Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Got the visa

I finally managed to get Kavita's visa extended. I went to pick up her approval letter from the Ministry of Interior on 15 December.

I went to then proceeded to the Immigration and Passports office in G-8. I submitted the whole application. I was instructed to proceed to the State Bank in G-9 Markaz (or also known as Karachi Company) to deposit the fees which were 17,200 rupees. There was a whole line of fellows, including some very old men, who offered to fill up deposit slips for me for a mere 50 rupees. I was in a mad rush otherwise would have indulged one of them. I ran into the Bank and was shown the queue full of men (which started outside the building) and, then a separate counter for women where women were being served by the same men. I took this advantage and paid my fees. I rushed back to G-8 and submitted my application.

When I went back to collect the passport, some clerk explained that I needed to go back to the Bank to re-verify the deposit slip. This made no sense at all. It was a chaotic scene with many applicants crowding around the office. I saw some Europeans, some UN passports, some Somali applicants and so on. Somehow, I didn't make my usual noise and went back to the Bank to re-verify the deposit slip. 

I lost a day in doing so. The folks at the Bank told me the Passport office's request was complete rubbish. 

But anyway, I went back to the Passport office with the stamped slip and finally managed to get Kavita's passport with the renewed visa. 

Friday, 9 December 2016

Zia ul Haq won't approve Kavita's Pakistan visa application

It's worthwhile sharing the experience of getting Kavita's Pakistan visa extended because it's a real lesson in nation states, borders, colonial hang overs, and, identity. 

Kavita has visited Pakistan 4 times now. Her first visa was issued by the Pakistan Embassy in Morocco under whose jurisdiction Liberia lies. I had earlier traveled to Sénégal where my father had served as Pakistan Ambassador in the mid 90s and, confidently thought I'd combine a holiday with a visa errand. I was wrong and, they informed me that I would have to apply visa Morocco. So, I talked to my father on the telephone who put me in touch with his former colleague from our days in Dakar who told me I should write to the Ambassador in Morocco. Of course, I followed all the protocol and, sure enough, after sending off the application, Kavita's shiny American passport via DHL, the visa was issued without any hassle in a couple of weeks. Kavita received a 6-month visa. 

We came to Pakistan in 2014 and, stayed for about 8 months because ebola had caused such a crisis back in Liberia that everyone advised me to stay away. During this time, my father accompanied me to the Ministry of Interior to meet with some desk officer who helped us to get an approval letter. My father was quite nervous during this time and, tried to hush up the whole thing that Kavita's father is an Indian. We extended Kavita's visa easily. 

Then I briefly came back to Pakistan in 2015 to get my own passport renewed. I suppose I could have sent it to Morocco to get it renewed but I wanted to combine the renewal with a visit home. Kavita of course accompanied me on a valid visa.

Earlier this year, I came to Pakistan for a month and a half and, had renewed Kavita's visa by sending her passport to Morocco. 

This year, I rushed back to Islamabad on hearing about another break in at our home and, Kavita's visa would expire in a week's time. I thought I would just renew her visa while I was in Islamabad. 

The experience of renewing her visa on my own this time was an interesting one. 

When one's on holiday back home, getting up early enough and then rushing out in a mad, crazed chaos is itself an accomplishment. I hadn't bothered to refresh myself on the process. I went first to the Immigration and Passport Office in G-8. The office was actually closed but because it's Pakistan, the folks in the office itself decided to advise me. They first inspected Kavita's passport and her Pakistan visa and declared her visa was still valid. Then, they advised me to see the desk officer who also agreed but said it was better to extend her visa. He explained what to do at the Ministry of Interior: make copies of the passport, bring along passport size photos, etc, etc. He said I should go there next morning at 9 AM. 

I spent a good amount of time in F-10 Markaz making 2 sets of photocopies of any relevant documents I could find, including a copy of her ID card at Maroof Hospital. 

When I did go to the Ministry finally, I had a very hectic and frustrated morning. I specially booked an unmarked Metro Cab car because taxis aren't allowed in the complex. Did Metro Cab send me a marked taxi or a private-looking car? A taxi! So, the taxi remained parked outside while Kavita walked into the complex and made several trips up and down, sent by one desk to another. I suppose we got some good exercise but because we had left on empty stomachs (I can never accomplish breakfast, getting up on time and getting out the door on time in one go) and, I felt terrible at dragging Kavita up and down. 

The main hall at the Ministry of Interior where applicants submit and receive applications is a small one. It's packed and, there is really no sense of order. There is a desk specifically for Afghans and, then another one. When the officers arrive, they are perfectly willing to let the applicants crowd around them and then haphazardly deal with everyone. It's perfectly fine to push your way through and demand your application be looked at. So, when I presented Kavita's application, the fellow there got very intrigued that Kavita's father was Indian. He didn't look at any other part of her application and, told me to go to a fellow named Zia ul Haq who was at the India desk. Can you imagine a more apt name? 

I was a bit puzzled because I didn't remember being at any India desk when my father had brought me to the Ministry back in 2014. Anyway, I found Zia ul Haq who dismissively but politely explained to me that Kavita had a US passport which didn't mention the nationality of her father and she would need to go through a normal desk.

I went back to the main desk where of course, the fellows were no longer there and were on lunch break. It was a Friday so lunch break was an extended one and, Jumma Namaz would naturally lengthen the break. 

During this time, I decided to take a lunch break myself. Our Metro Cab was dutifully waiting outside. We rang up the driver and, he pulled up. We went to Super Market for lunch. We had some sandwiches at Cafe Rouge. I always forget that everything at Pakistani restaurants is full of mirchain and, didn't enjoy the sandwiches much. I got a couple of snacks from United Bakery for Kavita and then headed back to the Ministry. 

I went back to the main hall where of course I couldn't find the officers and the security guard advised me to go back to Zia ul Haq and, let him write on the paper that he wouldn't approve Kavita's application. This didn't help. During this walking up and down, I telephoned my father who told me he would find the relevant desk officer and, sort things out. 

