Monday, December 31, 2007

Reflections on vipassana

At midnight, I go downstairs from my hotel room at The Oberoi and join the hundreds of thousands on Marine Drive to celebrate the new year. Men link arms and dance in circles. Fireworks go off up above the Queen's Necklace all the way into the hazy distance of the Hanging Gardens. On the way back up, the door man wishes me a happy new year. Ah, the simply warmth of human contact.

Then I wrote out what follows, to try to make sense of the past 11 days of vipassana. I recommend going on the course to anyone interested in deep-rooted personal transformation work and mentally prepared for quite an extreme challenge. This gives you a bit more background on vipassana from my recent experience:

Vipassana meditation is the original meditation technique of the Guatama Siddhartha – the person we call the Buddha and know as the founder of Buddhism 2500 years ago. The technique has been lost for over two millennia in the Buddhist world (India, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan etc.) apart from in small pockets of Burma. The reason why Burma maintained an understanding of the practice in its pure form is little more than an historical accident – centuries after the death of the Buddha, when the tyrant Ashok converted to Buddhism, he sent envoys to the land now know as Burma/Myanmar who taught the technique. A lineage of teachers across the centuries passed an understanding of vipassana from master to pupil to the present day. However, even in Burma, vipassana is not widely known and understood.

In the twentieth century, the Burmese buddhist and government official Sayagyi U Ba Khin taught the technique to the leader of the Hindhu community in Burma, S.N. Goenka. Goenka was, until he came across the technique, a successful and wealthy industrialist, whose family come originally from Calcutta. After learning the technique (which he was initially interested in to cure a long-term migraine problem), Goenka moved back to India in the 1980's to teach it to his sick mother, his father and a group of others.

The first ten-day course was so successful with the group they persuaded Goenka to teach their friends and relatives. From those early courses, demand grew and more and more courses were put on in India, with word eventually spreading beyond the sub-continent. Today, there are vipassana centres in many countries – the US, UK, Belgium, Japan, South Korea and so on, as well as centres all over India - all entirely funded by the donations given by past meditators. Hundreds of thousands of people have now completed the course and are practising vipassana meditators.

What is vipassana meditation?
The first time you do a vipassana meditation course, you have to commit to and complete a 10 day silent retreat. Silence means no talking, no reading, no writing, no gestures – apart from to the course leaders when you have a material issue or questions. The course is segregated by gender. There is a strict timetable of activities, which begins with a 4am wake-up call. Group meditation begins at 4.30am, with breakfast at 6.30am and lunch – the last meal of the day – at 11am. Snacks and tea are available at 5pm, but only to first-timers (returnee meditators are allowed lemon water). Group meditation continues throughout the day, ending with a one and half hour talk (shown on DVD) given by Goenka on practical and theoretical aspects of the technique. Its tough!

The first three days of meditation are not actually vipassana meditation; they are a preparatory exercise. You have to sit and breathe, and without counting the breath or verbalising or visualising, focus on the breath as it affects the nose, nostrils and area above the upper lip. It is an exercise in focusing the mind. Every time one loses focus and gets distracted, the idea is to learn to bring the attention as quickly as possible back to focusing on the breath. This exercise is called anapana-sati.

The first day and half I found this exercise very difficult. With the shock of the early morning wake-up, my mind kept on getting distracted and falling into random day dreams. By the end of the second day however I felt my focus and powers of concentration had increased quite dramatically, and my mind had stilled.

Halfway through day four you are introduced to the vipassana technique. In essence, the technique involves using the powers of focus and concentration acquired through anapana to scan the body from head to toe, observing sensations on the body without reacting to them. By day five, one also has to sit three times a day for an hour each time without moving, practising this technique (these sessions are known as 'strong determination' in English translation). At the start of each session, Goenka sings/chants sutras of the Buddha in Pali via a cassette tape and pa system. He sings the words the Buddha used immediately upon enlightenment, as well as core aspects of how the technique works (words also ascribed to the Buddha). He sings in a slow drawly voice which tapers to a ticking croaking sound at the end of certain words. In the evening talks he explains the key words and across time, they acquire significance in the context of the practice. Rather than mere ritual, the Pali words return us to the powerful experiences of the Buddha as he reached liberation.

The theory behind the practice
Vipassana is framed within the core Buddhist idea of taking refuge in the 'three jewels' - the buddha (the one who became enlightened), the dhamma (the teaching) and the sangha (the community of devotees). However, Goenka stresses that it is the dhamma that should be privileged. He does this because there is often confusion about the role of the Buddha as the first of the three jewels. It is the qualities the Buddha embues, rather than Guatama Siddhartha himself, that should be valued. However, the institutionalisation of 'buddhism' has tended to create something of a personality cult around the Buddha which Goenka wishes to avoid.

There are three aspects to the dhamma:
Sila (pronounced 'shila' - ethics)
Samadhi (understanding)
Panna (pronounced 'pania' - wisdom)

The ethical base is quite simple and universal, with five precepts which are common to many if not most religious systems:
Do not kill
Avoid sexual misconduct
Do not steal
Do not lie
Avoid intoxication

There are various aspects to samadhi, but the one vipassana focuses on is developing the power of the mind via anapana. Anapana prepares the mind for the practice of vipassana. Without a still mind, vipassana meditation would be impossible.

Panna is where vipassna meditation comes in. There are various forms of panna wisdom – scriptural and intellectual being the two most obvious. In contrast to these, vipassana however is wisdom through direct experience. In western philosophical terms, vipassana is similar to existential phenomenology: the analysis of lived embodied experience. It struck me increasingly during the course how rich the dialogue between vipassana and existential phenomenology could be in future academic debates and in pyschiatric circles.

Where vipassana gets really interesting is in terms of its pyschological framework. It is when considering this that the light bulb clicks and one starts to realise that Guatama Siddhartha wasn't really someone who founded a religion, in fact he was someone who uncovered acute pyschological insights into the inner nature of the mind. As Goenka is fond of saying, the Buddha was in fact a scientist. In simplified terms, vipassana pyschology divides the mind's relation to the world into four:

Cognition – the awareness that there is a sense object
Recognition – discrimation of what kind of sense object it is
Sensation – the experience of a sensation on the body
Response (known in Pali as sangkara) – the sub or unconscious response to the sensation.

These four aspects are not sequential or linear in the way they relate to each other. There is some similarity here with Kant's analysis of perception and cognition in the Critique of Pure Reason. All the complex analysis of how they relate aside, the key thing to bear in mind is the sangkara – the sub or unconscious bodily response to sensation. It is this level at which vipassana meditation operates.

Guatama Siddhartha's central insight 2500 years ago was that there are different layers to conscious embodied experience. The surface mind is that of conscious awareness. In the spiritual context of his time, it was common for prophets, seers and sages in India to talk about the need to become liberated from suffering, from the ego, from fear and craving and so on. However, the Buddha realised that surface consciousness simply cannot access the roots of suffering, fear and craving. His insight was therefore that underneath surface conscious awareness, there is an unconscious mind that relates centrally to the body and structures of embodiment. Vipassana meditation, the meditation that brought the Buddha to a strong form of pyschological liberation from fear and craving 25 centuries ago (which through the institutional processes of subsequent Buddhist canonical thought we now know as his 'englightenment'), is the technique which accesses the embodied ground of all psychological and spiritual hang-ups.

