Friday, October 23, 2009

25 years after Ethiopian famine, donors still reliant on reactive food aid


Twenty-five years ago today, BBC correspondent Michael Buerk filed this report on Ethiopia's now infamous famine. I watched it again today, and I had forgotten how harrowing it was. For me the worst image wasn't the skeletal corpses of young children. It was hundreds of desperate people tottering across the plain on stick-thin legs, using up what little energy they had left in a shaky sprint prompted by the rumour of a food delivery.

Buerk's dispatch prompted Band Aid's "Do They Know Its Christmas?" single and the subsequent Live Aid concerts, raising millions of pounds. But over a million people still died.

So, 25 years later, have we learned anything from the Ethiopian famine? Not according to Oxfam. Its report, Band Aids and Beyond, says donors are still focusing on "knee-jerk" emergency food deliveries rather than trying to prepare communities for drought and developing local capacity.

Ethiopia proved Oxfam's point on Thursday, appealing for emergency food aid to feed 6.2 million people. Across the East and Horn of Africa 23 million people are facing hunger and need assistance. Should we be surprised by this? Drought has long been a problem in the region, and is just going to get worse as climate change hits home. Yet hardly any money is flowing into programmes designed to help communities cope by doing simple things like collecting rain water.

Late last year, I travelled around the border region of Kenya and Ethiopia, visiting communities hit by the long-term drought. Not one of the village I visited were doing anything to help themselves, other than to buy guns to steal cattle and pasture from other tribes.

So why are these communities so passive? Because they are used to receiving massive dumps of food aid or having water trucked in by Western donors. They are happy to sit and wait for aid workers to come and do for them simple things they could do themselves - like putting up guttering and storage tanks to collect water when it does rain. Even that task has been farmed out to donors, who are doing too little of that kind of work.

The guy I was travelling with - who worked for a donor agency doing some small-scale work in drought preparedness - has worked in the region for over two decades and witnessed the growing dependency on aid. At a village meeting under an acacia tree, he went as far as telling the community they had "turned into a bunch of beggars".

He was right, except it isn't really their fault. We have turned them into a bunch of beggars.

Commercial and political interests lie behind the focus on food aid, and the US is simultaneously the biggest donor and culprit as Nicholas Martlew, the author of the Oxfam report, told me.

"There have been attempts to de-link aid from narrow commercial interests, but the US farm lobby has blocked progress," he said. "There are also political reasons (for food aid): it looks good to have sacks of food sent by the US people arriving in disasters-hit regions."

You only have to look at the makeshift shelters thrown up by refugees to see how much food the US dumps on communities - empty cans, boxes and sacks bearing prominent US logos are a popular and readily available building material, as evidence in the photograph, taken at Dadaab refugee camp.

Sending food aid is expensive for the US taxpayer, according to Oxfam costing up to 2 dollars to pack and ship each dollar of food. But the powerful farm lobby is not keen to see US dollars being given directly to people in developing countries to buy food locally, as many economists and charities are now recommending as a way of developing local markets.

The new US administration says it wants to change its focus to help local farmers produce more. This year, the US committed 3.5 billion over three years to help increase global food security. By contrast, in 2008, Food for Peace – the US’s main food aid programme – spent 2.6 billion dollars delivering food produced in the US to 49 countries. So there is still some way to go. But at least it appears to be a move in the right direction.

It is clear that food aid cannot be just cut off. But until donors start shifting funding toward pre-emptive measures, they and the countries they are trying to help will be caught in a reactive and expensive cycle of aid dependency. And that is not good for anyone.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

When not to cheat in your exams


I know that the cops in Kenya are trigger happy, but this image from today's Standard shows things might have gotten a bit out of hand.

Teacher: "Johnson, is that writing on your arm? Cheating, eh? Officer!"

BLAM! BLAM!

(Johnson sprawls dead to the ground, blood mixing with ink on his scrawny 15-year-old arm).

Teacher: "Let that be a lesson to the rest of you."

(Silence and the sound of scribbling. Whispering at the back of class)

Teacher: "Njoroge, are you passing a note? Officer!"

BLAM! BLAMBLAMBLAMBLAM!

Njoroge turns into a bloody rag.

(More silence. Then the sound of scraping)

Teacher: "Hey Odinga. Are you writing answers on the floor with Njoroge's blood? Officer!"

BLUDGEON! SMACK! BLAM! BLAM!

And so on.

Could this be a solution to the breakdown in discipline in UK and US schools? I find teenagers really annoying, so I'm all for it.

In fact, maybe we can send some Kenyan police to Geneva to wipe out all those tectonic kids with their spazzy dancing and daft haircuts (please note kids: the mullet looked appalling the first time around, inserting euro- or fashion- before the phrase does not actually affect the sheer awfulness of this style)*

Officer: "Hey, are you dancing like you have a family of large and energetic spiders living in your pants, spraying teenage hormones over passers by and generally just blocking the street with your desperate, pathetic attempts to find someone who is actually foolish enough to shag you?"

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM BLAM BLAM-BLAMBLAMBLAM! (Brief pause for reloading) BLAMBLAMBLAMBLAAAAAAAAAMMMMMMM!

We have to be sure they are dead.

*Disclaimer: I am not really advocating the mindless and brutal slaughter of teenagers who are simply finding ways of expressing themselves, as I too have had many stupid haircuts and wore things like leopardskin fringe jackets. If a psychotic killer armed with grenades, knives and automatic weapons should head down to Lake Geneva, just down from the Jet d'Eau, near the bridge and just across from the Old Town on any Saturday afternoon and let fly, I am not responsible.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

KPLC, you are my Mr. Miyagi


Dear Kenya Power and Lighting Company,

I am writing to express my gratitude to you for teaching me a valuable life lesson. As Mister Miyagi mentored the Karate Kid, so have you mentored me. Only one year ago I was an uptight Mzungu, full of trivial earthly desires, such as having lights to stop me falling down the stairs at night and power for mere trifles like hot water and cooking.

Today, thanks to your regularly administered power outages and trance-inducing delays in fixing said outages, I am a humbled, patient man.

Only one year ago, I believed that power companies would try to plan for contingencies. I thought, for example, that you would have considered that Kenya is prone to periods of drought, that it has several rainy seasons each year and that rapid urban expansion is demanding more power.

Can you believe I actually thought that you, KPLC - and your masters the Kenyan government – would be grappling with these issues and trying to find ways to solve them?

Yes, I was that fool. But you, KPLC, wisest of all power companies, have taught me the error of my ways.

You understand that to attempt to battle Mother Nature is like trying to grasp mist. It is better to simply allow the hydroelectric dams to run dry, then raise your hands to the sky and cry : “Mother Nature has decreed there will be no power!” Then double the price of electricity.

When the rains come, when the power lines across Nairobi spit out blue fire in praise of the Electricity Gods and homes are plunged into darkness, it is best for the lady in your call centre to tell your customer, who is calling you for the fifth time in two days: “It is the rain.” Then hang up.

But your repairmen, truly they are masters of zen.

