Would be kings

As the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions continue to inspire despaired citizens across the world, it is painful to note that it is highly unlikely that these revolutions’ successes could be replicated in other countries. 

The miracle of these uprisings is that they were relatively fast, unprecedented and unpredicted. Unfortunately, now that dictators across the world are aware of the potential that their citizens contain, they have redoubled their efforts to suppress and oppress any opposition.

Zimbabwe has arrested people merely for watching videos of Egypt’s revolution. Two years ago, when he failed to secure a credible victory, Mugabe entered an alliance that we all hoped would result in tangible change politically and socially. But this latest crackdown is an example of how completely the coalition government had failed. 

There are many reasons why change failed to come to pass, one of them is that the quality of opposition leaders, their traits, ambitions and desires are too similar to those of the tyrants they wish to overthrow. Already Egypt and Tunisia’s temporary governments are revealing what lies beneath their veneer. In Libya, the opposition is lead by tribal and military leaders who, until days ago, shared their tents with Gaddafi. As much as we would like to believe they have harboured democratic ideals deep within themselves, too frightened to reveal their passion for freedom, I am more inclined to see them as opportunists, who seized the moment when it arrived.
These dictators-in-waiting are eager to yield the same power that the deposed leaders once held. The conflate leadership with despotism, economic growth with personal enrichment and democracy with legitimisation.

An uprising implies what is at the bottom rising up, a revolution suggests turning, revolving, facing a new direction. Will this happen in the heads of those who would be leaders?   

Photograph; Yemen protests, The Guardian


Speaking of

I’m not sure at what point someone becomes an immigrant. In the last three months I have received a residence permit, sat mute in the immigrants’ section of the unemployment bureau and signed onto an “adaptation plan.”

While this is not the first time I have lived in a country other than my own, I’ve never before embarked upon the official journey to minoritydom, enlisting in the world of “foreign born residents,” who speak Finnish as a second language. In the last few months I’ve had to fill in form after form declaring; nationality – Zambian, mother tongue – English, until I, befuddled, lose track of their purpose.

While I have so far resisted the urge to join the International English Speakers Association, I have found a renewed passion for the English language. There has been an obvious advantage to speaking English. English is widely spoken in Finland, meaning I have been protected from the battle to be understood that I have seen so many other foreigners fight. I don’t have to point and repeat, look around helplessly and walk away frustrated. There are even jobs available for English speakers that don’t require Finnish and I have met expats who have been here for years without learning the language.

A first language (also native language, arterial language, L1, mother tongue, or native tongue) is the language(s) a person has learned from birth or within the critical period, or that a person speaks the best and so is often the basis for sociolinguistic identity

But I have circumvented the expat title, I have decided that there is little value in transience, I have signed the form and officially declared that I am not a passer-by. In doing this, I have had to concede to the fact that the language in which I was scolded and praised, TV was watched and books read, friendships made and conflicts soothed, may need to be superseded. As an unashamed lover of the English language, the language in which all great literature is available and into which all good films must be translated, I find it hard to accept that my “integration assistance” is tied to learning Finnish, that my job prospects may improve and becoming a part of another society will be eased and I can truly explore a new country.

Unless, of course, I choose to be a perpetual Helsinki Times reader, doomed to perusing the English section at Stockmann’s, staring blankly at waitresses and hoping that the metro driver will repeat his announcement in English.

Photograph; Bishop72/Guido via Flickr


In Tokyo, a Crackdown

TOKYO — In a manga comic book that is well known here, “My Wife Is an Elementary School Student,” a 24-year-old teacher marries a 12-year-old girl as part of a top-secret social experiment.

There is no depiction of actual sex. But the teacher’s steamy fantasies fill the comic’s pages in graphic detail, including a little naked girl with sexually suggestive props.

Meanwhile, in a widely available new DVD, a real-life Japanese model poses in a tiny white bikini. She makes popcorn in a maid’s costume. She plays with a beach ball while being hosed down with water.

The model, Akari Iinuma, is 13 years old.

 Japan, which has long been relatively tolerant of the open sale and consumption of sexually oriented material, lately has developed a brisk trade in works that in many other countries might be considered child pornography. But now some public officials want to place tighter restrictions on the provocative depictions of young girls — referred to as “junior idols”— that are prevalent in magazines, DVDs and Web videos.  Read more


So Justin...

A sixteen year old purveyor of pointless pop Justin Bieber, has become a transient icon in the never ending battle against women’s reproductive rights.

Sixteen year old boys are entitled to their opinions, of course, but the adulation of celebrities of Bieber’s stature means that millions of girl and boy devotees across the world may parrot his sentiments simply because emulating your idols is an intrinsic part of the teenage phenomenon. The modern teenager is about peer groups and trends, fitting in and being accepted.

