Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Ideological Suit

I recently saw a consignment of Obama khangas sent off to the US and wished that I had had the foresight to order one for myself. One of the singular pleasures of khangas made to commemorate the visits of Important People (usually the Pope or the American President du jour) is that they print the image of the Honored Guest in the exact center of the fabric where it can fall over a well-proportioned African heritage. With the right collection on hand, one can sit on the faces of oh so many people- tell me that's not worth collecting for? The khangas also got me thinking about what our leaders wear.

In the last two years I have been keeping loose track of the evolution of the suit in Paradisan politics*. Styles of dress have changed as we embrace a free-market economy, and I for one am not about to complain, from an aesthetic point of view. Nyerere introduced the socialist suit during the Ujamaa times and we have been struggling with yawn-colored short-sleeved travesties ever since. Still, an ujamaa suit is very effective at communicating poverty, affability, hard work, lack of vanity and leftward leanings- all essential qualities for a politician in a socialist setting. Mzee Ruksa, Mzee Mkapa kept with this sartorial indifference throughout their presidencies, only breaking out the western suit and tie on those infrequent occasions that seemed to demand it. With Mr. Mkapa's neck size, ties are probably inadvisable anyways.

Then the fourth administration shook things up. The ujamaa suit has quietly been relegated to up-country rallies and Party gatherings. There is even a dressed-up version that comes fitted with long-sleeves in black, grey, cream. Jay Kay and his crew are most notable, however, for breaking out the suits and going 'executive.' Other than the fact that only the most unimaginative of spirits could bear to wear socialist suits when alternatives exist, I think the relatively recent adoption of the banker look by our political class is a clear sign of a number of changes. One, our Dear Leaders want to be taken seriously as professionals, not as dubious thugs from a banana republic. Two, ujamaa is out and capitalism is in. Third, these days you can get a facial, manicure, pedicure and pinky ring without compromising your masculinity even if you are commander in chief of the armed forces.

More interestingly, this loosening of imposed social 'cohesion' has pretty much permeated Paradise. We used to be a conservative society inclined to dowdiness and conformity, this is no longer the case. Its okay to wear a good suit, or tight jeans, or own and run a business, or be a television star, or get a few facial piercings, or speak in English, or make money. It is no longer untoward to be ambitious, get an education or have a nuclear family. You can wear a socialist suit one day, a tie the next, and imported West African linen the day after. It is generational ,this increased comfort with a multiplicity of identities.

I guess that the political class is just projecting those characteristics that some already have and others aspire to: affluence, style, youth, fluidity. It has been interesting to note, for example, that no matter how crappily-dressed folks were beforehand, as soon as they join the cabinet they have been spit-polished and squeezed into cufflinks and ankle-boots. The corporate image is important to this administration, which won't tolerate ministers straying around wearing white socks with black dress shoes.

A buddy has been trying to get me to join his party but I haven't had the heart to tell him about how repulsive their choice of uniform is to me. Costuming is important, which is why I am intrigued that Chadema has chosen the White Hunter look for its political uniform. You know the one: safari suit, safari boots, occasional cowboy hat, helicopter accessory. The associations are not good. Khakis hint at a martial mind-set redolent with conflict, blood-letting, war chieftains and patriarchal priviledge. Yes, banker suits also hint at patriarchal priviledge but nothing tops white hunter gear for sheer historical gloom. In fact, all political fashions related to savannahs and hunting are suspect: Mobutu rocked those admittedly snazzy animal prints and look at how the man served up an industrial portion of chilling madness.

'Tis the season for new year resolutions! Wish you lots of bubbly and squishes and merriment and hopefully 2009 will herald the final and total demise of the short-sleeved yawn-colored suit. Remember to beware of anyone who likes hunting or animal-related paraphenalia, including but not limited to: knobkerries, fly-whisks, tilted animal print hats, cowboy boots, cowboy hats, elephant-hair bracelets, copper bracelets, elephant guns, gunbelts, the color khaki, et cetera.

* Is there a field of study by the way, exploring the relationship between ideology and fashion in post-colonial Africa? Am looking for material: links, papers, art, blogs, musings, and fun stuff.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

When does no mean 'yes, please'?

When people give pollsters an answer that politicians would rather not hear, I guess. There has been a mini-furore in the past month over Tanzania's misbehaving ways in the EAC. We don't want to tackle formal integration at a pace higher than a crawl while Kenya and Rwanda are chafing at the bit and Uganda schleps along. Of course, away from the beady eye of the press and regulatory authorities, we are negotiating various forms of integration anyways- economic and cultural, technological etc.

