In Search of a Good Dictator

What I am about to tell you, I would never tell anyone else. Yet I trust Diasporadicalists. You are the least judgemental people I know. I am confident that none of you will use what am about to tell you against me. I know my confession is in safe hands. Okay, deep breaths everyone. Here goes:

When people ask me what democracy is, I still reply with a definition my primary-six civics teacher scribbled on the blackboard. That is:

‘Democracy is the government for the people, of the people, and by the people.

That’s all I know democracy to be.

When I read about Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue’s super-secret, super-expensive, super-yacht project, code-named ‘Zen’, the first thing that ran through my mind was that the dude must be a closet American. Supersizing is the American’s forte, is it not? I’ve heard whispers about our leaders and their families and friends owning streets in Luxembourg, ranches in Texas, hotels in Paris—the whole kit and caboodle. Yet that yacht catapulted Teodoro into a completely different ballpark.  It is going to be a while before anyone tries to beat that.


Now that we’ve finally come round to accepting that there is, in fact, such a thing as a self-made African man, there’s just one more thing with which we need to reconcile ourselves, apparently. This one more thing being, of course, that we are ‘not yet ready for democracy’.

We—the sub-Saharan, black-African lot of us—may perchance not even be destined to enjoy democracy. It might not be in our cards. That if we can’t, at the very least, find ‘benevolent dictators’, like the ones in Asia, say, we should do the smart thing and move on.

Move on to what, though? Where does one go after a dictator? How to let go of a mental lifestyle that’s been seeded by a lifetime’s worth of democracy-talk? We are the generation that’s been weaned on talk that a country has to be at a certain point on the development chart before its peeps can even begin to comprehend democracy, much less enjoy its fruits. The country shouldn’t have so many freaking poor people, for starters, because you just can’t trust poor people. They never ask for much. A litre of paraffin and some cooking oil is fine, really. We have spent half our lives listening to life-presidents perpetuating the idea that, while we might never be ready for democracy, we are always ready for dictators. It would appear that we have a proclivity for despotism. That’s our lot.

Sometimes, I catch myself thinking that, yes, democracy is overrated, and that we really should move on now. As long as we have hospitals, schools, and no brain drain. Maybe what we really need is better dictators. Perhaps what we need is the sort of dictator who will deal us the Queen of hearts, at the worst.

Perhaps we can compromise.

If we can’t get them to stop rigging elections and stuffing ballot boxes, we can attempt to persuade them to go about their dubious business in a subtler manner—the kind of dictators that won’t insult our intelligence, for instance. The kind that will rig elections and stuff ballot boxes without our having to find out. The kind of dictators who’ll tell better lies. The kind of dictators who won’t have to kill so many people. The kind that will steal money ‘nicely’.

Instead of ‘eating’ 90 million dollars in one go, these dictators will siphon off little, over a much longer period so it won’t immediately be obvious what they are up to. These are the dictators we need.

If you’re a good dictator and you’re reading this, therefore, do get in touch. We need you.

So We Want Science, But Won’t Accept It?

I don’t know about now but back then, she was the personification of awesomeness. The coolest bug-hunter ever. Everyone that dared to speak about her did so only in whispers. When we weren’t whispering about her, we could be found envying the ground on which she walked and the insects that got to spend so much time with her. She put the pro in programme—bless her—and she didn’t even have to try. Damn.

Imagine my shock and pleasure, then, when I learnt she’d be lecturing us, moreover in something that had nothing to do with creeping and crawling things. I was up early. I wanted—no, I needed—to be there when she walked into the lecture theatre; I had to be counted among those students she’d glared at through her clever-than-thou glasses. Imagine our extreme confusion when, after a curt good morning, the distinguished and dainty doctor said, ‘I’m not here to challenge your religious beliefs. I’m just here to do my job, OK?’

We all exchanged confused glances. ‘Ohh-kay. Where is this coming from?’

We learned, later, that she had good reason to issue some sort of verbal disclaimer. It turned out evolutionary biology was the single most failed unit in the entire faculty. It didn’t help matters that it was a core five-course-unit affair. Evil bio. That’s what the third years called it. Those who could afford to call it evo bio did so; I suppose they decided that if they weren’t going to pass, they might as well pay tribute to the legendary Mitsubishi evo. The general performance was so dismal that, by the time I left, there were plans to discontinue the unit.

The issue, apparently, was that many students were bent on giving to religion even that which (rightfully or otherwise) belonged to science. Their inability to separate certain concepts and themes (evolution, for instance) from what they felt was a deliberate campaign meant to undermine their belief in God had translated into an inability to answer questions in the sort of manner that would earn them enough marks to avoid a re-sit.

Course work had turned into an opportunity for scorned students to defend their faith. Answers to essay questions had mutated into sermons. I remember a lecturer telling me how completely stumped he was to find that one of his star students had used the space provided below the long answer essay question to (quote) preach (unquote) to him.

