Here are a few things we know about Ghana’s 2012 elections.
It’s going to be close. With 168 of 275 constituencies reporting, incumbent John Mahama has 49.83% of the vote and his chief rival Nana Akufo-Addo has 48.68% of votes. That’s lots closer than polls, which predicted a victory for Mahama, had been suggesting. Given that the third party candidates have less than 2% of the votes, a run-off seems possible, if both Mahama and Akufo-Addo remain below the 50% mark.
It wasn’t perfect. This was Ghana’s first election with a new biometric voter identification system. A massive registration drive issued voter ID cards that include information on the bearer’s thumbprint. Voters present their card, verify their thumbprints and are then able to vote. This system malfunctioned in some locations, leading to long lines and hot tempers, and the electoral commission extended voting into today to ensure everyone can exercise their franchise.
One of the reports I read yesterday on Twitter suggested that some of the people having bad problems were people who work with their hands, suggesting that scars or blisters might be interfering with the scanner. An article today offered advice on cleaning hands using Coke or akpeteshie (locally distilled sugar-cane or palm wine liquor) to create more readable prints.
Ghana invested heavily in biometric systems because there’s understandable concern about voter fraud. The 2008 election was settled by less than 40,000 votes and there was widespread concern that voters were sneaking across the border from Togo to vote, or voting multiple times. Stories like this one, in which biometric machines are revealing multiple attempts to vote, are getting good play in Ghanaian social media. (Great article, from the headline that implies a Robocop-style machine arresting the miscreant to descriptions of the gentleman’s alacrity in eluding authorities. :-) Given successes like this one, it’s likely that biometric voting will continue, with some fine tuning, in subsequent elections.
It was pretty damned impressive. Ghana has had a series of increasingly credible elections, starting in 1992, and capturing international interest in 2000, when a free and fair election ousted the party of former dictator (and later democratically elected leader), Jerry Rawlings. 2000, you may remember, was the year of endless Bush v. Gore drama in the US, and my friend Koby Koomson, then Ghana’s ambassador to the US, sent me a copy of the letter he’d sent to President Clinton, offering Ghana’s assistance to the US in election monitoring.
There’s a wealth of articles that celebrate Ghana’s successful democracy, including helpful insights from economist George Ayittey, who attributes democratic success to a strong and independent media, a vibrant set of NGOs, and maturity on the part of the nation’s politicians, who notes that the 2008 election could easily have turned chaotic, had not Akufo-Addo graciously conceded.
What’s interesting for me, as a passionate Ghanaphile, but an outsider to the political process, is that watching Ghana’s elections is a helpful tutorial in global good electoral practices.
The video above, from the Ghana Decides project, shows the vote counting process in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Accra, the historically Muslim neighborhood of Nima. The transparent boxes, the public sorting of ballots and the crowd watching the process are all parts of an intricate system that helps remove uncertainty from the results.
So are images like this one: the results from a specific polling place, publicly posted. In Zimbabwe’s last presidential election, posting these votes allowed the opposition MDC to conduct a parallel vote tabulation and contest ZANU-PF’s assertions that they had won outright. Parallel tabulation efforts are underway in Ghana, as well, with multiple monitoring, civil society and media organizations trying to ensure that the electoral commission’s results are in line with the reports at tens of thousands of polling places.
I’l be very interested to learn what my friends Mike Best at Tom Smyth at Georgia Tech and the team at PenPlusBytes learn from their experiments in social media monitoring. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of PenPlusBytes, and am advising Tom’s on his dissertation.) They’ve been aggregating tens of thousands of reports via Twitter, Facebook and blogs, and following up on reports of violence or conflict. By monitoring Ghana’s peaceful elections, they hope to establish best practices for using their tools in monitoring more contentious ones, hoping to defuse violence before it unfolds.
I’ll offer two disappointments in Ghana’s elections. One is that Ghana continues moving towards being a purely two-party state. One of the benefits of a two-round electoral system (which forces a run-off if no one receives 50% + 1 vote in the first round) is that it encourages people to vote for smaller parties to express preferences, knowing they can vote strategically in a second round. But Ghanaian politics appears to have turned into a battle between NDC and NPP, with few surprises, even when the third party candidates are smart, engaging and adding to the dialog.
