Category: Perspective

Dancing my weight away in West Africa

The year is 1985 and somewhere in the United States, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and a posse of their pop star chums huddle into a studio to sing for Africa’s supper.The song is the heart-stirring We Are the World.

Recorded to raise funds to aid citizens of a drought- and poverty stricken Ethiopia, the charity song du jour was accompanied by pictures of desperate-looking African others and ash-skinned children with torsos as thin as spaghetti, very large heads and bones you could count one by one. These were not just people in need of a meal; they were so starved they barely had the strength to breathe, let alone muster the strength to wave away the flies that congregated on their mouths.

There was famine in Africa. So God bless the pop stars.

More than 20 years later those images seem to have raised more ignorance than consciousness. Because, years later, people still perceive Africa as the starving continent. So much so that pop tart Mariah Carey once said she wants to visit Africa, if only for the circumstantial dieting that would be bound to succeed.

Meanwhile, the news that I was planning to travel to West Africa was met with concern by family and friends that I would be afflicted with all sorts of diseases or even starve, though some in my circle seemed to feel that it would help me to shed the excess weight I have carried all my life.

Indeed, after spending a year and five months in West Africa, I am 40kg lighter. But it was not from starvation.

On the contrary, West Africa turned out to be the land of plenty food. There is food around the clock here: from the street chow standard of rice and meat sauce to kebabs, braai meat, fried fish, chips and plantain. The region has so much food, I began to feel as though I was starring in Supersize Me: West Africa.

In Senegal I piled on the lard by way of schwarmas and the nation’s beloved and addictive rice and fish dish, tcheip djenne.

Mali has as many braai and roastmeat outlets as it does mosques. And here, people will chase you down the street to invite you over for lunch. Though polite, Malians do not take no for an answer. They also do not accept that you have had enough to eat unless they see you flatten the mountain of food they put in front on you.

In Burkina Faso tasteless local food forced me into a staple of fried chicken and chips.

This was a mere five weeks into my trip and already I was starting to swell up.

Then came Ghana with its jollof rice, a rice-and-bean dish called waatchi, fried rice and much more that I was only too happy to sample.

Jollof rice served with plantain and meat. (Rosalyn Davis/Flickr)

On to Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire. It is said West Africans spend a whack of their money on clothes and food. Ivorians are over the top in this regard with Abidjan being Frenchspeaking West Africa’s capital of food, booze and partying. Here, everyone who sells food does it around the clock. And it is not just your standard kebabs and sandwiches.

Some nightclubs have fully fledged outdoor restaurants. And if a plate of grilled chicken and attieke (cassava) are not your thing, take a few steps on to the streets and you can have even more of food you would never associate with a post-clubbing binge, like pork stew.

I was now six months into my trip. My French was starting to pick up. So I could at last understand what Salif Keita was saying in his song Africa. The song is a declaration of the good times that are rolling in our continent, which he reiterates by stating “manje beaucoup” (“eat lots”). He then has a verse in which he lists some of West Africa’s culinary delights, including tcheip, fufu, alloko, yassa, peanut-butter stew and attieke, which also doubles as a breakfast staple served with fried fish, raw chilli and a splash of oil.

Spicy West African peanut stew. (leshoward/Flickr)

I was in trouble.

I even started wishing that there was some truth in the prevailing stereotype of Africa being the land of starvation.

I had to act. This journey started in April 2009. The results have convinced me that anyone with lots of lard to push and some cash to spare should indeed head to West Africa.

The region has hundreds of robust traditional dances and I started to learn them on a rooftop in Bamako.

Thinking I was alone in fighting my lard, I was wonderfully surprised when a teenage girl walked up to me to offer her services as a “jogging partner”.

There is also zero privacy here. So my afternoon dance sessions were a daily spectacle for the neighbourhood, which made people offer tips and encouragement at every turn.

Random strangers in Guinea, Conakry, Ghana, Togo and Benin, where I was scattering my fat, had advice to offer. The region is obsessed with fitness. Noting a fat person attacking her lard, people would invite me to play beach soccer, join their troupe for an afternoon, tell me where to find fresh produce and offer me their kitchens so I could cook my own food.

They turned into a colony of personal trainers and gatekeepers I had to account to. Especially the children. They demanded that I spend many hours chasing after them or teaching them dance routines that they already knew better than me.

I left South Africa open to the journeys that I knew would come out of the act of booking my ticket out of the country. Yet losing weight was far from my mind. And it struck me, as the kilos started peeling off, that Africa is indeed the land of clichés.

