Posts Tagged ‘social distancing’

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…

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

June 20, 2020

Part eight and end – open borders and dense crowds – 2

 

So the airport is supposed to re-open shortly. (Yes, for once I indulge in the maddeningly annoying habit to start a sentence with the completely redundant ‘so’… so there.) Earlier this month, the Transport Ministers of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held a virtual video meeting, where they proposed to resume domestic air travel by the end of this month. Mind you, domestic other travel has been going on in the most spectacular fashion, at least here in Mali (in Senegal, inter-urban travel was banned until this week). On the way into Ségou, a two-and-a-half hour journey, I counted at least two dozen buses heading in the opposite direction. I was made to understand that these are all packed to the rafters with passengers. They will not bother departing with a half-empty bus. One old carcass on wheels had been hastily parked and was expeditiously shedding its passengers as black smoke enveloped the area of its right-hand-side back tyre. I also noticed the smashed wreckages of at least half a dozen FourWheelDrives that had been driven at high speed into trees and ditches. The elites’ travel habits differ slightly from those of ordinary folks but at least they get to respect the 1.5 or two metre barrier as they drive themselves to death.

No such concerns for everybody else. On Monday, the only day Ségou springs back to something resembling life, the market in the centre of town was heaving with people. Women and their merchandise were packed like sardines in the many covered motor taxis that crisscross this town; they seat about 6, sometimes 8. Fare: 100 CFA franc, 0.15 euro, perhaps a little extra for your wares. No taximan in his right mind leaves with a half-empty vehicle. With petrol well over one euro a litre, to do so is economic madness. And the same goes for the famous green Sotrama buses in Bamako, and the hundreds of buses that ply those long routes from the capital to Kayes (600 kilometres), Sikasso (400), Ségou (nearby) or even Gao (900 kilometres) – this last destination on a no-longer-existing road where you risk getting hi-jacked, robbed or even blown up.

One bus after it hit an IED between Sévaré and Gao. Photo credit not known, picture retrieved from the site djeliba24.com

The risk of contracting the dreaded virus is subject to the pragmatically calculated risk assessment we discussed earlier: either you sell your stuff and live another week – or you don’t and then it will be game over very soon. And as we saw earlier, too: there are no underlying health problems really; in Mali those supposedly underlying health issues tend to kill you on their own, without any help from COVID-19.

The ECOWAS ministers also discussed the issue of international and intercontinental travel. The idea is to gradually open the ECOWAS internal borders by July 15th at the latest. This means that the twin circus I described here will begin again: a smooth passage through the airport for the few, a rough, unfriendly and corrupt passage for everybody travelling by bus, this time augmented with Corona-related checks, which I predict to be user-friendly at the airports and add another layer of harrassment of the travelling public at the land borders, this time wearing white overcoats instead of uniforms.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita makes increasingly frequent television appearances, delivering speeches in complicated French nobody understands and designed to put across that famous line: I Feel Your Pain.

No You Bloody Don’t, is the riposte coming from meetings such as these.

Opposition rally in Ségou, June 19th. Pic: me.

A much bigger one happened on the same day, June 19th in Bamako. And as you can see, the virus fear has been completely overtaken, nay: overwhelmed, by rising public anger. About the education crisis – kids have not been to school for months because of a deep and bitter dispute between teachers unions and the govenment. About the all-pervasive corruption, large and small, with which people are absolutely fed up. And for some it is also about the recent parliamentary elections, another excercise in futility, which returned some to their seats and booted others away from their sinecures. In some circles the results are contested, while for most everyone else life goes on regardless. For those 99%, COVID-19 has been a most unwelcome distraction but one that has brought the existing cleavages in even sharper light than before. And that cleavage is where it has always been: between the haves and the have-nots. Foreign money often makes the difference.

No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when your position, your job, your sinecure, your income… is essentially assured by financial, political, diplomatic and/or business support from outside the country. No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when you can sail through an airport and the journey from your capital to another capital in the ECOWAS region takes less time than for a bus with 70 passengers to leave a congested city. No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when forking out 500 euros for a return ticket to Dakar or Abidjan makes no dent in your budget while for 95 out of 100 of your compatriots this constitutes their entire budget for most of the year. No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when once again your health problems will be sorted after a quick trip to Paris, London, Lisbon, Rabat or Johannesburg, while others die on their way to hospital in a taxi or a handcart.

Caveats, execptions, all duly noted and accepted but we are talking general trends here. And we are trying to come to terms with the fact that for most Malians – and I’d wager most everyone else in this 350 million strong region – COVID-19 has not made any difference to their lives, had it not been for the official measures that often killed their business. (And before I forget: the formidable food business woman who went missing from our beloved depot when the curfew hit …is back, with her new daughter strapped to her back.)

