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Excerpt from Ivory Coast: The Bradt Guide

29 Nov

The Independence Movement

The two world wars helped foment demands for Ivorian independence, especially amongst the compradors. During World War I, the colony was forced to adopt austerity measures and recruit indigenes to fight the Germans. Around 150,000 Ivorian men were eventually killed in the trenches – a huge sacrifice, many Ivorians thought, on behalf of a nation that denied them basic rights and freedoms in return. Between the wars, cash crop farming expanded greatly, causing rivalry between the European farmers in Ivory Coast and their native counterparts. The Ivorians resented the fact that the Europeans were allowed to use free labour, got higher prices for their yields and had access to wider foreign markets. When France was overrun by Germany in June 1940, Ivory Coast experienced a 70% drop in exports of its key commodities – coffee, cocoa, wood and palm oil. A recession struck and living standards plummeted. Worse still, French West Africa pledged loyalty to the fascist Vichy regime and Nazi racial ideology began to filter into the colony. Treatment of the bonded labourers worsened and their workloads increased as farmers were pressured to amplify production for the war effort.

As the war dragged on, Ivorian students and intellectuals started to form Communist Study Groups to critique the racism and class exploitation they believed were at the heart of European colonialism, whether French or German. In 1944, a clique of influential Ivorian farmers led by a young Baoulé canton chief, Félix Houphouët-Boigny (1905–93)formed the African Agricultural Union (Syndicat agricole africain or SAA), quickly attracting 20,000 members, both landowners and labourers. Although effectively a trade union, it is debatable how radical the SAA really was, given that it was established with the permission of the colonial authorities and driven by the interests of Ivorian farm owners rather than Ivorian farm workers. The SAA’s main objective – to end the deeply unpopular corveé system – was driven more by the belief that this gave white farmers an unfair competitive advantage than by any great desire to improve the lot of the Ivorian working-class. At any rate, Houphouët convinced the liberal governor of the time, André Latille, of the need for such reform and la corveé was banned. Reactionary elements amongst the white settlers attempted to have Houphouët prosecuted for treason, but the then Inspector Minister for the Colonies, also a liberal, dismissed the charges.

Recognising that the SAA was part of an inevitable movement for self-determination that was sweeping across the colonised world, France organised the Brazzaville Conference in January 1944 to discuss political reforms within its African territories. Motions were passed to give Ivory Coast and other colonies, more autonomy, a new penal code and elections to send indigenous MPs to the French parliament. Immediately announcing his decision to stand in the inaugural ballot Houphouët knew he could rely on the support of his Baoulé heartland in the south and centre, but realised he would also need to secure the northeastern Bobo Dialasso zone (now in Burkina Faso). Having previously supported him, the French saw Houphouët as too much of a wild card and backed an alternative candidate native to Bobo Dialasso. The SAA canvassed hard in the region and Houphouët managed to obtain a narrow majority in the first round of elections followed by an absolute majority in the second round in November 1945. In recognition of the magnitude of this political achievement, he added ‘Boigny’ to his name, meaning ‘unstoppable force’ in Baoulé. Upon entering parliament, he became the leader of two newly-formed political movements: the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire or PDCI) and the African Democratic Assembly (Rassemblement Démocratique Africain or RDA), a coalition of communists, socialists and liberals across French West Africa united by the desire for more sovereignty if not true independence from France. This was too radical a development for the French, who sacked PDCI and RDA members from government positions and threw them in prison. Houphouët was protected from this purge by his parliamentary immunity. Large-scale demonstrations followed, culminating in the French police shooting a number of protestors dead in late 1949.

A struggle within the PDCI began between moderates like Houphouët, who wanted, as the West Africa scholar Mike McGovern puts it, a ‘semi-autonomous association’ with France, and the left, who wished for full independence with no strings attached. Not for the only time in his career did Houphouët use pragmatism as a defence. Ejecting the French completely from Ivory Coast would be economic and political suicide, he reasoned, because wherever a new administration might stand ideologically, it would lack the skills and resources to properly run the country. Leftists viewed this argument as a fig-leaf for Houphouët’s true motive: to use French participation in Ivorian affairs to shore up the power of his own ascendant class while doing nothing to improve the lot of the poorest.

