Friday, October 29, 2004

Good things about Nigeria #1

Nigeria gets such bad press in the world and its unfair. There are just as many bad things per capita elsewhere as here, so its time a non-Nigerian stuck up the for the place. I'm going to create a constantly growing list of good things in Nigeria, starting with:

The Nigerian Potato

No one told me about the Nigerian potato before we left, so it was a very pleasant surprise moving here to find that the Nigerian potato is extremely tasty. We suffer in the UK with all those nasty transgenomic supermarket spuds. The Nigerian potato is mostly a 'new' potato type. They rarely get big enough to think of baking them (but who wants baked potatoes when its 38degrees outside?) Think of the loveliest organic potato in the UK, then imagine this: the Nigerian potato is more succulent and flavoursome still.

Long live the Nigerian potato!

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Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Back again

Been too busy at work to write in the past few days. Meanwhile, my head has been exploding with ideas. Its time to bang some of ‘em out before there’s any cranial damage:

1) Recapturing the human. The proposal is that contemporary European anti-humanism (which has led to the theoretical cul-de-sac of a negative nihilism - language gets in the way of everything, human subjectivity is an illusion, machinic production undermines any coherent notion of agency and intervention etc) – an agenda which by definition cannot produce a coherent political philosophy – is challenged by a new humanism (yes I know we’ve had this kind of thing before).

So where would this new humanism begin?

On a conceptual level, in a bid to begin with connectivity (we are all humans), we need to recognise conceptual invariants. These are quite different to universals or essences – rather they are the concept-shells which embrace difference (in fact, difference is only possible on the basis of these concept-shells).

If we have to relate this to the vocabulary of European philosophy, these conceptual invariants are a bit like a transcendental layer of conceptuality – except the transcendental deals in conceptual invariants rather than essences.

I propose nine conceptual invariants as the basis of a new humanism:

  • Self
  • Community
  • World
  • Expression
  • Ethics
  • Spirit
  • History
  • Memory
  • Desire

My contention is that all human communities share these conceptual categories. More fundamentally, all human communities require a specific expression of these categories precisely in order to be human communities. In other words, there is no westernism or Occidentalism within these categories. A philosophically-based anthropology would therefore begin with these nine categories, analysing each human community on the basis of how these concepts are played out in existential real-time. The key point methodologically is that each human community itself embodies difference: there would therefore be no definitive answer for each concept. Instead, the methodology would seek a field of interpretations that orient the different expressions of each concept in a certain direction, therefore elaborating normative responses and the deviances that in turn respond to normativity.

In other words, this new humanism would be mindful of language, translation, the text etc., but it would not go so far as to say that all concepts are bounded by the specificity of language and the sign. At least, the nine conceptual invariants that form the transcendental layer of anthropological analysis are meta-concepts that are not subject to linguistic distortion. So the argument that the ‘self’ for instance is a western philosophical concept cannot wash: the new humanism would respond by saying that each society constructs a notion of self (defines the human individual and transmits this across time via socialisation/internalisation).

Without this return to a philosophical (and phenomenological) anthropology, anti-humanism will continue to dominate the European philosophy scene, and therefore the academy will remain mute and disengaged from contemporary geo-political realities.

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2) Understanding contemporary anti-Americanism.

Negri’s book Empire got it almost right three years ago. Their analysis fudges the issue of what Empire, coming up with a deterritorialised notion of a global Empire. This is the one key mistake, when everyone knows that it is an American Empire. The contradiction of the book is that there is extensive analysis of the conditions which have generated the American Empire:

At the simplest level, the American Empire is driven by the American constitution in the context of an enduring frontierist mentality. Americans are bred to believe in the fundamentality of the constitution/amendments. Even the most liberal American will not forego the primacy of the American political framework. It is precisely for these reasons that recent American govts (both Democrat and Republican) will not acquiesce to International agreements (UN resolutions and the UN itself, Kyoto, ICC etc etc).

It is clear then that the end of American Empire from a juridical/constitutional point of view could only come when the US Constitution is altered to interact with International law. However, the simplicity of the problem betrays its intractability: American democracy is inextricably ideologically linked to the current constitution – there is no discourse around constitutional change in the context of a growing legal internationalism.

