Thursday, August 31, 2006

One year on: Back from Canada, Loving Almodovar and Adichie, thinking of human rights & a silly restriction

Back in the UK now. The last three weeks have been exhausting, exhilaring and invigorating all at the same time. Great training time and now I feel ready to take on whatever challenges the future holds at work- great feeling. I'm desperately hanging on to that feeling as I go through the nearly two hundred e mails that were waiting at work. I used to look at people at work talking about how many e mails they had to work through as rather sad- a kind of "My e mails are greater than yours" kind of thing- but now I find myself indulging......

I kind of liked Canada- the bits I saw- it seems to have its heart in the right place- the people are generally warm and friendly in a way that I liked and appreciated and I fell in love with their governor general- the Rt Hon Michaelle Jean after watching her on television- the petite Haitian-Canadian who only came to Canada in 1968- is an impressive asset. I don't think that she could attain a similar position anywhere else in the world.....

Monday went to see the new Almodovar film Volver (Return) starring Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura. It's an amazing film rich in visuals, vibrant colour, humour and textures plus a quirky, subversive plot- all the hallmarks of an Almodovar film. I still can't believe that I had never even heard of Almodovar before I moved here. It was only thanks to a Mexican classmate that I went to see Talk to Her (Habla con Ella) when it came out a few years ago and then I got hooked. There is this one scene where Cruz is chopping red peppers and as you watch the shot of the grey blade of the knife biting again and again into the redness of the peppers, you can almost hear and feel the crunch. In another scene Cruz is washing up at a sink and there is this amazing shot from above framing her cleavage and the sink with the water running and swirling.......I'm no film sophisticate but Almodovar's films resound with the very essence of Spain- a country I'm growing to love more with each visit.....

I've just finished Half of a Yellow Sun- Chimamanda Adichie's new work and it is stunning - the broad canvas, the sweep of the characters, her exposition of a time and place- Biafra- that Nigeria and Nigerians have never properly exorcised are all remarkable. Now I understand why the phrase Dickensian keeps recurring in the critics reviews of the book. It's an amazing achievement- and quite different from Purple Hibiscus. I was initially skeptical looking at the heft of the book that it could keep me engaged but I was engrossed from page one to the very end.

I've also recently finished Geoffrey Robertson's Crimes Against Humanity: the Struggle for Global Justice- the tome written by one of the UK's foremost human rights lawyers-though dense and legalistic in areas was an illuminating and inspiring exploration of the evolution of internatonal human rights law. He is scathing on the African Human Rights Charter and I can only hope that in the 7 years since the book was published the new African Union has taken a new look at the charter in the spirit of the "African Renaissance"

On the flight back from Canada, no duty free shopping as far as spirits or perfumes was allowed- it seemed slightly silly that while the bottles were clearly visible on the trolley that the stewardesses pushed through the aisles, passengers were forbidden to buy in the spirit of the ban on liquids.....

Oh by the way, just realized it was the first anniversary of this blog six days ago. To everyone who's dropped by- Thank you

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Crab cookouts and musing on African hippies

Yesterday we were invited to a crab cook out by one of the local staff here. I was not quite sure what to expect but it turned out to be something like a barbecue except that instead of meat being barbecued, it was crabs being cooked and served with melted butter. I'm not sure that the crabmeat, delectable though it was was worth all the work needed to crack the shell and the claws to get at the morsels....I did enjoy the salads though

After the crab cook out, we drove out to visit what would probably have been described as a hippy commune in the 70s, but is now probably referred to as a sustainable community- ecologically sound, environmentally friendly and awash with dreadlocked and multiply pierced surfer and alternative types. It struck me on our way back having enjoyed the organic smoothies and bran muffins that were on offer that I had never seen a hippy of African/black origin. Raising this in the car, my English colleague offered that it's because the whole hippy-surfer-alternative lifestyle is a specific rebellion against affluence. I wondered about this on the journey home- I mean I have African friends who lead what would be regarded as alternative lifestyles but their ethos is significantly different.....

The homeward journey begins tomorrow as we head to Toronto.....

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Thinking of "home", thoughts of Canada and reading Upstate

Yet another snatched opportunity to blog. We are slowly coming to the end of our training and I honestly cannot wait to get back home to London- the concept of London as home is one I still struggle with...but as the youth here so eloquently put it- whatever!

