed the recently departed Robert Gabriel Mugabe and his fear-based rule. The Président-Fondateur is a combination of these elements – we get copious amounts of posters with his face on it plastered all over the capital and we get scenes with opposition members who have been locked up. He is everywhere and nowhere at the same time; like a Big Brother his presence hovers over the nation but his is also a disembodied presence. He communicates to his subjects through a television station that is required to relay his message verbatim. Such as the announcement of an election date.

Mamane populates Gondwana with a merry cast of other characters and the inspiration for his radio talks usually comes from current affairs: some useless conference somewhere, talk of some head of state or other planning to rule for the rest of his life, a doctored election, a protest movement, sports events, you name it. (Yes, I sometimes do make it to the end of his mannered speeches…)

Gondwana virtually begged for cinematographic treatment and this happened a few years ago. I don’t think the finished product made it to many cinemas, which I think is a shame, having seen it now. I sat up as the bus rumbled along, hoping that we would not be interrupted by another corrupt control post and hoping that the apprentice, who runs the entertainment program, would not decide that he was bored halfway through and switch to another program. My prayers were heard; neither happened and I settled in for what was to be quite interesting and satisfying. Here’s the trailer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUCacy3ooQU

 

Gondwana: The Movie, shot in Abidjan, Yamoussoukro and Paris, is a series of stories cleverly woven into each other. A French (of course) politician/lobbyist/businessman sends one of the younger employees in his company to Gondwana, to be part of a very hollow ritual: the international observer mission to a national election. The elderly Frenchman will also be part of the delegation, not to observe, mind you, but to get his Gondwanean counterpart to buy the asparagus that are grown in his  constituency back home. There are other members in the delegation, including an earnest looking white woman – the European Union has an endless supply of them – and one black man who on arrival is separated from the rest of the delegation by two very rude policemen who simply do not believe that he is, also, an observer. Mamane gently inserts a good jab about internalised racism here.

Cut to another scene: the pointless ritual known as The Press Conference. The delegation has met the government and they have decided on what set of platitudes to deliver to the hacks in the hall. This time though, it does not go entirely according to plan, as a young activist stands up and delivers a speech denouncing the farce about to unfold. She manages to make her point before being hauled away by security and beguile the young Frenchman who starts to suspect that something rotten may be happening in the state of Gondwana. The elderly Frenchman wants nothing of it. After all, he’s not here to observe this circus, he’s here to sell asparagus.

Our young Frenchman finds his way to the underground protest movement, where we see cameo performances of two artists with a long reputation for their outspokenness: Senegalese rap master Awadi and reggae’s uncompromising Tiken Jah Fakoly. Then the protest concert is violently broken up by the police. Our Frenchman gets temporarily lost, manages to get himself rescued and on arrival back at the très très chic hotel where the delegation is being housed (of course) he is berated by the slightly sinister duo that was hired to not only lead the delegation quite voluntarily up the garden path but also pay and/or intimidate opposition politicians into going along with the game of the Président-Fondateur.

Oh and thank Heavens, or rather, Mamane: our Frenchyoungster and the extremely pretty activist do not fall in love; he clearly is besotted but she has her own love life, thank you very much.

Our young French would-be hero gets a little dressing-down from his minders. (Pic from the film review on the website 20minutes.fr)

Most of the characters remain fairly one-dimensional but together they give us Mamane’s mildly cynical view of how elections are run in a depressingly large number of countries; there is growing doubt, and in my mind correctly so, about the merits of the multi-party democracy formula that was essentially rammed down everybody’s throat when the Cold War ended and the West discovered the merits of “democracy” in its former colonies. Mali is an excellent example of this. The film also adds a few more examples of what I have previously called “white lifeforms” on the African continent. Because yes of course, the Frenchman gets to sell his blooming asparagus and of course the election-farce returns Président-Fondateur to power for another term. If you have a chance, go and watch it: a light-hearted look at a serious matter.

The circus came to town

August 21, 2018

We were crossing the river using what’s known here as The First Bridge and were looking at the water. What on earth was that, floating on the slow majestic flow of the Djoliba?

A portrait. On closer inspection it was a picture of president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, or IBK, attached to two pinasses. Irresistible photo obviously.