As they lap up Bieber’s views on what hair and skin products to use and how low their skinny jeans should sag, they may decide that his views on abortion are definitive.

In the meantime US Republicans have voted to cut all federal funding for Planned Parenthood in the US and to eliminate a program known as Title X, which provides approximately US$300 million to family planning and reproductive health, much of which is directed toward low-income families.

Simultaneously, in Zambia, the draft constitution plans to remove the right to abortion from the republic’s constitution. As it is, only an insignificant fraction of Zambian women realise that they have a constitutional right to have an abortion in any case in which a pregnancy may threaten a woman or girl’s wellbeing. In fact, barring South Africa, Zambia has one of the most accommodating laws on abortion to the extent that  girls under 18 can have an abortion without parental permission. But, this will change.

Ignorance of their rights and misinformation has lead to a sickeningly high maternal mortality rate of approximately 500 women per 100,000 live births, compared for instance to 6 per 100,000 in Finland.  It has been reported that between 30% and 50% of beds in the maternity wing of Lusaka’s main hospital UTH are taken by women and girls who tried to induce an abortion using unsafe means. “Unsafe” can be anything from aspirin, metal hooks or battery acid.

But still the assaults continue “I don’t see why Zambia should condone abortion when we declared the nation a Christian nation. There shouldn’t even be talk about unsafe or safe abortion in our country. Abortion is murder period! [sic]” Shocked comments on a Lusaka Times’ forum.

Zambia’s growing middle class have better access to MTV and Justin Bieber than they have to current and objective information about reproductive health. Unnamed contraceptive pills and vinegar douches are prescribed by doctors and a frightening synthesis of traditional beliefs and urban myths roam in an environment of secrecy and ignorance which, in 30% of maternity ward beds, leads to tragedy.

Photograph EW Cordon (flickr)


The king's distance

The King’s Speech is a commendable depiction of a world many of us know little about. The events depicted are separated from us by time, place and privilege. It is a world of affluence beyond the Buppie existence that we experience.

It is a film that depicts distance. The film illustrates the chasm between the world of George VI and “the commoners” who appear, fleetingly, on the fringes, on stairs and on pavements as he goes about his business.

Seventy years after the film is set our would-be monarchs still drive past us in limousines, preceded and followed by flashing lights and sirens. In the meantime we wait, trapped in traffic watching these convoys cruising past us, cursing.

The people behind the tinted windows have long forgotten what it means to be “the common man.” Upon assuming power they can no longer conceive what it means to be the person trying to get to work, school or hospital. Their sick will not queue up at UTH or their children at UNZA, their old will not be shoved into minibuses or their young fight for jobs in supermarkets.

But microcosms are never completely cut off from their surrounding environment. Banda, Museveni and even Mugabe have to stand for elections. Their campaigns will be the usual reaching out of a gloved hand to touch the beggar. It will be seeds and mealie meal, threats of impending doom and of course promises - never ending and never fulfilled promises. 


Winter's women

As the world celebrated the revolution in Egypt, American CBS correspondent Lara Logan was sexually assaulted by in a mob in Tahrir square.

At best this could have been the only attack of its kind. Brutal, as it has been described, we could “hope” that this occurred for some convoluted reasoning based on her being a foreign journalist. However she is a female foreign journalist and the female is what the mob saw when they sought her out.

The question arises, how many other women may have fallen victim to such assaults in these times of euphoria. In a country where 80% of women polled report having been sexually harassed, where the police are not trusted and are perpetrators of crimes against women - how many women may now, in silence, be regretting having stood side by side with their men after having suffered no less than anyone else under Mubarak?

Reports described the protests as “a ‘new Egypt,’ with strict social customs casually cast aside ... Young women in jeans and tank tops smoked in public, standing next to bearded Islamists who didn't bat an eye. Men and women mingled freely, unusual for a society where gender segregation in public is still common.” 

It is hoped that the winter revolution marks the beginning of change. However will this change include women? 

The individual tales, which when told, illustrate the story of Mubarak’s regime can easily exclude the experiences of women. The discussion of political prisoners and opposition activists may be recited in gender neutral or masculine terms obscuring the gendered experience of Mubarak’s regime. This regime that created or perpetuated a society where it is acceptable for such a percentage of women to be harassed and abused in public, where women’s political and social representation is still low despite the regime’s progressive rhetoric regarding women's rights.

Already, the army has begun baring its teeth and the Muslim brotherhood contradicting themselves. The committee charged with amending Egypt's constitution has been accused of “marginalising female legal experts." The history of Egypt’s revolution can be very easy written to exclude the women who - as political and social activists, as protesters in the demonstrations and as the millions of women who stayed at home - made it possible.

Photograph: M Deghati AP


The satisfied cynic

A dictator deposed. Of course his delay tactics were in order to secure his fortune. His son is no longer a contender to the creation of a dynasty. 