Second, NDC and NPP allegiances often have more to do with geography and tribe than with platform. I saw a dispirited tweet last night that suggested the best way to improve your electoral chances was to increase the birthrate in the parties’ respective strongholds. It’s disappointing to see elections based more on ethnicity than on issues, but it’s also clear this isn’t the reason behind everyone’s vote.
Here’s hoping that a close race remains and peaceful one and that Ghanaians continue to have justifiable pride in a robust and transparent electoral system and a healthy democracy.
Shortly after I posted a review of Mads Brügger’s “The Ambassador”, a film that raised some interesting questions about what constitutes ethical and responsible journalism about Africa, I got a reminder about just how low alleged journalists can go in reporting about places they don’t know. I got a PR pitch from the folks at VICE:
Wanted to hit over a link to War Gin, VICE’s latest investigative news/travel piece on Ugandan alcoholism that I think you will enjoy for your readership. In the documentary, VICE correspondent Thomas Morton travels to Uganda and experiences “Brickellian pandemonium” in the drunkest country on the planet, to learn about the culture of Waregi, the country’s locally brewed moonshine.
You can watch the doc here: http://youtu.be/zL3UHF5SlEU
Ugandans are the hardest drinking Africans in the motherland, both in terms of per capita consumption and the hooch they choose to chug. Waregi, or “war gin,” is what they call the local moonshine, and it makes the harshest Appalachian rotgut taste like freaking Bailey’s.
Additional footage of a goat being slaughtered for a boozy feast can be viewed here, but warning! Graphic footage: http://youtu.be/_4GZDWk_xtQ
Let me know if you have any questions about this piece, or VICE’s news and travel series. Release attached.
Drunkest country on the planet, huh? Bonus footage of goat slaughter? Not the sort of “investigative news” I usually seek out, but certainly worth a quick watch, no? Particularly since Google searches weren’t helping me figure out what “Brickellian pandemonium” was.
The first seconds of the “documentary” aren’t promising. The narrator, Thomas Morton, begins by declaring: “Uganda’s had a pretty good spell the last 25 years. No major civil wars, a little bit of an Ebola outbreak every so often, including right now, and they are the alcoholism capital of Africa.”
So… let’s unpack that statement.
For the last 27 years, Uganda has been ruled by Yoweri Museveni, an autocrat who’s systematically silenced opposition and clung to power. Evidently the armed struggle between the Achioli people in the north against the government doesn’t constitute “major civic war”, though the conflict spawned the Lord’s Resistance Army, notorious for abducting and enslaving children as soldiers and sex slaves. And Uganda’s key role in the two Congo Wars, the deadliest conflict since World War II, evidently doesn’t take the shine off Uganda’s “pretty good spell.”
You’ll be surprised to discover that Morton’s analysis of alcohol consumption statistics is equally careful and sophisticated. He cites a 2004 WHO study that, allegedly, finds “Uganda as the top contender for per capita alcohol consumption in the world, making Uganda the drunkest place on earth.” He then asserts that Ugandans have been drinking even more since 2011. So I looked up the latest statistics from the WHO. Morton is right that Ugandans drink a lot, by African standards. Average per capita alcohol consumption is 11.93 liters per capita per year. That’s not as high as in Nigeria, where per capita consumption is 12.28 liters a year… which is especially impressive as nearly half of Nigeria’s population is Muslim, while less than an eighth of Uganda’s population is. So Uganda’s not the most drunken nation in Africa.
And it’s not even in the running globally. Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, the UK and Ukraine all drink more per capita than Uganda. The most inebriated nation is Moldova, which at 18.22 liters per person per year, leaves Uganda in the dust. Uganda’s far closer to the UK, or to the US, which at 9.44 liters per capita, drinks 79% as much as Ugandans do per year.
So it’s obvious why Morton decided to film a story on Uganda’s “Moonshine Epidemic“. He was there already, doing hard hitting investigative reporting on Ugandan sex slang, and on storks, who are scary.
