Confessions of an Academic Pseudo-Giraffe
A few more pictures, this time from the Ngorongoro crater.
The Great Flood
A few pictures from Serengeti.
And one from the Ssese Islands on Lake Victoria. The sun is setting.
It's been so long since the last post that I needed something genuinely overwhelming to break the silence. I'm in Uganda again, on my two-month summer break, and the weather has recently been extraordinary, to say the least. Kampala is the kind of city that's sometimes capable of containing several sharply different climate zones - it rains on one hill but not on the next - but I was still surprised to learn that some city slums such as Kawempe and Bwaise suffered from considerable floods on Tuesday. A few kilometres away, in Muyenga, we merely had light rain for most of the day.
This morning, however, was something entirely different. Coming to the city centre, I've never so strongly wished I'd had the sense to take the camera with me in the car. The heavy rain started around six o'clock, just before the sun rose in hiding. The mere noise was immediately so loud that there was no point in trying to continue sleeping. Of course, hard rains are not uncommon here, but this time there was that extra severity to the pounding on the roof and the waves on the tarmac that you sensed it wasn't just an average bout. We got in the car around 7.40, thinking that either the traffic jams will be horrible or we might find the streets empty, most people having been scared away by the rain.
The latter was definitely closer to the truth - we never had to stop the car on our way through Namuwongo. This area has recently got proper, deep ditches. Driving by, we saw the red water gushing from everywhere through various openings into these and across roads in tidal waves of great volume. Once again - and this is something I first observed during the first Ugandan rainstorm I experienced three years ago - the surfaces of the landscape seemed to have come alive. There was little solid to fix your gaze on. This is what distinguishes normal storms from these ones. The quantitatively descriptive cliche that always comes to mind is "biblical proportions".
When I drove across the railway down to the Industrial Area, I saw that most cars ahead of us were turning back at the 7th Street junction. No wonder 8th Street, which is located at a higher level by at least ten metres, seemed jammed when we passed that junction. The reason for this cautiousness was that 7 St. was completely flooded. This is the eternal problem of KCC; they can never have this area, a former wetland like most low places in the city, properly drained. We saw some saloon cars brave the lake ahead of us and ventured ahead in our RAV4, which at least has some more space under the car than a Corolla. For more than a kilometre, there was no tarmac visible. The cars waded along at walking pace. The waves, caused by both wind and the wakes of vehicles, licked the hoods and jumped against the windscreens. The red lake was about a foot deep in most places. It made it impossible to see where the road actually was, so I bumped into the curb a couple of times while overtaking the slowest metal fish. There seemed to be a few involuntarily parked cars.
Can't imagine what has happened to the people of Kawempe or Bwaise today. It's 9.30 now, and I think the rain is still continuing.
Few cars had made it to the downtown roundabouts from our direction. Some streets were almost deserted. Local people do tend to observe the weather before they get going. When I arrived at the empty internet place, the receptionist (who's worked here since 2004) asked me how on earth I got here.
In recent weeks, I have begun to pay more and more attention to the elevators (or lifts
) of our university building. The department is located on the top floor, which is why I use these machines pretty much every day, at least twice. Like the whole building, they are very modern and effective, very high-tech, (post)industrial. They would seem to be a consistent part of a well-oiled mechanistic system (the machinery of higher learning? the infrastructure of degree production?)
But there are cracks in any system. There is a seeming incoherence - not a flaw but an illogical element - in the functions of the elevators.
When you want to use the elevator, you press a button. At the narrower end of the building, there are two lifts, at the other end (close to the main doors) three. With the former, pressing a button will send a signal to the whole system: either of the two elevators may come to pick you up. But where there are three, the one on the left can only be called using a button close to it. The other two share their signals. This is perhaps slightly strange and confusing but I am ready to believe there is a rational explanation for it. Odd numbers often create some asymmetry, and there may be situations when you want to be able to call a certain elevator instead of any elevator - say, when you're moving large things between first and fifth floor.
So that's fine. The real problem has to do with the sound signals. There are two different signals built into the system: a short one (a single note) and a long one (two notes), and both announce the arrival of an elevator at the floor where a button has been pushed. And the problem, in short, is that I haven't been able to find any logical explanation for the co-existence of these two sounds. I cannot tell why, at any given moment, the system utters one instead of the other. I've had several theories, none of which seems to hold water. Apparently the signal is not determined by the direction in which the elevator is moving (up/down) or whether it's occupied or not. Once I had an idea it might have something to do with whether or not the elevator already has another destination - whether another button has been pushed by the time it arrives. In any case, the system sometimes makes fairly complex decisions: there can be many commands given almost simultaneously on the six floors and inside the two elevators.
