Monday, 28 October 2013

Wukburr : The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

Dear Wukburr,

You asked me to write to you about books.  I said I had nothing original to pile on to the discussion about works that, for the most part, were written long ago and have been written about long since, and I’m out of the loop on the new stuff.  You told me to shove it.  I said I didn’t want to embarrass myself with my amateurish readings, analyses and brainstorms before the likes of you, who reads more, thinks better, and writes far more eloquently.  You told me to get over myself.  I complained that I didn’t want to pen book reviews, and didn’t want to blab on about the good, the bad, and the ambivalent.  You said, “Read from beginning to end.  After the last line, sit and wait.  Then, ask yourself: what is the one thing about this book that won’t go away?  Tell me about that.”  Thats how you got me in a corner.  Here goes.

My first letter is about the last thing I read: Norman Mailer’s long and sprawling 1948 war novel, The Naked and the Dead.  Mailer served in the US Army in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War, and upon his discharge and return to the United States in 1946 he wrote this book, his first published novel, which was to become a huge bestseller.  The novel lifted Mailer from an unknown to literary stardom, and is now regarded as one of the definitive American fictions set during World War II.

The Naked and the Dead focuses on a single reconaissance and intelligence platoon (plus their commanding general) who are part of a campaign to wrest control of the imaginary Pacific island of Anopopei from the Japanese.  An omnipresent, detached narrator zooms in on each character and the story unfolds from multiple vantage points: sometimes we can see the whole island and the sweep of the general’s campaign, sometimes we follow behind or beside the platoon, and most of the time we find ourselves in the heads of the characters, one by one, bouncing between perspectives in a single conversation and across the island.  Each character also gets his own ‘Time Machine’ sequence, taking us back to a slice of his life before the war, and these are placed along with short ‘Chorus’ sequences (little dramatic scenes) at even spaces throughout the novel.  Conventions of style, tense and voice are broken in these intermezzos, but the rest of the book is consistently told in the third-person, past tense.

The image I couldn’t shake when I finished the last lines was the death of Lieutenant Hearn.  He’s the guy I most relate to, the one who has the capacity and perhaps the will to see through the world and effect its change.  He is smart, educated, precocious and moral.  Though he is marooned in the worst possible position in the army (a bottom-grade officer who hates the bigots above him and can’t reach the true souls beneath), Hearn holds to his principles, and he acts on them.  Even General Cummings, to whom Hearn starts off as as aide / confidant / cerebral plaything, is stuck in his calculations, moored in a mental game rather than steaming towards any action.  The General triumphantly predicts a future that could only be deemed fascist, but whether or not he glorifies in his reactionary sympathies just to get a rise out of his liberal lieutenant, he seeks victory because it’s the task at hand.  He ascends the military hierarchy because it’s in his blood.  Hearn, on the other hand, hasn’t made up his mind: why he’s on the island, why he’s in the war, why his country is in the war.  He could make general if Cummings can break him, but Cummings can’t.  Instead, he sends Hearn on the mission that we’ve been waiting for. 

During this first half, we’ve been waiting for Lieutenant Hearn to fill the empty shoes and take the lead of the platoon.  The pieces fit together perfectly: each man is missing something, and the platoon awaits true leadership.  The hard, draconian, one-track Sergeant Croft wants triumph but can’t get it; runty Roth wants to belong but he’s despised; ambitious Stanley wants promotion but he’s got no core.  Even Red, the platoon’s popular, free-thinking, anti-authority tough guy (and the book’s most magnetic character, the obvious lead in a film adaptation) could do with an epiphany, or just a kick in the ass.  Hearn is set up as the answer-in-waiting.  He can overcome Sergeant Croft, he can scale the Mt. Anaka, he can turn the wayward men into heroes.  With him and only him, the platoon can save the day: complete the mission, take the island, win the war.  Sure enough, at about the half-way mark, Hearn gets the job, and we have the high-stakes mission we’ve been waiting for.  Finally, it is one of those adventure novels with some class conflict and political anxiety thrown in, right?

“A half hour later, Lieutenant Hearn was killed by a machine-gun bullet which passed through his chest.”  It felt like George RR Martin had suddenly grabbed the pen out of Mailer’s hand: you can’t kill him!  When my eyes went over the line, which part of me knew was coming, I put down the book, sat there, and smiled.  You bastard, I thought.  And that’s when it started to make sense to me what, I think, Mailer is trying to do.

