Posts Tagged ‘traffic’

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…

Abidjan miniatures 8 and end

December 31, 2020

Abidjan is probably the easiest place on earth to find a taxi. They beep at you incessantly the second you place yourself on the pavement, even when you just want to cross the street. They are, in fact, louder and more insistent than their colleagues in Dakar but somehow manage to be less annoying, mostly because in this city literally EVERYONE is making noise… So: taxi. Within seconds.

The driver fills his seat to overflowing and he has positioned his corpulent self like someone on an extended relaxing holiday. But he is most assuredly at work and does not miss a beat when manoeuvering his orange Toyota through the throng in this, the busiest part of the city. And in the meantime: he talks, virtually non-stop. “See this traffic jam?” Er, yes, I do. We are in it. A long procession of private vehicles, blue wôro-wôro, buses, taxis (including mine), vans, gbaka stands still and does not move. This may be a looong ride…

“You see? These people are not even leaving Yopougon. They’re on their way to the next maquis. Everything is here! You want beer, there’s beer. You want food, there is food. You see that bar over there?” He points to his right, across a pavement, lined with food stalls and busy like a bus station. “Yes, that one. Now! When that maquis on the other side closes…” he points to his left: amidst blocks of apartments I spot part of an open space packed with tables and chairs and I pick up the sound of a band that is clearly attempting to top L’Internat in the decibel production department. You only have ONE guess as to the music it plays

“Yes – that’s the place I mean,” my guide and driver continues. “Now. When that maquis closes everybody crosses the road to come here. You see the girls getting ready?” He was not only referring to the ones selling food. “This is the new Rue Princesse, you see? After they had knocked down the old one they all came over here.” Rue Princesse, for the uninitiated, is the busiest street in the area, where boys with money meet drinks meet food meet girls looking for a good time and some money (and maybe even the other way around)… hence the name. You may, by now, have reached the conclusion that the urge to turn life into one giant party is irrepressible here and you would be right.

After an interminable ride through Yopougon we emerge onto one of the three bridges that give access to the six-lane motorway that is part of the giant motorway system linking all constituent parts of this giant city. There’s always a bit of anarchy going on here, to put it mildly. My driver, forever slouched in his seat, belly protruding as we hurtle along, explains that there’s a lot of accidents happening on this stretch of road (in fact I saw an overturned gbaka minibus on the way in) because people don’t keep their distance.

Neither does he, as he alternates between one line of fast moving vehicles and another…

Angré. Oh dear…are you really going back there…?

“So Angré it is where you’re going, right? But there’s nothing there! No life!” The traffic starts thinning out as we get to our exit lane into Cocody, leading to the Boulevard that takes us to Angré. There’s still a bunch of cars about but nothing in the way that Yopougon was crowded. My driver is almost triumphant as he weaves his way in and out of smooth flowing traffic on the two-lane boulevard. “See? Told you! Nothing here! The bosses are sleeping!” It is just after 10pm and we are, indeed, entering a more affluent part of the city. “Now, in Yopougon, hm, you will see people out and about at midnight. One, two, three in the morning. Yes! And do you know why there are so many banks in Yopougon? Simple: when people are having a good time and the money runs out, there’s always one who will say: ah, let me just pop over to the bank and get some more money for our next beers…? You see? But here….”

But then some doubt creeps into his discourse. “Look, I am working really long hours to get some money and then I pass those maquis – every day of the week, and the same guys sit there at eleven pm, twelve midnight, three am…and they are supposed to work the next day? Of course not. And then the next day…I see them again! Where do they get all that money from? I don’t quite understand…” It is likely that the equally ubiquitous Western Union agencies have something to do with that seemingly endless flow of money…

And then he drops me off in far too quiet, empty and miserable Angré. And he almost feels sorry for me. “Look at you, I’m leaving you in this stone dead neck of the woods and look at me and where I am going: back to life, back to joy, back to good food and plenty drinks and gorgeous princesses…” Do I get the picture?

Yes. Certainly. I do. See you soon in this city, enjoyable and exasperating, full of life, noise, crime and grime but in possession of copious amounts of Never Say Die. I will be back.

An Excellent New Year to You 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 8, 2020

Part two – How do you do social distancing when closeness brings you money?