To this extent, the UN will remain weak, the Security Council’s make-up will not change fundamentally, international agreements will not be ratified by the US govt (regardless of political hue). And anti-americanism will continue to flourish across the globe.

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Thursday, October 21, 2004

Marrakesh conversation.. Posted by Hello

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Im scanning some old pix in today - love this one of Bibi looking down on Ait Benhadou in the Atlas Mountains from 1999 Posted by Hello

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Wednesday, October 20, 2004

I'm feeling visual today: here is a snap of B and I on my birthday a couple of weeks ago. Posted by Hello

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Open-air grocery in Ikoyi, Lagos: tropical shopping at its best. Posted by Hello

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Some of my collection of classic African album covers from the 1970s.. Posted by Hello

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Suny Ade back in the day.. Posted by Hello

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Tuesday, October 19, 2004

How the mighty are fallen...

We watched some more of Series II of Six Feet Under last night. I realised why I'm drawn to the series so much: Six Feet Under maps the limits of secularity in an age clefted in two by atheism and fundamentalism, producing surprising results. By setting the series in an LA undertakers, creator Alan Ball is able to examine what happens in a world where all belief systems are legimitated (and therefore none reign supreme). The deep message of the series is that secularity requires a notion of the spiritual - that the secular realm itself can only make sense by defining itself in terms of a transcendent world and the silence of death. The post post-modern Claire, whose every expression is saturated with irony and a nascent cynicism finds herself drawn to the possibility of being an artist. Her brother Nate slowly discovers the significance of responsibility in a world where he faces the reality of his own death. Brother David increasingly expresses his presence in the world as a gay man with a legitimate role to play in society. In each case, identity is imbricated within society at the deepest metaphysical level, implying that our social identity can only be defined by our relationship to what lies beyond us: time and death.

Later last night I lay in bed worrying for all the less privileged Nigerians who didn't get the chance to be 'exposed' (as the phrase goes) by western education or western experiences. In the increasingly globalised Nigeria, it is those with a diasporic interlude who will take all the best opportunities when they arrive back home. No matter how bright, how open, how curious - those who grew up here in the late 1980s and 1990s are always going to find the going tougher. I'm not sure there is a solution to this: each society has its elite, and each elite devises mechanisms of distinction which are hard to transform or subvert.

Then my thinking switched randomly to the transcience of fame. I was thinking about Manchester and the time I lived there (in West Didsbury). The Gallaghers (Oasis) drank at the pub at the bottom of my street (Clyde Road) - as did New Order. I remember walking behind Hookie (New Order's bass player) on Clyde Road. Such a banal thing to do. And yet years before New Order and Joy Division and the whole Manchester vibe defined the limits of cool (the Hacienda, Afflecks Palace, Dry Bar, Morrissey etc). Then I thought about the time I saw Kirk Brandon waiting for the same tube as I at Liverpool St in London (around 2001). He had been disgraced and lost a lot of money fighting a law suite with Boy George, revealing himself to be a rampant homophobe in the process. He looked like such an ordinary Joe, a fallen figure. And yet years before (I was around 14/15), Spear of Destiny had been the ultimate band, and Kirk Brandon was an cult star from another planet. They had such an unusual psycho-billy type look - the fans all had huge cliff-hanging flat top haircuts, with everyone wearing baseball jackets etc. And then there he was, years later, a man without qualities on a tube platform, wearing a beaten up leather jacket.

Not sure why I was thinking about this or how it related to my thoughts on Six Feet Under and on stay-at-home Nigerians. But then why should anyone take it that their thoughts are their own (this is such a modern notion), or that thoughts have to cohere?

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My nephew Jacob with bro-in-law David at the wonderful Big Green Gathering in August 2002. Posted by Hello

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Monday, October 18, 2004

The Periodic Table

This is great - an interactive periodic table. How come they managed to make chemistry so boring when I was at school? I remember Mr Browning creating a magical mystery tour of malachite - we had to test this greenish powder's properties until somehow we isolated its copper and carbon make-up. It was a good idea in theory - introducing a quest-narrative theme to O-level chemistry. But somehow it didn't work out in practice. Too many collective hormones waging war in adolescent bodies, plus the open-plan Science dept provided too many distractions...