Hearn’s death is partially orchestrated by the platoon’s former and now-again leader, Sergeant Croft, in a sequence which reminded me of, and may have inspired, Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War film, Platoon.  With Croft back in charge, and any hope of aborting the doomed cross-island mission annihilated, the soldiers quickly forget Hearn and trudge on.  The intensely physical, labourious pressures on the enlisted men, which Mailer writes so viscerally and so well, reach their climax as Croft forces the men around the Japanese positions and up the island mountain’s peak.  But there is no deliverance of meaning, no counterpoint, no salvation.  We learn that the campaign on the other side of the island which they are to scout is practically over and won.  Whatever mountain the platoon climbs, whatever enemies it defeats, the strategic prerogative is cut out from under them.  They are useless, forgotten cogs that turn on as if awaiting review; they scale a mountain without any purpose but to scale the mountain.  And to Croft’s ultimate chagrin, they don’t even get that far – they are defeated not by Japanese emplacements or monsoon weather, but by a hornet’s nest.  The scene where the exhausted platoon drop their guns and gear and run screaming down the mountainside is hilarious, pathetic, and perfect.

Meanwhile, the campaign for which they think they fight isn’t won by hard work, brave patriots, or even General Cummings’ brilliant maneuvres – rather, it’s a big accident.  When the General leaves the island to secure naval support for his daring, ingenious plan, his most uninspired, by-the-book, square-brained subordinate, Major Dalleson, is informed of a hole in the Japanese line.  Deeply unhappy about such luck, wherein he must actually make a creative decision – simultaneously afraid of a trap but conscious that he has to do what he is supposed to do – Dalleson orders an attack which succeeds superbly.  The enemy general is killed, their supply depots are destroyed, and the previously-indestructible line is permanently punctured.  When the General returns he still wants the credit, and so carries out his terrific, anticlimactic outflanking, and then he is careful to write the campaign history to reflect that that was how he won it.  As the division mops up the rest of the island, Cummings discovers what really led to the Dalleson’s stumble into victory: the Japanese were out of supplies.  Starving, diseased, and on the brink of collapse, regardless of how many US soldiers faced them down, the enemy was doomed to defeat before the first American landing craft hit the beach.

The coda to The Naked and the Dead tells us that General Cummings is eventually passed over for promotion, that his great star, which shone so bright over Anopopei, must descend as only a footnote in the annals of the war – perhaps the same could be said of his vision for the future.  The soldiers of the platoon, meanwhile, achieve nothing – the holes in their characters remain, and storytelling’s promise to demonstrate true, meaningful change is dashed.  Croft loses his mountain.  Red confronts Croft (a rivalry set up from the opening pages) but he backs down without climax or resolution at the barrel of a gun.  Wilson, who craves a wound which can get him out of the war (his playing insane hospital tactics reminded me of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22), gets shot in the belly, is accidentally left behind, goes unseen by the Japanese, and is then recovered by the platoon.  First four men are charged with bringing Wilson to the beach, but then the two noncoms (non-commissioned officers), Brown and Stanley, stay behind.  Goldstein and Ridges carry on through hills and jungle, breaking their bodies to carry their wounded comrade to rescue.  When Wilson dies they barely notice and don’t react, as if they’ve been carrying a dead man the whole time.

The Naked and the Dead ends in bathos, as Major Dalleson, who should be riding high but only wants to carry on pushing pencils after the war, discovers a new method of training the men to use maps.  He’ll superimpose coordinates onto pin-up girl posters, so they can have fun plotting a route from breast to thigh.  He hopes his innovation will catch on all over the Army, and he ends the novel with interal exclamation, “Hot dog!  We see him for what he really is, which is what we always thought he was, unclothed, unphased, and unchanged.  There are no other discoveries, epiphanies, or lasting insights; synthesis and resolution are postponed, perhaps indefinitely.  The mountain remains unclimbed, the war moves on, the men remain in service, their wives and girlfriends all (to them) still cheat on them, and no one is any better, deeper or more human for it.  But Mailer doesn’t wholly suspend what a novel does, and what his novel promised to do: there is a great movement at work in these pages, one which slowly removes the garments which dress up the war.  The strategies, tactics, routines, protocols, conversations, jokes, fears, actions, betrayals, hardships, jungle nights, mosquitos and artillery diagrams are one by one worn, worn out, and then taken away.  And this is how I choose to understand Mailer’s title.  It isn’t just a thematic primer by which he can repeat death and the word naked to stylistic effect – it is the outcome, pessimistic perhaps, maybe disappointing to those who join the grand adventure, but somehow truthful to a platoon’s experience in a war that is otherwise written in grand sweeps and moral tones.  Because, in the end, that’s all they are left with: the naked and the dead.



Thursday, 24 October 2013

o : Mafia Island, No. 5 (Diving)

Big Blu 2
Utende Bay
Mafia Island Marine Park

Dear o,

They’ve pulled the sail up and we’re gliding languidly over the shallow, blue-green bay back to Utende.  My left ear is battering against my brain, my head feels swollen and airy, and my pride is in the foetal position after my first scuba dive a few minutes ago.  We were 11m down and everything else was fine.  I was breathing normally and after half an hour had plenty of air in my tank.  I had no problem flushing the water out of my mask, or flapping the long and heavy fins, or marveling at the alien, underwater world.  I was even getting the hang of buoyancy control on breath and with the veritable joystick (red button up, white button down).  But the first skill Fabio showed me on the flip-chart: the simplest, easiest, most comprehensible duty of the diver: the one method to keep the brain from getting crushed by the weight of the sea, was just not working.