The most enduring are of Africans as loving, humane and selfless.

My waist is a case in point.

Lerato Mogoatlhe is a South African journalist travelling around the continent. This post was first published in the M&G newspaper.

Accra to Ouagadougou: A long, winding road

We had just settled down to enjoy the journey to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital city. We were over the bumpy part of the road outside Accra and the luxury bus was air conditioned. But it wasn’t the long distance ahead of us that began dampening my spirits. It was the driver.

When he got to a shopping complex near a town called Nsutan – just 50km out of Accra – he slowed down, turned off the road and stopped. I did not know it was common for luxury buses to stop for passengers to refresh themselves during a journey. And even if they had to stop, I felt it was too soon. But the driver and his assistant got down and went into the complex, the passengers following on their heels. Thirty minutes later, the driver came and announced: “Let’s move on.”

I was at the beginning of my journey to Ouagadougou to attend a conference of international journalists, which was starting the next morning. I did not want to be late and we still had more than 720km to go.

After the passengers got back into the bus, the journey continued. Buses like the one I boarded abound everywhere in the West African sub region. They are supposed to be comfortable, slow to break down and quick to get to passengers’ destinations.

But things were not going as they should have. At Kumasi, 200km from Nsutan, the driver drove the bus to a filling station and stopped once again. When I asked why he could not just go on, he snapped: “If you’re so desperate to get to Ouagadougou, why didn’t you take a plane?”

It was clear that this was going to be a tiring journey.

After the driver finished refuelling the bus, we headed for Tamale, a town more than 200km from Kumasi. As the bus crawled on, the driver stopped briefly at Tetina to pick up passengers. I discovered this was normal practice for drivers along their routes. I wanted to ask him whether the money would go into his employer’s coffers but I did not. Like bus drivers everywhere, the driver would oppose anyone who questioned his behaviour.

A few hours after we left Tetina, we encountered another bad piece of road. There were gullies, potholes and loose stones in and on the highway. To cope with them, the driver slowed down.

After two hours on the bad road, the bus got to a transit spot called Sawara in Katanpon, about 96km from Tamale in northern Ghana. The driver, who had been behind the steering wheel for 12 hours, stopped the bus, got down and sneaked into one of the joints in the place. After 30 minutes, he emerged, refreshed. His assistant took his position behind the steering wheel. This too, I discovered, was standard practice.

Now that it seemed we were making progress I felt better disposed to appreciate the buses. A 40-year-old Ghanaian acquaintance told me in Kumasi they had been around since he was a young boy. He told me a luxury bus could make as much as 3 500 cedis (more than $2 000) from an Accra-Ouagadougou return trip.

Our bus was typical of thousands of luxury buses that ply their trade in the region. They provide employment for drivers, ticket issuers, managers, clerks and canvassers, rescuing many young men and women from unemployment in the villages or from perpetrating crime in the cities.

Besides, when the buses stop at transit points, they are besieged by hawkers, who offer passengers all manner of goods for sale. The buses also carry traders and their goods around the region. They provide a reliable, regular service and so boost business.

By 8am we had crossed the border. When we drove into Po, a small town in southern Burkina Faso, the driver slowed down and stopped. He said that armed robbers were fond of attacking buses a few kilometres further up the road. He would not continue unless escorted by policemen through the area.

An hour later policemen escorted us past the trouble spot and we closed in on Ouagadougou, thinking there would be no more problems. But there were – the bus hit an enormous pothole just before a narrow bridge some kilometres from our destination. I hit my head against the window, bruising it. But the driver steadied the bus and crossed the bridge.

He stopped the bus at the Ouagadougou International Bus Station at 12 noon, 29 hours after leaving Accra. I was late for the conference, but I nodded to the driver and he gave a thin smile. As I moved towards a street, I sighed. It was the longest journey of my life.

Adetokunbo Abiola is a prize-winning Nigerian journalist and author. This post was first published in the M&G newspaper. 

I’m getting married, please send money

It’s eight in the morning when I enter the office gate just after dropping out of the minibus taxis – famously known as daladala – and my cellphone rings. I take it out of my jeans pocket only to find that it is one of my college mates, an old friend who I have not seen for months.

“Hey Erick, how are you?” he asks by way of greeting. “You are not seen – I just find your name in the papers.”

I give him an excuse about a busy life at the newspaper in Dar es Salaam that doesn’t seem to allow me to meet regularly with old friends, but I tell him that I’m doing fine. After some small talk the real reason for his call comes out.

