Posts Tagged ‘radio’

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.

Interruption

September 19, 2015

While I was preparing my series on the Central African Republic, an act of treachery was perpetrated in the country that I, for now at least, consider my home.

Burkina Faso. Or, to be more precise: Ouagadougou. Because the writ of this merry band (1,300 all told) of ex-president Blaise Compaoré’s personal guards, who have committed this coup d’état, does not extend beyond the confines of the capital. And because they do not even control the city in any meaningful way, they have resorted to terrorising the population. It’s what they have done for almost three decades. As a result, Ouagadougou has fallen: from one of West Africa’s most pleasant cities to one of its most dangerous and unpredictable.

Well done, putchists!

The people, however, are unlikely to be deterred.

I follow things very closely, thanks to the legions of Burkinabè who have taken to Twitter, Facebook and other social media to show the world the extent of this treasonous assault on their legitimate democratic aspirations.

Yes, mistakes have been made during the Transition. Nobody disputes that. And the transitional authorities must take a good look at themselves and ask if they had not bitten off more than they could chew. They should have prepared the country for elections and leave everything else in the hands of the next elected government. But nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies the hi-jacking of the Transition by an armed gang of 1,300 that belongs on History’s garbage truck.

Their actions, last Thursday, have merely postponed their removal. But before they go, things could turn messy and ugly.

There is now mediation going on. The only matter that should be under discussion is their departure. The African Union yesterday gave them 96 hours. They are unlikely to heed that deadline. But there are other things afoot. Town after town is falling squarely in the hands of the people. A general strike of unlimited duration has already been announced. It is likely to be heeded.

These actions of the Burkinabè people need outside support. If an international  blockade is needed, it needs to be enforced. I’m looking at you, President Ouattara and company: your country, Côte d’Ivoire, is key in this respect. In spite of the rumours that political and business friends of ex-president Compaoré have given large sums of money to the gang that kids itself in charge, a concerted national and international action would probably suffice to smoke them out.

1,300 troops against 17 million Burkinabè, minus the few who stand to gain by the death of the democratic dream, however flawed. But as Winston Churchill quipped: democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other ones that have been tried. It is what the Burkinabè aspire to. A tiny group of fundamentally irrelevant politico-military hooligans will not stand in their way for very long.

‘I’M OFF TO TRAINING!’

February 3, 2013

The Malian captain who staged a coup d’état last year (and handed two-thirds of his country on a silver plate to the bands of criminals that are currently being removed) had been trained…in the United States. Nothing new here. Most of the worst human rights abusers in uniform who in the past visited their reign of terror on the citizens of various countries in Latin America had received training…in the United States.

But this piece is not about how the USA is the wellspring of all evils in the world. For that we have The Guardian, an eternal kindergarten playground for self-appointed progressives whose lives, these days, revolve mainly around their own navels.

No, this is about training. Training! Workshops! Meetings! But most of all: training! Today, this constitutes, without any doubt, the prime activity of the development set.

Old style: development worker arrives in village, digs wells, builds schools, designs irrigation scheme – and leaves. The villagers, whose priorities lie elsewhere, use the new facilities for a while, until they fall into disrepair. Exceptions duly noted. On a more spectacular scale, entire factories worth billions have been thusly erected and never used.

But then it was decided that is was a most inefficient way of spending development funds. A better method was found.

New style. A caravan of Four Wheel Drives arrives at an expensive hotel. Invitations have been emailed to a selected group of individuals, who duly show up – expenses paid – and gather in several rooms to receive training. Four days later the caravan departs (someone having picked up the tab) and splits: one part goes to the airport; another to the nicer parts of town. Notes and minutes are emailed, perused and forgotten.

The reverse also happens. Groups of locals are hauled through the excruciatingly humiliating process of obtaining visas for rich countries that have developed a quivering fear of “foreigners”. They arrive in said rich countries and are transported to an expensive hotel. They gather in several rooms to receive…you know the drill.

For hotel, you can also read “military base”, “radio station” or even “company”. Usually, the people thus trained have priorities that are not necessarily reflected in the training program. Practical priorities, or political ones. Priorities of which the training organisers are, in the main, blissfully unaware.

Training can of course be useful. Say, someone wants to be a radio broadcaster, like me. Stands to reason that receiving training to become one is a perfectly rational course of action. However…the use of that new expertise is another thing altogether. Will it be used for fair and balanced reporting? That depends on factors that are outside the remit of trainer and trainee alike.

And the same can reasonably be said for others. Say, someone wants to be an army captain, unlike me. Receiving military training is, once again, highly logical. Captain Sanogo, the Malian putschist, received such, in the USA. He must have been told a thousand times that the army takes its orders from politicians, not the other way around. But practical and political priorities compelled him to forget those expensive lessons – and those factors were clearly outside the remit of trainers and trainees alike.

And here lies, I think, the problem with the development set’s newfound activity. Like the village projects before it, all those training sessions are based, implicitly, on the notion that the natives must first be studied and then improved, irrespective of their own priorities. In one word: hubris. The same hubris that compelled one development bureaucrat to inform me, years ago, that implicating the recipients of aid projects in the design of such projects was, of course, complete nonsense.

Indeed. On the other hand, the context-free training of people makes perfect sense…to the hospitality industry. I’m off to training!