Within the notion of the bodily unconscious and how it structures conscious awareness and behaviour, the Buddha had a further penetrating insight. He realised through his meditative exploration that fear and craving are not intentionally related to sense objects. In other words, it is only at the apparent level that we fear or crave things in the world (mice, snakes, food, beer etc.). In fact, what we really crave, at the level of the bodily unconscious, is the sensations that those sense objects arise in us.

The technique of vipassana therefore involves scanning the body with a deeply focused attention in a meditative state, becoming aware (without any affective response) to the different sensations on the body. Painful sensations are related to sangkaras of fear; whereas pleasant tingling sensations (which become increasingly present as one develops in the technique) are associated with sangkaras of craving. The process of detaching any emotional response to these different types of unconscious bodily sensations is the process of liberating the bodily unconscious from different forms of fear and craving that are buried within the body from past experiences. Quite difficult to explain and contextualise, but very simple in practice.

Already, it is possible to see that vipassana meditation, as a self-practice technique, questions pyschoanalysis and perhaps even core forms of pyschiatric practice. Goenka himself had seen experts from all over the world to cure his migraine without result until he discovered vipassana. Many thousands of people have achieved powerfully beneficial results through the practice, curing pyschosomatic disorders, alcoholism and so on. The results are clear from the many people who do a vipassana course and start raving on about it.

Vipassana is above all a highly practical, non-esoteric technique which has delivered powerfully positive results for thousands. It leads to a deep sense of equanimity and awareness of the body's unconscious reactions to sensation. Across time and with dedicated practice, this leads to the purification of sangkaras – a process of detachment from all deep-seated unconscious bodily drives of craving or fear. In other words, it can lead to strong forms of pyschological and spiritual liberation.

It does all this without any appeal to myth, supernatural forces or an external God. Vipassana practice enables the discovery that God is in fact within, within the body, and that a form of heaven can be achieved here and now in this life. As Goenka says, vipassana is an art of living, and ultimately, an art of dying. Vipassana therefore has little to do with organised religion. It is compatible with any religious background without any theological conflict.

My experience of doing vipassana at Dhamma Giri in India
Dhamma Giri is the global coordinating centre for vipassana research. When I went (from the 19th to the 30th December 2007), there were roughly about 250 men and about 75 women participating. There were about 8 foreigners. Everyone else was Indian – from all kinds of backgrounds. At the end of the course (you can talk on the 10th and final day), I met people who were Muslim, Sikh, Jain and Hindhu. None of the people I talked to saw any conflict with their faith. All the men I spoke to were inspired and highly enthusiastic about the course, and had plans to get their wives, relatives and friends to come to the course. They themselves had signed up mostly because of the strongly persistent recommendation of their friends. This seems to be a key feature of vipassana – it is spreading virally, thanks to the powerfully beneficial results of doing the initial 10 day course.

For myself, I found the course incredibly difficult and demanding. Waking up at 4am, meditating along with others at 4.30 for up to 10 hours a day. Sitting still for an hour at a time and going through pain barrier after pain barrier (until I reached a state of detached bliss) – all involved a huge effort. Its just about the most difficult thing I have done in that stretch of time. The course was made more difficult for me because I got a bad ear infection half way through, resulting in half my head going numb with pain. This created a strong sense of anxiety of being alone in a faraway place. Only the miracle of someone having antibiotics allowed me to stay. However, I can sense the power of the technique and its capacity to tap into deep unconcious drives hard-wired into the body through sedimented experience (pardon the mixed-metaphors), and lead to genuine deep level change away from the misery of repeating habit-loops of experience which the conscious mind is all but powerless to interrupt.

On another level its made me question my adoption of 'Buddhism'. I now see that the Buddha was not the founder of a religion, albeit a religion without a transcendent God figure. He was someone who went further than anyone we know on a journey into the mechanisms of the unconscious mind, uncovering a powerful path – the dhamma – towards liberation. One can take refuge in the three jewels, practice the ethical precepts of Buddhism, and practice vipassana (as well as the technique called 'loving kindness' which vipassana sessions end with), and avoid the label of Buddhist. Similarly, people with Christian, Muslim or any other religious background can practice vipassana without any threat or challenge to cherished beliefs. The bottom line is, vipassana is a tool for psychological and spiritual liberation that is available to all. Its simple (yet demanding) to learn, but the benefitical results are potentially lifelong.

Vipassana is a universal, 'non-sectarian' (to use Goenka's phrase) science of the purification of the mind which can reduce and even cure one of mental cravings, addictions etc. as well as lead to increasingly deeper levels of happiness through a slow process of dissolution of the ego. Vipassana revolutionises our understanding not just of Buddhism, but of spiritual practice itself – that it should not be grounded in myth or ritual or appeals to an external God who should fulfil all our wishes and needs, but in results-oriented activity in an ethical context. Rather than relying on the creation of an external all-poweful God, we can find God within via our own vipassana practice.

The danger will be that Goenka/vipassana becomes institutionalised, with Goenka reverred as a Buddha for our times – at which point the power of the dhamma will be lost in another personality cult. He is quite mesmerising to listen to on the DVD talks each night – I had the strong feeling of being in the presence of the most penetrating psychological insights I have ever encountered – almost uncannily so. This is both a bounty and a threat. I now see that this is exactly what happened to Guatama Siddhartha 2500 years ago. He never wanted to found a religion, or for people to devote themselves blindly to his teachings or to himself. He just wanted people to know about the technique that he had uncovered through his own laborious spiritual journey. However, the power of his teaching combined with all-too-human institutionalising processes meant that the scientific base of his thought was quickly lost in most parts.

For more info:
Go to:

or read The Art of Living by William Hart


Sunday, December 30, 2007

And the silence ends..

I'm back in bandwidth at an hotel in Bombay. I've been on a vipassana silent meditation retreat a few hours away. It was deep, intense, difficult but I think in time transformative. I'll write about it in detail later. But after 10 days of 4am wake-ups and up to 10 hours of meditation per day, I need to rest.

How disturbing to come back to the world after no news to hear about Benazir Bhutto, and how saddening to read that Ribadu seems to have been sidelined (what's the story apart from the obvious?) and that Yardy has accepted Africom. All quite depressing just before the year end...


Thursday, December 20, 2007

FADE (Fight against Desert Encroachment) seeks camerawoman.

Renowned Nigerian environmentalist- Dr. Newton Jibunoh is leading a bright green trail across the Sahara desert with a group of four. As he turns 70 on January 1 2008, this will be Jibunoh’s third and last trip across the world’s largest desert. The objective of the 60 day expedition is to raise awareness on the effects of desertification on desert dwellers, global warming and climate change. The expedition will attract local, continental and international media coverage as part of its objective to shift desertification to the fore front of international climate change discuss.

This is also Jibunoh’s first time to be accompanied by others professionals including an auto mechanic, an IT specialist, a journalist and a camera person who will work together to make a documentary of the experience.

We are seeking an experienced African camera person who is capable of withstanding the ruggedness of the desert and has experience in documentary film making. A female camera person is strongly preferred.

To apply for this position please email your CV and a short compelling essay of why you should be chosen to [email protected]. Remuneration to be discussed upon application.

