37 years ago, at 2am in the morning, my mother, accessorised with false eyelashes and make-up, ejected me into the world. It was 1969. Armstrong had just landed on the moon, Hendrix was still alive, the earth seemed a more innocent place, at least to the baby boomer generation. I was the most beautiful baby on the ward (there was not much competition, it being Wolverhampton Infirmary) - according to my number one fan Mrs C.M. Weate.
Certain proof was the fact that the nurse used me to demonstrate how to change nappies. Jaundice had given me an olive-skinned, mediterranean complexion. Birthdays should always be about celebrating the mother, not the child, I reckon. Tonight there will be friends, food and laughter, but I will raise an internal imaginary flute of Bolly in celebration of my mother, and of mothers.
Saturday, September 30, 2006
Monday, September 25, 2006
This has been doing the rounds so I'm sure most of you've seen it, but for those that haven't (and have a decent internet connection), its worth carving out 50 mins of your life to watch..
Saturday, September 23, 2006
A friend has just returned from Bahia, where the interest in maintaining Yoruba culture is much stronger than in Nigeria. He brought back a fascinating and chunky volume entitled Ewe: the use of plants in Yoruba Society, by the itinerant anthropologist Pierre Fatumbi Verger (published by Odebrecht). Verger spent 17 years amongst the Yoruba in the 1940's and 1950's. There are beautiful illustrations at the back, but the best bit are some of the recipes, which often come with an incantation. Here are some of my favourites:
Medicine to help a girl develop breasts
Leaf/bark of x, y, z
Fruit of x, y, z
Pound, boil in a pot, draw the odu in iyerosun, recite the incantation. Mix everything. The girl must wash her breasts with it:
'Ata oluigbo, go and bring the damsel's breasts
Pandoro says that her breasts should come out
Ogungun says that they should shoot out
Aidan says that they should not be afflicted
Oseyeku should bring them out'
There are medicines and incantations for all woes - itching vaginas, tapeworm infestation, ulcers, anaemia, stomach problems. There is a medicine to cure madness, something to reduce the size of the placenta, there are ways of sending Eshu to attack someone, chanting:
'The red ara says so-and-so should be killed
Oparun says that so-and-so should lose his memory
Sagere has compelled him/her to wander'
There is a spell to acquire many wives which involves use of a sparrow's penis and a chameleon (part of a series on 'beneficient works' (Awure). There's another to get twins, have one's opinion accepted, to find a missing person, to become wealthy. Then there's a whole series on 'evil works' (Abilu): to bewitch someone, to give someone a swollen leg, to render a penis impotent, to avert a woman from having sexual intercourse with another man, to drive an occupant out of the house, to break someone's leg, to provoke itching in someone.
Amidst all these colourful intentions, there is real wisdom of the plants, most of which has been lost. Yoruba learning is alive and well in Brazil. Perhaps one day the receptacle of knowledge will past back to Nigeria.
Friday, September 22, 2006
I first visited Nigeria late in 1999, seeing in the New Year at a Catholic cathedral in Osogbo with family friends, travelling to Ife, Benin City, Abraka, Olumo Forest and other wonderful places afterwards. Early in January at the start of term, we went to Unilag to find work. We had the slightly insane idea of moving to Nigeria and becoming academics. We'd had the same idea the year before when travelling in Cuba. I was somewhat put off after meeting a philosophy professor at the University of Habana for an impromptu interview - it seemed the syllabus was twenty variants of Saint Marx. I admire Marx' writing like many, but I'm not sure I would ever want a total ongoing immersion experience.
At Unilag, I managed to line up an interview with the Head of Department, Professor Momoh (he died a few months ago). Bibi and I sat down in his office, the other side of his wide desk. A young woman sat to his side. We greeted each other. I breathed in deeply, preparing myself for the questions ahead. I could never have anticipated what he was about to ask me. After saying hello, he said,
"So why are you following her?"
I was somewhat taken aback. Rather than ask me about my area of specialisation or teaching competence as a prelude to some knife-sharpening metaphysical exchange, he was apparently referring to Bibi. I thought for a second, then came back with,
"I notice that you apply the verb 'follow' to my relationship to my partner. However, that word could only belong within a partriachal conception of the world, wherein men are considered to have power over women in many different ways. However, I refuse at all times to conduct myself within such a logic. Therefore, the verb does not apply." I smiled inwardly at my smartypants answer. Professor Momoh eyed me, and then my wife. I wondered what he was thinking, inscrutable underneath a fez-like hat. Then, his next question, even more perplexing:
"But you know your wife is white?"
Now, this was a strange question. The fan whirred above, wafting warm air into the humid office. I could not come up with anything thoughtful or expansive to say. "Erm. No Professor, my wife is black." I replied. Not such a cleverclogs answer.
"No. Your wife is in fact white."
"I'm sorry sir. But my wife is black."
We were not getting very far. Socratic dialectic it wasn't.
There was a pause. Prof looked at his nubile assistant, then at me. Then, he said, "when can you start?"
In the end, we decided against the whole idea (Bibi's PhD in gender studies didnt tesselate with any department). But in a parallel universe, there I am, still teaching at Unilag, converting a generation of eager young minds to the joys of existential phenomenology, tearing them away from uncritical adoration of the works of the Abrahamic tradition.
There's been a lot of noise in the UK press about thin models and BMI index during the ongoing London Fashion Week. Anorexia remains a serious problem in the West, which can even lead to death in serious cases. In Nigeria, there's little danger of girls worrying that they look fatter than they are; rather, the opposite clinical condition bigarexia tends to hold: girls worry that they look thinner than they actually are. This probably leads to its own forms of eating disorders - girls gorging on carbs, eba etc in the hope that they will gain weight. It just goes to show that confidence in one's body-image is almost wholly determined by social context.
Thursday, September 21, 2006
As is often said, Nigeria is a low-trust high transaction cost economy. This means that when two strangers engage in a transaction, the initial assumption on both sides is that the other person should not be trusted. Given the general lack of information, due diligence is almost impossible, so people have to rely on hearsay and trusted references. This general framework increases risk, effort, time and therefore cost on all transactions. Trust is therefore an intangible social value that, when its not there, hampers development perhaps more than any other single factor, whether on an organisational or on a national scale.
Ordinary Nigerians face huge hurdles just to get simple things done. For example, the act of buying an international air ticket (whether to Nigeria, or leaving from) is fraught with difficulty, thanks to a small but consistent percentage of fraudulent transactions. It seems that all the international airlines have special rules for Nigerian customers, which mean that things you can do online and offline if you are not Nigerian, you cannot do if you are.
The root problem is that it is at present impossible to assess trust. The key missing component is therefore a credit ratings agency. Companies such as Experian in Europe have information on many aspects of individual consumers - most especially an assessment of credit worthiness based on past banking history.
Although there's been talk in Nigeria about setting up a Credit ratings agency, there has yet been no action. In order to increase the level of trust in the economy, it is vital and urgent that one is set up. It is a win-win situation - companies (banks, building societies and select vetted private enterprises) would pay to access customer information as part of their risk assessment. Therefore, the agency would make good money, employ people etc. Most of all, it would hugely improve the efficiency of the banking system - the time it takes for instance for a small business loan to be granted to a SME. It would also encourage good fiscal behaviour, as people would know that in order to get credit, they need to be able to service their debt within set guidelines.
A credit ratings agency would therefore be one crucial component of encouraging credit facilities in the banking sector, providing a huge boost to businesses and consumers alike. Without it, Nigeria will remain low-trust, high transaction cost.
Racing round trying to do 1000 things this morning, I parked my car to visit someone- to come back 4 mins later to the traffic police and my car clamped! Yikes. Its good that the rule of law is being imposed bit by bit and ever more firmly in FCT, but there were no road signs indicating one cannot park, so its a bit annoying, to say the least.. Worse, our documents were out of date and my local drivers licence has gone missing. Some strings had to be tweaked to recover...
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Monday, September 18, 2006
I lifted the image below from the absolutely excellent blog: Cairofreeze.
Alex Hannaford's piece in the Sunday Independent was extensively edited. Here is the uncut version:
In the distance the chicken is flapping around uncontrollably as Johnson holds it by its feet. He gives us the thumbs up and disappears behind a small wooden shack. Forty-five minutes later he's crouching over a small makeshift barbecue on the sand, grilling the bird he's just killed, gutted and plucked, occasionally dusting the pieces of meat with a concoction of hot African spices. He serves it under a wooden sun shelter with dishes of rice and beans and a tomato and onion salad. To wash it down we swig palm wine – the African equivalent of moonshine – which sounds glorious and is apparently “good for the body” but which tastes revolting.
