Tag Archives: africa

Bradt guide featured in Travel Africa magazine

10 Aug

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Just found out that the excellent Travel Africa magazine will be featuring the guide in the Book Club section of their October issue.

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Unequivocal Gent? Review of The Setting Sun by Bart Moore-Gilbert

8 Feb

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Bart Moore-Gilbert has argued of the Jamaican-British author Mary Seacole that she sought to gain greater self-understanding by blending autobiography and travel writing in her magnum opus, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. By reflecting on her lived experience of death, migration, racial prejudice and the excesses of imperialism she was able to make some sense of her own identity and how it had been shaped by the world. There are shades of Seacole’s approach in The Setting Sun, Moore-Gilbert’s own new book about a trip to India to investigate his late father’s conduct as a colonial policeman during the chaotic final days of the Raj. In the often painful process of learning about his father, Moore-Gilbert discovers much about himself, and he is forced at every turn to question his own values, theories and memories.

The thirteen-year-old Bart wakes up one night in the dormitory of his English public school, cringing at the cold as much as at the racist epithet a fellow pupil has just mouthed: ‘Get up, Nigger, quick.’ Having recently moved to Britain after a childhood spent in colonial Tanganyika, Bart sees himself as a ‘white African kid’ exiled to a country he can barely comprehend. Marginalised by his peers, he longs for the natural colour and boy’s own excitement of his life in East Africa, playing with his beloved boxer dog Tunney, defending chickens from assault by safari ants, and taking jaunts through the bush to find honey with his minder Kimwaga. Most of all, though, the young Bart misses his father Bill, a gentleman game warden with the debonair integrity of a John Mills or David Niven. That night, Bart is led from the dormitory to his housemaster, who nervously informs him that his father has died in a plane crash. As Bart breaks down, the housemaster’s wife offers him a caramel éclair, in a pathetic act of consolation.

Fast forward five decades to 2008 and the adult Bart Moore-Gilbert, now a professor of postcolonial studies at Goldsmiths College, receives an email from an Indian academic about Bill’s ‘significant role’ in suppressing nationalist rebels in Satara District, western India. Moore-Gilbert is shocked, as ‘this is the first independent reminder in ages that I once had a father.’ Questions start pinging around his head. What exactly was this ‘significant role’ his father played in this infamously dark chapter in British imperial history? What if, like the policeman characters in George Orwell’s Burmese Days and Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, Bill was guilty of intimidation, torture or worse? Moore-Gilbert decides he must fly to India and discover the ‘father I did not know’.

But the truth is fiendishly hard to pin down. Moore-Gilbert searches for it in police archives, university libraries, and takes testimonies both from Bill’s now-elderly colleagues and from some of his enemies, such as the stormy, self-described ‘freedom fighter’ Lad. ‘Gilbert was the terrorist in that campaign, not us,’ Lad blurts out during their interview, which understandably upsets Moore-Gilbert. But after hearing a condemnation of this sort, Moore-Gilbert’s research will throw up a source that suggests the opposite: that Bill was, by community standards, a good cop. This feeling of oscillation provides one of The Setting Sun’s many dramatic propellers.

The son’s mental picture of the father keeps altering as new facts come in and hitherto buried memories resurface. Earlier in the narrative, Moore-Gilbert remembers Bill in almost heroic terms: protecting a local woman from domestic violence, guarding the environment from poachers, or volunteering for a humanitarian mission to save beleaguered Tutsis in what has since become Rwanda (where his plane went down). However, the more he finds out about Bill in India, the more morally hazy his reminiscences of Bill in Tanganyika become, making him wonder, finally, whether his father was such an unequivocal gent after all. Amongst many other things, The Setting Sun is a penetrating comment on the ambiguity not only of subjective memory, but of other supposedly more “objective” forms of knowledge.