‘Ah look! Boua dans l’eau!’ The image of Boua, the old one, an at times affectionate at times not-so-friendly term for the 73-years old Keïta, floating in the water had a few connotations that were probably unintended by the advertising agency that came up with the idea. The idea was to present IBK as the Messiah, hands and gaze tilted skywards. And so he appeared on thousands of billboards. Sure enough, this floating image should conjure up images of a Saviour walking on the water, even though the biblical connotation would probably be lost in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation.

But my friend and colleague saw the image as a re-election campaign coming to an ignominious end, with Mali’s president ending up many miles downstream, lost in the Delta as the water made its way to the Atlantic.

That clearly did not happen.

Mali’s 2018 election, and especially the excessive amounts of boredom it engendered, has prompted another question: what’s the use of this circus? And that’s what I’d like to probe in this piece.

Elections are an industry. The costly campaigns, the expensive election material, the expensive logistics of getting it in place in a country many times the size of France with major security issues and a crumbling infrastructure. Twenty-four candidates took to traversing the country, holding rallies, paying for ads, making videos. And then there was the security apparatus, necessary to create (a semblance of) order and at the end the – now mandatory – accusations of unfair play, invariably launched by the losing side. Boua did it when he lost in 2002 and 2007, his main challenger Soumaïla Cissé does it now. The two final contenders are both every inch a product of the same system that has brought Mali its current and particularly odious cocktail of political rot.

And then we haven’t even mentioned the many journalists (including yours truly) covering the circus, the many pundits and experts and hacks and wonks pontificating about What This Means to Mali, West Africa, the Planet and the Universe.

Elections like these also attract a most curious cottage industry, brought to you by the international donor community that has decided to fund this circus. We have voter education campaigns. NGO activity goes into overdrive. And we have observers. Everybody and his cat and canary flies in, takes up space in expensive hotels, occupies rooms in conference centres for meetingsworkshopsmoremeetingsandconferences. There is some benefit to certain sectors of the economy. After all, folks eat in (expensive) restaurants, they drink in (expensive) bars, may buy a few (cheap) souvenirs, that sort of thing. If you called them luxury tourists you would not be far off the mark.

Press waiting in a Bamako voting station for the EU Observer Mission leader to arrive. This part of town is also where some Big Shots come to vote – hence the top heavy security. Compare and contrast with another voting station, later. Pic by Attino Doumbia.

In spite of their patchy knowledge of the country, its history, its political mores and particularities, observers are increasingly becoming the arbiters of these elections, even though they carefully avoid any judgement concerning the result. (The UN, operating a very costly and underwhelmingly successful mission in Mali has refrained from making any comments, still stung by its Côte d’Ivoire experience when they were called in to certify the elections and promptly accused by the losing side of backing Fraud/France/Uncle Fred. So they have smartened up a bit.)

Increasingly acting like royalty, the observer folks from the European Union, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the International Organisation of La Francophonie, Democracy Heaven, Free and Fair Paradise send a few handfuls of observers to the safe parts of the country. Their findings they then put into handy statements that get read out by that other ritualistic element, very much part of this circus: The Press Conference (see picture above). Strangely enough, this observer element appears to be entirely absent in what is in all probability the most epically corrupt political system in the world; I am of course referring to the United States.

OK, I’ll grant you this. There is one thing a West African and an American election do have in common: they are won or lost with money. In this neck of the woods, anything up to three euros will do the trick. If you’re a smart citizen, you take cash from all sides and still make your own decision.

Street where the losing candidate’s portrait adorned every lamppost…

You can send fifteen armies of observers into the country, this will not change. And hence you hear observers having conversations in their hotels, their bars, their restaurants, their lounges and wherever else about all sorts of things – except what they’re here for. Office gossip, the new car they’ve just bought, house prices in Generic Suburbia Somewhere, anything but the experience of having to watch weird elections in some place or other. This makes perfect sense. None of them know Mali, let alone understand it. And next week it’s Peru. Or Cambodia. Or Malawi. Like the swarms dispatched here by the aid industry, they have loyalty to the organisation that sends them, never to the countries that received them. Exceptions duly noted.

And what’s the popular response to all this? This:

This, you may believe it or not, was a polling station in one of Bamako’s most densely populated areas. In full view of this was an elaborate and very well attended wedding going on, a rather precise indication of peoples’ priorities. However, and this is absolutely crucial to understand: an elected head of state in countries thus “observed” derives a great deal of legitimacy from the statements by the likes of AU, ECOWAS, OIF and especially the EU, the world’s largest aid donor. Even if nobody shows up to actually give you that strangest of things…a popular mandate. This is a circus, conducted for the benefit of foreigners.