FADE- Fight Against Desert Encroachment.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Zadie, Bombay and I

I started with Ice Storm and then The Bourne Ultimatum on the plane - at last BA has video-on-demand and a decent-ish back catalogue. Imagine in the future when we will have access to any film ever made on-demand - can't wait!

Ang Lee's film holds up well - in many ways it is a better film than Brokeback, and equally contraversial in its exploration of the erotic world of children. I was puzzled by one thing though: how did the student character know about what had happened back home in New Canaan? Was it a hiatus in the plot, or telepathy, or did it relate somehow to the Fab Four comic metaphysics in the beginning sequence (the family pushing you out into the void, sucking you back in). His impulse to get on the train is understandable enough - but how come his family were waiting for him at the station in the morning? Answers on a postcard please.. Between the two films, I read from Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men - it looks like I am going to have to read more of his stuff (next stop, The Road) - he has an incredibly taut vernacular prose style - Raymond Chandler heads Deep South....

I began to regret saving a couple of hundred quid getting the BA that lands at midnight plus forty rather than the one that lands mid-afternoon. The plane took ages to dock, then we had to wait an hour for the luggage. It was past 2am by the time that was all done.

I changed some money at Thomas Cook and there she was - the suspicion of Zadie Smith in profile (that nose, those freckles), with a lanky oyinbo by her side sorting the money. I glanced and glanced again (she glanced back - the anxiety of fame leading to the anxiety of anticipated recognition) and was sure it was her, but was theoretically sure it was not her (why Bombay, on the same flight?) I traipsed out of the hall, and among the sea of names of hotel boards was Zadie Smith, Taj Palace. The taxi I'd booked for the Oberoi was of course nowhere to be seen. I turned around and there she was, coming toward the exit - boyfriend/husband a good few metres behind. The word opportunity formed in my head and floated out like a smoke ring.

Naturally being the inquisitive/nosey type, I introduced myself. We'd met years before, a couple of weeks before she became the new wunderkind on publication of White Teeth, at a party in Camden. I blagged a ride down to Colaba with them. We chatted, while the boyfriend/husband stayed shtum (I imagine its because he's a poet, all moody and thoughtful). She told me they lived in Rome but are leaving in 6 months. I thought about how much Teju Cole would love to swap places with me right now (and ditch the boyfriend/husband in the process)..

Anyway, enough village-boy. I'm knackered, and its 10 days of vipassana from tomorrow at Dhamma Giri. There's just time for a quick trip to Fab India and Wasabi at the Taj Palace...
I am about to disappear until the New Year. To all my readers: have a fabulous and lovely holiday and a great new year.

PS: see if you can spot me at the Berlin conference: here.


Friday, December 14, 2007


To Berlin, for an Extractive Industries Transparencies Initiative Conference organised by the G8. Lots of people from all over the place. I think I met the guy with the most difficult travel arrangements - he comes from the EITI in Timor L'este. He flew from TL to Bali, from Bali to Hong Kong, from Hong Kong to Frankfurt, then from Frankfurt to Berlin.

It was an interesting day - the EITI is rapidly snowballing, with 15 countries at various stages of joining up, and Nigeria (along with Azerbaijan) very much in the vanguard. Beyond oil and gas, the focus of extractive transparency is widening to include diamonds and other gems, mining, forestry and so on. Sometimes I imagine that extractive industry transparency will achieve perfect results the exact moment there's nothing left to extract.

Enough of the day job, how am I finding Berlin? I haven't been here since passing by on a Euro-road-trip in 1991, when various angry people were bashing bits out of the wall, while enterprising types nearby sold post-bashed bits of the wall on tables - colourful chunks of concrete with graffiti on going for a premium. I remember we couldn't find anywhere to camp so we ended up sleeping under portakabins on Potsdamer Platz. A rabbit woke me up in the middle of the night, bouncing past my sleeping bag. Nearby, a squatter camp had created a makeshift mini-city out of old buses. They had a gripe against Mercedes, I seem to remember. I also recall feeling the tremors of war in nearby Yugoslavia as we drove around the city...

I haven't seen much yet - tomorrow is set aside for a full-on architectural tour: Libeskind's Jewish museum, the various Scharouns, the newish Frank Gehry bank, Renzo Piano's theatre, perhaps Foster's Reichstag - all the Berlin new urbanism that has taken place since Wender's seminal Der Himmel Uber Berlin.

What I have noticed is how ergonomic everything is at the immediate bodily level. The toilet in the Ministry where the conference was had the coat hook in exactly the right place as you entered the cubicle - it was almost uncannily perfect (not on the back of the door, but to the right as you enter). The safe in my hotel room is the easiest to operate I've ever come across. You know how it is with hotel safes - you spend 10 minutes practising before you dare leave anything inside and lock up. With this one, there was no need for instructions - just a simple diagram.

Then again, you notice the German affinity with tech. The taxi on the way in from the airport was a wonder: this guy had sat nav (which turned into TV for my benefit at one point - a strange 4 minutes of watching a fat man in a dressing gown doing the muslim prayer sequence); he also had a gprs phone with location -based services (a list of hotels scrolling/changing as we entered each new area). A bit later, I got another taxi - this one had the tariff and the temperature in digital letters in the main driver's mirror. All quite different from your average taxi experience in the UK.

After the conference I went for a wander round the neighbourhood (Friedrichstrasse) and had a tasteless Vietnamese meal. I looked out across the water at the Reichstag glass dome in the distance. Then back to the hotel. I sipped an espresso while a fellow Anglo dominated a group of Euros nearby, bitching about everyone and everything from a right-wing perspective...


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Doris Lessing's Nobel speech

If you didn't read it yet - spare yourself 15 minutes and read this fabulously moving speech. The 3rd from last paragraph is stunning. Thanks Jide for sending it:

I am standing in a doorway looking through clouds of blowing dust to where I am told there is still uncut forest. Yesterday I drove through miles of stumps, and charred remains of fires where, in 1956, there was the most wonderful forest I have ever seen, all now destroyed. People have to eat. They have to get fuel for fires.

This is north-west Zimbabwe early in the 80s, and I am visiting a friend who was a teacher in a school in London. He is here "to help Africa", as we put it. He is a gently idealistic soul and what he found in this school shocked him into a depression, from which it was hard to recover. This school is like every other built after Independence. It consists of four large brick rooms side by side, put straight into the dust, one two three four, with a half room at one end, which is the library. In these classrooms are blackboards, but my friend keeps the chalks in his pocket, as otherwise they would be stolen. There is no atlas or globe in the school, no textbooks, no exercise books or Biros. In the library there are no books of the kind the pupils would like to read, but only tomes from American universities, hard even to lift, rejects from white libraries, detective stories, or titles like Weekend in Paris and Felicity Finds Love.

There is a goat trying to find sustenance in some aged grass. The headmaster has embezzled the school funds and is suspended. My friend doesn't have any money because everyone, pupils and teachers, borrow from him when he is paid and will probably never pay it back. The pupils range from six to 26, because some who did not get schooling as children are here to make it up. Some pupils walk many miles every morning, rain or shine and across rivers. They cannot do homework because there is no electricity in the villages, and you can't study easily by the light of a burning log. The girls have to fetch water and cook before they set off for school and when they get back.

As I sit with my friend in his room, people shyly drop in, and everyone begs for books. "Please send us books when you get back to London," one man says. "They taught us to read but we have no books." Everybody I met, everyone, begged for books.

