Thursday, September 29, 2005
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
Just got back from a business trip to South Africa – taking 20+ civil servants on a study tour. Here are some notes on the trip:
On the evening of our arrival in Jo’burg, Bibi and I walked to 7th st in Melville - a European style assortment of restaurants, bars and galleries. Dinner at Soi, a thai-vietnamese place included a vigorous chinese massage from a woman from Bejing. The maitre’d gave us a ceramic rice pot after we told her how much we liked the one holding our rice.
Next morning, Emmanuel and I give Linda and Tina, the guest-house owners, several thousand rand in cash as upfront payment - seeing the panic in their eyes at so much cash. South Africans have got used to minimizing how much cash they hold.
Joburg is a lush green city full of temperate, sub-tropical and tropical greenery - all the trees were planted on what was bushvelt scrub 100 years ago.
On Monday, our party traveled up to Pretoria. The city centre is 99% black people, following the white-exodus urban model in the US. Anonymous tenement after tenement building surround the centre. People told us the Coliseum, where we were put up, was an insult. We quickly get the sense that Nigerians are being exploited when they travel to SA.
In the evening we visited Bibi’s friend Nthabiseng – she lives in one of the tenements. We met her partner, who has traveled all over Africa sans passport, with interesting stories of the diamond mines in Congo and jewel/precious stone markets in Nigeria.
The next day, we went to the Finance Ministry in the centre of Pretoria. - old marble and old wood paneling everywhere, and the quiet repose of civil servants in control of the economy
A funny story: Mr O – one of our party, went to the toilets during a break. He spotted "chocolates" in the bathroom, only to find himself in contact with spermicidally lubricated latex.
Another group decided to try out the local African restaurant run by an Igbo guy, only to find out the joint was a front for a brothel, with heavy guys and cubicles in the basement before you get to the restaurant. Egusi soup was left half eaten as the civil servants made a quick get away.
We went for dinner later in the week at Nthabiseng's - salad and tofu and then vegan chocolate ice cream!
Back in Jozi, we ate breakfast at a health food store in Emerentia: scrambled tofu, sausage and baked tomato for breakfast with Bibi’s friend Chantal.
SA taxi drivers are all unique (at least the ones we met): ‘famous Amos’ couldn’t stop laughing and had a wonderful flow of language, another guy with a ludicrous victim complex, then another chap who was the most miserable misanthrope, complaining of everything in the modern world: how small modern cars (“not enough space to fuck a chick in”) – all at 8:30 am in the morning. Charming.
Last Saturday we spent the day liming at 44 Stanley near the Guest house. A lovely range of design shops, cafes and bars clustered inside one space. I supped Castle and Hansa beer while listening to some straighahead live jazz. If only this kind of thing was on tap in naija!
The CBD area of Joburg is being redeveloped - with operations focussing on Newtown first. Around the Museum Africa is a fascinating series of public spaces, including a Spitalfields-esque space for up and coming designers in an old Bus shed.
Monday, September 12, 2005
England are on the verge of victory in the cricket - finally the Ashes can be ours again after 16 years. Freddie Flintoff is the new Beefy. Its funny how cricket fever seems to have taken over the UK - not surprising given how crap we are at football these days.
Meanwhile, this weekend was a real downer for us on Nigeria. Our ceiling is just about to cave in cos the water tank stop cock is busted and the tank has holes in it. So the ceiling is bulging and dripping water. Even though we paid a 10% maintenance fee when we paid our 2 years-in-advance rent (its standard in Nigeria to have to pay 2 years upfront), no one is honouring this (not the agent nor the unreachable landlord). Meanwhile, the termites are busy enjoying themselves on the rafters again, leaving piles of fine sawdust all over the gaff.
Then our computer and monitor blew up thanks to a spike from NEPA (can anyone get used to the new name PHCN?) It cost us £40 to replace the powerpacks. We wasted most of the day trying to sort out the repair. In Nigeria you often have to take 3 steps backward to make one step forward. If Nigeria is so difficult and frustrating for us living in posh Maitama in Abuja, what on earth is it like to live in a Lagos slum?
Question: why is it 99% of Nigerian public toilets are a disgrace? Its a paradox that this is a country of excess labour and yet no one is put to work making sure the lavs are clean. The average Nigerian toilet is surrounded by a pool of piss, is stained on the inside (oh and doesnt flush).
Second paradox: women wear all kinds of bizarre spiky wigs. Bibi starts to locks her hair in a very attractive manner. Then she gets stares from all and sundry as if she's a mad women. Nigerians are very bush sometimes! Its just like when I was growing up in my small village full of petty curtain twitchers, scared stiff of the new.