A few months ago, I would hop with anger and yell, my face going bright red like so many of those others silly white people who are always complaining about something or other. I would wonder why on earth these repairmen had to keep coming back – more than a dozen times in six weeks - to “fix” the same problem

Then today I met your team, who turned up a mere 48 hours after I first reported my power was down. These men, five perfect proponents of Zen, were parked outside my neighbour's gate in a tiny van, waiting for the guard to let them in. After waiting for ten minutes, during which period not one of them got out of the van to find out what was going on – what patience! - I came back from the office and led them to the right compound.

These men are astonishing. They live in the moment like no other human being. They proudly announced to me that the problem was solved because they had “changed a fuse.” Lo, was my electricity restored!

What mastery of the time/space continuum! What a complete lack of memory of previous visits! Even my attempts to explain to them how electrical systems actually work and that a blown fuse is usually a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself - particularly when it blows repeatedly - could not penetrate their Zen armor. These men will return tomorrow to change the same fuse, completely unaware of what went before. Amazing!

It was at this point I finally realized the error of my ways. As I watched them climb back into their van and drive away, content at a job well done, I knew I must follow your example.

From now on, no problem in my life will go resolved. If anything goes wrong, I will simply blame a series of entirely predictable and preventable factors instead of facing up to the problem. I will refuse to learn from any experience. I will forget what went before and concentrate on maintaining a perfect state of reactive vacancy.

And, most importantly, the next time the power fails, I will not call you. I will simply wait patiently, my hands folded, and contemplate the majesty of life while the milk goes off in the fridge and my infant child cries in the dark for its mother, who has fallen done the stairs and broken her neck in the darkness.

This gift you have given me.

Regards,
Michael Logan.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Aggravated Homosexuality punishable by death

"Aggravated homosexuality" may sound like what happens when a gay man comes home grumpy following a shitty day at work and decides that a quick worship at the Church of Man Love will calm him down, only to find that his bad temper lingers and he is too spanky for his partner's taste.

But alas it is far more sinister than that.

"Aggravated homosexuality" is in fact a proposed offence in Uganda's new Anti-Homosexuality bill and covers people who have gay sex with under 18s or disabled people, or who have gay sex while HIV positive. If the bill is passed, this offence will be punishable by death. That's right. Death. I don't know if they would kill somebody three times for having sex with a disabled person under 18 while HIV positive, but given Uganda's tough on gays, tough on the causes of gays policy, it wouldn't surprise me.

The Gambia's insane President Yahya Jammeh periodically threatens to cut the heads of gay people, but he never does it. However, Uganda may actually be hanging gay men in the next few years. Now, being gay and Ugandan has never been a happy combination - is is already illegal and gay and lesbian people are subject to arbitrary arrest and assualt - particularly given the virulent Christianity popular there, but this takes the biscuit.

Even if this particular paragraph is not passed or is never put into practice, the rest of the bill is just as harsh. Seven years imprisonment is the punishment for "promoting homosexuality", which rights groups say will hamper their work and also threaten the battle against HIV/AIDS. Straight people can be prosecuted for failing to report suspected homosexuals.

Unfortunately, anyone who lives in East Africa will not be surprised that a bill like this could be passed. I have asked many people here about their attitudes to gay and lesbian people and unfortunately there is a strong belief that they deserved to be punished for their crimes against God.

If I were gay and Ugandan, I would be packing up right now and heading for Mombasa to hitch a lift on a gay cruise ship, where I could happily play shuffleboard and have massive amounts of consenual gay sex with whoever I want, even if they do have a limp (please note only one of these pursuits is perverted).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Lazy writer

After a massive spurt (Carry On fans, feel free to titter), I have not written a single word on the book for the last week. This is partly because we were down at Steve and Sue's villa on the Indian Ocean, oh posh us, and I went on a reading frenzy while lying on the terrace listening to the waves slapping against the coral cliffs below us.

On the way down we had a tyre blow out at 100kph, which probably should have been more terrifying than it was. The car did not flip over and roll, or skid into the path of an oncoming truck. It just wobbled a bit, like my bowels, and was harder to control as I braked to a halt.

Anyhoo, tonight I am going to get back onto the horse and continue with the 2nd draft. I hope to have a decent version finished by mid-December, so if anybody wants to volunteer as a reader (other than those who have already been nominated/nominated themselves), please let me know.

Be warned, however: just because I have a big baldy forehead this does not mean the book is highbrow. It isn't, as the title - Apocalypse Cow - will probably hint at. Normally I attempt to write serious, thoughtful stories, but this piece of nonsense is just splurging out of me and needs dealt with before I can move on to ghost-writing the biography of my good friends and ethical folk-pop-rockers Quentin and Crisp, a project I am very excited about.

I am looking for people who are happy to give an honest opinion that is more in-depth than: it's shit/I fell asleep after three pages/I guess it's alright if you like that sort of thing. I am likely to be sick of the sight of the thing by then, so will need fresh eyes to point out the huge plot holes an overweight hippo could meander through without touching the sides.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

If Monty Python had known any aid workers...

Four recently retired aid workers sitting together in Gypsy bar in Nairobi. "Do me" by P-Square being played in the background while they drink Tusker beer.


MSF worker (Francoise): Ahh. Very passable, this, very passable.


UNHCR worker (Lesley): Nothing like a good glass of Tusker, eh Jeff?


Oxfam worker (Jeff): You're right there, Lesley.


WFP worker (Maria): Who'd of thought we'd one day all be sitting here drinking Tusker?


Francoise: Yeah. Back in Somalia, we were grateful just to have a cup of water.


Lesley: A cup of dirty water.


Maria: Scooped out of a toilet.


Francoise: In a filthy, cracked cup.


Jeff: Full of cholera.


Maria: We never used to have a cup. We used to have to drink out of old socks.


Francoise: The best WE could manage was to jam a straw made out of goat bones into a camel’s hump and suck really hard.


Jeff: But you know, we were happy, even though life was so hard.


Francoise: Aye. Because we were saving lives. My old Dad used to say to me: "Saving lives is more important than having a sit-down toilet.”


Maria: He’s right. I was happier in Darfur even though we used to live in tiny little concrete house with holes in the roof.


Lesley: House? You were lucky to have a HOUSE! In Goma, we used to live in one room, all hundred and twenty-six of us, no furniture. Half the floor was missing; we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of FALLING!


Jeff: You were lucky to have a ROOM! In Liberia, we used to have to live in a corridor!


Francoise: Ohhhh we used to DREAM of living in a corridor! It would’ve been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank in Mogadishu. We got woken up every morning by having goat innards thrown over us! House!? Hmph.


Maria: Well, when I say "house" it was only a hole in the ground covered by a piece of tarpaulin, but it was a house to US.


Lesley: The rebels evicted us from our hole in the ground; we had to go and live in Lake Kivu!


Jeff: You were lucky to have a LAKE! There were a hundred and sixty of us living in a small shoebox in the middle of the road.


Francoise: Cardboard box?


Jeff: Yes


Francoise: You were lucky. We lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six o'clock in the morning, clean the bag, eat some stale rice, go work in the hospital saving lives for fourteen hours a day week in-week out. When we got home, al-Shabaab would give us forty lashes and makes us say thank you!


Lesley: Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at three o'clock in the morning, eat a handful of cold beans, go to work at the refugee camp every day for only 5,000 euros a month tax free, come home, and the CNDP would beat us around the head and neck with broken bottles and then rape us.


