Archive | February 2011

Malawi Breakdown

Cars in Malawi are mostly beaters bought directly from Japan, or trashed vehicles too far gone for other Sub-Saharan countries. Most of these vehicles would be wholly illegal in the United States, but drivers in Malawi don’t have much choice. On the way back from Lilongwe last night, we blew a fan belt and had to turn around to try and find another. Parking at a local market center, about 20 guys run out offering assistance. 10 minutes later, the driver come back from the market with a handful of random belts. A guy armed with nothing more than a 6 inch 14mm wrench and a tree branch (I’m not kidding) proceed to try and put the belts on one by one, until a fit can be found. No books, computers or looking at the numbers, just vehicle repair by brute force.

His “supervisor” comes out from the hardware store to survey the situation. The “boss” is a 16 year old kid in a homemade, bright red tie and a homemade half-sleeve button down shirt. To complete the uniform, he had some soleless, white leather shoes and proceeded to do not much more than stand over the mechanic, alternating “supervising” with glaring at the white guy. “What, what…”, he kept repeating. I thought he wanted to fight, but I finally figured out that that was the extent of his English. This guy is going to go places. I’m convinced that in Malawi, education is the first key to social mobility. The second key is a button down shirt, tie and leather shoes.

While being eaten alive by potentially malaria carrying, bloodthirsty mosquitoes, no less than 30 people came attempting to sell goods. In Africa, people will try to sell anything, even items you wouldn’t think could ever be sold. Food, baskets, pens, dog collars, pieces of broken electronics, single shoes, anything that can be sold, will. There’s a guy in Blantyre that walks around in fake animal skins trying to sell pieces of iron that he wears like clothing. If this country had the incredible capital wealth that the United States had, it could be the richest area on the planet. In contrast to Blantyre, however, these country areas are largely free from beggar kids. Most people just hope to make a quick sale, and there’s little problems with the incredible price gouging that goes on in the urban areas.

Every market center in Malawi is mostly the same. A string of bars serve the local male youth and tired truck drivers. All manner of food, from the most amazing organic produce that you’ve ever seen, to baked goods, to fried and grilled meats that will make you cry, to not yet killed chickens, goats and cattle are for sale. Electronic repairs shops and video theaters dot the landscape. Agricultural supply stores, car parts, household wares, convenience stores serve the population in largely that same manner that those anywhere else do. After driving until nearly 2 in the morning, you can tell that these places are active nearly 24 hours a day, drunken men and prostitutes walking around at all hours. It’s a thrilling capitalistic exercise, free of official control, but also suffering from a lack of government provided infrastructure such as electricity and plumbing. Whereever a Kwacha can be made, a Malawian is there to make it.

Standing on the side of the road for more than two hours, the sun sank into the east. I watched a series of minibuses, Africa’s capitalistic version of public transportation, pass by, packing incredible numbers of people in a TARDIS like, “it’s bigger on the inside than the outside”, fashion. Nearly 20 guys stood on the side of the road, hitchhiking, and getting harassed by a drunken police officer, doing his version of public safety management. As night fell, storms roll in from the South, creating a panorama like scene of life giving rain blanketing some of the most fertile land on the planet. The humidity and fertility of this land pervade every facet of life here, causing one to wonder how on earth, in a place with three growing seasons and a seeming abundance of food, anyone could ever die of starvation. Yet people do.

A goat is worth more at the market than at home, especially when one has to balance the $50 that one can make over a single mean for the 20 plus people at home who depend on the goat-seller to pay for clothing, school fees, salt, sugar and fertilizer. Subsistence farming is horribly inefficient, and a combination of a misguided World Bank demanding abolition of government farming subsidies (batshit free-marketing Americans) and vast fuel and transportation shortages (more bat-shit free-marketing American meddling) keep consolidation and streamlining of food production from happening. The result is that food is expensive both in time, money and physical labor. If Malawi had the means, I am sure that this tiny country could feed all of Sub-Saharan Africa and potentially the entire European continent. It’s literally that rich. You can drop a bag of seeds anywhere in this country, and a month later, you will have a culinary bounty worthy of hundreds of dollars in Whole Foods Organic Produce. I’ve truly never seen anything like it.