When Prof. Wangwe traipsed around the country a couple of years ago polling and 'educating' people on the EAC, 75% Tanzanians opposed political federation unless it could take place at some unmentioned date far in the mists of the future as opposed to within their lifetime. Things have not changed much, in spite of the tantrums that the other EAC countries have thrown. It can be argued that what Tanzanians claim to think about integration is immaterial, which is happening anyways, and that these periodic shouting matches with her neighbors are a waste of energy. But the will of the people should not be so lightly ignored- doing so is usually the hallmark of a dictatorship.

Our fellow countries might be content with their interesting political arrangements but Tanzania is at a point in her political development where the voice of the people is tentatively starting to matter. What is to be gained by reverting to our top-down ways now? I can't see the wisdom of setting up bodies and institutions and political instruments to administer an arrangement that Tanzania is resisting, unless the goal is to force Tanzania's not-so-buried fears to manifest as violent intolerance of citizens from neighboring countries. If we are already throwing rocks at Jay Kay's motorcade we are not that far from smacking non-locals into oblivion, and then the Pan African dream will really have to die.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Style of a Woman

The Michelle and Barack show is going to be a fun one. I have always enjoyed how the Western press pays attention to the SOs of their leaders- except for that horrible Hilary-bashing stuff. Today I saw an article from a recent paper about our restless President's most recent trip (next door, to Mozambique). The news was humdrum until I reached the end of it and realized that not only had Salma Kikwete gone along, she had some of her own business to take care of while there, addressing a Mozambican women's organization. How about that.

From what I have read, Mwalimu doesn't appear to have been much interested in that First Lady crap. Mama Maria Nyerere's public career kicked off after our Dear Leader exited this mortal coil, and she has done well as Honored Widow and Custodian of the Dear Leader's Moral Legacy. President the Second too was retiring about his family life, bringing out his First Lady for the occasional public event. Things got mildly interesting with Madam Mkapa. During her term she started a charity and encouraged, imho, the courting of State House through dealings with her in the form of generous contributions to her charity. A charity whose good works I am inclined to think are rather slight for the amounts of money given.

Ah, but Salma. Salma is another kind of woman altogether. During Kikwete's campaign, Salma showed her political savvy and public speaking skills. Amejaa tele!* This First Family of course is a lot more visible, partly because of the changing political media culture and partly because that's just how they roll. And there can be no doubt that Salma is no 'little wifey' who has been relegated to the status of Ikulu furniture.

She seems to have acquired herself a public role in such a manner that the media here- which is largely intolerant of the idea of a First Lady doing anything other than redistributing wealth by shopping- has accepted, if not embraced her. Yes, her work is predictably about the wimmins and the chilluns but she's also had a lot to say about the HIV and the quality of the schools and the hospitals and stuffs. And she fundraises, and she speechifies, and she's an undeniably present and confident female role model. I'm not sure yet where this will all end up, but she has certainly brought an interesting new angle to our First Lady culture.

It helps that Jay to the Kay has the most progressive gender politics ever seen in the country's history. While I don't always agree with the how of it, this is one woman-friendly president who has made massive strides in opening up politics to women and other traditional minorities. You gotta pick your man right, my ambitious sistren, gotta pick him right.

*She's large and in charge.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Music and follies.

Went out last night to listen to some live music at a new place by the beach. I love, absolutely love this new place but I have to say that the entrance fee was an unwelcome shock. Watch out Dar Alive, if you keep that kind of thing up you might encourage the fickle Dar crowd to wander right back to their old, free haunts. I guess the gate fee was for the musicians- they've got to eat, right?

Carola and her band, Shada, offered some excellent music which was balm for my restless soul. They did a section with traditional instruments and sang some fusion songs- very, very excellent (although they need to work on their endings which sounded more like abrupt abandonments than endings). And then, the moon was full. So we were on the beach, in the cool night breeze off the ocean, watching stars and listening to Carola and Co. The urge to run away to Cape Town and live a bohemian life was somewhat alleviated.

While in Die Kaap and Jo'Burg we listened to some radio, and I really missed the Paradisan stations. Saffie talk radio is pretty damn fantastic, and there is a good selection of music but...but Paradisan stations are very broad in their range of music. I haven't had to choke on that effing 'If I Was A Boy' track more than once a day here which is a blessed relief. Just today at work I have caught up on all my Utake, took a trip down memory lane with Koffi Olomide and visited some Dirty South.

So, in Cape Town, like right in town, there's this fly-over that end abruptly. It is a fantastic piece of urban statuary, soaring up about ten meters into the air and just hanging there, going nowhere. Apparently the engineer made a mistake in the calculations and the two ends of the highway were not going to meet. Funny, yes, but let us not forget that is an unemployed, disgraced, possibly alcoholic engineer out there trying to hustle a job under an assumed name and fake resume.

