Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Certainty is Evil: A Musing.

I was preparing a presentation about social media when I came across this discussion of data by Al-Amin on VijanaFM. What a pleasure. Geek/nerds are the best. In years of trying to explain my uneasiness with statistics-worship I have had a hard time finding folks who can see both sides of the coin. 

Anyone who has taken statistics courses will tell you there is a lot more art to measuring things than is publicly admitted. Really good statisticians know it though- that's kind of the fun of the endeavor. There is this idea that numbers are 'hard' and they can define the world in dependable, absolute terms. Well...eh. They are just one of the forms of investigating or defining or 'knowing' what's up. Intuition is a form of intelligence, and there are others but I won't go there.

Today I was telling folks that we have a 73% adult literacy rate because I was using the figure offered by the World Bank in it's database. It is marked as a 2010 statistic, and was probably put together by the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania. I have severe, severe doubts about that figure. Not to blame the WB or anything, I just pick on them because they do try to uphold certain standards of rigor (bless) and carry a certain authoritative clout (blessing revoked). 

Is it accurate in 2013? Hard to believe, after the stunning failure rate of the past Form IV examinations. I know my government too: cutting corners and cooking data is not beyond them. Simple incompetence is not beyond them either. Between the donor-pleasing and face-saving tactics, the mendacity and general lassitude of my public servants* I am not inclined to treat GoT generated "data" with the respect it should command. 

That's story. Although Al Amin's essay focuses on metadata and the story of numbers, I wanted to introduce a further complication: that of positionality. Who is saying what, how did they generate the data, and why are they saying what they are saying? Of course, having studied sociology, I am comfortable with the idea that anything presented as Truth bears examination. Simply studying the history of science (okay, western science) will show you that it's nothing but a journey of discoveries that constantly get challenged and revised. My current delight is the Higgs-Boson affair. So the physics community is pretty sure they've discovered it... and there's already some who are pretty sure that's not the end of the line. 

Knowledge lives, uncertainty is life-affirming. Certainty, though, spells death. Discuss. ;)

*And that's what is horrible about public service. There are some incredibly good people in there. But they are overwhelmed by the awful, awful, awful rest of them. Paying taxes so that these creeps can keep not-showing-up at work is much of the reason we're furious

Monday, April 29, 2013

Neo-Tanzanian Screen Projects

Strictly speaking, there are many notably good depictions of Africans on the screen, many decent projects out there. But this material is in the minority, overwhelmed by the dross of really bad work being produced not just by non-Africans but Africans as well. It is also really hard to find, let me tell you. If you want to collect good African screen work, you have your work cut out for you.

So when I came across a couple of interesting projects on the net: Siri ya Mtungi, which I had heard about, and The Team- Tanzania Edition, I thought I would write about the catharsis that comes with being able to watch local work that is clearly trying to introduce something different, fun, better. Even if it is being funded by donor money.

Another piece on the Voices of Africa blog, making the choice between Nollywood and NeoTanzanian* work. 

Admittedly it is a matter of taste, but I do think that there is something not only artistically criminal, but socially damaging about producing bad cultural products.We need to support the arts, not just the business end of entertainment.

*Kind of like (good) Bongo music, but on screen.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Weekly Sneak: Serukamba, The New Four-Letter Word.

I just couldn't let it go, you know. I mean, I know that Peter Serukamba made a very human mistake and he said he was sorry and this is going to follow him around like a horrible smell for a while and I'm just kicking him while he's down. Ouch. Sometimes you have to help people regret their actions, just a little bit, for the common good. It's part of my job as a columnist.

I do want to thank Serukamba for giving me a way to frame something I have wanted to say for a while. Though I suspect I am in repeating-myself-due-to-limited-ideas territory, this is important. A very wise friend helped me figure out why so many of us still harbor a great fondness for our President in spite of the horrible disappointment of his administration. It's because he is us. He is the quintessential Tanzanian in all the good ways... and all the bad ways too. And we love him for it because if there's one thing that unites Tanzanians it is our love of ourselves. Thanks, Mkuki, you nailed it. Jakaya Kikwete is the ultimate product of the Mwenzetu Principle. We need to run as far away as possible from this mode of thinking:
"The Mwenzetu Principle doesn't work anymore. We're a fast-growing multiparty democracy now, not a sleepy socialist experiment backwater. The last thing we should be doing is selecting public officials on the basis that they are 'just like us.' We've been doing that for a while and look what it has gotten us. We're hardly getting the public services that we need, we're riddled with corruption, we've got MPs casually swearing at each other on taxpayer time. We're due for an upgrade. We need public servants who embody our aspirations, not our limitations."

