Thursday, August 30, 2007

Travel notes, asking questions, the demise of NNPC and a legislative boob

Luxembourg was bland, sanitized, international, a bit like my experience of Geneva; bits of it, on the outskirts were surprisingly green forests, which came as a bit of a surprise as I had conjured a vision of the Grand Duchy as a pristine, modern,urban city-state.

Stuttgart, the bits that I saw were largely grim and industrial. My local colleagues had organized as a "treat", a tour of one of the local luxury car manufacturing plants. The hour passed pleasantly enough except for the irritating questions from one of our party who kept echoing the guide's words and asking questions that the guide had already answered in his spiel. Discussing this later with a colleague who admitted that she had been irritated too, she argued that our irritation was cultural. The offending tourist being American, she argued that we would have been more sympathetic and less irritated by the questions if we had been American too....I reflected on an earlier class years ago, taken with people from many different countries. We soon got used to the Americans asking questions a lot, not always timely or relevant, but it wasn't till later that an American friend explained that in some US universities, you get marks for participating in class hence the flurry of questions.... I didn't get to ask the question I had really wanted to ask which was whether the workmen who crafted the parts so lovingly ever got to own any of the models....looking at the staff car park, it did not appear that way...

Yaradua continues to chart his own course, setting up a panel to reform the electoral process and acknowledging that the April elections which brought him to power were riddled with irregularities. Today I see that he has announced plans to split up NNPC, the behemoth that has straddled the Nigerian petroleum sector for decades. I remember the lavish lifestyles of friends whose parents worked there and wonder if there will ever be a proper audit there.....It'll be interesting to see what the new structures will look like...

I was blasted back into blogging having been sent this quote relating to the "boobs" of the embattled Nigerian speaker of the House of Representatives, Patricia Etteh who is accused of having awarded inflated contracts for the renovation of her residence and going to the US for a lavish 54th birthday party. A male legislator, purported to be her supporter is quoted as saying:

This woman told us, on the floor of the House, that she’s got two boobs. That the old can suck one while the new would suck one. Honestly speaking, we are sucking. We are enjoying the sucking. We are doing that right now. So, for anybody to say that there is an apathy or favoritism to either the new legislators or the returning legislators or those with cognate experience, honestly, it is unfortunate and it is uncalled for.

Such language! And from an "honourable" too......To read the whole interview, see here

I enjoyed Helen Oyeyemi's The Opposite House- it's an amazing book although I suspect that it may not appeal to the mass market. It is dreamlike and bold and tackles so many issues; from second generation immigrant children to the relationship between mothers and daughters, to faith and religion, all written in lucid languid prose that is infused with a wisdom and music and replete with historical references, subtly worked in. I think it is a very 21st century novel...

Friday, August 24, 2007

Random ramblings, going away, Felabration

In a hurry as it's my last day at work for a while and there are a million and one things to do. I'm going away for work and hoping to catch some holiday and to be honest, I can't wait. I'll try to blog on my wanderings as internet connectivity permits...

On the train this morning a bunch of giggling teenagers in multicoloured wellington boots, carrying backpacks the sizes of small mountains, occupied most of the train. They keep up an urgent rapid-fire chatter which distracts me from the work I'm trying to do. Their conversation ranges over the drugs they've taken and the ones that they will take at the festival that they are headed to, the sex that they have had and will have and so on. I am no prude but can't help being gobsmacked at the casual way in which they broadcast this information through the carriage. I look up from my papers, catching the eye of one of them who has the good grace to blush and gestures to the others to tone it down. As their conversation descend to loud whispers, I am acutely conscious of my age....

Much talk in the last week of Britain's fractured society particularly with the horrific gangland style killing of an 11-year old boy in Liverpool. Everyone seems to agree that society is fractured, but there is disagreement on what to do to heal it. There is much talk about the role of "the community" which makes me irritable. Unlike Mrs Thatcher I do believe that society exists, but am unconvinced that many of the pundits actually know how to mobilize a community. Jack Straw says "lads need dads", suggesting that the black community needs to acknowledge this and promote it, yet I wonder how you actually put that into practice, beyond rhetoric. David Cameron abandons his hug-a-hoodie approach and suggests that offenders should be banged up in prison. Doing a U-turn so soon after his faux pas over hospital closures (he had claimed a number of hospitals were going to lose their accident and emergency departments, only to apologise to a few and then retracting the apology) certainly did nothing to strengthen his public image....

