We're off to India (Delhi-Rishikesh-Goa-Mumbai) for the holidays. To all my readers: I wish you a happy holiday surrounded by friends and loved ones, and a 2007 where your dreams finally become reality..
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Monday, December 18, 2006
At times like this, when people en masse are despairing of the system that reproduces itself aggressively, its good to try to take a step back and look at some longer term patterns. Here's my initial attempt:
1. Political reform. As many have commented, the new President Yar'Adua (who can be bothered to wait till next year to call him that?) reminds them of Shagari and the descent into hell that was the 1980's/90's. Underneath that innocuous exterior, who knows what lies? While Katsina's public finances may have been prudently managed, what development has actually taken place in the state in recent years? It does not look encouraging. Where in the North are their case studies of progressive development?
It seems that in terms of political structures, genuine reform that takes away the huge power vested in the Presidency, creates fiscal federalism and promotes accountability is a long long way off. Don't expect to see the governor immunity clause challenged in the next administration. Massive corruption in the public sector will be business as usual. Nigeria will continue to be pre-ideological, run by big men on a patronage/client basis.
2. Economic reform. There are grounds for more hope here. But how dynamic the reform continues to be depends on whether something similar to the capable technocrats (Soludo et al) around at the moment are still in place. Perhaps some will be persuaded to stay on. Let's see what happens with the EFCC- a continued role for Ribadu is absolutely crucial. The banks still have a massive step-up operation ahead to compete with the bigger banks on the continent and offer genuine service to Nigerian businesses and general consumers. There are still many more essential building blocks yet to be in place - a credit ratings system, reform in the insurance/re-insurance sector, epayments infrastructure, a legal framework for electronic transactions etc etc.
3. Inward investment. China, Korea and India will continue to compete for big infrastructure projects in the next administration. Allowing naira to leak outside the economy is good - the economists will tell you - because it allows for massive infrastructural spend without being too inflationary. Whether it is so good from a job-creation/skills transfer perspective is quite another matter. The power situation should improve steadily in the next ten years - although it will still remain woefully inadequate by global standards. We can look forward to at least two big rail network projects - Lagos northwards to Abuja and Kano, and Calabar to Maduguiri. Meanwhile, global investment flows look set to increase as part of this infrastructural improvement - again a lot of the money coming from Asia, with South Africa and the donors lagging behind. My own personal favourite - IT infrastructure - does not look set for any major improvements - the current administration has a very poor track record in this regard.
4. Creativity. The one area that keeps me continually excited in Nigeria is the development of the arts. Cinema especially looks set to boom, as new cinemas (in Tinapa and Abuja) continue to make the theatrical-release model ever more viable. Expect a revolution in production values in the next 5 years, as cinematic distribution begins to challenge the worn out video/Nollywood model.
5. Education. The foundation stone of any society, the education sector does not look likely to improve in the near or medium term future. The current plan to privatise all institutions of learning is deeply misguided and will fail. The general melt-down will continue, as the Federal Govt's allocation for the sector falls 15% or more below UN recommendations. Nigerians without silverspoons in their mouths and a ticket to a school abroad will find it ever more difficult to compete with their fellow Africans, let alone globally. Another lost generation will follow hard on the heels of the current crop of 18-25 year olds.
So Jonathan Goodluck surprises everyone as the VP running mate (see also here). Given that his wife is being investigated for money laundering, and given the parlous state of Bayelsa state (all swamp and dilapidation), it does not Look Good. The long-hoped for technocratic secondary role has not been filled. It is difficult to optimistic about ongoing reform given this arrangement.
That said, I've always believed that countries get the 'leaders' they deserve. No one complains in Nigeria, and everyone is quick to jump into a collective self-delusion mentality when the money and the owambes start to flow. At Lagos airport, a sign says Welcome to Nigeria, the happiest country on earth (or similar). It should really say, Welcome to Nigeria, the most self-delusive country on earth.
A testimony to the culture of non-complaint. The new airline (owned by exactly who?) Arik Air already has a reputation for being hideously late on all its flights. The plane to take me back to Abuja last week was 1 1/2 hours late before it arrived. When finally we all had boarded, the pilot apologised for the delay, which was 'due to problems with the new security screening arrangement at the airport.' What a load of horse shit. The new security arrangement at Calabar airport added another 10-15 mins of delay to the 1 1/2 hours that was Arik Air's responsibility. I complained to the air stewards about this disengenuous 'apology' - no one else did. Everyone just sat there, a picture of bovine docility. If you don't complain, you get all the Bad Luck you deserve..
Nigeria can test anyone's mettle, and dampen the most exuberant spirits. Every layer of society is infected with strange forms of malaise; dis-ease is everywhere. If you live here, you better have a strong immune system (ethical and otherwise) or you'll quickly sink in one way or another. The local newspapers, awful products at the best of times, are now showing themselves to be the mechanisms of greed and disinformation that are their true colours. Almost all of the content is planted by some big men or other. The only stories that are not paid-in-full are of the schlock-horror variety: a bushy area near a busy road in Ikeja with where women are taken to be raped every night (torn underwear litters the scene); 20 people shot dead in eight separate armed robbery attacks on banks in Lagos in one day last week etc. If any one of these stories occurred in the West, there'd be inquests and analysis and endless discussion (witness the ongoing East Anglian prostitute murders). Here, as soon as they appear they are yesterday's tragedies and silently forgotten. One only hears police sirens in Nigeria when a big man is being carted from A to B - never would you hear the police rushing to the plight of an ordinary mortal.
Nigeria brutalises and is brutalised (just listen to the way many if not most Nigerians talk to their servants like master admonishing slave). It is like a post-conflict zone, without the conflict ever having taken place (or was slavery the original sin?). Humanity loses its humanity and perhaps even its animality in the process. Even in the brightest sunshine, the country seems to sit under a permanently stationed cloud of immorality and gluttonous impoverishment.
Nearby, the hand-choppers have been playing loud music through their loudspeaker all night (perhaps this is the initial prompt for my mild despair this morning). Most of the time, it is Northern/hausa music which would be interesting to listen to were it not so loud and so continuous. Bizarrely, they put on some dancehall/reggaeton music every now and again. Perhaps this is what their governor listens to on his pleasure trips to Sin City etc.
Talking of Big Men - all the gossip is of Odili or Godfather Uba taking the VP slot. They have ill-gotten gains enough to pay their way in, the trouble for both of them is that they are overly tainted material - the EFCC is strongly on the Rivers State governor's case (he'd have to dismantle the organisation immediately to have any peace), and Uba's role for Obj in his business dealings in the States would only lead to questions dogging him wherever he goes. On the other hand, Duke seems all of a sudden to be a spent force (but let's wait and see), which seems to leave Nnamani as the only remaining viable candidate.
But politics in Nigeria is as boring and tainted as it is in the UK right now. Quite what gives Blair the right to a final pontificatory ramble round the Middle East, with the cash-for-peerages row and the Saudi bribes-for-arms scandals is anyone's guess. Goods have rarely been so damaged.
I need to get away from the depravity of it all. Human beings are continuously disappointing, especially in Nigeria right now.
Saturday, December 16, 2006
They played exuberantly all morning as a small crowd gathered outside the Ebonyi State Governor's lodge round the corner from our house. The Zamfara State lodge posse just up the street looked on quietly. Everyone is allowed their time to make noise.
In the past few nights, ever more okadas have returned to the streets (one even drove into me - the third time this has happened). One wonders why the little guy's directive is slowly being eroded. Is it just a temporary phenomena - to enable the PDP to ferry the troops about town? Or is it that Abujans have the end of his reign in site? One thing is for sure, the okadas will return in force, either before El-Rufai leaves, or immediately after.