International Book Day 2013: romance.

Yes: romance. That most denigrated of genres. One can admit to dabbling with Jane Austen as part of ye old school curriculum. Or even a touch of Marquis de Sade if you want to present an esoteric facet to the world. But not Barbara Cartland or- heaven forbid- a 1980's Mills and Boon with the cover missing and horribly insensitive gender dynamics. Perhaps even worse: Sweet Valley High. I bet admitting to having read those on Facebook would tank your career quicker than a video of you repeatedly slapping a Gerber baby look-alike.

Which is a damn shame. As a writer, I should probably say something inane like "I appreciate all good literature" Well, I don't. Literature is a word that needs to be avoided by middle-brow folk like m'self. Culture should be approached organically, subjectively, idiosyncratically. Have a penchant for prize-winning works that no one else understands? Fine. Like children's books even though you are an adult? Great. Can't sleep unless you have read several chapters of horror to help you either have nightmares or avoid them? Rock on. Read whatever the hell strikes your fancy because you're awesome like that? Awesome.

I do two genres intensely. Speculative fiction, because it is deeply meditative material that teaches me  politics, history and science*. But my cornerstone has always been, and remains, romance. Long before the age of ten I stole my older sisters' poorly hidden stashes and discovered the fascinating world of social science.

A lot of people have been introduced to the saucier versions of romance by the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. Sigh. If you must. But please believe me when I tell you that you could do better, even if you want to read erotica- which, for the record, is not exactly romance. It's porn, but classier because you have to read the words and make the pictures in your head**.

But back to the topic. What's the attraction to romance novels? For me it's the micro-sociology, the psychology and the insanely good character studies. Oh, and the vocabulary, the social commentary, the travel aspect, the amazing research that goes into some of it. As a genre it has a pretty basic formula: girl meets boy. blah blah love blah blah complication blah blah happily married ever after. Act one. Act two. Act three.

It's what people can do within the confines of an artistic format that separates the goats from the leopards. There are people out there writing romance that is devastatingly good. Romance that makes you work at it, in the company of a good dictionary. Romance that is subtle and fine and deep and utterly satisfying. Romance that makes the world a darker place, or a lighter place. Romance that reorganizes everything you thought you knew about people. Romance you need to read twice, or once every two years because you have to grow into understanding it.

So I would like to direct your attentions to a few peeps you might want to sample if you've always suspected the genre of being beneath you. Try it when you're feeling open minded- you might be pleasantly surprised. Please understand that this is a rather slim sliver of a very large and diverse genre. Here goes.

The charmingly funny: Jennifer Crusie's earlier stuff, Susan Elisabeth Phillips
The group format: Susan Elisabeth Phillips, Suzanne Brockman, Julia Quinn
The pulp: Barbara Cartland, Nora Roberts
The compelling and unusual: Georgette Heyer, Susan Napier
The darker side: Lisa Kleypas, Judith Ivory
The caters for many tastes: Amanda Quick and all her other aliases.
The neo-historicals: Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran
The bent fairy tale: Teresa Medeiros, Meredith Duran
The no sex please: Mary Balogh, Georgette Heyer
The chicklit: sorry. hate it too much to even try. 
The 21st Century: vamps and wolves and honestly I am too old school to read this stuff and give you a perspective. 

A little comment on diversity: in romance, if it has an "ethnic" focus, you can pretty much guarantee that it's going to be awful. Want to see some color in unexpected and interesting (though admittedly American) ways? Suzanne Brockmann and Susan Elisabeth Phillips might put an unexpected smile on your face. 

Another note: yes, the genre has been accused of selling the marriage ideal for years. I suppose there are people who get conned into believing in the One Two Wuff fantasy through romance, but you have to have the IQ of a peanut for that to happen. It's fiction, get a grip.

Final note: romance has kept the publishing industry afloat for years. Betcha didn't think of that. 

Happy book day. Word is life.

* next year's book day theme? hm. 
** Seriously, the two should not be confused. There is overlap, but that's it.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

This Writing Life: Love.

