ebogjonson.com's Kenya archive
February 26, 2007
According to The Independent, one of the folks above is one of Africa's Top 50 artists and the other is one of Africa's top novelistic up-and-comers.
I dunno about all that, but they're both the best traveling company you could ever wish for!
(Hint #1: the names of the folks pictured above can be found within close proximity to the word "kwani" in the Independent write-up)
February 2, 2007
so I guess i'm back
hey, friend. Nice to see you again. I figure I need to get this "where I was" post out of the way before I can to move on to other business, so I'd like to tell you about a few things that happened to me last year. But first:
1 - Happy Black History Month. You know, writing about BHM just doesn't offer the same zip now that I no longer work in corporate media. Go figure.
1.5 - I was just watching a tivo of The Stephen Colbert Show, and he was going on about how we need a Black Future Month. I actually tried that back when I was running BlackPlanet.com and it didn't catch on, but maybe the white dude will have better luck.
2 - So one way to think about what I was doing for all of Decemember 2006 is this:
And then back again.
3 - Like I somehow managed to say earlier, I took pictures while I was away.
4 - According to my traffic logs from December, people seem to have been mostly interested in my blackface chart. The advice that white people are advised not to fuck around with the blackface seems to be the sort of gift that just keeps on giving.
5 - rips james brown, rips Uncle Tony. rips Molly Ivins.
(I feel like I am missing another December-January draftee into the army of the dead.)
But I have this to-do list in my Treo about a Haiti documentary that I'm always planning to get working on (someday), and one of the items is "talk to Uncle Tony." I'm sorry I was late; I know you would have had great, amazing things to say.
6 - I technically got back from Kenya about a week or so [ebog note: I wrote that, like, three weeks ago, this before I had fully grokked to how broked my blog was.] It's been hard readjusting to the US and also kind of a weird explaining exactly what I was doing for most of December. The short answer is that I was attending a meeting called "Spreading the Words," which took place place in the shadow of the Kenyan edition of Summer Literary Seminar. My particular set'o'meetings concerned an international collective/publishing alliance being assembled by a globe-trotting set of literary magazines, one of them being our hosts at Kenya's Kwani. (There were a bunch of other folks there as well, but considering that the proposed collective will involve some tinkering with things like member-mags' contributor contracts, I don't want to put any editor's business in the street prematurely. But it was a pretty sweet set of people, places and literary magazines. )
The three threads weaving all the participants together are Mike Vazquez (of, among other things, Transition fame), Kwani's Binyavanga Wainana, and writer/copyright expert/man-about-town Achal Prabhala. Between the three of them they have edited, contributed to, written for, or are buds with all the mags/editors involved. But, as Achal often pointed out, their web of activity and connection is invisible to the, like, web (i.e., Google) because none of these publications maintain kitted-out web archives or (in some cases) even websites. Achal is, for example, a rather nicely published gent, but because he works in a particular zone google doesn't reflect the full extent of his wonderfulness.
My role in the meet was (quasi-obviously) related to the web issues, and moving forward I'm going to be building out a set of templatized, web-based content management and archiving tools for use by collective members. The content management part will involve some heavy lifting, as will be wrangling and digitizing everyone's back issues, but the part I am most looking forward to thinking about is the collective's e-commerce engine. Not every credit card issued by a sub-Saharan African bank works online or outside the region, so I'm going to spend some time communing with some microcredit folks who are doing some nifty things with SMS transfers. (So, for example, we could imagine a Kenyan subscribing to Kwani or paying for a back issue using their phone.)
Under Mike V's direction the collective is also going to create an online magazine that will produce new, web-only content, as well as re-publish/re-contextualize old edit from the participant journals. (Given the participants, this is always timeless and worth re-reading.) Lastly, we are thinking the site should be able to do the standard stupid-smart internet tricks, like provide group blogging functionality for the editors (something along the lines of HuffPost for non-celebs), as or online community for readers, fans, writers and the like. Maybe a writer's workshop or a hard-copy best-of anthology. We'll see.
Our meetings went pretty well and some cash has been ponied-up by funders for us to kick the project around for a few months, this before building something that will (hopefully!) be live by the end of '07. In addition to the proverbial income coming in, the gig will also have me travelling back to various parts of the Continent (African, that is) as well as to India, not to mention NYC and SF to meet with folks involved in US indie media projects. Not bad work if you can get it.