Or maybe Morton chose Uganda because those other harder-drinking nations, with the exceptions of South Korea and Nigeria, are in Europe, and filled with white people. And while poor Africans drinking moonshine makes for great video, who really wants to watch French people drink too much wine?
I watched the whole video. Don’t bother. Morton ventures a whole 40km from downtown Kampala and gets drunk in a village, where villagers slaughter a goat and share it. There’s lots of footage of people getting drunk and acting silly, and embarrassing, uncomfortable footage of people passed out. Morton goes back to Kampala, finds that people make alcohol there too, and also enjoy drinking it. There’s a wonderfully uncomfortable moment in an outdoor Kampala bar, where one of the drinkers Morton plans on documenting gives him an effusive and kind welcome, thanking him for coming to his neighborhood and honoring him as a friend and a brother. For Morton, this warm greeting is more evidence that Ugandans are really, really drunk, as he and his crew are there to make fun of them. He ends by walking through a red light district of Kampala, offering his insightful analysis: “This is sort of Britain’s lasting legacy here – Instead of rum, sodomy and the lash, Uganda opted for gin, no sodomy and hookers.”
It’s a good thing that Uganda exists, because otherwise Morton might have to prove his manhood (one of his Vice bios explains that “his nickname is ‘Baby Balls’ because he is a small man but absolutely fearless”) by exploiting people who are more likely to fight back against their misrepresentation. And, thank goodness, other exploiters haven’t found the comic potential of Uganda – an earlier piece by Morton decries the phenomenon of journalists descending on Detroit to engage in shooting “ruin porn”.
So I responded to the inquiry from XXXX from VICE. My note follows below.
XXXX, do you ever get embarrassed about working for a company whose approach to poor people in the developing world is to portray them in the worst, most shocking and exploitative light possible? Of all the stories one could run on Uganda – a corrupt autocrat and his attacks on the free press, a systematic campaign to persecute gays and lesbians and the role of US evangelical Christians in that persecution, the nation’s role in Central Africa instability – it’s really a priority to let us know that desperately poor people drink too much?
There’s not a prayer that I would run this story except to condemn it in the strongest possible terms. And most of the questions I have for you and your colleagues are about how you manage to sleep at night. War gin, perhaps?
PS: “Bruegellian”, not “Brickellian”. You’re trying to compare an impoverished Ugandan village to the scenes evoked by a Renaissance Flemish painter, not a neighborhood in Miami.
And while that was satisfying, it doesn’t address the real problem. Most Americans hear little about sub-Saharan Africa. When we do, we virtually always hear bad news. And most Americans haven’t traveled to Uganda or know Ugandans. So they often find it hard to relate to stories from these unfamiliar parts of the world. It’s a really interesting problem to develop new approaches that get people who don’t know about a country to spend half a hour thinking about it.
I suspect people like Morton justify their work by telling themselves that sensationalistic coverage is the only way to get people to pay attention to African stories. Bullshit. Watch Anthony Bourdain cover some of the same territory in his hour-long celebration of food and culture in Ghana. He visits a village, watches local moonshine being brewed, and drinks it. But instead of showing contempt for his hosts and their culture, he tries to understand it and celebrate it.
VICE gets a lot of attention. CNN has shown their content, as has MTV. Their online videos are widely viewed. That they are this racist, exploitative and disgusting is a problem.
Hey VICE: Your documentary is bad for anyone who watches it, and you should feel bad.
Before I traveled to Ghana for the first time in 1993, I attended an orientation in Washington DC for Fulbright scholars who would be working in sub-Saharan Africa. Returning scholars gave us lots of advice, some mission-critical (many people react badly to Lariam, the most-prescribed anti-malarial drug), some merely anecdotal and amusing. In the latter camp was a story about bribery in Ghana:
A Fulbright scholar had been warned he might be solicited for a bribe at Accra’s Kotoka Airport. He came prepared with a thick stack of US $5 bills. As he made his way through immigration, baggage claim and customs, he began handing bills to anyone who crossed his path. Word of this spread quickly, and he ended up running a gauntlet of baggage handlers, touts and officials, all with their hands out. He left the airport exhausted, devoid of bills, convinced that Ghana was, indeed, the most corrupt country he’d ever encountered.