Friday, December 15, 2006
Abuja is completely mad at the moment. The fuel shortage continues (although the queues aren't what they were a few days ago). Meanwhile, this weekend, we get to find out who will be president next year. The PDP primaries are coming to a head. Who wins the primaries 'wins' the presidency, everyone knows this- INEC's activities are mere window dressing. The city centre of Abuja, also known as the Hilton, is complete chaos - hundreds of police, thousands of 'Big Men' wearing all kinds of hats. Odili gave out N50million in there today alone, apparently. Billions of naira in persuasion money will be spent in the next 48 hours. It seems like the whole of Northern Nigeria has descended on Abuja - men who wear agbada and only speak hausa are everywhere. There are traffic jams everywhere, and serious car crashes every few hours (Northerners are the worst drivers in the country in my experience) - a car nearly fell off a bridge this afternoon, the vehicle left dangling near the Ministry of Finance. It will be best not to go out tomorrow except for emergencies.
Meanwhile, a minor triumph this evening. We went to see Rag Tag (see a previous post) at Bolingo Hotel. It felt like a victory to all who went to see it that a film like this can still be shown in rampantly in self-denial Nigeria. In a glorious juxtaposition, downstairs, there was an anti-nudity fashion show (see the flyer to the left). A tall and very pretty woman, borderline scantily-clad, handed it to me. At first, I thought she was a million-naira per night courtesan come to make hay while the whole of the PDP bigs it up in FCT, but then she explained she was a fashion designer. I explained to her and her male organiser friend that I belonged to the PNP - the Progressive Nudity Party - and that therefore their event was against all my core political beliefs. You should have seen the look on their faces.
Meanwhile #2, big congrats to the Director of Rag Tag Adaora for a thoughtful and provocative first film. Long may she prosper. And congrats to her old man for being so supportive.
I was taken on a tour of Tinapa yesterday by the project manager (he works for Arup). The experience was a little underwhelming - not surprising given that it is merely a large scale business park. There is no 'wow' factor at all. I expected a vantage point over the whole area, but there doesn't seem to be one.
Imagine being taken on a tour of an Amazon logistics warehouse, then photoshop the background with tropical plants, and you get the idea. Talking of Amazon, I mentioned the possibility of it being the ideal base for them to penetrate West Africa. From his response, it seems like it was the first time the idea has ever been mooted. Very strange, given the complete lack of access to books in the sub-region and the size of the untapped market.
Most of the space is devoted to wholesale warehousing (as in the image to the left), with a strip of retail between the huge sheds. The only cover for the retail strip is a row of palm trees - not the best choice for providing shade or shelter, given the hot sticky climate and the very heavy rainfall for several months of the year. I would have covered the retail strip with canvas, or used more shade-providing trees (palms are among the worst - as the City of Los Angeles has just decided). So the entire effect will be less Bluewater (or Sun City, let alone Dubai) and more TNT logistics operation. Architecture there is not.
For launch in March, there will only be one hotel up and running - a 2-star South African chain with only 200 rooms. So the effect (combined with the Casino and fast food joints) will be quite down-market. I might have started with a higher class hotel - as all brand experts know, it is easier to create lower niches for sub-brands, rather than try to raise a sub-brand above the level of the main brand (think Mercedes A class). Still, it is early days for consumerism in Nigeria, and people seem to love downscale brands (Argos and Primark are held in high esteem by many). I'm sure it will be successful, and more than hit the initial target of 10,000 visitors per month.
Given that the focus is on wholesale, it must be a worry that there are not adequate transport links from Calabar in place - apart from a monorail to the airport. The Lagos-Calabar motorway is a distant dream, and the Korean-backed Calabar-Maduguiri railway line has only just been contracted. But it is early days - in ten years time both links will be in place, and there will be at least a couple more higher-standard hotels there. The next big thing will be real estate that lies just outside the park but connects to it. They are guaranteed to be hot items in the next couple of years (you heard it here first!)
Here is a shot of Film City, a state-of-the-art film studio/production facility at Tinapa. It is 100% owned by an Israeli company. I'm not sure there will therefore be any opportunities for participation or involvement by local film production companies, which is a shame.
Calabar museum was constructed by the British Council in the late 19th century. It has a good narrative on the arrival of the Portuguese, the beginnings of slavery, the switch to the palm oil trade etc. Unfortunately, the power to the building was low when I was there so it was hard to read a lot of the exhibits. Upstairs is a fascinating space - the residential quarters of the main administrator for the region. Its a shame that they don't allow photography and yet do not have any postcards of the upstairs interior. It is easy to imagine early twentieth century colonial life wandering through the rooms. Most poignant was a hanging curtain-fan, which a young servant would operate by a pulley. The servant himself had to sit behind a screen, so they colonial masters would not have to see the servant while they lounged about and ate. Our guide used the expression 'colonial masters' a lot.
At Ikom, in the North of Cross River State, there is a mysterious circle of stones known as the Ikom monoliths, right on the border with Cameroun. They have moved one to the grounds of the Calabar museum. The stones have been dated at 200AD, but may be older. About 3 feet high, the design on the front is extraordinarily beautiful. We must be thankful the British didn't find them in time to steal them away to the British Museum and keep them locked in some dingy basement. My tour guide tells me they have found similarities between one of the nearby local languages and the language spoken by the Ancient Egyptians.. One thing is sure, one of the main ethnic groups in the State, the Efik, migrated over 500 years ago from Sudan, so there may just be a link with Nilotic cultures..
The Efik were also middlemen who profited hugely during the slave trade. The tourist guide laughed sheepishly when I asked her about this..
Stands in the graveyard at the top of Marina. Mary was a Scottish missionary who lived in Old Calabar (as it used to be called) from the late nineteenth century until her death in 1915. Her memory is cherished in the city for having led the movement to abolish the killing of twins. A friend's father has friends who were saved from this fate by her. Her grave is the cross on the left of the image (seen from side on).
The graveyard was sadly locked when I was there (hence the angle of the photo - taken from the gate), but peering over the fence, it seems like a tranquil place, the only noise the gentle susurrus from the surrounding trees - the perfect resting place for a noble soul.
The old town of Calabar is charming, if a little down at heel. At the top of the hill on Marina, there are fabulous views across the Cross River estuary. At the moment, the place is more or less a slum. I'm sure as Calabar develops, the place will be gentrified, and the big men will build houses with columns there.
At Christmas time, there is almost a masquerade on every street in Calabar. All the civil servants are on holiday for the whole month, so there is a festive air across the town.. This one did a very interesting shuffle dance for the camera, twisting and whirling and making the ground rustle with his deft footwork.
I drove down to Marina and hung around the memorial. The air was heavy with the sweet smell of Sensimelia, as groups of men sat smoking under the shade of tin roofs.
A bunch of young boys were digging sand from the shore, some of them playing about nearby. I'm very happy with this picture - it neatly expresses the exuberance of youth.
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
The INEC boss has announced that voter registration will close as planned in 2 days time. According to estimates, only 4 million have been registered to vote so far. This means that at most 5% of the electorate will be able to vote next year. I still don't know anyone who has registered. One wonders why there is any attempt to maintain the falsehood that there will be meaningful elections. The money could be better spent on infrastructure projects, rather than the pretence of democracy. It's hard to see how genuine elections could actually take place, given the patronage nature of the society.
There's hardly any petrol left in Abuja. The situation has been deteriorating for the past couple of weeks. Long queues build up to the remaining garages that are selling. Someone might be able to provide an explanation of why one of the major oil-producing nations has fuel shortages in its capital, but whatever they say, it ultimately will make no sense. Still, if the apocalypse ever comes, Nigerians will not panic, like the well-tended beings in the West. They are used to crises and shortages coming and going from nowhere.