The cynic in me is satisfied and the optimist remains eternally so.

The following blogs from the New Yorker and the guardian are excellent reading.

The dictator is the last to know
February 10, 2011
Posted by David Remnick, The New Yorker
The delusions of dictators are never more poignant—or more dangerous—than when they are in their death throes. To watch Hosni Mubarak today in his late-night speech in Cairo, as he used every means of rhetorical deflection to...
Read more 

Mubarak steps down. But let's be clear – Twitter had nothing to do with it 

By Will Heaven, the Telegraph
My colleague Con Coughlin was right after all – President Mubarak clings onto power no longer. But as I watch the euphoric crowds in Tahrir Square on the BBC, some idiot pundit is describing how “New Media” toppled the 82-year-old dictator.

Read more

Photo; Guardian/AP


A time of storm

Mubarak, in his speech on the seventeenth day of protests, has refused to stand down.

As anticipated. It would be perhaps too optimistic to expect a dictator who has held power for so long to surrender.

Instead a constitutional commission that he has appointed will organise “free and fair” elections in September. Mubarak will make necessary amendments to the constitution to facilitate presidential candidates in the next elections. Mubarak is now a defender of the rights and freedoms of the Egyptians. He says - it is no longer about Mubarak but about Egypt.

In the meantime Robert Mugabe who embarked upon constitutional changes to permit power sharing with the opposition is now, only two years later, backtracking on his promises, Cote d’Ivoire’s ex-president has caused an impasse, refusing to budge.

Mubarak declared tht he will not be told what to do. “The West” is merely a euphemism for “anyone.” Dictators such as Mubarak do not reach such heights by listening to their people. He already knew that he was unpopular, it may be a surprise that it has been articulated on such a scale, he has done what he needs to do to remain president for so long.

The question now is if the people give up and fade into a fearful existence or if the situation descends into a full scale conflict? Is there another option? 


Or not to be racist?

The subject of race is a recurrent theme this week. In the context of the Development Discussion Group’s (DDG) oncoming debate on “Race in Zambia,” I decided to analyse two seemingly insignificant occurrences that took place last week. 

First I say “seemingly insignificant” because I am accustomed to racism. Though I detest the phenomenon, as a natural cynic I doubt that many people understand how intrinsic racism is or has become to any multiracial or multi-cultural society. 

The first event was as I was leaving a department store in Helsinki. A woman was standing in the corridor behind the cashiers and she appeared to be conducting a survey. This involved stopping people, asking questions and filling out a form. I passed this woman several times as I had several tasks to fulfil. However, she still did not approach me for an interview even though for at least a few seconds I was right beside her. However, when my partner – who is white – joined me, she came up to us. 

The second brief incident happened as I was entering a cafe. A black man leaving the same cafe stopped me and handed me a flyer for an African music night to be held somewhere in Helsinki. 

I did say they were insignificant. 

However, I can quite happily say that my reaction to both of them is exactly same. I was offended at their racial profiling of me. 

Many people would have had a stronger reaction to the white interviewer. However, few people will recognise the same behaviour in a black person. Take for instance an article "Fine if you're Finnish?" that appeared in the Helsinki Times written by a certain “Guys Chillax.” He says 

"I strongly suspect that a large part of the Finns’ apparent distrust towards many foreigners and minorities is down to the fact that the Finns themselves are, globally speaking, insignificant and, yes, a minority. Live in a country of a few million with a language spoken by no-one else and it’s no surprise you get insular” 

Need I say more? 

As I said I am a cynic and I make a distinction between opportunistic racism and real racism. Take, for instance, a contribution emailed by one of our DDG members regarding race relations in Zambia. 

“...something that I have seen and experienced. My belief is that it stems from a [feeling of] inferiority in our black selves, thinking that white people... are superior to us. They get better service in restaurants, they’re treated more courteously in stores etc, their word is treated with much more gravity and their facts (whether true or not) are considered to be true. A white person is automatically viewed as one with money and ‘status’ when compared to a black person in the same circumstances”

I know too many black Zambian people who actually believe that whites are superior to other races and especially blacks. They will furnish a list of fallacies to support their claim. I felt quite ill when a Zambian woman said to me “I want to marry a white man because they do not beat their wives.” 

I call this opportunistic racism because it based on inadequate information. The few Zambians who interact with people of European decent do so with a group that is not representative of the diversity of the white race. For example one will almost never find a white person on a bus, in the markets, or in government schools. Most white faces in these places will be tourists, volunteers or expatriates, most of whom are of relative affluence not just to Zambians but also in their own countries. 

However this opportunistic racism works the same in reverse. Finland has a relatively small number of non-whites compared to Great Britain or France, hence the woman in the mall who didn't consider that I might be a potential customer, or the music promoter who assumed I must be interested in an African music night, well because, I must be African. 



