Monday, November 30, 2009

Siam I am. Thoughts on Thailand.

Nature captivates in Thailand. Its beaches and islands are legend; its birdlife and tropical flora endlessly entertain. On this visit though, nature bored me. A relentless jetlag was partly to blame. Its disorientations so warped my perceptions and instincts that I acquiesced to its inversions, accepting the Thai night as my day. Also, I was hungry not for nature but for the artifice of human imagination: grand emanations of culture, artisanry, cosmology. Has our petty species generated anything that I’ve never seen, never imagined? In creativity is there redemption for Homo Faber? For answers to this question Thailand is a gold mine.

Heavily subject to international marketing strategies and thus cast as the ‘Land of Smiles’, Thailand wants desperately to be permeated by magic. Of all possible reasons to be ‘desperately seeking’, permeation by magic is worthy enough, and seemingly free of ulterior motive. Orientalism and its facile seductions be damned, I thought, after my first week in country. If this place holds even one treasure of the human spirit, its authenticity will be self-evident to the most gullible and the most jaded.

From where I live it’s an 18-hour flight to Thailand. I learned to stop fighting jetlag long ago; it is now my companion and confidant. Wandering Bangkok streets and alleys at 3 am, nothing remained of the diurnal parade of human pursuit to entertain me. Roaming dog packs and the occasional buzz of a moto taxi broke the surprising silence of a vast urban labyrinth. I was left with night’s shadows and breezes, long walks along empty boulevards and closed shop fronts, the constant hum of yellow street lamps and neon. Repetition sets in and one begins inspecting a city for its anomalies, its artifacts of human touch, the physical traces of the shopkeeper at home ensconced in dreams.

Continue reading Siam I am...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Under the Sun of Kimia II

Four different military operations are being pursued on Congolese soil today. The largest, the UN peacekeeping operation, is a patchwork of contingents from around the world, very few of whom are francophone. Most of the UN’s troop contributing nations are developing countries themselves. Their armies are poorly trained and equipped, and are hungry for the cash injection of a UN contract. The result is a purely symbolic peacekeeping force, where actual deterrence (protection of civilians) is hoped for but rarely demonstrated. Several UN contingents--Moroccans, Pakistanis and Indians among others--have been investigated for sexual abuse, arms and mineral trafficking. Like the country's national army and police, foreign troops under the UN banner are largely above the law.

Supported by Congo’s national army (FARDC), Uganda is pursuing remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army who've adopted Orientale Province as their base arrière. The LRA continue their attacks and abductions of civilians, having been reduced to survival mode. In October, Angola ‘invaded’ the Bas Congo province, sparking a diplomatic row, to liberate the Cabinda enclave from long-standing rebel control. If successful, these operations will create a more peaceful neighborhood. Routing rebel forces on neighboring terrain is the only way to end years of mutual suspicion and accusations of ‘supporting the enemy’. Most Congolese pay little attention to these operations, or the civilian abuses they entail. One reads security conditions like weather patterns, and adapts accordingly.

Prominent in the public eye is Operation Kimia II, underway in the Kivus. After years of pressure from the Congolese government, the UN joined forces with the FARDC and Rwandan troops to capture, kill or route FDLR forces involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide that have since disappeared into South Kivu’s remote western forests. Ostensibly a counter-terrorism operation, Operation Kimia II is producing mixed results. Local populations have lived for years under FDLR control, subject to a parallel administration widely reported as preferable to the Congolese administration. An absence of forced displaced from FDLR areas over the years attests to pacific relations between FDLR masters and local populations.

But as Kimia II advances into occupied territory, FDLR retaliations are frequent and civilians pay dearly. Recent travels into these areas have been fascinating, and infuriating. Typical of FARDC behavior around the country, soldiers assume control of local taxation structures (roads, markets), local mining operations, and pocket the money. Civilian authorities are shunted aside; local populations ignored or abused for having ‘cohabited with the enemy’. Congolese security culture retains the old Mobutu model: bapopulation baza bilanga ya bino (the population is your revenue source), dark sunglasses, macho pomp and hushed secrecy are de rigueur. No appreciation for classic counter-insurgency approaches, or the need to win the support and trust of civilians. Moreover, there seems a deliberate absence of planning for the transfer of power to civilian authorities, or a return to rule of law. Under FDLR, farmers farmed and miners mined in a climate of moderate prosperity. Now ‘liberated’ by Congolese forces, locals are subject to battering, forced labor, illegal taxation, rape and displacement. The gap between the objectives and methods of Kimia II could not be greater.

The premise of reconstituting eastern Congo by routing rebel forces and their parallel administrations, allowing the country’s civilian authorities to resume basic services and restore rule of law, is a farce. Under Kimia II there is no evidence that Congolese authorities, military or civilian, want or are able to provide those services. Even the modest first steps on Congo's long road towards modern statehood have yet be taken.

Monday, June 22, 2009

May our Gods be angry: Celestial politics in Bas Congo

Unlike in Latin America, where liberation theology was once an influential force, Christians in Africa rarely confront political oppression. On the surface, African Christian institutions claim not to meddle in affairs of the State. These days, ‘conversion of the heathens’ is passé, as Christianity is now a widespread and entrenched belief system. Churches of all denominations offer manifold development initiatives in education, health and agriculture. In many countries where the State has limited reach into rural areas, churches represent the sole link to the outside world for isolated communities.

But it’s only half the story to say that African Christian institutions are above political interests and the establishment of a modern State. Throughout colonial occupation, the Church completed the political and economic triangle that comprised the massive social engineering project of colonialism. Here was a hearts and minds program that worked—colonial control encapsulated Maslow’s entire hierarchy of needs. From material conditions, social space and into the spiritual realm, colonialism repackaged the indigenous African experience and replaced each dimension with a foreign substitute. Little has changed since independence: neither the school curricula nor the political dispensations (despite elections, ‘Big Men’ reign in a colonial style). Formerly vibrant traditional belief systems are now subaltern and syncretistic, fusing in curious ways with imported Christian ideas.

Read the rest here.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Kinshasa in miniature

Stumbled on a wonderful slideshow of Kinshasa street scenes in miniature.

This view is of Boulevard 30 Juin in its former glory. Chinese road crews recently decimated all the trees and green medians to make way for a six-lane downtown thoroughfare.

From Afrikarabia.

Monday, March 02, 2009

‘All that is solid melts into air’: the music of Fricke and Scelsi

Haven't had time to write or think lately, but did manage to squeeze this out for my tribe over at 3quarksdaily.

The best thing about long-distance driving is the sonic qualities of the enclosed acoustic chamber that is the car itself. On a recent pre-dawn drive through the eastern lowlands of North Carolina, two recordings kept me present and transfixed. I knew the pieces well, but the striking commonalities of the two artists had never occurred to me. Their sounds and compositional forms differ dramatically, but both share a belief that music exists to reflect basic cosmological principles—from silence comes word, from tone rhythm, from decay renewal, etc. In different ways, their compositions deliver a direct experience of what each believes to be cosmological truths.

Named after the Mayan genesis myth, Popol Vuh is a German progressive (‘prog’) band best known for its soundtracks to Werner Herzog’s early films. Led by Florian Fricke, Popol Vuh flourished for over three decades, leaving a long and varied discography. Originally a classics scholar, Giacinto Scelsi was an Italian composer often associated with the minimalist movement, despite his music being packed with activity. Scelsi studied Berg and Schoenberg but later abandoned western compositional style in favor of powerful, occasionally violent, monotonal variations.

Read the rest of this meditation here.