7 - Between all of this I started playing WoW somewhere along the way. You can likely guess what my name is there and I'm on Darlaran. (Don't make me kill you.) I am kind of against Second Life for obvious reasons that will nonetheless be re-iterated (by me) in a forthcoming issue of Bidoun. That said, I am buying some SL property nonetheless, just for kicks and also because I have a wackjob art project that I have been thinking through that will need a virtual house.
Conceptual art really is the is the last refuge of a scoundrel, huh?
8 - While away I very happily discovered a band called Mahogany, whose video for Supervitesse is depicted below.
(Thanks for the intro, Mike! And get a fucking blog already so that I can link to you.)
I also could not get the following snippet from Kool Keith's I Don't Play out of my head:
Yo, what are you doin lookin in my closet? Why are you tryin to try on my sneakers? Stop lookin around in my kitchen That's right it's Honeycomb up there, raviolis Everything a regular man eats I'm not the Elephant Man, whassup?
I'm not quite sure why, but those were the songs of the summer... In my mind... In December.
9 - The other thing I did in Kenya is that I went to an island called Lamu. Although I claim to be having a hard time describing my experience there, in point of fact I actually did manage to write a few emails about Lamu, and have mashed those emails into the one below:
hey! Happy new years, X-mas and associated jazz :)
The trip was pretty sweet. First I went to a conference in Nairobi which ended up with me and Mike getting some money from the [redacted] and the [redacted] to build a website for a group of literary magazines in the US, UK, sub-Saharan Africa and India. We're going to go to Bangalore in june for a coupla months to build the site and the cash should see me through 2007, which is both hot and relieving.
After the conference though I went to a fairly mind-blowing Kenyan island called Lamu, which floats on the Indian Ocean south of the Somali border. It's a Swahili sailing town: old stone buildings and narrow streets and no cars, just boats anddonkeys and donkey shit that comes in different colors and textures depending on what they've been eating. Half the women wear headgarb and the men sail and fish all day. When the wind dies down dudes either pull out outboard motors or fry fish on the boat. They smoke weed and chew chat and drink sweet tea until the wind returns. Completely idyllic and amazing and exactly what I would do on the 405 during traffic if it made sense.
We went on a 2 night sail to some of the outlying islands, an experience that kind of made me want to stay forever. Warm water with phosphorescence in it and strong winds conspired to take us to isolated towns that get visitors maybe once a year. We visited Siu, which once fought a war against the Portugesese, and we walked into the Tomb of the Last Sufi Saint, which is pretty much like saying I was in fucking Raiders of the Lost Ark only without the nightmare colonialism and racism, just once holy ruins protected by local people eager to tell you about the great, curious history of their town. Towns like Siu (where the Tomb is) are poor but green and clean, and they are full of thoughtful people trying to navigate the ever-combined problem of the present and the past, this without resorting to the usual bullshit about poor, downtrodden tradition or easy fundamentalism. Those folks were powerfully, genuinely generous, feeding us and talking us through their lives and towns. (The imprint of contact with South Asia is all over the place, but it was especially strong in the teas, samosas and breads we ate on those islands.) Saying everyone we met was beautiful and proud and charming and funny does not do justice to any of them.
Besides sightseeing and talking we went looking for a game cock for one of our hosts, so I spent a few hours checking out completely freaky roosters that look and act exactly like what I imagine dinosaurs looked and acted like. (Apparently those islands are famous for champion chicken bloodlines.) A good gamecock is 2 1/2 or so feet tall and will pretty much come right up to you, absolutely fearless. From what I understand they don't fight them to the death (relax, all you animal people, the market is your friend here: the owners are strapped for $ and a noted winner can fetch 200+ US). The audience and the two owners declare a winner long before anyone gets too fucked up. There's no particular shame in losing as the feeling is that a rooster can always get lucky tomorrow, but if your cock outright runs away from an opponent that's considered the worst thing EVER and you have to kill the cowardly little shit yourself right then and there, this to keep those bad genes from going back into circulation. (All this is, of course, under-substantiated, hearsay ethnography. I asked someone the last time a cock ran away from a fight and he claimed he couldn't remember any local birds running but swore that the roosters from the next island were straight up, well, chicken.)