Is it helpful that these new demonstrations are organised by a Wahab imam, the former head of the influential High Islamic Council, who has none-too-subtle presidential ambitions, ambitions that, I’m sorry to say, go strangely missing from most if not all all international media coverage? No, it is probably not. What is abundantly clear, though, is that ADEMA, the party and its associated military and civilian politicians, who came to symbolise the beginning of the democracy wave in 1991, have had a heavy hand in shaping the decay and the corruption that have become the sad lamented hallmarks of this once (and so blindly) hallowed example of a functioning democracy. I have been blogging my own mea culpa in this respect more than once. 

Ségou, June 19th. pic: me.

So as we leave Corona behind, we can re-concentrate minds to the underlying isues that don’t kill you instantly but slowly: glaring inequality being the most prominent among them. One of the things I have finally been able to do is to start reading Professor Mahmood Mamdani’s study of how colonialism continues to shape the most uncivil administrations across the continent, the ones that are sustained with foreign money. It’s the turn of Malians to be angry with their particular variety of administrative indifference. Mamdani’s book is entitled Citizen and Subject and I want to return to this key issue soon. For even though the book focusses on countries far removed from the Francophone West African experience, it will have many things to say that resonate here, too. Stay tuned.

 

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 27, 2020

Part six – no distance (note: the term “social distancing” is patently preposterous, as it is entirely clear that the distance required to avoid catching The Virus is physical…)

pic: me.

A Bamako street corner. A very average Bamako street corner, with roadside vendors trying to make a few cents, taxis looking to gain the edge at the traffic light, the Sotrama boys running across the street looking for passengers, the impatient beeping and revving of cheap Chinese motorbikes forever in a hurry, pedestrians looking for a safe place to cross, corrupt traffic police and their sneering whistles, car horns blaring…. Once that red light goes green all that energy will be unleashed and there will be a tremendous roar as thick traffic races to the next light.

That traffic thinned out somewhat after the government announced the strict measures designed to keep COVID-19 manageable. But it’s already growing back to its previous volume – most certainly the motorbikes and their gravity-defying habits.

I recently went to visit a political analyst who explained to me the folly of going ahead with last Sunday’s second round of the legislative elections – more about that in a later post. Enthusiasm for these polls was at a bare minimum and the reason people gave for not going to the polling station was the obvious one: Corona. Rather bewilderingly, fear of the virus vanishes entirely in other places. On the way to the interview my taxi crawled through a densely crowded market, there was the usual sight of the people packed like sardines in the Sotrama minibuses…

I am also reliably informed that mosques fully fill up for Friday prayers. There are very prominent religious leaders in the country who are virtually untouchable and whose authority goes way beyond that of the secular government, again for reasons that are perfectly easy to grasp.

Rushing to market. Pic: me.

So actually, none of this is terribly bewildering. Buying groceries, moving around town and going to pray – especially in this time of Ramadan – are activities that are an order of magnitude higher on peoples’ priority lists than taking part in a pointless exercise in what passes for democracy but is, in point of fact, a complete irrelevance to the vast majority.

In crisis times such as these people have a very stark choice to make: if we stay at home we’ll have no business and no money and we will starve; if we go out and do our business on the streets we may risk contamination. You die – or you die.

That’s a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, if I am permitted a maritime image about 1,200 kilometres from the nearest coast.

Similarly, it is the ordinary folks that get into the crosshairs of the men and women in uniform. In some places street vendors are the target of sustained harassment. Here it is those who are breaking the (increasingly pointless) 9pm to 5am curfew, in place since March 26.

Not exactly locked in but close enough. Pic: me.

Increasingly pointless, indeed, because what’s the use of letting bars and music venues and restaurants – and the many street vendors they attract – go bankrupt because you want to avoid contamination while it is actually during the day that far more people run that very same risk? ‘The only folks happy with the curfew are the people in uniform,’ says the good friend and neighbour you have already met. ‘It’s business for them. The only good thing about it is that they leave people like me in peace when I am at work during the day because they now make their money at night…’ But for him, and many of his colleagues, the very lucrative night business cannot come back soon enough.

Enforcing the curfew now is the new sport in town that extends to the furthest nook and cranny of this vast city. Don’t think you can sneak about in your remote corner of Bamako because there will be patrols and you will be chased, beaten up and be made to pay a fine that goes straight into the pocket of the chap that’s just beaten you up.

Nobody knows how long this will go on. But everyone knows that this can not last for much longer. Requests for money multiply. Food stocks, such as there are, run out, as does the patience of people you rely on for survival. Remittances have ended because the places where your relatives are working, in Côte d’Ivoire, in France, in Canada, wherever, are all closed, too.

There is no full lockdown and it’s unlikely one will happen. And this half-half position keeps full desperation at bay for now, as Mali’s contamination rate creeps upward to 389 with 23 dead, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker. Does this justify the continued restrictions? That’s up to the government and it does not appear new announcement are forthcoming. So for now, we just muddle through.