Jeff: Well we had it tough. We used to have to get up out of the shoebox at twelve o'clock at night, and LICK the wounded clean with our tongues. We had half a handful of uncooked maize, worked twenty-four hours a day at the food distribution point for only 4,000 euros a month tax free. When we got home, the rebels would kidnap us, tie us blindfolded to radiators then cut our hands off.


Maria: Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold sand soaked in camel piss, work twenty-nine hours a day in the camp, and when we got home, the Janjaweed would kill us and dance about on our graves singing. And we only got paid 3,000 euros a month tax free.


Francoise: Only 3,000 euros a month? Now that is hardship.


ALL: Yup, yup

Shamelessly stolen from Monty Python and then monkeyed with. Click here for the original sketch

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Kenyans and the art of rubbernecking

If rubbernecking were an Olympic sport, a Kenyan would be a shoo-in for the gold every time.

I was on the bus heading into town the other day, and as usual I had my head down reading my book. Suddenly there was a big commotion. Everybody on my side of the bus pressed their faces to the window. Everybody on the other side stood up and tried to cram into the aisle to see what the others were looking at. Excited voices buzzed back and forth: “What’s happening?” “Can you see it?”

They were looking at a huge circle of people gathered around something unseen on the ground – possibly someone who had died of a heart attack or been hit by a car. The rubberneckers on the bus were rubbernecking at another group of rubberneckers. The funny thing was that the bus – which if you have ever ridden public transport in Nairobi you will know was not very stable to begin with – tilted crazily to the side. Had it fallen over the rubberneckers would have become the rubberneckees (I know that’s not a real word, but I like it).

This incident encapsulated the culture of rubbernecking in Kenya. I find the sheer exuberance and lack of embarrassment with which Kenyans go about rubbernecking very endearing, although I’m sure if I were lying in a pool of my own blood I would not be so keen on it.

If you open the Daily Nation on any given day, you are sure to find a few photographs showing Wananchi (citizens) rubbernecking. The picture may show a truck overturned in a shallow river watched by a line of people gathered on the hill above, curious onlookers peeking through the curtains of a home where a rape and murder victim has been found or hundreds of people watching the clean-up of a supermarket gutted by fire in the hope of seeing some bodies being brought out (all real examples).

The phenomenon cuts across all strata of society: you are just as likely to see a businessman in a pin-striped suit jostling for a good view as you are a security guard or gardener.

So why do I like it? Well, because it is an honest expression of human nature that is considered unacceptable in my own country. As much as we don’t like to admit it, humans have a fascination with death, preferably other people’s. I remember as a boy of about 12 coming across the body of a man who had dropped dead of a heart attack near my school in Glasgow. My friend and I stopped to gawk as all the adults walked past. You could tell they wanted gather round, but in our culture it wasn’t appropriate. All they could do was slow down and look out of the corner of their eyes for as long as possible. As an adult, I am now bound by my culture, so when I pass an accident or dead body now, I do little more than steal a furtive glance, even though I want to see more.

There is nothing inherently bad about wanting to look at car wrecks. Death is coming to us all, yet it is a huge mystery. We only get to experience it once barring medical intervention and we so rarely get to observe it close up. Why would we not want to look it in the eyes and try to understand it, glean some hints as to its nature, at every opportunity?

Of course, this is just my opinion on why the wananchi gather. It is possible some people just find intestines pretty. Maybe one day I will join the crowd of onlookers to ask them why they are there. I am not sure they will have an answer for me, as I do believe the urge to watch is instinctive. But at least it will give me an excuse to get close to the body and have a right good stare.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Van Morrison changed my life

Nats was telling me last night how lucky she was to have met me and have her life transformed from a dull grind full of greyness and gloom into a Technicolor cartoon full of shiny happy bunnies dancing the fandango with cute little monkeys in waistcoasts while petals rain down from the sky. Hurray!

Actually, what she really said that she was glad she started fencing and met me because I had helped in the creation of Charlotte. I guess it is just common courtesy to thank the sperm donor, but I’ll take any kind of compliment I can get.

Anyway, this led to a discussion of life-changing moments. All our lives are full of little crossroads that would send us down different paths: John eats a bad curry and gets a dodgy stomach, so doesn’t go out to the concert were he would have met his perfect woman/man/hermaphrodite; Cindy’s alarm clock fails to go off and she misses the job interview that would have seen her become the most powerful woman in Auchtermuchty, holding dominion over 2,000 souls and the wee shop that sells tartan tea towels; Alfie sees a swallow, decides it is spring, takes a more scenic route to work and is promptly squashed by a number 54 bus, which at least has the benefit of providing a talking point for the bored commuters being ferried to their dull office jobs.

Most of the time we don’t notice these moments as they slip by or we don’t appreciate quite how much they would change or lives – well, except for Alfie, assuming he had enough time to think more than “Shiiiiiitttttteeeeeeee!!!!” before the driver was trying to clean his brains off the windscreen with the window wipers. I actually do have a moment from which I can clearly trace a path to where I am now.

It is 1992. I am 21 and sitting upstairs in the Horseshoe bar in Glasgow with my relatively new work colleagues from Linn Products – the high end music system company. I have taken a job stuffing components into circuit boards after dropping out of university due to a combination of factors, including laziness, poverty and a lack of self-esteem. The job is boring, but the people are great and my immediate boss is the exact double of Zelda from the Terrahawks, which somehow makes it more bearable. I have no clear idea of what I am going to do next. I am just content to be making some money to spend on records, booze and chemicals.

I am a terrible singer, but have glugged down just the right number of beers to be cajoled into singing on the Karaoke machine. I elect to sing ‘Gloria’ by Van Morrison, partly because I love Van the Man, but also because it is a shouty song and therefore suits my singing voice. My performance is what you would expect. Even above my amplified screams I can hear giggles and abuse. I content myself by spraying the ungrateful buggers with spittle every time I shout ‘G-L-O-R-I-A’.

Finally it is over, and I return to the table. Callum, who runs the test department - which comprises three or four guys whose diplomas from Cardonald College give them a faint air of superiority over the plebs – comes over and demands to buy me a drink. He is a huge Van Morrison fan, and wants to congratulate me on my performance (he is very, very drunk). We get even more drunk and talk about Van Morrison for an hour, then move onto other things, such as the fact I had finished 2.5 years of Physics at Strathclyde University. Callum and I become work buddies, and within three weeks he asks if I would want to go back to university to study electronics, with the fees paid by Linn (I had lost my right to fee payment in 2nd and 3rd year by dropping out). Of course I say yes. I go to Glasgow University, get my degree and promptly show my gratitude to Linn and Callum by going off to work for OKI in Cumbernauld.