This month marks the fifth year of The Mikocheni Report. Happy birthday, blog. Happy birthday carrier of dreams, voice in the ether, child of ambition, comfort in the dark. Happy birthday teacher, nemesis, altar, cornerstone, constant challenge. Happy birthday, word. Happy birthday, love.

The Weekly Sneak: Farewell, sistren.

Margaret Thatcher, and Bi Kidude? The universe has been a little greedy this week. They were very old ladies, and tired after a long lifetime of doing what they did. It feels good, and right, to wish them a restful release from this mortal coil. 

I revered them- in a tasteful, restrained kind of way of course. Over the course of my life I have tried to commit to an appreciation for the soft qualities that women are supposed to aspire to- gentleness and nurturing and hairlessness and little or no muscle definition, et cetera. And I do, I swear I sort-of-almost- do. But I am absolutely hopelessly devoted to the strongly flavored women- the Joan of Arc nutjobs and the Bi Kidude griots and the Margaret Thatcher commandante types. Even chose my confirmation name on the basis of the badassness of the Catholic saint I took it from. 

So when they pass, I am compelled to put some small offering on their funeral pyre, as it were:  
"On the same day that the late Margaret Thatcher was being laid to rest in London, Fatma binti Baraka passed away at home in Zanzibar. The one was a conservative politician in a modernizing country, gritty enough that she could have called Vladimir Putin a girly-man to his face and then eaten the Red Army for breakfast. The other was a spry songstress who got away with a delightfully indulgent lifestyle in a place that still struggles with the permissiveness of the 21st Century. Though they were polar opposites, both women commanded great respect and some affection."
Ciao, ladies. Thanks for having been undeniably Bad. Ass.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ohooo! Who Do You Think You Are!

So...Jeffrey Sachs is working with the Minister of Health of Tanzania, as I learned on The Twitter. If I was a good little African I would be grateful, awed, and other adjectives that highlight the import of his endeavor.


Instead, here's what I have to say about it*: 

"Alright, thanks to Abdu Simba there is a real jump-off point here. And I quote: "Millenium villages vs Vijiji vya Ujamaa. One inspired by' very bad' capitalist, the other by revered socialist, both with the same contents in the petri dish...!"
Indeed, sir. Both are the impositions of egotistical men with rigid ideological approaches who meant well and but did tangible harm.  

But here's the rub: Nyerere is dead. His politics is dead. We don't do the reverence thing anymore in Tanzania and that's a damn good reason to resist it's resurgence. But mister Sachs is still playing savior. Africa is the last place on earth where this kind of thing is supposed to be tolerated. Well, I say nay. Like the celebrities aren't plague enough!

Truth be told, there is probably a lot of good to the one million health workers initiative. We need em, yes we do. But this is Jeffrey Sachs we're talking about. When a wicked witch offers you an apple, make her eat it first. Let him socialize the American health system, then I'll believe him.

For all that they claim to be social scientists, economists hate real humans. They invented Rational Man in the nineteen-who-cares-hundreds and have been thinking of us as widgets ever since. Poverty is a "thing" they can "fix" without delving into the complexities of the social fabric. I say them nay. Sachs and his ilk don't fix social problems, they tweak systems with all the confidence of rich people who understand mathematics, and care not for the sticky problems of encountering hearts and minds. 

We're finally moving away from the limitations of the industrial age and it's thinking patterns. Yes, it is early days. Still no reason to welcome the Sachs of the world to Tanzania. Nyerere was a man of his time and he did what he did. And then he had the good grace to exit, stage left. Sachs is a man from the era of Save The African (or whichever non-American his eye lands on) From Herself. I say him nay. Not until he Gets Us. 

Philanthropy is a tricky thing. I live in a poor country where I witness feats of generosity that humble me on a daily basis. This is a land in which people know what it means to give, to take care of others, just as much as we know how to steal and cheat and everything else we do. What we need to get where we want to go is good government, not Jeffrey Sachs.

If The Sachs was approaching this from a place of humanity, from the humility of sharing this planet with us, I might have been less venomous about the whole endeavor. But I fear that he is not. 