Monday, December 11, 2006
I met Joachim some months back. A writer friend of Tobias (Tobs' blog), he spent three months or so travelling around Nigeria. He took over 900 photos, most from a car window. They give a fascinating waist-high view of contemporary Lagos Life. Here is just a tiny selection of my favourites.
I woke up to a pedicure and manicure on our balcony at 8am, with foot and hand massage and plenty of unguents. Tropical bird sounds trilled and fluted from the nearby trees. De-cuticled, I lost myself in the different types of swaying branches against the blue of sky- a huge bamboo tree in the middle distance, a mature almond tree in next door's compound. Tropical living at its best..
Soon we shall be in India - Delhi, Rishikesh and Goa..
Is unbelievably uncustomer-centric. Here's my own example: I am an Executive Club member, but as I put my address as Nigeria when signing up a couple of years ago, my Executive Club office is in Joburg (there is no Nigeria office). A while ago, I applied for a BA Amex card (you get extra miles if you use it to buy tickets). I received the card recently, along with a letter saying that the card would soon be invalidated given that my Exec Club membership is not registered in the UK. Now, about 9 months ago, I thought I had transferred my Exec Club membership from SA to the UK (it took a lot of effort - the South Africa office are not easy to get on the phone - I had to fill in a form and post to them - they don't do email communication. I sent the letter off while in SA to make sure it got there). So now I find out that I am still registered with the SA office and I cannot use the new Amex card. Either the letter never arrived, or it was not actioned.
The point is, as customer, do I give a flying fart which Exec Club office I am registered with? Why can't I do all this tedious bureaucracy online? When I ring the UK Exec Club up, they have no information about me (they don't have access to the SA Exec Club database) and politely insist there is nothing they can do to help. A friend can tell even more tales of dis-integrated informations systems woe with BA. It is astonishing in this day and age that BA has such a clunky, uncustomer-friendly IT system. Why they don't have one integrated Executive Club database accessible from any office is beyond me.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
The papers are full of full colour full page memorials to the children who lost their lives a year ago in the Sosoliso tragedy. The millions of naira the newspapers earn from this ad revenue should ideally be spent in some philanthropic way - contributions to a memorial at the Loyola Jesuit school for example. Unfortunately, their perspective is purely making-money, so this will not happen. It seems completely immoral to profit from this tragedy in this way, but when have Nigerian newspapers had any concern in this direction?
Another difference between Ghana and Nigeria - as soon as you land at Accra airport, you find all the information displays working. I have never seen such a sight in a Nigerian airport, in line with the country's distaste for providing basic customer-friendly information. Even the newish Virgin Nigeria area at Murtala Mohammed Airport lacks the most basic information - one arrives not knowing when the next flights will be or how full they are. Forget about having any form of electronic real-time display, there is not even any printed matter on flight times.
The staff work at a snail pace and regularly stop to gist one another (a Nigerian pasttime), meaning that one has to queue for one to two hours just to purchase a ticket. A late-middle aged Egyptian woman trying to get on a flight to Kano was consistently rebuffed by the staff - one of whom declared, 'I have the right not to serve you'. In the end, the flight was delayed by half an hour and she could have easily got on the flight, but was refused. She left the airport in tears. As several of my fellow passengers commented, 'Virgin Nigeria is slowly becoming Nigerian Airways.' Further evidence of VN's inability to provide basic information to customers lies in their new airmile promotion scheme. None of the adverts indicate what benefits there are to accruing the airmiles, nor does the scheme work online. Weirder still, Virgin Nigeria's airmiles are not connected to Virgin Atlantic (or vice-versa). Another odd thing is that VN has banned the use of Ipods on board - quite why is a mystery (its not as if there is any electro-magnetic disturbance). It is a shame that the Virgin brand is now associated with an increasingly uncaring and dysfunctional company. The model the airlines have in Nigeria is still based on the catch-a-danfo model. You turn up, you have no information about when the vehicle will leave, the plane never ever leaves on time, the whole business of getting on the plane must be as stressful as possible...
Saturday, December 09, 2006
One other palpable difference between Ghana and Nigeria is the body language of whites. White people in Accra look relaxed, they saunter about, they take public transport without a moment's thought. They resemble holiday makers anywhere in the world: at ease with the world, strolling and wandering here and there. In Nigeria (especially Lagos), the atmosphere is thick with worry: white people are quick to dash into cars from car park to car park, their movements are circumspect, there is an air of anxiety. Of course, Ghana earns massively more from tourism than Nigeria and has a much better developed tourism infrastructure, with far better quality resorts along the coastal route. One underlying difference is that armed robbery is a rarity in Ghana - although people are poorer and the economy much weaker (when one arrives in Accra, one becomes a Cedi millionaire instantly), Ghanaians are for some reason more at ease with themselves as a people. Cocoa is nothing like the curse of oil.
Woodin is the epicentre of the Nigerian woman's dreams in Accra - heaven being unlimited time and credit in the shop. Any society wedding worth its salt involves trips to the fabric mecca of Ghana. Woodin's own brand cloth is similar to dutch-wax but slightly thicker and rougher in feel with trademark design patterns. The shop sells Woodin, dutch-wax and indigenous wax-cloth. The only discernable difference between the last two being that the former is made in Holland and much more expensive.
A sign of Nigeria's complete economic dominance over Ghana is the fact that the shop is always full of Nigerian women (shopping for that up-coming owambe). I wandered round and I heard Yoruba in every corner. A woman by the name of Dupe with a hard face and a voice deeper than mine perused the shop in furious concentration. Other women shopped in groups, yard after yard of fabric stroked, surveyed and purchased. We bought six sets of six-yard wax, all for under US$100. The Nigerian in me purred.
Just as the French like to claim Simenon, Brel, Magritte, Reinhardt, Herge et al as their own (even though they are all Belgian), so too Nigerians take Star and Gulder to be icons of Nigerianness. Not so. As I learnt last weekend, both are in fact Ghanaian in origin. In Ghana, they sell both in smaller half-litre bottles, which is much more civilised.
I wonder how long the list would be of famous people who are mistakenly thought of as Nigerian would be. As a starter, one could start with David Ajayi, the much-admired (and Ghanaian) architect.
While in Accra, we went to Jazz Tones (not sure where it is in the city, but everyone knows it). It's a lovely hang out - essentially a jazz club that is also an extension of an African-American lady's living room. The bleach-blond woman in question sits at the back surfing via a huge old-skool 19 inch monitor. She swivels in her chair every now and again to survey all that is hers, then sometimes turns to face a mirror and apply a little make up. The band were pretty good, rolling through standards in a soft-bop type style. I took quite a few photos of them. The proprietor was somewhat discombombulated. She came up to me and asked me if I was a journalist. I told her I was a tourist. 'But its my band. Its my band!' she repeated with a Southern twang. I shrugged my shoulders and she went away. Our friends told us she is a little loopy.
Near our table, a group of young students sat - Ghanaian students and white French boys. They laughed and chatted and took photos of one another. The whole table was at ease and full of excitement. Later, in the dappled coloured light of the porch, two of the French boys flirted with two of the girls as they smoked. All I could think was that such a gathering would never take place in Nigeria these days: young minds and bodies and energies circulating in a cultural exchange. How much more receptive Ghana is to outsiders.