For a scholar with Moore-Gilbert’s interests, this very personal quest is bound to have wider political and intellectual dimensions. To his credit, though, the professor eschews theoretical abstraction, instead using his dramatic encounters with people and places as a device for examining complex issues, from the Kashmir crisis to the double standards inherent in Western attempts to define terrorism. In one chilling sequence, Moore-Gilbert visits a tree beside Shalini Lake from which Sepoy mutineers were hanged after the 1857 rebellion and their corpses left out for the crows. ‘I have an awful vision,’ he writes, ‘of tar-black silhouettes against the blinding sky, hands tied behind their backs, rotating slowly in the putrid breeze.’ While his ‘postcolonial political ethics’ are rightly offended by such atrocities of empire and their long-running consequences, he is also worried by vulgar brands of nationalist historiography that try to blame all of India’s contemporary problems on the Raj.

Another of Bill’s former adversaries, a cheerful old-timer named Nayakwadi, has a more nuanced perspective. Despite having been a committed nationalist, he praises the British for dismantling the caste system (even if their motives had more to do with realpolitik than egalitarianism) and argues that Indian independence still hasn’t delivered basic ‘education, health and justice’ to working people. His country’s current malaise is mainly the fault of ‘the capitalist classes’ and he feels ‘no bitterness’ towards the Raj now. To Moore-Gilbert’s relief, Nayakwadi holds no grudges against Bill either, and even seemed to enjoy escaping from the policeman once by dressing up as a woman.

As his journey wears on, Moore-Gilbert starts to accept the impossibility of constructing a full and fair picture of his father. However, what he does find out, what little he can claw back of the Bill he never knew, has a definite healing effect.

Originally published in The London Magazine, October 2014

Why Africans are falling in love with the Philippines

18 Jan

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After recent visits to Africa and Asia, it is clear to me that the two continents are growing ever closer. In Ghana, I met so many Chinese, whether overseeing a building site in Kumasi, dining in a five star hotel on Cape Coast or playing roulette in an Accra casino. In Côte d’Ivoire, I found young people to be obsessed with Japanese manga and Korean horror films. During that same trip, I heard that, in Southern Africa, kids rarely miss an episode of their favourite telenovellas from the Philippines.

A few months later, I was in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and surprised to find Africans everywhere: Kenyans, Nigerians, South Africans, Egyptians, Moroccans, and Senegalese. I had lived in Manila in 2009-10 and couldn’t recall seeing a single African at that time, although I did meet a number of Filipino intellectuals who loved the novels of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and other African literary luminaries.

Underlying this cultural exchange is economics. According to Bloomberg, trade between Africa and Asia is set to rise from around $300bn at present to over $1.5 trillion by 2020. Already thousands are migrating in both directions for work, study and travel. Now the third fastest-growing economy in Asia, the Philippines has enjoyed an almost 50% increase in trade with Africa over the last two years. In the 2010 census, 2,573 people from African countries were resident in the country and now the figure is thought to be closer to 3,000.

While in Manila, I wanted to understand how African expats take to Philippine society. What sort of work do they do? How well have they assimilated? What are the differences and similarities between where they have come from and where they are now?

Japhet E. Miano Kariuki is a Kenyan consultant who encourages foreign investment in the Philippines. I asked him what professional opportunities there are for Africans here:

“When recruiters look to my continent, they see a wealth of underused talent: guys with master’s degrees in business or engineering except they’re driving a taxi! It makes sense to bring them to the Philippines where everyone will benefit from their expertise. The recent growth in business process outsourcing (BPO) here has created a demand for French speakers, so now you have people coming from all the Francophone African nations.”

But isn’t there the danger of brain-drain, with Africa losing the skilled workers it so badly needs for its own development? Japhet thinks not, especially if you look at the evidence of the continent’s “amazing growth. In Kenya right now, there is a new government and a new constitution, and a lot of new investment. My friends tell me that if I went back to Nairobi now, I wouldn’t recognise it.”

Furthermore, migrant labour is a two-way street. “There are many OFWs [Overseas Filipino Workers] who go to Africa with transferable skills related to the main industries there: health care, the service sector, mining and agriculture.”