The point of the story is not that Ghana is corrupt, but that your expectations about a situation have everything to do with what you will encounter. I’ve flown in and out of Kotoka dozens of times now, and have never been asked for a bribe, except in jest. (Indeed, in twenty years of doing business in Ghana, I’ve never been solicited for a bribe, though I’ve occasionally tipped low-level government employees, like the post office worker who spent three hours helping me wrap fragile xylophones in foam for shipping to the US.) But I’m confident that, had I offered bribes to anyone who was bribable, I’d be able to spend hundreds on each journey to Accra.
Trailer for “The Ambassador”
I thought about this story after watching Mads Brügger’s new film, The Ambassador. Brügger is a Danish journalist who gained international fame and notoriety for his previous film, The Red Chapel, where he poses as the communist director of a comedy troupe in order to be invited into North Korea, where the government – predictably, clumsily – tries to steer their work in a pro-regime direction. In this new film, Brügger attempts to expose those involved in the trade in blood diamonds: the government officials who are willing to sell diplomatic credentials to allow buyers in and out of diamond-producing countries, and the title brokers who make such trade possible.
To offer this exposé, Brügger creates a character, Mads Cortzen, who embodies every cliché of European colonialism in Africa. In tropical suits and knee-high boots, Cortzen smokes cigarettes in a long, ivory holder, hires two Pygmy assistants because “they are good luck” and spouts offensive dialog at every turn. His antics are recorded by an array of hidden cameras, sometimes placed in hollowed-out books, sometimes worn on Brügger’s body, as he pursues his agenda: obtain diplomatic credentials as an ambassador from Liberia, establish himself as a dealer in diamonds in the Central African Republic, secure conflict diamonds and bring them back to Europe.
Brügger’s point, apparently, is that this isn’t hard to do, and that corrupt businessmen from around the world are routinely engaged in this trade. But the narrative of the film complicates that premise. The drama of the film is all generated by the difficulties Cortzen experiences in carrying out his plans. His title broker, the hapless Willem Tijssen, delivers a handwritten diplomatic passport, not the biometric passports now used by Liberia and other ECOWAS nations, and seems unable to provide more believable credentials, despite the interventions of a powerful, and heavily compensated, lawyer. Cortzen’s diamond-mining partner appears likely to abscond with the funds Cortzen has invested, or to turn him over to the authorities when he tries to leave the country carrying diamonds. It’s not clear whether Cortzen’s fixer is even on his side, or whether he’s working for the diamond miner, the government, or other unknown parties. Near the end of the film, it seems possible that Cortzen, who came to the Central African Republic to transfer the nation’s mineral wealth to Europe will end up losing his investments, and locked in a Bangui prison. And given my increasing annoyance with his colonialist caricature, that’s the outcome I found myself rooting for.
At the end, Brügger’s character gets his diamonds, but doesn’t get the credentials he’d need to smuggle them safely. The film avoids the issue of what happens with the diamonds, archly noting the importance of discretion in diamond smuggling. Brügger has told interviewers that he wasn’t willing to break international law to bring the diamonds out of CAR, and sold them within the country, giving the proceeds to the Pygmies who’ve worked with him on his cover scheme, a match factory that promises jobs to impoverished workers. Not knowing whether the Cortzen character could have left the country with the diamonds leaves the central question of the film unanswered. Had he left without incident, it strengthens the narrative that diamond smuggling is easy and commonplace, while if Brügger were betrayed by his diamond mining colleague, it would complete a story of an arrogant interloper who wasn’t as smart as he thought, and who ended up victim of the people he thought he was manipulating.
When I first heard of the film, I thought it was likely to be a Vice-style “look at how crazy and dangerous Africa is” documentary, like The Vice Guide to Liberia (reviewed here.) I’m both intrigued and annoyed by this style of storytelling, angered by the clichés, but interested in anyone’s efforts to build narratives about sub-Saharan Africa that capture wide audiences. It’s clear that Brügger is a more sophisticated and complicated filmmaker than the Vice folks – they seem blissfully unaware of their racism and privilege, while Brügger’s character revels in a performance of colonialism. But at the end of the day, I’m not convinced he’s accomplished anything all that different.