Friday, December 08, 2006
The first 3 days this week were spent on the Everyday Leadership course we organised with the Elemental posse here in Abuja. The event was an inspiration for all who attended (50 people from an assortment of organisations) - just look at the smiles in this picture. I filmed 12 testimonials after the course - it was incredible how many people said their lives had been utterly transformed for the good thanks to the course. The course looked at internal sources of positive attitudes and thought processes on Day 1, practical tools for vision-realisation on Day 2, and dealing with difficult local issues on Day 3. It is astonishing that only 9 weeks ago I had not heard of Elemental (I met them at a friend's birthday lunch in Islington). I'm inspired that we managed to pull off such a transformative event in an almost impossibly short space of time. Fate was at work in the invisible support that emanated out of the ether at exactly the right moments (beginning with the spare queue ticket a woman gave Tom at the Nigeria High Commission - he would not have got his visa if not for her random act of kindness). The hugely successful outcome has a) changed my perception of Nigeria (and Nigerians) and b) given me the confidence to develop the Nigerian offering for next year. The trainer, Tom Fortes Mayer, is incredibly talented, able to transform disappointed lives in hours. If I sound like a convert to their method that is cuz I am. If you're based in London, why not go along to their weareOne event coming up later this month? Click here for more data.
After a couple of days in Osogbo. Abuja has nearly run out of petrol, so there are queues stretching into the distance. I'm dog tired. I have not had time to write for days so my blog is hopelessly behind reality. How can I catch up?
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
We stayed in an area called 37, at our friend Abena's boss' place, in the guest quarters. The compound was tropical bliss - ashoka trees and huge palms, a swimming pool and bar, a terrace on the first floor.. Bats circled in their thousands above. Strange to see so many in broad daylight, their reptile flesh glinting ominously in the sun.
Abena had filled the fridge with goodies (including soya milk- her thoughtfulness and generosity should win a global award) and a huge bowl of fruit. The paw-paw in Ghana is different to what you find in Nigeria - it is smaller, the taste sublime. Mangos meanwhile are just coming into season, with the greenish tang of new fruit at a new moment. As I munched on some flavouricious cashews, I reflected that everything felt easier here.
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
The final day, day 3, of our transformational leadership programme is tomorrow. The first two days have been fascinating. Sadly, Nick couldn't make it over due to a nasty bicycle accident, but his other half Tom has been more than brilliant. Nick and Tom are the duo behind Elemental, a transformational leadership company based in the UK. We have 50 or so participants who in the past two days have gone on an inner then outer journey towards a complete transformation of their lives. Its been exhausting but powerful. It's hard to blog because I'm in the middle of my own path and strange obstacles are popping up. But its all good. I'm finally seeing that the boundaries between personal healing and organisational healing are arbitrary projections. My head is too full of thoughts to even begin to write them down just now...
Monday, December 04, 2006
Still too busy to blog about our Accra experiences - save to say it was lovely to be in a totally different West African space. Here I am with our beautiful friend Abena and Bibi at a great restaurant called Buka in Accra. The yam and stew was excellent..
Sunday, December 03, 2006
Just got back from a lovely little Cassava Republic tour to Ghana. Loads of stuff going on and lots to write about. More later. For the moment, all I can do is publish all the comments to previous posts.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
There's an African-Latin American jaw-jaw on at the moment in town. The city centre of Abuja (otherwise known as the Transcorp Hilton) is predictably chaotic, with police every two metres and South American types yapping into mobile phones with serious looks on their faces. Nigeria must have among the highest (if not the highest) number-in-convoy-per-politician average in the world (with the President having say a 30 car convoy average, state governors pulling in say 15 cars-plus-ambulance, your average nobody politician having 5 or 6). At events like these, you have a number of bigwig politicians and their convoy retinue clogging the space. Not quite sure what the whole shebang is supposed to achieve. Meanwhile, read about this hilarious incident involving Colonel Gaddafi at Abuja Airport yesterday.
The dollar is looking extremely weak at present. It has lost 30% of its value against both the Euro and the Pound in the last four years. Meanwhile, the mainstay of the US economy, the housing market has entered a slump phase (a British property slump is also now widely predicted, but its hard to see how in places like London and Manchester where the boom boometh still). There will be the usual consumer pick-me-up on the back of an ever weaker dollar thanks to consumer tourists and locals chasing down cheaper imports (it looks like the 2 dollar = 1 pound is just about to be broken again). However, it is hard to see what is going to turn things around in the States.
China is now producing cars that retail at US$5000 with leather seats and a/c. How would the US car market ever recover? (Answer: it won't. RIP GM). Huge tracts of the American economy have lost their competitive advantage, forever. At some point in the near future, an ever weaker dollar will surely look like an unattractive currency to purchase for other nation's foreign reserves. Exporting in mega-volumes to America's malls will surely reach a tipping point, whereby the forex received in exchange depreciates beyond a certain point and reduces profit margins, especially as these narrowing margins are compared with other emerging consumer markets open up around the world (where margins are going in the other direction), and as US consumer credit slowly dries up in line with a property fall.
I'm far from being even an amateur economist: but why would you (in the role of a Central Bank chief) keep precious foreign reserves held in a currency that is increasingly devalued and unstable? Meanwhile, the OECD is making noises that the other big global economies - China and Europe specifically - have almost reached the point whereby when America sneezes, only America catches the cold. Perhaps only a war economy can reverse the trend Stateside? Trouble is, the neo-cons have just lost their power-base and there are too many resource-heavy flash points in the Middle East already. The 21st century might not be an American Project after all, even if all the smartest guys in the room are American. I don't see a way out for the US economy as it is, as the health-dependency of the rest of the world on the US ever so slowly starts to recede.
All the above are just my simple thoughts. I'd be happy to hear someone with more understanding of these things paint a different scenario..
No one was in the apartment late this afternoon except me. I'd had a tough day dealing with people who have Incompetent as a middle name and Utterly as their first name (their surname is not fit for public consumption). I felt like nothing could pick me up from the doldrums of stupid-person fatigue. So I just took all my clothes off and made some flapjacks. It was a liberation of sorts, just being in the body, without textile encumbrance. I understood enfin why Fela spent so much time just wearing underpants - why else do you need to wear anything in a sultry country? Plus it feels sexy. I added peanuts to the flapjack mixture (my little tip), and used maple syrup instead of boring non-maple syrup. I'd had the song Nature Boy in my sub-conscious all day (it was on at the Bank this morning, though not my favourite Benson version). I couldn't help singing along while queuing. Just moments later on my way out, some schlemiel pushed in front of the queue to get past the electronic door system. Everyday this week one Nigerian or other has bumped some queue I'm in, which I take to be the height of uncivilised behaviour. I had to strain with every sinew not to grab hold of him and start swearing down his ears. I'm so deeply unBuddhist sometimes I can't understand why I'd ever describe myself as such.
Still, as a new friend said today, at least your human. My reply: at most, I'm human.
The only difference with this story is that it is a leading Nollywood star. Was she not earning enough, was it greed, was it the thought that she could just do it and get away with it, or was she pressurised into it?
Prince Charlie cometh to Northern Nigeria. They are laying on a Durbar for him, and doubtless a bit of polo will be arranged. One always wonders the real reason behind such visits. Usually with royal jaunts, there's an arms deal lurking in the background. Or perhaps this time there's something political going on - I'll leave you to figure out what that might be..
Talking of weapons, notice from this article that the companies that make up the British arms trade are willing to accept they are corrupt, using the importance of the arms industry for the British economy as defence (as well as the age old argument of not wanting to lose out to the French). The UK's record on arms sales is something to be hideously ashamed of - who can forget the badly concealed (in terms of their use) sales of British Aerospace's Hawks to Indonesia (used to repress the East Timorese) and who can be proud of the UK's recent foot-dragging on international legislation against cluster bombs? Every day, serious injuries and deaths are occurring in southern Lebanon, thanks to these truly nasty munitions. But from the British Government's perspective, keeping the sales figures up is all that matters - who cares who dies or is maimed? One thing is sure - you'll never get Charlie talking about the evil of cluster bombs, unlike Diana, who made a big deal out of land mines all those years ago. Meanwhile, the Scottish air-apparent has signalled his intention to commission the new generation of Trident nukes, costing the tax payer billions and billions of pounds, in direct contravention of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Tosser.