 

March 26. I’m having a chat with a good friend and neighbour, who is part of a taxi business. We have just had the first of what is likely to be a long-ish series of very quiet nights. Immediately after the public confirmation of the first two cases of COVID-19, president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita announced a 9pm to 5am curfew.

This follows one week after public gatherings of over 50 were banned. This has meant the unthinkable: that quintessentially larger-than-life Bamako phenomenon, the Sunday Marriage, immortalised by Amadou & Mariam, can no longer take place. In addition, schools have been closed and now that the curfew is in full force the bars, restaurants and music clubs, already taking a hit from the less-than-50-only rule, will be closing entirely.

Another measure is the social distance rule for urban transport and this makes my friend’s life rather difficult.

“There’s already very few people out,” he says, “and with this rule I can only take two paying passengers at a time. It’s not worth it. Yesterday I drove around the city for five hours and collected – what… CFA7,500.” That’s 11 euros 43 cents, not enough to cover the petrol and the bribes.

“But,” he went on, “I will probably ride this out. How about the fellows on the Sotrama?” I had already noticed that those ubiquitous green minibuses – named after the long gone SOciété du TRAnsport du MAli – were becoming scarce. Not bad for road safety, as a good number of the (mostly) young men driving them are pretty reckless, if they’re not tired and overworked. A day starts as early as 5am and can go on until 10-11pm (when there is no curfew of course). Money must be given to the owner of the vehicle and what’s left gets divvied up between the driver and the parentikè (apprentice), who ushers the passengers in. Hang on, that’s after the traffic police and sometimes even les coxeurs have had their cut: the former a big slice, the latter a very small one, both paid on the spot.

Your Bamako transport at a glance: Chinese motorbikes (everywhere), private vehicle (increasing in number), taxis (always yellow) and your Sotrama neatly in the middle.

“So what happens,” I ask, “when the Sotrama must halve the number of passengers to respect the new social distance rule?”

“Oh, that’s simple. If you have some 20 passengers on board and they all pay 150 francs, say, you’ll get CFA3,000 for one ride.” And that’s not counting the numerous times people get on and off en route: whenever the apprentice bangs on the roof, the driver veers to the curb and stops. It is everybody’s job (yours and mine) to stay out of their way.

“Now they can only take ten…”

Cycling around the neighbourhood, I did see a few half-full Sotrama doing the rounds with drivers and apprentices looking even gloomier than they normally do. Of course: there’s zero money to be made from a half-full vehicle. And there’s definitely fewer of them on the streets.

In a country without any official safety net both your own money and the patience of the family you will now have to rely on run out pretty quickly. And then what? Your guess is as good as mine. But the longer this goes on, the harder it will get to grab that lowest rung of the ladder that is now disappearing out of sight as a thick Corona-mist hides it from view.

 

To be continued.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 6, 2020

Part one – hand gel.

 

We were late.

While most of the rest of the continent already had been affected, the number of cases in Mali remained stubbornly at zero.

But on March 25, finally, the news came: we have two suspected cases, more to follow. That same day, a run started on…no, not toilet paper, of course. Malians went after a much more useful product: alcohol-based hand gel. When I went out the next day I visited more than half a dozen chemists – one of the former French colonists’ leftovers is a chemist density to match that of Paris – with the following almost identical ritual.

Get off and park bicycle.

Move towards the now ubiquitous water reservoirs that had appeared out of nowhere in front of every chemist, bank, office block, supermarket, and wash hands.

Enter the premises.

Washing hands again, with that hand geld I was hoping to get my…er…hands on.

Being told, always with a smile, that no, sorry, we’ve run out. Désolé…

In one instance even being waved off, ever so friendly, before I asked…

All this in the baking heat because we have not only been officially admitted to Coronaland, we are also in the midst of the annual heatwave, which seems to be more extreme than ever before. It’s a bloody oven out there. 43 at least, cooling to mid-to-high twenties at night. And apart from the faintest of drizzles (normally known here as “the mango rains”) nothing happened.

Nope. Nothing happened.

Well, ok, I got one tiny plastic container with some hand gel like substance that looked suspiciously more like perfume than anything else but hey – if it does the job… In fairness, I must add that there were no frantic scenes of people in near-hysterics buying every toilet roll in sight and there was literally no sign of any panic buying. Just that gel, was all.

