Friday, August 15, 2008

Beauty: fractured or pristine?

Even out here in Goma, images from the Olympics can be had. Coverage is spotty and one cannot actually sit down and watch the Olympics, but visual impressions and reports are getting through in drips and drabs. Watching synchronized diving, or gymnastics, it's obvious that the Olympic ideal is perfection of form as the pinnacle of beauty. Very few can achieve this ideal, hence the rarefied competition among elite athletes. Echoes of classical Greece are obvious, a vertical society despite its democratic pretensions. Cosmology can do that to a people.

The Olympics are tailored to this particular ideal of beauty as the rarefied perfection of form. No room for fractured beauty, obviously, as that would disqualify. Although pristine beauty is by definition more rare than fractured beauty, I tend to champion the latter because it's more pedestrian, more democratic because accessible to all of us, if we open our eyes wide enough. I love cosmologies, but only for their literary value. It's too late to actually believe in one. Fractured, democratic, horizontal: that's where I'm most comfortable. Zeitgeist I guess.

Of course, fractured beauty abounds here in Goma. As my boss and I bounced along these terrible roads the other day, inhaling pounds of volcanic dust (always in the air) and diesel fumes blasting into the car from all the trucks lumbering by in the other direction, the boss mused that we were on a merry go round. Everybody's on the narrow road at once, with dozens of moto taxis blurring past, honking constantly (think rickshaw madness in Delhi). The 360 degree view is just heads bobbing up and down, some buzzing past, others slow or stationary--pedestrians lost in the melee.

So instead of being overwhelmed by the oozing human morass of it all and thinking cynical thoughts about the Congo, my boss reverts into a childhood reverie and comes up with the merry-go-round comment. A kindred soul: he can appreciate fractured beauty too, I thought.

The first thing I'll do when I get off this merry-go-round and return home: ride my beloved bikes, of course, then open a book of Borges stories and sit by the sea. Nothing could be more pristine ... or magical.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Zombies and ghosts getting lots done

Back in Goma after a refreshing week in Dakar. Marathon return journey via Bamako, Nairobi, Kigali, then Goma. I'm still in a zombie state--just as the Congolese who are forced to put up with this ni paix ni guerre situation as it drags on and on.

In 2003-2004 we used to call the Congolese state an Etat fantome, because there was no administrative presence anywhere in the country outside the capital. Yesterday during closed door talks a lead figure in our group of international representatives referred to us as 'zombies'. I had to laugh: zombies controlled by phantoms. Hard to get less visceral than that.

But it's true, we wander from one event to the next, trying to move molehills that the belligerents perceive as mountains. There is little if any political will on any side of the conflict, meanwhile money is flowing hand over fist to keep all these armed groups at the negotiating table.

A high-level delegation came to town yesterday to let all the armed groups know that they had done nothing since signing peace agreements in January, except run up enormous hotel bills in town that they expected the government to pay. Somehow the ultimatum did not seem to catalyze any sudden commitments to withdrawal of troops, disarmament or demobilization of troops.

A friend asked me this morning if western powers should just get out and let the cards fall where they may. It is befuddling why international efforts to broker peace fail in so many situations.

A colleague mused yesterday on Herodotus and our situation here. The story goes something like: Representatives from an occupying power (Athens?) visit a newly conquered but recalcitrant state that refuses to pay tribute. The messengers say, "We are here with the most powerful of gods, 'power' and 'force', so you must obey and pay us tribute." Receiving officials in the occupied land respond, "Oh that's nice, lucky you. We here are under two other gods, 'poverty' and 'incapacity'."

The moral here being that rule of law and military might are impotent before the inertia of destitution, dysfunction and incapacity.

It definitely captures the inability of the international community to get anything done in Congo, particularly on this peace process.