The hidden logic of the arms trade is obvious, once you think about it: if you have weapons to sell, are you going to try to sell in conflict-free areas, or are you going to sell to volatile states in conflict with their neighbours? Both the British and the French arms industries have excelled at prolonging war and conflict in Africa, as elsewhere across the globe.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
There's been quite a bit flying around in question of Donald Duke's record in Cross River in the blogosphere (see Chxta, Arun's Odyssey etc), stemming from this article. Given the slick PR exercise of having a blog and a well orchestrated media campaign, it behoves Duke and his people to respond point for point. It does strongly look like someone on the inside is supplying the information.
Monday, November 27, 2006
Anyone who wants to read what is done about cybercrime in Nigeria, click here to read the draft bill currently being read at the National Assembly.
Sunday, November 26, 2006
I spent a couple of hours wandering up and down the procession of floats at Abuja Carnival late this afternoon and early evening. The event was based around Eagle Square, what passes for public space in the city. As usual, the show had been poorly publicised, with only a few thousand people turning up. This is a pity, because the array of costumes and music is quite amazing. I wonder how many other events on the planet could rival the sartorial plenitude of this event.. The incredible cultural variety of Nigeria is condensed into one place, and one cannot but feel awed by the country's seemingly endless diversity.
As dusk wore on, the interlaced polyrhythms grew denser and the dance of the masquerades more frenetic. Durbar horse riders galloped about, the smell of horse manure the fragrance of the dusk air. I returned to my car by the time it was dark, to find someone had lifted both my wing mirrors. It was a small price to pay. More pics here.
Saturday, November 25, 2006
There's an article in the International Herald Tribune on the Nigerian elections today, suggesting that the elections may well go badly, and lead to military rule.
The Ogrish site has now transformed into this - more of a YouTube type format. Ogrish was (in)famous for storing all the Al-Qaeda/terrorist beheading videos. I watched one once, it was quite the most disgusting thing I've ever seen. Still, the site is a necessary resource for seeing footage the corporate media would never show. Its the new media equivalent of the Victorian freak show.
Our Jamaican friends S and J were over on holiday, staying with us in our Archway flat. It was August 2000. J, being a strict Rastafarian, was in need of some herbal relief. Being the anxious host, I did not want to disappoint. And so, leaving the two women at home, neither of them particularly enamoured by the prospects of our midnight mission, we set off in my old banger Peugeot 205. My first thought was to go to
A guy in dreads came out and greeted us, shaking hands loudly with J. ‘What-a-gwan dread?’ the guy said. J meanwhile had begun to study the flags with a slight frown. ‘Hey mon’, he began’, ‘W’appen to de Jameyakan flag? You gat all de flags of de kyaribeyan, but naat de Jameyakan one?’ It was the turn of the dreadlocked guy to frown. He then swung round and pointed with irritation to the top right hand side of the frontage. ‘What ya talking bout brethren. Dere is
With this inauspicious start, we got down to business. J was used to asking for what he called a ‘ten bag.’ For ten Jamaican dollars, you got what appeared to be (from J’s spatial miming earlier on in the car) to be the size of a Tesco bag full of ganja. Meanwhile, I had no idea how much ten Jamaican dollars was, but knew that twenty quid would be enough for perhaps an eight of an ounce. J asked a little diffidently for a ten bag, hoping that the dread would understand and be able to translate into local currency and requirements. The dreaded guy stared J levelly in the face and calmly asked for seventeen pounds in return. I fumbled and brought out a crumpled twenty. Our new friend then disappeared with the money and went back inside. A few minutes later, he brought out a tiny amount of substance, wrapped in cellophane, as well as three pound coins. J held it outstretched in his hands, his face the very portrait of incredulity. ‘Whaaat!’ ‘You mean this is what I get for seventeen pounds!’ After a few seconds of increasing disbelief, he popped it inside his jacket pocket, and we were off. As we drove home, he explained that this was nearly all their daily allowance for the holiday –and that S would not be best pleased. At that point, I think he concluded his case for the prosecution concerning the fundamental meanness of life in the
It was the Managing Director of Phillips Consulting, Foluso Phillips’ 50th birthday. Everyone called him FOP, in line with a general house rule that the higher you were in the food chain, the more entitled you were to having your name initialised. He always wore a bow-tie to work, as part of a consistently dapper look. In appearance, he was a cross between Duke Ellington and Denzel Washington’s uncle, with something crisply
We were ushered into his plush over-sized office for the birthday celebration. First of all, Babs, the Financial Controller, gave the eulogy, peppered with the obligatory references to God and Jesus. Then it was FOP’s turn to thank everyone for their contributions and best wishes. After a few minutes of this, FOP invited Pastor ___, another employee, to lead the prayer. Pastor ____ quickly began a prayer which had a call and response structure, with people calling out ‘Amen’ (or rather, ‘Amin’) every now and again, while the pastor drew in breath. After a few minutes of blessing proposals, anointing invoices and thanking Jesus for our clients, he signalled it was time for individual prayer. All thirty or so employees in the room (except me) closed their eyes and started speaking in tongues, their faces bunched up in a furious passion. Some waved arms in the air, others fought with invisible enemies in an imaginary boxing ring. The sound was like putting your ear next to a bee-hive, quickly spun words buzzing through the air, confused, frantic human sounds layering on top of each other. I didn’t know what to do, or where to look. So I stared out of the window at the ships docking at Apapa, while sinking slowly into the carpet.
After a few minutes of conversing with our God, we all had to line up and hug FOP. I have not cringed so much since I was a small child, being kissed by the pursed and rubied lips of some vast smothering Aunty. Thankfully, my turn was quickly over with. I couldn’t help thinking of the Indian mystic whose religious offering is instant enlightenment with one heavenly clasp. Except that enlightenment did not come my way. I was soon to make my exit from the extended Pentecostal family that is Phillips Consulting.
The two-day writing workshop in Abuja ended yesterday afternoon. The participants thoroughly enjoyed the course. The party now moves on to Lagos, for a book reading at Bookworm this afternoon, with Church visits etc tomorrow, followed by various tv appearances and another workshop in the next few days, with the grand finale being a trip to Accra next weekend.
Its an incredibly tough slog getting a publishing company off the ground in Nigeria. Bibi needs to sleep for a week. She has been a star, as has Abidemi.
Waking up early, I watched a bit of the cricket (the Ashes) from the Gabba in Brisbane. There was something almost terrifyingly superior about the Australian performance and their brutal determination to make amends for losing the ashes last year. England's leading pace bowler, Steve Harmison, is washed up, each time he bowls one is thankful it is not a wide. It reminds me of the worst days during my playing days, when nothing goes right. Meanwhile, Ricky Ponting looks invincible with the bat. Australia are a magnificent team, England a boyish embarrassment. It just goes to show that excellence in sport has nothing at all to do with the numerical advantage of a large population, and everything to do with infrastructure and attitude.
Friday, November 24, 2006
You can now download and read all my academic papers and presentations here.
We bought Bibi's phone a year or so ago in Dubai. Its one of those fancy pda phones with pocket pc Windows functionality, a built-in video camera blah blah. When I first switched it on it automatically installed a swathe of Islamic applications, the most crucial one being an automatic muezzin call. Five times a day the phone turns into a mini-minaret: what sounds like a broken-hearted man pleading with anyone within earshot to get thyself to the mosque forthwith. The interface was also populated with arabic script that was a devil to delete.
I thought I had sorted everything out until 4am this morning, when the phone started to chant again. There must be some kind of code buried deep in the phone's firmware which means it is destined to be the call-to-prayer in our lives. With a very loud and lambasting muezzin a few metres away from our house (its less a call-to-prayer, and more a We're keeping this loudspeaker on as long as we like) its all a bit much for we Buddhist infidels. Now there's a thought - what would a Buddhist phone do?