Scuba divers need to ‘equalise’ with every metre or so of depth by pinching the nose and exhaling with the mouth shut, which pushes air out the ears in balance with the increasing water pressure.  Fabio told me to do this when my ears felt “sick”.  But the pain wasn’t going away, and I probably made it worse by blowing out harder and harder.  As we passed by another heap of coral and fearless fish, I tapped Fabio, pointed to my ear, and made the signal for trouble.  He signalled for me to blow, but I gestured that it wasn’t working.  Fabio pulled out and untied an emergency-red bag, and blew it up with his alternate regulator (breathing tube).  I was terribly embarrassed: the whole bay would now see that a first-time diver was having an “emergency”, that he couldn’t handle the deep blue sea, that he was afraid a shark was nibbling at his toes.  As Fabio gripped me by my pressure guage I had a childhood memory of learning how to swim in a big pool with a lifejacket.  The instructor brought us to the tallest diving board and made us all jump.  I was at the edge and realised there that I didn’t want to.  The instructor pushed and I screamed, and he grabbed me mid-air by the lifejacket collar.  I remember hanging off the board, slowly rotating over the earth far below, waiting to be pulled up – and then the instructor just let me go.  Worse than the fear of falling was the fear that everybody would see that I was afraid of falling.

There are really only two choices of who to go diving with on the island: Mafia Island Diving, and Big Blu.  To anyone who has the time and pays attention, the decision is already made.  Mafia Island Diving is affiliated with various Utende resorts and is located on the grounds of the Mafia Island Lodge.  They wear red shirts, hold their heads high, and are renowned by virtually everyone as a pack of assholes.  Big Blu, the newer dive company, have a far more casual, friendly and laid-back approach, seem interested in being part of the community instead of pitching against it, and they have a new Italian dive instructor, Fabio, who is quite possibly the nicest guy in the world. 

I arrived at Big Blu’s beachfront site at 8:30am and after a few honey-drizzled chapati-pancakes and slices of watermelon I began my one-on-one knowledge lesson with Fabio.  We went over the fundamentals of air pressure, water pressure, equipment, diving, the skills I’d be learning, and how the one-day course can fit into longer PADI scuba qualifications.  There was a short test at the end, during which I was sure Fabio would have held my hand if I looked uneasy, and then it was time to try on the equipment.  Wetsuit, booties, mask, BCD (buoyancy control device), regulators, pressure guage, fins, and a very exciting number of buckles and straps made me understand that this was actually happening – and that it was indeed a different beast from snorkeling.

Now, I’ve been excited about diving on Mafia for months, and only two things have made me nervous.  First, that like many others, I might enjoy it so much I’d be hooked and would have to change my career path to professional diver.  And second, that it would be just like snorkeling.  It’s probably been ten years since I last went out to sea with a plastic tube fixed to my mouth.  Maybe I didn’t have a good enough snorkel, or maybe I wasn’t doing it right, but all I can remember is how much I hated it.  There I was, suspended by only the rabid kicking of my flippered feet, looking down on a bunch of fish I couldn’t care less about, while every few seconds I got gulps of water down the breathing tube.  It was claustrophobic, it was maddening, and it was impossible to get past the exertion to the point.  Surely you don’t get water down your tube or in your mask when you go scuba diving?

The Big Blu 2, one of the company’s several scuba diving dhows, took us out a little ways from shore to a neck-deep section of the bay.  We put on the wetsuits just moments before getting in (the sun is too hot otherwise) and after a quick review, inflated our BCDs and flipped backwards off the gunwale into the ocean.  Fabio brought us to a standing position and we went up and down from the surface to practice each of the diving skills: flushing the mask, taking off and retrieving the regulator while underwater, using the up-and-down buttons, and equalising.  On the surface I kept falling backwards because of the weight of my tank, but Fabio just reached out his hand and tugged me back.  Underwater, he slowly and methodically demonstrated each skill, and then with a hand gesture that felt like he was offering me a cookie, asked me to do it.  When I did it right, he took my hand in both of his and pressed, as if telling me that no one in the history of the human species had ever eaten a cookie so inspiringly.  When Fabio had finished reaffirming his position as quite possibly the nicest guy in the world, we got back on the boat, motored over to a deeper section of the bay, and commenced with the real diving.