I am a local woman of no import and he's a Harvard bigwig with the weight of western approval behind him. And yet, I fear not to tell him: nay. Let him come here, eat ugali na dagaa, get a jigger or two. Listen to some music, see a child through our education system. Let him exit his sanitized theoretical bubble and talk about Tanzanians as kin, not "the poor" upon whom he thrusts his well-financed favors. 

Then, nitamkaribisha. In the meantime, I will accept that I might be wrong. I often am after all, just like Jeffrey."
*part of the problem, I think, is that nobody kicks the Jeffrey Sachs of the world in the ass as often as they need it. Especially not 'grateful little poor people.' Here's to fixin' that. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Weekly Sneak: There is Always North Korea.

Busy week, this one. Uhuru Kenyatta has been sworn in- i.e. the Kenyan elections are totally and incontrovertibly over. Margaret Thatcher has gone to join the ancestors. One has ascended to the pantheon of rulers, the other has exited stage left. 

The reactions to Thatchers' passing have been very.. refreshing. I like the mixture of praise and condemnation that has been flowing online. Her detractors haven't spared her one bit, and her admirers have reminded us what there was to admire about her. Interesting question cropped up though- was she a feminist?

Ha! I don't know that she would have called herself a feminist, but there is always something about being the first of your group to do something, isn't there? She was probably a feminist the same way Barack Obama is an Africanist. Her politics give me an allergic reaction, but damn if I don't respect her. It's this thing I have for people who are unapologetically themselves, especially in light of our current taste for photo-shopped/image-consultant-managed/opinion-poll-flavored changelings in politics. 

But back to the part where Britons, and non-Britons at that, have felt very free to express the full range of their opinions about Thatcher. The lack of reverence is what I find exciting. No God-King mentality here, no absolute position, no need for faking emotions, no need for operatic drama. This is the stuff of freedom- and I wish we could embrace exactly that kind of refusal to revere anyone (at least anyone non-clerical) here. 

When Julius Nyerere died, there was talk of having him canonized as a Catholic Saint. Erm. No. Let's get as far away from any hints of God-King mentality as possible. Let's embrace our nascent culture of finding something to critique in the government and in our public servants wherever there is anything to critique- and perhaps even where there isn't. Let's keep that fire of contestation burning hot, and feel free to call it like we see it. Because, you know, the other end of the spectrum looks like North Korea. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Weekly Sneak: The Mnazi Operation.

Yaani, sometimes when The World's Best Housekeeper tells me stories from Uswazi! See, what happened was:

This past Eid (ul Fitr I think it was), a car full of Indian Tanzanians showed up at her local mnazi* tapper's house. There is only so much palm wine a palm wine provider can tap in a given day, so we're talking about finite supplies here. Well, these gentlemen came with a pick-up truck and bought her entire supply to the immense annoyance of her regular customers. They were left high and dry, stuck with lesser forms of alcoholic entertainment over a long weekend. They made their displeasure known to their friend, neighbor, and palm-wine tapper. 

So guess what happened this past Easter Weekend? Hehe. Pick up truck, cash in hand, wheeeee! Two whole days' supply of palm wine was whisked away by our enterprising gentlemen who clearly know a good deal when they see one. TWBH tells me lips were dragging on the floor the whole weekend in her hood, and dire warnings issued to the palm wine tapper. I couldn't stop laughing. 

This is Dar es Salaam. We celebrate everyone's public holiday (although we really need to do a bit better with Diwali). We live in each other's pockets. We even know how to appropriate each others' palm wine. Jamani, religious strife? Wapi na wapi?
"We’re a resource-rich country with obvious stress points. Try as it might, the Congo still can’t get rid of its infestation of predators. They’re right next door. How much more of a cautionary tale do we need? I can’t bring myself to imagine that we would be so stupid as to fall into the trap of religious strife with barely a poke and a push in that direction. The ability to resist provocation is a fine skill that we have honed over the years, it is clearly time for us to pull it out of storage and put it to good use."

It's Not My Skirt That Is The Problem.

To finish up the Women's Month work- that's March to the uninitiated- I submitted a piece to the Mail and Guardian's new online venture Voices of Africa. It is about some of the kuh-ray-zee that comes with being a woman in this world and I was a little nervous because it is rather candid for my society, but things went better than anticipated.

Dreams really do come true. I have this monster crush on South Africa, mostly because of its media and entertainment industries. But to get within sniffing distance of the Mail And Guardian? eh. *happy dance.*

A little birdie told me...

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