I was there some days. The dust blew. The pumps had broken and the women were having to fetch water from the river. Another idealistic teacher from England was rather ill after seeing what this "school" was like.

On the last day they slaughtered the goat. They cut it into bits and cooked it in a great tin. This was the much anticipated end-of-term feast: boiled goat and porridge. I drove away while it was still going on, back through the charred remains and stumps of the forest.

I do not think many of the pupils of this school will get prizes.

The next day I am to give a talk at a school in North London, a very good school. It is a school for boys, with beautiful buildings and gardens. The children here have a visit from some well-known person every week: these may be fathers, relatives, even mothers of the pupils; a visit from a celebrity is not unusual for them.

As I talk to them, the school in the blowing dust of north-west Zimbabwe is in my mind, and I look at the mildly expectant English faces in front of me and try to tell them about what I have seen in the last week. Classrooms without books, without textbooks, or an atlas, or even a map pinned to a wall. A school where the teachers beg to be sent books to tell them how to teach, they being only 18 or 19 themselves. I tell these English boys how everybody begs for books: "Please send us books." But there are no images in their minds to match what I am telling them: of a school standing in dust clouds, where water is short, and where the end-of-term treat is a just-killed goat cooked in a great pot.

Is it really so impossible for these privileged students to imagine such bare poverty?

I do my best. They are polite.

I'm sure that some of them will one day win prizes.

Then the talk is over. Afterwards I ask the teachers how the library is, and if the pupils read. In this privileged school, I hear what I always hear when I go to such schools and even universities. "You know how it is," one of the teachers says. "A lot of the boys have never read at all, and the library is only half used."

Yes, indeed we do know how it is. All of us.

We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers.

What has happened to us is an amazing invention - computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked: "What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print?" In the same way, we never thought to ask, "How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?"

Very recently, anyone even mildly educated would respect learning, education and our great store of literature. Of course we all know that when this happy state was with us, people would pretend to read, would pretend respect for learning. But it is on record that working men and women longed for books, evidenced by the founding of working-men's libraries, institutes, and the colleges of the 18th and 19th centuries. Reading, books, used to be part of a general education. Older people, talking to young ones, must understand just how much of an education reading was, because the young ones know so much less.

We all know this sad story. But we do not know the end of it. We think of the old adage, "Reading maketh a full man" - reading makes a woman and a man full of information, of history, of all kinds of knowledge.

Not long ago, a friend in Zimbabwe told me about a village where the people had not eaten for three days, but they were still talking about books and how to get them, about education.

I belong to an organisation which started out with the intention of getting books into the villages. There was a group of people who in another connection had travelled Zimbabwe at its grassroots. They told me that the villages, unlike what is reported, are full of intelligent people, teachers retired, teachers on leave, children on holidays, old people. I myself paid for a little survey to discover what people in Zimbabwe wanted to read, and found the results were the same as those of a Swedish survey I had not known about. People want to read the same kind of books that people in Europe want to read - novels of all kinds, science fiction, poetry, detective stories, plays, and do-it-yourself books, like how to open a bank account. All of Shakespeare too. A problem with finding books for villagers is that they don't know what is available, so a set book, like The Mayor of Casterbridge, becomes popular simply because it just happens to be there. Animal Farm, for obvious reasons, is the most popular of all novels.

Our organisation was helped from the very start by Norway, and then by Sweden. Without this kind of support our supplies of books would have dried up. We got books from wherever we could. Remember, a good paperback from England costs a month's wages in Zimbabwe: that was before Mugabe's reign of terror. Now, with inflation, it would cost several years' wages. But having taken a box of books out to a village - and remember there is a terrible shortage of petrol - I can tell you that the box was greeted with tears. The library may be a plank on bricks under a tree. And within a week there will be literacy classes - people who can read teaching those who can't, citizenship classes - and in one remote village, since there were no novels written in the Tonga language, a couple of lads sat down to write novels in Tonga. There are six or so main languages in Zimbabwe and there are novels in all of them: violent, incestuous, full of crime and murder.

It is said that a people gets the government it deserves, but I do not think it is true of Zimbabwe. And we must remember that this respect and hunger for books comes, not from Mugabe's regime, but from the one before it, the whites. It is an astonishing phenomenon, this hunger for books, and it can be seen everywhere from Kenya down to the Cape of Good Hope.

This links up improbably with a fact: I was brought up in what was virtually a mud hut, thatched. This kind of house has been built always, everywhere where there are reeds or grass, suitable mud, poles for walls - Saxon England, for example. The one I was brought up in had four rooms, one beside another, and it was full of books. Not only did my parents take books from England to Africa, but my mother ordered books by post from England for her children. Books arrived in great brown paper parcels, and they were the joy of my young life. A mud hut, but full of books.

Even today I get letters from people living in a village that might not have electricity or running water, just like our family in our elongated mud hut. "I shall be a writer too," they say, "because I've the same kind of house you were in."

But here is the difficulty. Writing, writers, do not come out of houses without books.

I have been looking at the speeches by some of the recent Nobel prizewinners. Take last year's winner, the magnificent Orhan Pamuk. He said his father had 500 books. His talent did not come out of the air, he was connected with the great tradition. Take VS Naipaul. He mentions that the Indian Vedas were close behind the memory of his family. His father encouraged him to write, and when he got to England he would visit the British Library. So he was close to the great tradition. Let us take John Coetzee. He was not only close to the great tradition, he was the tradition: he taught literature in Cape Town. And how sorry I am that I was never in one of his classes; taught by that wonderfully brave, bold mind. In order to write, in order to make literature, there must be a close connection with libraries, books, the tradition.

I have a friend from Zimbabwe, a black writer. He taught himself to read from the labels on jam jars, the labels on preserved fruit cans. He was brought up in an area I have driven through, an area for rural blacks. The earth is grit and gravel, there are low sparse bushes. The huts are poor, nothing like the well-cared-for huts of the better off. There was a school, but like the one I have described. He found a discarded children's encyclopaedia on a rubbish heap and taught himself from that.

On Independence in 1980 there was a group of good writers in Zimbabwe, truly a nest of singing birds. They were bred in old Southern Rhodesia, under the whites - the mission schools, the better schools. Writers are not made in Zimbabwe, not easily, not under Mugabe.

All the writers travelled a difficult road to literacy, let alone to becoming writers. I would say learning to read from the printed labels on jam jars and discarded encyclopaedias was not uncommon. And we are talking about people hungering for standards of education beyond them, living in huts with many children - an overworked mother, a fight for food and clothing.

Yet despite these difficulties, writers came into being. And we should also remember that this was Zimbabwe, conquered less than 100 years before. The grandparents of these people might have been storytellers working in the oral tradition. In one or two generations, the transition was made from these stories remembered and passed on, to print, to books.

Books were literally wrested from rubbish heaps and the detritus of the white man's world. But a sheaf of paper is one thing, a published book quite another. I have had several accounts sent to me of the publishing scene in Africa. Even in more privileged places like North Africa, to talk of a publishing scene is a dream of possibilities.

Here I am talking about books never written, writers who could not make it because the publishers are not there. Voices unheard. It is not possible to estimate this great waste of talent, of potential. But even before that stage of a book's creation which demands a publisher, an advance, encouragement, there is something else lacking.