Covered in a fine layer of sweat and in great need of some bottled/canned liquid (orange juice, preferably) I finally arrived at the neighbourhood supermarket. And boy, are those sloping streets a pain in the neck with a merciless sun hammering you as you pedal along while taxis and the ubiquitous green Sotrama minibuses whizz past you while you try to remain steady and straight as you are forced into the thick layer of sand next to the tarred road…………

Lo and behold! The supermarket – water reservoir and soap parked outside and could you please wash your hands…? – sold more of the same sort-a-like hand gel thingies I had picked up earlier. But the next day they had found extra supplies from somewhere. In fact, it was a locally produced hand gel, which they proceeded to sell at the extortionate price of CFA8,000. That’s more than 12 euros. You will not find many Malians having so much money freely lying round somewhere. On the other hand, this is a nation of traders. And if you have the chance, do not ever let a good crisis go to waste… Now, do we need those face masks or not?

 

To be continued.

The last light out or the first light in?

December 29, 2019

There’s a bunch of things I could not do this year.

One of those things is happening as we speak: I should have been at the second round of Guinea Bissau’s presidential elections.

But I’m not, for a highly familiar reason: ambition outstripped means.

As Boxer (remember him?) would tell himself: “I must work harder.” This 21st Century version grumbles to himself: “Yeah – and stop faffing about on social media all the time if you please…………….”.

In 2020 I shall become rich.

One can dream…

I report from a region that may be entering its most crucial decade since the majority of its constituent countries gained their political independence, some two generations ago (Liberia excepted; it got there earlier). The challenges are legion. The ambitions to deal with them not always in evidence. And the means, the resources…?

We’re not getting the full picture.

A friend who visited Bamako recently was surprised at the number of new vehicles on the streets. Sure enough, the vast majority of ordinary citizens still have the choice between their motorbikes, armies of sturdy vintage Mercedes taxis (painted yellow) and the ubiquitous battered green Sotrama minibuses. All share the ambition to defy the laws of gravity – all lack the means. So they stick to defying the rules of the road instead: biking around town – with or without an engine – is akin to being in possession of a permanent death wish. (I had a few escapes this year, including the moment when out of nowhere a two-wheeled missile appeared, rocketing through a red light, missing me by an inch and – of course – very annoyed that I had had the very bad idea of being in his way. A simple short courteous nod of the head from both sides diffused the situation.)

It’s the Bamako way.

A Bamako sunset.

But yes – those new vehicles. There’s a surprisingly large number of them. Which seems to suggest that in spite of the many problems besetting this country, wealth continues to be accumulated. Bamako today feels a bit like Luanda in the 1990s: a bubble where folks can continue whatever it is they are doing – living, working, partying – unperturbed by what’s going on a few hours’ drive away. And what is going on, is horrifying. 

Death is stalking the land and nowhere more so than in the border area of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Who are its agents? What we read is: ‘terrorists’. Or ‘bandits’. They call themselves ‘fighters for the True Faith, or similar.

They are almost always young men. And the greatest risk is that they will come to regard their exploits in the same way those young former fighters I interviewed years ago, in Liberia. They often said that after the war they considered themselves unemployed.

Language matters a lot here. Sowing death and destructing, looting and pillaging was considered ‘work’; invading a defenceless village was equated to being on ‘a mission’ or ‘an operation’, in which the motto invariably was: Pay Yourself. I bring this up because I am hearing that the self-styled jihadists who are sowing death and destruction in three Sahel countries are getting paid for their ‘work’.

By whom?

That is what we all desperately would like to know.

Not in the clear…

A host of theories have been launched on that now fully discredited system of deliberate misinformation, formerly known as the social media. Some believe it is France. Others think the source of misery must be located around the Gulf. The truth, if I may be so bold, is most likely a lot closer to home. While there may well have been an inflow of money into these arenas – from European powers that paid for the release of their citizens taken hostage in the desert and likely also from the Gulf – it looks as if these armed groups are increasingly capable to survive without outside assistance. You must understand that we are dealing with a much scaled-down economy here. In a non-urban setting, people survive on very little and there are sources of income available that can more than adequately cover the basic needs of a relatively small armed gang. Including arms and ammunition.

