Monday, April 24, 2017

The Places That Begin With Q

Go to Mozambique*, they said. It's fabulous there, they said. Wonderful country...they said. I got excited. Mozambique...even the name suggests that this is no ordinary place. It's got z's and q's in it and is pronounced differently by every accent I have ever heard. We call it Msumbiji up here, our quiescent neighbor with whom we have a long relationship colored by the harder, darker parts of liberation and pan-Africanism...

Maputo is beautiful. No, scratch that; Maputo is gorgeous. It is low-lying and tightly bound to generations of secrets of the soils and sea. Everything feels just a little bit dangerous here, behind the smiles are silences that reeks of caution. Maputo, Quelimane: they are beautiful to me the way that a venus flytrap is beautiful, the way that a panther is beautiful, the way that the hand-carved pommel of my grandfather's 19th/20th century rifle is beautiful. 

Tanzania is a complex society- we have many byzantine tendencies that I don't find in the same quantities in fellow Southern African states- let alone Kenya. Double-speak is natural to us, Kiswahili doesn't lend itself to plainness unless one intends to be brutal. But Mozambique? Schooled me. I have never met a people who have such natural resistance to the Tanzanian Charm Offensive. Considering how much I depend on the TCO to navigate, this was a shock. I'm afraid it is hard to outclass a seasoned Tanzanian social operator, but we have nothing at all on our Mozambican neighbors. 


I like complicated places. Lost lands call to me. This Quelimane (Kilimani) that we went to: southern outpost of the Swahili Coast, even further out than the mysterious ruins of Qiloa (Kilwa). I was curious to see what it would be like in these quiet hinterlands of the former Sultanate of Zanzibar. Would the music hark to the sound of violin strings and Swahili Blues, would the architecture show glimpses of the slave markets? Would I be woken by the warm and familiar sounds of the morning call to prayer, would they tie their khangas the same way- would they even call them khanga? Would 'salaam' or some version of it work as a greeting?

In the end, no. They drink Five Roses tea in Mozambique, no spices, for shame. They showed me the school where Robert Mugabe taught back in the 1980s. All of their main streets are cryptically named for long-forgetten events, or after the many dead of the African Leftist past. They bury authors in their Hero's Crypt, not just soldiers. They dance like nobody is watching. 

Bom Dia. Todo Bem. Long beards and kanzus abound, as do crumbling churches and filigreed mosques. Everyone is a little bit of something and a little bit of something else: afro-portuguese, mixed, situated. They might not make it obvious by my god, the place is steeped in class and race/color divisions with a healthy helping of religious polarities- all this besides the political divisions of a post-civil-war society. Perpetually wet with rain, ridiculously fecund, with an architecture that seems to want to both recruit you to a greater cause and break your heart all at once! 

"I have never heard you talk about a country like this before" said La Dee, amused that I had to call every 48 hours to download how overwhelmed I was. This is no land to put a sensitive soul into, unwarned. Poets and writers, singers and lovers, travelers and dreamers: be thou careful here. You might go, but coming back will be a science. 

Go to Mozambique, they said. It's fabulous there, they said. Wonderful country...they said. Mozambique...even the name suggests that this is no ordinary place. Mozambique yielded almost none of her secrets to me, which can only mean that I must now labor under this mystery. It will be a deep and desperate and unrequited love. Honestly, Africanism is not a healthy lifestyle. I don't recommend it. I love it. I am conflicted. These places that begin with Q? Queridos.  

*So on the official side: I am part of a team working on a Learning Pilot with the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) based at Rhodes University in South Africa. We have blog. If you are in 'Development', have an interest in Governance/Southern Africa/ Civil Society/ Development Practice/Research Methodologies/Aid and Donors et cetera? Come by and read, it's pretty good. Karibu. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Other Governance Structure/Why Nobody Gets Called 'Daddy.'

Y'all know how I go on and on and on about the patriarchy. Believe it or not, I actually appreciate some elements of patriarchy when they are done right. Just because I am a feminist doesn't mean I am immune from my own cultural conditioning, hey, and besides one should always be aware of the distances between the ideals we hold and the realities we inhabit. 