“My friend, I am getting married in the next two months and I really need your support,” he says. I can’t possibly reject his request outright so out comes my standard response: “Hey, congratulations, man, count me in.”

But, really, all I can think of is the small table in my bedroom where, just next to my computer, there are about five cards from close and not-so-close friends with the same request – an appeal for a contribution to a wedding.

The texts in the cards are almost the same. “The family of so-and-so is happy to inform you that their beloved son/daughter is getting married in October. We have a pleasure to ask you for your participation by contributing some money and moral support. Please give the money to the one who gave you this card or contact the phone numbers below.”

This wedding “contribution” has become part of Tanzanian culture.

Weddings are a big thing – not just a family function as in some other countries but, rather, a community event. Relatives, friends, neighbours and colleagues are invited to be part of it, but not just by attending but also by giving generous financial assistance.

Like most things, it starts at the family level, where all the traditional processes such as dowry payments take place. It is the family that sets the wedding date – and the budget.

After that’s decided the family helps to make up special “contribution cards” for the bride and groom, which are delivered to relatives and friends of the family. Contributors are given at least three months to make sure they have ample time to get it together.

But the collection starts as soon as the cards go out. Every weekend, relatives and close friends who form the wedding committee meet to see how much they have collected and how the preparations are proceeding – what is going on with the wedding hall, the decorator and the caterer, and how much else they can pack into the budget.

As the wedding day gets closer, the committee reminds contributors of their promises by sending SMSes, or visiting them in their offices and homes, to make sure they cough up.

“As a close dear friend and relative, you are reminded to submit your contribution to fulfil the preparation of my wedding. God bless you!” is the sort of text message that arrives on my phone almost every weekend.

But it’s not just for the wedding that contributions are expected. For the bride, there is also the kitchen party, organised by the bride’s mother and aunts, and it is women only affair. Of course, guests do not get into the kitchen party for free either. They must contribute money for drinks and snacks, and arrive with a kitchen gift to help stock the bride and groom’s new home.

A week after the kitchen party the bride’s family also organises a prewedding party, famously known as a send-off party, which includes all invited guests.

At this party guests eat, drink and dance and at the end of it everyone , even those who attended the kitchen party, congratulates the bride to be – and bestows yet another gift on the happy couple.

The big event is normally hosted by the groom’s family. After the religious ceremony, either in church or in a mosque, the party moves to a hall for the reception. More food, drinks and dancing, with, of course, a present for the newly married couple.

Guys like me with many young friends shell out more than R400 every month for weddings or sendoff parties. And, as men, we’re lucky – we don’t have to include the kitchen party in our budget.

I am still recovering from what I gave out last month when two close friends got married.

I had to contribute about Tsh50 000 (about R220) to Rose’s send-off party and the same amount to Alex’s wedding. But, it didn’t end there. Alex was my roommate at university and he asked me to be one of the groomsmen so I had to buy a new suit, white shirt, a pair of shoes and a tie.

I sank about another Tsh300 000 (R1 300) – the equivalent of a secondary school teacher’s monthly salary – on just one wedding. I suppose we can blame Julius Nyerere’s “communalism” theories.

In Tanzania, the “contribution” is more about sharing than anything else. Even if the family is wealthy people still contribute in a show of “sharing”. And even though people complain about it they still have to contribute. It’s a kind of “if you do me, I do you” game. When my time comes, I’ll approach all those who I contributed to – a sort of money back guarantee.

But even if it’s all in the spirit of sharing don’t even think of going to anyone’s wedding if you didn’t contribute. Wedding invitations per se are sent out only a few days before the wedding and whether you make the guest list always comes down to how much you contributed. But never mind about how much you gave, it all goes towards making the couple’s big day.

Erick Mchome was the Mail & Guardian’s David Astor fellow in 2011. This post was first published in the M&G newspaper.

Flying Air Zimbabwe

They filed in, summoned by the booming voice of the announcer: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a call for passengers travelling on Air Zimbabwe flight UM700 to Harare. Please report to your boarding gate as your flight is ready for departure.”

Little did these passengers know in September 2011 that they were among the last that would fly with Air Zimbabwe out of London’s Gatwick Airport for a long while.

Some were in their Sunday best, putting on a smile and engaging in small talk. Others were dressed unceremoniously, clearly exceeding the permitted limit of hand luggage and sheepishly approaching the counter. I was one of those passengers waiting for my name to be called, excited about my perennial trek to Zimbabwe.

Let me introduce you to some of the characters on my flight. There was George, who was trying to hit on one of the flight attendants who wore a creased dress and smudged make-up, but made up for it with a wide smile.