The reception staff noticed me going up and down and, finally told me to go up to the 6th floor and find a certain Mushtaq Ahmed (the person who first sent me to the India desk). By this time, my father had managed to contact him through some friends at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I went up and of course Mr Ahmed met me kindly and, received my application. 

I was so relieved. 

Of course, it was a bit of a stressful and tiring process. I cursed all the names I could think of including Jinnah and Gandhi and Nehru and other figures who dreamt of modern nation states and enlisting themselves in history books. Who said Partition is over? Kaun kambakht kehta hai?

During this whole process, did anyone even notice that Kavita is hardly 4 years old, a loved child, innocent of the concepts of borders (which are invisible to begin with), and, only wants to watch cartoons? 

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Traveling home

I flew back to Islamabad on Friday and arrived in the early hours of Sunday, 4 December, flying along the most familiar route from Monrovia to Islamabad via Accra with Emirates. 

Waiting to check in for the Arik Air flight to Accra at RIA.
I was pretty excited about my trip because it's so familiar and, Kavita is a good traveling companion. As long as you explain to her what's going on, she cooperates, wakes up to walk out of the plane and along the miles-long corridors of the Dubai Airport, and patiently waits when we have to wait. Also, she's a cartoon fanatic and, Emirates and other airlines have an impressive selection of entertainment on board which keeps her very, very busy.

Kavita and I woke up extra early to start getting ready to catch the 1140 AM Arik Air Flight to Accra from Roberts International Airport (RIA). We had to give ourself at least an hour to be able to get to the Airport from Randall Street. I had enough time and, even stopped at the handicraft shops across Mamba Point Hotel to make a last-minute purchase for gifts.

We reached the Airport on time thanks to Morris Duo, NATC's driver.  Haresh accompanied us and, we bid him farewell at the Airport. As always, it's always hard to say good bye. In fact, I get traveling blues at least a week before I have to get on a plane, especially when one knows when one is flying across continents, time zones away.

Kavita and I easily checked in with time to spare. I met a lady from whom I had purchased a high table with stools for use for a staff corner for our office  via the Expats Google Group (a very, very useful and entertaining forum where so-called expats, "re-pats" and, Liberians exchange information, post vacancies, sell items when they leave town, post complaints about restaurants and, vent frustration) and, we made some small talk.

Before I knew it, we were on board the plane. I find going through RIA very, very easy. It's like being home. It's small and, if you're friendly and polite, you'll breeze through. It's better than Islamabad Airport for international departures and arrivals for sure. 

On the bus taking us to the Arik Air plane.
The 2-hour Arik Air flight was pleasant and, I enjoyed reading the in-flight magazines that featured countries worth visiting in Africa. The service was pleasant.

We landed at Kotoka Airport in no time and, I walked into the terminal and, wondered how many times I had taken this journey back home. It was already the second time in 2016. I was mentally ready for the 4-5 hour transit in the Airport until the 1830 hrs Emirates flight to Dubai. There were a few other transit passengers who were waiting to be herded to their onward flights. I met a French-American lady who had been in Monrovia for 2 weeks for a consultancy with the World bank. She said she enjoyed her work in Monrovia. She complained that her office had booked her to Monrovia via a very long route via Addis and, now she was pleased she was going back via Dubai. She lives in Delhi and works with an accounting firm. She and I chatted and, I gave her my business card as she was going to be back. I explained to her we would collect our luggage, exit the Airport, walk through the Arrivals, through the car park and, then re-enter the Airport through the Departures gate. She couldn't believe that's what we had to do and, said but when she had arrived last time, they didn't have to exit the Airport.

I just politely nodded saying I had taken this journey so many times and, was used to it.
Aboard the Arik Air flight from Monrovia to Accra
Kavita looking down at the world. A very amusing incident happened on board. I was alerted by neighbouring passengers that Kavita was hurt. I looked next to me to see Kavita was dabbing a bleeding finger with some tissue papers. She became upset when I saw it and, then got angry at the neighbours. She only showed me on the condition I wouldn't touch her finger. It turned out to be a minor thing but it seems she has a habit of not telling anyone when she's hurt. 
So, we collected our luggage, walked down the ramp, left the Airport, walked through the crowd of folks waiting for their loved ones, past the Chinese fast food outlet on our right, and walked through the Car Park and up a slope. We re-entered the Airport through the Departures Gate. Recently, the Airport has installed a baggage screening right at the Entrance which wasn't there before.

Landing in Accra.
Kavita and I checked into Emirates and, there was no anxiety because our suitcases were quite empty and, there was no chance of being excess.

We went upstairs into the Departure Halls and, zipped past all the booths although I did get a little annoyed at how many times we had to produce our passports and yellow fever cards for checking over and over again. I lifted Kavita to let the thermographic capture her lack of fever and, then took off my glasses to get myself checked too. I explained to Kavita why we had to remove our shoes and things for the baggage screening once more. She was quite intrigued and so were the Airport Security staff when I explained to her that these guys wanted to make sure we weren't bringing anything "bad" on board.
At the fantastic Sanbra Lounge at Kotoka Airport, Accra.
At the fantastic Sanbra Lounge at Kotoka Airport, Accra.
I went straight up to the trusty Sanbra Lounge and, where I learned that they had reduced the pass price from $ 25.00 to $ 20.00 for women. Kavita was of course free. We excitedly entered the lounge, parked our carry on luggage in a comfortable corner and then headed for the snacks and drinks corner. We gobbled up samosas, pies, tiny-size humus and bread, fresh fruit and some baked goods. Kavita drank a fizzy drink while I asked for a hot coffee. The pass includes free WiFi and, we spoke to Haresh via a WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger video call, whichever one worked best.

I met the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of Arcelor Mittal Liberia and, excitedly told him about our IT company. I was quite surprised to meet a staff of Arcelor Mittal and, to learn that after a new discovery of additional deposits, the company was going to scale up.  I told the CFO that we had been trying to get Arcelor Mittal as a client, and once upon a time, NATC had bagged all the major mining companies like Putu Iron Ore Mining Inc. and BHP Billiton. He explained some problems he was facing with procurement and, was surprised at the exorbitant high prices that local vendors were quoting. I proudly told him not to worry and, he should give us a chance. We exchanged contacts and I immediately sent him an e-mail introducing our company to him. What a great moment!