Writers are often asked: "How do you write? With a word processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand?" But the essential question is: "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas - inspiration." If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn. When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. "Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?"

Let us now jump to an apparently very different scene. We are in London, one of the big cities. There is a new writer. We cynically enquire: "Is she good-looking?" If this is a man: "Charismatic? Handsome?" We joke, but it is not a joke.

This new find is acclaimed, possibly given a lot of money. The buzzing of hype begins in their poor ears. They are feted, lauded, whisked about the world. Us old ones, who have seen it all, are sorry for this neophyte, who has no idea of what is really happening. He, she, is flattered, pleased. But ask in a year's time what he or she is thinking: "This is the worst thing that could have happened to me."

Some much-publicised new writers haven't written again, or haven't written what they wanted to, meant to. And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears: "Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold on to it, don't let it go."

My mind is full of splendid memories of Africa that I can revive and look at whenever I want. How about those sunsets, gold and purple and orange, spreading across the sky at evening? How about butterflies and moths and bees on the aromatic bushes of the Kalahari? Or, sitting on the pale grassy banks of the Zambesi, the water dark and glossy, with all the birds of Africa darting about? Yes, elephants, giraffes, lions and the rest, there were plenty of those, but how about the sky at night, still unpolluted, black and wonderful, full of restless stars?

There are other memories too. A young African man, 18 perhaps, in tears, standing in what he hopes will be his "library". A visiting American, seeing that his library had no books, had sent a crate of them. The young man had taken each one out, reverently, and wrapped them in plastic. "But," we say, "these books were sent to be read, surely?" "No," he replies, "they will get dirty, and where will I get any more?"

I have seen a teacher in a school where there were no textbooks, not even a chalk for the blackboard. He taught his class of six- to 18-year-olds by moving stones in the dust, chanting: "Two times two is ... " and so on. I have seen a girl - perhaps not more than 20, also lacking textbooks, exercise books, biros - teach the ABC by scratching the letters in the dirt with a stick, while the sun beat down and the dust swirled.

I would like you to imagine yourselves somewhere in Southern Africa, standing in an Indian store, in a poor area, in a time of bad drought. There is a line of people, mostly women, with every kind of container for water. This store gets a bowser of precious water every afternoon from the town, and here the people wait.

The Indian is standing with the heels of his hands pressed down on the counter, and he is watching a black woman, who is bending over a wadge of paper that looks as if it has been torn out of a book. She is reading Anna Karenina. She is reading slowly, mouthing the words. It looks a difficult book. This is a young woman with two little children clutching at her legs. She is pregnant. The Indian is distressed, because the young woman's headscarf, which should be white, is yellow with dust. Dust lies between her breasts and on her arms. This man is distressed because of the lines of people, all thirsty, but he doesn't have enough water for them. He is angry because he knows there are people dying out there, beyond the dust clouds.

This man is curious. He says to the young woman: "What are you reading?"

"It is about Russia," says the girl.

"Do you know where Russia is?" He hardly knows himself.

The young woman looks straight at him, full of dignity, though her eyes are red from dust. "I was best in the class. My teacher said I was best."

The young woman resumes her reading: she wants to get to the end of the paragraph.

The Indian looks at the two little children and reaches for some Fanta, but the mother says: "Fanta makes them thirsty."

The Indian knows he shouldn't do this, but he reaches down to a great plastic container beside him, behind the counter, and pours out two plastic mugs of water, which he hands to the children. He watches while the girl looks at her children drinking, her mouth moving. He gives her a mug of water. It hurts him to see her drinking it, so painfully thirsty is she.

Now she hands over to him a plastic water container, which he fills. The young woman and the children watch him closely so that he doesn't spill any.

She is bending again over the book. She reads slowly but the paragraph fascinates her and she reads it again.

"Varenka, with her white kerchief over her black hair, surrounded by the children and gaily and good-humouredly busy with them, and at the same time visibly excited at the possibility of an offer of marriage from a man she cared for, Varenka looked very attractive. Koznyshev walked by her side and kept casting admiring glances at her. Looking at her, he recalled all the delightful things he had heard from her lips, all the good he knew about her, and became more and more conscious that the feeling he had for her was something rare, something he had felt but once before, long, long ago, in his early youth. The joy of being near her increased step by step, and at last reached such a point that, as he put a huge birch mushroom with a slender stalk and up-curling top into her basket, he looked into her eyes and, noting the flush of glad and frightened agitation that suffused her face, he was confused himself, and in silence gave her a smile that said too much."

This lump of print is lying on the countertogether with some old copies of magazines, some pages of newspapers, girls in bikinis.

It is time for her to leave the haven of the Indian store, and set off back along the four miles to her village. Outside, the lines of waiting women clamour and complain. But still the Indian lingers. He knows what it will cost this girl, going back home with the two clinging children. He would give her the piece of prose that so fascinates her, but he cannot really believe this splinter of a girl with her great belly can really understand it.

Why is perhaps a third of Anna Karenina stuck here on this counter in a remote Indian store? It is like this.

A certain high official, United Nations, as it happens, bought a copy of this novel in the bookshop when he set out on his journeys to cross several oceans and seas. On the plane, settled in his business-class seat, he tore the book into three parts. He looked around at his fellow passengers as he did this, knowing he would see looks of shock, curiosity, but some of amusement. When he was settled, his seatbelt tight, he said aloud to whomever could hear: "I always do this when I've a long trip. You don't want to have to hold up some heavy great book." The novel was a paperback, but, true, it is a long book. This man was used to people listening when he spoke. When people looked his way, curiously or not, he confided in them. "No, it is really the only way to travel."

When he reached the end of a section of the book, he called the airhostess, and sent it back to his secretary, who was travelling in the cheaper seats. This caused much interest, condemnation, certainly curiosity, every time a section of the great Russian novel arrived, mutilated, but readable, in the back part of the plane.

Meanwhile, down in the Indian store, the young woman is holding on to the counter, her little children clinging to her skirts. She wears jeans, since she is a modern woman, but over them she has put on the heavy woollen skirt, part of traditional garb of her people: her children can easily cling on to it, the thick folds.

She sends a thankful look at the Indian, who she knows likes her and is sorry for her, and she steps out into the blowing clouds. The children have gone past crying, and their throats are full of dust anyway.

This is hard, oh yes, it is hard, this stepping, one foot after another, through the dust that lays in soft deceiving mounds under her feet. Hard, hard - but she is used to hardship, is she not? Her mind is on the story she has been reading. She is thinking: "She is just like me, in her white headscarf, and she is looking after children, too. I could be her, that Russian girl. And the man there, he loves her and will ask her to marry him. (She has not finished more than that one paragraph). Yes, and a man will come for me, and take me away from all this, take me and the children, yes, he will love me and look after me."

She thinks. My teacher said there was a library there, bigger than the supermarket, a big building, and it is full of books. The young woman is smiling as she moves on, the dust blowing in her face. I am clever, she thinks. Teacher said I am clever. The cleverest in the school. My children will be clever, like me. I will take them to the library, the place full of books, and they will go to school, and they will be teachers - my teacher told me I could be a teacher. They will live far from here, earning money. They will live near the big library and enjoy a good life.

You may ask how that piece of the Russian novel ever ended up on that counter in the Indian store?

It would make a pretty story. Perhaps someone will tell it.