Ko shamwari ronga ka imwe Castle kufridge,” George said to her. (My friend, please get me another Castle from the fridge at the back.) In no time she came back with what she had been asked to bring, not just for George but for his friends as well. Two shocks here.

First, we had not even cleared European airspace and George was already tipsy. (This was going to be a long journey back home.) Second, you could not miss the labels in Chinese on all the soft-drink cans that the air hostess brought for George and his friend. A new form of imperialism, perhaps.

Opposite me sat a couple and their kids, bragging with their red British passports granted in exchange for the green ones from Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean passport can make your stay at immigration a tad longer, but it is also a nostalgic document that defines a Zimbabwean and is coupled with the intricacies that accompany getting it.

The father noticed me watching him zealously guard his newly acquired red passport. I think it gave him an exaggerated sense of self-importance, because he remarked: “My brother, the interesting bit is that I now need a visa to come back to Zimbabwe.” I gave an artificial smile. The kids seemed more sober, saying they looked forward to going to “Africa”, as one of them shouted, which sent a ripple of laughter among those listening.

There was banter coming from a corner of the aeroplane. A debate had ensued between three males, probably in their late 20s, about which boys’ school was the best in Zimbabwe. It was interesting how a journey back home, a few beers and a topic of common interest could unite people.

One bulky chap sporting a designer cap bragged about how his school, Prince Edward Boys’ High, or “the tigers” as they were affectionately known, was the best school in Zimbabwe. Another man, who had gone to Churchill Boys’ High School, also known as “the bulldogs”, immediately interjected, accusing the “tigers” bloke of being crass and myopic in his assertion.

A volley of questions came from the third guy, who essentially killed the debate. He had attended St Johns Boys’ High School, or “the rams”, and asked a question that led to silence: “What have you guys done for your schools since you left?”

The United Kingdom can be a cruel place that makes you forget not only giving back to your high school, but even to your relatives.

I sat next to a man who was returning home as a failed asylum-seeker. He had exhausted all available avenues to lengthen his stay in the UK. He really wanted to send money home, but life on the island was not as rosy as many back in Zimbabwe thought it would be. If his original projected income was anything to go by, he would have been Richard Branson by now.

He described his tactics for staying longer in the UK, which included being put on a Kenyan Airways flight back to Zimbabwe as part of a forced removal. As soon as he got on the aeroplane, he began to shout like an insane person. It sent the people on the aircraft into a frenzy, causing widespread panic, and the captain had no option but to force him to be removed from the flight. So much for enforcing a forced removal; he lived to see another day in the UK.

Some stories on the journey back home were entirely sober. There was the old lady in front of me, who was elated to have been able to visit her son and grandchildren in Portsmouth. She had held her son’s children and could finally die in peace in Zimbabwe.

There was the businessman on the other side of her, who gave a disparaging look to the three debaters as they made a noise. He looked like someone who had secured some serious business deals and was about to make it big in Zimbabwe. Then there was the lady dressed in black from head to toe. She never said a word and just drank juice and water. Her story was revealed on arrival: she was accompanying her dead sister on the same flight. It is much more expensive to come back home dead than alive.

Sadly, there was another death revelation. One of the guys in the debating team discovered the real reason for being summoned home on arrival at the airport. He was not coming to attend to a sick father, as he had believed. He cleared immigration only to be greeted by the wailing of his siblings: his father had died. The coolness he had displayed on the flight evaporated and the two others with whom he had debated disappeared into the throng.

As for me, I was home to enjoy a short holiday and collect data for my research, which is based on the use of narrative and story in explaining the lived experience. By the time I had landed, I had unexpectedly collected quite a bit.

On arrival in Harare I was welcomed by the warm embrace of my grandmother. She ran towards me like a young girl. As her tears began to soak through my shirt, I thought how wonderful it was to be back home.

Initially, I felt like a stranger in my homeland, but I adjusted easily to the usual problems: power cuts, water rationing, news of deceased friends. I also got used to a notable absence of friends who were now mostly in a world called the “diaspora”.

A month later I was sad to be leaving, once again boarding an Air Zimbabwe flight back to London. I took with me more stories of how people manage to survive socially and economically in Zimbabwe.

It got me thinking that Zimbabweans really are a special breed. They are great survivors. And their stories tell just that.

Willie Tafadzwa Chinyamurindi is a researcher with the Open University Business School in Milton Keynes, United Kingdom. This post was published in the M&G newspaper. 