Dear Oh Dear, BBC

December 4, 2012

At its best, the BBC World Service’s From Our Own Correspondent offers interesting insights into countries that radio listeners may never visit.

On other occasions, the program gets things rather spectacularly wrong. Such as when Celeste Hicks, in her own tale, wanders into the dressing room of Nahawa Doumbia, one of Mali’s most celebrated jelis and gushes ‘I’m from the BBC!’ To which this national icon, tired of an evening-long performance, will probably have thought: et alors (so what)? Mercifully, there are still plenty of places in the world were someone who waltzes in with the three magical letters “B-B-C” on her lips does not find red carpets immediately being rolled out. Bless.

Anyway, Hicks gets her interview in the end and then proceeds to pontificate about how and why Mali’s musicians, renowned the world over, are not using their voices to comment on the situation in the North of their country. To which I, an order of magnitude less polite than Nahawa Doumbia, can only respond with:

W—-T—-F?????

Well, alright, she has probably missed Salif Keita in this week’s Jeune Afrique stating: “Anyone who bans music is not a Muslim.” Amin to that, by the way. But really: how long does the list have to be of Malian singers, musicians, performers who had plenty and then some to say about what is going on in their country. Let’s say, off the top of my head:

♪Singer/instrumentalist Fatoumata Diawara

♪Mali’s premier diva Oumou Sangaré

♪Singer/guitarst Samba Touré, whom I interviewed in Amsterdam this summer

♪Fadimata Walett Oumar of the band Tartit

♪Amkoullel, Mali’s very outspoken rapper

…and that’s just one cull of a few months trawling the Radio Netherlands Africa website. (Here’s a radio show I did on Mali just a few months ago, if you have a little time.)

You can add the likes of Cheikh Tidiane Seck, Bassékou Kouyaté, Toumani Diabaté and many more. And then you can add the story of the radio presenter in Gao who was beaten up by the Salafist invaders as he refused to obey their orders. And the youth protests because the Salafist invaders have taken their music away. Or indeed my own interview with Manny Ansar, director of the Festival Au Désert, which will become a caravan for peace this year (and I’m joining, yes!). 

And, incidentally, if by any chance you cannot make it to this festival – you have two things in Amsterdam to look forward to…

Manny Ansar told me that the (mostly foreign) Salafist vandals who are destroying North Mali ransacked his festival property and emptied a Kalashnikov on the sign of his festival. ‘The message was clear,’ he added drily. But never one to give up, he then told me about his audacious plan. His festival was going to travel, in a wide, elegant double arc around Salafist-occupied North Mali. One through Mauritania and South Mali; the other through Algeria and Niger. The gesture is very clearly designed to say this: you cannot stop us.

Hicks has at least four years of experience in the Sahel. How could she have missed this plethora of Malian music commentary? It’s genuinely puzzling. I guess that in her defense one may say that she works in and for a bubble. The BBC, like its newspaper cousin The Guardian, recruits from a limited pool of white, middle class, uni graduates – or, in the name of diversity, from a slightly larger pool of people who don’t look like white, middle-class uni graduates but who think like them. But is that really the explanation?

So, for those of you who were as genuinely flabbergasted as I was by this episode of From Our Own Correspondent, apparently done in Bamako, it’s not you. It’s the BBC. Again.

Ah…the joys of radio… (production, that is)

December 21, 2009

If you don’t have a studio and you want to record your own voice for a radio program – and you live in a popular area of Dakar – this is how you go about it.

Wait until after midnight. It will be reasonably quiet, by then

Have your texts ready.

Close all windows.

Put everything that can possibly absorb sound (furniture, lots of clothes) into the place where you will record. In my case, that’s the bedroom because it has an extra door I can close.

Dive under the bedsheets for extra sound isolation. Take your recording equipment with you.

Start recording your text…hang on a minute, what’s that? A jet taking off from the nearby airport – which never closes. Press the “stop” button. Wait for plane to be gone, this is a noise you can’t shut out.

Quiet again. Start recording your text…sorry, what am I hearing? Some kid in the next flat has decided to fiddle around with some kind of electronic gadget. Beep beep. Windows don’t stop that. Wait until he stops. I now officially hate electronic gadgets.

Quiet again. No, not quiet. There are crickets. Very sharp metallic sound. Loud, too. Oh – and the gadget’s back too. And there’s another jet taking off. All I need now is for someone to start playing Youssou N’Dour’s latest bestseller. Just switch on the telly, he’s there all the time.

Wait. Someone’s just done that. Tell you what, I’ll get a drink, go to sleep, wait some more…

Very early in the morning. All quiet. The only thing I can hear is the Atlantic roaring nearby. But the windows, the door and the bedsheets keep that noise out.

OK.

Script ready? Check.

Microphone working? Check.

Sound levels? (…another damn plane, doesn’t matter, not recording now…) Check.

Alright then. Breathe in. Start reading text.

“GOD IS GREAT!!!”

That’s not me, that’s a call to prayer – but it’s bloody 4am!! Why is he doing this NOW?? It’s not due until, what, 5:30 or something. Ah, but religion here is like the airport: it never shuts down.

(You may be happy to know that at around 5am I got the texts done. Just in time for prayer, that’s right. And if someone reading this has a nice quiet studio that I can use – contact me. I’ll even pay.)