Excerpts from a press release sent to me from Storm Nigeria

"The event which has been tagged "FELABRATION 10" is a 5-daycelebration of Fela's life, music and spirit holds from the 9th-16thof October 2007. The events scheduled include:? Tue October 9th: World Movie Premiere of the previously unreleasedspecial movie of Fela ?Shuffering and Shmiling? and Kick Off Partyfeaturing celebrity DJ, Koffi? Wed October10th: Ladies Night. A day dedicated to the ladies tocelebrate Fela featuring special performances by frontline Nigerianfemale artists such as Zeal, Sasha, Niyola, Asa and many more.? Thursday October 11th: Classics and Yabis night featuring Veteranartists like Fatai Rolling Dollars and Victor Olaiya with acecomedians, Basket Mouth, Tee A and Julius Agwu handling the Yabisspecial. (Don?t forget Baba inspired most of the frontline comediansas a grand Yabis Master himself)? Friday October12th: Fela is Hip Hop featuring International hip hopartist, Nas as well as top Nigerian hip hop stars such as Mode 9,Ikechukwu, Naeto C, Thoroughbreds and Lord of Ajasa have already beenconfirmed to celebrate Fela, the hip hop way! (More to come)? Saturday October 13th: Block Party. All roads lead to the Shrine fora Street Party featuring Damian Marley and most of the big names inNigeria?s music industry.? Sunday October 14th: Fashion for Fela by award winning designer,Deola Sagoe featuring International models Oluchi, Agbani and Nnennaamongst many others. This will be followed by special performances byFemi and Seun Kuti.? Monday October 15th: All day Free feeding at the Shrine by theUnited Nations World Food Project (UNWFP)? Tuesday October 16th: Music Business Conference. The conference willbe held in honor of Fela with an aim to elevate the Nigerian musicindustry. The event will join major businesses, major players in theindustry as well as International resource people. Issues such aspiracy, distribution, broadcast, new technologies, internationalmarkets, regional markets, corporate support, the power of music to drive youth marketing and brands will be dealt with."

I've just finished Pies and Prejudice by Stuart Maconie, a wander through the North of England by a Northerner living in the South. There's lots of good writing and priceless nuggets of information but it's all mired in a mash of references to music and bands that I know little about which spoilt it a bit for me. Learning that there was a large Yemeni Arab community that settled in South Shields in the North of England in the 19th century was an eye opener for me. I'll be taking Bandele's Burma Boy, Oyeyemi's The Opposite House and Abani's The Virgin of Flames with me on my travels....

Now back to the desk clearing....

Friday, August 17, 2007

Overheard, brief summer, economic turmoil and bombarding the Garden City

I am sitting in a train carriage on my way out of London for work. Opposite me is a fifty-something year old American man who keeps applying and reapplying some kind of lip salve that makes his lips a funny white colour. Perhaps he has burnt his lips in the sun or has some sort of medical condition. He is wearing tortoiseshell glasses and a blue shirt with braces (the sort that Nigerian banking whiz kids rocked in the 90s before the finance houses collapsed) and throughout the journey he keeps up a monotonous conversation with various vassals and minions. “Who ordered the report on the India outsourcing? Have the clients been properly billed?” he drawls. The person at the other end barely has time to answer before he barks “Yes but I want to be sure that it’s billed to the right cost centre, is that clear?” He clicks his mobile shut and dials another number and the conversations continue. Nothing stops him, when the train passes through a tunnel and he loses his connection, he immediately dials again. Just listening to him and the way the tone of voice changes, it’s obvious that some minions are doing better than others. He even smiles once while talking to one. I think to myself, is this what it feels like to be Master of the Universe….I tried to see if I could pick up some trade secrets, maybe some hot investment tips but no way. I’ve heard some strange conversations on trains in my time but that’s a whole other blog.