On goes that poor girl, held upright by thoughts of the water she would give her children once home, and drink a little herself. On she goes, through the dreaded dusts of an African drought.

We are a jaded lot, we in our world - our threatened world. We are good for irony and even cynicism. Some words and ideas we hardly use, so worn out have they become. But we may want to restore some words that have lost their potency.

We have a treasure-house of literature, going back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans. It is all there, this wealth of literature, to be discovered again and again by whoever is lucky enough to come up on it. Suppose it did not exist. How impoverished, how empty we would be.

We have a bequest of stories, tales from the old storytellers, some of whose names we know, but some not. The storytellers go back and back, to a clearing in the forest where a great fire burns, and the old shamans dance and sing, for our heritage of stories began in fire, magic, the spirit world. And that is where it is held, today.

Ask any modern storyteller and they will say there is always a moment when they are touched with fire, with what we like to call inspiration, and this goes back and back to the beginning of our race, to fire and ice and the great winds that shaped us and our world.

The storyteller is deep inside everyone of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us - for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

That poor girl trudging through the dust, dreaming of an education for her children, do we think that we are better than she is - we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities?

I think it is that girl and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007


A friend came round last night and in passing told a story of someone he knows who is playing the Moremi strategy at the moment. For those not familiar with the story of the heroine of Ile Ife who saved the Yorubas from repeated incursion by the Igbos due East by allowing herself to be captured, marrying their leader and learning their battle secrets, then escaping back to Ife, click on the link above. A statue of Moremi to this day can be found in the courtyard of the Ooni's palace.

It got me thinking however about the old adage about history being written by the victors. Is there another oral history of Moremi that survives to this day among the Igbos, or has it been conveniently forgotten?

It also made me think that as another Boudica-type figure along with Queen Amina of Zaria, Moremi should be celebrated beyond the Yoruba as part of the national heritage of powerful Nigerian women in history.

As for strategy, the Moremi approach can work at any level - business, existential, spiritual: go out among the foreigners and learn their ways. There will be sacrifices, but the rewards will be heavenly and last throughout time..


Internship op for young African journalists at the AU summit in January 08

AU Monitor announces initiative: Can you write well? If so...

Fahamu's AU Monitor initiative is seeking young African journalism professionals and students for a three-week internship to report from the African Union Summit being held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in January 2008.

The internships will be for the period between January16 to February 6th, 2008. The journalists will be provided training on the African Union and its organs and will be expected to produce daily reports from the summit meetings (including pre-summit civil society meetings).

Each intern must have:
• At least two years of journalism experience
• Excellent writing and analytical skills
• Excellent interviewing skills for print and audio broadcast
• Computer literacy
• Fluency in English (fluency in an additional working language of the African Union – i.e. French, Portuguese or Arabic is an advantage)
• Ability to work to deadline and under pressure
• Take initiative and work independently
• Ability to work as part of a team and have excellent communication skills
• Knowledge of the issue areas of the African Union
• Ability to use short hand is desirable

Interns will receive:
• Training on the work of the African Union and its organs
• A daily stipend and accommodation in Addis Ababa

Limited funds are available for travel costs.
To apply, please send a resume, cover letter, the names and contact details of three references, and a writing sample of no more than five hundred words (this may be an excerpt of a longer piece) [email protected]. The writing sample should demonstrate the candidate's ability to clearly and succinctly present an idea or argument in English.

Women are strongly encouraged to apply
All applications must be received by December 17, 2007. Applications received after this date will not be considered.

Job Description
Through the provision of high quality, timely information, news and analysis, the AU Monitor initiative of Fahamu aims to strengthen African civil society and citizen engagement with the African Union(AU) and its organs in the interest of promoting peace, justice, equity and accountability.

At the January summit of the African Union to be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the AU Monitor seeks to produce a daily print publication the AU Monitor Daily for distribution to participants of the summit along with regular web updates for broader circulation. The AU Monitor Daily will be not only informational, but, also analytical featuring daily interviews, news, and comment and analysis.

As such, AU Monitor Daily interns will be expected to produce reports, conduct interviews and comment on summit activities while providing critical analysis of the proceedings, debates and discussions.

In addition, interns will be expected to facilitate media outreach to select civil society campaigns and networks during the AU summit. This support will include writing press releases, coordinating press activities including press conferences and other media outreach, as well as setting up interviews between journalists and campaign spokespersons.

Interns will be provided with two days of training on the work of the AU and its organs prior to the beginning of their work but will be expected to have a pan-African perspective prior to the internship. Interns will work six days a week in two shifts for the duration of the internship.

Interns will be expected to:
• Attend all pre-summit trainings
• Report twice daily to their supervisor during morning and evening intern meetings
• Produce daily reports from AU and civil society meetings
• Conduct interviews for podcast and print with policymakers and civil society representatives, among others
• Facilitate and coordinate media outreach for civil society campaigns
• Meet strict daily deadlines
• Assist in the editorial and administrative duties of the Daily
• Assist CSO platforms to prepare media advisories and press releases
• Assist CSO platforms to prepare press conferences

Interns can expect to:
• Gain insight and knowledge of the workings of the African Union and its organs
• Gain practical experience of daily reporting
• Grain practical experience of online journalism
• Gain understanding of the pan-African institutions
• Gain exposure to pan-African civil society advocacy and campaigns
• Gain insight and knowledge regarding issues of salience and within the competencies of the African Union and its organs

Interns will be provided with a small daily stipend to cover their per diem expenses while in Addis Ababa. For interns coming from outside of Ethiopia, accommodation will be provided.

Limited funding for travel to/from Addis Ababa is available.

Stella Chege, Programme Manager, Kenya Mobile: +254 725 721 623email: [email protected]
skype: ciruchegeh


Monday, December 10, 2007

Chain link fence, ABJ

Against the fence,
A manhattan of silhouettes.

Fingers clasp
Faces stare
Against the apron's roar.

In Nasarawa blue
They are waiting for Haj.

Maybe now,
maybe next year.



The Shere hills in Jos

The Shere hills is a stunningly beautiful area near Jos. The first word I would use to describe it is biblical. However, images like the one to the left bring other words to mind - many of which are the Saxon side of 'fertile'. For more pics of the area, click here (one fabulous idea is to stay at Les Rosiers and be taken on an eco tour round the area and stay at Thomas and Anna's Les Rosiers guest house).

Here's one expats recent recommendation:

Just wanted to let you know that Anna Fehlmann has started taking
guests at her delightful home, set in the middle of beautiful
countryside, just outside Jos. We stayed last weekend and her
gardens and home make for a wonderfully relaxing setting - and she's
a great host. Well worth a visit if you want to escape from Abuja
for a weekend, or are going up to Jos to visit/work.

The food is also incredible, as all the meat comes from the Felak
meat shop - prepared by her swiss butcher husband, Walther. So you
get great sausages, properly hung beef, smoked ham as well as home
made jams and specialty cheeses. They do great lunches and dinners
from their bush bar.

For anyone (like us) who's been craving good sausages, you don't
have to go all the way to Jos - they also deliver to Abuja every two
weeks. And they have just slaughtered some turkeys which they are
delivering this week, if anyone is preparing for christmas.

They don't have a web-site, but you can see some pictures of the
guesthouse on Thomas' website at

You can contact Anna for reservations, or to get a price list for
the meat on [email protected] or 08058737523 and 08037044482. The
room rate is actually very cheap - so go before she puts the prices
up! We can't recommend it enough.