In interviews, Brügger clearly sees himself as a crusader against corruption. He’s thoroughly aware that he’s on ethically shaky grounds: “I am fully aware that in some regards the ethics in my film, to say it simply, kind of suck. They do.” But his behavior is in the service of two higher goals: getting western audiences to pay attention to an African story, and to exposing those involved in the diamond trade. He asserts that Liberia has identified eight Cortzen-like characters in their diplomatic corps thanks to his efforts.
But Liberia hardly seems grateful for the assistance: they’re attempting to extradite him and to prosecute him for bribery and fraud. This, in turn, supports Brügger’s narrative: not only are Liberia’s officials so corrupt that they sell diplomatic passports, they are shameless in persecuting him, a journalist just doing his job, rather than rooting out corruption in their ranks. There’s a more complicated story that Brügger isn’t interested in addressing. He dismisses the legitimacy of the government of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf by noting that a truth and reconciliation commission placed her on a list of people who should be disqualified from office for her financial support of Charles Taylor, rather than engaging in the complicated debate over whether the TRC’s recommendations were the right ones.
It’s hard to see how Brügger’s expose is going to lead to real change. It’s likely to be harder to obtain diplomatic credentials to set oneself up as a diamond smuggler… but Brügger’s film shows that this was hardly easy to begin with, and that credentials likely wouldn’t have enabled him to leave the country with those diamonds, without needing to conceal them, as his diamond mining partner delicately puts it, “in your pants”. In an interview, Brügger rubbishes the Kimberly Process, the regulatory system designed to make it difficult to sell diamonds from conflict regions, but the example he gives – DeBeers being pressured by the French government to leave CAR – seems to point to Kimberly’s impact, at least on the legitimate diamond trade. The real problem is that CAR has a deeply corrupt and ineffective government and has no control over most of its territory. While Brügger’s story brings that truth home in an interesting way, CAR’s problems aren’t news to anyone who studies Central Africa, and he offers no helpful advice beyond “Don’t trust white guys who are interested in Africa.”
Brügger has told interviewers that he wanted to make a film that portrayed Africa in a different light than those commissioned by NGOs, which he believes misrepresent the continent: “Part of the doing-good industry is painting things in blackest black — it’s almost like a pornography of suffering. Which is necessary if the N.G.O.’s are to get funding for doing what they are doing.” Lots of documentary-makers would argue that their work is awfully far from that bleak narrative, but there’s certainly no shortage of documentaries that portray African suffering as a way of raising funds. But Brügger’s alternative is even darker. Anyone who’s given agency in his film (not the Pygmies, who aren’t permitted to be anything but stage-dressing for his character’s colonialist fantasies) is portrayed as corrupt, selfish and amoral, and Brügger explicitly questions the motives of anyone who would come to a place like Bangui, noting “Of course, a country such as this works as a magnet for white men with hidden agendas.” It’s worth considering whether the white men and women working for NGOs and aid organizations in countries like the CAR have hidden and damaging agendas – the white savior complex, the continuation of a dependency on aid over development through trade – but Brügger’s analysis isn’t nearly that subtle. He’s interested in the persistence of a class of amoral raiders raping the continent and, unable to put one of these criminals on camera, he becomes one.
I realize it sounds like I’m trashing this film and the man who made it, and, to some extent, I certainly am. But it’s more complicated than that. As Aaron Leaf notes in the introduction to an interview on (the indispensable blog) “Africa is a Country” with the filmmaker, “Even if you like Mads Brügger’s documentaries, chances are you hate him.”
I’ve now spent a dozen hours watching the film twice and reading about it because I’m fascinated by the challenge Brügger chose to take on. It’s difficult to gain direct attention to countries like the CAR, and Brügger captures our attention. That he falls far short of the film I’d like to see him make – one that looks at the complicated and contradictory motives of Africans and non-Africans trying to transform the continent, one that offers solutions not just critiques – is not just a comment on his limitations, but on the difficulty of the task. I didn’t like “The Ambassador”, but it’s given me a great deal to think about, and I want you to watch it because I want more people to join in the discussion of whether a film like this one is more helpful than exploitative, whether Brügger’s motivations justify his ethical lapses, whether playing a colonialist is critique or privileged playacting, and whether “The Ambassador” is anything more than handing out $5 bills to everyone you encounter in the airport.