Thursday, November 23, 2006
While I have no desire to defend Badiou (I don't know his work at all well), there is something to be said in defence of what we might call the 'philosophy of the event.' The major figure prior to Badiou being of course Deleuze. It is important to understand a little of what is at stake in appealing to 'the event', and to see it as much more than an attempt at revealing one's credentials for dense abstract thought. Here's my little bloggy-type attempt:
Everything in European (aka continental philosophy) starts with David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher. In the 18th century, Hume laid out a radical form of empiricism which stated that there are no ideas or concept that lie outside of the process of habits creating mental associations. There are no universal ideas, only bundles of mental experiences which cohere in one mind and are gone. The implication of this line of thought being that there is no self which stays constant across time, nor is there any other form of mental or physical permanence.
There is a lot more to say about Hume, but you get the picture.
Hume's philosophy woke a certain Prussian, Immanuel Kant, from his 'dogmatic slumbers.' Kant set out, most significantly in his Critique of Pure Reason, to show that thoughts and ideas have a universal structure, which he termed the 'transcendental.' Kant's notion of the transcendental is a long way from mysticism or 'transcendentalism' - by the transcendental Kant intended to refer to the laws that govern the understanding and reason. For Kant, our mental world is a highly structured world, governed by apriori conditions (principles that are in place prior to any possible thought). Just as Newton had discovered universal laws for space and time, Kant's transcendental rules were an attempt at creating a framework for all mental activity: thoughts, dreams, conceptual systems, and an argument in favour of the persistence of a rational self across time.
Now, major swathes of twentieth and twenty first century thought can be thought of as an attempt to re-engage Kant's thought (sometimes by going back to Hume, as Deleuze did), by questioning the limits of universalism in thought and in metaphysics. This is where 'the event' comes in. Introducing 'the event' is a way of
a) denying there are such things as rational enduring selves across time or universal ideas but b) not falling back into the brute empiricism of Hume, where the possibility of philosophy itself is crushed under the weight of flesh, bone, desire and random synaptic circuitry.
The logic of the event suggests that rationality inheres within a specific context - that is, that reason is relative to a specific framework of understanding (and of being) - but that there are possibly limitless forms of understanding (and being). This is where it gets complicated, because one wants to ask lots of questions about what constitutes a context, how there can be multiple rationalities etc etc. Answers to these questions lead off in many directions, depending on which philosopher you are reading.
The main point to take away however is that the thinking of the event is the thought that there are no truly universal conceptual laws or ideas, that there is no one pre-determined form of 'reason', but that this does not imply pure chaos or 'absolute relativism.' What it does imply is a more subtle way of understanding Hume's original radical empiricism:
There is only this moment, this scene. Everything else has already happened, or is yet to happen, or is in an elsewhere that can only be a deferral, from the perspective of here and now. All linkages to these other places must be re-made and re-worked, from within this perspective. All legacies must be renewed, all apparent continuities must be taken up again, and re-interpreted according to the needs of the present. In short, nothing is a given, or can be taken for granted as an apriori, even the conditions for the possibility of thinking must be subject to critique, starting from this moment..
The 'thinking of the event' is therefore an attempt to think according to the specific demands of the present and what is at-hand, however that present may be defined (scientifically, economically, materially etc etc). It is a call for vigilance (not to be swayed by historical legacy, at the same time not to reject all historical legacy). It is also a call to be alert to the difference of the present (this situation may strongly resemble a previous situation, but still we must ask, what is new here? What has altered?)
As a philosophy of everyday life, it calls for a poetic attentiveness to the world. As a political philosophy, it underpins anarchism, in the philosophical sense of an-arche (a suspension of all founding principles). As a form of scientific method, it is closely proximate to complexity theory - the idea that most phenomena in the world attain their complexity through a specific set of initial generative conditions. It also has more than a passing relationship to a generalised idea of quantum mechanics, in the sense that subjectivity always conditions 'the object', and vice versa. There is no such thing as 'pure objectivity', but then neither is there 'pure subjectivity.' Scientific method cannot entirely divorce itself from a humanistic perspective on the world (in the same way that contemporary understandings of genetics cannot be divorced from the role of existential/cultural/environmental factors - both in human and non-human beings).
In a phenomenological sense, it is a call to always 'begin again', in one's mode of thinking, in one's relationships to others and to the world, within the compass of the incessant work of returning to the 'things themselves'. It is prompt to be aware of all that may becoming stale in one's relation to everything else. It is a prompt to return to sensuosity, and the complex ontological ecologies that make up being-in-the-world (the way we live, and the way it affects the world). We are all related; nothing is fully disconnected from anything, but the reconnections have to be remade, redone, at each moment.
The philosophy of the event calls for work, and re-work at every moment, for the purposes of re-defining what it is to live through our historical moment. It is a powerful and perhaps inexhaustibly rich thought, that forces us to wake up from our dogmatic slumbers, again and again and again.
For a book reading at Barcardi - the local watering hole. Christine and Marphy sang sweetly after Abidemi read from her book (pics to follow). Everyone wears coats and scarves in Jos, as if it is mid-winter in Chicago. I always find this comical, given that the temperature is equivalent to a mild spring day in the UK.
The trip back to Abuja in the morning was lovely, the scenery just outside the town is stunning, with the biblical Shere ridge gradually receding as you descend away from the cool air of the plateau. Unfortunately, we were stopped by traffic police in white tunics just as we crossed from Plateau State into Kaduna State. They are strategically positioned outside of mobile contact, with soldiers near by. They fleeced us for N2000 on account of some spurious missing vehicle 'particular'. Of course that's bullshit - we have all the requisite documentation. Needless to say they didn't give us a receipt. Both the former Finance Minister and the DG of NTA announced publicly that corruption is exaggerated in Nigeria. Either they are completely deluded, or they simply don't encounter it from their exhaulted positions. To anyone else, it occupies every niche of society.
Then near Abuja, the car decided to overheat. We let the engine cool down. We were near another police checkpoint. The police were irritated with us because we were witness to their continued harassment of motorists for bribes. They delayed one poor woman for 20 minutes. They only let her go when she gave them a baseball cap.
Nigeria sometimes likes to grind you into little pieces and then spit you out.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Since Giles Deleuze took advantage of gravity to smash himself to a pulp on a Parisian pavement a few years ago, the mantle of esoteric/cultic French philosophe du moment has transferred to Alain Badiou. This wiki entry gives a fair indication of the complexity of his thought, combining as it does set-theory as ontology, as well as an utter rejection of any representational theory of aesthetics. Best of all is the fact that a student has posted a diagram from Badiou's hand from a lecture only yesterday onto the site (see left). Wikipedia always amazes, if you let it.
Just finished reading Tarquin Hall's Salaam Brick Lane, an account of his real-life experiences living in Banglatown for a few years with his Indian girlfriend (now wife and BBC journalist). If you live in the West and you commute, its the perfect book: well observed and a joy to read. Hall has a keen ear for dialogue, whether it is his leather-jacket shop owning slumlord, his Albanian friends or the fading cockney characters in the pubs of Bethnal Green Road.
Best of all, its a song in praise of the centuries-old mongrel multiculturalism of England, writ small via the continuously varying experiment in hybridity also known as Brick Lane (from Huguenot weavers to Jewish exiles to the Sylhetic Bengalis of today). We English have always been hybrid (and rarely ethnically 'pure') - we've always imported our monarchs, raided other people's languages and stole all our culinary ideas from foreigners (even fish and chips ain't English, innit?). Never one for truly original ideas, we are highly adept at 'borrowing' and adapting those of others. Even as a vegan, I have to say: long live the chicken tikka masala!