So, here’s the chain of events leading to now:

I sing a Van Morrison song in a bar, and as a result get friendly with Callum. Consequently, I go back to University and get a degree. My degree gets me a job at OKI, where I meet Andy McVeigh. I rent a room in his flat. In a casual discussion one day, I tell Andy I used to fence. He gets all keen and says he wants to start it (Andy is a major womaniser, despite being bald since 19 and looking kind of like a turtle, and is sure he can get some action at fencing). I am not so keen, remembering how angry/upset I used to get when I lost at competitions, but he persuades me to come along with him. We join Glasgow West End Fencing Club, where I drink a lot, make some great friends and kind of fence. This goes on for six years, until I am just about to quit fencing because it has lost its appeal. Then Nats joins Glasgow West. After some ups and downs, we get together. She is going to Bosnia for a year, and after a few months decide we are in love, are going to get married and that I am coming to Banja Luka, the capital of Bosnia's Serb Republic. I sell my house and car and go to Bosnia, where I trade in my soldering iron for a notebook and pen. We move to Hungary after a year, and I start to work for the German Press Agency. Four years later, I apply to get transferred to Nairobi, and we move. Nats gets pregnant, and along comes Charlotte.

So, there you go. If it weren’t for a drunken decision to sing a certain song in a certain bar, I would not have gone back to fencing and met the only perfect match for me out there, I would not have the gorgeous little Charlotte, I would not be a journalist, and would not be living in Kenya. All pretty big consequences for one little song, which I am now very glad I sang.

I would love to know if anybody else has a moment like that they can pin down. If so, leave a comment or send me a private message with your story.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Open letter to God on baby design

Dear God,

RE: Baby design improvements

As I am sure you are aware - being omnipotent, omniscient and fluorescent (well, I am guessing the last one, since the first thing I would do as God would be to make sure that I glow in the dark) – I was an engineer before I became a journalist.

You are also no doubt aware that I am now a father. You probably regret letting that happen, having watched me play Black Sabbath to my five-week-old daughter and teach her how to give the finger to the evangelicals next door - even though I am sure they annoy you too with their tuneless singing and gibbering in tongues. Maybe you were perched on the celestial bog looking at the centre spread of Hot Angels Monthly at the moment of conception. It does seem like you dropped the ball.

I, however, prefer to think that since you have a master plan, you must have let it happen for a reason. Is it possible you wanted me to bring my engineering skills (admittedly now a bit rusty after seven years of not being used) to bear on improving your original baby design? I think so. I don’t want to second guess you, but I figured it wouldn’t do any harm to suggest a few tweaks, which you can take or leave, you being God and all.

Please bear in mind that the following are merely initial observations. I have not costed the project or figured out the technicalities, although I have carried out one or two small experiments. They didn’t make Charlotte cry for too long, so I think I am on the right track.

1. Replace crying with programmable alarm tones

I don’t want to be too critical here, but I think your premise that parents have to be irritated into helping their children through ear-splitting and insistent wailing is flawed. Crying babies are a pain in the arse, as I think the above picture illustrates even without sound. I think it is fair to assume that parents love their kids and want the best for them. Therefore, I would like to suggest a more sedate system for alerting parents that there may be a problem.

Swap crying for an alarm, preferably with a snooze function. As with mobile phones, parents should be able to download MP3s for the tone. What parent wouldn’t go rushing to their baby’s aid when they heard their favourite song wafting through the door? One note though: the system should reject any song written by Lionel Richie, Michael Bolton or anyone else whose hair is too big to fit through a door frame without turning sideways. Pan pipes are also out. We are trying to make the world a better place after all.

2. Introduce an LED system

Now, I know what you’re thinking about doing away with crying: Different cries mean different things.

For example -

“Wah, wah, wah, waaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!” means: “Me hungry, where’s that big squishy thing that gives me milk?”

Whereas “Wah, wah wah, waaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!!” means: “Tell those bloody evangelicals to stop singing, I am trying to get an afternoon nap in.”

If we cut out crying, we will lose those subtle differences, you say. I disagree. Respectfully, of course.

May I suggest that, since most parents don’t speak annoying cry, we install a network of LEDs to indicate the child’s current mode. This would be low cost, as infants only have a few states: Hungry, Tired, Sleepy, Ouch, Sick, Bored, Grumpy and I’ve shat myself and it is sticking to my arse.

Most parents attempt to resolve crying by random application of boob, blankets and booze. Well, the third one we try in Scotland at least. A few cans of Super Lager work wonders when your baby is crying - you just stop noticing. I suggest we employ a more efficient system: install a bank of LEDs in the baby’s forehead to indicate these primary states. Then we can deploy a secondary network about the body to indicate where the pain is, should it be necessary.

3. Alternative power systems

As you know, an increasing focus is being placed on non-traditional energy sources. Solar power, wind power, biomass, etc are being developed and scientists and engineers are looking at ways to recycle and cut waste. I would suggest that we apply the same principle to babies instead of allowing them to consume so much milk.

Now, I admit I have a vested interest here. I recall a time in the vague, distant past when I was allowed access to my wife’s Fun Bags, as we playfully referred to them. Well, at least as I referred to them. When she wasn’t listening. Now there is an infant constantly clamped on them. This is bad for me and also bad for my wife, who finds it quite difficult to go about her normal business with a little nipper swinging from her tank starter buttons.

I propose a system using multiple green energy sources that should dramatically cut down time on the boob or bottle. The system would incorporate the following elements:

a) Solar – Let’s be honest, babies don’t really care what they look like. We can easily slap a few solar panels on top of their heads,

b) Wind – Babies fart. A lot. It would be simple to attach a small turbine to the upper thigh and place the blades directly over the anus.

c) Biomass – Babies go doo doo. A lot. A biomass unit would go a long way to increasing efficiency.

d) Kinetic – Babies spaz out randomly. A lot. Why not use the energy from the spastic limb flailing or head wobbling kids seem so fond off. I am sure a few dynamos can be subtly attached to arms and legs.

4. Improve olfactory experience for parents

Baby shit stinks. Sorry to be so blunt about it, but it does. Why not take a fresh, scented leaf out of the book of Ambipur? If some geeky scientist with hairy palms and an addiction to World of Warcraft can invent a device that you plug into the wall to make the room smell of the autumn breeze, I am sure you can invent a plug-in that directly pumps sweet smells into a baby’s intestines. Imagine, every time your baby lets one go the room could smell of Forest Fruits rather than curdled milk toots. You could even use your child to freshen the room before having a dinner party, rather than desperately burning ten incense sticks and searching for that rogue nappy that got away five minutes before your guests arrive.

5. Hibernate button

Computers have them, so why not babies? They are generally pretty crap at getting themselves off to sleep, so why not do us all a favour and provide a wee button that knocks them out (preferably with a variable time setting for how long they are out). We could also have automatic hibernation, so if the child is left unattended for say 15 minutes, it will automatically enter hibernate mode, enabling parents to nip out to the pub and not worry if they left the baby turned on.

6. Paedolarm TM

All parents know that paedophiles are lurking behind every corner, rubbing themselves through their filthy cords and waiting to pounce with sweaty hands on any unguarded baby. I suggest installing a Paedolarm TM (my invention). If a paedophile comes within 30 metres of the child, a pre-recorded message of “LYNCH THE PAEDO” will blast out from the attached unit, and an accusing finger will spring out and point in the direction of the offender. I suggest employing Gary Glitter in the factory’s test department, as nobody will buy his records or go see him on tour ever again anyway and he probably needs the money for his next ticket to Thailand.