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Larry, the Zimbabwean Watch Man

I think that I’m fucking nuts. Am I nuts? Someone tell me. No other foreigner I know here walks from one end of a city in a developing country to another in a day, savoring the overwhelming human landscape this country has to offer. As far as I can tell, most over 40 white dudes just sit in their hotels in suits, drinking cheap beer and watching sports. It’s a pretty miserable life, and after five minutes in a bar, I get restless in the presence of fat, nowhere foreigners and equally nowhere fat, middle class Malawian business men and want to get out walking as soon as I can. This place is a gold mine of knowledge. Missing out on the opportunity to learn of the resilience and ingenuity of human beings would be a crime.

Downtown Blantyre, the financial capital of Malawi, is like a world upside down, with representatives from just about every occupation on earth, competing to offer the same service as every else, for the same price. After inquiring as to the source of the manic screaming of a Nigerian faith healer, I had a chance to meet Larry from Zimbabwe. He has been fixing watches and cell phones on the same corner in Blantyre for the past 20 years. He’s nearly blind and can’t afford glasses, but appears to fix every manner of watch you can think of.

Malawians are really good at doing the same thing in the same way as everyone else. There’s some variation depending on local demands and conditions, but, in general, wherever you go, people do the same job in the same fashion as everyone other similar entrepreneur. Throughout Malawi, farming is done mostly in the same manner, using the same crops as everyone else, despite the fact that nearly all of the crops originally came from North America. Corn is an example.

Larry the watch-repairer is just one of more than 50 watch and cell phone repair men on his block, who all have identical stands and do the exact same job. Not a single repair man offers special services in order to compete with the other guys. Tailors are much the same, offering the same sewing services with the same 100 year old manual sewing machinery as everyone else. Outside of the radio and television repair people, no one on the street uses electricity.

It makes you wonder how people choose what they buy and from whom they get it, but then when you spend five minutes walking around with a Malawian, you discover that business operates through a vast network of social contacts and family relations, quite similar to that of Japan, another country where multitudes of proprieters offer the exact same services as everyone else. You get introduced to taxi drivers, restaurants where everyone knows one another and food stands where cousins/brothers/aunts and uncles work. Malawians who have been abroad complain that having missed opportunities to build contacts throughout this resource poor country, they are effectively shut out from the job market. Malawi certainly misses incredible opportunities to capitalize on the skills of those who have been educated abroad, justifying the incredible brain-drain that this country experiences. For a foreigner, its equally better and worse, although I’ve pretty much given up on makes inroads here. I just do what I do.

As long as I can keep eating chambo (local tasty, freshwater fish), I’m happy.

Discover Johannesburg

Welcome to Soweto

I had a layover day in Johannesburg so I arranged for a tour through Jimmy’s Face2Face, as recommend to me by a faculty member at school. Jimmy, in the 6 hours that I spent with him conversed fluently in no less than 9 languages (including Japanese?) and claims to speak 18. He started taking white people through Soweto during the Apartheid era to show them the true black South Africa. At the time, it was illegal for black and white people to associate outside of the workplace and forbidden for white people to go to African residential areas. Today, he runs a for-profit company doing pretty much the same thing, but now Soweto has transformed like the rest of South Africa, and everyone is pretty much free to go where they like. I must admit, my impression of Johannesburg, and of all of South Africa has been forever changed.

Soweto, or South Western Townships, was once a poor black ghetto of Johannesburg, and was ground zero of the anti-Apartheid movement and the events that made it a reality. Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Steve Biko and Walter Sisulu were all from the area, and there homes are preserved for prosperity and tourist dollars. In fact, the heavyweights of the movement and the center of most of the formative events occurred within the same half a kilometer radius.

In contrast to Soweto of the Apartheid era, the Soweto of today is fantastically dynamic. While shanty towns and ultra-poor areas do visibly exist, a rising black middle class has changed neighborhoods from densely packed corrugated tin shacks to well-built luxury houses with BMWs parked out front. While not nearly as wealthy as rich whites in the north of Johannesburg, one can see the fuits of economic progress in an 18 hole golf course, expensive cars and signs of the rise of chronic diseases related to obesity and hypertension. Weight loss clinics are a common sight in today’s Soweto. The incredibly surprising thing is, despite all the incredibly bad press that Jo-burg gets, Soweto is surprisingly safe. Years of community solidarity and a rising economy have made Soweto into a tightly knit area where the roots of the residents runs deep, and commitment high. I felt no less safe in Soweto than I ever do in just about any area in the US.