Canada is a funny mix, a halfway blend between the US and the UK- it's evident in the language and the architecture and the food- fish and chips, that quintessential English dish can be found on just about any menu here, but then so can barbecued ribs and burgers and other solid American fare. Some parts of Toronto with their towering skyscrapers and perfectly laid grid street systems draw manhattan to mind and yet others with their red brick Victorian neighbourhoods leave you wondering whether you are in an English village. The Canadians are friendly- much friendlier than the reserved English, but not the over the top sickly sweet friendliness of their cousins to the South..... I could go on and on. Another thing I don't understand is why Canada is seemingly unknown/uncovered in the international media. I mean before arriving here three weeks ago, I did not know who the Canadian prime minister was... and I don't regard myself as poorly informed. But maybe I am!

One similarity between the Canada and the US is in the toilets- I've never understood why American (and now Canadian) toilet bowls have water levels coming up almost halfway to the top, as opposed to the UK and Nigeria, where the water is way down in the bottom of the pan. Is it part of the abundance of North America- they can afford to fill up their pans just that bit more?

I have just finished Kalisha Buckannon's excellent novel -Upstate- which tracks through a series of letters, the love story between two African-American teenagers in Harlem. I was sceptical at first, wary of what I felt would be sickly sweet sentimentalism, but it was a tightly written powerful insight into the lives of young urban African Americans in contemporary America. It had echoes of Random Family, Nicole LeBlanc's deep and moving account of the ten years she spent following the lives of a number of Latina women in New York.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Another snatched chance to blog, worrying about inflight entertainment and musing on liquid soap

Finally managed to get a few minutes off what is a punishing schedule to drop a few lines here. We're just outside of Toronto where the International AIDS conference is going on at the moment and each time I go into Toronto, I see lots of conference delegates wandering around. I've spotted quite a few Nigerians as surprise there. The newspapers and television are filled with stories about the conference.

I hear you are only allowed one book on board UK flights and that has to be bought from duty free after you have checked in everything else. I'm frantically trying to work out which fat book I've been dying to read to take with me on the flight back in two weeks. the prospect of an eight hour flight with Air Canada's abysmal in-flight entertainment sends shivers down my spine. I can just see myself exploding in a rage of boredom induced air rage

In the hotel where we're staying instead of soap and little bottles of shampoo etc, there's a plastic dispenser on the wall with nozzles for shampoo, conditioner and liquid soap. I still can't get my head around the concept of liquid soaps and shower gels- I like the comforting heft of a cake of soap in my hand- perhaps a carryover from when I was a child and not allowed to bath myself - I remember the first time I was allowed to hold the soap myself- maybe that's why I miss my solid soap now...

I see there has been another murder of a governorship aspirant in Nigeria- I hope this is not what 2007 is going to look like..... and all the IBB EFCC shenanigans- what on earth is that about?

Ok, break over, back to work now...

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A snatched chance to blog, terror and current reading

Finally, a snatched chance to blog in between what have been a very hectic few days. I arrived in canada and plunged straight into work. Hectic days, but very interesting. On the plane I read Marie Fatayi-Williams' tribute to her son, For the Love of Anthony and at many points found myself close to tears, I think the girl in the next seat must have noticed and so asked to see what I was reading. It's not fantastic writing, but in some ways, it is the homespun heartfelt nature of it that is it's greatest strength. In the book, she is particularly critical of the UK Police and the Government in their dealings with the families of the deceased and queried whether the government was doing enough to prevent a recurrence. By the way, fellow Nigerian blogger Molara Wood is quoted in the book, even if incorrectly she is referred to as Molara Woods.

This morning, I wake up to the news that the UK is at high alert following a discovered terrorist plot to blow up planes to the UK. To think that only yesterday I was strolling through Heathrow, dashing to reach the baggage drop off before it closed. I had already checked in online- but one of the problems with checking in online, is that it induces a sense of complacency- I found myself dashing to get to the airport on time, having dilly-dallied on a number of issues. At this time, the details of the suspected plot are unclear but if it is true that there were British Asian Muslims behind the plot, then I can't help but reflect on how they might be making things more difficult for the people whose cause they claim to be espousing. Only last week, the most senior Muslim police officer in the UK police said that the way in which the police were implementing anti-terror laws risked alienating young British Muslims. His comments provoked a flurry of debate, with some arguing that the police were only doing what they had to do, and if anyone was "collateral damage", then tough. If these allegations turn out to be true, then it will appear as if these hardliners have been vindicated....