Rock on down to Electric Avenue

Disco lights shine through the jet of piss arching from the groin of an ill-mannered youth to the dusty face of the street. The lights spectacularly change the urine’s usual beer-tinted jaundice to a glorious mix of green, red, blue, pink and, yes, purple, in rapid succession. It is the randomised colours of the rainbow, a celebration of life.

After a record-breaking long piss, the arc lazily breaks into a straight line of a trickle, then splutters to a sudden stop. A quick shake follows, breaching the mandatory three, and becomes a small act of self-gratification. Etiquette kicks in; he zips and the games begin.

Welcome to Electric Avenue, the epicentre of Nairobi’s nightlife.

The city’s classes are well represented in the sample here: clowns, ladies and gentlemen of the night, civil servants, wannabe artists, cooks and watchmen, corporate and chief executive types, taxi drivers, students, informal pharmacists and their victims — and even some grannies. On Electric Avenue, they are all sexogenerians.

The sun goes down, as a matter of habit, at a few minutes to seven. It is a vagary of living close to the equator and a chime for the aficionados of the nightly arts to serenade the town. Participant observation is the best way to appreciate the unfolding drama.

Behold the street wildlife. There is a pageant of antelopes. They glide by high in seven-inch heels, balancing their unearthly forms in bipedal locomotion. They seem to have no kneecaps. Waistlines are kept within bounds with “figure belts” — that remnant of the Eighties, minus the trademark butterfly of that befuddled decade. A delicate neckline peeks above the forced cleavage. The skin at the bottom of the neck is given texture by rashes, a virulent symptom of black skin angrily reacting to dead or fake Indian hair. It is the kind of picture that appears on the Men against Weaves and Extensions Facebook group, collateral damage for the battle between contrived aesthetics and dermatology.

The lions sit easy in wait for game. Their flaccid tummies sag with gravity. Too heavy to climb high trees, they go for low-hanging fruit. Darker hair means more years. Like Mugabe, like Gaddafi, like Biya, the shoe polish-like dye to blame. Their big bright collars pop out of their brightly coloured shirts to frame their fat napes, double chins and rotund cheeks, like a coconut fruit popping from the bum of a fully unfurled peacock. They might be red-hot gay, if not for their unshapely potbellies or choice of aftershave, or their patent homophobia.

Then there is the matriarchal, late-thirty something, six-strong girl pack sitting at a lone loud table in the middle of the club. These female hyenas are ready to chew off any intruding males’ ears. The crux of the evening’s conversation is punctuated by the occasional complaint about a dark spot that stubbornly refuses to go away, praises for acetone-free nail polish, Woolworths underwear, the wonder-working wrinkle cream and the comfortable seats of the little car. Among mankind, only Steve the mechanic gets positive mention. He knows how to fasten wheel caps.

The lions don’t pay attention, not even to those big handbags that may comfortably conceal a panga, a truncheon and handcuffs beside lipstick tubes, eye pencils and a tubular mini-Steve the mechanic in purple. Only the naive young male hyena may dare intrude, for he senses not the high-octane oestrogen.

But it is the political types that are hilarious to watch. Their sense of aesthetics permits the strutting of 5kg of fat just above the groin with utter impunity. The cheesy meaculpa for these one-packs is that they are a fuel tank for sex machines. No one breaks the news to the emperor about his really big tummy.

Only the button threads straining through the lower buttonholes of their shirts may screech. Maybe, too, the frustrated woman who calls an FM station to complain about the fuel tank and how it has robbed their man of his full glory.

Politicos are the real grains of dust in this city — simultaneously predators, scavengers and parasites — but also ethical agents in a strange moral universe and trendsetters of aesthetics. In their own inelegant way they still manage to set the standards for social aspiration. The title maketh the man; the abbreviated Hon is the most sought after.

Their pointed shoes, known as sharpshooters, are unfamiliar with mud and have broken well into the carpeting in their homes, offices and even their private chambers. They wear the big gold ring, gold-plated oriental watches and the gold bracelet with gold buckles on their belts
and shoes.

At 2am a kind of liturgy is playing out. Some religious rules of a sort are at play. It is time to punish the body. Livers are shrinking. Oral tissue is burning. Lungs labour to manage the balance of smoke and oxygen. Tendons are stretched by contracting muscles. The street gets jam-packed. It is pumping. The party has started all over again. If you missed the song earlier, it is replaying. Tomorrow, your ears will still be throbbing.

Godfrey Chesang lives and loves in Nairobi. This piece was first published in the M&G newspaper.