Kavita and I proceed to take our shower in the Lounge's bathrooms and, then, I bought some gifts from the Duty Free. It's always good to keep extra gifts with one, never knowing when you need to impress someone or for when you feel extremely obliged when someone invites you over. I packed everything in our carry-on luggage and then proceeded to the Departure Gate. A fellow asked for our passports (again!) and, when he saw Kavita's US passport, all he said with a smirk was "Trump!"

How are you supposed to respond to this, especially because we had Kavita in the US so we could escape the bitter relations between India and Pakistan? Did he not realise the geopolitical situation in which Kavita was born in the US, the country that continues to bomb Pakistan through drone attacks and, uses its most vile military dictators for its own imperial interests?

We are waiting for the bus to take us to the hotel.
I just grunted and, kept walking to the Gate where they started boarding. Apparently we were in section E which was being boarded first. Still, there was a bit of a stampede and, as usual the Airport and Airline staff watched it without really helping anyone or organising manic passengers who wanted to race to their seats, probably to make sure there was enough space in the overhead compartments to stash their carry on bags.

Well anyway, we soon boarded and, excitedly took our place in our seats. We were seated to a very nice Canadian lady (originally from Zimbabwe) who was en route to Dhaka for business. She was working in the pharmaceutical industry. She was extremely sweet and, didn't mind when Kavita put her feet on her lap when she was sleeping and, would help Kavita with  her headphones or passing the food tray.

I managed to watch quite a few movies: Ghostbusters, Lights Out, Tale of Tales, and only 1/4 of Equals. That's pretty good for movie watching, no? I absolutely loved the new Ghostbusters and, the feminist interpretation is brilliant. The women were hilarious. I was also blown away by the fascinating Tale of Tales and, its brutal intertwined stories. It was unlike anything I've seen in a long time.

Kavita was busy of course with her cartoons. Emirates definitely has an impressive selection of films and TV shows.

It was soon time to land in Dubai and, I was greatly looking forward to my day-long stop-over in Dubai.

Lobby of the Al Bustan Hotel, the hotel given to us for our stop over by Emirates. See photographs of the rulers of the UAE.

Lobby of the Al Bustan Hotel where we waited to be checked in.
Instead of landing in Dubai, the pilot informed us that due to heavy fog, the flight would be diverted to Sharjah. So, there we were - landing in Sharjah instead of Dubai in the early hours of the morning. No worries, I thought to myself. This can't cut too much time out of my day-long stop-over. No need to panic. I would still have time to shop, enjoy Dubai and meet Haresh's sister.

We landed at Sharjah Airport. It looked like a much smaller airport than the ultra-modern, glitzy, ever-expanding, and 1-landing-plane-a-minute Dubai Airport. The plane landed, taxied and, we sat in the middle of the runway for a bit. The captain informed us he was waiting for guidance to be led to the terminal. We were led away and, then were parked in the plane until further notice. By this time, we were quite tired of watching films and, it was time to sleep. Kavita was easily able to sleep but I slept in fits, turning from one side to another trying to get comfortable. In between being awake and  being  squashed in the most awkward angle in a small airplane seat, we heard the pilot announce several times that the flight was going to take off in 20 minutes or that he was still awaiting instructions from Dubai.

We managed to stay parked on the Sharjah Airport tarmac for 6 hours. My day-long stop-over in Dubai was half over. We finally took off and, landed in Dubai at around 1 or 2 PM.

The Zimbabwean lady and I exchanged some remarks over the experience. The crew were not explaining anything clearly, weren't really that friendly or even bothered to smile. She was not happy with the service and, said so much that the flights serving so-called developing countries are always full of rather unkind crew. I shared my observations too, especially  how the crew is extremely unhelpful and only 1 in 10 actually smile or offer to help.

Kavita and I stumbled out of the plane, the last passengers. I convinced Kavita to wake up and, walk out with me. The poor thing was exhausted but I was firm and, we started walking towards the Exit. She had a small tantrum when I washed her face and brushed her teeth in the bathroom. After she calmed down we continued walking but she kept weeping and, I felt terrible and tired. I simply couldn't carry her and, pull 2 wheelers and carry my back pack. My bags were full of change of clothes and gifts for our day in Dubai.

This took a good half hour or more, over moving walk ways, one after another, past bathrooms, connecting flight counters, past adverts for posh Dubai residences, into the massive elevators that coast down, gliding down against the waterfall, and into the main immigration hall. I headed for the Emirates desk which processes transit passengers who have hotel vouchers. Of course none of the Emirates staff at these desks was particularly concerned about how exhausted I was. I was sent from one desk to another across the massive marbled, gleaming hall. Kavita patiently dragged her small pink Dora wheeler while I pushed mine. I patiently waited in the queue for 20 minutes until someone cut the line and I blew my top off. I informed the lady that I was exhausted, having sat in a plane in Sharjah for 6 hours, diverted because of the fog and, I wanted to get served. The fellow who cut the line let me go ahead and, the lady at the desk told me I was at the wrong counter!

I went to the right counter, got the ticket I needed and proceeded to the immigration queues. I insisted I be let into the short Business Class line because of my child and how exhausted I was. That worked and, after a few minutes, we were out of the queue. I showed Kavita the immigration officer's hands with ornate mehndi. We then walked for another good few minutes past the baggage collection (we didn't need to collect our bags since they were booked straight through to Islamabad) and, were out. We headed to Exit 1 where Emirates transit passengers are taken by bus to the hotel.

Our lunch at the hotel.

Lining up to get on the bus to the hotel.

We were told to wait for the bus which after waiting for 30 minutes. It was already about 3:00 PM and my flight was at 9:30 PM. There was no way I would be able to do anything. I used the WiFi to connect to Haresh and then sent a message to his sister. I could have taken a taxi straight to his sister instead but I had hardly any time to do anything worthwhile. Also, I didn't hear back from her so it was better to just go to the hotel to freshen up and, catch maybe an hour of sleep at the most.