Tarkwa Bay, with its whispering palms and golden sand is almost exactly as I remember. I was last here in 1979; I spent the early part of my childhood in Nigeria when my dad worked for a French bank in the then-capital, Lagos, and since I got married in 2003 I'd wanted to bring my wife to see the place I called home for so long.
On the 25 minute boat ride to the beach, the engine conked out three times – once, we’d even drifted gently into the side of a gigantic tanker moored in Lagos harbour and I laughed as I remembered a letter I’d read before this trip that mum had written to my dad’s parents back in 1976: “We set off for a place called Tarkwa Bay as we’d heard it was nice there and safe to swim. We nearly didn’t arrive as half way across the bay, one of the engines stopped in the speedboat and gushed loads of smoke. Talk about panic!”
Times, it seems, haven’t changed. But it wasn’t long before we got going again, turned a corner, and arrived at the idyllic-looking beach – waves crashing onto the foreshore – that I hadn’t seen for 17 years. There’s rubbish piled up at one end now, and some of the beach huts have fallen into disrepair, but it’s still a wonderful respite from the madness of nearby Lagos – one of the most populous cities on earth.
I have vivid memories of Tarkwa. Back in the 1970s you were dropped off the other side of the bay and had to walk through palm trees and across baking hot sand for what seemed like miles (but was probably only a couple of hundred feet) before arriving at the bay. My feet would be scalding and I’d have to cool them off in a large stone trough next to a little shack known as Shell House. I also remember shark nets being dragged up the beach here, caught in the treacherous waters of the Bight of Benin.
Today you’re dropped off right at the beach and locals swarm to meet you, offering everything from tours of Tarkwa and bottled water, to food, shelter from the sun, and even marijuana. Today sharks are rarely landed here (“they’re too small,” we’re told), and the rusting remains of a railway track and an old carriage still lead down a palm-fringed spit that juts into the sea – just as they did in the ‘70s.
Unfortunately, one thing I had forgotten was just how hot the African sun can get and I nursed a sunburnt back for two days before developing sunstroke.
My wife, Courtney, and I started our trip in Abuja, the fastest-growing city in Africa, and which took over from Lagos as the country’s capital in 1991. We landed in the darkness of the early hours of the morning in a dramatic rainstorm and the lights along the 30km airport road were all out. I asked our cab driver if there was a power outage. "No,” he said. “These are part-time lights.” He drove the rest of the way to our friend's house in the upmarket Maitama district, desperately trying to avoid other cars and sliding off the road, despite only being able to see a foot in front of him.
Electricity failure is a problem in Nigeria. I remember my dad bemoaning the constant power failures back in the '70s. The National Electrical Power Authority – better known by its acronym NEPA – was nothing short of disastrous. The locals said it actually stood for 'Never Enough Power Always'. Last year NEPA changed its name to the Power Holding Company, Nigeria, the acronym of which some wag decided stood for 'Problem Has Changed Name'. When it became a PLC it was 'Problem Has Changed Name, Please Light Candle'.
After trying a Nigerian institution – pepper soup with goat meat – at the Nicon Hilton hotel, we headed to Katampe hill, one of the highest points in Abuja, for the best view of the city. Although there’s a barbecue spot at the top, half way up it’s home to local radio station, Aso, and you need to sign a book before continuing to the top.
“Why do you want to go up there?” an official asked.
“We want to have a look at the view,” I explained.
“You want to make an inspection?" he said.
This is one of the problems with Nigeria. Our friend, Paul, told us this is one of the best views in Abuja, and yet there is always suspicion. Nigeria – although it has some incredible scenery and wonderful potential tourist spots – just isn’t geared up for tourism. On the way down, the gate had been mysteriously closed and a 'guard' wanted to inspect the boot of our car. Quite what he thought we could have stolen from a barren hill, I have no idea.
The following afternoon a taxi drove us three hours north of Abuja to Jos, nestled in beautiful Plateau State. As we left Abuja a guy with an AK47 slung over his back relieved himself at the side of the road. Round the corner a man was walking along the street with a monkey on a lead, and at a set of lights someone was holding two fresh tilapia in his hand: close your eyes for a second and you’ll miss everything.
There were no road markings on the highway out of the city, but there seemed to be around three lanes in each direction – although nobody takes any notice of these. Along the side of the road, a mixture of residential mud shacks and aluminium-roofed huts selling everything from wheelbarrows to foam and mobile phone cards jostle for space in the red dirt.
Women dressed in vibrant colours carry their children on their backs for miles from their remote homes to the nearest village.
There are signs for 'The Lord's Chosen Charismatic Revival Movement' and an Anglican church. Further up the road is 'God's Own School'; the country is more or less 50 per cent Christian, 50 per cent Muslim.
One of the things that affected Courtney most was the dramatic contrast between the beauty of the lush green countryside, and the desperate poverty of the people living in both the villages that crop up every half an hour or so, and the cities.
There are a number of check-points on the road to Jos – most manned by scruffy-looking men in military clothes, using tree trunks to slow the traffic. Our driver, Ado, said it's to prevent armed robbers, but this is only really a problem after dark and during the day most of these checkpoints are simply ways to make money – known as 'dash'. Luckily we were waved through all of them.
Just before Jos we stopped so I could buy some sugar cane. It's not good for your teeth but I used to chew this as a child and wanted to try some again. Our car was suddenly surrounded by children: one selling tiny black fruits from plastic bags, another offering fresh oranges. A tiny boy appeared carrying two cages containing canaries and parakeets.
Jos itself is underwhelming considering the beauty of the drive leading up onto the vast plateau on which it lies, and like in Abuja, okadas (motorbike taxis) weave through the congested, fume-filled roads.
Taking our life in our hands, Courtney and I decided it was the quickest (and cheapest at around 20p a journey) way to get around and headed for the local market on the back of two okadas. Chickens were lying subdued in a circle at the feet of a hawker. Children were selling suya, corn and peanuts from bowls balanced on their heads. Others were touting phone cards, belts and Western clothes over persistent shouts of ‘bature’ - meaning white man in the Hausa language (further south it's usually the Yoruba phrase 'Oyibo')
That evening rain struck and we took a taxi to a restaurant. I politely pointed out water was leaking from the sunroof onto Courtney’s leg and the driver told us it was 'a consequence of the Nigerian economy'. This was just before we broke down – not for the first time on our trip. The driver was forced to brave the torrential rain, flag down a passing okada, and head back down the potholed road for fuel, but it was to no avail. The car was kaput and we sent the okada to find us another taxi.
The second breakdown occurred on the way to what is potentially Nigeria's biggest tourist attraction – the Yankari Game Reserve – which lies three hours east of Jos. The battered 1980s Golf we were in gave up just south of Bauchi town and we wobbled along the road for a little longer before the driver pulled over and realised the axel had split.
Another of the great ironies of Nigeria. In England this would be a major job for a car repair shop – possibly a week's work and a lot of money. Although we had to flag down another car to take us the remainder of the way to the game reserve, our driver Tunde promised he'd be there to pick us up by 4pm after getting his axel welded.
We flagged down a small minivan or 'bush taxi' and two Muslim men sat in the front blaring out Islamic music from their stereo for the remainder of our journey. We shared the back with a boy and two chickens he had just bought from the market.
Almost all Westerners in Nigeria are there because a) they work in the oil industry, b) they work in telecoms, or c) they are missionaries. It’s rare to find tourists, and with this in mind you’d think they'd welcome you at Yankari with open arms.
"Do you have your passports?” the official asked. Only two out of our group of four did and thereafter transpired a lengthy conversation of the type which ultimately ends in us being allowed through but only after we thank the official profusely and make it clear we acknowledge he's doing us a huge favour. Then there was the small matter of our cameras. Permits for 'professional' cameras - which at Yankari means any digital camera - are 1000 Naira each (about £4). Amateur cameras - which in my case meant my professional Canon SLR - was just 100 Naira (simply because it wasn't digital). I was sure it made some sense to someone.
Still with a half an hour journey ahead of us, 10 kilometres past the entrance to the park we were met by a truck blocking our way. We had been driving four hours already and even without the obstruction we would only get two hours at the warm springs and no time to go on a safari. An hour later, after two trees were uprooted and a path cleared around the truck, we were on our way. We now had only an hour for a swim.
