Naipaul

Goma, DRC, across Lake Kivu

Difficult man? Probably. Pretty much nobody says not. But whether or not you’d enjoy his company at your next ice cream social, V. S. Naipaul’s fictional Kisangani in A Bend in the River sticks with you.

Congo will just not stop being a compelling place. Kabila’s reign in Congo is drawing to a bitter close, even as Kivu provinces totter close to armed conflict – again – and  the Latest Ebola Outbreak Is Centered in a War Zone. All in Congo.

Remind me to post a Congo reading list. Just now though, on the occasion of Naipaul’s death, let’s all pull out A Bend in the River or A House for Mr. Biswas and reread.

African Vignette 11: Crossing Lake Malawi

Here is a bit from my first book, for which this web site is named, about a trip on the MV Ilala, sailing across Lake Malawi from Monkey Bay, Malawi, in the south, up toward Tanzania:

•••••

Get Dirty for God. Go Lay a Brick with Team Mission. Thirty or forty kids wearing missionary T-shirts with those slogans came aboard to tour the Ilala at the first stop, Chipoka, from about 3:00 to 4:30.

A boy drew a crowd on the dock putting on a show with two bobble head monkeys on a table. Some people wore lime green sandals and others sold them.

If you ever sail the MV Ilala, choose the rattan seats to port, just above the gangplank, for live theatre immediately below you at port calls. The same seats are great when the port of call doesn’t have a big enough dock for the Ilala to tie up. In that case an incredibly colorful, and incredibly crowded scrum scrambles onto and out of the tenders dispatched to shore. Just below you.

You learn to stake out your deck space. After that first stop, if you didn’t, you’d lose it. The Ilala was vastly more crowded as soon as we left Chipoka.

Immanuel, deck hand, remarked on the Indian owners. I spoke later with Malcolm, the Indian commercial officer, who described Byzantine smuggling ruses he has seen.

In the evening a loud, rollicking, mostly European time broke out around the bar. We joined Richard, a kitchen outfitter, and his girlfriend from New York, the Aussie from Queensland who Mirja always thought was called John but who was named Peter, Martin the Dutch banker with a hankering for a posting to Southeast Asia, his girlfriend the park volunteer who was beginning to feel ill, and Steph and Tom.

We laid back in our cabin late in the morning, until the horn blew us standing and we were in Mozambique. That was at 9:00 and we didn’t set sail again until after 11:00 because officials were involved, and procedures had to be followed.

We couldn’t dock but instead anchored offshore and a flotilla of small craft commenced shuttling over and back to Ngoo, Mozambique.

We heard a splash, turned to see a body fly by the porthole and looked to see it was Tom and Peter the Aussie boy out for a swim. Good idea because it was hot hot hot in Mozambique, early in the morning.

Some Ilala crew predicted that the Mozambican customs men would try to charge Peter and Tom some money – make them buy an “entrance visa” for jumping into Mozambican water – but they never did.

•••••

See more photos from Malawi in the Malawi Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.

Here it Comes

Pyongyang via Wikimedia

Air Force One bears down on Singapore at this hour. Time for us to bone up on learning this stuff. Betcha more than he has.

Faroe Islands Photo Essay

New this month, bbc.co.uk has a really nice exploration of the Faroe Islands by author/photographer Christian Petersen, premised on the far-flung islands’ postmen. Check it out. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Then come back and read an excerpt from my book Out in the Cold, about a visit to the Faroese village of Saksun (below).

Click to enlarge. There are more photos in the Faroe Islands Gallery at EarthPhotos.com, and you can buy Out in the Cold from Amazon.com by clicking the cover, or from your home country’s Amazon.

Quotes: White People Dancing

“There were as many ways of dancing the high-life as there were people on the floor. But, broadly speaking, three main patterns could be discerned. There were four or five Europeans whose dancing reminded one of the early motion pictures. They moved like triangles in an alien dance that was ordained for circles. There were others who made very little real movement. … The last group were the ecstatic ones. They danced apart, spinning, swaying or doing intricate syncopations with their feet and waist.”