For some time, I thought the short sound basically means the elevator was already (almost) there, and the long one that it came from two or more floors away. A signal coming within a few seconds always seemed to be the short one. But then this hypothesis was also shattered, even though I still think there's some kind of vague correlation between the sound and the distance travelled by the car after the button call. In any case, that's not good enough. There would have to be a consistent principle with a purpose, since the elevators have been designed by engineers. The machines are not, I'm afraid, works of sound art illustrating the random character of social utterances. Even if we wish they were.
In linguistic terms, the problem is that the contexts in which the two sounds occur seem to overlap. They seem to defy the principle of complementary distribution. If I remember anything from the course 12 years ago that included basic phonology, this would imply that the two sounds are not separate phonemes in the Liftese language. In other words, they do not create a meaning contrast. This, by the way, would cut the number of available meanings in that language by fifty per cent. If this is true, we could simply think of one of the two signals as a meaningless mutation, a pointless error, like the blurring of sounds in intoxicated speech.
I have to say I prefer to express the question in a more literary way: Where is the figure in the carpet?
Fredric Jameson has written quite a bit about the difficulty of understanding the totality of the system we all live in: the human effort to map cognitively. I think this is relevant to the problem of elevator sounds - not because the elevators are somehow fundamentally postmodern but because Jameson also writes about how we compensate for incomprehension, how we deal with the possible failure of cognitive mapping. Conspiracy theories, he says, are the poor person's cognitive maps. In other words, if we don't understand what elevators say to us, we can start developing theories about secret engineer societies who aim at driving us all crazy. For now, I don't even want to comment on the other obvious point of relevance, the ever more topical idea of the typical academic worker as the "poor person" of the community (relatively powerless, temporarily employed, uncertain of his/her professional future).
Perhaps I've only paid attention to all this because I am, after all, under temporary contract. Perhaps the permanent ("tenured") members of the academic community can afford to ignore signals like this, to disregard them as irrelevant, nothing but a drunken elevator's stutter. For Jameson, significantly, the process of cognitive mapping is a type of class consciousness.
The positive side, funnily enough, stems from the idea of incomprehension as productive of conspiracy theories. Failure to understand creates narratives. I'm always for narratives. I'm not at all sure I want
to be able to discern the figure in the carpet.
In Teacher Man
, hopefully the last published glimpse on Frank McCourt's life story, there's a scene where high school pupils are asking their English teacher what he wants them to do. Does he really want them to talk about the poem they've just read? McCourt answers, as McCourt tells it, that he wants them to talk about anything at all "in the general neighborhood of the poem".
The same idea has crossed my mind many times in class during the past few weeks. As long as the discourse doesn't peter out completely, things are OK. For at least ten hours every week, I'm mostly trying to lure words out of first and second year students' mouths, and one cannot always be too strict about the quality and relevance of the words - even though we're at a university. Often the quality and relevance of my own words are questionable. We talk about literary texts, mostly. That's our job. Some of those texts are from 16th- or 17th-century Britain. Sometimes, quite often actually, the best way to induce discussion is to resort to the "general neighborhood" of the text.
In class, strange questions enter my mind. They are caused by the few hours of Milton followed by five of the Harlem Renaissance. Too many different contexts at the same time, especially when I've already gone through the materials several times and turned on the autopilot. How, for example, is it possible to adopt the role of the teacher with the wonderful music of Radiohead constantly running through my brain? In my best moments, when thoughts flow, I feel like humming to "Karma Police". In my worst moments, the key line from "Paranoid Android" loses its music. "When I am king you will be first against the wall".
Being human, I do learn. I don't think I'm quite as bad a teacher any more as I may have been four years ago.
Mozambique is a hot country at the turn of the year. There are moments throughout the day and at night when one can do little more than sit, drink, sweat, and hope that there is going to be a breath of air, from one direction or another, in the next moment. The sea-level summer of the southern hemisphere is nothing like the temperate climate of Kampala. But one gets used to anything.
It is a funny feeling indeed to stick your face, snorkel attached, in the Indian Ocean and see a ten-metre fish coming straight at you. This was the first time I ever felt that an underwater camera might be handy. But I was quite happy to be merely watching as the whale shark slid past me, almost at touching distance, just a few metres away. Like most (spotted) giants, they are gentle creatures.
This trip was a good way to finish my African adventures for now (at least for half a year). On Wednesday, I'll be landing in the cold world again. The world of pale winter-weary students, sharp-minded silences, and white horizontal light.
Actually, that already happened. I'm now sitting at Schiphol Airport, at a round table, surrounded by businessman types whose laptops hum so quietly it's barely audible. And I'm already beginning to feel the cold. Conveniently, though, and unexplainably, I managed to develop a sore throat even before I left Africa.
Lion's Head and Robben Island from the top of Table Mountain. Cape Town, South Africa.
Kruger National Park
Kibale Forest, Uganda. Home of the Chimpanzees.
