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Saturday, February 13, 2010

The truth about social networks

Reality has taken a leap back in our lives, giving way to the age of illusions and comfort in things that might never be. Times have really changed as well, the digital age seeming more and more prevalent than ever in our society. Soon one will just have to click on a link on Google and automatically, your hunger/thirst will be satisfied. Change is good. Being the one constant thing in our lives, I guess it deserves credit in its own way.

The only the problem I might have with change is that it does not remember humble beginnings, comparable only to a poor man who is suddenly rich. It electrifies the existence of all its bearers and leaves no room for a sit-back-and-take-it-in session. Change carries a promise against previous misery, that is why we embrace it so readily. With social media being an ambassador of all the above fruits, it has become almost impossible for the human race to appreciate the value of face-to-face interactions; it is all written on our Facebook page or wherever. We take in so much information online and run with it without even consulting our intelligence at the first instance.

Having a public diary is a smart idea, me being guilty of the above, and under pressure to comply with current trends. But losing ourselves in a virtual world isn’t very smart. How fast have we lost touch with phone calls and text messaging each other? Rather, we make all our plans on the internet and it is partly an excuse to stalk the people that occupy our lives in fiction or in real life, a chance to prove to the world that we are way better than they would perceive us in the real world, while for some it is a chance to put up valuable truthful views that might actually acquire a following due to shared sentiments.

I will not discredit any use of the social networks trending. As it is, I'm the most frequent flyer with them. I just fear that we have given it a bit too much credit and hence it is slowly destroying our perception of more important things. Like the truth, perhaps. I will give a good story by the end of this excerpt. Remember when social media was more informative and factual while maintaining an entertainment front at that? Remember when some Haitian earthquake victims were traced using Teitter and Facebook? And when Obama got millions of dollars through Facebook campaigns? How about when Souljaboy was discovered on Myspace? That used to be cool.

Anyone can do whatever they like with regard to their internet use. I just had to put it out there that we should really know why we do what we do on the WWW and be sure enough to hold your head high with no regrets when you are answerable to someone for it.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

How to write about Africa

By Binyavanga Wainaina

Always use the word 'Africa' or 'Darkness' or 'Safari' in your title. Subtitles may include the words 'Zanzibar', 'Masai', 'Zulu', 'Zambezi', 'Congo', 'Nile', 'Big', 'Sky', 'Shadow', 'Drum', 'Sun' or 'Bygone'. Also useful are words such as 'Guerrillas', 'Timeless', 'Primordial' and 'Tribal'. Note that 'People' means Africans who are not black, while 'The People' means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn't care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African's cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it-because you care.

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation. Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can't live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love-take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).

Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders. Blame the West for Africa's situation. But do not be too specific.

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life-but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause. Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the 'real Africa', and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West. The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show dead or suffering white people.

Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people's property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).

After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa's most important people. Do not offend them. You need them to invite you to their 30,000-acre game ranch or 'conservation area', and this is the only way you will get to interview the celebrity activist. Often a book cover with a heroic-looking conservationist on it works magic for sales. Anybody white, tanned and wearing khaki who once had a pet antelope or a farm is a conservationist, one who is preserving Africa's rich heritage. When interviewing him or her, do not ask how much funding they have; do not ask how much money they make off their game. Never ask how much they pay their employees. Readers will be put off if you don't mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical-Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces. When writing about the plight of flora and fauna, make sure you mention that Africa is overpopulated. When your main character is in a desert or jungle living with indigenous peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been severely depopulated by Aids and War (use caps).

You'll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Africans and prostitutes and guerrillas and expats hang out. Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.

Binyavanga Wainaina is a Kenyan author, journalist and winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing. This article was first published in Granta.

Friday, February 5, 2010

What is Issa Hayatou smoking?

Issa Hayatou is an idiot.

Okay, I apologise for using such strong language to describe any person. How about this? Hayatou has no commonsense. He is the president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), the body that has handed down a four-year suspension to Togo FA, the Togo national team, for missing the African Cup of Nations that just concluded in Angola.

According to the information released by CAF’s chief press officer Suleiman Habuba, Togo FA violated article 78 of CAF’s regulations. The said article states: “A forfeit notified less than 20 days before the start or during the final competition shall entail in addition of the forfeit of the entry fee, a maximum fine stipulated by the regulations as well as the suspension of the concerned national association for the following two editions of the African Cup of Nations.” Translation: If at the last minute a team decides to break tent and head back home before the game has even begun, then it will get a hefty fine and also be booted out of the next two African Cup of Nations’ tournaments.

Now, I am sure the good people who wrote that article in the regulation did not imagine that a team would have the fate that Togo went through. Just in case you did not hear why the Togolese team pulled out of the games, here is the story.

On Friday, January 8, 2010, the national team of Togo left a training camp in Congo-Brazzaville for Angola in a bus convoy. But no sooner had they entered the Cabinda area than they were attacked by terrorists, for that is who they are, calling themselves the armed wing of the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC).

Gunmen wielding AK-47s spayed the buses with bullets. When the smoke cleared, the Angolan driver of the lead bus was dead on the spot, and as many as eight members of the Togo team wounded. Togo assistant coach Abalo Amalete and press officer Stanislaud Ocloo died a short time later from injuries sustained in the attack. Backup goalkeeper Kodjovi “Dodji” Obilale and central defender Serge Akakpo were among those seriously injured. News reports said 22-year old Akakpo took two bullets and lost a lot of blood. The shattered team courageously limped to Cabinda.