I love that the Mother City hasn't bothered tearing it down. I hope they never do, as every city needs its follies. Dar has a few, but they are so fugly they give little or no pleasure. My favorite Paradisan urban quirk is the peacocks. State House used to have a sort of zoo on its grounds, a throw-back I guess to Sultanish pleasure gardens filled with oddments of the animal kingdom. Well, President the Second, Mzee Ruksa, let things degenerate. The deer and other protein was probably put down and eaten, but the peacocks escaped to survive on the streets of Dar es Salaam. Ornamental, yes, but tough. Their offspring are still around, scrappy little city birds that have an astoundigly loud shriek. They nest in ministry parking lots. I can never help smiling when I see one dodging Land Cruisers as it crosses the road from a bank garden to an office pavement, brood in tow.

Have a quirky, musical weekend.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Weighty Matter

About 90% of folks that have seen me so far post-vacation have exclaimed in delight: 'you have put on weight!'* Um, thank you?

Let me put this in some context: as someone who had to wait a good long time for the old curves to pop out, I am not in the least bit interested in being svelte. Fun-sized women who go straight up and down look like pre-pubescent boy models. However, in the past couple of years I have been conscious of a creeping concern with what being healthy means. The magazines haven't helped. It is becoming harder and harder to ignore conversations about cabbage soup diets and coffee enemas- both of which pleasures I intend to absent myself from forever.

South Africa was a revelation. As a friend remarked who has recently moved there, there are many slim waists to be seen. It is amazingly easy to eat healthy, even if greengrocers seem to have been driven to extinction by the supermarkets. But that's not what vacations are for, and I guess my consumption of game meats and Peroni caught up with me, to the aforementioned delight of so many friends. Aaah, gone are the days when a woman could effectively hide behind her African Heritage.

Watching people run around the Cape seafront, I felt twinges of guilt about my sedentary lifestyle. While a rich African figure is a gift from the creator, an excess ten to fifteen kilos of jiggle and roll is not actually all that much fun for the bearer (especially when up-stairs haulage is involved) nor for the viewer, although that remains subjective. Where is the line of sanity between enjoying one's fabulous self, punishing one's fabulous self with ridiculous eating plans so as to fit into a chinese medium-sized dress, and letting one's fabulous self 'go?'

Its not like there is any more need to plump up like a Toro bride in this day and age, prosperity can be indicated by bling, luxe cars, the ordering of Hennessy on Friday nights. So the yawping pit of one-size-fits-all-and-it-is-zero insanity beckons, especially now that I am no longer in the populous and high-metabolism 15-25 age bracket. To stave off both the rice cakes and the diabetes, I have come up with a series of measures: if you can still jog up two flights of stairs and get to your meeting fresh, shake what your mama beqeathed you for two half-hour sets of live music, and (with or without help) produce a cleavage to drown an oil tanker in at need, life's good.

*In all fairness, 'umenenepa' more directly translates to: "you look fresh, energized, healthy and have put on a little weight" rather than "you've gotten fat." But after ten people tell one that, one's waistband starts to feel unaccountably snug...

Monday, December 1, 2008

On Vacations

But one must go to the Mother City. It is fabulous. fantastic. fearsome. free and frivolous. i run out of effs. Consonants aside, what can't you get in the Cape? The Cape put the bounce back in my swagger, the pot back in my belly, the, flow back in my rhyme. So like James Brown, I am back and perhaps wearing clothing that is a mite too tight.

How was it? Well. There was the Beau Monde walking around shirtless (Thank You Gay Men). And there were weathered old jazzmen playing some Cape-unique tunes for free (free. FREEEE!) at the waterfront. Not to mention the five young turks at Asoka killing me with their rendition of Caravan (free. live. jazz. every. tuesday). Thrown in some whales, a little Table Mountain and wine tasting...we acha tu.

There were disgruntled taxi drivers defending the dubious notion of Black Entitlement. There were charmingly gregarious Afrikaner tourguides wistfully recounting the histories of Stellenbosch. Sommeliers, gourmet Kudu, unique ecologies. Cheap t-shirts, expensive cars, rolling rrrrrrrrrs. And so much more. The rainbow nation lived up to its promise of diversity, however uneasy the mixtures may have been at times.

To experience all that and get to come back to Dar es Salaam at the end of it is impossibly delicious. Have a restful, and appreciative week. And don't, no matter how tempted you are, raise bail for Yona and Mramba. Your kids need the schoolfees.

A propos Ethiopian food: La Dee and I went to Addis in the Cape to 'greet'- after all, these guys are practically our living room in Dar. It was...different. Fine, you know, just not nearly as wonderful as the original. And the food was a bit meh- anemic menu, comatose flavors. Mama came over to chat after the meal and when we broached the subject of the taste difference she revealed something interesting: the Cape food is bland because she can't import the flavored, cultured butter (ghee-like stuff) that imparts so much richness and depth of flavor to Ethiopian food. South African laws don't allow, blah blah blah, pasteurization, blah blah blah, food safety. Pity.

A little birdie told me...

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