7. Locator

We’ve all done it. Put the baby down somewhere and then forgotten exactly where. Let’s cut out all the frantic searching and attach a locator device. One press on the parent’s key fob, and the baby emits a shrill tone. This could easily be integrated with the Paedolarm TM.

8. Baby microwave

Small babies are boring. Fact. They don’t do very much, and their lack of self-reliance is quite tedious. My fellow engineer David Docherty long ago began work on the microwave bed (a full night’s sleep in ten minutes). He still hasn’t perfected it, and may not, since he is in hospital suffering from internal third-degree burns, but I am sure you, who created the universe, can easily knock together a microwave device that will add months to your child's life within minutes, thus cutting out all the boring bits.

Well, that’s it so far. I do hope you don’t take offence at my suggestions and strike me down with a bolt of lightning or anything. I have been hit by lightning once before (that’s actually true) and didn’t much enjoy the experience.

I'm a big fan of all your work, and appreciate that when designing such a complex system as Earth you are going to get a few teething problems. But it has been a few million years, so I'm thinking it might be time for a review.

I hope this finds you in good health and fine smiting form (just not me, please).

Yours Faithfully,
Michael Logan.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

You must show me your boobs, I'm a journalist

I took part in two very different press events this week. On Thursday, I listened to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed discuss the unholy mess in Somalia (We feel sorry for you and don’t want those nasty Islamists taking over, even though they brought peace for six months in 2006, because they are all terrorists and might try to blow up some Americans in Kenya again. But then we don’t want another Black Hawk Down, so we will just give you some money to shut you up and pretend the African Union peacekeepers are doing a good job – to paraphrase Clinton’s message to Sheikh Sharif).

Then, on Saturday, I hung about the Mombasa docks with a bunch of German TV journalists to cover the arrival of the Hansa Stavanger, a German-owned container ship freshly released by pirates that had five Germans onboard (And a bunch of other foreigners from random countries like Tuvalu, wherever that is, who could all have a big orgy and then commit ritual suicide right on the dock in front of us and we won't notice, but wait a minute, I’ve heard the German captain has a splinter in his little finger. Call Gunther and tell him to cancel that documentary on human rights abuses in the Congo, we’re going live!!! - to paraphrase the German media’s angle on the ship’s arrival).

Both events highlighted for me that journalists are a funny bunch.

The Kenyan press pack was up in arms on Thursday when they found out that Clinton would only be answering four questions after making a short statement. I guess it has been a while since a top US official has visited Kenya, but this is the way it always works. You have to book your question in advance and hope you are high enough in the pecking order. Fat chance of that.

Usually the first few questions go to the pet media, the travelling contingent that follow Clinton/Bush/whoever around the world and faithfully report every word in return for a comfy seat at the front of the press conference instead of a rickety fold-down chair at the back and the chance to share a chummy joke with the top official in front of the other journalists to show how important they are. This will also most likely be an American agency or paper - step forward AP and the NY Times in Clinton’s case. Then a few questions will be tossed to the local media, in Clinton’s case to the Somali journalists.

So, I wasn’t surprised when Clinton’s aide indicated that the next question would be the last. But the Kenyans were. Howls of outrage came from around the room as they demanded that Clinton stay and answer more questions, because they hadn’t had their turn yet. Eyes rolled, fists shook and well-fed jowls wobbled in righteous indignation. Clinton laughed them off and left the room. Cue lots of muttering and the scraping of chairs as half the room left – rather shamefully I thought, since Sheikh Sharif was still speaking.

Something similar happened on Saturday, when the local shipping agent tried to close off the berth where the Hansa Stavanger would arrive. Forklift trucks piled up empty containers, blocking the view of the dockside and spewing tasty exhaust fumes down everyone’s throats. The TV journalists who had come all the way from Germany to get pictures of the ship arriving went ballistic and loudly remonstrated with everyone in sight, including a bemused port official who seemed to just be passing on his way to the toilet.

I have to admit, I was considering the sneaky option, which would have been to climb across a large chain at the other side of the dock, despite the fact there was a ten metre drop to the sea and one of the KK security guard would probably have conked me on the head with his baton had I got in anyway.

In the end, the direct, rowdy approach proved successful as the mob forced its way in and refused to move. The shipping agent had no choice but to let us stay behind a hastily erected piece of red tape. So this time it was a partial victory for the journalists: the German TV crews got their pictures of a big ship sitting at the docks doing nothing for hours. I got to hang about for 12 hours watching them turn increasingly alarming shades of red under the equatorial sun (I suspect the carpets of German newsrooms will be covered in flakes of journalist skin later this week). There was a lot of complaining about the lack of access to the crew, however. Apparently the ungrateful buggers didn’t understand that we needed comments for our stories.

The common link between the two events was the genuine sense of outrage the journalists felt when they found out they were not going to get their way. Most of us feel it is our absolute right to ask anybody any question we want at any time of day or night. Never mind that somebody may have something trivial to do like, oh I don’t know, represent the world’s most powerful nation in seven African countries in under two weeks. Or recover from a four-month kidnapping ordeal at the hands of Somali pirates, in which you had to sleep on the floor, had automatic weapons pointed at your head and were not allowed to brush your teeth.

This attitude is, of course, what helps keep politicians on their toes in most countries and helps ensure that democracies actually function, so it is generally a good thing. And witnessing a dozen miffed adults stomping their feet in a petulant rage is priceless.

But the same attitude also fuels the worse type of intrusive gutter press journalism, and there have been times I have found myself teetering on the edge of doing things I am not comfortable with because of the “I have a right to know” attitude.

Like anything in life, it is all about finding the right balance.

So I’m now off to peer in through Scarlett Johansson’s curtains. The public has a right to know what she looks like naked.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Mzungu, your baby is cold!

We are currently holed up in a hotel in Mombasa, fugitives from an angry mob of machete-wielding villagers who chased us out of their hamlet for child abuse.

OK, I am exaggerating. But just a little.

It is the cold season in Kenya, which means that temperatures are dropping as low as 14 degrees centigrade. Now, Nats and I are Scottish and that is the threshold that heralds summer in Scotland. When the thermometers hit such heady heights in Glasgow, pasty white, hairy legs are unfurled from beneath shorts that have lain, forlorn and unused, in a drawer for eleven months. Everybody begins licking an icecream. Exposed beer bellies drink up the sun like wobbly solar panels.

So, while we have acclimatised to Kenya and are finding it a little chilly, it is far from cold. Charlotte, being Scottish and all, is dressed much the same as we are - top, trousers and maybe a light jumper or cardigan.

But Kenyans like to keep their babies warm. In fact, they like to keep their babies roasting hot. There are kids roaming around Nairobi right now in balaclavas and snowsuits. Yes, snowsuits. One kid we saw was clearly also wearing about five jumpers under his suit. He couldn't bring his arms into his body and was walking with his legs wide apart. I couldn't decide if he looked more like a mini Michelin Man or the Gingerbread Man.

It makes me wonder what Kenyans would do if they ever went to Europe during the winter. After all, where do you go after you've gone nuclear? A survival pod?

But anyway, each to his own. The only problem is, Kenyans can't seem to understand that other people might not want their child to sweat like Gary Glitter in a room full of 12-year-old boys. In the last five weeks, we've had plenty of comments about Charlotte being cold. But today's incident took the biscuit, the packet, and an entire sachet of those little triangular jelly things that go on top of empire biscuits.