Under the water there are mountains of life.  The fish are either desensitised to graceless, clumsy fools like me, or they never learned to be afraid in the first place.  Creatures of every colour and shape and stripe and combination and strangeness swim right by, or hover below, or hang out around the corner.  There are spiky corals, fluffy corals, and potato corals.  There are meandering schools of fluorescent blue with darting little eyes; rainbow-backed speed-swimmers who circle around sections of fire coral; clams the size of a coffee table and in the shape of a set of lungs, waiting for me to insert my stupid hand; giant, lethargic, curious bulbs from the side who nearly disappear head on when they come close as if to shake fins.  They are countless, weird, and impossibly beautiful, and they all live in a fantasyland.  At one point when we passed by a tower of coral I stopped and kicked myself upright.  The red and white buttons, by the sake of luck not ability, were evenly-pressed and I could just sit there for a minute.  Fabio stopped, turned and asked with the “okay” signal if I was okay.  “Okay,” I gestured back, and then he looked with me.  There was nothing special to see.  Only a few fish, no brilliant colours, and a little fog in the water between us and the tower.  Maybe he thought I was nuts, as I stared for a over a minute.  But that’s when I got it: I wasn’t just swimming through a glorified zoo, or peeking briefly into some strange, dark place.  I was at the base of a totally different world, unthreatened, unthreatening.  Childish though it may sound, I realised that the coral tower before me, taller than any house on Mafia, was not just an artifact or an ecology: it was a waypoint, a landmark, a home.  The fish swimming around it didn’t come for me or to be fed or to be admired – I was the one in the cage.  I was the eternal guest.

I was too enthralled to say anything (or, gesture anything) about my failure to equalise, and the growing pain in my ear, and I probably went too long for Fabio’s liking.  I was also thinking too hard about how many times to press the red button to not scrape against the coral and at the same time not balloon back up to the surface.  I hoped that eventually I’d just adapt.  But eventually, not long after the coral tower, I had to make the signal.

When we came to the surface I wiped my nose and there was blood.  I thought Fabio would be horrified, but he barely shrugged.  It’s normal, maybe I have sinus congestion, a cold or something.  What about the ear pain?  It’s normal, equalising takes practice.  Sorry, I said.  He shook his head, don’t be sorry.  He told me the red buoy is standard at the end of every dive, so the divers know where to gather and the boat knows where to go.  We waited for the Big Blu 2 to fetch us and we floated there, helplessly, smacking against the little waves and flapping to stay upright.  We are all guests below the surface, all on temporary permits.

On deck as we bask in the sun with biscuits and tea, my ear still hurts, my head still throbs, and my whole body feels strange and weak.  I think about nitrogen bubbles, water pressure and the bends.  I put my finger in my ear, take it out again, and there is no difference in sound.  I worry about being a bad student, an unnatural diver, a clumsy human.  But of the two counts by which I was nervous about today, only one remains.  I want to go back.



Saturday, 19 October 2013

Frontier : Why You Should Be Ashamed

The Society for Environmental Exploration (Frontier)
50-52 Rivington Street
London    EC2A 3QP
United Kingdom


This is in response to the departure of the Principal Investigator at Frontier’s site at Utende, Mafia Island.

It is in spite of my presumption that this letter will not be read and almost certainly not responded to that I write it anyways.  I originally wanted to rebuke Frontier for its woefully unprofessional, bizarrely ignorant and quite frankly cowardly approach to the situation which had developed.  But with a little time to think, it occurred to me that your actions were less awful than they were sad, less absurd than they were tragic.  I’ve lived on Mafia for two months.  I’ve been listening, I’ve been watching, and I’ve been gritting my teeth.  I had to commit doublethink to prevent myself from realising – or just opening my eyes to the fact – that your company has become a lie.  Not a hurt-no-one, corporate marketing white lie, but a dangerous, pernicious, and perpetual falsehood that breeds injustice like mushrooms on manure.  It should’ve been obvious to me that you’d do what you did to your staff and volunteers, I should have seen it coming from miles away.  It was barely concealed in the shadow between your two faces.

Do you know what everyone on Mafia thinks of Frontier?  You can scratch out all the things that you tell those volunteers you’re so desperate to enlist: community development, conservation, research, and “environmental exploration”.  Each of these is a joke that gets few laughs among the locals – perhaps the Nutella-seller in Kilindoni or the bar owner in Utende think its funny, but everyone else appreciates the true substance of what your organisation has become.  Here on Mafia, Frontier equals a bunch of spoiled, undisciplined, loud drunks who are, by emulation or selection or accident, so pitifully bored and insular and self-serving that they can’t notice when they’re no longer welcome, if they even care to think of what welcome means.  Frontier equates to a company that hasn’t done any real research on the island for a decade, who couldn’t care less that the reports just stack up on dusty shelves in the marine park offices while corrupt officials think only of how much of the next $20 visitor fee they can pocket.  Frontier means English teachers who are welcome and sorely needed, but who lack the resources, training, organisation or staying power to make any lasting difference.  Frontier means a fenced-off, segregated square of Utende where the privileged westerners contribute absolutely nothing else save for lousy pay to a few local employees, the occasional meal outside the walls, and, of course, many, many trips to the bar.  Frontier here is the worst boredom there can be: the kind of boredom that is a choice.  A wilful, measured and unabashed decision to receive your own myth and do nothing in return.

