Archive for the 'Burundi' Category

01
Dec
14

the ducor hotel

Even the smallest capital cities in Africa will have an outrageously opulent five-star hotel, but few command the highest point in the city like the Ducor Hotel in Monrovia – even while it sits in total dilapidation, a shell of a building where not even squatters are allowed. For ten bucks though you can enter the Ducor’s ruins and climb stairs to the top, getting superb ocean views  on one side and the whole city stretching down the coast on the other. Wikipedia’s entry for the Ducor is informative and mentions how the hotel was closed in 1989 prior to the civil war. It was then damaged by the fighting and heavily looted before displaced persons moved in to squat. In 2007, the government cleared out the building, and in 2010, there were plans from the Libyan government to refurbish it into a luxury hotel once again. That plan died when Gaddafi fell and the gutted remains have remained in the same miserable shape ever since, even though plants pushing through the cracks add vibrant color. Here is a quick visual tour:

2014_11_23_Ducor-1 2014_11_23_Ducor-2 2014_11_23_Ducor-3 2014_11_23_Ducor-4 2014_11_23_Ducor-5 2014_11_23_Ducor-6 2014_11_23_Ducor-7 2014_11_23_Ducor-8 2014_11_23_Ducor-9 2014_11_23_Ducor-112014_11_23_Ducor-10  2014_11_23_Ducor-13 2014_11_23_Ducor-122014_11_23_Ducor-14 2014_11_23_Ducor-15 2014_11_23_Ducor-162014_11_23_Ducor-17 2014_11_23_Ducor-192014_11_23_Ducor-182014_11_23_Ducor-212014_11_23_Ducor-20

18
Nov
14

the duke

Meet Duke Appleton, an illustrator who works regularly with UNICEF. On the sleepy Sunday after I arrived in Liberia, I saw him working on this mural, so I stopped and said hello to him and his assistant. It’s a mural that tells the story of an Ebola infection and tries to raise awareness about its phases and outcomes. Here’s the Duke at work:

2014_11_18_DukeAppleton-1 2014_11_18_DukeAppleton-22014_11_18_DukeAppleton-52014_11_18_DukeAppleton-62014_11_18_DukeAppleton-42014_11_18_DukeAppleton-32014_11_18_DukeAppleton-132014_11_18_DukeAppleton-112014_11_18_DukeAppleton-102014_11_18_DukeAppleton-82014_11_18_DukeAppleton-9 2014_11_18_DukeAppleton-72014_11_18_DukeAppleton-12

08
Nov
14

day 1 of about 200 in liberia

November 8, 2014

I arrived last night and spent my first day getting to know the team, organizing my stuff and generally ambling around town, observing. And it occurred to me that the main drag of Monrovia looked familiar. Not just from my time in East Africa, but it also looked remarkably similar to roads in parts of India, where I was last month. In fact, they all have a selfsame feel in the way that shops displayed their wares, a single asphalt track fell away on both sides to reveal dirt lots buffering shop fronts. The fixtures, the architecture, the shop names – they all had a vague resemblance, despite the countries’ vast differences. I recognized the feeling and what was causing it: we are, in some way, at the end of the world here. i don’t mean physically or even metaphysically, and certainly not judgmentally. This isn’t the end of a normalized civilization or an otherworldly universe. It’s something else: it’s a supply chain issue. The pattern I picked up was that Liberia and other developing countries sometimes don’t attract big brand names or household items. Their markets and shops draw from a hodgepodge of vendors from abroad, many of whom are small-scale or produce knock-off products that they slap Japanese-sounding names on.

Here are a few I noticed today:

1. When you don’t have big box marts around and you need blankets or curtains, you run the risk of creating color schemes that might show up at a classy brothel. The point of being on these sub-branches of the supply chain is you just don’t really have a choice.

IMG_3264

2. And sometimes you risk getting a blanket that says (in French): “a cloud floats in the sky” while underneath, a lamb floats in the sky with a bird.

IMG_32663. I wasn’t daring enough to try one, but I am intensely curious about a “Heineken Mexicano”. Please tell me you know what that is.