Python in Abuja

Freshly killed this morning. There was a green mamba found in a plane tree outside our house a few months ago. When we lived in VGC a few years ago, they found a cobra in the compound.

There's a history of the python's relationship to various Nigerian cultures yet to be written: the Igbos that are forbidden to eat it, the Yorubas who used them to protect themselves from invaders etc. as well as the myriad proverbs about the snake..


Rape as a weapon of war

An article from The Economist last week pasted below. As with the child witches story, one doesn't want always to speak about the horrible stuff in Africa. However, one doesn't want to over-romanticise either. The fact that rape and gang-rape is so massively common in various African conflicts today cannot be avoided:

The scale of an unspeakable horror
FROM Bosnia's rape camps and the horrors of Rwanda's genocide in the 1990s to the atrocities being perpetrated daily in northern Congo and Sudan's Darfur region, the tally of body bags runs alongside another grim body count: the numbers of women and girls, but in some places men and boys too, subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence. Reliable and comprehensive figures are hard to come by: victims are often too traumatized or too fearful to speak out. But a report on “Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict” by the Geneva-based Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) picks its way as systematically as it can through conflict after conflict, in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, piecing together the evidence.

It is grim reading. In Bosnia's war up to 50,000 women were subject to sexual violence; over 14 years perhaps 40% of Liberia's population suffered similar abuse; just under half those interviewed in a randomized study in Sierra Leone in 2000 had been raped, and more than a quarter had been gang-raped.

Such sexual violence can lead to severe physical as well as psychological damage: high numbers of fistula cases have been reported during conflicts in Burundi, Chad, Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia and elsewhere. An earlier DCAF report recorded that an estimated 70% of Rwanda's rape survivors were infected with HIV/AIDS. The offspring of such violence are often stigmatized or abandoned as “children of hate”. In other words, the damaging health, economic and social consequences live on long after conflicts end.

Can such violence be curbed? In Darfur, marauding militias prey on women and children collecting firewood, food or animal fodder outside refugee camps. In some places, African Union peacekeepers have sent out trucks with soldiers to follow the women and provide as much protection as they can.

Alongside practical initiatives like these “firewood patrols”, DCAF calls, as have earlier UN resolutions, for more women peacekeepers. They get along better with locals and also improve the behavior of their male counterparts (in Congo in 2005 the UN registered 72 allegations of sexual violence of one sort or another against its own troops; 20 were substantiated). The percentage of women serving in UN military and police units is tiny; but some women have recently had senior posts in UN missions. And earlier this year Liberia received the UN's first-ever all-female contingent—103 Indian policewomen. It would help, says DCAF, if victims of sexual violence were more involved and better cared for in programs for disarmament and demobilization.

But when it comes to curbing sexual violence during conflict, ending a culture of impunity is key. The statute of the International Criminal Court allows for the prosecution of rape and similar violence as war crimes, crimes against humanity and even potentially as acts of genocide. Earlier this year the chief prosecutor decided to focus one of the court's investigations on atrocities carried out in 2002-03 in the Central African Republic—where rapes may have exceeded murders.

The increasing use of rape, by governments as well as militias, as a weapon of war is to be the target of a UN General Assembly resolution that is expected to pass soon. After intense lobbying by Sudan (the resolution named no names, but evidently the shoe fitted) among the UN's Africa group, backed surprisingly by South Africa, the language of the resolution has been watered down somewhat. But it still calls for the UN secretary-general to report back next year on what is being done to protect civilians against sexual violence—and to hold to account, among others, governments that target their own citizens in this way.


The Wuru-Dagarang festival this Saturday in Kafanchan

There's an outing to Jos Plateau on Saturday, December 15 to see the Wuru-Dagarang festival that celebrates the “coming down from the hills,” with horse races, traditional dancing, etc.

Those interested will need to meet (location in Abuja tbd) at 7:00am on Saturday, December 15 in order to be on the road before 7:30am to drive to Kafanchan and on to Ganawuri (Tsen) in Riyom LGA, where the festival will take place starting about 10am.

If you are interested in staying for most of the festival on Saturday, you will need to make your own hotel reservations for Saturday night (Newell Hotel in Kafanchan is one hotel that has been recommended, although some may want to stay in Jos—more information on hotels will follow).

If you are interested in going, please let the organiser know ASAP and please forward the following information to: [email protected]; and [email protected] no later than Thursday noon, Dec. 13th


Sunday, December 09, 2007

The child-witches of Akwa Ibom

Disturbing stories from the East. The rise of the child-witch phenomenon has been developing for the past few years. A truly sick perversion of Christianity which is seeing thousands of young children murdered or ostracised. Thanks Nkem for the link and this great yet horribly sad piece of journalism.


Another agent-provocatrice from a strange recess of my brain. Click to enlarge and feel free to pass on.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

A Friday night in Lagos

I fly down to Lagos to see some British friends doing some business in the city of sin and wisdom. We go to Churras for a meat-fest - except of course I sit on the sidelines with black beans, rice and salad as wave after wave of Brazillian-style kebab is sliced onto plates before salivarous eyes.

After failing to persuade the party to hunch down to Kuramo to listen to the Atlantic crash against the shore, catch the whiff of ganga wafting in the breeze and pretend to ignore the dancing girls, we go to the far more corporate option of Soul Lounge at The Palms. It is 70% men, but the music is good. Then we head to Casa. We arrive at 1am and the place is half empty, apart from some young Indians trying to look trendy and some well fed women lounging on the sofas. There are no salsa demons oppressing everyone on the dancefloor.

And then an Amazon appears - a modellish woman who is perhaps only two inches smaller than I. She is with a muscley guy in a rugby top. I introduce myself (she is just a little beguiling) - it turns out she is a Ghanaian model here for a fashion show at the Eko tomorrow. The guy introduces himself as a pimp. For a nanosecond I take him seriously, and start wondering about whether prostitution has finally got organised in Nigeria. The next nanosecond later I realise he is her toaster.

A few more statuesque women make their entrance - looking all sultry and pouty. I guess the day job sticks on the face after a while. More men and women arrive - many of the latter breaking the Lagos dress code with abandon. A shaven-headed woman writhes to herself and to then to her female friend. She is in her body and in her element. It is a joy to watch - as good as Saddler's Wells.

My friend's Nigerian colleague L is sizing up various feminine options. He does this by sidling up to a prospect, then giving them a langorous and on the precipice of outrageous body scan. He does it in such a smooth suave way he pulls it off. The women don't seem to mind. Funny if it was in London it would probably solicit a slap.

I have one tiny hang-up in life, which I decide to finally crack there and then. Much as I love dancing, I simply cannot go up to a woman and start dancing with her - holding my arms aloft, then crouching down around her - like so many Nigerian men can do. Partly its because my height makes the whole procedure awkward - but partly also because of some impossible-to-eliminate English coyness buried several layers down in my pysche. This time, I go for it. L has turned a prospect into a lead (apologies for the marketing terminology, but it does seem apt) and is doing the arms-aloft-and-around thing. So I go up to her friend by the side and start dancing next to her. A wave of self-doubt ripples around me: what are you doing Weate you fool? etc. But I ignore it. She has nice breasts, hidden beneath a cross-over of fabric. She is also tall - nearly 6 feet - which is nice. I hold her hand and we dance for a bit. But then some old skool black-80's pop-funk comes on and she sits down and adopts a bored posture. She asks me to buy her wine, so I do (flipping heck - N1500 for a glass!) Then we dance for a bit longer. L by now seems to be both winning and losing his battle to turn his lead into an account. It is now about 3.30am and the place is packed. Suddenly, my dance partner asks me where am I staying. I tell her the name of the hotel. She replies - 'so you want me to come back with you?' I am in the game now, so I say, 'why not?' She responds, quick as a flash - 'ok but you will pay me 30o dollars.'

