Let them eat stats

Back in April, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade announced his latest new plan to revitalize the country’s agricultural sector, the largest sector of activity in terms of employment and production. It was the third plan in as many years. Previous plans, Jaxaay and Reva, were announced with similar fanfare yet failed to materialize into any actual activity, as if their existence was purely rhetorical.

Wade imagines this surplus of ideas to be a quality others admire — in his recent autobiography, he claims that French President Chirac “used to tell everyone that Abdoulaye has a new idea every minute”. Some might see such behaviour as a symptom of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, whose other symptoms seem familiar chez Me Wade:

  • Impulsiveness: a person who acts quickly without thinking things through.
  • Hyperactivity: a person who is unable to sit still.
  • Inattention: a person who daydreams or seems to be in another world.

(Source: Wikipedia)

The problem is that the ideas are not followed through in any coherent or consistent manner. Their motivation is that of an enthusiastic do-gooder who has neither the capacity nor the will to carry the ideas to fruition. The ideas therefore remain in a virtual world of presidentially declared wonders, immune to rot or verification.

The latest new wonder plan was called the Great Agricultural Offensive for Food and Abundance (Grande offensive agricole pour la nourriture et l’abondance), or GOANA, proved immediately fruitful in associations in my mind: GOANA/GUANO, an effective fertilizer from bat droppings. Also the choice of words echoed Mao’s Great Leap Forward of the 1950s, whose effect on improving agricultural efficiency in China led to an estimated 30 million dead. Not the most inspiring association.

Shortly after the announcement of the GOANA, huge billboards appeared, showing a crude photomontage of yams, green fields over which floats a runaway tractor and a plane from Air GOANA releasing shots of blue (=rain) on ready-to-harvest cereals, all blessed by the outstretched arm of the benevolent leader.

GOANA poster

In the following months, the GOANA seemed destined to be another stillborn, existing only in glorious speeches by the President. At FAO in June, during discussions to resolve the burgeoning food security crisis, Wade announced that Senegal would be self-sufficient in food within four months; to the UN General Assembly, he declared that, “The GOANA is a great success. I invite you to fly over Senegal: everything is green!” Indeed, the rains were good this year; nothing more can be attributed to the verdure; certainly not government investment in sustainable irrigation, improved market access and the like. Just good rains.

When worlds collide
But what happens when the wonder world of Wade’s ideas is forced to fit the real world where people have to eat? What happens if the actual production figures don’t match the objectives? Here’s the trick: hold a big party, pay your friends to come, and present forecasted production figures as if they are the actual results, i.e. before the crops have actually been harvested. It’s a tough one to pull off, but, as I witnessed last Monday, the thousands of supporters thronging to the presidential palace were happy enough to go along with the Celebration of Virtual Success, as Naomed described it in his hilarious post (in French): Happy with their free T-shirt bearing slogans such as, “The Godsend of GOANA”, and other inanities; happy with a free ride to the capital and a free lunch; happy with the banknote to pay for their applause. And in a rare example of superior female earning power, women actually get paid more than men at these spontaneously orchestrated events because they can make more noise and dance better in front of the state-owned TV cameras. There was no other news that day, by the way.

The final results of GOANA, miraculously produced before the harvests, were mind-bogglingly impressive, surpassing the objectives on the billboard. Further still, production figures for crops not included in the GOANA were presented as if they too had benefited from the plan (e.g. peanuts); and crops whose cycle extends longer than that of the plan, and therefore could not draw benefit from it, also found their way into the celebration (e.g. manioc and bananas).

So what? Who cares? Wade celebrates in a big tent when the news is good, and when you make up the news and manage to beat the real world with your virtual world, everyone is invited to the party.

The way that reality is manipulated with such carefree arrogance reminds me of Soviet-style propaganda and, more amusingly, of the jokes that it spawned. Here are some choice examples that I have adapted to present-day Senegal:

The seven miracles of Wade’s World:
1. There is no unemployment, yet nobody works.
2. Nobody works, yet the Grand Scheme is carried out.
3. The Grand Scheme is carried out, yet there is nothing to buy.
4. There is nothing to buy, yet there are queues everywhere.
5. There are queues everywhere, yet everyone has everything.
6. Everyone has everything yet everyone is dissatisfied.
7. Everyone is dissatisfied, yet everyone votes ‘Yes’.

:-)

“My people!” – Wade addressed the people by radio. “I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that for the next seven years we shall eat only shit! The good news is that it will be plentiful!”

:-)

There was an international competition for the best book about polar bears.

France submitted a lavishly illustrated volume titled, “Love triangles in polar bear families”.
England presented a treatise entitled, “Polar Bears and World Trade”.
Germany submitted 24-volume set under the title, “Brief Introduction to Ursus maritimus”.
The USA distributed one million copies of a leaflet announcing a sweepstakes, “Win a polar bear. No purchase necessary”.

Senegal sent three volumes, with the following titles,

Vol. 1. The Role of Polar Bears in the Great Offensive on Food and Abundance.

Vol. 2. The Happy Life of Polar Bears under the Sun of the Most Progressive Leadership in the World.