That seems like such a long time ago, now, though, and one would hope that something has changed. Except it hasn’t. Joe, Janice and Jake Public still distrust science. They distrust its motives. They distrust its methods. They distrust its results.  They distrust the manner in which it declines to pick up after itself. They distrust it even as our leaders and governments continue to thrust it into the public domain. All around the continent, there is a fervent emphasis on science. How are people supposed to sign up for something they do not trust? How to trust something one does not understand?—and how does one understand something people have not bothered to explain?

Those that are in position to demystify science are, at the same time, worried that the entire process of demystification will ‘dilute’ their esteemed discipline. The rationale is that for science to enjoy its exalted position, it must, by necessity, maintain some of its mystery.

Unlike Einstein, many don’t think one should be able to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid. Because, really, what sort of science would that be?—and where would that leave the wannabe Michio Kaku? But perhaps scientists need not worry about the dilution of their beloved body of knowledge because there is always going to be that percentage that couldn’t care less—the percentage for whom science will always remain, for lack of a better word, ‘concentrated’: the barmaids that will only ever be interested in finding out whether you are going to have a Tusker or Guinness or Waragi.

And couldn’t the issue simply be that science has been misrepresented. Perhaps once the Publics understand what science is and what it isn’t, what tools it uses, how it supposes to find ‘truth’, what it tries to do and what it can’t do, they will stop going about with delusions of persecution all the time. Perhaps if students understood that not every scientist they are ever going to meet is out to get them—that not every scientist is bent on proving that there is no God, they might loosen up enough to write their exams and pass.

Hey, some of those scientists really are just doing their job. But maybe that’s the problem, eh?

How Middle Class Are You?

You’ve probably heard of the African Development Bank study on a mushrooming middle class. If one is to believe such studies, about one third of the one billion people on this continent can now, without fear or favour, refer to themselves as middle-class. If you spend between $4 and $20 a day, congratulations, you are officially bourgeoisie. We are nearly there, people. Let’s keep on keeping on.

First, though, we really must make merry. Fellow Africans, please, a round of applause (and a bit of champagne) is fitting. A growing middle class is very good news.  A growing middle class brings with it many political advantages. A growing middle class means democracy is going to start to mean something different altogether. A growing middle class equals options—the power to choose.

And no, you need not despair if you spend only $3.5 dollars every day. Round that $3.5 dollars off to $4, why don’t you—mathematics allows this—and celebrate like the middle class individual that you have just discovered yourself to be. Even better, take a loan, and increase your expenditure to $50 a day. I say, go for it. After all, spending $50 a day, by current ABD standards, makes you a rich African. To think that you can actually become a rich African, without having to break bank. How about that?

Because development economics stuff is Double Dutch to me, I run the whole thing by an economist friend. He read the actual report. (I did not—I merely read an article written by someone who seemed like he had read the report.) My economist pal said many things I will never come close to understanding. He also said things I partly understood, though. Things like, ‘the base parameters were unrepresentative’ and ‘PPP is an intelligent factor’ and ‘the figures put across belittle our continent’ and ‘…exchange rates are influenced by other factors independent of GDPs or what influences the GDPs…’ and, finally, ‘some of it is hogwash’.

That the truth of the matter is that the African Development Bank has failed us and is now simply trying to justify its existence. That we should really stop kidding ourselves because Africa’s middle class probably constitutes only about 1% of the entire population. And that, if nothing changes, there isn’t going to be a middle class; that, very soon, there are only going to be two classes—the very rich and the very poor.

Far be it from me to be a pessimist, though. I wasn’t going to sit by while he made doomsday prophecies. Fate rewarded my optimism, as it is often bound to do, later on in the day, when I unwittingly eavesdropped on a conversation between four yuppies. And no, they weren’t spivs. Yes, I’m sure. It’s a little insulting that you think I can’t tell the difference.

Anyhow, they were talking about how labour pain is supposed to be equal to that of a headache + a stomachache + a toothache + a backache + every other imaginable ache, multiplied by one billion. I thought I saw one of them look up and shake a fist at Eve but I don’t want you to quote me on this—I could have been seeing things. They agreed that this sort of pain was to be avoided at all and every costs. One of the yuppies recommended elective c-sections, and the other three seconded it. And they made a toast to this like only middle class people would.

Suddenly, all was well with the world, and with the ADB report. If elective c-section doesn’t spell middle-class, I don’t know what will.

On Thinking Like A Man

The worst thing about blind dates isn’t so much that you don’t have much to go on in the beginning. Nope. It’s that you are obliged to report any progress (or lack thereof) to the person/people that set you up. Your friend combed the entire city, bent over backwards, to find you someone ‘compatible’—you can’t very well go home and forget about it, now, can you. Nope. Not a shot in hell. You must pick up when she calls you later that night and be ready with a blow-by-blow account of what went down. When she holds her breath and asks “So, how did it go?” you’ll probably have to lie, fiddle the facts a bit, for the sake of everyone involved, because your blind date just happens to be your best friend’s boyfriend’s cousin’s best-friend’s Z-lister brother, and you just know there’s no way you should even think of saying, “Gaaah. I never thought anyone could be so gauche. It was a disaster.”