This FSA kitten, Yasmeen, is on sniper-duty. Yasmeen’s commander shared with FSA Kittens Yasmeen’s sniper log for August 23rd:
8:30 am: Two regime soldiers observed marching a young child at gunpoint. Range: 500 meters. 2 shots fired. Both regime soldiers killed. Child ran free.
11:00 am: Conducted deep infiltration behind-enemy-lines. Identified Iranian Revolutionary Guard officer among regime troops. Range: 250 meters. 1 shot fired. IRG officer killed. Successfully evaded patrols and returned-to-base.
At first, this looks like confirmation that the Internet is made of cats. (See also the Internet Defense League’s Cat Signal, the Cute Cat Theory and Google’s experiments with cat-detecting AI.) But there’s slightly more than meets the eye.
An August 8th article in The Guardian by Martin Chulov focused on ferocious fighting in Salahedin, but included some paragraphs that paint a vivid picture of life in the besieged city:
Street 15 in Salahedin now resembles Leningrad in its darkest days, and the suburb itself is in far worse shape than when the Guardian last visited on Saturday. Most streets on the eastern side are now impassable by car. Broken sewage and water pipes and food leftovers have formed a festering stew over the few surfaces that aren’t littered with the flotsam and jetsam of war. And Salahedin has a new arrival – flies, which swarm around anything organic. They are so thick in some parts that rebels look for detours to avoid them. As they do they need to avoid trampling on the only other thing that seems to be living at ground zero of the battle for Syria – kittens.
Rebels have taken in many of them, and it’s not uncommon to find a gnarled, sweaty guerrilla sleeping on the floor of a commandeered flat with an abandoned kitten asleep on his chest.
Two men sleeping in what passes for a first aid clinic in one part of Salahedin had to throw their new pets aside late on Wednesday, when a wounded rebel appeared like a ghost in their darkened doorway. He fell on a foam mattress clutching his left side. “A sniper, haram,” he said. “I was going to meet the defector.”
Who doesn’t love a freedom fighter who sleeps with a stray kitten on his chest? Probably folks like Peter Beaumont, who warns that we need to pay attention to war crimes perpetrated by the FSA as well as those carried out by the Assad regime. Or commenter on the article, JoshRogan, who notes that “Far from being reported, the rebels are being shown literally as kitten-loving good boys, while anyone who supports the government is akin to a Nazi.”
In other words, even cute cats have politics.
If you were trying to get people to pay attention to the conflict in Syria, which fights for media attention against the US elections, you could do worse than to recruit a few kittens to the cause. The emergence of figures like Wael Ghonim as focal points for the Tahrir Square protesters helped a global audience relate to the thousands of protesters trying to overthrow the Mubarak regime. It’s been harder to identify the “face” of the Syrian civil war. Perhaps that face has whiskers?
This year is the first in decades where I’ve been beneficiary and victim of the academic schedule. While I spent almost a decade at the Berkman Center, research at that institution continues year-round, and there’s not much of a summer lull. The Media Lab is closer to the traditional academic cycle, as many students head out of the lab for internships and many of the professors hole up to complete research and writing.
I’m trying to follow their lead and am revising the book I’ve been working on for the past two years, towards a spring publication date. And that, in turn, has given me a good chance to think about distraction.
Like many people, I’m highly distractible. I do my best work in public places – coffee shops, libraries, airplanes – because they eliminate some of my favorite ways of wasting time: cutting weeds in my back yard, investigating the contents of my refrigerator, roaming the lab to see if there’s anyone interesting around to talk to. But when you’re writing a book on the Internet, it’s very hard to eliminate online distractions without cutting yourself off from your research subject. (And, if you’re sufficiently skilled at distractibility, you’ll find ways to convince yourself that the website you’re frenetically clicking through is somehow related to your core research topics.)
So, here’s what’s most distracting me today:
We’re nearing the end of the Nagoya basho, sumo’s summer tournament. Two of my favorites, Yokozuna Hakuho and Ozeki Harumafuji are both undefeated at 11-0, and everyone who follows the sport is hoping to a showdown of the two on the final day.