And so what happens when someone comes in to try to change this, to return the focus to science, outreach, principles and good work?  You eschew the chance and sign off on vendetta.  You reward the bullies and punish the bullied.  You are either unable to perceive that the gossip you hear is indeed a concerted, backstabbing effort on the part of lazy, sexist reactionaries and ambitious schemers who despise and torment the few who attempt to do what Frontier says it does; or, you know it is all juvenile politics, you know it’s shameful belligerence, and you suspend fairness anyways so you can join the cool gang.  Maybe you calculate you’ll get better volunteer reviews this way, or perhaps just less of a hard time in your London office.  So you confirm what so many suspect: that Frontier isn’t really a not-for-profit research organisation, but rather a profitless gap-year business.  You take the easy way out.  You slip into the clothes of a coward and hope no one will check the label.

I think you know damn well why you should be ashamed.  It isn’t really because you did the wrong or unfair thing, which you certainly did.  It isn’t that you miscalculated personal attributes on hiring, misjudged relationships on site, or mistook the low road for a high one.  It isn’t even because you made a mistake which in the long run could, and in all likeliness will, make local operations worse and hang your gap-year financiers out to dry.  Rather, it’s because you’ve spoiled the opportunity.  20 years ago you built something positive here, something meaningful, significant and promising.  Whether the habit of time has eroded your original spirit, or ambition has rusted your nobler intentions, or sheer atrophy has cowered you into an extractive, money-making machine, still there are opportunities to redress the imbalance, and restore some semblance of dignity to what you do, or at least say you do.

You killed that.  I’m sure it wasn’t the first time, it won’t be the last.  Maybe ignorance increases with revenue margins, and betrayal gets easier to hide with corporate size.  But there are only a certain number of deaths your institution can sustain before everyone realises that you yourself have become the corpse they forgot to bury.



Monday, 14 October 2013

Brainboxer : The Pumpkin Pie Barber

Dear Brainboxer,

When I was about five or six, I had never tried pumpkin pie before.  I was living with my aunt, uncle and their family in Ottawa.  One Thanksgiving my aunt decided she was going to not only have pumpkin pie for the traditional dessert, but to make it herself.  She probably cooked it in her mind for days beforehand, and then on Thanksgiving morning she laboured for hours to get it just right.  For whatever reason it was just me and her at home, and in the late afternoon she had to run out for something.  She pulled the fresh and ready pumpkin pie from the oven, hot and brown and steaming, and told me not to touch it while she was gone.

Having never tried pumpkin pie, I was very curious.  Also, my uncle was the kind of head-of-table patriarch whose dinner-time refrain went something like, “How do you know you don’t like it if you’ve never tried it,” (which, to me, sounded like, “YOU WILL TRY OR YOU WILL DIE,” from the fire-breathing jaws of a dragon) and who insisted that if you’ve got it on your plate, you will put it in your gate.  So what if I didn’t like pumpkin pie after all?  Besides, it looked kind of ugly: brown goo in a boring crust, and pumpkins  Who eats the stuff you scoop out of a jack o’ lantern?  So, combine curiosity, the fire-breathing dragon, and the additional fact that I was a pain-in-the-ass brat – and you understand how I ruined Thanksgiving.

I started at the very corner of the circular pie, with a finger dipped into the goo.  Just a tiny bit.  I ran away from the oven and stuck it into my mouth.  Not bad.  I listened for my aunt coming home…  Nothing.  I went back to the pie, and there it was, undeniable: my fingerprint!  I tried to move more goo from the corner over the fingerprint and to smooth it over, licking my hands of course, but after I was done it looked even worse.  A whole side of the pie had been tampered with!  Okay, okay, think  One corner is clear evidence of human disturbance, but what if that was spread out around the whole pie?  Carefully, very carefully, I made a line with my finger around the pie, between the goo and the crust.  I had to eat as I went, for where else would the goo go;and I thought, it doesn’t taste not too bad at all.  When the line was done I listened for the door again…  Still nothing.  But the circle was uneven – it was worse!  All I could do was thicken it to the thickest point, because no oven would make a circle like that – but a non-human symmetrical effect from the grill?  Why not.

When I was finished with my masterwork of subterfuge I truly believed that anyone who looked upon the pie wouldn’t see my strokes of genius or any change at all, and if they did, they’d put it down to the witchery of the kitchen.  So I walked away happy (and satisfied), just minutes before my aunt returned.

Well, she noticed.  I pretended not to know what she was talking about.  In the same motion as she tossed her experimental pie into the trash she turned on me and gave me a mouthful of something other than pumpkin.  And then we went together to the grocery store to buy a new one, probably made in some factory where cameras watch the every move of the baker.  Needless to say, I don’t think I was allowed any for Thanksgiving dessert.