I helplessly made noise at the counter, explaining how bone tired I was. Finally, the bus arrived and, we were taken to Al Bustan Hotel. There were some French passengers behind us in the queue and some Indian ladies in the front. Kavita admired one lady's daughter's Frozen back pack. We managed to check in and, were told lunch was available until 4 PM.

It was a pleasant lobby and, Kavita and I walked straight to the restaurant through a gleaming shopping mall full of formal party dresses which Kavita kept admiring. "Ami, look, princess dress!" she called out. The shopping mall was perfumed and I was struck at this different and familiar world I was in, so different from my day to day life in Monrovia, on Randall Street.

We had a good lunch at the restaurant. It was a buffet with a good spread. Somehow, the chairs reminded me of a very sterile, generic canteen. We finished our lunch and, went up to our room which was in fact a suite! It had a living room, a kitchen, and a bedroom. How I wish I had had the whole day here: a nice hotel room provided by Emirates. We had only a couple of hours to freshen up. We took a warm bubbly bath, and took a nap for an hour.

In our suite. Too bad we didn't have the full day to enjoy it.

Walking through the Mall in which was the Hotel.
The alarm woke me up and, I couldn't understand at all where I was. I quickly dressed and, then woke Kavita woke up. We were back in the lobby downstairs at quarter to 7 PM.

We drove back to the hotel in the shuttle bus with a few more passengers. Kavita spoke loudly about everything while everyone listened to her observations and stories.

Checking back into the Airport was quite smooth. We had had our boarding passes issued back in Accra so all we needed to do was breeze through. Thankfully, the officer checking weight of the carry on luggage let us through when he weighed my bag which was 10 KG instead of 7 KG. I told him, we had been diverted because of the fog, and he let us go. I didn't have to unpack and distribute the weight in the 3 bags we had.

We went through the baggage screening, checked our gate number and, then went up close to our Gate. We checked out a few shops on the way, including the perfume shop. All I did was browse and, Kavita chatted to the perfume ladies who were extremely charmed by  her.

We treated ourselves to Haagendas ice-cream and Burger King burgers. I had the burger packed and, walked to the Gate. Kavita somehow remembered how the last time she was upset at this very counter and, a kind lady had carried her while I struggled with all the bags I had in my hand. She even remembered the toy the lady had gifted her (this was the Chinese girlfriend of a Pakistani fellow). I was flabbergasted with her memory. We showed our boarding passes to the lady at the counter and took the lift down to the Gate.

The hall was full of passengers, mostly Pakistanis of course. Such a moment makes one feel like you're already in Pakistan.

I went to the front of the Gate and, went straight to the plane. We were one of the first passengers. We seated ourselves and, of course Kavita put on some cartoons straight away. I tried to watch something but promptly fell asleep. The flight was only 2 and a half hours long and, before we knew it, we had landed.

We were again the last passengers out of the plane. Kavita was asleep and, I gently woke her up. I asked the crew to help me take my bags to the front of the plane. The fellow was so surprised at my request. He said he wasn't allowed to leave the aircraft. Was I speaking another language? I told him, sure, I would just wait for my daughter to wake up because I couldn't carry her and my hand luggage.

Time and time again, I am shocked at how unfriendly and unhelpful the Emirates crew are. They don't smile, let alone help you. We criticise rude restaurant staff and, even stop patronising establishments and, here we have dished out several thousand dollars for an international flight only to be met with arrogant and vain crew who are at best sky waiters and waitresses who seem to be only concerned with getting the meal service done and over with.

We disembarked the plane and, I carried Kavita down the flight of stairs to the bus in my arms while ground staff eagerly helped me to put my bags in the bus. It was the early hours of Sunday morning and, surprisingly bearably cool. I was expecting freezing cold weather in December in Islamabad.

We patiently queued in the immigration lines behind British Pakistanis who I enjoyed observing, the fashion, the accents, the kids' antics and, family dynamics.

The Immigration Officer noticed that Kavita's Pakistan visa had nearly expired and I explained I would extend it.

It took about an hour to collect our bags at the conveyor belt because apparently there was a strike and, it took forever for the bags to come out. Kavita slept in my arms and, after some time, we were finally done and able to exit the Airport.

This was a long, tiring journey home. 

Friday, 2 December 2016

Shopping at Bosh Bosh on Camp Johnson Road

I don't know why people complain there's nothing to get for gifts in Monrovia for occasions in town or to buy souvenirs for friends and family back home. Whether it's artisan shops in Mamba Point to several fashion boutiques to lappa in Waterside or picking up jars and jars of Liberia Pure Honey from all major supermarkets, there's a lot of ideas for gifts and souvenirs. There's even several varieties of Liberian coffee in nice packaging and, Liberian tea

As I'm off to Pakistan, I went to Camp Johnson Road to look for gifts at Bosh Bosh. I also peeked into Mango Rags next door. My friend Manita accompanied Kavita and I on our shopping spree. 

Wednesday, 30 November 2016


When my phone was stolen in September and, after I got it back, I realised someone had signed into the phone. It was not the thief but maybe a middle person who had bought it or is in the business of buying stolen phones and, selling them onwards. The phone was recovered from behind the South Beach prison by the police. 

A few weeks later, we had a break in and, the thief was apprehended same day and, the picture we had of the thief was not the same as the fellow who had signed into my phone. 

When I got my phone back and realised someone else had signed into Facebook on my phone, I had a lot of fun with this fellow's Facebook account. I would frequently update this person's Facebook status and, write things like "Why did God make a phone thief? Why?" while drinking beers at Royal Hotel. Or, I would compliment all the women on his Newsfeed and ask them to marry him. The funniest thing is that someone would Like it or not really catch on at all. 

Honestly, I didn't feel much guilt for going through this person's Newsfeed or by posting embarrassing updates. 

After some time, I would see the Newsfeed as a very interesting and fascinating place to see how the Liberian folks use social media. 