I have been sent to Mombasa on an assignment involving pirates and relieved, released German hostages, so I decided I may as well drive down and bring Nats and Charlotte. Along the way we stopped in a small village - pretty much just your typical collection of ramshackle buildings that serve as hotels, bars or brothels for passing truckers.

All was fine, until the villagers spotted that we had a baby. With its head exposed to the FREEZING COLD BREEZE. Of around 21 degrees C, since we were close to the coast.

Soon we were surrounded by a gaggle of locals trying to explain we should cover our baby's head or she will die horrendously of pneumonia. I explained that she was Scottish and they should all fuck right off (ok, I didn't say that).

The ladies finally got the idea and backed off, deciding that if the stupid Mzungu wanted to let his child suffer a long and painful death punctuated by hacking coughs, it was his lookout. But one bloke persisted, trying to pull the blanket over her head. He even attempted to take her off me. The funniest thing was that he had the longest, filthiest talons I have seen on a man in quite some time, no doubt jammed up with the detritus of regular nose picking (I don't see any other reason for a man to have nails that long). I suspect the health hazard to Charlotte came from those nails, rather than a breeze that would pass as the Sirocco in Glasgow.

We managed to politely but firmly extricate ourselves and drive away, although I half-expected to glance back and see a pickup truck full of villagers waving blankets and shouting: "Your baby is cold, Mzungu. Cover her!"

Even now, sitting in the hotel room, I have made sure the door is locked and a chair is wedged up against the handle. I'm worried we might all wake up wearing snowsuits.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Patronising fathers squeezes them out

It’s only a box of reusable nappies, but inside is something that, for me, paints a damning picture about society’s attitude toward fatherhood.

The nappies themselves are fairly straightforward, an outer layer and a cloth inner, which can be folded into an attractive fan shape, much like a display towel in a fancy hotel. Except the hotel towel isn’t expected to “trap liquid poo”. Unless Keith Richards is staying there.

Nonetheless, the instruction booklet is extensive and details just about everything mothers need to know about this particular product. Yes, what mothers need to know. No mention of fathers, or even the gender neutral “parents”. And here lies the problem.

I have been a father for three weeks now, but even before Charlotte came along, I had noticed how every book we read on pregnancy laid out the minimal role the father was supposed to play. Each pregnancy book contains a small section full of patronising advice for fathers. Let me summarise the key points in these books, to save any fathers from reading them:

1. Rein in your animalistic nature and don’t demand sex from your wife until at least six weeks after birth (although nobody advises frequent masturbation as a coping mechanism). Don’t sulk about it.

2. Boobs are now used at mealtime, not playtime. Deal with it.

3. Don’t go in a huff if your wife pays more attention to the baby than you.

4. If your wife is crying due to exhaustion/post-natal depression, don’t just turn up the TV to drown her out. Talk to her or something. Don’t tell her to “dry her eyes” and then go in a huff.

5. If you do make the mistake of trying to change a nappy and screw it up – which you will, because you are a man – don’t go in a huff when your wife shouts at you.

And there you have it. Apparently men are little more than big babies who have to realise they are now being supplanted by a small baby.

Then, as we started to buy baby products, it became clear that everything was geared toward how the mother was going to use the item. After all, a man couldn’t possibly tear himself away from his football/beer/porn mag habit to figure out how to use a steriliser, could he?

Now that Charlotte is here, the same attitudes have come into play from pretty much everyone we know. The assumption is that the father did little more than fire off some sperm nine months ago, probably in a drunken stupor after returning from the pub. Now he is sleeping happily through the night while the harassed mother, ravaged by the trauma of birth, struggles bleary-eyed with a screaming infant and considers throwing herself out the window.

Now, I’m sorry, but I am not that kind of father, and – given half a chance – I expect most men would not be either. I know other men who are as involved as I am: getting up in the night to bring the baby in for breastfeeds (sorry girls, but I can’t produce milk from my hairy ginger nipples, much as I would like to), changing nappies, rocking her when she’s upset, feeding expressed milk, making sure the mother is sleeping, and so on.

The message from friends comes both directly and indirectly: pretty much every single commiseration, gift and word of encouragement is directed exclusively toward the mother. Any kind of comment from the father about the stress or difficulties of the first weeks is treated like a man-flu whine (this is something I have been playing up on by joking about the scab on my hand from Natalie pinching me during labour). I am absolutely sure there are people who will treat this blog entry in much the same way. For these people, let me make it clear: I am in no way attempting to compare the experience of the father to the mother, who is recovering from serious physical and emotional trauma. But fathers are part of the equation all the same.

My point is pretty simple. How can we expect men to be more involved if every single message and cue from society is telling them that their early role is entirely peripheral? If we want fathers to do their bit for their infants, then we have to stop patronising them. As hard as it may be to believe, men can be responsible, emotional, loving and empathetic creatures. Treat them like adults, and you may just be surprised by the response you get.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Old Man and the Shoes

In a change from my recent carping about corruption, I want to recount a lovely exchange I had in an optician’s in Hurlingham yesterday while I was being fitted for contact lenses and having my glasses bent back into shape.

I was explaining to the owner of the shop that wearing glasses while playing football was not a great idea considering the number of elbows flying about, when an elderly Indian Kenyan waiting at the counter piped up: “Ah, you play football sir?”

I could immediately tell from his demeanour, his well-kept bushy white handlebar moustache and the gold chain attaching his spectacles to his face that he was something of a character. I indicated that yes, I did play football, if you can count petulantly clipping people’s ankles as they whizz past me as such.

“Let me tell you about my one time playing football,” he said. “I was at school in India when my father sent me from Kenya a fine pair of training shoes. I put them on and proudly walked about. Then somebody noticed that they were football shoes. In fact, they were the only proper football shoes for tens of kilometres around. Everyone decided I must be a footballer of some repute and invited me to play in a match.”

Now, normally when an old buffer starts banging on about the past, everyone around scarpers for cover, save for the poor person, in this case me, caught in the headlights. However, this old gent had such a fine storytelling voice and a mischievous glint in his eye that the two other staff members were drawn toward the counter and stood smiling as he talked.

“I turned up for the game, and people had come from villages around, drawn by the allure of these splendid football shoes they had heard so much about. I had never played football before, not even for one second, but I saw all of these players jumping around.”

He stopped to mime a warm-up session, picking his elbows up into the chicken-dance pose and kicking his legs out to the sides. If he had been wearing braces I am sure he would have hooked his thumbs into them.

“So, of course, I started to do the same thing. They put me in goal to start with, and for the first few minutes nothing happened. Then somebody can running toward the goal and thundered in a fierce shot. I didn't know what to do and was more interested in showing off my great shoes than saving the ball, so I just put my foot up so everyone could see them.”

He lifted his leg high and slightly to the side, waggling his foot to demonstrate how he presented the best possible view of his footwear to the ogling crowd.

“The ball hit me right in the midriff and knocked me over. My shoes and I were carried off the pitch. I never played football again.”