IMG_3254

So yes, we are here for a very specific focused task, and we will be throwing everything we have at ending this outbreak. But there’s lots going on here, too, that doesn’t have to do with Ebola. Liberia has a fascinating past and hopefully a strong future. For now, I’m here, and I’d like to show you as much as possible from that experience of simply being here.

14
Jun
14

the grass is always greener – if you paint it

june 14, 2014

The football is getting better, no doubt about that. The Netherlands looked good, but was it a display exaggerated by Spain’s futility? Still too early to read into the results.

In today’s shocking World Cup news: they’re painting the grass to make it look green for the England-Italy match.

I saw this John Oliver video about FIFA and it’s spot on. I want to laugh and laugh at it, but clearly the joke is on Brazilians.

11
Jun
14

why i might watch the 2014 world cup

june 11, 2014

I am a tireless football-lover, so I’ll talk about it any way I can. I’ll happily trot out the psycho-cultural stereotypes to pontificate why the Dutch will lose again, ready some Kleenex (or mugs) for the Brits and their post-Empire tears, wiggle my hips to imitate wiry South American dribblers. My credentials include two World Cups and my brother who was ball boy for the German team in 1994’s opening match. But the World Cup that is starting tomorrow?

Enh.

If you ask me why I was going to tune to this year’s edition in Brazil, I would say it’s because I am a consistent football fan. Now there’s an adjective to stir passions – “consistent.”

Having watched more and more football in the last couple years, and having learned more about economics, human rights issues, and international politics, I realized the sport itself – the on-field product – has shrunk into the least compelling part of the tournament.

Maybe that’s the stage this romance was always supposed to reach. For me, it started in 1986 when I was living in Hong Kong. I remember unfurling a sleeping bag at the foot of my parents’ bed so I could wake early each morning to flip on the TV. The tournament was half a world away in Mexico so I would watch with my dad while he dressed for work. That tournament was about one player: Diego Maradona. He quickly attained hero status with me. With a thrill, I thought, my tie-clad dad and this Argentine, the only one I knew, both were 5’5”. And both men had black hair – but that is definitely where the similarities ended.

In that tournament, I also remember a game of outrageous skill played between Brazil and France. I remember all the different flags and wondering why Italy wore blue. But always, Diego Diego Diego. Those baby blue and white stripes. The mediocre team around him and Maradona’s singular brilliance – which only stood out more for the contrast. I thought, some day I, too, could be 5’5”.

But that kind of devotion couldn’t last. My parents wanted their floor space back.

Since then I’ve discovered that I remember each tournament according to where I am in life, and maybe there is something to that. Sure, there is drama with goals and heroes and scapegoats – there has to be a winner every four years, after all. But something melds the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups in my mind into one thick gray personality. In terms of the football, the drama, and, most importantly (or vaguely), the feel, there’s a worn selfsameness that makes those three. So what happened?

On my side, it’s probably life-changes and increased awareness. In 2002, I had just graduated from college and was too impoverished financially and socially to transform the games into an event. I watched broadcasts on Spanish-language channels at home alone before waiting tables in the evening. In 2006, I had both of those missing cards: income and a diverse social group. The result was morning revelry at a local bar with many friends and more depressed Brits, my photo in the paper (online version), and a culminating event where we served fresh crepes and Spaghetti-O’s in martini glasses to celebrate the finalists. As an overall package, I had the most fun with the 2006 tourney.

But 2006 was also when my worldview started to broaden. I worked for the next two years interviewing political asylum seekers. I would then spend four years living and working in East Africa on human rights-focused aid projects while launching a radio show about life in Burundi. I would attend the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In the last couple years, I pursued Master’s degrees at Columbia in journalism and international affairs. And it would not be a stretch to say those experiences have ruined the World Cup for me – yes, including my attendance at the 2010 tournament.

For that tournament, I flew down from Burundi to South Africa to watch some games with my brother and my dad. It was great – it was like old times attending sports events in Chicago. And then I realized – that’s exactly what it felt like. Crowds filling up fast food joints before the game (we went to a KFC). Stadia hunkered in urban settings like Chicago. And the corporate sponsors. Most of all, that’s what made it feel like a typical commercial mainstream sporting experience. The sponsors were the same you find anywhere, like this (with a white picket fence!):

2010WorldCup_Budweiser

And they mandated that only certain foods could be sold or certain brands advertised, in effect, implying that only certain fans could attend to bankroll all this glitz. So that whole part about hosting the tournament in a brand new continent? New cultures, new fans, new foods, new everything? Marketing tools, no more.