This week's article is dedicated to the the very many Africanist pretenders towards the title of "Father"- be that Father of the Nation or any other non-familial paternalistic ambition. An elderly client of mine once invited me to call him "Baba" as opposed to Mzee, or Sir or any number of alternative titles that I always have on hand. I had to politely decline the honor for a simple reason: there is only one man in this lifetime whom I called that and the title died with him. That word has...weight.*

So, you can imagine how unamused I am whenever people inappropriately baptize our leaders 'Father'- especially when the posts they occupy are electoral ones (not even hereditary, jamani!). Eti I voted you in and then I call you Daddy? Not likely, mate. It is a cultural conflation I despise. As republics, we must guard against this mother-father business and refuse to infantilize ourselves in relationships of power. 

That said: I met a total patriarch about a week ago...and it wasn't the worst. Coming to The East African sometime next week, a musing about Bemba royalty:

"I leave you with this little note on patriarchy: Senior Chief Nkula's pronouncement upon his ascension to Chiefdom- and I paraphrase, like, massively- was something along the lines of: “I shall expose my breasts so that my children may feed from them, abundantly.” That our strongest men, our wisest leaders and our most peaceful countries are the ones that admire and adopt qualities of motherhood is a source of pride to me not only as a feminist, but as an Africanist. May our mother continent feed us abundantly. May we thrive."

HRH** Nkula confirmed my long-held belief that the best Fathers know enough to be in touch with their feminine side and appreciate what it does to enhance their leadership. Strength-through nurture, people, strength through nurture. If you want to be called a Daddy, be worthy of the title. #clears throat.# 

*Turns out the only other guy I naturally call Baba is my nephew, but there isn't enough space in this blogpost to weave in a discussion about names, inter-generational practices and African terms of affection.

**Dodged a bullet here, folks, the proper form of address is "Your Royal Highness." No need for Baba or Tata or any other controversial-to-me titles.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

April 2017: A Note on Blogiversary the Ninth

Still alive! April 2017 marks the 9th Blogiversary of The Mikocheni Report and a good time to assure you that the project is not abandoned. Here's a fat wall of text to make up for so long a silence. 

These past few months have been a period of hibernation and reflection for a number of reasons:

1. Writing fatigue happens. Social media with its incessant appetite for fresh content is not the best milieu in which to admit this, but I think that blogs are close enough to traditional writing products such as essay collections that this aspect of writing need not be concealed. I took a break to try to recharge. Learned from the TZ blogs I admire and visit in the blogosphere that taking time off is fine. 

2. We have a new President. In the spirit of giving the Fifth Administration a fair amount of time before forming opinions, I have been in observation mode. However my distress is evident in the columns I put out for The East African. I started writing for public consumption in the very hey-day of Kikwete's media-forward regime. Let's just say that the past decade has in no way prepared me for a repressive government that is afraid of freedom of speech. 

Was it all roses and champagne under Kikwete? Of course not. Very many journalists and prominent outspoken people were threatened, some physically assaulted, newsrooms were raided and repression did not disappear. However my sense was the the heavy hand of state that we felt then was a manifestation of a characteristic of our Deep State. Our Deep State has never been fond of too much civilian liberty, I can't imagine what impatience it  experienced with Mr. Kikwete who was altogether too jovial a believer in people's right to say what they think and feel. My interpretation was that the difference of opinion between the President and the conservative elements of his party and government in this regard worked in our favor. This came at a cost. Ten years conservatives have been waiting to pick up their tools of state repression again and beat us into line. 

Trouble with freedom is that once people have had a taste, we are loathe to give it up easily when commanded to do so. The signal that President Magufuli is sending is a very strong one: media has been to told to watch itself, that we are not as free as we think we are. There are numerous utterances that he has made even before that last one that articulated his opinion and attitude towards free speech. It has been an unwelcome shock, and part of the reason for a good hibernation. How does one recalibrate when the environment in which you work suddenly contracts? 

Under Kikwete it was fun to joke with people who asked me how I could get away with "strong" opinions- my standard response was to ask them to contribute to my bail fund. These days that joke has taken on an edge. Those of us who have fully exploited our freedom to express and been obnoxious about insisting on said freedoms as our right are now challenged to put our courage where our mouths and pens are. There have been casualties. People have adopted various strategies: some have become careful in their pronouncements. Some have chosen straight-up sycophancy out of either self-preservation (disgusting, but smart) or a real (and troubling) inability to resist rolling over when figures of authority say so. 

