Music break: a song for the hypocrites

“Kigeugeu” by Kenyan artist Jaguar. This song has been around for a few months, but I just started listening to it. (Clearly, urgency is not this blog’s forté!)

Kigeugeu means “changing” in Kiswahili — as in the way chameleons change color (Google translate says “vascillating”). The saying is kigeugeu kama kinyonga — changing like a chameleon. The characters in this video — the pastor, the wife, the politician — change according to their circumstances.

I think the song bumps, and is kind of soulful, too.

Apparently, Raila Odinga is also a Jaguar fan.


Update on China-TZ relations

The excellent Tanzania-focused blog Swahili Street kindly linked to my last post, and brought my attention to some important updates. Apparently, those tensions I mentioned between Tanzanians and Chinese traders in Dar have reached new heights. Seems the delicate balance has tipped somewhat, at least for now. Please have a read of the well-sourced article here.

Chinatown, Dar es Salaam

Note: I wrote this article about Chinese traders in Dar es Salaam for publication a year and a half ago, and for some reason it didn’t get picked up. I thought it was an interesting subject because China’s involvement in Africa is often discussed from the perspective of its political and global economic implications, when for most of the businesspeople involved in trading, those things don’t really matter. They don’t see themselves as protagonists (or antagonists, as many in the West like to claim) in that kind of a story — they’re just trying to make a buck.

I have a hunch this dispatch is still pretty up to date, but if I’m missing some major change that’s occurred in the last year, please let me know in a comment! Enjoy.

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania – Perched on a plastic chair in a wholesale fabric store in a working-class neighborhood here, Tony smiles.

“Most of the time, the local people are right to you,” he says. “It’s good to have different experiences. You can’t close your mind.”

The sanguinity is a little surprising. Tony (birth name Tau Fu, originally from Shanghai, China) has just described watching an armed robbery at the moneychanger’s across the street, his futile attempt to recover lost goods from a burglary at his storage facility, and the memory of another Chinese trader who was shot and killed in another stick-up.

Like many of the other Chinese traders who are arriving in Dar es Salaam and other major African cities, he is focusing on opportunities, not challenges. Mostly young and male, they travel thousands of miles from home to open markets for their cheap, mass-produced goods. They live in poorer neighborhoods than many Western expats but without ties to local communities, and stay for years at a time.

It can’t be easy. And yet they continue to come – more, it seems, every day.

Tony’s story sheds light on the migrant experience. The 27 year-old studied English in college and began working for the Kangxing Trading Company, a textile operation with its own factory. After two years of work, his boss sent him to open a shop in Tanzania, joining Chinese traders who had been opening businesses here since the 1990s.

Drawing on a mix of adventurousness and ambition – he was promoted to manager of his own store – Tony agreed. He arrived in Tanzania as an agent of the company, conducted market research for his boss, and opened up a storefront in Kariakoo, the cheapest area in downtown Dar es Salaam.

Tony estimates there are about 80 other Chinese-owned shops in the neighborhood, and there is a Chinese population big enough to give the area a feeling of an ethnic enclave in its infancy. There are now markets for Chinese food and a few restaurants scattered throughout Dar es Salaam. Chinese workers staff many of the stalls in the seething streets, selling shoes, fabrics and other manufactured goods.

At first glance, the traders have a good relationship with locals. Sitting in doorways, they slap five with passersby and trade jokes. Some speak Swahili better than they speak English. In Tony’s store, a younger Chinese worker and a Tanzanian employee sat on a bale of synthetic curtains and teased each other about their cultures’ differing preferences in women.

But not everything is so cozy. On the one hand, Tanzanians have welcomed the availability of cheap goods. There is also resentment, however. Some say the Chinese have undercut local traders. Their goods do not have a reputation for quality. Some people claim they have driven up rents in the once affordable neighborhood. For their part, some of the Chinese businesspeople feel unsafe. “It’s easy to rob Chinese people, because they’re not local,” Tony said.

In a fish market on the waterfront, local fishmongers trash-talked another Chinese textile trader, a 28 year-old named Ni Je, after he passed their stall.

“Mchina is no good,” a man said, using the Swahili term for a Chinese person. The seller gestured to a huge fish lying on a table. “He wants to buy this for 2,000,” he said, quoting a price in Tanzanian shillings that is a about $1.50.

Ni, who goes by the name Andy when doing business with foreigners, had not even expressed interest in the fish. But the judgment had been passed.

Ni says he doesn’t let incidents like the one at the fish market bother him. After all, he’s here to make money, and there are people who try to bother you everywhere, even back home.

