My moment with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Her book Americanah made my literary year, while Half of a Yellow Sun in my opinion became a classic the moment it was published and I finally got to meet Ms Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, shake her hand and exchange a few pleasantries at this years’ Helsinki Book Fair!

Yesterday's attempt at Stockmann was scuppered by her having a migraine and being unable to attend, so I hauled myself through the most spectacular fog to the Helsingin Kirjamessut - ploughed through groups of school children and pensioners and after circling the entire floor found that she'd be holding a book signing in the Rose Bud books nook.

Only then did I relax and take in the fair. 

I was able to capture it but she had her hair in a crown of wrapped cotton thread as in this video. She had a healthy size audience who seemed as enraptured as I, some a bit more even. 

She was asked mostly the simple questions about home, and how she developed her ambition to be a writer - I felt that the interviewer could have done a little more homework and asked one or two more challenging questions even in the relaxed venue. 

My apologies for the mole and unfortunately, my video refused to upload


Kenya; the meek and the mighty alike

"These are young lovely people I personally knew and loved," said Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya, upon the death of his nephew and nephew’s fiancée in the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall this weekend just ended. Other members of Kenyatta’s family are also thought to have been caught in the attack.

Kenyatta and his Vice-President William Ruto currently stand accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of engineering the deaths of 1,200 people in violence following the Kenyan 2007 elections. Ruto has been excused from court in The Hague to attend to the aftermath of the attacks.

Kenyatta, in the same statement promised retribution against the attackers as the siege continued.

Will the events of these past few days affect the Kenyan parliament’s decision to leave the ICC? A decision made in early September swiftly following Ruto and Kenyatta’s taking up office.


However, it would intriguing to know if President Kenyatta sees the events of the post-election period from a new perspective now that he’s lost family in an act of orchestrated terrorist violence.

A crucial difference of course is that Kenyatta has the resources of one of Africa’s largest economies at his disposal - he is a president, he is wealthy and he has the power to influence and coerce a response, legal or otherwise.

The bereaved of those whose deaths he is charged with have no such resources and that is why the ICC’s actions are necessary. Kenya itself has failed to prosecute the instigators of the violence and with the primary culprits now running its government it unlikely that it ever will.

While many Africans cheered Kenya’s decision to leave the ICC they forgot that the issue at hand is not national integrity, African pride or racism, rather it is justice for those who have no other means to obtain it.

The people that died over this weekend and those who lost their lives in 2007 and 2008 all were people who were known and loved by someone. Whether death came in a lowly village or in a marble clad shopping mall the tenets of social justice demand that the victims and the bereaved are all equally entitled to a just and fair legal response.

Photograph: St Aloysius Gonzaga High School Journalism Club, Nairobi


Eeyore speaks

“However you take it,” said Eeyore “After it comes summer, then autumn and then the dark and cold winter.”

I apologise for my amateur translation, but I stumbled across Eeyore’s musings on spring while in dentist’s waiting room sometime in April.

Now after a nothing less than glorious summer, a summer that stole into autumn and made us believe that autumn days have been and would always be blue-skied and warm, the rain has begun - cold and windy, occasionally punctuated by a flash of lightening.

As we flick on the lights at seven in the evening, it seems as if summer light was a dream. Forgotten are the days in which bedside lamps gathered dust from disuse and blackout blinds failed to keep out the 2am dawn.

Eeyore already explained what comes next. Regardless, though I didn’t finish the comic book, I’m sure Tigger or another, more optimistic, character must have reminded him that there’s always next year.


Roads for the rich

I had the opportunity yesterday to listen to an excellent array of speakers at a seminar “Promoting Human Rights – Human Rights Defenders as Actors of Social Change” hosted by KIOS the Finnish NGO Foundation for Human Rights.

Out of the themes of the day, the point that resonated the most with me was from Hina Jilani, a distinguished human rights defender from Pakistan, who spoke about the phenomenon of increasing conservatism of institutions.

Specifically on justice systems she said, “courts of law have become courts of morality.”

She told of her own experiences with the courts in Pakistan where judges and magistrates were shocked to be told that it was unlawful to justify the forcible incarceration of women in shelters in order to prevent the immorality that a free woman would undoubtedly cause.

“How far have our courts progressed beyond the prejudices and restraints, and constraints of social attitudes…?” Ms Jilani asked.

Not far it seems.

Currently pending in Zambia are the trials of Paul Kasonkomona and of two young men in Kapiri Mposhi for immorality, that is, for crimes that do not exist in Zambia law but for acts that offend the certain segments of society and therefore must somehow be punished. Zambia also had the case of Iris Kaingu, found guilty for the intent to corrupt morals – for filming herself and her boyfriend having consensual sex.

In the US, it seems the courts and other political and social institutions have been unable to shake themselves free of the prevailing sentiments regarding a woman’s right to choose, her right to her own body – and with ever increasing violence and fervour are rolling back rights that have already been established.

This conservatism of institutions is not limited to courts, Ms Jilani also spoke of how social services go undelivered because, as she put it “some categories of society have an agenda.”