The Nigerian government, recognising the potential of Yankari, is funding an ambitious redevelopment programme – new roads, a new visitor centre and hotel – and when it’s ready it should be good. At the moment, baboons and warthog wander inquisitively round the building site.
Back at the gates we met the head of tourism for Bauchi State, in which Yankari lies. He told us a park worker had informed him that earlier that his car had been blocked by a pride of 10 lions that morning. In truth it’s doubtful this happened at all; either the official was trying to impress us, or the park worker was trying to impress the official. According to the Bradt guide to Nigeria, due to poaching and a rinderpest epidemic, ‘today Yankari is largely empty, though supposedly there are over 50 species of mammals … including leopard, antelope, lion, hyena and buffalo, though they are rarely sighted.’
Nothing could have prepared Courtney for the sheer madness of Lagos – not even a brief sojourn elsewhere in Nigeria. It is one of the busiest, dirtiest, most dangerous, vibrant, colourful, wonderful cities on earth. Those with a nervous disposition need not apply. I told Courtney once she’d been there she could pretty much go anywhere.
Lagos sprawls from the mainland to several islands and each is connected by road bridges. In the ‘70s my family lived on Victoria Island – still an expat haunt and one of the safest places in the city. To get there from Lagos airport you need to brave the Third Mainland Bridge – at over 10 kms, one of the longest in the world. This bridge has a fearsome reputation for crime at night but during the day its congestion (known locally as the ‘go slow’) is a perfect place for hawkers. One friend says you can leave your house naked in the morning and arrive at work washed, shaven, teeth clean, dressed, and smelling of aftershave, just by buying things from the vendors that weave in and out of the traffic. Add to that hot water bottles, Nike t-shirts, hats, knives, steering wheel covers, chess sets, and badminton rackets, and you need never visit a shop again.
We tried to find our old flat – I knew the street and the plot number – but it had been redeveloped beyond recognition and our block must have been knocked down. We sat sipping Chapman’s (a non-alcoholic Nigerian tradition consisting of ginger beer, orange squash, angostura bitters and sparkling water) at the Eko hotel. It’s changed little since we lived out there and huge calabashes still hang from the ceiling over an outdoor pool-side bar.
We would also visit Badagry Beach back in the ‘70s – then an hour’s drive from Lagos, but today more like two hours because of the traffic. At the nearby Mobee Family Slave Relics Museum, a teenage boy showed us centuries old shackles and chains used to enslave his forefathers before they were shipped off to Europe. It’s a tiny one-roomed museum but it’s enough. He showed us a lip iron. The oblong hollow disc would fit over a slave’s lips and a hot metal pin would pierce the top and bottom lip so he couldn’t speak. There were chains for children, a hoop used to secure two slaves together by their ankles, and he demonstrated a neck iron.
The Mobee family are descended from local Nigerian chiefs who share equal blame in the bloody trafficking. These elders would sell people to Europeans at auction every three months in return for weapons, intoxicating spirits and other goods. They would then be taken aboard slave ships, past the ‘point of no return’, and out into the Atlantic Ocean. We were told one out of five survived their journey by sea.
Ironically it was Chief Sunbo Mobee – the son of a slave trader – who stopped the trade out of Badagry.
On way back from beach we drive through five road blocks. At one we are pulled over by an immigration official who asks to look at our passports. “Have you been to the beach?” he asks. “What have you bought me?”
“Some sandy shorts,” I tell him.
They’re after money but humour usually works. A friend always says “I have bought you my blessings for your family and future”.
Nigeria is a country of dramatic contrasts. If you can escape the crime, survive the ‘go slows’, the officious officials, the scams, and deal with poverty on an unimaginable scale, it has the potential to be such an incredible destination. It isn’t there yet, and I’m not sure Courtney would rush back, but I will return – that’s for sure. In fact I miss it already.
Sunday, September 17, 2006
As is widely known, the Dutch-based telco Celtel has now taken over and rebranded V-Mobile. Any expectations that they might up the ante in quality of experience are yet to be proven, especially given their initial marketing effort. The whole-page ads in todays papers have an image of a girl in a hat smiling, holding her head in her hands. The strapline is "Exceed. Expectations." To the right is the Celtel logo, with the brand strapline, "Making life better." I find such diabolically crap standards of advertising a personal insult. The copywriter should be defenestrated, the "art director" slowly garotted.
So, if this is all they can do with the brand, let's not expect too much from the actual service. Nigeria is just too damn easy for telcos: when you can make so much money offering ninth-rate shit, why bother offering quality? Rent-seekers all, peddling monosodium glutamate to the masses..
Pankaj Mishra, who wrote a rambling, self-indulgent yet sometimes illuminating fable of his re-discovery of India, An End to Suffering, responds to Martin Amis' imperious essay in last week's Observer.
Although Mishra can be faulted on refusing to engage with the sheer irrationality of fundamentalism (whether Christian or Muslim), his critique of Amis' essay is spot on in many respects - what right has Amis to make such spouting pronouncements? Has he any knowledge of the history of Islam, or sound understanding of the long arc of history between the West and the Arab world from the Crusades and since? There are some good comments in the letter's page. Clearly, we should not look to someone who made their name in the 1980's inventing an urban vernacular for the wilder reaches of Thatcherite experience to exlain the complexities of contemporary Islamic-Western relations. We can learn much more from moderate Muslim thinkers such as Ziauddin Sardar, who is perhaps the most engaging guide to the complexities of various forms of Muslim experience. His regular pieces in the New Statesman are always enlightening and informative.
There are several key issues which Amis, and Mishra for that matter, do not articulate as clearly as they might:
1. The West is largely to blame for the creation of fundamentalist Islam, for several reasons. First, direct support of fundamentalists like Bin Laden or the House of Saud at times of economic convenience. Eg, without American military support, Saudi Arabia would not have the wahabist problem it now has. This must be seen against a long historical sweep of dangerous meddling, most notably in Palestine and in Iran.
2. Western commentators almost always homogenise various forms of Islamist resistance. Hamas, Al-Qaeda, Hizbollah, the Taliban, the Mujahadeen etc etc are all thought to espouse the same 'islamo-fascist' ideologies. This a massive over-simplification. In most cases, these groups are local responses to local conflicts (resource wars, tribal conflicts etc). Any generalisation of a global Islamist threat is pure Hollywood. Compared to the tens of thousands of lives Western intervention has wreaked in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Lebanon, the few thousand lives taken away by Islamists does not really figure.
3. It is not in the West's interests to promote moderate Islam. Moderate Islam will not feed the military-industrial complex (the engine room of Capital), help to defend huge increases in defense spending, nor continue to justify Homeland Security-esque incursions into the freedom of individuals. Therefore, neither Washington nor its Whitehall puppets will ever come out and support it.
4. Meanwhile, there are huge forms of in-country opposition to Bin Laden-esque fruitcakes and the simpletons who rant for living in the Madrassas. There is a hidden and repressed liberal sub-culture in almost all Islamic states. But these movements are locked in and trapped, a) by popular hatred of brutal Western interventions, b) by the support the West continues to give to the fundamentalists and c) because of a lack of opportunity to write and be published.
5. The Islamic world in general is at least as differentiated as the Christian world. Beyond the Sunni-Shia schism, there are hundreds of sects and sub-cultures within Islam, just as there are countless interpretations of the Koran. The popular image of the teachings of the Koran as 'literal truth' are undermined by the hermeneutic contestation that continues, just beneath the surface.
6. More than anything else from a Western perspective, Europeans and Americans are completely ignorant of the debt of gratitude owed to Islamic intellectuals a thousand years ago for preserving and nurturing Classical learning and developing perhaps the most sophisticated design aesthetics ever known to humanity. An Islamic renaissance is possible, and latent again just beneath the surface. Unfortunately, it is neither in the interests of the West, nor its fundamentalist clients, to promote it. We must therefore try to work out other strategies to promote harmony between the various sons and daughters of Abraham/Ibrahim. Any other strategy is fratricide.