It was time for the Kilindoni full circle.  On my first day on Mafia Island, I found a barber just past the main intersection and asked to get my beard trimmed.  A group of men and boys were on the couch playing cards, and it seemed like quite a sight for a mzungu like me to just barge in and ask for the price of a haircut.  Didn’t I get my hair cut in my home country, where people knew how to deal with brown curls and a daily bush of prickles on the cheek?  The barber obliquely refused to help; he threw up his shoulders and indicated that he’d help me if he could, but in my case he was impotent.  I stepped further in, picked up a razor, turned it on and pointed it at my beard.  Ndiyo?” I said.  All of the barber’s friends were teasing him now, poking and high-fiving, and he blushed.  I knew the price would be fair.  Ndiyo,” he said, and then he trimmed my beard.  Afterwards I taught the whole gang to play Hearts.

So, in my last week in Kilindoni before the move (after two months of hoops) to Utende, I decided to come back.  I had passed nearly every day and waved to the barber who was usually listening to music or sleeping on his couch.  I had tried another barber for the monthly beard trimming, and it was fine – I had to haggle the price a little, and he never smiled.  When I returned to my original hairdresser, he was alone but happy to see me.  He circled his face with his finger and said what must have been “beard trim” in Swahili.  Hapana,” I said, and lifted up my long hair to flop it back down.  His eyes went wide.  I asked him how much, he gave a high price; we haggled, and then made the deal.

I don’t keep very well-groomed.  I let the beard and the hair grow until one of the two gets in my way, and then get it cut for as low a price as I can find (I don’t fret about packing razors when I travel, or here in Tanzania, but yes, I do know how to shave and will if it’s cheaper…).  My hair before my Kilindoni cut was the longest it has ever been.  I could pull it down over my face and hold it there with my teeth.  It curled into an impossible ball at my neck.  It flapped out into embarrassing wings that I could feel bounce when running, until the sweat brought them back down.  It swirled in such loops that people asked if I had my hair “done”, which was exacerbated here by being bleached by the sun, which made it look artificially dyed.  It had been due for a cut for a long time, but Al insisted that she’d ditch me if I did.  Finally she said it was getting a little too long – too “heavy” was her word – in that the hair no longer curled but just came down.  She gave permission to cut a little off.

So there I sat as my friend the red-shirted barber threw the plastic cloak over my and the busted chair.  Moja, mbili, tatu, nne?” he asked.  One, two, three or four?  He was referring to razor sizes.  No, no, I told him, and made a click-click sound while miming a pair of hand-scissors.  He was bewildered.  He picked up the scissors.  I showed him the length I wanted cut (about a thumb) and he cut it off.  He understood and smiled.  Then he put the scissors down and pulled out a razor, placing the number four clip on top.  Oh shit, I thought, he doesn’t know how to use the scissors.  And then he proceeded to razor my head.

It wasn’t so bad, not too short – and it’ll grow back soon.  But my friend the red-shirted barber was getting excited.  When I told him that I wanted the sides and back a little shorter, he flipped between numbers 3 and 4 on the plastic scale about a dozen times, tossing his tools back and forth like a juvenile basketball player.  He took the plastic off altogether, and sheared my sideburns – why bother asking me?  But in doing that, another piece was exposed: the beard was cut into.  I’d specifically said to leave the beard.  Okay, he thought, just some cosmetics.  He slowly, painstakingly converted the surrounding areas to layered in bits of facial hair.  And to balance it, he kept razoring my forehead, pushing my hairline a millimeter back with each little adjustment.  But the layering had to be even, not just confined to the sides.  He buzzed my cheeks, just a little here, then above my mustache, just a little there.  I was becoming his masterpiece, and I didn’t even notice!

Truth be told, I’d given up.  My few words in Swahili went nowhere, and he wouldn’t have cared if I was fluent anyways; I was in the artist’s chair now.  So I listened to the music, which was pumped loud enough for the whole street and would be welcome in those awfully silent barber shops and hairdresser’s where conversation is a way to survive the silence, and when the weather comes up and you feel like you’re back in safe territory from politics and poor jokes, you still think that this guy who has scissors around your ears thinks that you are his most boring client of all time.  Not here, though.  My barber might have thought my conversation was boring, but my hair was absolutely enthralling.  So I let him have his cake, and wandered in my mind or around the room.  His music-playing computer from 1998 had a screen background of a man who is crying out, “Plz give me my hart back,” as a fur-coated femme fatale on high heels walks away with what looks like a butchered chicken throbbing in hair hand.  There were fake flowers above the door, thin floor-covering for the table-top, a cut-up couch and regular wafts of barber-odour and disinfectant.  The odd person walked outside, saw me and stopped, and then went off to tell his friends: the long-haired hippie mzungu is getting his hair cut!  