They practice a (relatively) open, live-and-let-live strain of Islam in the area, so on top of every other inneresting thing there were moments that the big town on Lamu seemed gayer than Christopher Street. At any given moment there are a fair number of comely eurotrash ladies about (over-fit, over-tanned, fortysomething Germans mostly, their noses open to the various local excitements) so the place is also crawling with bedredlocked "beach boys" who act as tour guides, day-trip boat crew, drug dealers, porters, gigolos and good will/ good vibe ambassadors. (Think Heading South transposed from Haiti.) Because it's a veil-wearing town 3/4 of the the local women are locked up after dark (likely chained to radiators by the local, islamic version of Sam Jackson), and when the foreigners run thin the beach boys find other ways to amuse themselves, like (no joke!) running around in full, trad female garb and staging fire-dance shows in banana-hammock speedos and hugging up on each other and giggling. (From what I could see the region also seems to produce - or is that attract? - highly "passable" trannies, all of whom were with thugged-out/hip hoppish white brits for some reason. Banjie realness indeed.)
(But it all really just went to show that horny young men, when left to their own devices for long enough, invariably do get around to doing the hoo-haa on each another, this even in zones that one might have otherwise have considered congenitally homophobic. I mean, was is was like a happy-friendly, rape-free remake of Oz up in that piece after the last german matron had gone to her rest.)
The truly awful and disturbing and unfortunate thing about the beach boys wasn't their polymorphous perversity, but the fact that they will yell "HEY MON!" 30 times a day at you if you look in the slightest like a kindred spirit. Walking down Lamu's one, narrow main street was like walking through a drunken frat-house, what with all the "RESPECT!! JAH RASTAFARI! BOB MARLEY!" shouts I had to endure because of my locks. Dudes there all style themselves stoner philosopher/seekers, so during prime hustling hours I couldn't get five meters without having to stop and engage each and every man-whore sporting wormy baby dreads, this partially as a set-up to some kind of pitch (weed? boat? tourist kitsch? ass?), but also partially because dudes were engaged in a completely sincere (albeit dippy) quest for spiritual fraternity. (Just because you service white women for a living does not mean you are without your higher inclinations.)
Most of the beach boys were barely older than my oldest lock, so I found myself immediately installed as a kind of visiting, greybearded dignitary owing to the length of my hair - 16 years worth?! My dreds were misread by the locals as some proof of my virtue and dedication, this when the reasons behind my seeming stick-to-itiveness are significantly baser. (Vanity? Social power? Laziness? Fuck-you-ery? Peacockery?) I was initially humbled by my installation as (as one of my traveling companions put it) the dread king of Lamu, but soon all that power went to my, er, head, especially once it became apparent that the bulk of those kids had picked up their affectations from the same VHS copy of Cool Runnings. I forced myself to try to find genuine responses to low-grade quips like "A friend with weed is a friend indeed!" for about three days before giving up, settling into an unresponsive, surly and downright American zone of non-interaction that likely severely tarnished my halo. Oh well. You can't please all of the beach boys all of the time.
The actual king of the beach boys is a super-skinny, expat-black-Brit named, uh, [completely insane fake name redacted; but seriously! imagine he was named "beelzebub!"]. From what I was able to gather [redacted] was some kind of (wait for it!) cultural studies graduate student (!) back in the UK who came to the region to do field work and never left. More recently he impregnated the buxom [white] manager of the [redacted] and has thus been able to secure his position as beach boy king through his high ranking, semi-offical/familial connection to the island's tourist infrastructure, this as opposed to having won a Sweet Sweee(ee?)eetback type fuck-off involving dozens of German tourists.
[Redacted] talks like Tricky and is touted as the best best dj from there to Zanzibar, but when I finally heard him spin he played a completely crap set - basically some Time Life Music GOA Tribal Trance mix CDs from 1994. I told [redacted] that if he chucked it all and moved to Lamu with his records he would own the island's social scene in a year, tops, although I can imagine the beach boys and the tourists might resist his troubling newness. We went to a super-lovely beach bar/resort called Diamond Beach which is run by two hottish stoner white-girll British expats whose taste in music seems confined to the kind of chillout electronica CD you might buy at Starbucks. When we were floating in the warm water off Diamond Beach, glowing plankton trailig our movement, a canopy of stars above, Mike and I had to admit that maybe the place actually needs bad music as a kind of safety mechanism. If, say, this dude had started spinning that night, I very well could have ecstatically blown a mental fuse and drowned, which would have obviously bitten. Needless to say, Mike and I are planning to do the same trip next year and are already planning to host a party (maybe on Diamond Beach?) so we'll see what happens.