From the start, there were attempts to blame the Togo team. Why were they travelling by bus instead of flying in? Why did they not outrun the ambush? Why did they not inform the Angolan authorities of their travelling plan?

To answer the last question, someone should ask this question: Why, if the Angolan authorities were not aware that the Togo team was travelling by road, were the Angolan forces able to intervene and trade fire with the ambushers? It was therefore a stupid attempt to suggest that the Togo team was at fault because they did not inform Angola of their travelling plans. They did, but Angola dropped the ball by failing to provide adequate protection for the Togo team. In any event, devastated by the deaths of its citizens in a foreign country, the Togo government ordered the team to return for official mourning. And why, pray tell, did the good folks in Angola schedule games in an area they knew hosts terrorist, whom they have been fighting for the last 30 years?

You cannot blame the Togolese for feeling unhappy about the situation. This was a totally preventable incident, but CAF, the organiser of the football match and the Angolan government acted negligently.

Yet, instead of sympathising with Togo, the Confederation of African Football had the nerve to hand down a $50,000 fine to Togo, and ban it from playing the African Cup of Nations in 2012 and 2014.

What kind of weed are the committees who decided these stinking penalties smoking? Is this rational, does it make sense to anybody? Am I the only one who thinks the whole thing smells like the rotten head of obange fish?

Issa Hayatou is an idiot—I am sorry, I just had to say that one more time to get it out of my system—and if he has any sense and decency left in him, he will reverse the decision levied against the Togo National Team. Togo FA has suffered enough, and need not suffer again.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Kenya's political class and missed opportunities

This surely must rank as one of the saddest, most disgraceful conversations in Kenya’s history. It was October 1965 and Sir Evelyn Baring, the colonial governor who had presided over the brutal crackdown on the Mau Mau, had returned to the country two years after the British were suddenly forced by circumstances to surrender the colony.

Sir Evelyn decided to visit the new President, Jomo Kenyatta, at his former office in State House. This is how the conversation went, as recorded in his biography, Evelyn Baring: The Last Proconsul. Sir Evelyn told Kenyatta: "By the way, I was sitting at that actual desk when I signed your detention order 20 years ago."

"I know," Kenyatta said. "If I had been in your shoes at the time, I would have done exactly the same." Both men burst out laughing. Then Kenyatta added. "And I have myself signed a number of detention orders sitting right here too."

That neatly summarises the cynical nature of Kenya's political class.

Mzee Kenyatta, for whom untold thousands had died in the liberation struggle in the hope he would be the principled and idealistic African leader who would lead Kenya to the promised land of independence and self-government, turned out to be a cynical leader, just as despotic as the colonial administration he replaced.

He was not joking when he told Sir Evelyn that he would not hesitate to sign detention orders for people he saw as a threat to his hold on power. Among those he sent to Kamiti was Achieng Oneko, one of the five nationalists detained with him at Kapenguria by the colonialists.

This little story is only one of many examples of the legendary selfishness of the Kenyan political elite. That is why it is so sad that the new constitutional order has, by law, to be agreed through deals cut by MPs in the Grand Coalition. The Naivasha Accord will go down as yet another major missed opportunity in Kenya's history.

The tension that has informed politics in Kenya since the 1950s was the fear by smaller ethnic communities that independence and the introduction of competitive politics would lead to a perpetual era of domination by the bigger ethnic groups. This narrative has not changed more than half a century later, and is the key reason why the referendum in 2005 and the 2007 General Election were essentially referendums pitting the Kikuyu on one hand against the other communities, which banded together to resist domination by a Kikuyu presidency.

The drafters of the Bomas constitution suggested tackling these ethnic tensions through two key remedies: a parliamentary system that would give all communities, however small, a feeling that they are represented in key decision making processes at the Executive level, and a robust system of devolution that would tackle the perception that the regions which produce the president are unfairly favoured in distribution of resources.

Such an approach would help give Kenya what John Githongo in a Newsweek article last year called a "software upgrade" to "save Kenya and its neighbours from future convulsions driven by resentments not captured by World Bank statistics".

With the conservative draft that emerged from Naivasha last week, that opportunity has been lost. Cartoonist Gado put it best when he suggested that the preamble of the new constitution should delete the word "people" and read: "We the MPs of Kenya... accept this new constitution...”

Monday, February 1, 2010

Pat Robertson blames Haiti earthquake on 'pact to the devil'

Pat Robertson, the American Christian televangelist and host of The 700 Club, said that Haitians need to have a "great turning to God" while he was reporting on the devastating 7.0 earthquake that shook the island nation — the most powerful to hit the country in a century.

As Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said "well over" 100,000 people may have died in the natural disaster, Robertson took to the airwaves on January 12 on his show and said that the country has been "cursed by one thing after another" since they "swore a pact to the devil."

"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about," Robertson said. "They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.' True story. And so the devil said, 'Ok it’s a deal.' And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got something themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another," Robertson said.

This is not the first time the former Republican presidential candidate has made controversial comments in the wake of disasters. He has linked Hurricane Katrina and terrorist attacks to legalized abortion.

"I was reading, yesterday, a book that was very interesting about what God has to say in the Old Testament about those who shed innocent blood…But have we found we are unable somehow to defend ourselves against some of the attacks that are coming against us, either by terrorists or now by natural disaster? Could they be connected in some way?" Robertson said in a September 12, 2005 broadcast of The 700 Club soon after Hurricane Katrina.