There was indeed enough time for some of the people I know to find me and take a look, because my red-shirted friend the barber kept getting himself stuck fixing what he’d done.  Just have to shorten this corner at the back…now the other side…better do the middle…wait, what about the top…now that first corner has to be shorter, too…alright, let’s even out the whole head, and don’t leave the face…in fact, forget it, let’s just make the bastard bald.  In the end, size 4 became a 3, size 3 became a 2, my hairline was sent back the way it came, and the beard came off altogether.  It was a kick to look down and see my pile of hair.  Everyone else laughed too.  My red-shirted friend the barber was in terrific spirits, and I couldn’t help but think of him smiling the same way in front of a pumpkin pie he’d never tried before.  I paid up and walked out minus some weight off my head.

And then I remembered, what will Al say?



Monday, 7 October 2013

o : Mafia Island, No. 4 (The President)

Butiama Beach
Mafia Island

Dear o,

At last, the president’s plane was spotted making a loop around the airport.  The stand-around crowd, of which I was part, flocked to the edge of the little plateau above the airstrip itself.  The schoolkids in their uniforms were first; and even those who weren’t snaked in between elbows and hips to bulge the united front a little farther forward, a little closer to Mr. President.  His plane pulled around, straightened out over the ocean for its descent, and took aim for the small clearing atop the ridge.  He better be good, I thought.  I’d been waiting for hours in a dirt field under a sunburning sun for this guy, and I didn’t even know his name.

Ever since my arrival on Mafia, rumours of a presidential visit to officially open the refurbished airport, new dock and widened road to Utende have floated around.  He was supposed to come at the end of August, then September, and then who knows.  On the date of his last scheduled visit, the gossip factory neglected to inform me of cancellation, and I wandered down to the airport and then the waterfront to see people walking, merchants trading, fishermen fishing and kids staring.  Maybe they’re indifferent to some chumped-up elected official in Dodoma; maybe he’ll bring his own background crowd in that big plane he’s rumoured to have.  Well, no, I learned later.  It seems that the Mafia Island Communication Network does indeed distribute news, and everyone seems to get their phantom copy – except me.

A few days before the president’s actual arrival, I received some accidental word that was a little more promising than a mere date: a government official was asking around at the lodges for space to host 30 guests for three nights just two days away, something that the lodges laughed at for the ridiculously short notice; some dignitaries had already started trickling in, driving fancy cars and wearing fancy clothes.  I confirmed the story at the New Lizu Hotel, where Mama Shiraz told me that she was doing the catering in Utende, and that yes, indeed, the president is coming.  Would I like to see the schedule?  Sure.  Oh, never mind, she can’t find it. 

Of course I was suspicious that the great event would ever take place, but there were other signs as well.  For each of the two afternoons before the president’s visit I heard the roar of dozens of planes landing at the airport (the average is 3-4 per day), one after the other as if in a convoy.  I got the sense that the whole island was turning into a giant school waiting for the principal to make his inspection: walls got cleaner, street vendors brought out their reserve selection, and the power stopped going out.  I saw new faces poking around Kilindoni.  They asked about prices, watched with keener eyes than normal, and bought up military-green shorts and samosas off the street in high frequency.  They looked different, too: the men had clean, button-up shirts, and the woman did their hair up without a flamboyant covering-scarf.  Some of them even spoke English to each other, though they laughed at every phrase.They must be from Dar, I thought.  Mainlanders.

On the morning of the president’s coming, I went out to the airport.  I’d heard this was his first stop.  After he’d visit the new dock (that’s why the lights were on for the first time last night) and then Utende, so I thought I’d give myself at least the chance for the full deal.  And something was astir.  Green CCM (Tanzania's ruling party) flags waved high in the sky.  A row of black and tinted Land Cruisers were parked and turned on and made one think of a movie about go-get-em government.  Huddled against the chain-link, razor-wire-topped fence were hundreds and hundreds of schoolkids in their white-and-blue uniforms, hanging on the metal, expectant, happy.  They waved fresh-out-of-the-box,standard-issue Tanzanian and American flags on sticks, and there were three or four times as many as the latter.  “Why do you have this flag?” I asked one of the boys who said he spoke English.  “To show the friendship between the United States and Tanzania,” he said.  “Which president is supposed to come?” I asked.  “Maybe both!”

I found a spot along the fence and hung out with the rest of my new friends.  It wasn’t long before a man with a white hat and shirt told us we could go through, and so we followed the fence to the airport entrance and joined the queue.  White-shirted invitees (who I would later learn got chairs), throngs of decked-out schoolkids, and the rest of us lucky-to-be-let-in plainclothed plebs lined up to go through the single metal-detector.  A soldier told us to file into a single line, and I laughed.  The man behind me asked what was so funny.  “It’s the first time in Africa I’ve been told to form a proper queue,” I said.  “Yes, but this is not just Africa – this is Tanzania!”  He could have been the president.

