Cautionary Tales…

Image Copyright Sky News

**

Hailing, as I do, from a corner of the world in which colonization has left its mark in more ways than one, I cannot help but see the stark similarities between the Afghanistan story and that of my other country. Two podcast episodes from the Rest is History podcast (a general one and one specifically focused on the First Anglo-Afghan War) provided some context to the history of the country, dotted as it has been with inter-tribal frictions and the burden of being prized as a gateway location. The similarities appear to be more than superficial: both countries have had borders drawn on the back of envelopes splitting tribes between countries, have fairly well established Islamic insurgencies  and have significant deposits of natural resources. There is also the British (read East India Company / Royal Niger Company) connection too, the tip of the spear by which both regions were economically exploited.

The images coming out of Kabul are stark, and speak to a very desperate situation with the Taliban gaining the ascendancy in very short order after the American withdrawal. Inches of paper and columns of ink have been spent on weighing up the pros and the cons, making moral arguments for remaining and framing the withdrawal as effectively ceding control of Afghanistan’s rare earth metals to China  among other takes. Given its reputation for being the graveyard of empires, linked to all the aforementioned interventions which have never really ended well fore the occupiers, it is interesting that the powers that be have never really seemed to learn from history. The human tragedy is huge and, given the attack on the airport, only likely to increase as the Taliban gain ascendancy, which makes for very worrying times for those left behind, the regular folk who do not have the power of being visible working for them. One hopes that the noises being made by the Taliban have some substance, although given their priors, there seems little real hope for that. The question of just why the US and their allies have the right to appoint themselves the policemen of the world is a different one altogether but needs exploration.

The speed at which the Ghani government collapsed would suggest that there is a critical mass that supports the Taliban, for all the noise the public intellectuals make. The irony is that nothing has really changed, not in the last twenty years, and maybe  not by much in the last 200 either. Previous Afghan President Hamed Karzai is a direct descendant of the puppet the British installed, Shah Shuja. The Taliban come from the tribe that brought him down. Now and as it was then, deep fissures remain, and only by understanding the history and the local context can these widespread failings be prevented.

One take away from the two podcasts I listened to was that current president Ghani was a very different beast from Karzai, one that was seen as rude and snobbish, failing to keep the tribal leaders onside. That and the manifest corruption (case in point that  Instagram post) suggests that in the end, failing to make the country work for everyone perhaps made it unlikely that ordinary folk would stick their necks out and fight. A functioning state that cares for the ordinary person and imbues a sense of ownership in the ordinary citizen has a lot more heft than any outside influences propping it up, it seems to me. Given the state of Nigeria at the moment, and the increasingly disconnected ruling class from the ordinary citizen, I can’t help but have a niggling worry as to what fate might lie ahead.

COVID Days

The other country both enthrals and frustrates me in equal measure, which I’m sure is no news to most others who like me have a foot in both worlds. The events of the past few weeks have left that tension in sharp relief for me in the form of two members of my extended family coming to terms with COVID. That they were in two very different parts of the country only served to underscore how dire the situation could be, the influence and contacts with people of authority in the medical establishments – nay death traps – they spent most of their with time in counting for very little in the overall scheme of things. They are out of the woods now, for which we are all thankful, though the bitter after taste – and light pockets – lingers. One wonders how much hope the common man still has in the event of a medical emergency back there.

Smarter people than I say, the tide is turning back in Blighty, in spite of the efforts of partiers and revellers it must be said. The surge in numbers put paid to my plan to pop back in for a few weeks to clear my head, so I am glad at this direction. One hopes it continues. Out here I have been offered the chance to take the vaccine, which I have accepted with both hands. As someone who has had to show vaccinations for work travel in the past, it is a small price to pay for the possibility of near trouble free travel I hope.

Recent Finds (x5)

  • The BBC’s Desert Island Discs is a series I have returned to from time to time, though I now mainly consume the abridged version via the podcast. Most recently enjoyed was David Olusoga’s debut, not least for the selection of an apt and timely Fela song, and an endearing anecdote about Paul Gascoigne.
  • David Epstein’s Range is all the rage it seems, popping up several times on my twitter feed and some of the podcasts I listen to. For a fascinating conversation on its subject (success, specialists and generalists), this Intelligence Squared podcast is a good one to listen to. Of course it earns bonus points for name checking John Urschel who ditched American football for a Maths PhD.