Urban for urban development
The second round of the presidential elections in the DRC (formerly Zaire; prior to that the Belgian Congo; prior to that the Heart of Darkness) should be held soon. The first round was in July. Now incumbent Joseph Kabila is battling it out with a guy called Jean-Pierre Bemba.
I was chatting with John the other day about the Congo: about the country’s past, its huge natural resources, its lack of infrastructure, its numerous militant groups, and so forth. John is much more knowledgeable about such things than, I assume, the average Ugandan cleaner-gardener would be. His home village, in fact, is not far from the Congolese border.
So there was some talk about the elections, and John was trying to remember the opposition candidate’s name.
You mean Bemba?
Yes, that’s it, Bemba. The man who used to live in this house.
In this house? Bemba?
The man who might soon be elected president of the Congo has lived in our house?
Yes. Bemba. For about six months.
It turned out that some time in the last millennium (who cares about the exact dates?) Bemba had lived in Kampala for a while and stayed in our house, using the very bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen that we now use. After about half a year, hostilities had broken out between Uganda and Rwanda, and Bemba, who came from the general direction of Rwanda, was asked to leave. So he packed his bags and vanished. Fast forward fifteen years or so, and he is running for president in the country that could be one of the richest in the world (if only and so forth).
Remember talk show host Conan O’Brien’s recent obsession on Finland and especially the fact that he looks like Tarja Halonen? He repeatedly said he had no idea what Halonen stood for, and whether she is a good president – he just enjoyed looking like a foreign head of state. He even came to Finland with his crew and got fifteen minutes of Tarja’s time. I feel something similar. Despite his challenger status and the fact that I don’t know anything about him, I hope Bemba wins the elections, since I think I would enjoy having lived in the same house as a foreign head of state.
Pardon my French
A story from Monday's Daily Monitor
It such a pity that Kafka never had the chance to visit Uganda. But I'm glad the ambitious minister at least has plans and policies, if not any means to work on them.
Wealth for all, please
I’m studying French. By now, I have about ten hours behind me on this slowly progressing beginners’ course offered by the Alliance Française. It’s extremely refreshing to start studying something from scratch after spending several years on a somewhat more advanced project. My ultimate aim may be to read Foucault (and Barthes, Bourdieu, Levi-Strauss, and Bachelard; and Rousseau, Pascal, and Montaigne; and others) in the original language, but for now I’m mostly repeating simple phrases aloud. This is the method we’re following, and it does make sense.
Having studied not so many different languages (two domestic + now three foreign ones + elementary Latin) but language in general quite a bit, I am interested in principles – the langue behind the parole, to use Saussurean terms. Whenever I spot something surprising, even at this elementary level, I have questions popping up in my mind. For now, I’m trying to repress most of them. Our teacher is a very practical guy, and I don’t think he’d be interested in explaining the systematic rules behind a particular phonetic assimilation.
To begin with, we had about five students in the group, all of different nationalities. The teacher is Rwandese. The other day, the number suddenly exploded. This was after several full lessons. I don’t know why, but all of a sudden there were new beginners walking in through all doors. I mean that literally. We switched into this larger room that has several doors: two leading outside, and another two into other rooms in the building. After the class started, there was someone knocking on a door every once in a while, requesting to join the group. And funnily enough, it was never the same door twice in a row. It was almost as if someone had distributed the people behind the doors at given moments, according to a premeditated plan. I think the lesson ended with twelve students.
The same building houses a Ugandan-German cultural society, and yesterday a couple of guys entered the classroom to take pictures for a brochure they’re making about the association. Someone wiped out the board and filled it with simple German expressions (Guten Tag, eins zwei drei, achtung, ich heisse Frank, etc.). Then we pretended to be students on a German course. A Ugandan member of our French group was posing as the teacher (he happened to be wearing a tie). It was quite funny actually: he didn’t know a word of German, and actually I wonder how many African guys there are in the world who teach German in an international setting. But he did well, looking very authoritative, I’m sure, in the still photographs.
The course might prove to be useful regarding my current identity problem. I’ve been wondering what to write in the “occupation” slot in the immigration card (whenever traveling in East Africa, one has to keep filling out these cards continuously). Recently I’ve been fluctuating between “student” and “researcher,” but I’m really properly neither. A published dissertation and a blog hardly constitute the grounds for calling myself a “writer,” although writing is what I do every day. Often for a full working day. But in the French course, with my current level of skills, it’s extremely easy to answer this question unequivocally. Quelle est votre occupation? Je suis étudiant. Je suis dans le cours de français.
The effects of privatisation?
Uganda has 333 MPs. I’d say it’s a pretty high number considering the relatively modest role they play in daily politics (everything is up to the president). But it’s nothing compared to the whopping number of ministers: 69. There are so many ministers that it took the daily papers a couple of days to settle on the truthful number after the latest elections.
