The Dawn Watch

Reasonably well-read people will know that Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness after spending time in Congo. Maybe you didn’t know Conrad only made one trip up the river and on returning to Leopoldville, before even leaving the colony, wrote

“Decidedly I regret having come here. I even regret it bitterly….”

Most people will also have the vague knowledge that Congo produced rubber. Maybe you didn’t realize how perfectly nasty that business was.

You had to go into the rainforest, your feet squelching deep into mud and standing water, hoping not to step on a snake, ears pricked for the rustle of leopards a pounce away. You had to pick out a rubber vine in the vegetable tangle, then shimmy up its stalk to a point soft enough that you could slice it to release the sap. It was faster just to cut a vine in half, but because that killed the vine, the state forbade it. You had to wait for the creamy liquid to drop into your pot, then wait for it to thicken and gum into latex. The easiest way was to smear the sap over your body. Once it dried, you could tear it off your skin (taking your hair or skin with it, if needed) and roll it up into balls. It could take days to fill your basket with enough tough, gray pellets to satisfy the state or company agent.”

Get yourself a copy of The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff and you’ll learn much more. Ms. Jasanoff opens and closes the book with some of her travels to research the book, and while those sections are brief I’d have been eager to read a whole book about her own travel.

The Dawn Watch is a fine travelogue/biography and I recommend it heartily.

Vignette: Côte d’Ivoire

Some years ago:

“On the northwest edge of town near the beginning of the road to Dabou is the Parc du Banco. Several hundred meters beyond the dirt road entrance to the park you’ll see … Africa’s largest outdoor laundrette – some 750 fanicos (washermen), mostly Burkinabé and none Ivorian, jammed together … in the middle of a small stream frantically rubbing clothes on huge stones held in place by old car tyres.”

Some days are more freighted than others, and today ranks low on the portent scale, for today our only mission is to photograph a laundrette.

Abidjan lies steaming at dawn. The business district they call Plateau is not a geographic plateau like Harare, not an elevated place of extended sight lines and bracing air. Abidjan squats at sea level, sticky and claustral, flat and dense with eyes on the Atlantic Ocean along the west African Cote d’Ivoire.

A lead-footed swelter grinds down; the scent of ill will drifts close. When the sun takes hold and the work day begins, languor and sloth set the pace: commerce with little vigor, exertion with reluctance, the humdrum jostle of a poor city.

Yet long before the sun, before the city stirred, a stealth army of rail-thin, ragged-dressed foreign boys fanned out across Abidjan. Their mission: to collect dirty laundry. They brought ten thousand sweaty shirts and dirty socks to the River Banco and set about sudsing, well before the sun would crest the hill.

Unlikely as it seems, determined young foreigners yearn and scramble for this work, here, where the future shines down bright as the equatorial sun. Here, take-home pay is more than double back up the road in Burkina Faso. In the Ivorian laundry trade there is a trade union and there are union dues. You can be fired.

If young Burkinabé are determined to work, if they come and collect the sweat-caked shirts and socks, suds and pound them all on rocks, deliver them back and do it right, they’ll pocket a hundred bucks a week.

•••••

You can’t take pictures if you don’t go early. Too late and all you’ll see is clothes drying in the grass. This haste forces a rookie mistake.

New in town, brash, we bound straight out of bed traipsing, with not even a look in the mirror. Brush our teeth, put back on yesterday’s clothes, get a cab, no questions asked or answered, out and gone. With no counsel or good sense.

Cabs all fiery orange here, might be any kind of car. Open up and climb in. This one even has a meter. Just kind of sitting out there idling on the curb. He’s not exactly fired with passion for the new day, is he? Could we be his last fare of last night?

First, to find a common language: Shona speakers in Zimbabwe, Setswana speakers in Botswana, the Swahili-speaking Maasai, pretty much everybody will try – except French colonial officialdom, we noted at immigration, and, as we find out now, Ivorian cabbies. This will be done in either French, or French.

So we’ve got this guy right off the jump, off and rolling between buildings the sun hasn’t yet cleared. Angling to hustle out to Banco Park before shirt hits stone we explain, “Parc du Banco sur l’autoroute à Dabou.” The Banco Park out on the Dabou Road. We point at a map but he’s already driving. He nods and says he’ll need trente mille Francs (30,000 CFA).