Football has become, to me, a true commodity. The harder question was who gets to consume it? And more importantly, who or what is consumed?

This is what the past few years have taught me: There are issues larger than the game but they influence the outcomes disproportionately. Economics, human rights, inequalities – these things all matter.

Greed is winning over the game’s soul, says Nick Hornby, as players, agents, gamblers, and networks see gold. Owners smash and grab revenues and bribes (No hands, remember? It’s football.). It’s about rotten institutions run by rotten men. It’s become a shady shady enterprise where articles like this Economist piece deploy business-speak to describe FIFA, the football governing body (interestingly, the article’s print edition was “Beautiful Game, Ugly Business,” but online it’s now “Ugly Politics.”) We talk about sex workers, mostly young women, preparing for the spike in demand for their services, right alongside the young men preparing for the games – as if those are the respective roles. To some, they might be. And, most of all, it’s about inertia that helps perpetuate these problems.

The game feels that way, too. It’s not that there isn’t delicious football on offer. But since the late 90’s, European football has received so much coverage, from domestic leagues and tournaments to the Champions’ League, there are few major discoveries. Sports medicine ensures we watch the same players for at least a decade, so we’ve come to know every star intimately. Some surprises like North Korea’s promising start in 2010 gloss over the fact that most of their players played abroad in Europe and in Japan. The question was no longer whether we would be dazzled by new stars and playing styles but whether those brand names would meet expectations.

In this tournament, the sporting worries are already clear: too many injured players. Fatigue after long domestic seasons – by players and fans. Scorching humid conditions. The on-field product turn out kind of bland.

But all of that ignores the mass Brazilian opposition raging against the tournament for this extravagance that only enriches sponsors. Brazilians launch protests daily, some violent, some creative. They demand education and public investment, not just international prestige.

So when the cameras zoom out to a shot of the stadium and the surrounding bustle, I’ll be looking in the corners of the cityscape, wondering what happening in those margins. Sure, I’ll watch the games and what happens on those pretty manicured fields, but my thoughts may turn elsewhere between passes. I never thought I would say this, but football may have become a bit boring.

 

Oh, and Argentina will win.

 

29
Oct
13

there should be a new word for “writer/blogger”

October 29, 2013

Here’s an illustrative case of the continuing race to the bottom for journalism. The plagiarism language is appalling, but what about the job requirement of “making lists”??

Writer/blogger ad no longer shrugs at plagiarism. (From Poynter.org)

12
Aug
13

toward an idiocracy

Mike Judge’s movie Idiocracy came out in 2006 and largely flew under the radar, at least compared to the success of Office Space. I first saw Idiocracy in 2008, when I was living in Burundi. I could see Judge has an amazing ability to simplify without being simplistic. His movies offer landscapes that reward repeated views and explorations because his details are subtly incisive and biting; they are often the main source of commentary. Shiny polyester clothing that we pull out of dispensers? Fast food from vending machines? Rounded corners on all the buildings to protect us from ourselves? Wow, wow and wow. But the best part is the very direct premise loaded with implications. In short, the world is getting universally dumber because our breeding habits are exacerbating inequalities like social class, wealth and intelligence, and we as a society are focused on the wrong priorities. The most average person alive today would then become the smartest person in the world five hundred years ahead.

Even though Judge extrapolates far ahead to arrive at this dystopian future, his analysis begins now, and many of the signs, literally, are around us. The insidious creep of corporations sponsorship to show up on everything from stadia to subway stations to events to research projects, the unchecked privatization of basic services like education and healthcare, the obvious breakdown of effective representative government – these changes add up to Judge’s Idiocracy.

So in addition to blogging about media matters, development issues and my dog, I’d like to introduce a weekly post about how we are moving closer and closer to Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. Here is a current example.

In Idiocracy, the very average protagonist, played by Luke Wilson, stumbles into a movie theater, and this is playing.