Rather than the mirage dreams of establishing a new Caliphate, and the pure stupidity of a War on Terror as response, we need to recall a common history of advanced culture and foster a deep respect for the best in both worlds. There is much that is awesome and beautiful in Christian culture (one thinks of the Cathedrals, the hymns, the devotional journeys to Canterbury or Santiago), just as there is much that is pure wonder in Islam (one thinks of the Al-Hambra, the Mezquita, the Qawwalis of Nusrat Fateh Ali Kan, the Zillij designs on endless ceramic surfaces, the magnificent Riyads of Morocco and the mosques of Istanbul). Humanity went perhaps as high as it is possible to reach towards a perfect Spirit in these achievements.. Tolerance, respect and even love and admiration of each other's faiths and worlds is available, at just 2 degrees of inflection away from the disastrous status quo. Another world is possible.
Or, is it the fate of myopic humanity, that although we may be the only beings in the universe capable of conscious, reflective thought and profound spiritual enquiry, we will always allow a self-destructive ego-centric logic to defeat our common aims? Must we always deserve the Bushes and Blairs, the Ahmadinejads and Omars that precipitate so much global suffering?
Once again, many parts of the Muslim world fall into a defensive rage because of perceived criticism, confirming the belief of many that Islam as widely practised today is intolerant of different perspectives (whether they are external or internal to the faith). It was doubtless folly for the Pope to make the remarks he did and appear not to contradict a quote that Islam was 'evil and inhuman'. The defence that his speech was a piece of deep-theology beyond the ken of ordinary mortal minds just won't wash. The Vatican, stuck in a different history to the rest of the world, needs to get its act together. Just as the previous Pope sent millions to their deaths by not explicitly approving condom use, it looks like this Pope may be prone to error.
However, there is a question in his commentary that deserves to be asked - that of the centrality of jihad in Islamic belief. Muslims and non-muslims have to ask what does jihad actually mean? To an outsider, it simply means war on all infidels (non-Muslims). To that extent, Islam does get perceived as an intrinsically violent faith. So, perhaps jihad should be sidelined in moderate practice of the faith. Or, perhaps there is another scholarly re-interpretation of the concept available. The word comes from the Arabic root ghd, which means 'to exert utmost effort, to strive, struggle.' As the link shows, there are six kinds of jihad, only one of which is 'jihad by the sword', referring explicitly to religious war.
Like the word 'Crusade', jihad has a dangerous history. The time for a more spiritual re-interpretation is surely nigh. Otherwise, yet more angry disfranchised young men in Bradford and Peshawar, driven on by rabid mullahs, will continue to abuse and simplify a religious concept as a justification of violence.
Saturday, September 16, 2006
By the time I’d hit sixteen, there was just too much energy in my sinews and not enough diversions in the microscopic spec of cosmic dust that was Wheaton Aston. The promise of sweaty intrigues with local girls had worn a little thin. Meanwhile, Manchester loomed mean and lascivious just fifty or so miles north.
If you closed your eyes, stood on tiptoes and held your face to the southerly winds, you could feel the sub-cultural neutrinos pinging off your face like a radioactivity reading at Chernobyl.
Manchester, the city of sonic spirits: The Fall, Joy Division and The Smiths floated up demonic songs into the ether, noises that amplified and intensified inside the experimental chamber of the Corn Exchange before drifting off into the multiverse. Love will tear us apart…sang Ian Curtis from the grave (he’d just killed himself), while Mark E. Smith snarled enigmatically about Lucifer being over Lancashire. This was music for angular souls who spoke to ghosts in their sleep and were drawn to the sound of water dripping into chemical puddles on nameless back streets.
It has always been thus. Manchester was full of hard knocks two thousand years ago: the ruins of the ancient Roman garrison of Mamucium is near the City Centre; mystic geomancer John Dee charted the hidden energies underneath the city five hundred years ago; lugubrious layers of suffering and sin pressed like peat for centuries in places like Little Ireland and Ancoates as countless thousands were driven off the land after Enclosure, becoming urban peasants and mill fodder, while their Cotton overlords busily built a dreamy Florentine-styled infrastructure in the city centre out of ten million red bricks. Manchester had too much history, too many ghosts who’d lost their way, too many Salford scallies who loved nothing more than to rip things off walls and grind noses into faces. The music darkened the shadows of the city and turned everything a bleeding monochrome, with images linking back to the L.S Lowry reprint we’d always had in our house – sinister factories, stringy dogs, memories of Peterloo, an omnipresent Northern menace and the lingering perfume of piss. Could anything be more uncanny to a sixteen year-old than a panopticon prison called Strangeways, a charcoal nightmare just north of the centre?
Afternoons spent listening to Morrissey’s eloquent tales of sorrow while motes of dust swirled in the dying sunlight in my bedroom had elevated me into the city’s orbit path; I circled round and round ever closer. Rusholme, Moss Side, Hulme, Chorlton, Ancoates, Ardwick, Levenshulme and Droylsden were the poetic place-points on my imaginary compass. All I needed was the right landing gear.
Meanwhile, my Mom had a gleaming new Peugeot 205 GTI. The year before, I’d taught myself to drive by gingerly pushing her previous car (a Metro) out of the garage late at night with my mate Jon Horton and going for nocturnal spurts, learning such incidentals as gears and brakes and steering manoeuvres at speed. Once, we went far too fast round a tight bend, spinning the car violently round with such force that one of the wheels ripped off (I found it in a ditch). I’d never replaced a wheel or used a jack before and had to flag down a passing car. The next morning, I was tired-eyed on the street washing the car and talking to Dad when the woman who’d showed us what to do passed by. “Did you fix the wheel on ok last night love?” She asked. My dad frowned. “Er, sorry, I think you have the wrong person..” “No love, it was you,” she insisted. “Near Gnosall..” She looked at my Dad, then at me, and then slowly erased the question mark in her voice. I shrugged. She walked off.
The GTI offered up new opportunities, and new radii of possibility – in other words, Manchester. Before our first trip, I got to grips with driving in fifth gear at maximum speed. I pushed her up to 115mph on the A5 nearby, nearly losing control with a slight twitch at the wheel just before Thomas Telford’s bridge. At last, I had the machine that met my needs. So, it was arranged. I picked up my girl, Lindsey, and my mate Mike from nearby villages, then we took the M6 to Manchester. It was a thick foggy winter’s night. The 30mph speed limit signs were flashing through the drifting ectoplasm. It was already around midnight and we wanted to get to where we were going. The curves were gradual and I knew the road well already, so I accelerated up to 90mph, even though I could only see about 50 metres ahead. My passengers whooped with the thrill of it (this is how so many of us died back then). I turned the Chicago House tape to full blast and Farley Jackmaster Funk replied in kind. We got onto the M62 in no time, and soon the gloomy grandeur of Manchester loomed into view – the motorway widened to six lanes either side as we whooshed into the sulphur-lit concrete canyon. And then: blue lights flashing from immediately behind the car. PC Plod had clocked me doing 80mph. He took my details. We sighed a collective Oh Bollocks. He wrote me a ticket – I had to go to my nearest police station with my details within a week. I had no licence, no insurance, and no hope of jumping through the hurdles ahead. Our party decided to carry on anyway. Convictions could wait.
A few minutes later, we arrived at our Mecca, the most sacred space in Manchester for a 16 year old in 1986: the Hacienda Nightclub, owned by the mercurial Factory Records boss Tony Wilson. It resembled one of those medieval paintings of Babel from the outside, a spiralling ziggurat of ominous possibility. It was about 1am by now. A thronging queue breathed dragons into the damp inky air, hands shoved into jeans pockets to salvage some warmth. We paid our five quid and were inside. The place was industrial: curtains made of flexible Perspex guiding you in, rubber floors, yellow and black duck tape on metal pillars everywhere. And the noise was deafening. There were already maybe a thousand people inside. The main space was a metal cavern, with stairs leading up to a DJ platform in the darkness on one side. We laughed at the thrill of being there, and being a thousand miles from boredom. A cute black girl in a bandana was dancing on a column, her eyes closed in Ecstasy, her arms flaying about. Chicago House was slowly morphing into Acid House. People popped pills in tenebrous corners, buying their good Pharma from ashen-faced hobgoblins in hooded tops. We danced till 4am then headed home in sweat soaked clothes.
The Gods of pleasure ensured me full protection after the event. A few days later at Stafford police station, I handed in various documents I’d found in my mom’s important-documents drawer. They took a photocopy and let me go. I’m still not sure exactly how I got away with it, but I think it was a bored clerk on an endless afternoon not checking things properly.