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Doing business

Moreover, Japhet advises a growing number of Filipino companies about doing business in Africa. His job is easy because “China and Japan have paved the way” and there are many similarities between Africans and Filipinos.

“We all speak English (mostly), are committed to our faith and are very family-oriented. We share an attitude to life: we stay optimistic and overcome whatever challenges when trying to integrate into Philippine life. When he moved to Manila in 2011 to manage a call centre, South African Chris Bezuidenhout immediately felt at home. The people are polite “almost to the point of pain” and take pride even in dead-end jobs and miserable living conditions. “These guys in the slums are always sweeping the areas in front of their shacks. When you look around the streets, there is not a soda can, not a cigarette butt anywhere.”

On his first New Year’s Eve in Manila, Chris took a taxi into one such slum whereupon the residents complimented the basketball jersey he was wearing and invited him to spend the night drinking wine from an empty yoghurt cup.

“That was probably the best New Year’s Eve I have ever had,” he says wistfully. “There aren’t a lot of cities around the world where a foreigner can go into a deprived area and say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ and end up partying with the locals.”

A 26-year-old Egyptian national, Yasmine Mahmoud, has had a more ambivalent experience. While she finds the Philippines “generally easy-going and inter-faith”, her Muslim beliefs have posed problems. Manila restaurant menus are dominated by pork and even meat-free dishes are typically cooked in pork fat. Fortunately, Yasmine has found a handful of eateries that will prepare her food in vegetable
oil.

However, what she calls “prejudice about Islam” has had a more significant impact. A human resources expert by training, she was once denied a job simply because of her religion. “The bosses told me that they had enough Muslims from Mindanao [a southern region of the Philippines riven with Islamist separatist tensions] and they didn’t want any more.”

She isn’t bitter about the episode because “the problem is more to do with ignorance than discrimination … When I tell people I am an Arab, they either think I am from one of the Arabian Gulf countries. I tell them I am an Egyptian, I have nothing to do with the Gulf, I only share the language with them – or they think I am a terrorist because of what they have seen on CNN.”

Mercifully, not everyone she meets is so unsympathetic. People over the age of 30 are more likely to ask her respectful questions about her background.

Japhet has been on the receiving end of such curiosity, with people wanting to touch his hair and asking him why, as an African, he speaks English. By contrast, Chris once met a taxi driver who knew a great deal about his native land. “He just started reeling off historical facts about the Boer War and the apartheid era. I thought to myself, ‘How the hell does a taxi driver know all this?’”

How do Filipino attitudes to work compare with home? When Sharon Walilika relocated from Nairobi to teach English in Manila, she found the atmosphere effervescent. “Here people like to have fun in the office – they joke and laugh – whereas back home everyone is so serious. I don’t know where we got that from – is it a British thing?”

Filipinos, she believes, are more collectively-minded too. “They all go to work together and then they all go out together afterwards. When it’s someone’s birthday or someone is leaving, everyone celebrates that in the office. It’s kind of sweet, but after a while I just wanted to go my separate way.”

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Community spirit

For Yasmine, this community spirit informs all communication within a workplace. “If an individual has an issue, it becomes everyone’s issue because employees are so close to each other. If you say something to one person and they don’t appreciate it, the message will get out to the whole team. They will respond to you as a group, even if you only addressed that one person originally. They will come and say to you, ‘We don’t like this or that.’”

Chris never ceases to be impressed by the work ethic of his employees. “In South Africa there might be a bus or taxi strike and half the labour force can’t get to work. In Manila, even while a typhoon is raging, people will come in to work wearing flip-flops and shorts and then get changed into smart clothes. That kind of dedication I put down to the fact that you’ve got a population of almost 100 million and everyone’s got a university degree, even the guys who work in McDonald’s. Everyone is so educated that competition for jobs is stiff.”