It’s been raining most of this week, payback for the few days of summer that we’ve had I guess. At the weekend looking at all my colourful summer shirts I realized that I’ve hardly worn them this year. Shorts I’ve worn maybe twice, if that. Oh well….

My rusty economics has been receiving quite a stretch this week, what with stock markets plunging worldwide and Soludo at the Nigerian Central Bank announcing that from next year, he’ll be slashing two zeros off the naira. Expert opinions on both developments abound are so many and varied as to be useless. I wonder what it feels like to live through a Crash. Did people wake up in 1929 one morning to discover the markets had crashed, or was it a more gradual process? Were there warning signs that the smart ones picked up on, and the majority ignored? How will we know when the next one comes? Answers on the back of a postcard please.

Saw an interesting comment in one of the papers about how the denizens of the free market in the world’s financial centres were quite happy to receive a massive injection of public funds to shore up the stumbling market. So government intervention isn’t so bad then.

I’m reading Let Me Eat Cake by Paul Arnott, a kind of account of his growing up focusing on his love for cakes and sweet things. It reminds me a bit of Nigel Slater’s Toast in its evocation of a different Britain but isn’t as good. Earlier, I finished another collection of short stories, this time by a Chinese author. Yi Yun Li’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers which won the Guardian First Book Prize was great reading- capturing different facets of contemporary China in beautiful language and engaging plots.

What on earth is happening in Port Harcourt, our Garden City? I had e mails from friends there yesterday talking about bombardment by helicopter gun ships as the army tried to corral the gangs that have been terrorizing the city. Scary stuff it sounded like. Hope Jaja’s keeping safe- we need that magnum opus.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Zulu art by the Thames, tasty tomatoes, McEwan's Amsterdam and failed DNA tests

The weather continues to be distinctly more summery although there was a brief shower yesterday. I was walking along the Thames at the time and as I was umbrella-less I sought refuge in the Oxo Tower Gallery attracted by the stunning display of hand embroidered colourful umbrellas in the window. In the event they were way beyond what I could afford with a price tag of over a hundred pounds, but I was able to feast my eyes on Best of African Design: 100 % Zulu, an exhibition of Zulu arts and crafts currently running at the gallery….

To supper with English friends on Sunday who served a distinctly summery meal of slices of ham, tomato salad and potato salad which reminded me of reading Enid Blyton’s descriptions of the Famous Five feasting on picnics of ham and tomato. I often wondered then if the tomatoes were different from our Nigerian tomatoes, based on the heavenly way in which they were described. Now I find that if anything Nigerian tomatoes are more flavourful than the often insipid specimens that one finds here.…

Having stalked Ian Mc Ewan’s On Chesil Beach at the library for a few weeks now without any luck, I thought I might as well start on another of his books. And so I took out Amsterdam which won the Booker Prize in 1998. I was not disappointed, it’s a slim book, easily finished but packed a powerful punch. It had most of what I like in a book- a mixture of beautiful prose, a strong storyline that keeps me guessing what happens next and moral discussions that I can engage with. If On Chesil Beach is anything like it, it’ll probably earn him his next Booker….

Another discovery this weekend was The Red Carpet, a collection of short stories set mostly in contemporary Bangalore, by Lavanya Sankaran. As she explored the clash of cultures between a younger more American-influenced generation and an older more English colonial generation, she could have been writing I felt about Nigeria. Ditto for her story of the relationship between a driver and his young, modern Madam and another story about the fraught relationship between a young girl and her nurse. It’s been a while since I read a collection of short stories but so far, this is proving well worth it.

Helping a friend move yesterday, I spied in one corner of his emptying drawers a white plastic band which I soon recognized as a relic of the Make Poverty History campaign. In 2005 you could not turn your head without seeing this on nearly every wrist. As we cleared out the debris I wondered when and why people stopped wearing them. I mean it’s not like poverty’s been made history or anything…..