My dangerous life continued. A few weeks later, I took K, my new girlfriend, to North Wales and back, through the night, ending up in Rhyl, a dour Northern pleasure resort hauntingly abandoned by the season. Early in the morning, we got stopped charging the wrong way down a one-way street in some small town by two police cars. It was a drugs squad set-up, the officers all wearing bullet proofs. We were small fry compared to their prey, drug-runners on their way to Holyhead and the ferry to Ireland, or taking the backwoods way to Liverpool. They asked us where we were going and then told us to watch the road signs in future.
These are just two of the adventures of my dangerous youth – there were many. So many of us bored village lads took similar risks and worse. So many of us died, mangled underneath trucks, or sunk into water, or mashed into trees. Magical places like the Hacienda pulled us in irresistibly, while the dead gathered around us…
Reading up on the Darfur protests scheduled for tomorrow, I came upon the National Association of Seadogs (Pyrates Confraternity) website, here. They are organising a protest outside the Sudanese Embassy here in Abuja tomorrow. Wear a blue hat tomorrow wherever you are to register your protest (the specific protest is against the Sudanese government's refusal to allow a huge UN peacekeeping force into Darfur, following a UN resolution last week - hence the blue hat reference).
The Pyrates website is quite informative - giving a good account of the history of the fraternity - one of the founders being Soyinka (one of the 'Original Seven'). Quite a few people blame Soyinka for being the original cause of the cults that plague campuses up and down the land. This is a difficult and complex issue which I leave commentors to offer their opinions on. One major issue is surely the way in which university cults are prone to external interference - as with Area Boys.
Meanwhile, in an effort to understand in more detail what is behind the Darfur genocide, I went to good old Wikipedia. There's an excellent write-up here. Its a complex story, inevitably with a British colonialist element (via Lord Kitchener and an Anglo-Egyptian power-sharing agreement) as well as a local ethnic dimension revolving around nomadic cow-herders (Baggara - a Fulani offshoot), camel herders (various Bedouin Arab tribes from the North) and the agriculturalist Fur people. Desertification and sub-regional conflicts between Libya, Chad and Sudan add to the mix, as does prospect of huge untapped oil reserves in the region. The Arab vs African characterisation is a simplification of what is essentially a resource war.
Friday, September 15, 2006
In the house to celebrate this year's Nigerian Independence Day. Click for all the data. Africa: Centre of the Universe.
There is a 'listen live' link but I've yet to get it to work. It's a shame, I used to like listening to the talking-drum conk yoruba when I lived in Lagos..
Oduduwa Radio - this one works.
Also, the Nigerian Field Society. The Abuja chapter has just gone on a trip to Niger to watch the Wodaabe Cure Salee festival - the one where the men daub themselves in make-up and preen for the women - which may include a trip to Agadez. Darn - I would have loved to have gone on that trip...Meanwhile, the Lagos chapter is even more intrepid (they're planning a cycling trip along Third Mainland Bridge!!!)
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Talking of architecture, top Euro-architect Rem Koolhaas has nurtured a longstanding interest in Lagos. He's spent the past few years leading a research team from Harvard, resulting in a film and a full length analyses in various forms. It's a shame that this material isn't more widely available. Its even more a shame he has yet to build here. There's still time..
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
An old friend called me tonight from some internal space - Richard Scott, up and coming British Architect and founder of Surface. Rich and I met at a vital time in both our lives - 1995 - in London. He was in between his Part II and Part III's (British-trained architects will get the reference) and searching for a theoretical framework for his spatial impulses, being increasingly disatisfied with the formalist Peter Eisenman school of his student days.
Meanwhile, I was increasingly realising that the central enquiry of my PhD was that of space and embodiment. Meeting a challenging and earnest young designer thirsty for deep theory was a fabulous experience. Together with Kristen Whittle, who went on to work at trendy stalwarts Caruso St. John (famous for Walsall Art Gallery) and then onto uber-kool Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron (a lot of Kristen's creative sweat went into Tate Modern) we spent days and nights dreaming up spaces and forms of intervention onto the London design scene..
As Softspace and then Surface, we formed an intense intellectual threesome, and scooped the prestigious Shinkenchiku award in Japan in '96 (beating over 400 other entrants from 40 countries), closely followed by winning a competition at the RIBA. We designed a watery-solid space of stretched fabric and continuous aquamarine digital video footage called Aquaphilia. I wrote a prose-poem for the space, with Bibi's voice post-produced into all sorts of sonic weirdness (I was falling in love). Those were good times. We taught in a theory-practice duo at The Bartlett, The AA and the Royal Academy and were surrounded by eager twenty-somethings destined to become film-makers, artists and sometimes architects. But then we had to focus on separate paths - me on finishing my thesis, Richard on reaching for commercial success.
Rich has soldiered on and built a tight creative unit based in Old Street, together with the highly talented Andy McPhee (project architect at Peckham Library). In time, Surface Architects promise to take over the Will Alsop mantle, combining ideas and experientially-motivated design to create striking architecture. Surface played a key role in the recent upgrade of the Brunswick Centre, near the British Museum..
OK - a rare Jeremy-in-day-job-mode posting:
Managing a large project or programme of projects in Nigeria is an excellent challenge, especially if your client is public sector. I have learnt more than books can tell on how to make things work and what to avoid, and most importantly how to analyse and deal with risk. I even have the grey hairs to prove it.
As my EU Information Systems project comes to a close and I decide which opportunity to take on next, I'm thinking about how to record some of my learnings for others, at the same time as revising hard for my upcoming Prince 2 exams and gemming up on various change management methodologies (Kotter seems to fit with P2 quite nicely). The idea of finding a progressive MBA course focusing on developing economies flickered through my mind a few days ago..
The core issue is of course leadership. As a whole, the Federal Government is not providing any solid direction-setting in terms of technology-driven transformation. That said, there are pockets of progressive elements hidden here and there, as well as a fair smattering of cowboy briefcase consultants on the make who continue to provide poor value for end users. El-Rufai is on the ball, as is Soludo, as are the people at Debt Management Office and the inner circle at the Budget Office. Other MDAs (Ministries, Departments, Agencies) are still only just leaving the typewriter-jurassic period behind.. A lot of dots need to joined together to create a picture that makes sense.
I've learnt about how to garner peer-to-peer lock-in type group dynamics, but locking in the middle layer doesnt amount to much when the upper layers of management remain unresolved. At present, there is a shocking amount of duplication of tech projects in the public sector, and precious little coordination, integration, or following of any technology master plan. In other words, a lot of good intentions and donor money is being wasted. The dream would be to align economic & civil service reform with an enabling technology strategy which focused solidly for the next two or three years on infrastructure.
The general drift is however one of continuous improvement. This year's budget is solidly based on a sectoral development strategy - the first time this has happened. Bode Agusto has done some excellent work as DG of the Budget Office in the past couple of years. Its a pity that he is steadfast on returning to the private sector come next May.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Its hard for anyone to keep up with events in Nigeria. Baba and Atiku are slugging it out, with recrimination following accusation, as two spent swimmers, that do cling together and choke their art..
Meanwhile, This Day reports that Mrs Creosote, Mrs. Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke, has been hauled in by Ribadu's boys to answer a simple question: is it really possible for someone to be Director General of a stock exchange AND chairperson of a company listed on said exchange and for there not to be a conflict of interest? Easy enough question. I wonder how she answered it..
I've been reading Dibussi's blog for the past few weeks - a Cameroonian scribe (not sure where he/she's based). Click here to go there.
Came back home for lunch today to meet a film crew in the living room. They had come from Seattle to film about the Wimax service we're using. It brought out the inner Tom Cruise in me. If only there'd been a trailer outside full of vegan delicacies demanded as part of my rider...
Talking of Hull Uni, one of the more omnipresent Governors was in London recently. He paid a couple of Nigerian girls studying at Hull £2000 each to come and sit with him.. Perhaps I should contact City People?
A friend in Europe who runs a boutique hotel has just had a nasty experience with a criminal who wouldnt leave and wouldnt pay for a month. It brought back memories of my encounter with Terry:
It was Finals year at Hull, Larkin’s town at the estuary’s edge, shining grimly in the North. My Granddad had just died. The juxtaposition of bereavement and looming exams, plus some mysterious internal intellectual transformation, had pushed me deeper into philosophical waters. I’d finally developed a passion for philosophy, a sense of conceptual destiny, and a taste for the journey of enquiry that must begin.