He laughed when I pointed out to him that he could say he had a 100% record as a goalkeeper – one shot, one save – then went on his way. It was only when I got home that I realised I should have asked him what happened to the shoes.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Corruption, poverty and society in Kenya

After being so smug and detailing how I avoided paying a bribe to a policeman, I am ashamed to admit I bribed a parking official in Nairobi’s Central Business District on Wednesday. I paid because my wife and newborn daughter were with me: to go through the dance to avoid paying or to go to City Hall to pay the fine would have taken a lot of time, and would have forced Natalie to take two-week-old Charlotte (and my mother-in-law) home in a taxi with no car-seat or on a bus or matatu. I didn’t want that.

My offence was for a parking violation, committed because I foolishly trusted one of the many self-appointed parking attendants that roam the CBD to keep an eye on the car while we ran a quick errand. When I returned, a few minutes ahead of Natalie and Charlotte, two council employees came gleefully sprinting across to clamp the car.

Regardless of the fact that one of the officials was wearing a bright yellow overall emblazoned with the legend “Corruption is Evil”, the non-uniformed gentleman made it clear that a bribe was required. We negotiated and I paid him, shuttling notes into his eager hands under the cover of the dashboard. He shooed away his assistant beforehand, presumably so he would not have to cut him in for very much. We then pretended to drive off toward City Hall. Before he jumped out the car round the corner, the official shook and kissed my hand and told me he often “helped” motorists in this way.

I felt pretty soiled for paying the bribe. I should have insisted we go through the official procedure and pay the fine. I should have done what little I could to fight the problem that is hamstringing Kenya. But I took the easy way out.

It is no secret that Kenya is mired in corruption. A recent study by Transparency International ranked Kenya as East Africa’s most corrupt nation. Corruption – which undermines virtually every system of governance put in place in Kenya - is the major symptom of the every-man-for-themselves attitude, much of it prompted by poverty. For the majority of Kenya's residents, much of everyday life is about the scrabble for money .

The scores of people who died near Molo earlier this year, when the overturned tanker they were collecting fuel from exploded, would not have been there had they been better off. Those people risked their lives for literally a few dollars. One high-ranking political buffoon blamed “greed” for the incident and several that have followed. He clearly doesn’t know what it is to be poor. For those scraping by in the slums of Kibera, Huruma or Kawangware, a few dollars can mean the difference between feeding your whole family that evening or just the select few. It can mean you have enough to pay the rent for another month or pay the school fees.

The struggle for survival is not good for Kenyan society, however, and the romantic notion of solidarity amongst the poor often doesn’t translate into reality. I have seen two security guards almost come to blows over a tip that was less than 50 cents.

Even the idea of doing a simple favour for somebody out of human kindness has been compromised. If you drop your hat and somebody returns it, chances are they aren’t doing it out of goodwill. They are doing it in the hope that you will give them something. The first time this happened to me, a man chased me to say I had left a bottle of wine on the ground. I went back for it and thanked him, thinking how nice it was to meet somebody honest. He then asked me for money for doing something that should be a basic courtesy. Again I can understand this, although it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. The people involved in such incidents have invariably been clearly in need of the money, and there have also been moments where people have done me genuine favours.

So the poor have an excuse. But what about those who are better off? What about the middle classes? What about the politicians who have a seemingly insatiable appetite for more money and no concern for how they accumulate it, even if it means diverting subsidised maize intended to feed people suffering from a famine? What about middle-ranking public servants, judges or police chiefs, all of whom can be bought for the right price?

Most Kenyans will tell you corruption is evil, but – like me – they will pay that bribe to dodge a ticket, avoid that large tax bill or get that job. They will vote for the guy they think can scoop the most money for their community or tribe, even if that guy is clearly bent. And they will take that bribe themselves given a chance. What many Kenyans mean is that corruption which doesn’t benefit them is evil.

I can’t explain all the factors that have created the “take what you can get” culture. But I do know that society suffers as a result. When the majority is doing little else than chase the dollar, people don’t have time to look out for each other. You just need to look at the chaos on Nairobi’s roads to see this in action: the majority of drivers won’t even pull over for an ambulance, something I have witnessed on many occasions. Why should they when they could just bribe a cop a few hundred shillings if they were pulled over for not giving way? Equally, few people will stop to help a stranded motorist or person in distress late at night, as it could well be a trap laid by carjackers.

I don't want to live this way.

Unfortunately, by paying the bribe to that parking official I am accepting a system that values doing what is right for yourself rather than what is right. Living in Nairobi, amid a culture thoroughly saturated with corruption and a relentless thirst for money, changes you. And that worries me deeply.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The hunt for a vaccine

As a journalist working in the developing world, I often find myself writing about creaking healthcare systems, but I have never been personally affected. Until now.

My wife Natalie last week gave birth to our first child, Charlotte Elizabeth. We are lucky enough to be able to afford to got to a private hospital for the delivery, but this did not help us when it came to getting a BCG vaccine, for there were no doses available.

Kenya has the 13th-highest prevalence of Tubercolosis in the world. The WHO reported 140,000 new cases in 2008. Yet it has now been suffering a shortgage of the BCG vaccine for around three months, putting tens of thousands of infants, including my daughter, at risk.

The vaccine is now the holy grail for parents, who are scouring Nairobi looking for it. Favours are being called in and rumours exchanged via text message. Gangs of furtive parents are lurking in doorways outside hospitals and offering wads of cash to passing doctors.

I was told that a private clinic was selling it for 20 euros - shameless profiteering since the vaccine is supposed to be free in Kenya. Nonetheless, I went there ready to pay. When I asked, the receptionist appeared to glance furtively around the room and announced loudly that she had no vaccine. However, she then had me write down my name and number and said she would call if any came in. I couldn't help but wonder if she was being clandestine since they are probably selling vaccine obtained through government channels in a corrupt manner. She hasn't called yet.

I now have another lead, which I am chasing up on. I can only hope that I get there before the other parents who would no doubt elbow me over a high railing or drop kick Charlotte over a fence to make sure they got the vaccine for their child. And who can blame them?

The question has to be asked why there is no vaccine in the country when donors have been pouring money into anti-TB programmes. The answer could lie in incompetence - which would not be a great surprise to anyone who has dealt with Kenyan government officials - or the old problem of corruption. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria has in the past suspended funding to Kenya for disappearing millions of dollars intended to buy ARVs through fraudulent NGOs, and that wasn't even considered a big corruption scandal.

I have been too busy changing nappies and trying to get the vaccine for Charlotte to look into it properly yet, but it wouldn't surprise me to find that somebody is putting children at risk in order to fill their pockets.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

How not to pay bribes to cops in Kenya

A few months ago, somebody told me the best way to avoid paying bribes to cops in Kenya is to be polite and waste their time, which they would rather be using to collect bribes from more cooperative people. I got the chance to try it out last week, when a cop pulled me over in Kilimani at lunchtime. The following is the abbreviated exchance, leaving out the call he took from his girfriend and attempts to gain sympathy for having a cold:

Cop: "You are displaying a duplicate insurance certificate. That is an offence in Kenya."

Me: "Oh, I'm very sorry. I just bought this car and didn't know."

Cop: "I understand, but we will have to go the police station. There will be big fine, and it will take a long time."

Me: "OK officer, no problem."