It takes important minutes to find out, but as it happens, this most uncheerful gentleman seized on the word Dabou, which is a town 37 kilometers west of Abidjan along the coast. Heard nothing before or after, and he is heading out of town fast as if he were leaving work for the day and Dabou was his home.

We work this out at the point when we can look forward and back and see nothing resembling a park to either cooking smoke-filled horizon, and hardly another car, besides.

We shake our heads, pose as forceful. He poses back wounded, as if he’s never heard of any Parc du Banco and relents to something we’re not asking, okay okay then, only 20,000, then, as we hurtle along the coast.

Non non non, NON Dabou-ville!

This pains him in a theatrical way, but we match his drama with scowls and when we get back to Abidjan, to the hotel where we started, we pay him for his trouble.

And so we do what we should have done in the first place – inquire at the man-cave of a front desk. There we find one gentleman getting a jump on his daily torpor in the dark toward the back. Pinched and full of regret, he will have to speak some English now, because it’s his job.

He sets us up with a guy named Simeon, a graying older chap, who drives for the hotel. He knows all about Parc du Banco, of course. It will take about an hour and he quotes 3500. Progress.

Simeon heads back north out of town. At the junction where we went wrong the first time, there’s a big sign off to the right, “Tampon Express.” Maybe that means something else here?

Serried ranks of sellers are forming along the verge, rattling around staking out patches of gravel, setting up shop for another day of peddling folding fans and drinks and vegetables coated brown by traffic dust. We didn’t have much to do today, yet we fear we have already failed before 8:00 a.m., but Simeon makes a turn onto at a dirt track, motors over a hill and here we are.

The laundry has come back to life. Color returns with the sun. The birds have been here all along. A pretty wildflower. Butterflies. Gnats en pirouette in a random shaft of sunbeam. Close to the water like this, it’s an agreeable time of the morning, heat not stifling, sweat yet to incite insects.

You can smell the mud from heavily trod paths along the riverbank. At this remove, the rush of current makes a jumble of the many dozen voices.

The river brims with industry and purpose, spread out ahead and below. The frenetic, clothes-beating fanicos, the laundrymen, have spawned subordinate industries of sorters and pickers and haulers and folders and food suppliers and cooks, and the odd lone fellow out in midstream lathering up for a bath because there’s no need to waste a perfectly good bar of soap.

Shirtless men hoist bundled clothing onto their heads, bundles that reach higher than they can stretch their arms. Women scrub shirts just beyond the shore, careful to move just far enough out so there is no silt. Boom boxes blast soukous pop. Freshly washed garments hang across half submerged truck tires. Other tires, anchored to boulders farther into the current, hold laundry to be washed, and blocks of soap to wash them.

I cannot see around a crook in the river but I wonder if there is a sort of goalie down there, on duty to stop the runaway pair of socks or bar of soap.

Every last soul is soaking wet, splashing and singing, and two more boys take the opportunity to lather themselves up. An impromptu market has spontaneously lit up alongside. Baguettes and nuts are on offer for now, and more women approach crowned with fruit.

A blond girl and a white guy, the only non-Africans in the park. About as likely as a knife fight at the poetry fair. We draw a crowd fast as Mother Teresa became a saint.

(Back then, which was in the days of guidebooks, they wrote things like “anybody who looks wealthy is at greatest risk,” meaning if you are not African and you are carrying something, you probably won’t have it by the end of the day.)

We climb out and walk to the crest of the hill. Simeon, God bless him, puts on a hangdog look and trails us. The first wave of challengers is just curious kids. The second we stymie by saying in English, really fast, things like, “We don’t speak French and if we did we wouldn’t speak to you and Ouagadougou, Rangoon and Vietnam.”

They are bewildered but they won’t be put off for long. We understand Simeon explaining in French that we don’t know any. They counter with a menacing Anglophone, brawny and imposing.

He proposes that we have no right to take pictures without paying him money. I explain that when he shows me his badge that says tourist police we can talk, while I snap more photos.

For a moment he is befuddled and scowls, “You want to see my badge?”

Simeon comes up close to stand with us, his expression like he has just found a sore inside his mouth. We hold the high ground there on the hill for a few more minutes, under siege, then retreat before pushing too hard on our luck. And all these years later we’ve lost all the photos except this one.

•••••

Got time to buy me a cup of coffee?