Fighting for the Light

There is not a lot to say this week except to say that the events in Nigeria with the #EndSARS protests have been particularly encouraging, not least because they prove that the trope about Nigerians being endlessly resilient and willing to accept broken systems is patently false. Beyond the willingness to hit the streets day in day out, the speed with which systems of support and organization have sprung up and have been deployed at scale has been a thing of fascination. Young Nigerians do have the tools, the desire and the nous to make a difference, long may it continue!

Also interesting has been seeing quite a few of the popular Pentecostal heavyweights lend their voices, and feet, to the protests. Looking on from the outside, it has often felt like the PFN, and other organizations of its ilk, have previously been far too interested in preserving their access to power than to be effective voices speaking truth to power. Whatever has driven this pivot in certain individuals, it can only be for the better – we all know how closely beholden us Nigerian folk can be to their MOGs (the frothing at the mouth, and general refusal to think in the aftermath of a certain MOG’s 5G revelations not too long are a case in point).

One hopes that this marks a real move away from religious leaders being complicit in the pillage of the country, towards a more outspoken state where they take on the mantle to speak truth to power, with their power. Whatever happens, one feels like the Youth have experienced the power of their voice, and they will not be shut down ever again.

For Light

Because we really need to #EndSARS #EndSWAT and end whatever silk purse is being made out of the sow’s ear that is that organization. I make no claims whatsoever to this image.

***

The shadow of a long, dire night
has lingered over us, the weight
of the might of the ones who swore
to serve, and to protect, seared into
the small of our backs by their whips
and their boots, the air heavy
with the stench of the dread
which drenches everything
in their wake.

We fight for the light, standing strong
against the rowdy reality of reprisal,
that the bloated earth, sated by the blood
of the ones snatched before their time
might gain respite. That the ones to come
might fly free, dream and be. That home
may become a place where their visions
are not lost to the tyranny of the graveyard.

This is why we fight. For the light.
To banish the night.

On Returning to the City of Red Earth

With NaPoWriMo done and dusted for this year, I’m getting the chance to catch up on other stuff. The fifth (and penultimate) assignment for the Creative Non-Fiction Course I started in February was to describe a city and the feelings it engendered in us during our last visit. Here goes: 

***

In my more nostalgic moments, I call her the City of Red Earth, but that is as far away as possible from what I feel as I drag my bags towards the check-in desk ahead of heading back out there. The last time, H had just passed, and the three weeks which followed were consumed by the busyness of dealing with the dead. Everyone I tell about this upcoming trip shares cautionary tales; of the power industry grinding to a halt, the spiralling crime rates, and the rapidly disintegrating roads. Not to seem too dismissive, I smile and nod at their concerns whilst inwardly telling myself I’ll do a good job of passing; after all my pidgin English – lightly accented as it is – is passable.

The first few days after I arrive pass in a blur: taxi rides on congested roads, visits to the local malls to indulge in local delicacies and the odd phone call with the groom-to-be filling my days. With the weekend comes the wedding, and the chance to finally catch my breath. Afterwards, we head East.

What first hits me when we arrive is how little the city of red earth has changed. A layer of red dust covers everything, the remains of the clouds that trail the steady stream of old creaking vehicles sagging beneath the weight of humanity as they head to the local market. The old woman who hawks her wares at the side of the road – still ensconced in the makeshift stall she has for the past four years – waves excitedly when she recognises my brother. That she can spot him at the distance is not the only miracle of sorts; her stall, with a sheet of tarpaulin wrapped around four bamboo stems to form three sides and roof, is still standing.

Everyone who spots us, waves and stops us for a few minutes of commiseration, a small human gauntlet of sorts. Mild irritation apart, I suppose it is refreshing to see the small community in which everyone knows everyone – and in which you were as likely to get a reprimand from the neighbour two houses down as your mother for a public indiscretion – has stayed the same, whatever pressures of globalisation there are all around.

The house on the corner of 39th street also looks the same, only dustier, which perhaps is the clearest indication of H’s absence. Some of my clearest memories of her are with a duster in hand driving clouds of dust off the furniture. That is something we’ll never see again.