Some of us are going to keep doing what we do, perhaps with some adjustments here and there. Only two years into what could be a decade of Mr. Magufuli in office, I still maintain that it is too early to be certain. We seem to be negotiating the boundaries of free expression on a day-to-day or event-to-event basis. Yes, it was exciting to be part of the crowd that thrived under President Kikwete's easy fondness for media and entertainment. It is also exciting to be part of the crowd challenged by President Magufuli's regime and the conservatives who are taking advantage of the situation to go much further, I suspect, than the incumbent himself would necessarily allow. It is still not a one-man show in Tanzania, not just yet. 

Anyways, enough about politics. I could make the usual promises about revamping and refurbishing and better visuals and more frequent postings... but we all know how that goes, right? Instead let me end by thanking you for reading, and a special thank you to those who occasionally hit the 'reply' button. A lutta continua. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Weekly Sneak: This is Fine.

Hello, happy 2017! Sorry about the long silence. Needed some time to be quiet because of a number of interdictions I had set on myself. First: to carefully not share my opinion on President Magufuli's performance so far. Second: to not have a public melt-down over the Trumpocalypse too early in the game. Third: to have a quiet end to 2016, because.


I filed my East African article super-early this week. Who knows how much time the human race has left after Friday? It seemed important to give my lovely eccentric editor a small gift of joy: he likes it when I hit my deadline:
"First of all, Mr. Trump is going to be the guy with his finger on the trigger of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Is he a man of calm temperament, who has demonstrated maturity in the face of criticism (let alone baiting or derision), a man who clearly deliberates before making important statements and taking actions with serious consequences? Does he take well to advice, especially from security professionals from, imagine, his own country? Have you read his Tweets? You can see why he might be a source of anxiety. 
The bomb is not even what is realistically scary, it is just my short-hand way of thinking about what to anticipate if he is ultimately in charge of the world's last super-power. Considering the size of the US footprint on the globe, it behooves us all to have a steady mind and a steady hand at the helm of that particular country irrespective of ideological leanings. Between the half-chewed America First jingoism and his racism and particular vitriol towards Obama for having a Kenyan father, I am not particularly excited about the Trump administration for Africa's interests."
Don't worry, there are a few jokes in there. I have been "laughing" since November in-between bouts of crushing dread because hey, it's the best medicine, right? 

There are those who can live in what they call hope, an optimistic attitude that I sometimes have trouble distinguishing from ostrich-with-its-head-in-the-sand syndrome. The best form of hope in my opinion is to expect the worst, wish fervently that it doesn't happen but be prepared anyways because it probably will. This has served me reasonably well. Articulating a fear helps you face it and make contingency plans, laughing about how horrible a situation is lets you look it in the eye and avoid being caught flatfooted by horror like some wet-eared naif. So imagine my delight when I came across today's offerings from Samantha Bee. Dark humor will get you through anything. Sure, it's not polite, but then again neither is Trump.*

*Just because you don't use swearwords doesn't mean you talk or even think with respect. It is the norm for virulently odious autocrats to be polite, sober, neat people rather than the exception... dun dun dun!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Lego Therapy for Tired Brains

2016, right? But nah, this is about appreciating something good that happened.  

A couple of weeks ago a handful of Danish students visiting Tanzania from Vallekilde Hojskolle (lets pretend I spelled that right) took some time to sit with me in Mikocheni and shoot the breeze about feminism, religion, politics, individual agency and other light-weight matters. Their coordinator, Pia, had cultural exchange in mind.

It was a wonderful experience. I won't lie: there is something always daunting about facing a roomful of skeptical and expectant students and no matter how many times I do it, it is never an easy ride. But it is always a superbly enriching encounter and a challenge to any complacencies that have crept up on me over time. I honestly get depressed that governments are not routinely run by youth. 