Soweto shanty town, a rare sight

Violence certainly pervades in Johannesburg and in all of South Africa, but, like America, is restricted to the poorest, the most neglected and the areas of highest racial discord. In the case of South Africa, the greatest threats are from unemployed young men that roam downtown, poor immigrant areas, where unemployment and xenophobia run rampant and in agricultural regions, where resentment of Afrikaner farmers runs deep. In fact, a recent bus driver and trucker strike has led to numerous incidents of violence and looting, suggesting that while South Africa has made incredible strides, it still has long to go before all of its social problems are solved.

South Africa has certainly seen vast progress, however. It has risen to be an upper-middle income country, and has the highest GDP on the African continent, fueled in large part by an educated and dynamic black middle class. While large interests such as mining and commodities are exploited by foreign companies (Brits), the internal workings of the country are being dictated by ethnic Africans. I would venture to say that Africans are some of the most resourceful people on the planet and South Africans are no exception. Used to living with nothing and having little to lose, they are willing to take business risks that Americans in 2011 would laugh at. However, despite the resourcefulness of its populace, South Africa is experiencing one of the largest brain-drains of any developed country as educated whites move on to take advantage of opportunities in wealthy countries such as the US, the UK and Australia.

Ground zero of the anti-apartheid movement

Many make the claim that African countries cannot manage their own affairs. This view has been long visible in the bigoted discourse of the Western media and through the condescending policies of the World Bank and the IMF (which South Africa was largely immune to)**. If the new South Africa, still under the weight of massive problems, is any indication, this is not true. South Africa’s economic growth rate stands at and impressive 6%, far higher than the United States, and almost on par with China. The United States rose from being a troubled nation, suffering economically from bad fiscal policies and societally from slavery and it’s aftershocks but still came to be the largest economic power in human history. If the U.S.’s challenges and later success are any indication, the next twenty or thirty years will see South Africa rise as an economic force to be reckoned with.



** International economics lesson 1: From the 1980’s the World Bank and the IMF have followed policies under the Structural Adjustment framework. Basically, for developing countries to receive loans from these institutions, conditions had to be met which included liberalizing markets which allowed products from wealthy countries (such as the US and Britain) to enter the country, free domestic markets and the privatization of many government provided services. The venture, of course, was entirely hypocritical on the part of the United States and Europe. While they demanded that developing countries open their borders to foreign products and end government subsidies, they continued to protect domestic industries and heavily subsidize their own agricultural sectors. The end result of this “free” market experiment was that developing countries cannot compete in international trade, are forced to import goods at high prices and have dismantled many government programs essential to the development of domestic infrastructure and industries. The Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) were devastating to the developing world and specifically led to many of the disastrous outcomes of famine, poverty and warfare in Sub-Saharan Africa during the 1980’s up to the present. It was telling that the countries which resisted the SAPs (southeast Asian countries and Botswana, for example) performed vastly better than those who caved to the West’s demands.

In South Africa

On my way to Malawi, through a series of bizarre flight manipulations, I ended up staying in Johannesburg, South Africa an extra day. There is no other place like South Africa on earth and this is like no place I’ve ever been.

A bizarre mish mash of seemingly incongruent cultures, South Africans happily manipulate a range of languages and cultural symbols. People flow from one tongue to another, with little indication that anything gets lost in communication. TV shows are like a constantly shifting, musical chairs style circular journey through South Africa’s 11 official languages, two white, and the rest indigenous African, Swahili and various creole languages. Where much is made in the United States about the standardization and enforced uniformity of language, South Africa breaks all conventions and shows that a truly multi-linguistic society can occur.

Music in South Africa is equally diverse. Store and mall music systems constantly play genre-defying sounds, mashing together forms that span rock, soul, African and a host of other, without the pale ironies and nostalgic tributes of that in the United States or Europe. It’s almost unthinkable that these parts would gel together to form a coherent whole, but it works amazingly nonetheless.