Joe Lieberman has lost the Democratic nomination for the US Senate after receiving the "kiss of death" from George Bush. Apparently at the last state of the union address, as Dubya made his way out of the congress, he planted a kiss on Liebermann's cheek. Liebermann has paid dearly for "sleeping with the enemy" as Democratic activists upset by his closeness to Dubya's policies,especially his support for the Iraq war helped ensure that he was not renominated for the seat that he has held in the Senate for many years. It is suggested that he might run as an independent. Is the Democratic lion finally waking up from its slumber?

I'm currently reading Claire Tiffany's Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living which was nominated for the Orange Prize but lost to On Beauty. It's a gem of a book, the simple humour-inflected anguage evoking a different time and place is completely charming. Highly recommended!

Finally I note that Chimamanda Adichie's new book Half of a Yellow Sun is to be launched in London next Wednesday. I wish I could be there, but will be stuck here in Canada....

Monday, August 07, 2006

Last day at work and meeting visiting old friends

It's my last day at work for three weeks and I'm struggling to clear my desk. I'll be off to Canada on a training course and as I suspect I'll be very busy, I'll try to keep blogging but I suspect my blogging may be intermittent. We'll see....

An interesting weekend largely filled with visiting and meeting up with the various friends and relatives visiting from Nigeria in the usual summer holiday onslaught. thankfully this time, I haven't actually had to play host to any, but just getting around, catching up with everyone is quite a feat. It's a strange feeling, dashing half way across London to meet some old classmate or friend and their families, and then struggling to make the most of the couple of hours you have together before dashing off to the next rendezvous. How do you compress the events of the last two years into a hurriedly snatched hour, interspersed with buying rounds and pub lunches, with many of the visitors raring to get on with the shopping that is the high point of the London holidays for many of them.

Forget Trafalgar Square, forget the museums and galleries, forget the tourist attractions of London, for many of my friends visiting from Nigeria- Jermyn Street, Oxford Street , Liverpool Street and Finsbury Park markets are where it's at....

As I walk home on Sunday night to meet a pulsating rooftop party on one of the houses on my street, I reflect on how much I and my friends have changed, and how much we've stayed the same.......

Friday, August 04, 2006

Appreciating Okonjo-Iweala's achievements

Now that the news of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala resigning (or Okonjo-Wahala, as she half-jokingly referred to herself in an interview with the UK Guardian this week),3604,1540043,00.html from the Nigerian cabinet has been confirmed, I think it's important to note her many achievements which are detailed in the Guardian interview. It is very sad that someone who had sacrificed so much and who had contributed so much could be discarded in the shoddy way that she has been. Obasanjo is obviously sending a clear message to Nigerian professionals abroad- come back home and contribute what expertise you can so we can use and dump you.

In some ways I'd seen Dr Okonjo-Iweala as a role model- she had travelled abroad for higher education, attained a position where she was INVITED home to Nigeria to contribute, and because she had been invited and was confident of her competence; and because she had not lobbied anyone for the job, she was able to go into office and take tough decisions and produce results. In 2003, the Nigerian rumour mills were agog with the story that she had resigned her job after President Obasanjo had reneged on their original agreement to put debt management firmly under her portfolio as Minister of Finance. As the story put it, she had already packed her bags and booked her flight back to the US when the President realizing she meant business, had to appeal to her octogenarian professor father to ask his daughter to reconsider. True or not, she did continue in the role of Finance minister and managed the enviable feat of negotiating Nigeria's exit from the Paris Club, the first African country ever to achieve this. Many criticized her policies and some suggested that the debt buy back was not the best deal that Nigeria could have negotiated; but all agreed that her practice of publishing revenue allocations introduced a level of transparency never before seen in economic management. It is also instructive that there has been no whiff of corruption around her person- even the rumours that have swirled have only extended as far as her wider family members- no mean feat in a country where her actions would have meant that many would have been keen to smear her.

Her financial and economic achievements have been widely acknowledged but I would like to celebrate a part of her that did not often get acknowledged- her simplicity.

In Nigeria where flamboyance is the order of the day, Ngozi's consistent dressing in simple ankara cloth often accessorized with simple beads or coconut shell jewellery sent a powerful message to the Nigerian public. She showed that you did not have to be swathed in yards of lace, silk or satin and draped in tonnes of gold to be an effective or powerful woman. Her blunt speaking and sharp mind made her an alternative role model for young Nigerian women everywhere and earned her the respect of the international community.