There are so many selfies and pictures of folks just posing. They are going to school or to the office and, stylishly pose for a series of pictures. There are selfies of folks in taxis on their way to work.

Some of the selfies are quite orchestrated and, manufactured. The auto photographers have taken time to think about light, angles and, how good they look. Sometimes the selfies are what people think selfies are supposed to be about: pouting your lips. Sometimes, you notice folks are not even smiling and taking a selfie with pouting lips. There are also selfies made in a very unflattering angle, the camera right below the chin with no regard for light. It feels like we the viewers are crouching on the ground looking up at very unsightly faces.

The captions too are interesting: thanking God Almighty or sweet Jesus for another day or affirming belief that Jesus has something good in store for them. There are captions that praise one own's beauty i.e. #PRETTY_ME_ALWAYs_CUTE#. There are photographs of folks celebrating a good Church Servie. 

Sunday, 27 November 2016

The muck and mire of expat lives

About a week ago, I crossed a make-shift bridge which collapsed and I fell into an extremely questionable swamp. It was one of the most uncomfortable and wretched moments for me.

This happened during a Saturday HASH walk which I was already initially planning on boycotting but somehow found myself agreeing to join Haresh and my friends. 

I've not been on many HASH walks but most of them involved going through humble communities, even poor ones. The one before this last one involved going through congested slums, walking right past peoples' homes, through tight lanes, past peoples' lives which because of lack of space, extends beyond four walls. What are you supposed to do when you walk past trash, ram shackle homes, children playing near garbage, intolerable garbage rotting outside homes, and communities which are living without solid walls and roofs, without dependable electricity and water and, are probably experiencing theft and even armed robbery that we read and hear about? Should you look away? Smile unapologetically? Ignore it? Shrug it off? 

What should you do when you go across a shaky and wobbly bridge used by community members? Think it's an "African adventure" and use it for an Instagram moment? 

These past few times, I felt the walks were very intrusive, disrespectful and, I failed to see what was the purpose of going through such congested slum communities? We surely were not stopping to say hello, do any meaningful social work, so what was the point? 

I felt embarrassed that I was face to face with such poor living conditions and, I was there merely as a passer by. Sure, I would greet people on the way and but really, what was I doing there, walking past? 

Does poverty provide a scenic walk for expatriate aid, development workers who ironically live in luxury compounds in Monrovia, a far cry from how ordinary Liberians live, but in whose name billions of dollars has been poured in to help and save them? I guess it does.

I noticed a couple of other walkers seemed to think on the same lines as me but most people were happy to just get some good old exercise. 

I observed the walks and runs ended in the same jolly crude singing, joking about all the shit and mud they had been through, and thinking of the most embarrassing sexual innuendos for names for new comers to the group. 

I was simply not very comfortable in this seemingly careless and rather obnoxious walking style. Nevertheless, I found myself giving another shot to this HASH walk for Haresh's sake, our dog Bijli and Kavita who loves walking. 

This last Saturday, we walked through an especially vulnerable community spread across a very swampy area of town. There was mud everywhere and, we carefully followed a trail set across this mud and swamps. A passer by offered to help me across a single plank over a wide section of a swamp. After a couple of steps, the plank cracked in two and, we both fell into this extremely dirty swamp. The hare (the person who has set the trail and leads the walk) jumped in behind me and, the ones in the front helped me out. 

I was completely overwhelmed and, disgusted. I felt I had fallen into sewage, a gutter. The community member who was trying to help me himself fell into this filth and, I was overcome with embarrassment. I apologised over and over and, I'm sure his mobile phone was damaged.  I walked in a daze and, was met with people from the same community. A few them were extremely concerned and offered to get me new clothes. Another fellow holding his daughter in arms smiled and said "Welcome to Africa." I could only smile.

I felt angry and embarrassed and, also grateful for my friend and hare Kelly who didn't even pause for a second and jumped right into the swamp to help me out. I felt grateful to the community members who were so generous with helping me, offering to get me new clothes and, then dumped a couple of buckets of water on me, hauled from the well. 

I felt like an ignorant expatriate who I so self righteously claim I am not. I am too serious to pass through the most vulnerable societies who live in ram shackle homes in swamps that regularly get washed away in the rainy season, fending for themselves. I am too serious to pass through all this for fun unless I am actually going to do anything about it. I can't take it lightly. I am too serious. Even if I am not saving anyone, let me at least be embarrassed about inequality and injustice  in my own private corner at home. 

I was extremely angry at myself and at the situation and, felt I had doomed myself. I was so vocal about the insensitivity of these forays and, had myself fallen into a dirty swamp while trying to cross a flimsy bridge. I felt like an noisy tea kettle at best. 

After the incident, Haresh and I walked until we met the other group who Kavita happened to be with because she had been far ahead the whole time, helped by other friends in the walking group. I silently walked back to the car, with Haresh, Kavita and another friend behind me. Was it a walk of shame or what?

I lashed out at Haresh once when I realised my phone (it had been in my pocket) was full of mud and water, wanting to blame him but then quietened myself until we got home and, I scrubbed myself with Dettol and soap. I was itching  all over and, wondered what kind of filth was all over me. 

I haven't shared my thoughts with the Monrovia HASH group and, wonder whether it is useful even to do so.

This incident re-emphasised the idea in me that most folks I meet in the aid business are quite an uncritical lot. Despite being agents of change, I feel many of these folks don't challenge the status quo, don't question the impact (if any) of their work, don't see the obvious inequality, don't question the high living standards they enjoy themselves in a poor country like Liberia, why nothing is changing much,  and, don't really seem to be transformed by the place or work they do in any noticeable manner. Do folks not see the acute inequality and, feel embarrassed? Who cannot but be transformed by that realisation. One can't even have a decent, invigorating conversation! In fact, one is often confronted by racist remarks. 

The mud and filth I felt on my body was also the muck and mire of a very unjust and unequal world where, despite such advancements in science, technology and socialist ideology, people live in very abject conditions. 