From the Los Alamos table there seems to be more elements than when I was a kid - I'm sure there were only 104 or so when I was a kid (and that 104 was neon or krypton or one of those inert elements), but now there is 118. What I dont understand is how these elements can be elements and how chemistry relates to physics. I understand that physicists now take there to be four fundamental forces: gravity, light, weak and strong nuclear. So how are the 118 elements based on these forces?

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Weekend's activities

The weekend was diversely spent. I came to work on Saturday morning only to find there was no electricity. I sat in my office in the heat until the laptop battery had nearly ran down. Then there was a power cut at home for 3 hours. With a temperature of around 37 degrees it was too hot to think about doing anything. But then the power came back on and I set to work fixing up my digital music system. I'm going to be making music sampling fuji - a king of yoruba/islamic drum and bass. Then Bibi came back fluffed up and excited about the Nigeria social forum event taking place next month she'd just found out about. I was knee-deep in cabling at the time so it took me a while to share her excitement (a case of male trainspotter time delay syndrome).

Later, a former colleague from my last job came up from Lagos. Paul is a real character - a black british guy who's lived and worked as a consultant in Jamaica, Miami and a few other places and got a mixed up accent, segueing from london street to Kingston to Miami within a paragraph of speech. He also has 25% more energy than the rest of us and can spend hours and hours talking without tiring and looks 35 but is in fact 47 (he puts that down to spending a lot of his life being vegan and not drinking). He's also deeply Christian (Seventh Day Adventist). The interesting thing is that his christianity is not oppressive or hypocritical in the African evangelical self-righteous showy way. It makes him extremely humble. There's an openness about him which commands respect and attention. This combination of a powerful personality and humility is rare. A lovely guy. We gossiped about the company ('gisting' as its known here) - a place which produces volumes of gist per month it seems.

Highlight of Sunday was putting new flat wounds on my precious antique Gibson ES-175 jazz guitar (Joe our ham-fisted cook/steward busted my e-string when moving it) then watching a few more episodes of series II of Six Feet Under which gets better and better, with a few glasses of wine as accompaniment. I cant remember enjoying tv as much - that ancient kiddy feeling of not wanting something to stop.

Lowlight of Sunday was watching some more news about Darfur - the Rwanda of 2004. The West is just sitting and watching while genocide takes place. And Blair is deeply complicit in the process (why on earth did he launch the Commission for Africa preliminary findings in Sudan a couple of weeks ago - implicitly endorsing the murderous Sudanese govt?) Of course, everyone knows that Darfur is yet another resource war: clearing the wretched of the earth from the oil rich terrain.

Question: will technology ever change the way we engage with distant attrocities? Up till now, media technology has for the most part anaesthetised us, rather than re-awaken our ethical apperceptions. What if we could fly audio-visual bot-like gadgets into the bush where the Darfurian women are gang-raped and the men's throats are cut? Would this footage just end up on all those ghastly snuff-sites full of Al-Qaeda beheadings, or could it leak elsewhere? Or do we really hit an epistemic wall of insensitivity: the less you look like me and share my values, the less I care about the fate of your people?

Before watching 6fu, we watched A Thousand Georges - a film by Mario Van Peebles about the real-life story of the unionisation of Pullman workers in the 1930s - the first black union in the US. It makes you realise how many untold stories there are in America - the land of stories. More specifically, it demonstrated how the Hollywood myth machine represses any story that shows either white people or corporate power in a bad light - the ongoing unfolding of an ontological white corporate supremacy. Given the money and resources of America, the level of repression against anti-corporate counter culture is massive and all-pervasive. A Thousand Georges (all black Pullman workers were named as George) was similar in many respects to Matewan - John Sayles' epic union-struggle film from the late '80s. Why is it that in the age of the Internet and a time when making movies has never been so cheap and easy, more of these stories dont come out?

One book to recommend here (although I dont have my own copy yet) is Gone To Croatan an anthology of stories about revolutionary/hybrid social movements and events in a forgotten America.

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Friday, October 15, 2004

Imagining an imagination..