It is sad that some Nigerian commentators see her decision to resign as a sign of an ego problem. It is no such thing. It was an act of pride and dignity from a fulfilled, capable and self-aware professional woman. She was left with no other choice, following the humiliation that she had received in the last two months. Reading her resignation letter, it's interesting that while she quotes two reasons for her resignation- urgent family reasons and having completed her assignments, the President's reply only acknowledges the first- the family reasons.

When all is said and done, President Obasanjo has not been fair to Dr Okonjo-Iweala, who had borne the brunt of criticism that she and others like her were responsible for creating a veneer of credibility around a corrupt and intellectually bankrupt government.

Yesterday was another sad day for Nigerians everywhere whether we realize it or not. Some of us who were hoping some day to follow in her footsteps will now have to re-evaluate our strategies

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Breaking News? Okonjo-Iweala resigns?

Just got an e mail from the intrepid Omoyele Sowore of Sahara Reporters fame (he of the Gbenga Obasanjo interview and other allied citizen-journalist coups) alleging that Ngozi Okonjo Iweala has resigned from the cabinet Hardly surprising, if it's true- seeing my earlier post today about her being removed as chair of the economic team while she was away in London negotiating further debt relief. Interestingly enough, another Nigerian blogger, Ayoke had wondered in what may now seem to be a prophetic post, whether the time hadn't come for madam Ngozi to throw in the towel.....

How will the international lenders react? How will the other members of the economic team react? How will the vast majority of Nigerians who have even if grudgingly accepted her achievements in the economic realm react? Will it mean that the coffers of carefully husbanded foreign reserves will now be thrown open?

We'll see what unfolds tomorrow...

Looks like it's true...there's a report from Reuters quoting the Nigerian government

Cooler days, the complexity of radical Islam & what's up between OBJ and Ngozi?

It looks like the really hot days are gone now- apparently July was the hottest summer in the UK since records started being kept. It's been fun, but it's also good to be able to open the blinds in the office now and not worry about having hot, sticky, stinky feet by the time the work day draws to a close.....

I'm reading Jason Burke's book On the Road to Kandahar:Travels Through Conflict in The Islamic World. He's The Guardian's Chief Correspondent and the book is basically about his travels in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan over the last 15 or so years. It's not terribly easy to read, there seems to be something missing, something too dispassionate and structured about it. It doesn't work as a particularly engaging narrative and if its primary point is analysis, then why all the personal vignettes many of which really add little to the whole argument? Or to put it another way it simply smacks vaguely of a cut and paste job- putting together what I suspect are various articles that have appeared in print elsewhere- into a book. What it does offer are interesting insights into how the image of a monolithic, terrorist, radical Islam that is sweeping the world is false and belies the myriad subtle differences and complexities that make up the Islamic world in 2006. It's a theme picked up in this week's Europe edition of Time magazine which I've enjoyed tremendously- it has a very good analysis of why it's wrong for the US to lump Hamas and Hizbollah, who have very specific, fairly local agendas in the same broad terrorist bag with Osama and others who have more grandiose global agendas. And there's a section on the meeting of East and West, retracing the footsteps of Marco Polo, in beautifully written prose, including a bit on Sri Lanka by one of my all-time favourite writers- Pico Iyer. The East West theme is a recurrent one these days but what the TIME stories offer are beautiful insights and images of what it is like in the new boom cities of China.

So, Obasanjo fires Ngozi Okonjo Iweala as head of the economic team, while she is in London negotiating further debt relief, coming only weeks after she was removed from Finance to Foreign Affairs. There's obviously something deeper going on than we ordinary people are privy to- I wonder if my initial synthesis of all the rumours is true- ie Obasanjo holding something over the Amazon which is allowing him to act this way- It'll be interesting to see what the international reaction will be, especially in the light of madam Ngozi's credibility in Western financial circles...... At times like this, I wish I was still in Abuja where the rumour mills worked 24/7 in situations like this, but where often through the chaff you could sift out the fine kernels of truth.....

Still no takers on the immigration campaign, I see..... Or perhaps on the scale of the problems facing Nigerian women, people think the ability to get a passport is quite minor. Fair enough, I know the women in my village aren't clamouring to be given passports but I personally believe that symbols are also important and powerful.....