Monday, 14 November 2016

Trump trumped everyone

The unbelievable has happened and bewildered and depressed anchors, journalists, academics, pundits, pseudo-intellectuals, and Facebook and Twitter accounts will be analysing and dissecting Trump's victory for a long time to come. 

These are some of my favourite articles (with excerpts) I read online: 

1. Trump’s triumph by Najam Sethi, The Friday Times, TFT Issue: 11 Nov 2016:

Many months ago, Michael Moore got it right: “This wretched, ignorant, dangerous, part-time clown and full-time sociopath is going to be our next president”. He advised fellow-Americans who tought otherwise, to stop living in a bubble and face the truth. What is the truth? The truth is strewn around in bits and pieces. Hilary Clinton’s “unpopularity” because she can’t be “trusted”, not even by a majority of white women! Bernie Sanders’ depressed liberal voters who just couldn’t sufficiently drag themselves out of bed to vote for Hilary. Working class anger in the electorally critical industrial states of the Upper Midwest at Democrat policies in support of NAFTA that had taken away hundreds of thousands of jobs. But in the final analysis, it all boiled down to one main factor: fear. This fear translates into the majoritarian, protestant, white man’s angry last stand against “Feminazi”, against blacks, gays, “Mozies’, “outsiders”, “them”, etc, who are threatening to “take over” America and end this white male’s domination of the last 240 years!

There’s a bit of fatality involved here, to be sure, and a deep level of cynicism. Many of us feel that if America could not choose the best option, then it deserved the worst. Also, there’s a harsh desire for rough truth, rather than hypocritical garnish. In a sense, many Americans are Trump, but most of them like to think of themselves as closer in character to who Clinton (falsely) claims to be; liberal, democratic, leftist, humane, charitable, kind. There are some who faced the facts honestly, and admitted that, for all intents and purposes, Clinton was a criminal and a manipulator who plays ball with the worst human rights offenders on the planet (Saudi Arabia and Israel, for example) and relies on their financial and political support. They understood that when promising to continue Obama’s legacy, Clinton is in fact promising to kill another 4,000 innocent Pakistanis by drone strikes in an illegal attempt to murder untried ‘terrorists’. They understand that this is a woman for whom Madeline Albright is a role model, and Kissinger is an icon, a woman who started out Republican before swapping sides and acting as though she were a Democrat, most likely because she realized that, as a woman, she could go farther as a Democrat. This is a liar who claims to have been dodging sniper fire in a foreign land when she was being greeted with flowers.  Throughout the campaign, Clinton supporters have turned a blind eye to her failings. Somehow they were more horrified by what Trump may do than what Clinton already has done.

We need new metaphors. Many of us will feel tempted in the coming years to speak of Our Leader’s ‘black heart’, to call him ‘The Dark Lord,’ or to opine that we have entered a new age of darkness. Yes, I know that speaking of evil in terms of darkness and blackness is rooted in and ancient fear of places that have no light—of the dark forests of Grimm, the Black Forest, of haunted houses, and frozen winter nights—but these fearful darknesses are easily elided with the pernicious racism in our culture that seeps into our language and overtakes our intellect whether we like it or not. I vote for orange to be the new tint of evil. Orange is the new black: it’s already the name of a popular show. I love the color orange as much as the next painter, but it has many associations with evil besides the unnatural tint of The Small-Fingered One’s skin: the color of prison jumpsuits, Agent Orange, ‘nude’ stockings, that crayon that used to be called ‘skin color’ but now is labelled ‘apricot,’ and the sickly orange tinge of night skies in smog-smothered cities.

4. After Trump, Fear and Gloating in Pakistan by Mohammed Hanif,  NOV. 11, 2016 in The New York Times:

Pakistani democrats feel they have a special right to gloat. Over the last few days, some of them have been reminding the rest of us Pakistanis that we have never elected a right-wing fascist as our leader. They have reminded us that we elected a woman as our leader way before America even contemplated the possibility for itself. The late Benazir Bhutto was indeed the first woman to be elected as prime minister of a Muslim country. But we seem to have forgotten the ugly campaign against her, the sexual innuendoes and the doctored pictures — all this before Photoshop and social media. And let’s not forget that we managed to assassinate her 70 days after really, seriously, trying to kill her. We have also not even gotten around to finding out who killed her. And, as any working politician will remind you, her legacy doesn’t get you very many votes. American presidents have been fond of hosting Pakistani dictators at Camp David. Now it’s the turn of Americans themselves to be ruled by a dictator, and of their own choosing. We, at least, never picked ours.

5. Spoiled Americans now want to flee what they created by  Malak Chabkoun, 10 NOVEMBER 2016, in Al Jazeera:

Murmurs of migrating to Canada if Trump won apparently translated into reality, with the Canadian immigration website reportedly crashing as it became clear the electoral college votes were in his favour. These reactions make one pause and wonder how long these same people would last under the Arab and African dictatorships and occupiers the US has propped up and maintained positive ties with over the years. We now have a version of a "dictator-elect" in the US, and rather than promising to fight the changes he has threatened to implement, the initial reaction of many Americans has been to plot ways to flee. Honestly, the arrogance of Americans who are threatening to flee is breathtaking. They assume that the world will now welcome them with open arms because in a few months, they will be ruled by a less-than-desirable leader. One which, the world will be quick to mention, was actually chosen by Americans and not imposed on them by occupation or intervention.

6.  It was the Democrats' embrace of neoliberalism that won it for Trump by Naomi Klein in The Guardian on Wednesday 9 November 2016:

But this leaves out the force most responsible for creating the nightmare in which we now find ourselves wide awake: neoliberalism. That worldview – fully embodied by Hillary Clinton and her machine – is no match for Trump-style extremism. The decision to run one against the other is what sealed our fate. If we learn nothing else, can we please learn from that mistake?

7. Dawn's Editorial Trump’s victory on Nov 10, 2016:

To Mr Trump have gone the electoral spoils; America and the world can only hope he will be a responsible leader.

8. Marwan Bishara's brilliant video "Welcome to my world, America. What does Trump mean for the Middle East?" It's not an article but fantastic video response. Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera's senior political analyst and also hosts the Empire programme on Al Jazeera.