High-quality, affordable, and delivered in excellent English, Philippine education is another magnet for Africans. The BBC reports that applications for foreign student visas trebled between 2012 and 2013. Aside from teaching English, Sharon is doing a master’s degree in nursing at the Adventist University of the Philippines and finds it “really good … the teachers are friendly and easy-going. When I first came here, there were five African students and now there are dozens. It’s usually a lot cheaper to fly here and study than to do it at home.”

Similarly, Yasmine tells me about a friend – also from Egypt – who saved himself several thousand dollars by studying for his MBA in the Philippines. When I question the transferability of her nursing qualification, Sharon tells me that international standards are upheld by requiring every Kenyan who trains in the Philippines to pass local board exams before they can practise nursing back home.

Manila’s traffic jams and wild roads are infamous, and I wonder how Chris copes with riding a motorcycle here. “While the traffic looks crazy, there is actually a logic to it, a rhythm. Foreigners joke about Filipino drivers being the worst in the world. On the contrary, they are the most helpful in the world. They will move over and make room for me when I ride by. In three years, I haven’t seen a major accident in this city, only bumper bashings. The traffic doesn’t move fast enough for there to be fatalities. Nor will you ever hear people shouting or hooting their horns.”

When Sharon wants a break from the hustle of the city, she drives to the “beautiful hill station of Baguio where the temperature is cool and the air is clean”. It gives her fond childhood memories of the Rift Valley area in Kenya.

The expats I spoke to all seem very content with life in the Philippines. They enjoy a higher standard of living and are gaining invaluable professional or educational advantages. Japhet and Chris are definitely here for the long-haul. As Chris says, “originally I had a vague plan to come to Manila for a couple of years and then move on to Australia. Now I have fallen in love with this place. I would be happy to stay for another decade if not longer.” A ringing endorsement indeed.

Originally published at: http://newafricanmagazine.com/africans-falling-love-philippines/3/#sthash.jkXiXRAH.dpuf

Cote d’Ivoire’s Colonial Capital

13 Jul

Here be my new Ivorian piece for Selamta.

Christ the Redeemer: Battery Specialist (Ghana 27/07/13)

27 Jul

Stating in my last blog how trouble-free my trip had been so far turned out, just the very next day, to be the kiss of death. After crossing the miserable border with Ghana in the pouring rain, we found ourselves being hectored by some local equivalent of a hillbilly. He was cross-eyed from booze or genetic mutation or both and could barely speak either French or English. We managed to work out that he wanted a 1000 Franc tip for helping us across the border (which he hadn’t done) and that we would get into trouble at a checkpoint later on if we didn’t pay him another 5000 Francs (also complete nonsense).

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Even after we’d climbed into a minibus bound for Accra, he continued waving his finger and shouting at us. I managed to control my temper all the way up to when he started to dig his finger into C-A’s shoulder and say some horrible things to her in broken French that even now she refuses to translate for me. I clenched my fist at him, shouted ‘Arrete’ in his face and informed the other passengers – all of whom spoke good English – that I was now going to either call the police or smash the guy’s stupid fucking face in. Of course I had absolutely no intention of taking the latter course of action, but it seemed – momentarily – to work because the guy backed off… Except all he did was creep around the van and start haranguing us from another angle.

“Can’t you just give him 1000?” said the old granny in front of me. “Then we will be rid of him for good.”

“But if I do that,” I replied, “it will show him that bullying and intimidation wins, that it gets results.”

The guy kept on at us, his voice going hoarse. I started to wonder how desperate his situation must be that he would go this far for a sum of money that, even in this part of the world, just about buys two croissants.

The other passengers turned to me and chorused: “Please would you just give him 1000?”

“But I don’t owe him anything,” I protested. “And he has basically assaulted us. Why should I reward that?”

“Please,” they said. “Then he will leave us in peace.”

I took a note out of my pocket and the man suddenly stopped shouting. He smiled pathetically and brought his hands together in a prayer-like gesture.

Tu es desolee?” [probably sic; you know how bad my French is. But whether it was as bad as the hillbilly’s, I don’t know] I growled at him. “Are you sorry?”

He stuck out his lower lip like a naughty kid.