– Chinua Achebe in No Longer at Ease, originally published in 1960

Weekend Reading

Relax and enjoy some absorbing writing online this week. A sampling:

Facebook, Snapchat and the Dawn of the Post-Truth Era by Antonio García Martínez in Wired.
Sacrificing at the Altar of the Euro by Thomas Fazi in Jacobin Mag. More in the burgeoning genre of hand-wringing about the inflexibility of the Euro. Case study this time, Italy.
My Mother’s Brilliant Career in Soviet Culture by Anastasia Edel in the NYRB. From the mini-genre of books about Soviet life. Books like Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation by Donald J. Raleigh and Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (Author), Bela Shayevich (Translator).
Warsaw to Trump: Let’s make a military deal (without NATO) by David M. Herszenhorn in Politico. From the Polish perspective, this might be canny thinking.
Can’t we all just get along? A road trip with my Trump-loving cousin by Bryan Mealer in The Guardian. Mealer is the author of a 2011 book on a rather different topic: All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo.
How we entered the age of the strongman by John Gray in New Statesman.

Gray is a sort of public intellectual iconoclast from Britain. This is a lengthy book review in which Gray writes early of “corporate predation and ravaging of communities …under the regime over which liberals of one kind or another presided,” then later that “The most serious threat to the West comes from its own intellectual inertia.” Corporate predation must not be that ravaging to Gray. He worries, as does everybody else today about “the redundancy of human labour,” and decides that “The western model … has morphed out of shape.” And this:

“In a plausible scenario, the decisive conflicts in coming years will not be between liberal and authoritarian states but among oligarchies within each of them. Will Trump continue to be swayed by the billionaire Mercer family, or will other American oligarchs become more influential? Will the spoils system Putin has established in Russia be destabilised in an intensifying succession struggle? Could the anti-corruption drive through which Xi is cementing his position in China provoke a backlash from oligarchs it threatens? Whatever the answers to these questions, there is little reason to expect any move to more liberal values. Societies that are progressively discarding the freedoms by which liberalism was once defined are ill-equipped in the contest with advancing authoritarianism.”

It’s a lengthy article. Food for thought.

Enjoy your weekend. See you Monday with Africa Vignette #5 from Malawi.

Soft Power

Gordon Chang is enjoying a TV punditry renaissance just now, having rebranded himself as a North Korea expert. In his previous life as a pundit he wrote The Coming Collapse of China – seventeen years ago. No surprise he went to ground for a while.

I fear Joseph Nye may be making the Chang mistake. In an article for the Australian think tank ASPI, he similarly discounts the juggernaut that, truth is, China really is nowadays.

Nye has come around toward the end of his career to focus on an idea he coined the term for back in the late 1980s: the idea of “soft power,” understood as the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion. He thinks China is sorely lacking in soft power, writing

“no one should be tempted by exaggerated projections of Chinese power. If the US maintains its alliances with democratic Japan and Australia, and continues to develop good relations with India, it will hold the high cards in Asia. In the global military balance, China lags far behind, and in terms of demography, technology, the monetary system and energy dependence, the US is better placed than China in the coming decade. In the Soft Power 30 index, China ranks 25th, while the US is third.”

Maybe. But should push come to shove, does the United States under the Trump administration have the will or the desire, at the far end of its supply lines and on China’s doorstep, to resist Chinese expansion inside the nine-dash line?

Nye writes “no one knows what the future will bring for China. Xi has torn up Deng Xiaoping’s institutional framework for leadership succession, but how long will Xi’s authority last?”

Since 5 June, 1989, when that man stood in front of the tank just outside Tiananmen Square, wishful-thinking pundits have written similar things about each successive Chinese leader, and their conviction that sometime soon anti-authoritarianism will triumph in China.

I’m just saying, how’s that working out so far?

When that man stood in front of that tank, China was a mere shell of the global behemoth it has become since. Its model of state capitalism has since beguiled the leaders of just about every developing country in the world, showering them with loans and influence free of judgmental politics, like the gleaming new railroad between Nairobi and Mombasa, the Madaraka Express train in Kenya,  and the massive Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. That, seems to me, is its own sort of soft power.

Dear Mr. Nye: a word of caution on the soft power thing. No Gordon Chang moment, please.