9. Black Women Were the Only Ones Who Tried to Save the World Tuesday Night BY: CHARLES D. ELLISON Posted: November 9, 2016 at The Root:

Trump has trumped everyone The calculus for black women in this election was abundantly clear, the stakes chillingly higher for sistren as they stood at a unique “Misogynoir-istic” intersection of racism and sexism. Crushed between the two most ferocious pillars of national hate, underappreciated for their contributions, while equally ignored for the challenges that oppress them, black women always find a way to make a needed statement; the lemonade from lemons, to subtly borrow from Beyoncé. And they just did it again, to no avail, when the rest of us fell crookedly short.


When forced to choose between race and gender lines, White Women will overwhelmingly pick race, every time. We knew it when Susan B Anthony said “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” Meanwhile 66% of White women voted for racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and all around incompetence. The verdict is in. No matter what your social media news feeds or your group chats or your brunches may imply, the fact of the matter is we are not nearly progressive as a nation as we purport to be. But that burden is not on us. We as Black people — as Black Women — don’t bear the weight of the loss. If anything, we can breathe easier as the rest of the world is being exposed to what we’ve known for over a century. That White Feminism still rests on the laurels of White Supremacy. And that’s not changing anytime soon.

11. Michael Moore’s “Morning After To-Do List” Facebook Post For Democrats Is Going Viral by Adam Albright-Hanna, November 9, 2016 in Good:

# 4. Everyone must stop saying they are “stunned” and “shocked.” What you mean to say is that you were in a bubble and weren’t paying attention to your fellow Americans and their despair. YEARS of being neglected by both parties, the anger and the need for revenge against the system only grew. Along came a TV star they liked whose plan was to destroy both parties and tell them all “You're fired!” Trump’s victory is no surprise. He was never a joke. Treating him as one only strengthened him. He is both a creature and a creation of the media and the media will never own that.

12. Trump in the White House: An Interview With Noam Chomsky Monday, 14 November 2016, by C.J. Polychroniou, Truthout | Interview:

Trump trumped everyone   On November 8, the most powerful country in world history, which will set its stamp on what comes next, had an election. The outcome placed total control of the government -- executive, Congress, the Supreme Court -- in the hands of the Republican Party, which has become the most dangerous organization in world history.

13. The painfully obvious reason Christians voted for Trump (that liberals just don’t understand) in Life Site by JONATHON VAN MARE, Mon Nov 14, 2016N:

Many of my non-Christian and liberal friends find it bewildering that both evangelicals and Catholics voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, a thrice-married casino operator infamous for his vulgar trash talk. I want to take a moment to explain to them directly why most Christians voted for him anyway. It’s simple, really: Christians voted for Donald Trump because they felt that the treat a de facto third Obama term posed to Christian communities was an existential one.

14. Elite, White Feminism Gave Us Trump: It Needs to Die By Liza Featherstone / 12 November 2016 in Verso:

Her tone-deaf campaign didn’t even pretend to transcend such class divisions. Once she had secured the nomination, Clinton offered few ideas about how to make ordinary women’s lives better. That’s probably because what helps the average woman most is redistribution, and Clinton’s banker friends wouldn’t have liked that very much. #ImWithHer was a painfully uninspiring campaign slogan, appropriately highlighting that the entire campaign’s message centered on the individual candidate and her gender, rather than on a vision for society, or even women, as a whole. She wrote off huge swaths of the population as “deplorables” and didn’t even bother to campaign in Wisconsin. Among union members, her support was weak compared to other recent Democratic candidates, and, according to most exit polls, significantly lower than Obama’s was in 2008.

Feminism now has an opportunity to move beyond the go-girlism of the Sheryl Sandberg set. Left feminists must organize to protect women’s rights under Trump/Pence. We should work together to protect immigrants’ rights and religious freedoms, and prevent a likely assault on abortion rights. We also need to work on environmental issues at the state and local level, recognizing that nothing good can be achieved at the federal level under a regime of climate denialism. We need to strengthen institutions of the left: organize unions in our workplaces, join independent left parties, run progressive candidates for local and state offices, make and disseminate left media. We should work especially to help existing feminist efforts that are squarely focused on women’s material realities, whether that means joining local and state campaigns demanding paid sick days and family leave, single-payer health care or – especially right now – the Fight for $15.

15.  Alain Badiou: Reflections on the Recent Election | 9th November 2016 | UCLAL in Mariborchan It's Theory, Stupid!:

And, I think it’s not only the case here, with Don­ald Trump — racist, machiste [macho], viol­ent, and also, which is a fas­cist char­ac­ter­ist­ic, without any con­sid­er­a­tion for logic or ration­al­ity; because the dis­course, the mode of speak­ing of that sort of demo­crat­ic fas­cism is pre­cisely a sort of dis­lo­ca­tion of lan­guage, a sort of pos­sib­il­ity to say any­thing, and the con­trary of any­thing — there is no prob­lem, the lan­guage is not the lan­guage of explan­a­tion, but a lan­guage to cre­ate some affects; it’s an affect­ive lan­guage which cre­ates a false unity but a prac­tic­al unity. And so, we have that with Don­ald Trump, but it has been the case before in Ita­ly with Ber­lusconi. Ber­lusconi may be, I think, the first fig­ure of that sort of new demo­crat­ic fas­cism, with exactly the same char­ac­ter­ist­ics: vul­gar­ity, a sort of patho­lo­gic­al rela­tion­ship to women, and the pos­sib­il­ity to say and to do, pub­licly, some things which are unac­cept­able for the big part of human beings today. But that was the case also with Orbán in Hun­gary today, and in my sense, in France, it has been the case with Sarkozy. And it’s also the case pro­gress­ively in India or the Phil­lipines, and even in Poland or in Tur­key. So it’s really, at the scale of the world, the appar­i­tion of a new fig­ure of polit­ic­al determ­in­a­tion which is a fig­ure which is very often inside the demo­crat­ic con­sti­tu­tion but which is in some sense also out­side. 