Blimey. 300 dollars.

I tell her that is way too much. By now the game has lost its lustre. She whispers something into my ear but I don't hear it properly. We dance a bit more. I ask her why she needs so much money. She replies simply: 'Lag'. This translates as (for those who need the translation): I am a student at the University of Lagos. I have to pay my own school fees. She then says, more sharply, 'look I offered you 100 dollars and you didn't answer, so now I am going.' Ok, that's what she said. She leaves quickly. I am relieved. I roll into bed gloriously unaccompanied, by 4.30am.


Friday, December 07, 2007

Study Yoruba at IFE this summer

Fulbright scholarship to study Yoruba at Ife (what better place?) from June 20 to August 12th. Click here for all the details. Shame its only open for American students - otherwise I'd be there.


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Hyena men

Photos of men in Nigeria with their hyenas/snakes/baboons. Thanks Teju Cole for the link.


The Mountain of Death here we come...

It was the Nigerian Field Society Abuja Chapter quarterly meeting last night. Although I wasn't feeling too pukka, I was determined to go. The meeting takes place at the Abuja Horse and Country club. So I mess about trying to find the AHCC for an hour - going down a track into nowheresville outside Abuja and driving past a roundhouse church with a bright orange neon crucifix on top (I then had a David-Lynch-in-West-Africa-moment: tropical velvet), then going down an even more remote track right by the side of Jabi lake and getting stopped by flashlight - What are you doing here a voice barks behind the torch - this is a military base! I turn on the helpless lost oyinbo patter and wangle my way out of the place.

Eventually I find the joint. Lots of posh and almost over-nourished Berger looking horses in stables that some/a lot/most would be proud to fashion into a home. And a bar with pictures of young oyinbos on horses. Nyah nyah.

The Abuja chapter is an odd ball yet merry assemblage - some Austrian guy who came here in 1991 and stayed, he now does the cctv/security for the President (confirming that there are in fact three lions and a giraffe with the run of the place near the villa). A bloke from Lancashire who does hospitals. A German anthropologist (the one whose essay I sent you) who knows all about Lake Chad and the people that live there and Roman, the 19th century looking American honcho of the Abuja chapter.... and on and on. Another geez with a teutonic air (I vented to him as soon as I arrived about the directions, so maybe he didnt get the best of me) provided 10 large format gis maps of Abuja - as spatial pot latch. Very nice - but where to put it? Before you make any comments, yes there were Nigerians there - although it does retain a whiff of a colonial air. But nice warm friendly lets study the flora and fauna colonial, not let's nick all the ivory and raid Benin/keep the Elgin Marbles colonial.

Roman talked us through the recent trip to Sukhur, which sounds endlessly fascinating. The men in this stone-age mountain kingdom in the far North-East sleep on bamboo beds, the women sleep on the floor. If you want a drink, they run down the other side of the hill to Cameroon to fetch it for you. To spend any time there, you have to have a before-and-after ceremonial with the King.

A couple of free beers later, I got up and did my Chappal Waddi dog-and-pony: about ten hands went up immediately. Me! Me! Me! Me! I think I got the crowd horny for some Gashaka Gumti action.

Long story short: we're on. We're off to the Mountain of Death at the end of March next year..


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The man who wasn't there

A fascinating story is brewing in the UK press: John Darwin, missing presumed dead in the North-East after a canoeing trip, turns up 5 years later at a London police station, apparently with no memory of where he has been. Meanwhile, his wife recently moved to Panama in a hurry.

Its hard to avoid the temptation to connect the sudden exit of the wife with the sudden appearance of the husband. Was an insurance policy involved? Or was it a genuine case of amnesia, like the story of the highly talented pianist who had no idea who he was who turned up in the UK a couple of years ago?

We might have turn to my number one favourite film - Paris, Texas - for some clues.



A Nigerian friend was leading a training workshop recently. In terms of project and programme management, there are few people with more qualifications: Prince2 certified trainer, PMI certified trainer, Six Sigma certified etc. etc. He has worked for quite a few blue chip companies on high level programme implementations around the world. If you have a project to run, no matter how complex, he's one of the guys you might turn to.

Imagine his dismay at the workshop, with his all-Nigerian team (many of whom are almost as accomplished), when the (public sector) client asked/commented: "where are the white trainers? We need white trainers."

Underneath all the bluster of Nigerian super-confidence and pride, there remains an internalised racial inferiority complex - an identity crisis lurks and circulates. The sub-conscious pattern logic is: nothing good comes from here. Everything good comes from overseas, and must therefore be white."

How do we break this pattern? Its gone on way too long.


Monday, December 03, 2007

Lagos: a city without trees

Lagost State govt is chopping the trees down on Bourdillon. As one of the most expensive, upmarket parts of Lagos (even though the roads are in poor condition), it is the trees of Ikoyi which lend some faded sense of serenity to the neighbourhood.

There is a protest against the felling: 7pm this Friday opposite Abebe Court on Bourdillon. Lagos celebs such as Lagbaja, Ty Bello, the Desert Crew etc. will be there.

I imagine the trees are being cut down as part of the road widening going on in various parts of Ikoyi at the moment. The question is, what is Lagos State govt doing to make Lagos - a city without trees - into a greener city? In most parts of Lagos, there is no respite from the noise and the hustle - which must contribute dramatically to the stress and ill-health of Lagosians.

It would be good therefore if the protest against felling the trees on Bourdillon could be widened into a more systematic campaign for a greener Lagos.


Sobering fact...

Every six hours, a Nigerian woman will die while giving birth...


Congrats Murali

Muttiah Muralitharan becomes the top wicket-taker of all time.


Sunday, December 02, 2007

Using the desert to generate power

Just imagine if the sun in the Sahara was tapped for energy using the increasingly popular mirror-steam-turbine technology (which in a few years will be supplying all the energy for Valencia)? Its relatively low technology, supplanting photo-voltaics as the best way of generating energy from the sun.

Now the EU wants to tap into North African sun - to generate up to a sixth of its energy needs.

With visionary leadership, Nigeria could develop its own large scale solar plants, providing cheap, zero-carbon energy where there is none. This could be a real competitive advantage for the North, where there is plenty of land, and plenty of sun...


Saturday, December 01, 2007

Research Fellow at UNRISD

As part of a new UNRISD Fellowship Programme for Researchers from Developing Countries, UNRISD invites applications from African social science scholars, based at an African research institution. The visiting fellows would spend 9 to 12 months working at UNRISD in Geneva. Successful applicants should be engaged in innovative research in the field of Social Policy in Africa. At UNRISD they will continue research in this area, prepare a paper for publication under the UNRISD Programme Paper series and develop ideas for future research.

Click here for more.


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