Ass1 Ass2

Judge suggests movies are getting worse and worse, and who needs dialogue, plot or characters when you can have trashy and pointless images like a gratuitous (Oscar-winning!) bare ass? Occasionally it farts.

And we love it. We love it because it sucks and we as an audience have been dumbing down our tastes for decades. It’s so bad, it’s the best. Sound familiar?

Enter Sharknado and all that it represents.

A quick sweep online reveals numerous headlines with phrases like “so-bad-they’re-good” or “in praise of bad movies.” Some extol the virtues of occasionally consuming low-grade garbage because sometimes it’s so bad, it’s good. Like fast food?

Here’s an article in celebration of “Sharknado-bad” movies:

http://www.inquisitr.com/877066/12-shark-movies-that-are-sharknado-bad/

This Wired piece tries to dissect the phenomenon intellectually:

http://www.wired.com/underwire/?p=125205

Clearly, entertaining “bad” movies have been around as long as cinema, but Judge’s point is a question of standards, and ours, he suggests, are very slowly but steadily eroding when it comes to movies, much like other, more important areas of our lives. Maybe things will start to change when we start demanding that change. Otherwise, it’s just more of the same – or worse.

*** As a bonus, I’ve also been mentally tracking over the years the prescience of the movie Demolition Man, a very very loose adaption of Aldous Huxley’s classic Brave New World. So far, it has predicted:

– Arnold Schwarzenegger will become president. –> He’s already governor.
– People will be teleconferenced into and attend meetings with their faces appearing on monitors. –> Skype
– Taco Bell will be the main food supplier in a post-apocalyptic society. –> Extrapolated out to fast food in general and this is not too far off.
– Cars will become self-driving. –> Google car
– Wesley Snipes might kill us all –> pending…

Here’s an old New York Times article hailing the modest genius of Demolition Man.

04
Jul
13

i should blog more often. clearly.

july 4, 2013

July 4 (the non-British way to say it) has one of the best celebration arcs of any holiday. We spend all day clogging stuff up: checkout lines, roads, arteries, all in anticipation of a spectacularly concussive climax. Well done, America! You make blowing stuff up worth waiting for!

16
Jan
13

i not only waste time playing Scrabble, now i write about it, too

January 16, 2013

In between the non-profit jobs, the travels, the radio stuff, owning a dog, getting suits made, there’s a lot of waiting around. So naturally, I play Scrabble to pass the time. And over years, I’ve gotten better at it, because I play it competitively, even won some money along the way. At one point, I was the best player – in Burundi. And the only reason I’m not anymore is because I moved to New York.

So a couple friends forwarded me this article yesterday asking what I thought.

A researcher named Joshua Lewis suggested we modify the tile values in Scrabble. The argument goes that we use certain letters differently today than when Alfred Butts created Scrabble about 75 years ago. One cited example is that the Z is used more frequently and so should be worth fewer points, especially now that there is a two-letter word containing the Z (‘za’). Lewis is an American researcher but it’s interesting that British media picked up on this story in greater numbers and with more gusto – almost as if they had more at stake. Well, certainly the British use English differently these days – they sound more like Americans.

Blasphemy? I apologise – no wait, I apologiZe.

But this is a classic case of something being what it is and someone coming along, saying, “Well, ‘what is’ is different than ‘what was’ so we should make changes.” There’s a logical disconnect there. The former doesn’t really imply the latter. Let’s say we don’t change the tiles. The only consequence I can see is that scores will be slightly higher (maybe) compared to older scores. Serious players know you really score in Scrabble by playing all seven letters off a rack at once, which results in a 50-point bonus. I mean, come on, every real Scrabble player knows that. So it’s less important how much each individual tile is worth and more about how they function together to achieve a collective score, and it’s still darn hard to make a seven-letter word with a Q or a Z, no matter how much they’re worth.

The other big point why there is no need to change is because you are playing against an opponent, who is subject to the same scoring and same conditions. Scores in Scrabble are a bit like scores in basketball: you might know how to score points and can amass a lot but matched up against a solid defense and your score will obviously go down. It’s entirely possible that two masters of the game cancel each other out and both score below 400. Even when I score 400, that doesn’t mean I’m a better player than they are.