On a day in August, the Ministry of Territorial Administration (part of Mali’s bewildering election architecture, but that’s another story) declared Boua the definitive winner. When that pronouncement had been made, I found myself walking between the elegant ministerial complex known as the Cité administrative and a road system designed to decongest this part of the capital, which it sometimes manages to do. Speeding along a bridge came one of Bamako’s ubiquitous green minibuses, with music blaring from its loudspeakers. It was covered in campaign posters and playing one of those forgettable campaign songs, written for the occasion. A monotonous beat with a disembodied auto-tune non-voice (omnipresent and toe-curlingly awful) intoning endlessly ‘IBK…IBK…IBK…’. The initials of Boua. No-one was following the minibus. It sped in and out of sight on its own, ignored by all.

Well before the poll was over the posters were already fading from view. A roundabout in Kalaban Coura, Bamako, late July.

That lone minibus and this roundabout. I cannot think of a better way to illustrate the futility of it all. Much will be made of a 35% voter turnout. Democracy will be pronounced to have been consolidated. But in truth, the vast majority of Malians did not vote, realising the extent to which this entire circus is irrelevant to their lives. And this is happening in a country that gave the world a unique Magna Carta of its own, in the form of the 13thCentury Mandé Charter, or Kouroukan Fouga, an enumeration of the rights and duties of a citizen, part of the the world’s human intellectual heritage. Surely, with its millennium-old history, Mali can do better than maintaining an expensive political bubble based on a colonial model propped up by foreign money and symbolically re-constituted every five years in a ritual virtually nobody believes in?

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.

If you work for the State…you won’t get paid!

March 22, 2011

Time for a bit of rant.

An old friend used to run a public space embellishment agency. Was in deep trouble because he had done his work and was now waiting for payment: from the local authorities.

Senegal is replete with these stories. It’s what the president, sorry His Majesty, sorry The All-Seeing and All-Knowing One, has famously called “the informalisation” of everything. You see, this government does not like contracts and such like very much. Backroom arrangements are much more convenient.

This is, of course, the stuff of politics. Take, for instance, the case of Bara Tall, a celebrated local entrepreneur who has been building roads and other infrastructure for the State – and is still waiting for his money. But instead of being pad for his troubles…he was put on trial for fraud.

Did he over-invoice? We don’t know. But his real crime was having a political partner who, over time, became the mortal enemy of the president (Google “chantiers de Thiès” for background). That’s why his life and business had to be destroyed; first by non-payment, then by a politically motivated court case. Like all ruling families past and present, the Borgias, the Blairs, the Mugabes and the Clintons – the Wades are ruthlessly efficient in that respect.

Unfortunately for them, Bara Tall is fighting back – and so far, he’s winning. Last week, a court ordered the state to pay him some of the money he is due.

And while on the topic – remember this one?

No, you don’t. Like most Senegalese, who have happily forgotten about it. But on March 9th this year I read a story about a young gifted kora player Noumoucounda Cissoko, who stunned the audience with his virtuosity on the opening night. Three months later, he’s still waiting for his money. He should have gone over to the Trade Fair Grounds, picked up one of those Apple G5 Desktop Computers doing sweet bugger all there – and hey presto!

You know, sometimes, just sometimes, one would wish that the usual “We have turned the page, let’s forget it” – or “Well, I am sure my money will come insh’allah” would make way for a little bit more, er, bite. I’m no fan of predatory lawyers US-style but Christ, in instances such as these, the only right response is of course: “Sue the ß@$+@Â∆$ till they bleed”.

It is all very well to say that this is not according to cultural mores. I prefer to live in a polite society and Senegal is a very polite society. But here is a fact: the shysters who organise this theft fest no longer live in this society. They orbit out there, in a gangland of their own making. They have forfeited the right to protection under Senegal’s politeness rules.

the song from above

March 11, 2011

You know it’s morning when you hear this quick succession:

click

woosh

“Allahu Akhbar!

It’s the call for morning prayer, loudhailed across the roofs and alleys and nooks and balconies and sleeping heads of the city.

And they fly over it all in many different ways.

Some are painfully off-key; message being more important than the music. Some are clear and loud, intoning the call to prayer in one perfectly pitched phrase.

And one, not far from my home, turns the daily exercise into an operatic experience. With frills and dramatic vibrato and a slightly higher pitched crescendo towards the end. The singer understands that his celestial drama must be taken in moderation. So you do not hear him five times a day.