Artisanal gold mines can be exploited.

Protection money can be arranged with transporters, traders and other businesspeople – or politicians and even army brass.

And in addition:

The travelling public can be robbed.

Cattle can be stolen and sold.

Shops can be raided and their contents sold.

Property looted and sold.

Homes broken into; possessions sold.

Taken together, that’s a cool amount of loot to be taken and monetized. And if, as the fear is now, these gangs move south, into the much richer coastal states, the amount of stuff to be grabbed increases dramatically.

Big coastal cities…are they really heading there? Yes, say some experts, and you’d better be prepared.

This, to me, has little if anything to do with the adherence to an ideology, or a religion. What we are looking at here is a series of criminal enterprises that was triggered into acceleration by a previous criminal enterprise: the France – UK – US – NATO–engineered toppling of the consummate opportunist and geo-political survivor from Libya, Moamar Khadaffi. Read well: this act was not at the origin of the problems in the Sahel – Wahabist meddling in the region, for instance, goes back at least 60 years as does the economic, political and social marginalisation of the people living there – but it did something crucial: it provided the catalyst.

And what is the answer to the ensuing mayhem? This is where the question of ambition and wherewithal comes into play again. The money does not go where it is needed  – as anecdotally evidenced by those vehicles I mentioned earlier – and as far as the protagonists are concerned, this is perfectly fine. Irresponsible politicking takes precedence over serious counter-action. Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire are only the latest examples of this but the very same can be said of the three Sahel states.

It resembles the mood in Monrovia when a certain Charles Taylor took 150 men across the border from Côte d’Ivoire into Liberia at Buutuo on Christmas Eve 1989, and used the BBC Africa Service to announce to the world that his intention was to march onto the capital. Six months later he was there. Nobody was prepared. 25 years later, another threat, in the form of a disease, started in the remotest areas, far away from three capitals (Monrovia, Conakry, Freetown) and was not taken seriously in similar fashion until thousands were dead. Is history repeating itself, once again? Looks like it…

It’s begun. (Source: French ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Neither in the capitals nor in the capitals that support these capitals does there appear to be a sense of real urgency. Sure, there are the obligatory strong-worded declarations from the regional G5 Force Sahel. And there are similar declarations at UN meetings.

But doubling down on the military option has had limited and often questionable results. Twitter recently circulated imagery purporting to show dead ‘terrorists’. There were about a dozen bodies in the picture, taken in northern Burkina Faso. They were all young men, dressed in the same way you see young men dressed in many places across this region: simple (T) shirt, threadbare trousers, flip-flops. Were these the dreaded terrorists that the army had killed? I saw poor, marginalised (and now dead) youngsters who may have succumbed to the siren call of those selling the benefits of banditry with the snakeoil of religion.

Expensive foreign-owned drones will not persuade them to change their ways. Neither will expensive foreign-run operations like Barkhane. Nor will any of the plethora of hearts-and-minds programs. Seen in isolation, they are pointless. Seen in combination, they become an exercise in hypocrisy: you wish to change people’s minds by telling them to be nice? While bombing them to hell? That worked miracles in Afghanistan, did it not?

What will change minds in the villages and towns across this vast land is the tangible reality that their inhabitants have a stake in their country. They currently do not. For some, guns now provide a temporary purpose in life, as they did in the wars of the 1990s. But what is the ultimate aim, beyond survival? I don’t think there is one. Some of their leaders might be dreaming of a caliphate, while they actually create a Boulevard of Crime – just like Charles Taylor rebranded the extreme looting spree he initiated as ‘The Revolution’.

He’s looking on. On Avenida Francisco Mendes, central Bissau, close to the Parliament building and the country’s most expensive hotel.

Yes, it’s all stuff and nonsense. But absent anything else, especially a legit economic activity that will provide people with the means to have an orderly existence, the gun will have to do. You counter this problem by turning the Sahel into a zone that has economic viability without crime. And you use smart human intelligence to find the gang leaders and put them away – preferably for good.