In this past week I have been following an online exchange among member of the Development Discussion Group that meets monthly in Lusaka. Their topic of choice was “Race in Zambia” and a number of articles have been shared in preparation. The subject fascinates me and I had many ideas I felt I could contribute but decided to continue eavesdropping. However, the most recent contribution was a link from the Mail and Guardians blog. It is in short a defence of the conflation of the words African and the race that is sometimes called African.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I detest my race being called African. To me, Africa is a geographical designation that refers to anyone of the hundreds of millions of people who reside on my continent. Moreover, there are many competing definitions and titles for the race to which I belong, African, Afro-Caribbean and (gulp) People of Colour. 

There are some who would even dismiss the notion of race labelling it “biological essentialism.” Blacks, even without including people of mixed heritage, encompass many physical characteristics beginning with the colour of our skin, our hair and height and we have diverse traditions, cultures and geographical locations. 

Nonetheless throughout history, we have always been the “Other.” 

Being Black is not a biological classification (as we know race is not a biological concept). To be Black is far more than a skin colour, or the continent from which we originate, but it is our common history of Otherness – the slave, the museum centrepiece, the blaxploitation film - that makes us a Race. It is, for instance, the same idea that distinguishes Jews from other Europeans or Arabs. 

Black people have been defined as “different” by since ancient times. In fact, it has been suggested that we were not Black until “the norm” defined us as such. We ourselves see our distinctions, we know we are divided into groups, some distinct and some vague, we see our physical difference and cultural diversity. However this does not stop the rest of the world classifying us a single unit and assigning specific characteristics to a heterogeneous collective. 

Throughout history, we have been called, inferior, sub-human and ugly. The racialisation was epitomised in the Atlantic slave trade. It was not the first or last time that Blacks have been enslaved and of course African and Arabs were as complicit as Europeans and Americans. But I would propose that the Atlantic Slave Trade strengthened the concept of the singularity of Blacks because the distinctions between Blacks ceased matter as we all became a commodity. The Slave Trade also weakened the kingdoms of sub-Saharan Africa is readiness for the formalisation of the colonial system. 

In the twenty-first century Black people can be found all over the world, we inhabit every class and every imaginable profession. Our economic and social conditions have changed overall for the better but unfortunately, in many parts of the world, for worse. Finally, the continent from which we originate is populated by more and more people who would call themselves Africans and yet are not Black, which takes nothing away from our identity or our heritage. 

Photo: Karol Kelly

Links We Are Not All Africans, Black People Are! http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/sentletsediakanyo/2010/12/28/we-are-not-all-africans-black-people-are


The Single Story

All I had heard about them is how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them”.
Chimamanda Adichie

“Ghetto millionaires” my choice at the just ended Helsinki Docpoint festival, could have been a fascinating exploration of a modern phenomenon. Instead it turned out as just another negative portrayal of Africans. It could have been about a “Sapeur” who, despite spending thousands of Euro on designer clothes, is still able to take care of his family and send money to extended family in Kinshasa – all on a maintenance man’s salary

Belgian director, Gilles Remiche depicts the “La Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes” as a group whose lives are so weighted by unhappiness and failure that they become wastrels, desperate seeking attention through membership of Le Sape.

Needless to say, Le Sape could be just that - a society of overdressed drug dealers and compulsive shoppers - but the documentary does not give the viewer the option to decide for themselves. The film is about people seemingly trapped between money, family in Kinshasa with unrealistic expectations, dead end jobs or criminal activity and the need to be noticed.

The story centres on Tigana works an honest job as a handyman. Almost immediately, random drug dealing Sapeurs who have been repeatedly convicted of crimes are interviewed to make the point that this could not possibly be a positive depiction of black Africans. Tigana speaks of other immigrants who have successfully built homes and sent money home, but such success stories are never shown.

Above all are Tigana’s family in Kinshasa, who upon his return after a ten year absence, briefly celebrate his return and then proceed to make a litany of financial demands. The scenes are cut and pasted together to depict Kinshasa, Tigana and his family as miserable, a people only interested in the superficial trappings of wealth.

A documentary about smiling happy people would probably be fairly dull. I understand why a director would choose topics that exciting or shocking to arouse interest from the potential audience. The topic is intrinsically interesting but the director chose the safe route, the one two often tread.

Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story


Meanwhile in Sudan...

Approximately 99 percent of South Sudan’s population voted in favour of succession. It is no less a revolution than what has occurred in Tunisia and what may happen in Egypt. After decades of war borders drawn by colonial governments may be dissolved and the boundary between South and North Sudan will be drawn largely along racial and religious lines. As the late John Garang said in 2005 “This peace agreement will change the Sudan forever. Sudan cannot and will never be the same again as this peace agreement will engulf the country in democratic and fundamental transformations, instead of being engulfed in wars...”