Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Morgan Heritage Concert

There was a live Morgan Heritage concert at the stadium last night. I expected there to be a lot of people, but wow! it seemed like everyone and their cousin was there, the lines were so long I almost turned around and went back home. And this was just at the main gate into the stadium. There must have been a few thousand people, and a large police presence keeping everyone in line, herding back those who would sneak into a line instead of queuing up, stopping any fights that broke out, maintaining the public order. Of course we (my friends and I) didn't even think about queuing up - we already had tickets, and we would have been there for hours. We finally solved the problem by sending a scout to look over certain walls to see if they were unguarded, and then taking a running jump over said walls, hearts beating wildly, expecting the sound of a shot going off any minute, and turning round to see the guy next to you on the wall with a smoking hole in his face...

But we got in, almost disappointingly without incident. We joined the crowd milling in at the gate, and walked nonchalantly as possible past the (armed) soldiers waiting, out into the stadium ... where we found another crowd - not as large as the one outside, but still nothing to be scoffed at - waiting in yet another line (it was a night of lines, and long ones at that). This time we got around the line by casually sidling into the holes opened up whenever it moved forward, until we were all in, standing in front of people who had been there hours before us, and were now complaining bitterly, not about us, but about the people who had let their vigilance down enough that we had got in.

Whilst I waited - the line moved very slowly - it struck me how peaceful the whole thing was, how devoid of the beatings, nasty slaps, and other casual violences that are our fine army's usual reaction to crowds getting out of hand. I thought maybe I was just in a freak minute,
and things would go back to normal soon - but the whole time I stood there I did not see one incident in which the police/soldiers on guard and searching people before they went in, acted in any way but a professional manner. There was a beautiful moment when a kid tried to get into line, sneaking past us, step after step, all the while looking the other way. When he had reached the top of the steps he came right bam up against the soldier on guard there.

"What're you doing?", the soldier asked. The kid was silent. Everyone looked up at them, waiting for the kid to get it. The soldier made a sudden lunging motion at him, and he leapt back, scared, almost falling over in his attempt to turn and flee, but instead of grabbing him by the collar and hitting him the soldier put his hand on the kid's arm, and laughed at the kid's fear. Everyone in the line laughed, too. Then the soldier motioned for the kid to go on in, giving him a pat on the back, letting him skip the line for his troubles.

Finally I got to the front of the line. After I had been searched, and just before we went in, the head of the security detail sent a message saying we should be held at the gate for a while, until the stairs had cleared, for safety reasons. The soldier who had run through the contents of my pocket apologized, asking me to wait. We stood facing each other, the line behind me pushing me up so I was right up next to him, breathing into his face, under his helmet he had what looked like green netting.

"So how's it?", he asked, and I almost fell off the stair in shock.

"Er...not bad", I said, and he nodded appreciatively. We stood for a while, avoiding each other's eyes, saying nothing. Then...

"Kinda cold, isn't it?", I said, eyeing the gun that hung so carelessly at his side. [Thank God for the weather, and its conversation-saving properties]

"Oh yes, yes", he replied, "very".

Another longish silence. All around me people were standing in line, being searched for weapons and contraband, everything going along so smoothly it felt surreal. They had to know - someone had to tell them that this was the way things should run, that it would be so much better if they did this instead of the other, even if it was the other that gave them power trips and a high.

"I'm proud of you guys today", I said, to the one who stood in front of me, gun at his side, "how you're handling the whole thing". He gave me a penetrating look, and I felt like explaining, telling him I meant how it was different today, and how I could not ever remember feeling anything even close to proud about the army until now. But I was feeling rather foolish now, so I shut up. Finally he grinned at me.

"Seen?", he asked me, his teeth showing. ["Oh lord - a Jamaican-wannabe soldier", I thought to myself, partly to mitigate the embarrassment I felt now at having been so cheesy]

"Yup", I said.

Just then the leader gave the all-clear, and they let us in...

...where we sat waiting for nearly four hours before Morgan finally came up on stage. There was nothing remarkable about the performance even - the lead singer kept going into these long monologues after each song, which was a bad idea because: a) everyone was fired up and ready to dance, and b) the way the sound system was set up you couldn't hear half the words he said. Several times I got the impression that they were using us as the testing ground for musical ideas they were testing out: guitar solos would start out loud and end up going nowhere, a drum roll would start and then wind down, dying an awkward-sounding death, songs would come to a stop, and there would be a long silence before the next one started. It was certainly nothing close to Morgan in Amsterdam, for example.