Much of my previous knowledge of South Africa stemmed from the anti-Apartheid rhetoric in the late 80’s, when the United States put immense pressure of the South African government to abandon the former racist system. People screamed in the American press, maligning the racist policies of the government at that time. I don’t see how the United States could serve as a keeper of social morality (particularly with Reagan in office), having enacted almost identical policies for nearly five centuries, but we waved the flag of moral superiority until South Africa caved and ceded power to the ANC.

Regardless, a country is not the sum total of how it is represented abroad.South Africa has much to offer. A country on the brink of implosion, massive unemployment and inequality, the highest violent crime rate in the world, but South Africa is still incredibly full of hope. Humans, in even the most culturally challenging of situations can rise up to pull together, even if it appears the opposite. South Africa, despite being older than the United States, could quite possibly be the youngest developed country on Earth. It will be incredibly interesting to see how South Africa turns out.

For now, jetlagged and falling apart at the seams…..

Music Palace and the Demise of Chinese Video Stores

I don’t know why, but suddenly I became nostalgic for Chinese video stores, specifically “Polygon Video” in Plymouth Road Mall close to where I presently live. You could pay $20 and get 60 rentals from their incredible selection of bootlegged Chinese VHS tapes. They had just about everything you could think of, plus some incredible gems if you just picked at random off the shelf. I was lucky enough once to pick the fantastic mainland Chinese film, The Black Cannon Incident, a satire of an authoritarian but inefficient Chinese government. Of course, absolutely nothing can compare to Tsui Hark’s early cannibal feature “We are going to eat you”.

New York City’s Chinatown used to provide home for one of the greatest movie theaters I’ve ever been to, Music Palace. Built in the 19th century for traveling Chinese theater groups, Music Palace eventually morphed into being a full time Cantonese movie theater. It closed down in 1999, around the same time that Polygon Video also shut it’s doors. I was only able to go to a feature at Music Palace once (with my buddy Justin), can’t remember the film we saw, but was blown away by the ambiance.

The cement floor sagged in the middle of the theater, a section whose seats were noticeably empty. Old people played Mah-Jong loudly in a room behind the screen, while others just slept through the movie, enjoying the air conditioning in the sweltering August heat. A small stand in front sold Kappa Ebisen chips and dried squid, while kids ran around the theater batshit and unattended.

It was an amazing place and I’m sorry that there is nothing like it in 2011. Asian American and immigrant culture has largely been confined to the home. While grocery stores exist, community areas like family run video stores and treasures like Music Palace are sadly dead, and even more sadly, nothing can replace it. Cheap technology has confined people to their homes, and made entertainment movie making into a cookie cutter enterprise, living to a universal Hollywood standard. It is interesting to me that technology, while providing readily available tools for human expression, has instead made the world complacent.

Not to say that all is dire in 2011, documentary film-making has reared it’s powerful head and given a voice to those who have never had one. We live in the golden age of documentary film. Sadly, though, we are past the era where greats like Music Palace have reigned. Places like Music Palace and Polygon Video really made America a special place to me. I had to travel all the way to Africa to find something similar in the small DVD theaters that dot the entire country. I’m still waiting for the first Malawian film. To this day, I think that the only exclusively Malawian film production has been a 16 minute porn movie.

Film-maker Eric Lin made a short 35 mm document of Music Palace before it shut it’s doors for good. Unfortunately, the film cannot be seen online anywhere, but he at least made parts of it available in a short trailer. It looks like a fantastic work. Click in the picture to watch the trailer.

Click on picture to watch the trailer for Music Palace.

Movie of the Week: “Witches in Exile” (2004)

I have written extensively on the problem of witchcraft in Africa, and was excited to see that this film had been made. In 2003, Allison Berg traveled to Ghana to document conditions in the six “witch camps” which operate throughout the rural regions of the country. As in all of Africa, witchcraft related accusations represent a vast social challenge to state and economic development.

The accused are largely elderly women, although men and children are also known to be accused. Women said to be practicing witchcraft are cast out of their villages, sometimes violently and the culture vastly believes that such women should be killed. In Ghana, six camps have been created to house women who have been cast out of their homes, providing spiritual cleansing and rudimentary living quarters.