Highlights from day 10 of the Nagoya Basho.
Sumo’s getting much easier to watch thanks to the efforts of “Kintamayama“, whose YouTube profile identifies himself as a 58 year old dude from Tel Aviv. He posts daily summaries of the basho, evidently edited from the match livestreams. I’m not able to watch the livestream, which airs in the early morning my time, so I generally rely on torrents of NHK’s English language coverage. Those take hours to find and download, and they’re three hours long, featuring all the pre-bout ritual theatrics that accompany sumo. Kintamayama cuts to the chase – his ten minute videos feature the key high-level bouts and occasional highlights from the lower ranks, with English language information on who won and with what throw. As a bonus, his snarky subtitles during judges deliberations are always worth a watch.
While my favorite Mongolians are dominating this basho, much as they’re kicking ass in the global economy, it’s wonderful to see a veritable United Nations competing at the high ranks of sumo. The Japanese are back in force at the Ozeki rank, with Kisenosato and Kotoshugiko. Baruto weighs in from Estonia (he’s 200kg, so that’s a pun, people) and Kotooshu from Bulgaria ensure that eastern Europe is well represented at the top ranks of the sport. I’ve been having a lot of fun this basho watching Kaisei, a powerful Brazilian rikishi who’s been having a great tournament.
If you’re interested in following the next four days of the bout, try:
Kintamayama’s YouTube channel
Asahi Shimbun’s excellent English-language sumo coverage
Sumo’s great for wasting at least half an hour a day, watching the matches and reading up on the most impressive competitors, but to truly lose hours of productive time, there’s no pastime like tracking down obscure records from the 1970s and 80s. Eric Kleptone, the legendary remixer and prankster behind projects like “Yoshimi Battles the Hip-Hop Robots”, has recently turned his attentions towards one of the great musicological mysteries of our time: the identity of the album that inspired Paul Simon to travel to South Africa and record his “Graceland” album. (I’ve written at length about Paul Simon, “Graceland” and the controversies over the album.)
Simon legendarily received a cassette tape from a friend, titled “Accordion Jive Hits, Volume 2″ that inspired him to discover South African mbaqanga music. But, as numerous frustrated African music fans have discovered, no album by that title exists. Kleptone discusses the possible provenance of the album in the notes for his mix, Paths to Graceland, which is an attempt to catalog possible influences that might have led Simon to South Africa. It’s a gorgeous, lively and beautiful mix, filled with music that’s new to my ears, but so clearly kin to the music Simon featured that it seems like I must have heard it decades ago.
The rabbit hole Kleptone opens is through providing a thorough track listing, which leads me to discover that Tau Ea Lesotho is responsible for the accordion and high-octave bass guitar that causes me to engage in spontaneous, uncontrollable chair dancing. And that, in turn, leads me onto blogs like Afro Slabs, which work to track down and digitize these amazing albums. It’s probably possible to track down all the albums Kleptone references and build your own collection of early 80s South African and Lesotho music – I appear to be doing so without really trying to.
Of course, if you truly want to ensure no progress is made on a massive project like a book revision, you’ll need to get lost in a book. I’m currently ensnared by G. Willow Wilson’s “Alif the Unseen“. My wife is a huge Wilson fan, and has reviewed her graphic novel Cairo, and her memoir about conversion to Islam, The Butterfly Mosque, but Alif is the first book of hers she’s pressed on me. I understand why – Salon describes the book as “hacker meets djinn“, and the novel is an amazing tale of an alpha geek who works to protect online speech in the Arab world and a world of sinister, dark magical realism.
It’s a badass scifi yarn, with lots of provocative ideas about Islam, freedom, submission, will, gender, culture and independence. And as someone who works with dissidents around the world, including the Persian Gulf, it raises challenging and uncomfortable questions about the power and limits of speech to create change. I’m enjoying the adventure of the story, but suspect I’ll be savoring the larger questions for weeks to come.
My hope is that, like singing an earworm aloud to banish it, honoring these worthy distractions will give me a few hours of focus. Or, perhaps they’ll simply pull you down to my level of happy unproductivity.