When we got in, we were all put up in the pavilions, the MC declaring (to loud boos) that no one was allowed on the grass. Before the show started, about 15 soldiers were set up opposite each occupied pavilions, just to drive home the point (you are not getting down here, so get it out of your heads). In the pavilions there were loud complaints about how this was a show, not a football match, and how could they stick us up here like this, and "God help me if I'm not going down, as soon as I see other people go down". So as soon as the show started, everyone came flying over the pavilion walls - watching it from above was like watching a scene in a war movie: first people surging forward, then the soldiers driving them back, then people surging forward
some more, this time to a point closer to the stage; and in this way advancing more and more until they were almost at the stage. The final drive started when Peter Morgan asked that "the security let dah pee-pol come closah" - there was a wild cry from the crowd (and in that moment Peter Morgan was the most popular person in the whole country) and a mad rush forwards, this time the wave driving the soldiers back, back, back...

The show went until 6am this morning - far more performance time than the almost-disdainful Youssou Ndour ever does at a show here. By the end everyone was completely beat - people were actually lying down on the grass, fast asleep.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Our Beautiful, Grade-A Flag

We apparently have the best flag in the world - at least according to this guy. :-) Nice to get some recognition for something, though I'm not too sure about the flag representing the geography of the country thing - that's probably reading too much into it. But still...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

NAWEC beats their own record

The voltage suddenly increased last night in Banjul without warning. The light in my room got brighter and the fan whirred violently faster, and as I sat up in bed wondering what had happened, I heard the sound of fuses blowing off one by one. I rushed to turn off the power strip connecting my laptops and server to the mains, but not before the server power supply had blown up, as well as the Adapter for one of the laptops. Then the power strip itself saved me the trouble, and promptly blew up with a loud pop even as I got there. Then the lightbulbs in the house started popping off one by one, followed by the fans. Luckily my mother turns off the fridge and TV switch at night as a precaution, or those would have gone too [I have often been irritated by her switch-turning-off tendencies - she insists on turning everything not in use off - but now I see the wisdom in her ways]. The heat and mosquitoes kept me up all night.

This morning I found out that every single appliance - fans, tapes, fridges, lightbulbs, dvd players - that had been connected to the Mains on my street had been destroyed by the excess voltage, and at least one house burned down, the old woman who inhabitated it running out just in the nick of time when she smelt smoke from a burning tape.

There have been reports of NAWEC destroying people's electrical devices before, but nothing on this scale - this is totally unprecedented, and quite frankly ridiculous, and a poor, poor, showing by the power company, which is totally inexcusable. Blackouts are one thing, but destroying expensive electrical equipment and endangering lives is something else entirely.

NAWEC owes us an explanation, and an apology, if not more.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

OLPC Laptop

I laid my hands on an OLPC laptop this week. My friend Todd, who had gotten one earlier, told me that whilst it had a lot of potential, at this point he was going to give it two thumbs down. Now like all geeks, I have been very excited by the OLPC project since I heard about it, working out elaborate fantasies in my mind in which the Gambia would somehow acquire a hundred thousand of them, and start a hand-cranking, rugged-laptop-wielding educational revolution in schools all over the country, both rural and urban. We would change the school curricula, so the laptops were used as tools rather than nice curios (as the current crop of second-hand computer donations to schools seem to be), and at the same time sparking off a computer revolution as kids left high school knowing how to program computers and create new software.

I am also currently reading "The Diamond Age: A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer", a scifi novel by Neal Stephenson in which one of the protagonists, Nell, is taught almost all she knows by a laptop not unsimilar to the OLPC one, though a lot more advanced. So you can understand how my mental image of the OLPC was a rather romantic one, and why I felt rather deflated at Todd's words, developing an itch to prove him wrong and hold on to my dream, dammit.

Alas - Todd was right. Oh, the laptop's a beautiful machine, the hardware a marvel of engineering and all that - there is no doubt about this. It packs quite a lot of punch in such a tiny space, especially considering it even has a built-in video camera, and can record audio. It does mesh networks very well, approaching Mac OS X's "no bother, one click" ad-hoc networking capabilities. [It takes me two minutes to use my MacBook to set up an ad-hoc connection; the last time I tried it on Windows XP I gave up frustrated after thirty minutes]. The design is very child-proof - someone at the Peace Corps reportedly spilt coffee on one, and it still worked fine afterward. The screen flips around nicely, converting it into a texbook/ebook reader. Its small form-factor is perfect for moving it around in a schoolbag, and its tiny keyboard, though it makes it a pain for adults to type in anything long, is greatly suited to small hands. Hardware is not the problem.