I know I’m shooting myself in the foot with these arguments. Potentially, I’m shooting many other people at the same time – these are the sorts of arguments that the gun lobby uses to justify owning M-whatever-heat-seeking-deathray-bubble-blasters instead of plain old muskets (hey, they were good enough for the Founding Fathers!). But this is Scrabble – the stakes are higher, the pressure more intense. It’s in every living room, every school. We can’t let the Brits’ funny language influence our quirky antiquated ways. Next would be the metric system, and before you know it, we’re a colony again.

(The simple solution: issue new editions with titles like ‘Original’, ‘2010 Edition’, etc., sort of like Trivia Pursuit.)

14
Jan
13

it’s not about you. it’s not even about me.

January 14, 2013

So. I am in New York now, after four years in East Africa. I have a dog that I brought back with me from Burundi. I am attending Columbia’s School of Journalism. I started a new photoblog. And the first thing I really want to write about after the long lay-off relates to a few threads that have criss-crossed in my last few years: identity, privacy, cultural appropriation and, of course, the media. And all of these themes sort of crashed together last night at the Golden Globes when, shockingly, a celebrity named Jodie Foster revealed herself to be a wildly independent and hyper-intelligent human being with a lot on her mind. We are all still reeling with this fact. Here goes. (And yes, I’ll get back to blogging about my life-events sooner than later but there’ll be more articles like this, too.)

The way the media has seized on Jodie Foster’s speech last night at the Golden Globes reveals a desperation to appropriate the world around us, as if a pageant of Olympian celebrities congratulating themselves was not enough of an artificial media ploy. Foster is probably gracious enough to answer follow-up questions to her speech but sharp enough to realize we have all missed the point.

This sample (http://jezebel.com/5975643/jodie-foster-comes-out-in-most-amazing-awards-speech-of-our-time) in particular jarred me into a frothy indignation. I haven’t seen an article so quickly and resoundingly get it all wrong. It begins, “OK, we need to walk through what just happened.”

Actually, no, we don’t. It’s her private life.  That’s the point. She will reveal as much or as little of it as she wants, in whatever way she wants.

The article’s suggestion of a “refusal” to come out is particularly baffling. It reminds me of the speculation with Anderson Cooper before he came out. One simply has to make a personal declaration in the way others have done – with the same words, looking straight into the camera. It is the tyranny of the collective with its Own Way. It might be important for a community to hear those exact words (“I am [fill with proper designation].), in that format, but that’s not how personal choices are made or communicated. As Foster suggested, we arrive at these choices in our own way and share them with the people around us: friends, family, colleagues. Funny enough, activists and fans aren’t on that list.

What is more important here is the tone, which hints at a larger cultural trait. The public, whether it’s one person or an audience, demands more and more to be addressed directly, with a clear pronouncement, squeezing out the words that we/they want to hear. The media happily feeds that obsession. The whole routine has the feel of a confession, in the way we push for an apology – from a child who refuses to say ‘sorry’ to a sibling to evasive politicians to governments demanding accountability over wartime atrocities. Except, of course, Foster has absolutely nothing to be sorry about.

So why is this speech so provocative? Is it because she has peeked out from behind the mask that we have placed on her? More than most she has had to live in a crystal-clear media-obsessed fishbowl since the 1970s (!), and – I’m confident in saying this – she is more intelligent than most in Hollywood (or anywhere). Maybe this speech grabs our attention because, for once, here is a real conflict without a script between vastly different adversaries: the personality-less celebrity we all want to possess and the unhappy and fiercely intelligent consciousness that refuses our labels. We are always shocked when someone disagrees so fundamentally with our desires.

Every time I have seen her on a screen – during an interview, in a film, at an awards show in France (presenting in flawless French, but with an American casualness), she has immensely impressed me. And I think that can easily translate into a desire to learn or know more about a person. If I step back and ask what is this chase really about, the answer would be simple: me. Us. But if we really want to appreciate a spirit like Foster’s, we might do better with the second person. You are out there. You have a (deeply) personal identity. You are in a world vastly different than mine. You speak faster than I can think. For the brief moments where you share your thoughts and presence, I’m glad for that. Let’s leave “us” out of this.




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