I remember arguing with friends a few years ago about the stipulation in MKO Abiola’s will asking most of his children to undergo a DNA test before they could benefit from the will. My argument was that Abiola was wrong in visiting the sins of the mothers on the children. Why did he not insist on the DNA tests at the time of birth? He was happy to fund lavish naming ceremonies and bankroll expensive educations and to act as father only for him to issue the killer punch so late in the day. Now that 25 of his children have “failed” the DNA test, the Nigerian media is agog. But to all those sneering, I would ask them to save their sneers as there’s no telling what conducting similar tests in their families might yield…

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Back on the blog, KLM rubbish, Booker longlist and TED Global talks

I haven’t blogged in a while, not because there was nothing to blog about- what with Yaradua’s “independence” moves in Nigeria, foot and mouth scares on farms and chaos at Heathrow in the UK and the alternately infuriating and depressing news of TV star Funmi Iyanda’s brush with the “fashion police” in Lagos, there’s been more than plenty to blog about. But it seems that the sunny weather we’ve had in the last week or so has lulled me into a state of lethargy. That combined with work where lots of colleagues are on holiday making things pretty tight and the relentless march of friends, relations and friends of friends and relations of relations visiting from Nigeria has pushed blogging way down the list of priorities but anyways here I am

I read the increasingly vociferous complaints about how shoddy services at Heathrow were in the last few weeks but took it all with a pinch of salt until I had a reality check the other day. I was seeing off an uncle flying back to Nigeria. First I tried to check him in online so that we could avoid waking up at 4 am to catch the 8 50 flight. The KLM website wouldn’t let me and I finally rang up the contact telephone number only to be told that the online system was down and check in over the phone would be to Amsterdam only so he would have to retrieve his luggage in Amsterdam and check it in again to Lagos. And so we lost a potential extra hour of sleep. Then he made the mistake of not weighing his luggage and so as soon as I arrived I asked a member of BAA staff where the weighing scales were only to be sent off in completely the wrong direction. We finally arrived at KLM business class and the attitude of the staff at the check in was atrocious. The two women were engaged in an obviously-more-important-than-work chat and ignored us standing there for a while. When I finally, ostentatiously cleared my throat, one of them caught my eye and with an “I suppose I better deal with you since you’re not going away” look sauntered over to the desk and started up the computer. Just as she was about to start the check in process, she reminded us that this was the Business class check in not economy. My uncle replied that he was well aware of this, only to have her supervisor retort sharply “A lot of people make that mistake, so she was only checking” The aggression seemed so unnecessary at 6 30 in the morning and in what was supposed to be business class that I asked her to please mind her business and let us get on with checking in which obviously did not go down well…. Then there was all the drama about the security queue. You could carry a laptop as long as it was not in its case through the barrier but then it did not matter how many bags you had subsequently. So my uncle had to take his laptop out, squeeze the laptop case into his briefcase but once he was through the barriers it was fine to take it out and put the laptop back in its case- I struggled to see the rationale for this….All in all I finally saw why people were complaining- I mean I wasn’t travelling but by the time I waved him through the security barrier I was exhausted…

I’ve just finished Cuban writer Abilio Estevez’s Distant Palaces and it suddenly struck me why Havana had seemed so familiar when I visited it a few years ago. It was the echoes of the ancient quarters of Lagos Island that did it- the crumbling Italianate mansions, the strong sense of a syncretic Catholicism, the salt tinged organic breezes of Marina and the Malecon against a backdrop of decay and vibrant human living. Reading Estevez, his descriptions of Havana could have been set in Lagos Island….

On the subject of writing, Helon Habila has an interesting piece on what I had earlier suggested was an amazing year for Nigerian writers. I’m particularly interested at his classification of contemporary Nigerian writers... And the Booker Prize longlist is announced with some surprise at the brevity of it, sadly there are no Nigerians on it and although On Chesil Beach and Winnie and Wolf were on my to read list, the rest are all new to me ….

Finally, in continued pursuit of Nigerians off the beaten track, I’m pleased to read that Tayo Aluko, the Liverpool based singer and architect is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this week; and to see The Financial Times at the weekend reveals that the chef at the new fashionable London restaurant La Petite Maison is Nigerian born Raphael Duntoye

And finally Nigerian writer Chris Abani's talk at TED Global earlier this year is now available and also here . Also worth listening to are Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, George Ayittey and William Kankwamba