True revolutions were led by people like Amilcar Cabral, whose thoughts have as much relevance today as they did half a century ago. And as I sit in this dust-filled office mourning my absence from the country he founded, where today’s election will decide the difference between stagnation and (some) hope to progress, I can but reflect on the extent to which those who followed in the footsteps of the early firebrands have squandered what was given to them. Let’s be clear: that squandering often happened with the active assistance of external powers: the two sides on the ‘Cold’ War and/or the former colonial powers. But ultimately, the blame must be laid where it belongs: at home, at the feet of those who did the squandering.

What is happening in the Sahel today simply confirms the dictum that you reap what you sow. Even better, paraphrased: this is what you reap when you don’t sow. The message emerging from the mayhem in the Sahel is squarely directed at the political elites.

Shape Up or Ship Out.

This problem is far from over. Tackling it head-on means starting where the roots are. And since roots are local, they can be found in the red earth of this region. That’s where the search for a solution begins. If it is then found that there are local and/or foreign actors standing in the way – they must be told – and made – to leave.

Have an excellent (or at least a slightly less insane) 2020.

City Life

May 10, 2013

As I was looking for scenes from Guinea, I rummaged through my computer files and came across something I wrote in January. I am not sure whether it will find its way into another publication and so I have found the perfect place for it. Here. 

It had already happened when I walked past. A little girl in a dirty light blue dress was standing between two carelessly parked cars and weeping. A boy who had been pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair was standing next to the girl. He was wiping her tears and cleaning her face with water; then he went back to pushing the chair. The traffic on the Corniche raged on right next to that little scene. Anarchic, stop-start movement, angry car horns, shouts, exhaust fumes. Just like yesterday and exactly like tomorrow. He kept pushing the wheelchair, passing the cars, begging for money.

The girl stayed where she was, dabbing her eyes with the hem of her dress. But the tears kept coming. She pulled herself together in the end and started walking, cheap plastic slippers on her feet, spindly legs, on her way…home I was hoping. Would be difficult to imagine this little bundle of fragility sleeping rough. But this is Conakry, a city that has been allowed to fall to abnormal levels of dysfunctionality.

But then I saw her walking past the boy who had been wiping her tears and realized that in a place where pretty much nothing works for you a tiny sign of human kindness is in fact the only thing that will probably keep you going. Repeat a hundred times all over town, every day, and you get something approaching a bearable life.

Well, no. You need other things. Light in your house, light on your street, bureaucrats who respect your rights as a citizen, police officers who catch criminals and don’t steal your money, water in your home, a judiciary where you get justice even when you don’t have friends there, a boss who regards his workers as people. This city has very little of any of those.

So here’s a tribute to the more than two million Conakryka who have to live with the consequences of half a century of catastrophic governance…and still find it possible to offer consolation to a sad little girl in a dirty blue dress.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

(Another example of non-protection: manual boat dismantling next to the port. The men working here will not geld old.)

Local authorities

December 2, 2012

Question: are all local authorities the same? Or, as my old Zimbabwean friends would say: do they all have the same mother?

Exhibit HERE: when the Autoroute de lAéroport was built, only a few short years ago, it bisected the lovely village of Yoff. ExhibitTHERE: the same occurred in the 1960s, when the village of Badhoevedorp (where I grew up) was cut in two unequal parts by the A9 motorway.

The one in Yoff is level with the surrounding area and… I just remember, I wrote about this here and don’t have to repeat myself any more unnecessarily that I do already…

Now – here comes the point.

When the road was finished, people still wanted to cross to go shopping, see their family, go to work, see their friends and so on. As there was the grand total on ZERO footbridges, people set about crossing the lethal sixlaner on foot. Dangerous, definitely. Got a better idea?

Well yes: bridges of course! There is today a grand total of TWO, about a mile apart and (of course) not at the one point where it would have made the most sense, i.e.: where people actually cross. So the daily death-defying runs across l’Autoroute remain.

Until yesterday.

Sharp whistles rang out. The sound, which usually conjures up images of bent traffic cops trying to extract some cash from wily taxi drivers, came from gendarmes who were, for the first time ever, actually preventing people from crossing the road!

The road in weston. Pic taken from one of those bridges, just two hours after a kerosine tanker had crashed, October 2009.

The road in question. Pic taken from one of those bridges, just two hours after a kerosine tanker had crashed on the day I moved into my apartment, October 2009.