Friday, 11 November 2016

Passing through former colonies in West Africa

Traveling is really good for the soul and, not only are we physically transported to far off places, moods and people but we also experience rapture, wonder, and excitement. 

I just came back from Sao Tomé et Principé from a week-long holiday with Haresh and Kavita. I've always wanted to visit this 2-island nation since I read a description in a volume of Lonely Planet. 

Portuguese is spoken on the island and, being English speakers, we had somewhat of a challenging time communicating with the hotel staff, taxi drivers and restaurant waiters. On our first day on the island, we were taken to the Museum on a disorganised hotel tour where our guide was really only a driver couldn't translate what the caretaker of the Museum was saying. The caretaker was an old lady who had worked at the Museum for many years and, it was unfortunate we couldn't understand her. She spoke some French and we exchanged a few sentences after I mustered some high-school French and from mine and my family's time in Sénégal in the 90s. 

Portuguese was everywhere, no? Besides being mode of communication, it was on sign boards, restaurant menus and mannerisms. The island's name is Saint Thomas in Portuguese. Names are all in Portuguese - whether people, streets or towns. 

As an English-speaking tourist, Portuguese became an obstacle but we soon learned to communicate in non-verbal ways and, were happy to be in a completely different space. On our second day and third days, we struck lucky and had an English-speaking local guide who helped us to see his country from his point of view. We really enjoyed our lively conversations about colonisation, history, and the future of tourism. 

We met so many Portuguese tourists. We drank Portuguese wine. I heard spoken Portuguese, a language that I really enjoy hearing. 

I photographed the city's past-coloured colonial-era buildings and, was charmed by the picture-perfect views of the small town of Sao Tomé. We compared the São Sebastião Museum to the slave castle forts in Elmina and Cape Coast in Ghana and the Maison des Esclaves in Goreé Island in Sénégal. 

São Sebastião Museum is well preserved and, is quite charming with its pastel yellow colours in the inner court yard. Nevertheless, it is a symbol of slavery and colonisation and one cannot but be horrified and disturbed by what it represents. 

Passing through former colonies in West Africa is a living lesson in history. Step into Ghana and, you'll experience an Anglophone society with a street named after the Oxford Street in London, British Banks, and, of course, everyone speaking English. Friends who have come back from Sénégal often mention the French charm and French influence on local bakeries, restaurants and cuisine. Some will even go as far as to say that the locals have acquired their charm and grace because of the French presence. And, here in Liberia, one cannot miss the Americanisation or mirror image of American-style institutions, state, anthem, and dress. 

Sao Tomé made me deeply reflect on the legacy of slavery, colonisation, cultural and historical devastation, and, the imperialism of European languages. 

We visited a colonial-era coffee and cocoa factory where we shown how coffee and cocoa beans are sifted and roasted. It struck me that Europeans - and, indeed the rest of us - consider Swiss Chocolate or Italian coffee the best when it should be said that European technique of chocolate making or Italian style of drinking coffee is the best. There is no such thing as European coffee or European chocolate. It doesn't grow there nor do Europeans break their backs to grow and nurture it or have ever been enslaved to harvest it.  It should be referred to as Sao Tomean coffee and Sao Tomean chocolate, for example. 

We met many Portuguese and other Westerners during our touristic excursions, all of us busy in our scenic holidays. The Portuguese travellers were easily able to navigate the island because everyone spoke their language. They could even drink Portuguese wine and, watch Portuguese programmes on TV. They could meet other fellow Portuguese. They have direct flights back home and, probably could acquire good travel deals. They can enjoy the tropics of their former colony and, wonder how much guilt they feel that their forefathers exploited this land and, used it as a trading post for human souls. 

Sao Tomé's capital is utterly charming with its colonial buildings and cobbled roads. But many of them are crumbling and look like they have been abandoned. In fact one could see decay in the city on closer look with broken bannisters or and boarded up old buildings. Sure, the roads going through the rainforest are well paved but one could see shacks along the way. Slum-like dwellings were adjacent to the fancy hotel resort on Ilheu Das Rolas where tourists could enjoy fancy facilities and experiences like scuba diving. 

The hotel where we stayed is a Portuguese hotel chain. 

Is Sao Tomé really benefitting from its tourism industry and, most importantly, who is really controlling it? 

Our passionate conversations with our tour guide - a young Sao Tomean fellow with aspirations to set up a vibrant tourism agency - confirmed to us that there is a resentment against the former colonial masters for their exploitation and, for still controlling their economy. I was quite amused when Fernando pointed out that history tells us the islands were uninhabited before the Portuguese arrived but how come there are 4 main ethnic groups? He had worked for some of the main hotels before but now wouldn't work for a Portuguese employer because they don't pay well. 

What was the language and culture before the Portuguese arrived?

Language imperialism is one of the most striking legacies of colonisation and empire. 180,000 folks on the islands of Sao Tomé and Principé speak Portuguese because Europeans imposed this language on slaves and their descendants  for hundreds of years. 27 million folks in Ghana speak English because the British colonised their land and, it's the official language of government, trade, and education. 10 million Guineans speak English because the French controlled that part of West Africa. 13 million Senegalese speak French and French-style bakeries are in every corner of major cities. The same country engulfs tiny Gambia which by fluke was a British territory and therefore, English is spoken there. 

African languages have survived colonisation but I couldn't see any trace of local languages in Sao Tomé at first glance, being there only for a week. 

My experience in Sao Tomé showed me a small former European colony, a small poor country that relied on exports of coffee and chocolate and tourism. I saw abandoned colonial buildings and, a country that relied on European trade and, seemed to be dominated by Europeans still. I could see that middle class citizens of the former colonial master could still enjoy the island as tourists but wondered how many ordinary Sao Tomeans could just pick up and land in Lisbon to enjoy the sights and sounds. 

I am fully aware that my observations are merely perceptions from the surface but after Senegal, Ghana and Sao Tomé, there are certain things common to former European colonies that form a pattern: slave castles and forts, European languages that serve as lingua franca, colonial era buildings,    the independence square, presence of European residents and businesses, and ghosts of slavery.