Vol. 3. Senegal – Motherland of Polar Bears.

Sidi Mansour vs Ma Baker

Life in Kingston, Jamaica was sometimes like living in a war zone: occasional bursts of excitement — driving after dark through a ghetto zone, boarding up the windows as a hurricane approached — interspersed with long periods of boredom, for the city does not offer much in the way of amusement for a young family of unbelievers. By midday Saturday, we were already kicking our heels, wondering where to go. In fact the only option for non-church goers was eating out, which was fine, given the surprising variety of good restaurants: Japanese, Lebanese, Chinese, Swiss-French. I can firmly state that I have eaten the best samosas in my life (with plum sauce!) at the Indian restaurant in Marketplace, a great recent development by Mafoud senior.

Right next door to the Indian restaurant was another regular destination during our weekend outings, the Habibi Latino. As its name suggests, it offered a mix of South American and Arabic cuisine — I guess there was a mixed marriage involved. While we tucked into the hommos, fatoush, tabouleh and kibbeh, shivering slightly from the hyperactive air-co, the kids could crawl around the empty benches and dance to the CD of Arabic golden oldies. One of the songs reminded Mr B of his Baghdad days; for me, it brought back rainy summer days in a caravan on the Isle of Arran, listening to Boney M’s Ma Baker. We asked one of the Jamaican waitresses dressed in a black chador if we could copy the song, but this seemed to cause her great confusion and came to nothing.

We found the song again recently on a mix CD in my in-laws’ car, and since then … I have found myself forced into having to convince each family-in-law member, one person-in-law at a time, that Sidi Mansour is the inspiration behind Boney M’s 1977 hit. Maybe I didn’t need to go further than humming the relevant bits, but, well, I’m something of an obsessive musical listener — I may not remember the lyrics, but I reckon I have something of a photographic ear (you know what I mean). Result? Three hours on Acid (Pro) mashing up Saber El Robaey’s version of Sidi Mansour with Ma Baker.

[audio:Sidi Baker – remix.mp3]

The first reaction I got was typically Dutch in its laconic understatement: “Okay, you convinced me just a bit. nice.”

What do YOU think?

Photos in motion

Here are a couple of examples of a very neat little program called Sqirlz, which makes water-related animations out of photos. In the first example, of Villa Sonsbeek in Arnhem, I tried to capture the slow swell of a breeze-blown lake. I’d give it 5/10.

In the second example, more appropriate for this time of year, I tried out the “snow” option, which is based on the “rain” option. I mention this because it is quite hard to generate a realistic impression of falling snow. In the program “Help” file, it states that speeds of under 1.0 will be jerky in the movie loop. The problem is that any speed over 0.6 is like a blizzard. As a compromise, I set the speed to 0.5, then when I saved the file as a Flash file, I set the frame rate to 10/sec, rather than the default 15, thereby slowing the movement.

What do you think? I’d give it 7.5/10.

For the eagle-eyed among you, this is the same tree-lined path that I photographed in autumn: Grimm Times and A walk in the woods.

Come together

A short while ago, a friend told me a story of how they’d been driving back home along the north coast of Jamaica at around 10pm when a tree suddenly fell across the road, crashing onto oncoming traffic. The woman whose car had been struck was herself unharmed, although her car was a write-off. And then there was still the huge tree blocking the road.

In another country, motorists would probably have waited for emergency or specialized services to help them and to fix the problem – not here in Jamaica. In a wonderful example of self-help and solidarity, the stranded motorists ran back to their cars, whipped out the obligatory machete and began chopping at the tree. “In ten minutes the tree was gone!” chuckled my friend, exhibiting another great Jamaican characteristic – exaggeration!

In the slideshow below is another example of helping each other out of a fix, this time on the narrow winding road that runs through Bog Gorge in central Jamaica. There had just been a heavy downpour and large parts of the road were flooded. This meant having to weave from side to side of the road, keeping a careful eye on oncoming traffic. The subject of the slideshow wove a little too widely, swerved to avoid another car and shot off the road and down the riverbank.

Rainy Day

The wind picked up yesterday, gusting so hard that I took down the shade sails in the back garden for fear that they blow away or snap their wooden fixture posts. It was obvious that this was not an innocent wind, but that it was carrying some force far more malevolent than itself.

Sure enough, by nightfall the low rumbles of thunder began rolling down the hills behind us. My daughter woke up frightened by the noise and came downstairs. We sat on the sofa and counted 30 seconds between a soft lightning flash and a distant growl of thunder. “See?” I said. “It’s very far away.”

Just a few moments later there was a blinding flash and immediately after a huge CLAP! shook the house.

The rain picked up too, forcing us to run round and close all the louvre windows – it was stotting so hard that the splashback could bounce up and in through the gaps.

The son et lumière show of a tropical storm continued through the night, waking both children several times. At around 4 a.m., Mr B found both kids in bed together teaching each other Spanish: “You’re mi hermano … and I’m mi hermana, you see?”

The rain was still in full force by the time I took them to school the following morning: the “little” rainy season had officially begun.