Woke up depressed by Nigerian functionalism (as you bourgoise revolutionaries are wont to when they go to live in Africa). Example: Bibi told me of a conversation last night she had with some young women who said they would much prefer money to flowers as a gift from a man, unless they were plastic. This tacky lack of imagination is sadly all too common in Nigeria. Five Alive and Tango are preferred to fresh juice (even though fresh juice here is incredibly flavoursome), and most people think the local fast food joints (Mr Biggs, Tantalizer, Chicken Licken etc) are a mark of sophistication. Meanwhile, the fag companies (like British American Tobacco) are moving in and doing brisk biz in the cancer trade. One big Peckham or what?

Sometimes it feels like living in Nigeria is like being airlifted into some council estate that goes on to the horizon: a black Royle family. It gets the conflicted class snobbery hackles up just like in the UK. Why does Nigeria have to love and copy the scuzziest aspects of the West: junk food, Argos, Kenny G, primroses (imported floral tat from the West is preferred to the amazing tropical flowers that grow here), kouros aftershave... bah!

Most African countries lack a sizeable middle class and therefore lack the aesthetic/critical culture that goes with it: noisy fussy culture vultures who also demand political change. Nigeria is rich in resources but practically destitute in imagination (it seems to get battered out of Nigerians when they are at school). What’s needed is a completely different pedagogical approach based on curiosity and the value of learning for its own sake, if a philistine anti-intellectualist thug-ocracy is to be challenged. Without an insurrectionary uprising of the collective imagination, nothing will really change.

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Thursday, October 14, 2004

Fahrenheit 9/11/Fundamentalism

I finally got hold of Fahrenheit 911 last night. It’s all good stuff and comes at the right time. Bush is portrayed as the pea-brained moron that he is. There are two flaws in the documentary however. 1) The portrayal of Baghdad/Iraq as a land of happy smiley people pre-2003 was a bad mistake. Why were there no critical comments about Sadam’s regime at all? 2) The solipsistic US-centrism of the film. As with most American media output, there was little sense of a world beyond American public opinion and an American worldview. Moore’s weakness is an inability to internationalise his argument in favour of a folksy return to the little guy in Flint Michegan.

I then watched some evangelical Christian stuff on local tv. I pushed myself to be as open and receptive to meaning as possible outside of my own language games. But always the evangelical pastors talk such vapid meaningless claptrap. Which makes it all the more bizarre when the camera pans out to the audience nodding vigorously to every sentence.

Taken together, Farenheit 911 and evangelical Christianity show how gullible humans are; how easy it is to manipulate people’s beliefs (especially if you make them fear in advance). Stage management is all. By the intonations and body language of the pastor (sweating, striding up and down, waving his arms wildly, voice going from hushed tones to full volume passion etc.) you would think that he is saying something that actually has meaning. In fact, Evangelical Christianity has become a form of fascism, with no tolerance of any other pattern of belief except its own, and no space for criticism. In other words, the perfect breeding ground for corruption: exactly at a time when Nigeria needs critical/transformative discourse.

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Derrida's death

With Derrida’s death last week, we can mark something else that has definitively passed: the inscriptive paradigm. The obituaries in the UK press at least have made a point of how his work was necessarily difficult. I’ve never been convinced by this. In fact it is easy to invoke the key points of deconstruction without writing turgid texts about it: the author never fully controls the text, meaning is contingent and relative to context, there are no ontological essences (being, truth, justice, the good, the beautiful, the soul etc), but rather philosophy is a complex set of disruptive discursive processes, that the project of western philosophy has oriented itself nonetheless around ‘presence’. Done.

While all these themes have been important and have changed the landscape of European thinking, Derrida’s work was always a fundamentally disembodied engagement. Although his texts are full of body parts (invaginations, folds, hymens etc.), his thinking began by avoiding the embodied ground of all meaning. For Derrida, the origin of language is mystical – a differance that cannot be formulated or figured outside of a fluid metaphorisation that changes from text to text. The suspicion was always that his thought was directed by messianism, and that phenomenology’s attempt to transcend the mind/body dualism in favour of a differentiating flesh would always suffer in favour of an ontology of deferment and the a venir. Derrida’s critique of presence threw the baby out with the bathwater: we lost a sense of the immediacy of the embodied moment and the ethical possibility that opens out from this.