Here we can include organisations, state and non-state, that are responsible for countless numbers of young people being denied access to birth control and other sexual and reproductive health services based on their own attitudes towards extra marital sex and disregarding the consequences of their actions and attitudes.

A perhaps stranger example is from my own experience “roads for the rich” -  roads built without facilities for pedestrians because as the planners put it “poor people don’t own cars,” and thus have no use for roads.

It could be suggested that these opinions and belief systems are justified because the individuals are a product of their environment. We all to a certain extent believe and act as the people that surround us do.

However this defence is baseless. From the same societies that create these conservative, morality-focused individuals and institutions arise the human rights defenders that oppose them. The same society that plans to convict Paul Kasonkamona is the one that gave birth to and nurtured him. The same applies to the women who seek birth control and the nurses and doctors that deny it to them. The same society that gave us the man on the bicycle laden with two sacks of charcoal trying not to be mowed down as he negotiates a half metre space between speeding cars and man-high elephant grass also gave us the banker cruising along in his Chevrolet double cab, windows closed and air-conditioning on - and that same society fortunately gave us the local authority employees that realised their mistake and vowed to change it.


Big Brother - kicking myself!

Alas, last night I watched at least ten minutes of the Finnish edition of Big Brother, which to make it worse turned out to be a celebrity edition. 

Though it was in the spirit of practising my language skills I found, as expected, Big Brother in any language is still Big Brother and is not improved in anyway by my being unable to understand it. It is still mumbling, swearing, pontificating and wondering around aimlessly by a cast determinedly grabbing at fame and fortune.

After being continuously and reluctantly undated on the antics of Big Brother Africa, a season of which ended quite recently, I now have to constantly glimpse Frederik or Andy McCoy whenever I walk past a newspaper stall.

Yes, I may sound boring but whenever I see such shows I fear for the future of television. In its first years the Big Brother concept was (to an extent) original and intelligent, the idea of belligerent personalities forced together and monitored all day and night seemed almost like a study in psychology. Now, however many decades later Big Brother is old and tired, alongside the Pop Idols, Do You Think You Can Dances and Whomever has Talents.

Still with hits such as the one below I can't help but cheer for Frederik.


Cynical, with good reason

It’s now over fifty years since Civil Rights campaigners marched in Washington and the papers and blogosphere have been filled with the question ‘What has changed since?’ Many responses have been to do with civil rights, a pause to see how much has really changed especially in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin case.

I’d like to add to the many responses the suggestion that Rosa Parks and her compatriots marched with faith and optimism, with the conviction that they could change their world. From their racist environs they squeezed out those  values and to act without knowing their actions would become a seminal part of history.

If I compare my life and the opportunities I’ve had that were denied to earlier generations I’d say they achieved a considerable amount, not just on that day.

However, it’s also another anniversary year - ten years since the ability of the ordinary citizen to have any influence in the decisions and actions of democratically elected was sorely tested and lost. It’s easy to recall the energy and anticipation that surrounded the protests, activists held a genuine belief that if enough people showed their opposition to going to war in Iraq, then their leaders would rescind their decision, since that is the point of a democracy.

The “millions” that marched against invading Iraq have since been vindicated in the hundreds of thousands of lives lost. However, this time though many people across the world are protesting, there’s perhaps a certain weariness and cynicism as we prepare to repeat ourselves in Syria. 

Nonetheless, activists keep protesting against social and economic injustice, for equality, against war and environmental degradation, rape and murder. Sadly they also march against sexual and reproductive rights, freedom of speech, for war and against equality.


On losing everything

A few weeks ago I came across an article on the Guardian website on blogger A Girl Called Jack. Fascinated, I read through the near entirety of her blog and immediately signed up to her Facebook page.

Fascinated – yes, impressed – even more so, after being plunged into poverty, of having to feed her two-year old son Weetabix with water, Jack not only shared her experience of feeding two people on ten pounds a week but also now uses her fame to campaign against poverty.

One of her commenters commends her on her courage for battling “Asituation which is by no means unique but shared by too many people of this planet.”

Vulnerability, not only a concept that much of Europe has rediscovered in its economic crises but one that shadows much of the economic progress that’s being made in the Third World, with Zambia being an example.

In Greece, UK and Spain it was taken for granted that one gets a job, enjoys the benefits of personal finances such as owning a car, being a homeowner, travelling and eventually retires with a pension to see you through until your demise. However, in a brief period this has proven to be a fallacy.

In Zambia we speak of a growing middle class. Neither rich nor poor, the middle class own cars, take holidays and shopping trips to nearby countries, do Sunday lunches at game lodges, play video games and watch 3D cinema.

However, Zambia lacks social security. The loss or illness of a main breadwinner, divorce or unemployment can spell the end of the middle class dream and the beginning of poverty. Retirement benefits are usually a relatively large but once-off payment which, if squandered or spent on something significant, say medical expenses, is gone. Furthermore, education and medical care cost money, public transport is privately owned and formal employment is the privilege of a minority of the population.

There are always those who can pull themselves out of the quagmire but as Jack says of herself “I almost have my happy ending. Almost. But hundreds of thousands of families in Britain are starving – and they don’t get a book deal, and they don’t get to roll onto the Sky News sofa and shout at politicians about how it is.”