that's all I can think of for now, except that I was bitten by a sailing bug in Lamu and am investigating a sailing class in LA. There is something fairly primal and soothing about wind power, the way it's silent and tactile all at the same time. It's a shame that sailing has previously been owned in my mind by rich men and the proprieters of slave ships and I'd like to reclaim it if possible. I have been told on numerous occasions that my father loved sailing off the coast of Haiti and that as a boy he had a little boat that he went out on whenever he could. Exile in America erased that part of him and out on the boat I wondered how many of my thoughts were original and mine and how many of them were things my father had thought and that I was re-enacting/channelling. Getting back on a sailboat seems the best way to figure it out.
I also need to go swimming more at the pool at the Y. I went swimming in deep water for the first time in my life on Lamu, so I can no longer go around telling that story I tell all the time about how "my people are island people, but my silly immigrant parents forgot to teach me how to swim!" (Silly immigrant parents!) It turns out that I can swim fine, or at least I'm competent at not drowning in extra bouyant salt water. Next up: swimming 20 yards without feeling completely winded.
Omigod, while I was there I met Kenyan painter Richard Onyango who is the most amazing human I have met in forever. In the picture above he is re-enacting the scene painted below, wherein the great love of his life - a 300 pound Italian woman named Drossie (!) who kept him as a semi-willing sex slave when he was 16 (!!) - dressed him up in a boys lacrosse uniform (!!!) and asked him to "do the exercises with her, yes?" (!!!!) What I am trying to say is that Richard paints completely batty (yet compelling) erotic, interracial, BBW-themed, autobiographical paintings. He is supposedly coming to LA soon at the behest of some or another snarky curator to paint the world's fattest woman and I am desperately trying to be his driver while he is here.
11 - But the really funny thing is that I spent a whole, powerfully gratifying month there and yet I never really felt any particularly powerful urge to permanently decamp to Lamu or Kenya. Don't get me wrong: I desperately want to go back ASAP, but move there? Not really. All my unleashed, native-going urges were curiously being reflected by Kenya back across the Atlantic towards Haiti, a place with which I have a more immediate "going native" relations, fantasy and otherwise. You see, getting off the plane in Nairobi, and feeling dizzy with all the first-time-on-African-continent pyschodramas, I found myself most floored by how, well, good Nairobi smelled, this in comparison to the wave of stink that greets you when you get off the plane in Port-au-Prince. As educated as I am, as much as I have read and written and watched, I realized that my entire thinking life I've been putting a false frame around "Africa," a frame that, while not quite the stuff of racist media fantasy, is nonetheless literally foreign to any given African nation I might have been thinking about at any given moment. Which is really a way of saying "same racist diff," as projecting memories of the most fucked up (and most heroic) black place in the Western Hemisphere on Kenya or Senegal or South Africa or wherever is pretty much the same as erasing them.
But the trip did make me realize that I desperately need to go spend a year or two as an adult in Haiti. All my memories of the place are a child's memories. Who can say for sure if I really know what I think I know?
And that's that.
January 10, 2007
los angeles lagos mexico city
Caryn writes in art.blogging.la:
One of the complaints I hear most about Los Angeles is the fact that it's "spread out." I've often used this complaint myself, especially on my drive home every night, and it's one of the reasons why I created this blog - to cohere the vast sprawl of the LA art scene. However during a September panel discussion I did at Gallery 825 when I was hearing this complaint voiced loudly as a major negative, I suddenly realized that what I thought was a detriment to LA was, in fact, one of the things I love most about this city.
What this sprawl does, besides annoy you in traffic, is allow diversity to reign supreme in Los Angeles - one can experience many different Los Angeleses including sub-scenes of music, fashion, art, food, and business. Chinatown offers a different art variety than Culver City and it goes on down the line. Our sprawl of art schools and museums, from the Getty to Orange County Museum of Art and everything in-between, is actually what makes the art here so exciting and so very different from any other city in the U.S. I mean, isn't there a reason why we "Los Angeles" is synonymous with "Southern California?" You can't put your finger on what's going on here and, granted it's not all good but it's still quite fantastic.
This is, of course, the American way of saying that LA is the US city that most echoes the emerging global standard for urban areas. When I was in Nairobi I kept thinking that if I closed my eyes, abstracted out the people and blinked quickly I could be in LA, or any other warm weather megacity.