Not everybody went through – the smart ones stayed behind to jump up onto trucks for the best views of the whole thing, or to sell candy and ice cream through the wire mesh.  Those of us inside were made to feel like the party had started already.  The music was loud, people were dancing, groups of schoolchildren were being ushered to strategic locations around the ceremonial centre.  On the two sides of the sheltered, wooden speechmaking platform were lines of chairs with varying levels of importance (blue plastic, white plastic, white plastic with cushions), and behind it was a platform with chairs of other varying levels (white plastic, black metal with cushion, and a single, tall, wooden throne for you-know-who).  Anybody could dance to the African R&B in the middle space, though groups seemed to form by theme: freestyling youngsters had a go, then the political-looking types went up to “make fun” of the fact that they were dancing, and then the elderly women had the most fun of all, jiving their massive hips with supreme rhythm.  There was what I can only describe as a conga-line, there was cheering and laughing and people greeting others they hadn’t seen for years, and there was a sharp, bald, unsmiling American guy in a suit (I wonder if he got sweaty?) who made me think the Secret Service had already done their first sweep.  Maybe the president was coming, after all?

Maybe, but not just yet.  The sun got higher and hotter, and we seatless masses bunched up under the edges of the temporary shelters above the assigned chairs.  The MC eventually stopped the music and started the superfluous parts of the ceremony.  Schoolchildren came up in groups to sing songs, do group dance routines, show their rapping skills, and even host a mock debate in English which nobody could really hear about the “merits and demerits of infrastructure development”.  Needless to say, the “demerits” side, standing on the tarmac of a newly refurbished airport, said little more than “development is bad” while getting trounced by their classmates who made their best points to the tall, wooden, empty throne for you-know-who.

The MC ran out of things to do or say (and he had a lot to say), so he put the music back on and those people who weren’t dead to the heat started dancing again.  A terribly obese army commander, always followed by a cadre of skinny assistants, had finally got tired of taking photos with his silver iPad and slumped himself into one, or two, of the black cushioned chairs.  The sharp American dude had even stopped paying attention.  Maybe the president wasn’t coming, after all?  I found a ceremony programme and someone at whom to pose a few questions.  The reason for all the American flags was that the airport project was funded by a US development project, the Millennium Challenge Account – hence all the white shirts and trucks with the MCAT logo (T for Tanzania).  The flags were both a way to say thanks, and you can always send us more.  But they had stopped waving so fervently now, if at all.  Many were lying in the dirt.

Finally, the president’s plane showed up in the sky, and the flags, Tanzanian and American both, shot up into the air again.  Which president was this?  The best part for me and the kids was seeing the plane land, pull right up on the tarmac to the ceremony area, and come to a halt.  It was a good-looking beast, white with two big propellers and the single, simple word, “Tanzania”; it is perhaps the biggest plane to land on the island since the Second World War.  There was cheering and whistling as the red carpet was brought up to the door, and then a big rush of noise as the president stepped out, preceded only by his six-man security detail and followed by nobody.  He was still, calm, and regal, and was happy to wait a few minutes to receive a scarf around his neck before moving on to shake hands with many of the dignitaries.  The American Secret Service guy wasn’t so Secret Service after all, as he removed his sunglasses and gushed out a smile while pumping the president’s hand.  The procession went on, and many in the crowd left; they’d seen him, after all.  It’s not like he was going to actually say anything.  I wanted to hear him speak, though, even if I couldn’t understand a word.

The president’s speech followed on the heels of four other ones, three by petrifyingly boring men in suits and one not so bad by a bright, joyous, riled-up woman with a whole skeleton of political bones under her vibrant clothes.  When the president came up to the platform, his six-man team flanked out, with four forming a circle around the box, and a fat general (not the obese one with the iPad) stood behind to add some weight.  One of the bodyguards seemed to be staring right at me through his cool-guy sunglasses, though he many have long ago learned how to sleep standing up.  While he might have been sleeping, however, the president wasn’t a bore.  He knew how to use the pause and even silence, he knew how to stir his words without ever stirring his voice, and he had a good sense of humour.  When the DJ pumped up the tunes as the president approached and did a weird record-scratch to simultaneously show off his skills and show off the president as a rock star (he is not a rock star), the president laughed and brushed it off.  He was good, he connected with his audience even when, as a result of a very poor layout, his podium platform faced the open airstrip and only about 20% of the crowd (all the chairs were behind him, and the only ones he could see were those who gathered on the top of the ridge above the airstrip, the same vantage point to see his plane land).

So was Mr. Jakaya Kikwete worth the wait, the sunburn, and the 400 shillings for mystery-flavoured ice cream?  Not really, but I don’t think I came to see the president.  I came to see how Tanzanians welcome and relate to and respond to their president, and that was worth it.  Yes, there was that stupid chair of his, but there was also the informal dancing, the getting-together, and the lack of much seriousness at all beyond Mr. Secret Service and the sleepy security team.  I didn’t see a single gun anywhere.  The police truck was parked outside the fence, more for people to stand on and watch than to patrol anything.  Surely only a few would get to meet Mr. President, but he gave off the vibe that that was only because there was so many people.  So it was fun.  But the plane was still the best part.