Meanwhile, I was also landlord to the house I lived in and there was a room vacant downstairs and a mortgage that needed paying. No one had answered the ad I left in the Student Union, so I cast the net further and put an ad in the newspaper. The next day, I got a call from someone who was interested. Terry turned up in the afternoon, on an old fashioned sit-up-and-beg bicycle. He looked clean cut, if a bit local (pronounced ‘lerkal’ in Hull brogue). He told me a story of how he’d been in the army, but now was out. It was a ‘looking for a break guv’nor’ patter. As he was speaking, I thought back to Grant, another ex-squaddie who’d done his level best to mess with my head a couple of years before. And the thought that ran alongside was this, ‘don’t be prejudiced or conditioned by experience. Reducing people to types and responding like a Pavlovian dog is not the way to be.’ So I said yes, he could move in.
During the first few days, I started to understand the consequences of my open-mindedness. First, Terry was obsessed with the size of his muscles. Each morning he would eat a huge bowl of bicep-building mush out of a large plastic tub. He nurtured the prospect of what body-builder’s call a ‘triangular torso’. His mien was that of a silver-back gorilla from up North. There was something intimidating about his body language, a sense of vain menace latent within the sinews of his being. I sensed that he had already summed me up as a lanky poof from somewhere not as North as Hull. After his daily slop, he’d go back to his room and drench himself in cheap aftershave, which would linger throughout the house for the rest of the day. The ominous gorilla, claiming his territory by pissing Old Spice everywhere, grunting his way through the house..
My studies took up most of my time, so Terry’s intimidating ways soon receded into the background. I’d see him either in the morning with his bucket of gruel, or late at night after he’d finished tanking up somewhere. We fell into some sort of accommodation with each other. Occasionally, we’d talk a little – I think he liked the fact that I actually listened to him. I listened because his stories were so alarming. His tales came from another city and another world. He mentioned that a gang of his ex-army mates who were into armed robbery and controlled a prostitution racket in Liverpool were interested in doing some “operations” in Hull and Leeds. He asked me what did I think? He wanted to know if I thought he should get involved or not. At which point, I started to wonder whether people that leave the army early either become hard core crims or (the thicker ones) find work as security guards or bouncers. Unless you’re Oxbridge officer corps, it takes a certain type of rough-neck to join the army (escaping a broken home being a key motivator it seems). It takes an even more lethal subset of this type to leave the army early and sacrifice the retirement package. The combination of discipline, proximity to weaponry and a mandate to kill mixed with psychological hang-ups is not to be messed with.
Terry paid his first rent cheque on time, and I quietly sighed with relief. Life carried on, I read Wittgenstein and Aristotle, and mooched around Hull. However, by the time of next month’s payment, Terry did not stump up. A week passed and my overdraft had increased by the size of the monthly mortgage payment minus the other two tenants plus the missing money from Terry. A letter arrived from the bank. Exams were only four weeks away. I felt the stress levels rise to the top of the scale and spill over. One evening, I went downstairs and knocked on Terry’s door. I asked him for his rent. He told me “it was coming” and slammed the door, leaving my nose an inch away from wood and his nasty perfume. A week went by, and the money hadn’t materialised. I took a deep breath and went downstairs again and asked for the money. This time, he grabbed me and rammed me hard against the front door. “If you don’t stop asking for this fucking money, I’m going to shove you straight through this fucking door!” he snarled. His jaw was clenched, like a hyena on the cusp of engagement. Oh dear. Yet another psycho ex-squaddie on my case, I gulped. When will I learn?
Another week went by, and I came home from class one afternoon and Terry had gone. I pushed open the door to his room, gingerly. The smell of cheap scent had impregnated the wallpaper, but he’d gone. I felt like I’d left the toilet after a two minute outpouring. My life could at last become pure philosophy, with no threat or menace day or night, and no morning monster with his horse bag of steroid-coated oats.
After my finals, I was cycling near Pearson Park when I spotted Terry walking the pavement, at exactly the same time he spotted me. A sense of aching dread rocketed within: a conversation had become inevitable. My heart dropped to the tarmac and bounced back up again. I half expected him to jump me and start morphing my face into plasticine. Instead, he said he was sorry for leaving unannounced, but that his brother in Bristol had run into a spot of trouble. His (the brother’s) girlfriend worked in an offy, when one day one of the local crusties had come in and tried to steal alcohol and had ended up head-butting her. Terry and his brother had decided the only decent thing to do in response was to put on balaclavas, get a couple of baseball bats and go and ‘break some bones’. He said he couldn’t tell me about any of this at the time, because he was worried someone might get killed and he didn’t want me to have to know.
Terry was a snarling pit-bull of a guy who scared the life out of me. He’s probably doing bird somewhere nowadays.. snarling at the screws.
Monday, September 11, 2006
I thought some people might find it interesting to see the breakdown of the female circumcision stats from the National Bureau of Statistics 2006 Welfare Indicators survey:
Rural poor: 27.8%
Urban poor: 43.7%
Note: the margin error is set at 0.6%
Apart from the inference that FGM is highest amongst the Yoruba, the other surprise is that the practice is higher in urban areas.
Michael Haneke’s Hidden (Cache) is an extraordinary film and yet one more step in an extraordinary career (Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher..) The story is simple: a bourgeois Parisian couple are increasingly rattled by tapes sent anonymously through the door. A hidden camera records their movements in and out of their apartment and inside a car headed towards a childhood manse. The Daniel Auteil character, Georges, is a successful semi-intellectual talk show host, his wife (played by Juliette Binoche) an overworked publishing professional. Slowly, the film reveals events locked in Georges’ past, beginning with subliminal clips of a young Algerian boy covered in blood. Georges has a secret that has come back to haunt him..
The genius of the film lies in the unpanned extended shots taken through the hidden camera. One’s first thought is of Rohmer, but the comparison would be wrong. This is not a film about the emotional nuances of Gallic life. In the book-lined living space at the centre of the apartment, Georges and wife fast forward and rewind through the tapes, their cosy world of wine and successful friends stripped bare. When the tape is stopped, news footage from the Middle East and other anonymous tragedies play across the screen, a Shakespearean device to portray a cosmic backdrop of woe. Meanwhile, their pubescent son Pierrot seems to be falling into his own private hormonal hell.
Throughout the film, the taping camera sees but is not seen. We never actually find out who is behind the lens. This enigmatic structure creates a powerful multi-layered and open-ended cinematic metaphor. Let me try to unravel perhaps the first few layers.
The first layer is the hidden camera as a way of thinking about memory and what has passed. While Georges continues to see (and be seen on TV), he cannot see his own memory. In other words, the hidden camera functions as a trope for the occlusions of memory. Something in the past was recorded, but the memorial tape has only just been found. How many of the thousands of memories we carry round with us do we ever recall? Most lie in dust, in a far off corner of the mind’s attic. But we can never be sure when the weight of one of these memories will suddenly become heavy, and fall through the roof. Although we tend to think of our memories as assertions of our identity throughout time, memory can be come sharp-edged, and tear at all our certainties. This film takes us there.
Secondly, the hidden camera in Cache at no point unveils a figure-behind-the lens. The contemporary world of CCTV, speed cameras, tracking devices, Google keywords and wireless mics is precisely this – a world where everyone is watched and yet no one is watching. We are forced to behave as if someone might always be tracking us: a peer-to-peer Panopticon has become the hallmark of our surveilled society. Although our world looks more or less the same as it did, beneath the earth, networks of seeing pulse at the speed of electricity, undermining our attempts at carefree anonymity. Someone is watching, but we cannot call it Big Brother anymore. Rather: ‘it’ is watching. And this anonymous it tears at the intimate fabric of daily life. Everything and nothing remains hidden.
Third, the Algerian narrative woven into the film is a personalisation of France’s dirty little secret. We are led to believe the unseen cameraman is Algerian (Father? Son?) but are never allowed a moment of recognition. Even the memory itself, when finally revealed, is captured at a distance by an imaginary 3rd person, a ghost behind the lens, a witness made only of ectoplasm. In precisely analogous terms, France’s role in the dark night of the “Algerian Civil War” is kept hidden; all tapes are lost. Algerian suffering is not allowed to come to presence or become a form of witness. Instead, we are left with the quiet streets of upscale Paris; all traces of blood and drowned bodies long ago wiped from consciousness. Meanwhile, in a quiet room in the suburbs, a knife is drawn, and a throat’s blood is about to paint the wall a Pollock.
Haneke uses history to nod towards the malaise of the present: the fourth layer is that of those dreaded banlieux, where Arab lives are slowly wasted, the occasional flash of blood the only evidence. There is no camera, there is no cameraman. There is no witness.