The MPs at least are elected by their constituents. The ministers are hand-picked by the president. Of course he has a number of factors to consider (tribal sentiments and district balance, for example), but ultimately it’s his personal choice how many ministers he appoints and who they are. There seems to be a lot of flexibility as to the size of the Cabinet – before the elections different presidential candidates presented there plans on how many ministers THEY would have if they won.
Those who don’t know how things work might perhaps argue that ministers’ and MPs’ posts are positions of responsibility, whose occupiers should humbly serve the best interests of the people. Hell no. These posts, especially cabinet portfolios, are considered personal rewards from the president, and they can therefore legitimately be used for personal gain. The former health minister Jim Muhwezi is a fine example. He apparently stole millions from the Global Fund and other sources. When questioned on how he could use his position like that, he answered “I fought,” meaning that he was M7’s buddy more than twenty years ago when both were rebels in the bush fighting against Obote’s second government. There are at least two ways to explain this mentality: 1. everything is OK if M7 is your buddy, and 2. if one engages in armed struggle against a corrupt government, one simultaneously earns the right to be part of the next corrupt government. From the viewpoint of power, everything is justifiable. The former NRA leaders openly admit they robbed banks and shops during their own rebellion. It’s a tale about clever inventiveness, not a warning example. They needed money to buy food, and they finally made it to ruling positions, so the robberies were legitimate. It’s as simple as that.
After elections five years ago, Museveni’s brother Salim Saleh started complaining about how rudely he had been treated. He hadn’t received a minister’s portfolio. He’s an army officer with no educational qualifications. “Is it my fate to die without becoming a minister?” Saleh moaned. Well, this time he was rewarded. He is the microfinance minister (a new post, no doubt) and enjoying the perks, no doubt, as if there was no tomorrow. There are others like him. There’s usually some kind of third agriculture minister who once a year kindly instructs everyone to grow more pigs. And there’s some low-ranking minister of the roads department whose job, twice a year, is to say “Oh, sorry for that pothole. I’m working on it. First thing tomorrow”.
Because the parlamentarians are chosen by the people, the president has to use other means to make sure they are on his side. When necessary, he opens the government coffer, half of whose contents come from foreign donors. It’s not too long ago that he paid all MPs quite a bit to change the constitution to allow him a third term. Now there’s a new parliament, and new legal (read: presidential) perks for the MPs. Recently a plan was introduced to purchase luxurious 4WD vehicles to everyone. The benefit would be worth at least $40,000 per head (a primary school teacher here would make that amount, if working continuously with current-level pay, in about forty years). When the Daily Monitor asked the MPs what they thought about the plan, their faces were glowing with pleasure. Some had the decency to admit the people might not like the idea. However, they felt, after careful consideration of all factors involved, that the plan was wholly legitimate and ultimately greatly beneficial. 93 per cent are going to take the money regardless of what people think. And, by the way, Museveni is a hell of a president.
Bonna bagaggawale, as the current slogan of the ruling party goes. Wealth for all.
How interesting. Two days ago I was writing something about how landscapes are always framed by human presence, and then I just accidentally chanced upon these two photos I've taken of Murchison Falls, Uganda.
The top one is from January 2005, and the bottom one from April 2006. You might not believe it, but January is part of the dry season, while April is, on average, one of the rainiest.
Uganda is dependent on water power, and currently plagued by a power crisis. By a subjective estimate, in January 2005 we had about ten hours per week without electricity in Kampala, the capital. In April 2006, it must have been close to 50 hours. The water power plants in Jinja, at the source of the Nile, largely generate the country's power. They use the water flowing from lake Victoria to the river. Murchison Falls are located several hundred kilometres down the river. Neighboring countries have blamed Uganda for the low water levels in the lake, saying that the dams in Jinja have let through too much water to sustain healthy levels. This year, the lake hasn't had any extra water to spare. Less power for the people, less water for the falls.
Uganda's power sector was recently privatised and supply is now controlled by a company called Umeme
. According to one source
, the government will pocket over $360 million from the deal over the next twenty years. Electricity generation has since fallen by at least a third, prices have hiked accordingly, most offices where customers could pay their bills (in person - this the only way) have been closed, and newspapers have been filled with letters to the editor cursing the new distributor. The top picture is pre-Umeme, the bottom one is post-privatisation. What do they say about pictures and... how many thousands of words?
Well, here are the falls from below, just for fun. This 7-metre-wide gorge and 45-metre drop creates what is often called the most powerful natural flow of water on earth. I don't know how that could be counted. Maybe someone forgot the Gulf Stream. But standing on the brink, it's very easy to believe that this is the most violent. I bet they'd like to harness this one. See the concrete blocks in the pictures? There used to be a bridge, but it was simply washed away.