If only we could live in Nigeria with regular power, water and broadband internet (preferrably wireless) I would be happy! Is this too much to ask?
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
My ear problem persists. Rubbing Shea butter around the outer ear helps – Shea butter is a natural anti-inflammatory steroid. My doctor reckons it’s because I have yet to get rid of the malaria in my system. Malaria is a strange phenomenon: very few people you meet understand it in any detail, even though it is more common than flu in the West. The lifecycle of protozoa falciparum (the prevalent form of the organism found in West Africa) is complex – especially once it is inside the body. Artemesinin-based treatments (which come originally from Chinese herbal medicine) have more or less replaced quinine-based treatments (chloroquine or mefloquine) over here. If you go to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London and tell them you have malaria, the next second you’ll find yourself in isolation, being pumped full of some form of quinine or other. This is understandable, given that the doctors there most often are dealing with critical cases and the highly dangerous often fatal cerebral form of malaria. Even though more successful than quinine forms, artemesinin-based treatments have yet to be licensed in Europe (no one can be bothered to spend money on expensive trials when it is such an insignificant ailment in Europe). However, back in Nigeria, I find that not all artemesinin-based drugs work on falciparum – even though the drug companies say they do. For instance, my doctor, who is something of an expert on malaria, tells me that Coartem, one of the more popular artemesinin-based drugs, does not actually counteract falciparum, even though Novartis (the manufacturer) claims it does in the blurb that comes with the drug. No wonder the two times I’ve taken it it hasn’t felt like its worked. In fact, there are several layers to the problem of malaria in the tropics:
1. The drugs companies lie about the efficacy of their drugs and which elements combat which forms of the protozoa. In fact, successful anti-malarial treatment requires a combination of artemesinin and another element to truly kill of the protozoa.
2. A lot of the more established anti-malarials are prone to fakes (one of the better artemesinin drugs, Cotexin – which originated in China, is very rarely found in non-fake form). There doesn’t seem to be anyway to combat these fake drugs, especially when sometimes the fake element is simply a matter of using right-handed chemical elements when left-handed compounds are required (its very expensive to test for this).
3. Most doctors do not have anything other than a superficial understanding of the lifecycle of falciparum in the body and dole out Cotexin or Coartem without any thought
Hopefully, with the new combination of drugs I’m on, plus a prophylactic regime designed for my bodyweight, I can now kick the pesky organism from my system and return to two ears hearing and my usual energy levels. Meanwhile, my doctor has plans to rid Sao Tome of Malaria completely: as an island of the coast, it should be relatively simple to treat all those with the disease and therefore prevent mosquitoes from being able to pick up and transmit the parasite.
Talking to Nigerians about Katrina, I find my instincts were right on three counts. People are shocked by the images of seeing so many poor desperate people in the US. They are shocked that 99% of the desperate people are black. Finally, they are shocked that these poor black people are so fat. Whether America realises it or not, Katrina has punctured the myth of America-the-great to foreigners for good.
In these days of online everything, it’s interesting to compare European media accounts and analysis of Katrina vs. American. Although some American papers (notably, the New York Times), point to the race/class divides the storm exposes, nowhere will you read about relating Katrina to climate change/Kyoto etc. This is a stark contrast to European analysis, which focuses mainly on this.
Monday, September 05, 2005
Katrina has momentarily lifted the veil on America's dirty little public secret: most poor people in the States are black. The race problem in America has in fact worsened since the civil-rights movement. At least then, the black poor had representation (Black Panthers, MLK, Martin X, Angela Davis etc). Now, there is no one giving them a voice - Jesse Jackson looks well fed and fit only for the golf course these days. Everytime I've been to the States - Boston, San Francisco, Washington, New York, Penn State, Chicago etc, I've always walked off from Main Street to see how most people live. In 2000 I was shocked by how many people right next to the CBD in SF were pushing their belongings in front of them on shopping trolleys. In 2002 I walked for block after block on Chicago's South Side, walking past prostitutes strung out on crack and gangs of unemployed youth in hooded tops. Then I came to Chicago University in all its leafy opulence: what a contradiction of space - a bastion of liberal glory surrounded by urban squalour. The same went for my trips to Boston, contrasting the bourgouise elegance of Copley Place with Roxbury Crossing. You cant even get to Roxbury using the subway system (its not on the map).