So this is the solution the powers that be come up with: do not, whatever you do, come up with a solution that would actually be popular – no. Do not, under any circumstance, build a bridge that people may actually want to use. No: use enforcement instead. And leave the undesirable situation in place. That way, everybody wins, no?

Incidentally, that awful road in my old village is of course still there – noise 24/7, elevated six metres into the sky and going on for miles. Another Exhibit THERE: Amsterdam municipality has decided to build the most expensive piece of pipe humankind has ever seen so that it can also say: we have an Underground, saddling generations of Amsterdammers with a grotesquely inflated local tax bill.

I’d welcome more examples of administrative insanity, I’m sure there’s loads. Not that they ever learn anything but it’s fun exchanging the horror stories. Meanwhile, the gendarmes will certainly be back. Not holding my breath as to when that third footbridge will be built…

A new Liberian police officer

June 2, 2011

We (that is photographer Martin Waalboer http://www.martinwaalboer.nl) and me had found a new Monrovia taxi driver. Nicolas. Tall-ish figure, forever clad in simple jeans and t-shirt. Exuberant character – if he agreed with what you said he’d show you a broad and slightly mischievous grin, and shout from behind the wheel: ‘I love this man!!!’ If confronted with a problem, he’d be on his feet and swaying about, like a merry-go-round slightly out of kilter, looking askance at the person or the thing that has caused him this problem. An extremely likeable loose canon – that’s the best way to describe him.

Nicolas was swaying about when confronted by a police officer. We had just been to the Freeport of Monrovia and were coming from the northern part of Monrovia into the centre. The two are separated by the Montserrado River and the bridge that spans this river has been immortalised by the late Chris Hondros’ picture of the fighter jumping up as he made his way across.

So, coming off that bridge, we were stopped. Traffic police. Would Nicolas be able to produce his driver’s and taxi license, the latter as proof that he had paid his taxes? Pay! Your! Taxes! It is the main mantra of this government. Help Mama Liberia develop and Pay! Your! Taxes!

Nicolas could not provide his papers. ‘Park the car,’ he was ordered. Now ordinarily, Liberian police officers bark orders and expect to be bribed. But this was a new officer. He came to us and apologized for the inconvenience ‘on behalf of the Liberian government’ but the rules said that if someone was driving around without papers, he was in breach of the law. Fair enough.

By now, a small crowd had gathered around the problem. Nicolas was by now awkwardly swivelling on his feet, pleading with the officer, who was not to be persuaded. Then another fellow marched into the scene and demanded to know what was happening. He would then inform his superiors, whoever they were. When told about Nicolas’ problem, he volunteered to take Nic’s car and drive us to our destination. ‘That would be ethically wrong,’ said the officer. We were beginning to like this man.

The to-ing and fro-ing went on for a while and by then we had decided that we would walk the short distance to our resting place and pay Nicolas when he’d solved his problem. The car would stay here, that much was sure and no matter how much we liked our increasingly agitated loose canon, we had other things to do than listening to an argument that was going nowhere. Mr Volunteer Driver then offered to take us in another car but since he had been disruptive and had not bothered to show an ID, we politely declined.

So on our way we went, leaving Nicolas to argue his case and the officer to stand his ground. No sooner had we turned the first corner or there they were. One grinning driver and the same earnest officer sitting next to him. ‘He has just shown me his papers,’ he said. ‘The man is a credible citizen of Liberia.’ We thanked him profusely, for his service but of course basically for his impeccable conduct. Liberia needs loads of people like him.

Into the car. Nicolas cannot stop grinning. ‘They were in my dashboard! I forgot!!!’ Christ, man, you put us through all this because your left hand has no idea about what your right hand is doing? ‘Yeah, man, they were there all the time! I forgot!’ Fine, Nic, just make sure you remember were you out your papers next time you take us on a ride. ‘So you have another job for me?’ Maybe, you loveable idiot, you, but not just now.

He took us to our destination and drove into the court. Reversed, and went out and only then did we see the slogan on the back of his car. Every car has one.

‘No food for lazy man.’

Or

‘Allah is the greatest.’

Or

‘Stomach takes no holiday.’

This one had us rolling about laughing because it summed Nicolas up better than this entire story. On the back of his car was written, in big red letters: God Knows Why.

photo: Martin Waalboer

BEEP!