A book of essays and photographs on California spirituality, by Erik Davis (who achieved a cult following for his book Techgnosis a few years ago), the photographs taken by Michael Rauner. I'd like to buy it when I can. I'd like to know more about exactly how California acquired its spiritual fecundity. What drove the mystics West?
I go to the local lab for a routine malaria test. I enter the small room where the lab technician works, say hi and perch on the stool. I roll up my sleeves. Just then, a man enters. A spectral flash of irritation crosses my consciousness. I hate queue jumpers. He stands by the door. Quickly, I notice something is awry and my annoyance melts away. He stands very still, and he stand close to the door. He is nervous.
"About my result. What am I to do?" His voice is laden with sorrow.
The technician, who is putting a phial into a box, looks back at him.
"Please. I am not a doctor. I cannot help you." Her tone is dismissive.
By now, she has produced a pricking blade, to extract a drop of blood from my thumb. I fumble to put back my cuff link. My mind is spinning. The roulette wheel slowly clicks to a stop and now I understand. His sorrow transfers itself to me in a Van der Graaf moment: I need to act.
But she already has my wrist in her rubber gloved hands, and performs a practised jab. I am adrift from the world, following his footsteps away, into a chaos of confusion and desperation. Tonight, he will be at the Church, eyes closed with all his passion. Or he will be swinging in the loneliest place he can find to die. She presses the blood onto a thin film of glass, and hands me cotton wool. It is too late, he is gone.
In Nigeria, people diagnosed positive have no information on what to do next. Counselling is rare, and non-existent in the labs. In the ignorance about the cheap drugs now available that will sustain their lives to what is widely considered by those-that-know to be a natural span, their lives are destroyed. Some will pray for deliverance. Others will end themselves. Meanwhile, Aids is big business, for those with an NGO tale to spin. The lack of information is an abstract crime, that will inevitably lead to concrete deaths.
Director of two of my all time favourite films, Gosford Park and Short Cuts. His take on the English class system, and his use of spatial narrative in Gosford Park is nothing short of genius. Meanwhile, Short Cuts was a revolution in non-linear interwoven narrative.
I shall watch Gosford Park tonight for probably the tenth time, in his honour.
Abidemi reading from her book at Silverbird Galleria. The roadshow is now at University of Nigeria at Nsukka. Bibi had wanted to meet the VC of UNN, but he wasn't there. His secretary said he wouldn't see her anyway, as she was wearing trousers (he's a born again)!
Obviously, its ok for rampant sexual abuse of female students to continue as a perk for the male lecturers at universities across the land, but women wearing trousers? There is no greater sin.
Our books, at The Media Store, Silverbird Galleria.
Monday, November 20, 2006
Listening to the esteemed Rabbi and the Archbishop respond as Humphries probes, I find their responses to his versions of the so-called 'argument from evil' unconvincing in the extreme. The argument from evil is perhaps the most difficult argument for a believer in either religion to answer: if God is perfect, all-knowing, interventionist, omni-powerful etc.- how does He let suffering and evil occur? It never made sense as a small child, and it does not make sense now. One is forced to one of two conclusions: either He is a sadist and enjoys suffering (or callously allows it to happen), or he is not all-powerful, interventionist after all.
Humphries is open and ready to share in the joy of the beliefs of the Rabbi and the Archibishop, but neither comes close to explaining the basis of their faith. I share Humphries' feeling: I look upon people with 'faith' and feel like we are in different rooms separated by a solid glass wall (a bit like at an airport): either they have found a secret which they cannot articulate in any foundationalist sense, or they have merely taken an irrational leap into an unfounded system of belief.
It simply re-affirms the centrality of Buddhism in my life, because Buddhism, as more of a practical pyschology and spiritual grounding in the world than a faith, does not posit an all-powerful God. At the centre of Buddhism is the attempt to embrace dukka - suffering. Rather than run away from suffering in the name of a universe created by a divine Creator who is somehow outside yet inside the world, Buddhism suggests that all there is is this world, and the spiritual depth of the world lies in our practiced ability to confront suffering. Suffering here isn't simply the Holocaust, Rwanda, a family member dying of cancer etc; rather, dukka refers to the suffering of temporality itself. Life is transient; we all suffer from it. Only when we engage and embrace our own mortality can we begin to deepen our relationship with our own bodily-grounded spirituality.
Buddhism is then much less a faith, and more a step-by-step method to enable us to face reality in all its awesomeness. We will die. Nothing will happen afterwards except perhaps our memories will live on. Some people will die in pain. Others will be raped or bereaved in violent ways. All of this is suffering, as time itself is suffering. Through mindfulness and loving kindness we slowly open ourselves to this reality, strong in the knowledge that our ego-conditioning is illusory, that we are just one energy node in the universal process of becoming. Our death is not final because we will live on, it is not final because the world will live on. If we can de-condition the cravings of our ego to a certain level, we will see that this is enough. Perhaps we will see, in a state of enlightenment, that the world is perfect in every way, even through the evil..
I have yet to tread so far as those last few sentences in my own practice, and perhaps will not come within a light-year of enlightenment should I meditate for six hours a day for the rest of my life, but the Buddhist path avoids theological knots about the argument from evil by confronting suffering head on, locating spirituality right there, where the suffering takes place. It is the opposite of escapism.
A man was arrested on Saturday trying to smuggle explosives onto a Bellview flight at Lagos Airport. According to news reports, he was going to detonate them while on board. The gap between attempting to smuggle explosives and actually wanting to detonate them has yet to be closed - perhaps he was delivering them to someone? It nevertheless lends credence to the widespread rumour that last year's Bellview crash was caused by a bomb - a view espoused explicitly by the airline's chief executive and considered as a possibility by both Fani-Kayode and the FBI (who have recommended a criminal investigation is launched).
Meanwhile, its open season for armed robbers in Abuja. There have been numerous hold ups in the past few days. On Saturday, Wakkis, an Indian restaurant favoured by ex-pats, an armed gang entered by the kitchen, and relieved all inside of wallets, phones etc. It is not a time to be jolly.
To think how close one can be to all this drama. I was in the same Lagos local airport the day the explosives were found (and would have boarded a Bellview flight were it not sold out); I was in Wakkis the day before the armed robbery.
An excellent series on Radio 4 -presenter and self-avowed atheist (and attack-dog political journalist on the Today programme) John Humphries talks to a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew and asks them, in 30 minutes each, to persuade him in favour of their specific faith.
It seems to me that Afrocentrism as it is popularly conceived of is dead, or is need of serious re-engineering. To define terms: Afrocentrism in my understanding refers to any culture or set of ideas that hold "Africa" in high esteem, especially from a spiritually redemptive perspective. The referent, "Africa", is often vaguely defined, and varies between different Afrocentric discourses. At times, the emphasis may be placed on Egypt and the Kemitic, at other types the Nubia (presumably because of the darkness of the Sudanese skin), at other times on Ethiopian culture (most notably through rastafarianism), sometimes on the Ashanti or the Akan in Ghana, at other times still on the Yoruba and Ile-Ife. These redemptive discourses were popular during the civil-rights movement and into the 1970's, but have been on the wane ever since, just as the pan-Africanist movement has all but died out.
It turned out that Afrocentrism served the spiritual and emotional needs of the deracinated host group (those in the black diaspora) much more than it met any needs in Africa. There are many narratives of the return home post Alex Haley for diasporic blacks, often via Ghana and the obligatory trip to one of the slave forts, Cape Coast etc. , the most recent notable text being Black Gold of the Sun by Ekow Eshun. The experience of the return is often highly complex, with the jubiliant immediacy of being on African soil and confronting 'gates of no return' on the tourist trail tempered by the realisation that one is perceived to be as much a foreigner as any white gum-chewing burger chomping American. The fate of the brave rastafarians who ventured forth to their ancestral homeland in Ethiopia is no less poignant; rejected by and large by the conservative, anti-marijuana host population, the Jamaican immigrants are growing old and the population is not being replenished; some have already left in disappointment.