The problem is Software. The same problems that have dogged GUI Linux until recently (what makes sense for geeks does not necessarily make sense for other people) have somehow clambered aboard this laptop's UI design team-wagon [yes, the metaphor's clunky on purpose, to illustrate the point]. The problem is not one large thing - it is an aggregate of small things which add up: when a program is loading it is indicated by flashing the program icon on the home screen, which may be hidden by other program windows, leading you to think the laptop is unresponsive; Connecting/Disconnecting to a wireless network takes a single click: double-clicking seems to connect and disconnect immediately, and more than once simply made all the wireless networks disappear from the screen; shutting down did not turn off the actual hardware, but left it stuck at the final warning screen, so you have to press the power button and hold it till it goes off.

All these problems took me a day to figure out. Another geek would maybe take even less. But your average geek is not the target user of this laptop, excited as we are to play with it, the target user is some some non-tech-type teacher stuck in a remote village, with no access to the Internet, trying to grok the laptop and its nuances enough that she can solve her students' problems, and teach them using it. Which brings me to the next thing I found lacking: documentation.

Take the "Etoys" program for example. It is one of the most powerful, most exciting programs I have seen for teaching kids programming, in a long time. It can do animation, and you can attach code to the sprites you animate, so you can, for example, animate a flock of birds and then write swarming behavior for them, determining how close they fly to each other, and how they avoid bumping into each other. Yet the documentation for it is terrible, consisting of nothing more than a series of "guides" to the different buttons and menus that appear onscreen. There are apart from this some pretty neat demos and samples that showcase Etoy's capabilities. And that's it. Our poor primary school teacher would be completely out of her depth.

I wouldn't go as far as Todd's "two thumbs down", or Wired Magazine's dismissal ("who cares anymore?", they asked) - I am still really excited about this project, and now that the media hype seems to be over, maybe some real work will be quietly (always the best way) done. I am also aware that this is only a first version, and improvements will happen, especially considering it is an Open Source effort. I am eagerly waiting to see where this project goes. And meanwhile I dream of an Illustrated Primer.

And I Alone am left to protect thee

I have another short story up on, if it's the kind of thing you're into. It's an adaptation of a traditional Gambian folktale. You can read it here.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Foday Musa Suso

One of the most frequent points of shame in the it's-only-because-they're-bigger Gambia-vs-Senegal competition is that we have none (or only a fraction) of the musical stars Senegal has: the Youssou Ndours, the Baaba Maals, the Orchestre Baobabs. So imagine my surprise today when I found Foday Musa Suso. He's a Gambian musician who was born in Wuli, and who amongst other things co-created Junku, the 1984 Olympics theme for field events. You can find out more about him here and here. You can download more of his music here.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Hunting

Inside the Van

The van driver has learnt patience, the van driver has learnt not to answer back when a sweaty face is thrust in his front window and his mother is roundly insulted, for his stinginess. The van driver has learnt calm, he knows to ignore the way they bang with their outstretched palms on the outside of his van, and hit his back window with their sticks. He does not stop - he drives slowly, placatingly, moving the van a few meters every time the crowd opens up around him. A group of kids dance in front of us, provocatively thrusting out their tongues and their little bums, the sweat and dirt on their faces. The van driver's face would win an International poker-face competition, no problem - he can see right through the kids. I keep looking at my watch - my appointment is at 2, it's a quarter past right now, and at the rate we're going I'll be at least an hour late. To think I myself once took part in these masquerades, to think I too once walked the city with these people, dancing and shouting and raising a storm of dust which descended on our bodies in layers.

There is a man sitting behind me who has gotten off on a rant, about how all of these kids doing the masquerade are the sons of Muslims. He says this in a "they are well and truly damned" voice, and everyone in the van ignores him. This, rather than stop him, seems to give him the idea that we are all listening in rapt attention - he goes on and on. I try to be clever and work out a defense in my head: "to be honest, Sir", [I imagine myself saying, with a knowing look on my face], "Christmas is not even strictly speaking a Christian festival - it is a pagan one" [I vaguely remember reading this factoid somewhere]. But then my imagination betrays me, and the version of the old man in my mind says: "So? That does not invalidate my point", and the image in my head melts, starting with my smug smile.

I look at my watch. I'll never get there in time.


I have often wondered what the hunting is a metaphor for. Why, every Christmas and New Year, did we walk through the streets of Banjul, dirty and dusty, wielding weapons, cross-dressed, leading before us a guy dressed up to look like an animal (complete with skins and a head), stopping at every house to collect donations? Was it a model of an actual hunt, a dance to create good luck and gain the gods' favor, as primitive societies have been known to do? Or was there a more nuanced explanation, a darker one: did the cross-dressing signify the end of the world, with everything turned upside down, men become women and vice versa, and the animal we followed the devil, leading us all to our doom (and luring us with money - the donations we received)?