To have created such a powerfully multivalent cinematic allegory from such a simple story is a work of genius.
There was a provocative and powerful essay in yesterday's UK Observer by novellist Martin Amis, examining the origins of Al-Qaeda, in America. He is more than a little unsympathetic to the Palestinian situation (and its origins), but in terms of a rationalist critique of fundamentalism in general, its a classic statement. He sees little hope for a rationalist moderate Islam, but somewhat contradicts himself when he argues that wahabist Islamism is in an endgame spasm. Might it not be that a rationalist Islam is slowly emerging and finding its voice, but has been temporarily sidelined by American (and its British puppet) foreign policy? Certainly, the huge American Muslim conference last week in Chicago bore little signs of a lunatic fringe, and every sign that Muslims in America are becoming a force of moderation on the whole..
Meanwhile, an article in the New York Times examines the merits/demerits of the buildings that are due to replace the World Trade Centre.
Like so many, I have my vivid memories of that day. I was working in an Ad Agency in Wimbledon. The Creative Director, a lady from Hong Kong, had a brother who was working in one of the Towers. He was one of the lucky ones.
While people of the left can sometimes be fairly accused on knee-jerk anti-Israel pro-Muslim attitudes, this is a day to be a little more nuanced. One can support the Palestinian cause while still condemning suicide bombing and Hamas political naivety, just as one can support Israel's right to exist while abhoring their recent ultimately futile actions in the Lebanon. In no one but the most self-hating fanatic's imagination is Mohammed Atta anything other than a figure of pure evil..
The only interesting data on the NBS site is on the homepage. Click here to download the Quarterly stats pdf.
Sunday, September 10, 2006
Living and loving and laughing in Nigeria...
Since the start, I've been aware of the problematic nature of this blog - privileged white person being critical of Nigeria in Nigeria etc. Every now and again someone lingers in the comments for a few weeks and rants at me with accusations of colonialism etc. Its to be expected, given the set up. Being a bit cocky, it affects those around me more than it does me. This can bring out the worst in one: a toxic mixture of narcissism and egotism.
But I'm getting bored of the flak and concerned about how it affects those close to me - so although I've avoided it all this while for the sake of free speech, I'm going to have to start comment moderation...
The point of this blog, as with many of the other nigerian blogs that have mushroomed in the past couple of years, is to try and start a positive conversation about Nigeria, my adopted home, and unleash some optimistic stories about the place out into the world. This critically productive conversation is bigger than all of us, and vitally important. Its time to refocus back on that, and stop getting embroiled in pillow fights..
The sunset was lovely as always this evening, sitting on the balcony until dusk and the return of the mosquitoes.
Written by Alex Hannaford. We met him while he was over. Nice chap.
Saturday, September 09, 2006
I absorbed myself in the wikipedia labyrinth this afternoon, bouncing round from various Ancient Greek pages (love the stuff on Ancient Greek pederasty) to Nok culture. Seeing images of dolorously beautiful triangle-eyed Nok figurines in various American museums brings out a primal revolt in me. The British Museum is a cavern of stolen goods, so many of which simply need to be returned and cared for on home territory. I keep coming back to the National-Museum-in-Abuja idea - of demanding volubly that the Benin Bronzes, the 2500 year old Nok terracottas and all the other colonial expropriations are shipped back, creating a tropical masterwork to house them in in the capital. That would be a worthy lifetime project for a group of committed souls and enlightened investors (the govt could chuck in a few naira too). Just the idea that coachloads of African schoolkids in some undesignated future could visit and simply wonder at the limitless depths of the cultures that lived on the same soil in times past should be payment enough..
Meanwhile, sadly, there are still people out there who are selling priceless antiquities to the global blackmarket. I came into contact with one over a year ago - he was all smiles and culture on first meet, until it turned out the ne'er do well was looking to me as a conduit to selling some 15th century Yoruba stuff to dodgy people in London. It will not go well with him.
Alhaji's cook downstairs has been fired. Christophe, a friend's Beninoise cook/cleaner, came to give us the data. He was gisting Bibi and sister in Yoruba, so I may have got the details wrong in a few places (still havent found a Yoruba language teacher). The cook has two wives and twenty children, but even so found time to develop liaisons with women at the market during shopping trips. One of these women started to extract compensation for his attentions, at which point, a subtle programme of 'resource diversion' began. A few cupfuls of rice turned into a sizeable portion of a bag, and soon enough, Alhaji's wife noticed the increasingly unsubtle extractions.
Meanwhile, we've sacked our cleaner and our driver. The cleaner was getting on everybody's nerves except mine - but I'm filthy English so my opinion hardly counts. The driver meanwhile had taken to inexplicably long absences while driving unaccompanied from A to B. Things just came to a head.
So now we face that awful prospect - of having to do our own dishes and I am assigned driverly duties. I'm not sure I'll be able to cope, fragile lazy sod that I've become.
Friday, September 08, 2006
Interesting: there's some Dora Akunyili-for-President posters have sprung up around town in the past day (its a good time for wallpaper paste traders right now). Just the fact that these posters exist is a form of hope..
Don't ask me what is going on at Aso Rock - I haven't read the papers, we haven't renewed our DSTV subscription and the internet's only just back up. Whatever it is, it can probably be more than matched by the internecine wahala in the UK Labour party just now. The Reverend Tony's desire for permanence is gifting the next election to Dave C.
Meanwhile, I've got hold of the results of the National Bureau of Statistics' Core Welfare Indicator Questionnaire 2006 - 77,400 housing units were selected across the country. Here are some of the stats that stand out:
13.9% of households in Nigeria have difficulty satisfying basic food needs (this figure jumps to 25.4% in the South-East).
68.8% of female-headed households consider themselves to be poor. The figure drops to 61.1% for male-headed households.
Adult literacy: 64.2%, which breaks down into 73% men and 55.4% females
1.2% of households own a computer (but only 0.3% own one in the North-East, whereas 2.3% own one in the South-West)
Unemployment for 15 years old and above is 3.8% (not sure how they worked this one out!!)
54.1% of the population has access to electricity.
13.8% of the population has access to safe sanitation (this jumps to 30% in urban areas).
Female Gential Mutilation: the national average is 32.6% In other words, nearly one in THREE Nigerian women have had their genitals mutilated! (They do not say what the Male Genital Mutilation rate is (probably because male circumscision is viewed as 'normal' in Nigeria).
Unfortunately, the NBS' website is unfinished and has very little content: www.nigerianstat.gov.ng Let's hope one day they make key information like this more widely available.
Our internet access went up the swanny two days ago - the antenna on our roof drank too much water apparently. This was a tad annoying, but a good opportunity to get back to some more serious writing and thinking. I started to write something on Ariadne and memory yesterday which as a first stab approaching a fecund and complex patch of philosophical myth wasn't too bad.
As I get older, I feel the Classical myths inexplicably draw nearer: Ariadne/Theseus, Odysseus, Orpheus, Mnemosyne. How can one not be drawn to such beautiful sounds and such rich enigmas? After a day spend meditating intensely on Ariadne's thread, I felt as close as perhaps anyone has been to the metaphysical frequences that resonate along that mythic twine.
The prospect of drawing philosophy out of the key Yoruba myths in a similar fashion is how I intend to spend my forties. One day I will have a well designed desk with a view somewhere in the world and hours ahead of me to return to my first love philo-sophia. I dream of being able to write like Michel Serres:
"Do not think that youth has fresh skin and a smooth face for simple biochemical reasons. There are reasons for these reasons themselves. Let’s have a look. Irreversible time flows down, it flows down from its source to the deltas, from birth toward death. The relation of a human infant to his future forms a kind of fan, his time can flow along multiple beds. The relation of his body to its own future is the same quite abstract relation that the blank subject has to his thoughts, that the nonspecialized hand has to the tools that determine it, that the whore has to her customers, or that money has to the written text. The more the human body is young and the more it is possible, the more it is capable of multiplicity, and the more time it has: not time in its length and duration, but the more kinds of time, the more varieties of river beds it has to flow down, the more valleys it has before it. The more undetermined it is. The old man’s interest lies in his determinateness, his body has as a whole become memory, his skin is worn away, like, at the Ganges delta, or the earth or the map. Each somewhat sluggish arm of the delta is encumbered with gravel that can recount the details of upstream. His body is saturated with singularities… The entire volume of the old body is occupied by archives, museums, traces, narratives, as if it had filled up with circumstances." (from Genesis)
A friend of mine once met someone who hitched a sail with Serres and his philosophical chums on a boat in the Med. She spoke of his continuous commentary and wave after wave of spontaneous insight (I remember some of my former philosophy professors were similar). Is there anything more satisfying to the soul than the company of one's intellectual peers, forever curious to forms of collective understanding of this troubling enigma called humanity?