The problem then was the deconstruction was always going to be taken as a cul-de-sac, the endgame of metaphysical thinking. That was why Deleuze became so popular in response – offering a processual materialism that emphasised new beginnings as much as historical structures. Of course, the big problem for European thought is that deleuzianism has become yet another dead-end. It has steered itself into an anti-humanist cybernetic/germinal impasse which makes no sense whatsoever outside the tiny academic cliques that foster it. In the age of US global empire and the Islamic fundamentalist response mechanisms it has bred, European philosophy needs to search again for an opening and a language that offers solutions to contemporary global crises, not employment opportunities for those who continue along the arcane path into the scholastic forest.

What is required to counterbalance all these endpoints is a humanistic philosophy that encompasses incorporation as much as inscription. Post-Derrida and Deleuze, language must be positioned as originating within a social context – within a network of desire, need and expression. Language emerges out of gesture, out of song, out of intonation, out of repetition and difference… Wittgenstein’s notion of language games is close – but he describes the mechanism not the motive: he cannot answer why language changes. And perhaps the ‘subject’ drops out (as the anti-humanists would like). But instead of the fundamentally irresponsible notion of machinism, there still needs to be a deeply grounded sense of responsibility and ethics. Without it, European philosophy is dead and buried, leaving a wide open schism between positivist science and mystical/evangelical religious worship, with no critical discursive practice in the middle.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Strike #2

The general strike continues and deepens. Very soon there will be little fuel left in the country. The problems Nigeria faces are simple but profound. An oil-rich nation with not a single operating refinery (there are four). This means that crude is exported out of the country (no one knows how much), leaving so-called ‘downstream marketers’ to bring it back in as petrol. This scam is making a tiny number of people fabulously wealthy and leaving the vast majority of the population in penury (80% earn less than US$1 per day).

The immediate problem is that the government cannot realistically drop the fuel price – which is what the National Labour Congress is demanding. With global oil prices well above US$50 per barrel, the prices can only go up. For positive change in the country, this needs to be explained to the people. The reason why it isn’t is because that would immediately put extreme pressure on fixing the refineries. The powerful vested interests don’t want that happening. So nothing in that direction appears in the press. The NLC is partly to blame for not asking the right questions. The Federal Government is also to blame for not tackling the vested interests.

When I tell Nigerians that petrol is still very cheap here (its over three times more expensive in the UK) they are shocked. The reason why: Nigerians have grown massively over-used to the black liquid ‘national cake’. Most Nigerians see no reason why they should pay any tax (and with lunar looking roads, no water, irregular electricity etc. etc. why should they?). The problems are seemingly intractable – unless the refineries can be fixed.

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Surfaces

I took out Minority Report last night from the local DVD rental place. I’d planned to watch it again from a post Iraq invasion perspective – the pre-crime plot taken as an uncanny Hollywood precursor to Bush’s pre-emptive strike policy etc. Settling down to watch, booming bass noises came from somewhere below. I took it that the unhappy second wife in the flat downstairs was trying out a new hi-fi system – perhaps to drown out her sorrows. Then Bibi came back from work and spotted from our living room balcony that the Spanish Embassy was having a bash. She also told me that the second wife has had a row with her oga (we got the gist from servant gossip in the compound via our cook Joe) and flown off to the UK in a huff.

We have an intimate view of the back of the embassy (with a glimpse of their pool), but not so much as an ambassadorial crafty fag (let alone shag) has happened in the six weeks we’ve been here – until yesterday. It turns out it was Spanish National Day yesterday (whatever that is – what do they do, mourn Franco, talk about Ferdy and Isabella or avoid talk of the civil war?). The embassy garden was decked out in Spanish flag bunting. By ten, the place was filled with a graceful mix in evening wear and native as a jazz band bashed out standards with a surprisingly accomplished level of musicianship. I got out my Zenith binoculars (my only heirloom) and sat in the shade on our balcony to observe. I had a filmic sensation, like being caught in a mixture between Rear Window and a West African Woody Allen.

There were beautiful women in elegant dresses and natty hairdos. Business cards fluttered between bodies like butterflies or bees distributing corporate pollen. A tall man wore a tall light grey bowler hat – signalling he is from the Delta region (perhaps Opobo – well known for their appropriation of the English gentleman’s headgear). He reminded me of that voodoo ritual scene in the Bond film set in some Caribbean location (Live and Let Die?) Several women greeted him, drawn like magnets to the money. With my 10x50s, I could focus very closely on his face. It was easy to spot the ones he’d slept with from the twinkle in his eye, and which women would like to sleep with him from the twinkles in theirs. Damn, I need to get hold of those binoculars that have long range microphones in them when I go back to the UK.