Excerpt from The Hitchers of Oz

22 Jun

The Most Lateral Digit

In 2007 I travelled to eight Asian countries, mostly by air, sometimes by coach and train, less frequently by sea and occasionally by the means of hitchhiking. Getting my thumb out usually resulted in taking my fate in my own hands. I enjoyed the ambiguity – who will pick me up? Where might I be dropped off? – and the freedom to bust out of the safe ‘n’ easy limits of modern tourism, what Guy Debord called ‘human circulation packaged for consumption … the opportunity to go and see what has been banalized’. All across Asia are outposts of the banal catering to Western tastes, colonies of the familiar in which you’ll find American fast food outlets, bars selling European beer, mock-bohemian hostels and – above all – the beach.

I could never spend too long on the beach, even though, as a creative writer, I liked its unreality, its suspension from the normal diktats of time, order and motion. The excess of heat and light distorts your perception of everything around you. You can feel like you’re in an invented world of isthmuses of blazing sand that reach into the lucid ocean through which the naked eye can see coral patterns of alien intricacy. There are newspapers and TVs on the beach but what they report seems so remote. A nuclear bomb could explode ten miles away, but its radiation wouldn’t leak into the hermetic bubble of the beach.

Other people seem unreal too. When you ask them about themselves, their answers seem contrived and implausible: a German whose parents own a huge porn shop in Hamburg, a UN peacekeeper on a weekend break, an undercover drugs agent for the Jakarta police who also happens to be a reflexology masseur.

As the sun sets, you find yourself sinking happy hour beers at a palm-shaded bar playing Jack Johnson. You’re living the cliché (or is it now a myth?) of postcards, TV holiday shows and what every Western traveler is told to want from a foreign trip.

The close proximity to bizarre animals can make you think you are roaming the Lost World or the Island of Dr Moreau. You wait for a six foot monitor lizard, essentially a mini-dinosaur, to cross the path that leads back to your hut where there’ll be a different critter to contend with each night: an audacious monkey trying to steal washing, a mysterious gold-backed spider – straight out of Poe – that takes hours of smothering with towels and insect repellent before it dies, cockroaches – those evolutionary strongarms, flying at your face like an apocalyptic beast – worms, frogs, birds of prey beating their wings against the frame of the window, and mosquitoes. Mosquitoes everywhere.

You lie in your sweaty bedclothes staring at the ineffectual fan on the ceiling, hoping its revolutions will hypnotize you to sleep. You reek of the science fictional smell of DEET that is all over your body to prevent bites. Bites that can give you malaria or dengue fever. Mosquitoes, the most dangerous animals in the world if you go by body count.

At around 4am, locals start burning great pyres of rubbish right outside your hut. Back West this is deemed so eco-unfriendly that it could only happen in a bad dream.

What further adds to that unreal feeling is that, on the beach, no-one has a job, is told what to do or has to abide by a routine. That is, of course, apart from the locals who all work extremely hard to maintain this ‘free space’ for the travelers who play roles like actors in a film. Every beach has its resident crackerjack who’s changed his name to mean ‘god of the wind’ or some such thing in the local language. Invariably he is from white middle-class origins, has dreadlocks and carries around a didgeridoo, even though he is unable to play it very well. He is holier than thou about the milieu – he knows every bar, fishing and diving spot, and everyone.

TS Eliot wrote ‘humankind cannot bear too much reality’, and I wonder if sometimes the opposite is true also. On one particular beach in Malaysia, I came to the decision that I’d borne too much unreality. So I hitchhiked out of there.

Taking his cue from Debord, Will Self makes a point in a Google Authors talk about the tyranny of modern transport, in which the traveler is oppressed by prearranged flight paths or train routes or boat courses.