And so, afrocentrism, while in its many guises has served significant spiritual needs, has done little or nothing for Africa. Given the name, it has been an utter failure, ultimately a form of involuted narcissism. The root cause of the failure was a projected black essentialism: as if diasporic blacks, upon return, would find an ancestral connection across the hiatus of history and the Middle Passage. Instead of any essentialist linkage, the experience was of complexity, fragmentation and contingency. No automatic pathways through the forest emerged. It turns out, a la Gilroy mapping and theorising the journeys of Baldwin, Wright and co, that the Black Atlantic is a criss-crossing of historically contingent journeys, rather than any kind of immediate genetic re-connectivity.
Yet still, there is enormous enthusiasm for Africa, by diasporic blacks and other interested parties alike. There therefore should be a redefinition of what it is to be Afrocentric, away from redemptive (and ultimately unrealistic) essentialist fantasies, in favour of offering genuine support and alignment with contingent realities on the continent.
The Afrocentrism of Band Aid/Live Aid is not what is required. This merely promotes the image of the African-as-victim, in need of the fluffy contributions of pop stars to come to the rescue.
The Afrocentrism of essentialist myth-making is not required either. Afrocentrism 1.0 was just as much an exoticisation as orientalism was for the Victorians.
Afrocentrism 2.0 (for want of a better term) needs to be about creating tangible and meaningful two-way linkages. It needs to be just as meaningful an experience and encounter from the African side as from the Western side. It needs to involve listening, from both perspectives. It needs to be sensitive to historical specificity, and to the myriad African cultures of the continent. Being afrocentric means one is immediately in favour of dropping the debt, strongly against selling arms to fragile or volatile African regimes. It means being in favour of stronger UN mandates in places like Darfur (rather than simply witnessing the carnage). It means creating exchange programmes between African universities across the continent (both for lecturers and students alike) - with the rich Western universities offering free online access to subscription-only archives and journals. It involves African ethnographers doing their research in Western cultures as much as vice versa.
In other words, while it may have just as much spiritual content as afrocentrism 1.0, it needs to be reciprocal and practical at the same time. Enough of fantasising and waxing poetic about Africa. The time is ripe for active engagement with African realities.
The furore surrounding the treatment of Ngugi wa Thiong'o in an Oakland Hotel recently (see Black Look's post here) simmers on. I was so angered I followed up her suggestion and emailed the Chief Exec. I got this reply today. For a CEO in the hospitality sector, I must say I'm impressed:
Dear Community Member
Prejudice still exists in America. It is real and palpable. While we’ve all witnessed superficial changes in America over the past four decades, the reality is that people “pre-judge” each other way too much, whether it’s based upon skin color, religion, sexual orientation, age, economic status, or some other factor that makes one “the other.”
As one of the owners of the Hotel Vitale and Americano restaurant, I want to publicly apologize for the treatment Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o received from one of our employees on November 10. While this employee has a good work history, the truth is that this employee “pre-judged” and disrespected the Professor by assuming he was not a guest in the hotel. Within a few minutes, when this employee was proven wrong, he was remorseful and ashamed and he has been put on leave from work as we review this matter further. What is troubling is that he, along with all of our employees, received mandatory diversity training, yet this incident still happened. I am deeply sorry for the offense this has caused Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the community. I have sent a private letter of apology to the Professor, as has the General Manager and the offending employee.
This is a matter of great importance to me personally. I went to Long Beach Poly High School, one of finest inner city public high schools in America well know for its diversity. I have a mixed race foster son who identifies as African-American. I am in a long-term relationship with an African-American. Our company supports more than one dozen local multi-cultural organizations. In sum, we have always tried our hardest to assure we are part of the solution, not part of the problem. That is why this incident is personally very troubling for me as we have created a diverse workforce that has high employee satisfaction and, relative to other companies, we have a grass roots track record of respecting our employees, our customers, and the community. Yet, clearly we are not perfect and we need to do better.
On Friday I met with key members of PAN (Priority African Network) and we came up with mutually-acceptable means of making amends to the community. This will include a public apology ad in a local newspaper, a donation to an anti-racism local non-profit, and deeper anti-racism training of staff (beyond just normal diversity training).
Thank you for expressing your sadness, anger, surprise, and anguish. We are using it as a continuing “wake-up call” to assure that every one of our employees respects every single person they come into contact with – whether they are a customer or not. Every human deserves to be respected and acknowledged.
Founder & CEO
Joie de Vivre Hospitality
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Two Brits from BT have taken over NITEL and MTEL - Steve Brookman and John Weyr respectively - as part of the management contract arrangement they have with Transcorp. I suspected something was up when we received a big bill last week - the first in months. We'd deluded ourselves into thinking our NITEL landline was for free calls. Oh well. Let's hope they do a good job and sort out that old chestnut SAT-3.
The lyrics are as pertinent today as they were then. Driving round Ikoyi last night, I had the familiar thought: this is where the elite live? The roads are black at night (none of the street lights work, and there is seldom power). Our host in an otherwise-lovely Bourdillon apartment has not had water for SIX WEEKS. The roads in Ikoyi are pretty bad - on the East side of Kingsway (where the Governor and the DG live) they are passable (but expect a bumpy ride), meanwhile, Ikoyi West of Kingsway (in the direction of Obalende) are Martian (in fact, there are probably smoother roads on Mars). Visitors who knew Ikoyi 20 years ago are unfailingly shocked by the state of disrepair the neighbourhood has fallen into. It seems the residents of Ikoyi are blind to the state of disrepair around them - or is it that they are powerless to make a change?
Another thought on my throwaway post. One looks at black America today, and one wonders what the civil rights movement (lawyers and all) really achieved. On the one hand, an awful lot - Brown vs the Board of Education etc. On the other hand, it achieved nothing. Many towns and cities in the US suffer from racial apartheid, with blacks, whites, latinos living in separate cantons. There's no need to cite statistics such as percentages of prisoners, life expectancy, access to healthcare and medical insurance etc between the races because we all know them.
As a well-known Nigerian academic working in the states once said to me: 'America? Its a plantocracy and always will be.'
Take Chicago for an example. It is the epitome of the racial apartheid that plagues American cities, with a huge gulf between life just north of the CBD and life just south. The same goes for Boston and countless other American cities. It is a sad and sorry state of affairs, and a continual warning to those who think America 'solved' political theory with its constitutional set-up. As I've argued in the past, it is precisely the strength of the American constitutional framework that is America's weakness: it breeds a sense of superiority, and curiously blinds Americans to de-facto realities. One of which is the morphing problem of race.
This is really what annoys me about Beyonce and co. Its not about the talent of a Jay-z (of course the guy is talented, how would he have succeeded otherwise?) its about the mess that America is in, and the way in which vast tracts of black-American culture have been co-opted, commodified and numbed from all challenge and resistance (or so it seems). It is less a point about specific individuals, and more a lament about the collective compass of the times: cynical times when heroes are laughed at, and crass materialism and misogyny rule the roost. What was so special about the film Rize was its depiction of a black counter-culture that explicitly eschews commodified hip-hop. Of course, since then, crumping has become commodified, and part of mainstream hip-hop. Such is the way of things.
The point can be made more generally: like many British people of a centre or left-of-centre persuasion, we are still living through the disappointment that participating in the biggest demonstration in living memory (against the war in Iraq in 2003) counted for nothing. It was our Paris 1968 moment. It seems there are no tactics and strategies left, either in favour of black liberation in America, or in favour of fighting fools like Blair, when their finger quivers above the button. Our lament is therefore not really about the music, its the spirit of resistance that the music stood for.