Click here for a more recent piece by Serres.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
I went to the grand Wole Soyinka affair at the Musa Yar'adua Centre last night. Duke was in the house etc. As the event unfolded, some critical questions to ask of Soyinka, and the Nigerian/African writer in general, came to the surface:
What have you done to support and encourage up and coming Nigerian/African writers?
When did you last hold any kind of workshop in Nigeria?
Could you ever live (full-time, always-here) as a writer in Nigeria?
Why don't you teach (at least part-time) in a Nigerian University?
Do you think its ok that you are teaching African literature mostly to privileged Americans?
If you had/have the money, what would you/are you going to do to support literature in Nigeria?
How important is it to you to pass the baton of literature on to the next generation here in Nigeria?
Do you think its ok for African writers to give the global publishing rights to their books to Western publishing companies? or, would you ever give such rights to an African publishing company?
Are you happy about the state of the Nigerian/African publishing industry?
What have you actually done to support the African publishing industry?
Just questions, mulling around in my head as various people spoke. One could dismiss all these questions by saying that the burden of the African writer is already too great: why can I not just write, like a man from Barcelona or Gerona? Duke was unctuous and performative by the way..
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
The Nigerian Daily Sun can more than compete with News of the World and the National Enquirer when it comes to trash news. Try this one for size.
Some dunderhead has been messing with my timelines the past two days - turning up an hour and a half late and generally being a sorry sack of excuses, just when my project has hit critical path. 30 minutes of waiting for him this morning and I thought sod it, I'm off for some culture.
Wole Soyinka was reading from new memoirs, You Must Set Forth at Dawn (published locally by Bookcraft). The 'do' was at Booksellers, a cosy bookshop in Garki. I was impressed to see they sell Continuum Books there - you can buy Deleuze in FCT! We sat in the open air atrium of the plaza for the reading. The turn-out was good, perhaps 80-100 people. People leaned out of windows looking down on the scene. There was almost something renaissancey about it - with ashoka trees for Tuscan cypresses. He read a beautiful passage about a trip to Jamaican fifteen years ago, and an expedition to Bekuta, a settlement in the mountains formed by Nigerian runaway slaves (originally from Abeokuta). It was enchanting to listen to his melodious voice and his baroque vocabulary. In the q and a's afterwards, I asked him what he thought about contemporary Yoruba identity. At that moment, Nepa struck and it was difficult to catch his response without a microphone. He did worry that Islam and Christianity are eroding not just Yoruba culture, but the system of belief behind it. He also talked of the importance of the diaspora and centres of learning abroad, and the hope that there will be a re-infusion back on the homeland. He mentioned that Unesco are (or have?) going to award the Ifa Corpus some special religious-cultural status. Above all, he talked about the resilience of Yoruba culture and the many ways in which it hybridises whereever it goes.
Other questioners prefaced their remarks with short stories of growing up and reading him at school and expressions of honour at being with in his presence today. He is one of Nigeria's contemporary inspirational voices. When I told him at the start of my question I was married to a Yoruba woman, he interrupted me quickly, "I hope you have brought our yam and our palm oil!"
An interesting sounding tourist venture down the creek towards Badagry. Halemson Beach Resort is a beach club - you can just go for the day (for N5000) - they pick you up in a speed boat from VI, or they have all-inclusive two night packages. The most amount of fun I've had in Nigeria was quad-biking at top speed on nearby Ilashe beach after three or four glasses of bubbly, screaming my head off. The villagers I sped past must have thought I was an emanation from a different universe..
Monday, September 04, 2006
I've always loved the African hairdresser signboard, so much so that we commissioned our artist friend Yomi Aderinola to paint a series. He's just delivered them this evening. They are altogether lovely..
Sometimes it seems like corruption permeates every cell of existence here. An example from earlier this evening: For a change, we decided to buy petrol from the NNPC garage (the Nigerian National Petroleum Commission). Government-owned NNPC garages have a reputation for providing better quality fuel, so there's always a long and highly competitive queue jostling to get in, and lots of commotion once you're in the forecourt. More interesting is how much more fuel you get for your money. N4000 (around 17 pounds) fills the tank at NNPC, whereas the same amount of money only 3/4 fills the tank at all other garages in Abuja. Yes, you've got it: the petrol stations rig their meters. The fact that they get away with this theft in broad daylight is astonishing. What would it take to set up a monitoring body that spot-checked its way around the major cities?
Sunday, September 03, 2006
Yesterday we went to two of the local pottery places - at Ushafa and Bwari. Here is a picture of Stephen Mhya. Stephen runs Bwari Pottery Village on Old Suleja Road. There's an interesting intertwined ceramic story between English and Nigerian pottery behind the place. Along with several other pottery workshops (notably at Maraba near Kaduna), Bwari was set up with the support of Michael O'Brien, a student of the well-known potter Michael Cardew. Along with Bernard Leach, Cardew was one of the most influential ceramicists in the UK in the 20th century. Cardew himself spent many years living and working in Nigeria, setting up a pottery school at Suleja, where he worked alongside the renowned female ceramicist Ladi Kwali. All three went on to teach for many years at ABU in Zaria. The spirit of these cultural exchanges of techniques and wisdom of the clay lives on in the beautiful pieces Stephen produces at Bwari..
After the pottery, we drove to Usman Dam to gaze out onto the tranquil expanse of lake and the mountains beyond. We were not alone. About 50 women dolled up in finest native and Gele clambered up onto the volcanic rocks to shoot a Christian video. A generator whirred in the background as the ensemble swayed to the music..
Saturday, September 02, 2006
The Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal have just published their 12th Index of Economic Freedom. Click here to see the ranking (Nigeria is 146th out of a list of 161 and is therefore categorised as a 'repressed' economy). Clicking on the word Nigeria takes you to a more detailed analysis. Nigeria's score is worse than last year, which reflects badly on the reform process. The only crumb of comfort to take away is that survey does not take into account the most recent reforms in the banking sector - their analysis is in fact two years out of date.
Friday, September 01, 2006
Well at least its not just Nigeria that has stone-age attitudes towards sexuality. Homophobes - don't even bother to leave comments, I'll delete 'em. Just like you don't tolerate difference, I don't tolerate you so fuck off.
Decibels is such a lovely word - such melifluous euphony. It's a shame the reality can be so contrastive. Some butterfly has flapped its wings in Western Sumatra and now the political campaigning season for April 2007 has begun in decibielious earnestness. Abuja has sprouted a crop of dinky little vans with various presidential wannabees' posters plastered all over, megaphones stuck to the roof. Meanwhile, we live near to a northern state lodge whose Governor has a reputation both for harsh interpretations of Sharia as well as a taste for the extremes of epicurean experience.
For some difficult-to-fully-explain reason, I have always felt at home in Islamic cultures, without remotely being drawn to the religion itself. I love the abstract aesthetics (Zillij, ceramics etc), the love of water, the discreet functionalism of the design, and perhaps above all, the sound of the muezzin. I also love the colourful and highly significant history. Westerners owe a huge intellectual debt to the Islamic interregnum one thousand and more years ago, when all the classical learning was rediscovered and re-interpreted. Without the School of Baghdad, Cordoba and Toledo, the West would still perhaps be stuck in the Dark Ages, waiting for the invention of the zero. Perhaps nothing is more lovely to the ear than waking up in central Istanbul listening to the microtonal incantations to the Almighty from perhaps fifteen minarets.
That all said, the gutteral noise emanated from this particular state lodge near our house bears no relationship to the Islamic cultural world I am drawn to again and again. It is simply noise, and pointless noise at that. Its difficult to see how any of the Northern hopefuls stand a chance..
Blimey - take a look at this. I thought it was a campaign website for the first few seconds, then started eagerly looking around the page for a link to a manifesto (a manifesto? with ideas? for a Nigerian politician? my mind started to boggle). Then I saw the text in the red background at the bottom of the page and it all began to sink in.
Well, at least the politicians and the enemies are now embracing the digital. Quite a nice little site after all. And they quote Chomsky!