Otherwise, it is clear there is a new normal slowly settling in. Thankfully none of the feared things materialises – we survive without any incidents – and leave just in time to be on the right side of the line between being August visitors and ones who have overstayed their welcome. Three days are all it is this time. There will be a time for lengthy swims in these waters, but for now, a dip seems sensible.

Stripping, (TV) Binges and Thinking About Thinking

dav

***
By some unexpected twist of fate, I found myself heading into Central London on the hottest day of the year, a fairly tropical 37 degrees Celsius, and that for the first time since last December. The destination was the Nigeria High Commission on Northumberland Avenue, the plan to get my expired Nigerian passport renewed. To get here I had had to jump through several tortuous loops, not helped by the fact that my trips down to England are scheduled months in advance with impromptu trips being aggressively minimised due to the costs. My takeaway from my dealings with the appointment’s system was that the (re)scheduling system could be significantly improved  – first, you sign up via a third party web service, pay the booking fees and then get randomly assigned a date, one you can only change to a more suitable one by emailing back and forth, no less than six in my case – which meant in addition to the heat I very much had my mind prepared for a terrible experience which could potentially take the whole day. It might have been my low expectations, but the experience was far less stressful than I expected, sans the slow pace at which things trundled along from picking a ticket to getting called for an initial review and then submitting my biometric details. If there was a silver lining, it was that the slow pace of things – and the very many other Nigerians there for similar purposes – increased the likelihood of running into people I had not seen in a long time; 20 plus years and two kids in one case. That the most unsettling thing from all of that was wondering what the scrawny lad I ended up sitting across from on the tube from Charing Cross to Waterloo was up – to whilst reading from 2nd Corinthians 1 in a huge bible – is a miracle of sorts (events at the High Commission didn’t leave me mentally drained as they have in the past) or perhaps only the symptom of my low expectations.

A lot of my free time over the past month has been spent catching up on TV which, admittedly, is hardly the stuff of living intentionally  Be that as it may, all that TV watching did manage to throw up something to relish. The movie was The Upside, a comedic look at the relationship between a wealthy quadriplegic (played by Bryan Cranston) and his ex-convict Life Assistant (played by Kevin Hart) with the sub-text of his relationship with his devoted assistant who it would appear hs feelings for him (played by Nicole Kidman). In one of the surprise birthday scenes, the opera assembled for a private performance began to sing a tune which I thought was very familiar. My first thought – borne out by events in the end – was that I had heard it on an episode of Rhiannon Giddens’ Aria Code. one of my favourite podcasts from earlier in the year. It was indeed, a portion of the Queen of The Night Aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. The downside was that it led me down a YouTube rabbit hole which swallowed up the rest of that Saturday.

The one book I managed to finish in July, Alan Jacobs’ How To Think, is increasingly beginning to seem like an inspired choice not least for how often my Twitter timeline has tottered on the edge of a complete meltdown over the past few weeks. Existing online as I do at the intersection of being Nigerian (with all its spiritual, cultural and political baggage) and being an active seeker of intellectual complexity at times my Twitter feed has seemed like a frothing mess of controversial tweets and retweets, 140 character takes and counter takes and the occasional link to a think piece published so soon after the event it seeks to analyse that any claim to thoroughness could only be wishful at best. Many a time, I have started typing a furious response to a tweet only to catch myself mid tweet, sigh and walk away. I would like to think that the overriding driver behind my choice to not add to the noise has been noble but the longer I think about it, the more I see that most times it has been due to a fear of sorts – that the views I am about to share might get ripped to shreds by the collective wisdom of the frothing masses – or at other times fatigue from all the digesting and engagement I am having to do. A recurring thread in the book is how our perspectives, views and memberships colour our understanding of facts and (naturally?) drive us towards thinking in herds.  Social Media and its engagement algorithms drive us further into the depths of our herds, our Inner Rings (to borrow from CS Lewis) and our echo chambers. The final chapter ends with an offering of 12 ideas – a thinking person’s checklist – which are well worth a read. A few key ones for me not in as many words: Take 5 minutes, value learning over debating, eschew virtue signalling, gravitate towards communities that can handle disagreements with equanimity, assess your repugnances and be brave, one I can certainly use more of I suspect.