Most striking of all was the kingly figure on the left of the scene (see photos below). They’d reserved a whole room for him to sit on a makeshift throne, looking out onto the scene from a royal distance with appropriate level of detachment from the melee. He was decked out in an emerald green flouncy gown, with chunky orange bead bracelets, one thick shiny gold ring and a white head wrap. He looked like a sultan, except the large crucifix necklace confused the issue. Beside him, an attendant stood stiff in what looked like yellow football shorts with red edging. A huge wide flanged golden sword was held behind him as if to deflect bad juju. His hands were elegantly clasped in front throughout, exuding composure. People took it in turns to sit with him on a chair perpendicular to his own. He would bend gracefully forwards and down to listen – signalling that the royal ear requires an act of grace to listen down to the commoner. A friend was at the party (I watched him and his fiancĂ© working the crowd voraciously). It turned out the royal being is the Egwege of Ogba (or similar) and had any ice-cutting Etonian accent. All very Elizabethan in detail and courtliness and a reminder of how the West is used as a plug-in to elsewheres that exist in pre-modern times (just like the ritualistic fabricated anachronisms of the UK Houses of Parliament).

Across Nigeria there is huge capacity for monarchical structures and symbolic hierarchies. The royal personage is given a title according to a standard linguistic formula: the x of y, where x is the level of royalty or title (emir, oni, egwege or alternative in the local language) and y is the place. As there are many places, many languages and many levels between the commoner and the throne, the whole system permits a proliferation of royal beings, rather than just the handful you get in western nations. Which is a smart idea, as the Chief trades his newly acquired status with elaborate systems of re-distribution (those who prostrate themselves before you must also be ‘dashed’).

So Minority Report was interlaced with trips to the balcony as Autumn Leaves segued to Lionel Richie. It turns out that the Pre-Crime unit gets banned as it is too close to a self-fulfilling prophesy – future murderers have a choice on the cusp of the murderous moment which is denied by Lamar’s absolute faith in the pre-cogs prescience. In other words, an exact parallel with what is happening in Iraq with Al-Qaeda (the link with Iraq was pre-emptively imagined to exist even though it didn’t, which was precisely the mechanism required in order to make it exist). Bush had a choice, but he chose not to take it.

But then speaking of Bush as having a choice is to impute intelligence to a simulacrum – especially if we follow the analysis of an article on C-Theory recently. Bush is, according to the article, a fictional being – a man without personality, human quality or any vestige of intelligence. He is in other words the perfect politician in a hyperreal world full of viewers rather than readers – viewers can project whatever they want onto him and perceive measured intelligence on a face which in reality covers a blank mind.

All of which (royalty in West Africa, presidential projections in the West) makes you think how powerful surfaces have become in our spectacular society. Except that Bush is making a tit of himself in the presidential debates – which shows that apocalyptic theories of the hyperreal forget one vital thing: that there are still moments of unscripted expression where the truth leaks out and the simulacraic structure collapses like a house of cards.

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Close up of the Egwege of Ogba Posted by Hello

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Party last night at the Spanish Embassy Posted by Hello

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Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Our article on Ojuelegba is published on Farafina - an online cultural site for Lagos

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Interesting site for Christian Aid by my fav web designers hi-res - Lifeswitch.org

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The strike kicks in...

Fuel prices went up a couple of weeks ago - from around 43 naira to 50 naira per litre. A general strike began this week. Lagos has been pretty much shut down. I think many people in Abuja are not working today as well. There is scant information about what is happening. One thing is for sure: the strike won't last for more than two or three days. There are too many people here who live from hand to mouth for it to go on longer.

So I'm sitting in the office in the Ministry and decide to get off me arse and start my blog. This diary will record some thoughts and experiences living in West Africa, focussing on how to make Nigeria a better place.

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The most religious = the happiest = the second most corrupt  Posted by Hello

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Street scene in Bida, 3 hours from Abuja Posted by Hello

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