As for the cheapness of Chinese goods in Tanzania, Ni says it is simple economics. “Chinese can produce anything,” he said, but African customers cannot usually afford the higher quality goods. So producers lower costs – and standards – to the point where the goods will have a market in countries like Tanzania, where 96.6 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, according to United Nations figures.

The first significant numbers of Chinese arrived in mainland Tanzania in the 1960s to build a railroad. Later, China sent doctors and invested in other big-ticket construction projects. At the diplomatic level, the countries enjoy friendly relations. In 2008, Tanzania was the only African country through which the Olympic torch passed during its round-the-world relay.

China’s presence in Africa is controversial. While African leaders like Paul Kagame of Rwanda have hailed Chinese investment in Africa, Western rights groups have criticized China’s business-first relations with alleged rights abusers like Sudan and Guinea.

For the smalltime businessmen in the streets of Kariakoo, though, the focus is much more immediate: a dollar earned, a rung climbed in the ladders of their careers.

As Ni put it, “Chinese people like to work – whenever, wherever, we don’t have a problem.”

Too much to keep track of

A few of my loyal readers have asked me why I haven’t been more vocal as of late. It’s a darn good question. The events in the Arab world in the last few weeks are a culmination of all the things that I have written about most on this blog.

Below, I offer a few rather pitiful explanations for my silence, which I hope you will indulge.

  • This is a particularly bad time for half-baked long-distance punditry. The information we have — and I am, of course, expecially thinking of Libya here — is mean and unreliable. With real lives in the balance, I have been reticent to contribute to the din without having firsthand information to contribute.
  • Events are unfolding too fast for me to offer the kind of thoughtful commentary for which I try to reserve this blog. My last post was practically irrelevant, news-wise, in about a day. Should I write a blog post about how calling the Libyan government’s apparent massacres of unarmed protesters does not qualify as genocide? (Which is how a number of interviewees, including defecting Libyan officials, are describing it on TV.) Such points are important (HT @texasinafrica), but it doesn’t feel right devoting a whole post to them from afar.
  • Most of all, there’s just too much to keep track of. I admit this reluctantly. As much as the wave of revolt washing across the MENA region emanates from some common urge for freedom, the local grievances of people are dizzyingly different from place to place. Bahrain’s Shiite majority is not Egypt’s multitudinous shebaab are not Yemen’s impoverished throngs are not Libya’s dying young people are not Syria’s somewhat more restrained malcontents, etc. The uprisings are all drawing from the same font of dignity, but they are nurturing different species of trees. Analytically, this makes it very difficult to comment on them en masse. And I would need to spend all day, e’eday blogging to comment on them all individually. Regrettably (for this purpose), I have a day job.

By way of consolation for these unsatisfying explanations, let me offer a list of what I am following in a vain attempt to keep up with everything.

Got recommendations for other good resources that I should be on? Please let me know.

Finally, a ditty I was thinking about for some reason today:

My thoughts with the people of Libya tonight.

ممكن يسقط؟ - Pic taken during unfortunate 26-hour layover in Tripoli airport, 2006.

Echoes of colonialism in war strategy

Statue of General Charles Gordon, the British "martyr" of the Sudanese River Wars. Photo: Brian Herrington Spier.

I hate to beat the same old imperialism horse over and over, but come on, now. Revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book — about Obama’s military strategists’ push for a bigger war commitment in Afghanistan — are hard not to read without thinking about the West’s long colonial history in Asia and Africa. (See WaPo article.) Some of the comments could be taken out of Winston Churchill’s memoirs of his swashbuckling pre-politics days in Africa. Witness, attributed to Petraeus:

You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It’s a little bit like Iraq, actually. . . . Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.

In other words, long-term occupation of foreign lands is necessary for their — and our — advancement? Sounds a little too familiar.

Weekend jam: Kare by P-Unit from Nairobi

Alright, get over the corny name. P-Unit has come out with one of the catchiest songs of the summer, as far as I’m concerned. Makes me want to pour up some Famous and tonic and peep the scene from a corner in Bacchus.

Apparently one of the singers is actually a doctor. He says so in the song: “mimi ni daktari.” (That he is a doctor in real life is completely unconfirmed, but I’m told this is reported somewhere.) You will notice that all the words rhyme with kare, which may be a colloquial way of pronouncing kali, which in standard Swahili means something along the lines of “harsh,” but in slang maybe means something along the lines of “hot.” As in, “Ooh, that’s hot.”

There are a lot of maybes in the attempted translation above because my sources are a little hazy on the exact meaning (I don’t speak Kiswahili, let alone Sheng). So if you’ve got a better idea, please let me know.

I’ve been criticized by some Kenyans (OK, one Kenyan) for blogging music that has already made the rounds on the Kenyan webosphere. Well, whatever… If it you don’t like me giving East Africa its propers, I can always move onto another region next week.