An Argument for Seeing More of the World

We’ve spent a couple days now watching the president’s supporters defend him over this Haiti/Africa affair. There are three and a half main defenses.

There is the “everybody does it” defense. Senator Graham once said people come to the USA from “hellholes,” thus making the president’s words okay. There is the “In the year ____, Donald Trump did something nice for someone of color, so he can’t be so bad” defense. And then there is the “he was making an economic, not racist, argument” defense, when he said he preferred Norwegian to Haitian immigrants. Finally, there is the “it was regrettable, it was unfortunate, it is not helpful” non-condemnation, a half a defense.

Couple of things:

First, suppose Narendra Modi or Shinzo Abe or Emmanuel Macron had words about the USA similar to President Trump’s condemnation of an entire continent. I invite you imagine his or her subsequent reception in Washington. Anyone who believes this incident isn’t damaging to America’s reputation in the eyes of people all over the world needs to spend more time abroad.

And second, suppose, for whatever reason, this president eventually goes down in flames. When his defenders this weekend come knocking, looking for their own reputations back, they shouldn’t be surprised if nobody answers the door.

Impenitrable Means Impenitrable

There is a nice article at TheAtlantic.com today called Mountain Gorillas at Home. My gorilla photography pales before it so I will spare you of anything more than a link, below, but the area around the gorillas is interesting in its own right. Here are a couple of shots of where the Uganda gorillas live (there are also gorillas in Rwanda and Congo). This is a place called the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Strictly speaking, it’s not quite impenetrable. There is this road through it:

Adjoining the forest are heavily farmed, terraced fields. The hills are really steep, as you can see here:

We visited the gorillas in the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda, farther down the road (See the Mountain Gorillas Gallery at EarthPhotos.com). Here are a few things I wrote at the time, when CS&W was on Typepad. I guess they ought to still work: 12345678.

And while we’re here, apropos to nothing except that I just ran across this photo, and it’s also from Uganda, here is the only galloping hippo I have ever seen:

Click ’em all to enlarge them. And have a look at more in the Uganda Gallery and the Rwanda Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

Time for the Old Man to Go

During the protracted teetering that preceded the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, I came back from Belgrade with this sad souvenir, a five hundred billion Dinar note:

Whoever is driving the train in a state like that is due for a bloody wreck, and Milosevic eventually derailed. But the most catastrophic conductor’s train was just leaving the station.

A few years after Milosevic’s 500,000,000,000 Dinar debacle, Robert Mugabe presided over inflation that, according to a clinical, academic analysis, caused prices to double every 24.7 hours. But there was nothing clinical about actually living in the land of Mugabe. There was chaos.

Robert Mugabe was there when I first turned up in Zimbabwe in 1995. When I think of the considerable chunk of my life gone by since then, I can only mourn for Zimbabweans forced to live all those days under Mugabe, his wife Gucci Grace and their cadre of kleptocrats.

Let us hope that from here all the players, the army, politicians in Zimbabwe and in surrounding countries with interests real or perceived (looking at you, South Africa) can restrain themselves. Let’s all hope ordinary Zimbabweans become the stars of this new show, and get a too-long awaited chance to live and prosper again.

Zimbabwe is gorgeous. In the post-Mugabe future, let’s all visit, congratulate its people and leave behind a wad of foreign currency. Just leave your hunting rifle at home.

Meanwhile on the Planet

This photo is from Amboseli, a park in Kenya famous for elephants, that my wife and I got into a groove of visiting a few times a few years ago. This is one of my favorite pictures, two friends greeting one another, querying each other, displaying obvious good will, emotions like humans.

I commend to you the author Carl Safina whose insights about animal minds are essential. See my posts Do Animals Think? and Elephants Display Emotion Just Like You Do for links to his work.

Just now, we’re all up in ourselves here in the United States about the eclipse next Monday. Our country closes up over myopic media-driven obsessions, the eclipse for one thing and this week, for another, Trump/Charlottesville, topped today with a side of possibly Islam-tinged terror in Barcelona (cable channels can never leave ‘possibly Islamic-tinged’ alone). Sometimes it’s hard to hear from our mass media about much anything else in the world beyond our country.

Sad and evil things happen out there. From the African continent this week, where dedicated people are fighting the good fight on behalf of the non-human world,  here are two:

Leading elephant conservationist shot dead in Tanzania

Three wildlife rangers killed in attack by violent militia in DRC/