Anyways, one of the things that I learned is that Lego is not a Swedish company as I had always believed ( sorry about that). As a generous gift for my time I was given a goodie bag which consisted of a  handcrafted, hand-printed bag with a map of Tanzania on it that made my crunchy-grainy hippie soul deeply, deeply delighted. They also gave me two types of liqorice that I have not yet been able to con anyone into taking. The most disgusting candy in the world can be hard to pass along once people have encountered it even once in life, but christmerrybuystuff is around the corner and someone is going to get it.*

Best of all, I got given a Lego set. My very own, make-three-kinds-of-cars, aged 6-12 Lego set. Ugh! People, I cannot stress enough the importance of play** in adult life. This month a variety of personal and intellectual challenges have come up that are taking some energy to digest. After a deluge of information, forwards and reversals and lateral developments I found myself looking for solace and meditative enabling to walk through some thinking. Writing looks simple but the further I venture into it with time and experience,  the more it humbles me. 

So I am playing Lego. It is three-dimensional and technical and non-competitive, which is helping me to travel through the complexities of a current intellectual challenge. It is soothing, beautiful in design and canny enough to allow one to build structures of incredible intricacies from teeny-tiny bits. Best of all it is fun, accessible to all ages and a surprisingly effective meditation aid.  This is not an ad, but if you are going to give a kid of any age a thing this end of year, consider some building blocks. Or liqorice, if you are that kind of monster ;)

* Dear family and beloved friends: consider it an act of love-slash-lets-start-a-regifting-tradition-because-nobody-actually-wants-it. Yay! That's all the warning I am going to give. 

**Actually it's a thing for me right now. If you smirked at that last sentence, you should wash your filthy mind out with soap.  The role of humor and play in creativity and social life is beginning to fascinate me no end: why does the world restrict these intellectual tools to "childhood" only. I'll get around to ranting about it if I ever get around to reading the literature about it. But if you can, whenever you can, throw off the mantles of adulthood and just build something with your hands without a care as to whether it is useful.  

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Weekly Sneak: What Just Happened?

Somewhere between Trump and Buhari I had a Major Feminist Attack* and decided to write about chauvinism. And then I got completely lost in my own essay. You see, what I wanted to do was comment on the fact that we're still living in an era where men find it normal- beneficial even- to tell women what their place in life is. 

But then I got way too deep into discussing the biological aspect of it and trying to tie together very disparate sciences. And then I got completely lost. By the time I was trying to come to a coherent conclusion the essay was already bizarre, my deadline was long past me and I had no strength left having expended it all on whatever fugue state I was in. 

So. I like the essay but yes, it might be slightly inappropriate in tone and topic for a stuffy middle class rag like the East African. My editor has decided to print it anyways.** Have a good weekend. 
"We've all been raised with the usual barnyard talk about how males have testosterone and big and strong and ooga-booga hormonal drive and that's why they gather in clumps at street corners and catcall and roofie your drink. Truth is that women also have testosterone in rather respectable quantities but they also contend with the behavioral suggestions put forth by their friends progesterone and estrogen. The main difference seems to be a very interesting mismatch between supply and demand for intercourse."

Yes, it all goes downhill from there. I blame David Attenborough's horrid influence on my innocent young mind. 

*Major Feminist Attacks happen when an overwhelming rage is triggered in a feminist by some public incident she has no way of rectifying. They vary in severity but at their worst can result in homicidal behavior. Mine just make me hate every complicit adult for the part they play in making the world a shittier place than it should be. Then I get over it, mop up the blood and move on. 

** I love my editors. However, all things considered, they are supposed to be the voice of reason that holds my cray-cray in check. Sometimes I wonder about them. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Weekly Sneak: An Illosophy of Protest

I am in Grahamstown, South Africa. It is such a unique place. So many characteristics that I find particular to South Africa seem concentrated here. A University town and South African to boot, it is very 'diverse'. The friction of the mixture is like a scent in the air.  A slightly buttoned up malaise mixed with friendliness, as opposed to the brusqueness one might experience in Johannesburg. 