Inside the Van

We're still painfully meandering through the streets of Banjul. Think of a pot-holed road with many tiny bends, think of having to stop every few seconds, think of noise and chaos outside, of girls in mini-skirts and stockings, and dreadlocked guys drawing a line of sparks in front of the van with a machete whilst holding out a box for the driver to put money in. The old man - the same one who won my mind-argument so conclusively - is still at it: he is off on a wild tangent now, somehow he has moved from the wrongness of the sons of Muslims celebrating a Christian festival, to the total lack of discipline in our schools and how it affects development.

The woman sitting next to me slides open a window and spits out of it. I have given up on getting there in time, or even being forgivably late. The woman turns to me and looks at me appraisingly. I feel apprehensive - what is she about to tell me? I sit up straight, draw in my chin, adjust my glasses on the bridge of my nose in a pose I have been told looks rather fetching. I wait for the revelation she is about to make. She looks at me for a while longer. Then she seems to decide I am worthy of whatever information she is about to impart. I lean forward expectantly.

"The hunting doesn't even look very good", she says, her mouth curled down in an "I could do better" sneer.


The hunting itself, the actual costume, takes weeks to make. A month before Christmas is when the hunting designer begins to get together the materials he will need - the horns, the calabashes, the rafia, the skins, the glues needed to stick everything together. He works hard at it, day and night, receiving increasing admiration from everyone as it changes from what looks like a dried skin and an animal skull, to what looks like a dried skin and an animal skull, only glued together. The whole enterprise happens in a secret back-room somewhere, in a room thick with cigarette smoke - before the day of its coming out, the hunting is a closely guarded secret, and only an inner circle within a vous have access to it. This is to prevent sabotage, and the stealing of ideas by other vous.

T-shirts are printed and sold, with the logo of the vous or football club/hunting society on the front, and a meant-to-be-pithy saying or two ("Victory and Oneness is our tradition", "Who God chooses Man shall not destroy", "No Fear"). Teenagers are sent to cut down trees - the branches are cut and used for clappers. By Christmas morning, everything is ready.

Inside the Van

"You know, the whole hunting tradition started in Sierra Leone", the woman tells us. Everyone in the van is looking and listening to her now, and the old man has shut up, resentfully hunched up in his seat and telling his prayer beads, as if to say "Fine! Choose to listen to a story about the hunting, when you could be listening to me tell you about hell and discipline and God. See if I care when you get burnt". As usual, everyone is ignoring him.

"That is why", the woman tells us, "all of the songs are either of Sierra Leonian origin, or adapted from the same. Back in Sierra Leone they had big hunting societies, and they used magnificent animal heads and skins, beautiful things which made you stop and gasp.

"Here", she says, gesturing out of the window with the same expression of lips curled down, "the huntings are not so grand. They lack....spirit, after you have seen the Sierra Leonian ones these ones make you feel almost depressed."

We are silent, looking out the window at the hunting dancing on the road, seeing in him the magnificence being described by the woman, transported to another time when huntings ruled the World with powerful magic. When I turn around quickly, I catch the old man (of "you'll all be damned!" fame) looking too, and I imagine there is a wistful look in his eyes.


It is 3pm. The sun blazes overhead, but we do not feel it. We have just finished eating lunch, and re-invigorated we are once again on the march, our hunting the best in the country, our songs the loudest.

We pass a tourist, and he gives us a dollar, smiling and snapping pictures with his digital camera. We pin it to one of the outer calabashes of the hunting. "Only we in Banjul have a dollar", a guy yells out, and soon we have all taken up the cry. We pass a woman, a famous radio actor, and she dances with our hunting, whirling and almost coming to lie down on the road, surprisingly limber for someone so old.

Two kids walk ahead before the hunting, before us, holding a banner with our team name and logo on it. A girl holds a calabash full of palm oil, and every few seconds she dips a broom into it and whisks some on the hunting. The hunting's dance is a flash of white socks and red leather (he does not wear shoes, only socks, layered one on top of the other), a broom of twigs in each hand.

When at last we return home, at dusk, all the old people on my street - the ones who could not come with us - are standing outside, smiling and waving, welcoming us back home.

It only looks silly if you're on the outside, looking in at it....

Inside the Van

...or sitting in a van, late for an appointment. I try to quiz the woman about the origins of the hunting, the metaphors involved, but she does not know about these things, or does not wish to talk about them. After a while she, too, falls silent, words failing her in her quest to describe to us the wonder of seeing a "real" hunting, and in her failure we are snapped out of the shared dream space we had all begun to occupy, and hurled back into the real world, to the heat and humidity inside the van as we wait for the hundredth hunting to pass.

The van driver has learnt patience. As have we.