However, the existence of the camps should not be considered as altruistic. The men which operate the camps do so not out of sympathy for the accused, but out of a belief that these women present a threat to the world. In fact, footage of the camp healer portray him as a barelyh coherent drunk, who clearly harbors deep resentment for the women. In fact, most of the men in the film, including families members of the “witches” and members of the community which waged the accusations are portrayed as barely functional, unreasonable and likely imbalanced.

The films downside suffers from a lack of honest statements from the family members of the accused women. Interviews with the sons and brothers of the “witches” are often done in the presence of male community members, so it is difficult to determine whether the men truly believe the accusations, or whether they are merely parroting wider community values. Indeed, the expressions of these men and the hesitance of delivery might indicate that they also believe the accusations to be unfair and may be troubled by the thought of casting out family members, but there is nothing within the footage from which to concretely support this assertion.

Conversely, the accused women are incredibly lucid. They matter of factly describe their situation in both human and social terms, honestly discuss the difficulty of their present condition and rightfully worry of their families’ futures. Most declare that witchcraft does not exist and clearly harbor vast anger against a society which has brought them to the deplorable conditions of the camps. Despite the state of the witch camps, many appear to want to remain, having nowhere else to go, and having discovered comaradery and community with other women who face the same plight.

The camps themselves were interesting to me. Despite the miserable conditions, the women in the camps are almost an oasis of reason, having cast off the great weight of deep rooted superstition. However, I doubt that anyone could agree that the culture of witchcraft is doing sub-Saharan Africa many favors. It is unlikely that anything will be done to overcome this challenge, rapid urbanization and economic expansion have almost exacerbated the problem, but allow religious opportunists such as Christian faith healers and Pentecostal churches to promulgate. If anything, films like “Witches in Exile” expose the incredible complexities of religion, belief and society, particularly in a region as vastly complex and dynamic and sub-Saharan Africa.

Senseless Row Over a Cambodian Temple Threatens African Children

While everyone is focused on the uprising in Egypt, part way around the world, Thailand and Cambodia are killing each other over a temple and the conflict threatens to kill millions of children on a completely different continent. Last year, UNESCO certified the Preah Vihear a World Heritage Site, and recognized it as rightfully belonging to Cambodia. Thailand across the border, likely in hopes of capitalizing of the vast tourist dollars (bhat?) which flow out of such sites, exploded, triggering a series of border clashes which have resulted in several deaths and the displacement of thousands of residents living along the border areas.

This strong arming of Cambodia over temple sites is not new to Thailand’s pattern of aggression against it’s neighbors. Angkor Wat, an internationally famous temple site, despite lying more than 150 miles from the Thai border, has long been claimed by Thailand. Conservative voices within Thailand have called for the Thai government to forcibly take Angkor Wat as a bargaining chip against Preah Vihear which would undoubtedly lead to an all out war between Thailand and Cambodia.

This not only poses a threat to regional and local stability and presents a danger to an important historical landmark, but also threatens efforts to contain a strain of drug-resistant malaria. After vast selective adaptation of P. falciparum malaria to standard malarial medications, Artemisinin Combination Therapy, a cocktail of malaria medications is the end of the line for effective treatments that prevent death from one of the world’s biggest killers. Recently, artemisenin resistant strains of malaria have been found in southeast Asia along the Thai-Cambodian border. Vast efforts are being undertaken to contain it’s spread.

It is widely feared that the strain will reach Sub-Saharan Africa, where ACTs are being successfully used to prevent mortality in children. If it does reach SSA, treatment efforts will be undermined and clinicians expect incredible spikes in childhood deaths. ACTs are expensive compared to other medications, but effective. Unfortunately, they are thought to be the last of effective treatments against malaria for the near future. If an artemisinin resistant strain of P. falciparum spread out of the border regions, it will likely reach sub-Saharan Africa in months. If this comes to pass, it is thought that millions more children will die than do already.

Border regions in any country are hot beds of poverty, violence and infectious disease which does much to explain why deadly strain of malaria are able to propagate along the Thai-Cambodian border. Containment efforts by public health groups are now undermined due to the senseless violence. Clinics are no longer able to effectively operate in the area. Displacement and instability forces residents to live in conditions conducive to the transmission of malaria, making a bad situation even worse, exacerbating the spread of dangerous strains of the disease.

All this over a single temple.

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