And the students are protesting as part of the fees must fall (trademarked yet?) movement. I was kind of hoping that the entire town would be gripped with tension but nope: it is perfectly calm as things go on as usual. The most drama so far was listening to some protesters chanting a couple of nights ago. Anyways, it felt like a nice opportunity to do some stream of consciousness writing. Blame it on being in a University environment, where the world loosens it's grip a little bit on absolute certainty:
"...I am now watching students chase other students out of classrooms and libraries and dining halls. Staff are hastily closing shops and eateries, the journalists documenting all this are clearly doing so by surfing the crest of the protest wave so they can record the dismay and harried faces of the people being swept out of the way of this movement. Irritation is certainly competing with the envy I feel for these South African youth. The culture of protest is deeply a part of the political dynamic of this country I am visiting and has been used to great effect. There's always a dark side, though isn't there? 
...The saying is that the only constant is change. The question is what amount of agency we have over this change when we try to engage in it. Where do movements move to? I don't know and perhaps it does not matter. Perhaps our duty is simply to move at all. I am back to envying the South African students, and wondering whether I should hope for the same dynamism back in my own polity." 

I think I am still a bit sore about UKUTA... and didn't even know until I started writing. Not because I am a member of the opposition but because I believe that opposition as a principle is the yin to the yang of stability- and where the two grapple we get dynamism. Not answers, not perfection, but movement itself. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

Basic Kiswahili Phrases: 'Nilipopata Ajali'

Just about everyone who lives here has that story. It begins with "when I had my accident..." and goes from there. A city of broken people, we are, all harboring reminiscences of hospital stays caused by incredible events. Those of us who have lived to tell about it. 

Someone asked me recently: how come everybody has that story? I was stumped. I don't drive in Dar anymore... since I had my accident... but the statistics are off the charts. This is a dangerous city for many reasons. Transport is one of them. 

La Dee was in an accident recently. A hit and run. She was the passenger in a bajaj that got swiped from the left by someone who was speeding at an intersection. Through a series of miracles, she was not terminally damaged and good samaritans ensured that we were able to find her and get her care.*
So we are going through recovery. She does the hard work of healing while I get to fuss about her nutrition and general mood upkeep as best I can.**

It turns out that having an interest in cooking makes one a very dubious carer. I had dreams of maybe going to medical school someday in my sixties- should I live that long- to explore a fascination that gets stronger over time. Oh, god, medical science is absolutely riveting. There is nothing about it I don't want to know.

Except for the clinical aspect. So there we were one evening, watching La Dee get one of her ouchies dressed by some docs. First of all, it was utterly disgusting. As someone with a strong stomach it caught me by surprise how the old gag reflex kicks in when you see a loved one getting basted like a joint of pork. I have watched slaughters and flicked worms out of the ass of the carcass of a dead cow... but this? This was horrifying. 

Even worse was the part where my brain started to consider the culinary possibilities as I gazed into my sister's wounded flesh. Hmm. Sure- honey has been used as a medicament since before the pharaohs walked the earth but in this case... it sure looked like basting to me. The more honey they poured in the wound, the more I thought about how rosemary would be a lovely compliment in the flavor profile. Vinegar for contrast, maybe? Cloves? 

How beautifully trussed her leg was, just lovely. Stuffed with honey, clean stitching. Add some herbs and put in a hot oven for a little while, it might go good with some red wine or maybe a nice ice tea...

Oh god.

So this is why I will not be pursuing the medical ambition. My inner omnivore surprised me and while I would never actually eat a relative or a friend... well. I also wouldn't trust a woman who thinks of recipes while watching her relative undergo a medical procedure. Just doesn't seem right. 

I told La Dee about this issue and she laughed of course. Then she told me to blog about my psychopathic moment. So here you go sis, because if it makes you laugh at least we'll both be happy plus your stitches are going to bitch at you as revenge for this request. I am collecting more jokes about Long Pig but will deliver them in person because I don't want to end up in a plexiglas cage with a face-mask on, okay?

Just about everyone here has that story. The one which starts with 'when I had my accident...' The trick? Is to find a way to laugh about it, even... especially... when it can take you out of the darkness. 

* Universal free healthcare? Has kind of become a thing for me now. Going to be throwing some passion at it. 

** not to brag or anything but I am really, really fucking good at getting sick people to eat well and keep an even keel. No idea why, and not interested in trying to quantify it. But if you ever have to be a carer too (out of the blue) just remember sick people need a bit of laughter too and a good tasty meal never hurt anyone. 

A little birdie told me...

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