February 16, 2011

Out the door, down the stairs, onto the street, turning around to close the front door behind me…

BEEP!

Three steps out, shop’s across the street…

BEEP!

…emerging from shop with baguette…

BEEP!

…four steps along the street in the direction of the fruit stall on the corner…

BEEP!

…six steps later on the way to same fruit stall…

BEEP!

…returning from fruit stall with a few Clementines, just crossing the street to another shop to get some mineral water (which is…

BEEP!

…I said: which is for my coffee machine).

Swinging by the newspaper stand and there is temporary relief…

…home stretch with the groceries but just before getting into the door…

BEEP!

This is not a car alarm constantly going off, nor is it an irritating kid playing with some obnoxious electronic device whilst keeping up with me.

Nope.

It's.......

…. the sound of Dakar’s taxis. And if there is one thing I could change about this place…

BEEP!

…I would BAN these incessant short sharp hits on the claxon button.

BEEP!

When it is

BEEP!

blatantly clear that I have no

BEEP!

intention to use a taxi because I did not wave my arm or nod my head, I did not look in the direction of the driver or made any gesture at all to suggest that I was going to need a ride.

BEEP! “Taxi?”

This is quickly (and unhealthily I admit!) becoming my Dakar pet hate. Taximen: I will let you know when I intend to make use of your services, thank you. No need to BEEP!, slow down when I am trying to cross the effin’ road, flash lights, BEEP! some more. I – WILL – LET – YOU – KNOW!!!

Bloody hell.

And there is no real solace in the realisation that they do it to absolutely everyone who looks well-dressed, briefcased, or foreign.

Last night, as I was taking out a pizza, sure enough: the inevitable BEEP! “Taxi?” right in front of the take away store. ‘Man, you’re joking – it’s 300 metres, tops, to my home.’ The reply: ‘Well, I’ll take you.’ It somehow never occurs to the dear drivers that someone who is walking fast in a straight line with a take away pizza in his hand it highly unlikely to be wanting a taxi. Nooooo – it’s…

BEEP! “Taxi?”

Told you it was becoming a pet hate, right?

Taking a break from the beep. Photo: Martin Waalboer

But there are times you do need a taxi, though, which is another minor headache.

‘Salaam aleikoum.’

‘Aleikoum salaam.’

‘Bëggue dem VDN – Cimetière’ (Trying out my rudimentary Wolof for ‘I’d like to go to VDN, which is a thoroughfare, Cimetière being near the office where I pay my rent. I walk it at times but not when I’m busy or can’t be bothered.)

‘Montez’

‘Fii ba Cimetière ñaata?’ (Never get into a taxi without knowing the price)

=some ridiculous amount is mentioned=

‘Mon frère, seer na lool’ (probably won’t need translation.)

=slightly less ridiculous amount=

‘OK, mille francs.”

‘Deux mille.’

‘My good friend, it’s round the corner, you can take me to town for that amount.’

‘Mille cinq cents.’

By then, I want to be on my way. And again, no solace in the realisation that this happens to absolutely everyone who takes a taxi. It’s a ritual but one that wears out pretty quickly, especially when you have to do this often.

My street. Fruit stall roof on the top left. Very low taxi density on this pic.

But the real BEEP! problem is of course that there are BEEP! entirely too many of them. Way too BEEP! many taxis chasing way too little BEEP! money. At the Forum last week, someone offered me a ride from one building to the next building – for a thousand francs, €1,50. I’ll give you a hundred, I said and he was genuinely prepared to take the offer…

These are desperate times. Crisis in nearby Côte d’Ivoire lingers on with great impact on the whole region (still, bless Abidjan taxis – they have metres!); oil hits $100/barrel again (import bill goes through the roof here); economy stubbornly refuses to take off, as the government stifles any entrepreneurial spirit that isn’t tied to the Royal Family in one way or another. So, what’s a humble taxi driver to do? BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! for attention in the hope that someone will take him up on his offer. After negotiation.

But good grief – it’s annoying. Even more so when I know that once inside, you can have great conversation, crack jokes, take instant Wolof tutorials…just stop that bloody incessant…

BEEP!

Oh well.