It was awkward, at first. No butterflies. No love at first sight. No immediate connection, even. Nevertheless, there we were, bound by a mutual loyalty to close friends who knew less about our preferences in companions than we could ever have suspected. We were there, so we decided there was no harm in trying. While we weren’t strictly each other’s type, we decided it wouldn’t be the worst thing if we enjoyed ourselves. We’d have a good time, go our separate ways and exchange sunshiny hallos if we ever bumped into each other. That was the plan.

Having shed our expectations, we relaxed and had a memorable give-and-take. Smooth and courteous, for the most part. The best part is that I didn’t even have to say much. When I did speak, I tried very hard not to say something stupid. Yes, if you must know, this was as difficult an endeavour as it sounds.

Then I shared what I’d heard over the radio sometime back, because we’d talked about nearly everything two people that have just met can talk about and it had come to that time when one is supposed to make it known that one does something else with one’s free time besides watching House and learning card tricks and quoting one-liners from The Big Bang Theory to one’s long-suffering workmates.

It was a contentious theory about how the recession might not have been such a recession if there had been more women in supervisory roles. More women CEOs, MDs, Presidents. More women on executive boards and committees. That women would have asked all the right ‘stupid questions’ because they don’t have egos the size of Lake Victoria, because they have no problem ‘losing face’; they would never have pretended to know what’s going on; they would have been wary of taking unnecessary risks. In addition, women have that fabled sixth sense—they would have known something wasn’t quite right. They would have sniffed out dubious investments faster than you can say, ‘Wanasema, how comes?’ Etcetera, etcetera.

Blind date made some snarky, sexist comment and I thought: Heavens, no. Please, not another one of those god-awful men-are-better-than-women-at-everything-period arguments. I refused to go down that road. I was determined to enjoy myself so I let the comment slide. I deliberately steered clear of any topics that might result in a battle-of-the-sexes bloodbath. Then somewhere along the way, I said something that got him saying:

‘You’re thinking like a man.’

To this day, I’m not sure if that was a diss or a compliment. My friend thinks it’s a compliment, because when a man tells a woman that she’s thinking like a man, that can only be a good thing. Because thinking ‘man thoughts’, looking at things through a man’s eye, arriving at solutions with a man’s thinking cap on, is equivalent to being an honorary man: for a woman, there is no greater honour. It means you’ve arrived. Or something to that effect.

Is thinking like a man all it’s cracked up to be?

If thinking like a man means paying $500 dollars to spend two and a half days in some hotel conference hall listening to another man in a suit tell you the exact same thing your wife/girlfriend would have told you at home, free of charge, while she washes the dishes, then perhaps it isn’t.

I’m just saying.

When Racism Isn’t Racism. Part II

Sometime last year, Essence Magazine got itself a new fashion director – Ellianna Placas. That, by and of itself, is nothing out of the ordinary. Magazines get new fashion directors all the time, right? Right.

Here’s the thing, though. Ellianna is white.

To say that Essence readers did not take too kindly to the change would be to understate things. Folks were off-en-ded. Kanye-west-refusing-to-let-you-finish-whatever-it-was-you-were-doing offended. Peek-a-boob-at-super-bowl offended. For all the furious commotion it caused, the move to hire Ellianna might as well have been the eighth deadly sin. Had Next Media Animation, the Taiwanese game-changer, added several five-minute animated clips to the mix we might have been well on the way to the establishment of a new epoch. Continue reading

When Racism Isn’t Racism: Part I

As a teenager, I was naive enough to think that if I ignored racism, it would just go away. That if I refused to talk about it, if I refused to give any sort of weight to it, it would wither and die back and the world would eventually become a better place. I am an adult now (at least, that is what my official papers say) and as for the world becoming a better place, all I can say is that when I want one thousand and one miracles, I’ll just go right ahead and ask for them. About racism, well…it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in a hurry.

When it happens in a tube somewhere in Eastern Europe, you take it in your stride. When a middle-aged white dude stands up and relocates to the aisle as soon as you sit down next to him, you say to yourself, ‘It doesn’t matter…I’m on his turf…and he probably thinks I’m sponging on his tax money’. You are not justifying. You are not rationalising. You are just dealing with. When a bunch of KKK devotees roughs your roommate up, he says to you, ‘Hey, man, it could have been worse. At least I’m still alive, right?’ He, too, is just dealing with. You both acknowledge that you don’t have the home ground advantage. It’s an away match. If stuff like that had happened back home, you console each other, things would have ended quite differently. How differently, you can’t tell. You just know it would all end differently. Except it doesn’t. Even at home, especially at home, we take it lying down. Sometimes, we gloss over it—pencil it in as a misdemeanour. Continue reading