But when you do, it’s breathtaking. Rigoletto meets God.

Relentless Trends – 3. What have we got here…?

January 9, 2011

The Mourides are Senegal’s most influential religious brotherhood, founded late 19th century in the holy city of Touba, by Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a cleric whose teachings were strongly anti-colonial. The French sent him into exile for his troubles.

The Grand Mosque of the holy city of Touba

Today, the Mourides have become a business empire that encompasses international banking, wholesale, retail, petrol products and transport, to name a few. There are other brotherhoods as well but they none are as influential as this one. This also applies to politics. They have the ear of government.

Baye Fall before the Grand Mosque. Photo from anonimundo blog

The Baye Fall were established by Ibrahima Fall, with the explicit permission of Amadou Bamba. These were their values in the beginning: be non-materialistic, hard-working, pious – and musical. Cheikh Ndiguel Lô, for those versed into music, is a good example: a quirky, very laid-back man and a fine musician. He is Baye Fall. So is Carlou D, formerly of Positive Black Soul, who starred in the Sahel Opera a few years ago and last year released a truly wonderful album called Muzikr (a play on words, incidentally: zikr is the religious chanting you can hear all over Senegal).

Carlou D in fine form at the 2010 Hertme Afrikafestival. (photo: Bram Posthumus)

If you hear a zikr on the street, accompanied with the trademark clang of money in a calabash – that’s a Baye Fall. It’s an old ritual: religious folks giving some of their piety and spirituality in exchange for victuals. It  is practiced in India, Europe – and Senegal. But it seems that there is a tendency among some that makes a mockery of that old practice.

Picture this scene. A car moves slowly into the street. Zikr reverberates from two giant megaphones, attached to the roof. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. Then they move in: large strides, robes aflow and clanging calabashes. They fan out across the street, stop cars – if the drivers don’t stop they pursue them; they move up to people and no longer ask for money – they pretty much demand it. Simple tradespeople, shopkeepers, children, mothers, they really cannot miss a hundred francs but awkwardly give in. Ten minutes on, the invasion has passed.

Something  jars between the original mission and this temporary takeover of a whole street.

 

Baye Fall in Saint Louis, September 2009. (Photo from gosong.)

 

Every September, thousands of Baye Fall occupy the centre of Saint Louis, and not all inhabitants are happy with this: they consider it an invasion. Ostensibly, the march on Saint Louis is in memory of a minor historical event (a religious leader refused to show sufficient deference to a French governor) but the real reason is simple: they do it because they can.

Now – let’s return to those demographic statistics: Senegal is overwhelmingly young and urbanising fast. If one subscribes – even only in part – to the youth bulge theory, a few uneasy questions must begin to be asked. Is this one of the many ways in which essentially redundant men create a niche for themselves, in a society that has no room for them? Then it’s a case of tough luck: if your environment constantly reminds you that you’re on your own, then said environment must not complain if you create your own…

And that opens the next set of questions. Does the state, or more to the point, do the religious leaders in this land have an opinion about this? And if they do: do they condone this kind of behaviour? How many steps away from not just demanding money but simply no longer taking “no” for an answer? And short of sending them packing, what other solutions may there be for the excess young male population?

Answers NOT on a postcard. There are no quick fixes. The West is very unlikely to have any answers to a problem that has ceased to exist, even in its collective memory.

Harper

March 24, 2010

Harper, Liberia aerial view

Paradise lost – to be found again. Probably the shortest possible description of the Liberian town you see above. It’s been there for close to 180 years but it was looted and destroyed in the 1990s.

Harper lies in a far corner of Liberia and feels closer to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire than it does to the Liberian capital Monrovia. One of the reasons is the roads. They are atrocious. So you just hop across the river to your francophone neighbours and get your supplies from there.

The word is potential. Look at this – also taken from the aeroplane.

Atlantic Ocean to your right; Lake Shephard to your left

Problem is, as hinted before: how to get there. The road is for those who are adventurous in spirit, or, as is the case with most Liberians, simply have no other options. The sea is definitely not an option: too may horror stories of piles of rust piled with goods and people and then sinking. There is an air link but it’s expensive, as I have found out (see previous entries on this topic…).

So for now, this undiscovered gem will remain just that. An undiscovered gem. HERE is a story on the Radio Netherlands website about what happened to this elegant but damaged town. More to come. (Oh and music lovers – I have NOT forgotten my forthcoming entry on world music…)