First published in The Hitchers of Oz (2009)

Excerpt from Fog in Channel…

22 Mar

Island Monkeys and a Hidden

Unity

As we neared Budapest, I felt like I’d been the subject of an experiment depriving human beings of sunlight, fresh air and basic comfort. Well maybe I exaggerate with retrospect. I’d got my ‘coach legs’ the previous year on an A-Level tour of Eastern Europe, when marathon crossings of entire countries were punctuated by marathon wodka sessions. As some of us hallucinated, some of us copulated and others passed out head-first into toilet bowls, I’m sure something trite like you can take the kids out of England but you can’t take the England out of the kids crossed the minds of our teachers. On the same trip I was berated by a fellow student for giving the price of a sausage (about 8p in English money) to a child-beggar. “You’ll only encourage them to be lazy,” she scoffed, as if people dress in rags and contract skin diseases because it’s easier than getting a job. It turned out that her sole purpose for travelling 650 miles across the continent was to buy a Levi’s T-shirt she could easily have bought in Portsmouth City Centre.

Whether it is an English trait to behave abroad exactly as you would at home I don’t know. My experiences are bagatelles when compared to Club 18-30, when Spanish communities were invaded by English idiots and forced to lay on English beer, English fish and chips and English music.

I hoped I took a different approach to Ms Levi. I was interested in the history of the region, especially the tumultuous Cold War period, and tried my hardest to see things from the standpoint of Eastern Europeans. I came to respect and admire the people of Prague and Krakow and the former East Berlin; they had emerged optimistic from a long dark night of authoritarianism.

When my three friends and I staggered out of that coach in Budapest we encountered the best and worst of attitudes to foreigners. We were greeted by a spivvy, slick-haired taxi driver wearing Aviators and looking like an extra from Grand Theft Auto Vice City, ready to extort shopkeepers and shoot cops. In our lethargy we foolishly got in his car and explained what hotel we needed to get to. When we found ourselves cruising through the countryside it became clear that the driver had absolutely no idea where he was going … and the meter was racing like a Telethon total. We were finally dropped off in a field and forced to part with a third of our collective budget. This was bad. Half-dead from the coach trip and the Mediterranean heat. Ripped off and stranded Christ knows where.

After some walking we spotted a woman washing a car outside a plush house. We asked her where roughly in Hungary we had ended up and how on earth we might get to our hotel.

She looked troubled and said, in pretty good English, “You see this hill? We are this side of the hill. The hotel is right over that side of the hill.”

Amazingly, and I will never forget this act of generosity, she not only gave us cold drinks but drove us all the way to the hotel. I tried to imagine an equivalent scenario in Portsmouth, us as Hungarian visitors. We probably would have been told to fuck off.

For a long while I believed the EU to be the solution to xenophobia. Just as the mounting presence of black and brown faces on British streets have made the Alf Garnett position untenable, I thought greater exposure to other Europeans would stop us hating them so much.

But people are losing faith in this artificial Union. Positive social measures such as the minimum wage have been outbalanced by corporate imperatives – ‘integration’ has simply made it easier for business to exploit and expropriate. After all, the EU evolved from a Franco-German trade agreement over coal and steel in 1950. The autocracy of the Commission and the manner in which failed politicos are booted there (Kinnock, Patten, Mandelson?) should concern anyone who believes in democracy. Eurocrats hypocritically denounce corruption in the Third World while ignoring the corruption on their own doorstep.

A European Union along cultural and social lines, designed for the good of European people rather than small sections of those people, is far more desirable.

As a teenager whenever I met French, Germans or Dutch of my own age there was a supranational understanding between us. We liked the same music, we wore the same clothes, we ate the same food, we had similar progressive outlooks on politics and society. You might call this globalisation but it runs deeper into the fabric of our respective languages and cultures. And deeper still is a common human reason which can allow you to empathise with strangers miles away from your home town or offer lifts to desperate foreigners.

First published in Fog in Channel…, 2009.