Until then, I’ll be bumpin’ Kare out of my personal listening device (no brand names will get shout outs here).

Weekend jam: Ashimba

Tanzanian music aficionados will complain that this selection is old news, but for the rest of you, I bet this is new: Ashimba.

His music sounds to me like a sort of cross between Aurelio Martinez and Nameless, if that makes any sense. Definitely keeping TZ on my mind on a beautiful late summer day in NYC. How I wish I could link to Ashimba’s song Usingizi, which is the most addictive one. But it appears that this is the only music video he made from the album. There’s a sample from Usingizi in the last moments in the video. You can download Ashimba’s whole album here.

PS, Is this becoming a music blog? Not my intention, but I am trying to bring a new selection every weekend.

Weekend jam: allez Décalé Chrétien!

Nairobi’s Daddy Owen has taken Coupé-Décalé, the Franco-Ivoirian dance craze, to church with his praise song, Kupe De Kalle.

The song is at least six months old, though NPR just picked it up, so it’s been making the Internet rounds a bit more in the last few days. (The NPR article is oddly incomplete in describing the origins of Coupé-Décalé — doesn’t even name the style, which is several years old. For that, read the Wikipedia article.)

This is interesting and unexpected to me for a few reasons.

  • The distance between East and West Africa often seems vast. It is usually cheaper and easier, after all, to fly from Nairobi to London than it is to fly from Nairobi to Abidjan. (Read about some of the shenanigans involved in intra-African flights here.) Thus, talking to some Kenyans, for example, one often feels that people sort of think of West Africa as the bizarro world on the other side of the continent where life is unpleasantly loud and in your face. This song is an example of the digital breakdown of that distance — something that is increasingly common with high speed web connections.
  • There is a mild East African flavor to this version of Coupé-Décalé. It’s hard to describe. It’s not quite as hard-hitting, but a little easier to listen to while kicking back, than those joints from the Jet Set.
  • And Coupé-Décalé is a style that epitomizes raunchiness, ridiculousness and excess — not the genre you’d expect to be mined for church music. (Cue comment from reader revealing that there’s been a gospel Coupé-Décalé movement in the Ivory Coast for the last five years that I don’t know about.)

Check it.

Of course, music has always been one of those things that crossed African divides — borders, languages, politics, religion, great distance — with relative ease. So maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. In any case, this is awesome. Makes me want to go put on some pointy shoes and spit some gibberish raps.

Referendum Kenya

The big vote is tomorrow. (Pretty good article (I think) by Gettleman.)

In addition to the news, here’s what I’m watching: anti-apathy clips from Kuweni Serious :

(Browse through their stuff for some others featuring Makmende, like this one where dude is complaining about government efforts to encourage birth control.)

(HT to LL.)

On Planet Money’s “just give the oil money away” report

Photo by Jonathan Wheeler. Used with a Creative Commons license.

My favorite podcast, Planet Money, had a great report last week on a novel idea for avoiding the resource curse: just give the revenues away to a country’s citizens. The report was prompted by the announcement of huge deposits of precious minerals in Afghanistan and the discovery of oil in the last couple of years in Ghana — a country that desperately wants to avoid having its economy or government end up anything like Nigeria‘s, where there’s been a decades-long oil bonanza.

It’s easy to see the potential benefits of giving money away to poor people, if you’re at all sympathetic to the idea that welfare systems work to stimulate economies. Giving disposable income to people with pressing needs is great for boosting a country’s economic growth — a poor person who gets $100 will immediately inject it back into the economy by spending it on pressing needs, whereas a rich person might stick it in a savings account. Also, individuals may be better suited to decide what their needs are — and use money for innovative ventures — than bureaucracies, NGOs and government contractors (who might very well have corrupt relationships with those handing out the contracts).

But as you’ll see when you listen to the podcast, the idea is incomplete. Probably the biggest flaw is the fact that there are many collective ventures — schools, roads, hospitals — that individuals are in no position to take on, no matter how much extra income they have. (The advocates of the system would tax the transfers to pay for this, but it doesn’t seem like enough.)

Still, it’s funny to hear a Nigerian oil official in the podcast claim that individuals would do a bad job of allocating their payouts — it’s hard to imagine the situation getting much worse than it is when it comes to squandering the Delta’s riches.

It seems to me there’s a strong argument for having a big portion of oil revenues — but not all — earmarked for cash transfers. Whatever the solution to ending the resource curse and improving revenue transparency in extractive industries around the world, one important element is going to be getting more good journalism like Planet Money’s — but even more from local media — on the topic. Once again, I will shamelessly plug the report I wrote with several classmates on this subject: There Will Be Ink. Great title, huh?