I pointed to C-A who had covered her face with her hands, probably wondering what on earth she was doing in a situation like this with a crazy white man like me. “Tu es desolee?” I said louder. “Are you sorry? Say sorry to her.”

He muttered something that I didn’t hear.

“I can’t hear you! Ecoute pas!”

The granny said, “He’s sorry. I heard him say it.”

I screwed the note up and flung it at him. He caught it and said, “God bless you sir.”

Non non non,” I replied. “Don’t think that bringing fucking God into it makes everything better. Tu es le diable. Now fuck off.”

And off he fucked, at last. Some of my fellow passengers turned to me with scowls on their faces. I had forgotten that a recent poll found Ghana to be the most religious country in the world.

I’d like to make it absolutely clear that I’m not proud of my behaviour, but at the same time, everyone has their breaking point. And saying what I said was infinitely preferable to some kind of physical confrontation which, being a total weakling, I probably would have lost.

I spent the drive to Accra in silence, no longer angry with the guy, just depressed about how he was prepared to do anything for money probably because he had to in order to survive. This at least made him better than stockbrokers or arms dealers.

True to the poll’s results, almost every building I saw in south Ghana – whether its function was directly religious or not – bore some reference to Christianity: “Lamb of God Cosmetics”, “Risen Lord Catering Services”, “Christian Wound Centre” are but three examples. Perhaps if I had visited “Christ the Redeemer: Battery Specialist” I’d have got a scoop on what Jesus has been doing since he returned to Earth. On Sunday mornings reggae hymns blare from taxi radios and churches boom with gospel music and preachers who sound distinctly like James Brown.

It was in Accra that C-A and I decided to part company, at least for the time being. It was all very amicable. One reason for our split has been politics. In an ironic inversion of what some might regard as the natural order of things, she – as a trained accountant and former owner of a women’s accessories business – is a firm believer that the free market will save her continent whereas I am – and always have been – a devout Third World liberationist. While in Accra, I insisted on spending more time than might be healthy at the brutalist tomb of Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana and self-styled “African Lenin”. Nkrumah oversaw Ghana’s rapid industrialisation, founded a welfare state and worked (in vain) to establish a socialistic “United States of Africa”. All this was far too godless and commie for the Americans, so they backed a military coup which deposed him in 1966. On display near the tomb is this unflattering statue of Nkrumah, which was beheaded during the coup:

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He counted such black radicals as CLR James, WEB Dubois, Nelson Mandela, Frantz Fanon and Muhammad Ali as personal friends. He also, according to one of the more surreal photos in the tomb, danced with our current Queen and managed to tolerate the Duke of Edinburgh for longer than an hour.

But now Nkrumah must be turning in his tomb, given that, since Ghana’s embrace of global capitalism, his countrymen can be seen starving on the street not a hundred yards away from his resting place and his famous phrase ‘Pan-Africanism’ has since been appropriated by Africa’s biggest investment bank. Later that day, I got talking to an intelligent young politics graduate (and part-time rock-gospel singer) who told me that successive governments had slowly destroyed Nkrumah’s welfare reforms and public spending initiatives. How had this affected the graduate? He’d been looking for a job for the last six months while sleeping on his uncle’s floor.

On Marcel’s say-so, I got in touch with the University for Development Studies, talked to a very pleasant Serbian woman called Gordana and agreed to write a story about UDS’s good work (they run all kinds of projects ranging from literacy to well-digging in the underdeveloped north of the country). In return, they offered me accommodation and transport to their three campuses.

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The north is very different to the south. It’s hotter and dustier, and has crimson dirt tracks instead of proper highways. The ancient mud-and-stick mosques and large numbers of young women in hijabs riding on scooters reminded me more of the Middle East or North India than anywhere else in Africa I’ve so far seen.

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Next episode: more about the UDS gig, seeing the King of the Ashanti tribespeople, getting up close and personal with an elephant and a “visiting lecturer” post I’ve been offered at a language school that helps Francophone Africans integrate into Ghanaian society.