Cop: "Do you know where the Kilimani station is?"

Me: "Yes, it's just round the corner. I'll meet you there."

Cop: "Ah, no. I can't let you drive off. I will have to impound the car and we walk."

Me: "Well, jump in and I'll give you a lift. You can impound the car there."

COP CASTS FORLORN GLANCE AT OTHER, JUICY POSSIBLE BRIBES GOING PAST, BUT DECIDES TO PLAY IT OUT

Cop (IN CAR, LOOKING AT MY LICENCE, GRINS): "Ah, you have not signed your licence. That is also an offence in Kenya."

Me: "Oh, I'm sorry officer. I didn't know. We can sort it out at the station."

Cop: "That will be another fine."

(SIGNIFICANT PAUSE).

Me: "No problem."

Cop: "It will be very expensive."

Me: "Fair enough."

(CONFUSED PAUSE)

Cop: "You are a very cooperative person."

Me: "Well, I need to have respect for the laws of Kenya and the officers who uphold them."

Cop: "The fine will be at least 5,000 shillings for each offence."

(SIGNIFICANT PAUSE, ACCOMPANIED BY EVEN-MORE SIGNIFICANT LOOK)

Me: "If that is the penalty, then I will have to pay it."

(CAR IS APPROACHING POLICE STATION, COP IS LOOKING THOROUGHLY STUMPED)

Cop: "Are you sure you want to go through all the trouble?"

Me: "The law's the law."

(SILENCE, CAR ONLY 50 METRES FROM STATION)

Cop: "I tell you what, why don't I just give you a warning this time? We can just pull this off."

(COP PULLS OFF INSURANCE STICKER, WHICH IS THE EXPIRED ONE SO COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT. THE CURRENT STICKER IS PERFECTLY LEGAL)

Me: "Thank you very much officer, I appreciate your kindness."

Cop: "It is no problem. You will know next time. So, where are you going now?"

Me: "I am going to the office. Do you want me to drop you back at the junction?"

Cop: "Yes, please."

(I DROP COP OFF AT JUNCTION. HE LOOKS AT THE ONCOMING TRAFFIC, READY TO POUNCE).

Kenya birth and hospital hostages

Given that my wife, Natalie, is about to pop out (well, she hopes it will be that easy) our first kid in a Nairobi hospital, I found this article from Edmund Sanders at the LA Times particularly pertinent.

Sanders talks to several woman who were held captive in Kenyan hospitals when they failed to pay their bills for giving birth. Horrible, yes, but not surprising given that public services, and not just healthcare, are dire in Kenya while ministers and MPs live the high life.

If ever a town demonstrated the worst elements of rampant capitalism and its every-man-for-themselves attitude, it is Nairobi.

We are fortunate not to be in the same position as those poor women, although I may find myself lowering Nats out of a toilet window and smuggling the baby out in a plastic bag if any of the additional items on the hospital's a-la-carte birth menu (c-section, episiotomy, vacuum removal, drugs to revive fainted husband) need to be purchased.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

US anti-pirate action doesn't stand up to scrutiny

At last, the drama is over. The “scurrilous” and “ruthless” pirates are dead and the “heroic” US captain has been released.

Undoubtedly Captain Richard Phillips, who spent five days on a lifeboat being held hostage by Somali pirates, acted bravely. He gave himself up to safeguard the crew of the Maersk Alabama and even plunged into the ocean in an attempt to swim to a nearby US Navy destroyer.

What is more interesting is the media coverage portraying the pirates as ruthless – a complete misrepresentation if ever there was one. In the many years of frenetic pirate activity, there have been very few hostage deaths.

The last hostage to have been killed by pirates was a Taiwanese seaman, who died in unclear circumstances two years ago shortly after his ship was seized. Piracy experts say this was an isloated incident. Then last year, a Russian seaman died of a heart attack while he was being held hostage. Last week, the owner of French yacht was shot along with two pirates during an operation to free his boat. France has admitted he may have been killed by his rescuers. At no point has a single hostage been executed.

On the other hand, the pirates are not simple fishermen defending their coastline, as some of their defenders like to make out. After dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991, many countries took advantage of the chaos to fish illegally and and dump toxic waste in Somalia waters. Piracy began as a movement among fishermen aimed at curbing these practices. Now, however, it is an industry all of its own. Young men, most of whom have few other options, join up to make easy money and the pirates are certainly not restricting themselves to fishing vessels in Somali waters.

The pirates are criminals; nothing more, nothing less.

However, portraying the pirates as dastardly murderers makes it easier to justify the US action. Supposedly President Barack Obama had given a standing order to take out the captors if Phillips' life was in danger. The on-scene commander then made a “split-second decision” that Phillips was indeed in danger, something that most newspapers have happily swallowed.

Of course, it is never possible to really know what happened from a distance, but the decision to kill does not seem to stand up to scrutiny.

Firstly, given that the pirates have never before executed a hostage, there was no precedent to suggest that this group would be prepared to kill Phillips. All previous evidence points to hostages only being in danger when rescue attempts are made. Secondly, Phillips was the pirates only hostage. Were they really going to shoot him, thus blowing their only bargaining chip and sealing their fates?

The justification is that the pirates had an AK-47 pointed at Phillips' head. Frankly, I would have been surprised if the pirates had not been pointing a gun at him, particularly given the state of play at the time. One of the pirates was on the USS Bainbridge, trying to negotiate safe passage in exchange for Phillips. If I were a pirate on the lifeboat, I would have been pointing the gun at Phillips. Generally, it is what hostage takers do. I am quite sure that was not the first time they had pointed a gun at the captain during the five-day standoff.

What seems far more likely is that, with a clear shot at all three pirates on the boat, the on-scene commander took the decision to finish the standoff rather than drag it out and possibly end up with the embarrassing scenario of three US destroyers having to allow four pirates to slink away unpunished in exchange for Phillips' freedom.

Whether this was the real order that came from the top is anybody's guess. Regardless, the attack – coupled with France's freeing of the yacht – is not good news for the 230 or so other hostages currently being held and for those that may be taken in the future.

Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, warned that the American operation “could escalate violence in this part of the world.” Pirate groups are already threatening to kill US and French hostages in retaliation for the two actions. This could be bluster. But the next time pirates are surrounded by warships, they may well be that little bit more nervous and far more likely to pull the trigger.

The use of force is an important tool in ending piracy off Somalia. But it should be used only when hostages' lives really are in danger. It should certainly not be used in isolation without thought for the consequences.

Tackle insecurity and poverty in Somalia, give commercial ships more defensive capability, encourage shipping companies to stop paying ransoms, and storm ships as a last resort. Only then will piracy begin to fall.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Two things

Two things:

Firstly, after a long gap due to laziness, I have had another short story published. It is called Decompression, and is on Underground Voices.

You can read it here.

Secondly, I slid a Balaton szelet into my pants on Saturday after a mid-air incident. Our plane coming back to Nairobi from Juba went out of control for a good 10 seconds - literally flying from side to side, banging around, and flying at a crazy angle. Suffice to say we all thought we were dead.

When it recovered, the pilot said we had hit the wake turbulence of another plane that crossed our path. Going by the violence of the shaking, I would say we did not miss it by much.

Still alive, though.