In the States, the lack of a social safety net means that once you fail, you keep on falling. Its interesting that in the first few hours, CNN (the American version) were telling us that the general per-capita income in New Orleans is USD31,000, whereas for blacks it is USD11,000. Then all of a sudden this tidbit of data was dropped the next time the stats rolled around. The reason for the embarrasment (and the cover up) is that America's secular theology: the religion of being-American (and therefore a superior species) - is a faith based on the myth of progress. The Congressional Black Congress people refused to call the newly destitute of New Orleans 'refugees' - saying that as American Citizens, they belong to the best country on the planet. How difficult it must therefore be for citizens of a nation who have been brainwashed into a collective superiority complex (and a lie about the history of America) to adjust to a China without and an Africa within.
It sounds a bit strange/callous to say, but as someone who's spent the past two years in Nigeria and has acquired in the process an African perspective on life, it is odd to see from the TV coverage of the past week how fat the wretched of the earth in America are. I've often thought in the past week how difficult it must be for those who, no matter how poor, are used to being able to put something in their mouth the moment the slightest urge arises to be able to cope the moment the system shuts down. Here in Africa, the poor are thin and used to not eating properly. Having no water or electricity for a week is no big deal (even we didnt have water for a week three months ago). Indeed, Nigeria produces about 500MW of electricity per day, when the estimated need is around 10,000. Only a small number of privileged beings out of the 150million population have access to running water. The largest city, Lagos, has mostly open drains at the side of the road. Although everyone talks about HIV-Aids in Africa, the main dangers are malaria and HIV-TB. Malaria in most parts of the world could be cured by introducing a decent underground sewage system - but no one in the West wants to talk about solutions as simple and effective as this.
But we all know Africa has uber-problems. What is incredible to believe is that the various authorities on the Gulf Coast didnt scenario-plan for anything above a Category 3 storm - maybe they did and the Fed Gov didnt source the funds? Even now, at the start of the storm season, we have heard little of the plans to build Cat 5-resistant levees.
I think there'll be two short-term fall-outs from Katrina: 1) Bush' foray into Iraq will come under increasing US-domestic pressure (and therefore the proposed attack on Iran will be shelved). The Democrats will do well in the mid-terms. 2) There'll be increased international pressure on the US Govt to finally sign up to Kyoto and other climate control measures. Both are positives that we can take some solace in after such a event.
Its blindingly obvious to the rest of the world, if not to most Americans, that the American SUV gas-guzzling, supersize-me way of life is the underlying and untenable cause behind Katrina: in that respect, Katrina is only partially a 'natural' disaster. Will the American media allow this into the debate?
Whether the Democrats can mobilise themselves to win the next election and start the transformation of the American Way of Life into a more earth-friendly, sustainable form of life is another question. Hiliary?
See Gary Younge's piece in today's Guardian for more on Katrina and race.
Have been suffering from an ear infection for the past week which web research tells me is Otitis Media - my Eustachian tubes are bunged up (didnt know I had any until today). Found out that the local remedy is Shea butter mixed with some kind of snake oil (don't laugh). My colleague Emmanuel has procured me a pot. After a week of tinitus I'm desperate.
The continued health problems B and I have experienced is getting me down. This year alone Ive had gastro enteritis, malaria, flu and now Otitis Media. And this even though I dont eat meat, do lots of yoga, drink lots of water and eat good food. I'm so cheesed off I'm thinking we need a plan B country.
Meanwhile, my parents continue with their world tour. After 5 nights of a 'Blue Lagoon' tour in Fiji they are on their way to New Zealand tomorrow. S'alright for some..
Thursday, September 01, 2005
Two funny stories from the past week:
1. Was in a Fed Govt agency waiting for a meeting on Tues. A man was fixing a fixed wireless phone terminal in the corner. With his back to us he started mumbling and bowing. It turned out that he was anointing the phone and protecting it from theft.
2. Our compound is trying to find a new security arrangement. One security company offers guards with the following value-added components: bow and arrow, truncheon, catapault. Now that makes me feel safe!
Is it me or is it hard not to watch the terrible spectacle of New Orleans post-Katrina and not speculate that in 20 years time, North America could be reduced to second or third world status. Hearing overfed Southerners yawling at their plight without a non-capitalist resourceful bone in their body was quite an iconoclastic image. How the mighty may fall. As the oil economy slowly sputters out and the centre of geo-political gravity on the planet lurches eastwards, its hard to see how America (and for that matter Europe) are going to stay in the picture. Deprived of any kind of manufacturing base as well as an inability to compete on Intellectual Property production, the future domineering military industrial complex will surely be Chinese.
This plausible future must surely reflect negatively on Jewish plans for Israel. Without financial support from the States and with over half a century of living in the world's largest refugee camp, the Palestinians will surely boot the Jews out.