gambitch - now available in blue
Our constant efforts to reinvent ourselves reveal how much we fear our own images.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

We interrupt the regular lecture series to bring you a couple of misconceptions about Africa, and of course, discuss (and bust) them.

Myth: Africans mired in poverty have lots of hot bunny sex.
Fact: Not quite true. At least, no more than the amount of "hot bunny sex" that you see going on in the First World, and I'm not necessarily referring to Amsterdam or Bangkok. African sex is not of the variety you get after a night out clubbing and meeting a hot chick. It is not that enjoyable at all, actually, because the African poor aren't having sex with the kind of mentality associated with the phrase "hot bunny sex". Africans do their thing for one of two reasons - to have children and to get momentary escape from reality.

Let's talk about the first. Yes, it is true, African cities can be pretty crowded places. To quote the perpetually politically-incorrect Kendra from The Amazing Race 6, "They keey breeding and breeding." Unfortunately, this masks the fact that there are economists out there who actually believe that many African countries are actually underpopulated. The main factor? High mortality rates among infants and children, many of whom suffer from malnutrition and have inadequate healthcare and sanitation. Massive rural-urban migration has also caused a lack of farm hands to grow and harvest crops. Large families with many children are a typical thing in all economies that are in this stage of development. China used to be like this, and perhaps may still be like this in the rural parts. The fact is, rural families need manpower to till the land, and since they're too poor to hire, the manpower must come from within the family.

As for escape from reality, well the situation in much of Africa is really bad. Many in the sub-Sahara areas are not just poor, but penniless. They avoid sleeping in the streets only by building up some shacks that won't withstand either huge winds or wintry nights (far inland, the temperature difference between night and day can easily be upwards of 30 degrees Celsius). Many are jobless and have no hope of finding a decent job, thanks to a badly pummeled rural economy and the virtual absence of a proper industrial urban economy. The odds are you won't find many families who have electricity, a TV set and a radio. Getting food on the table is a perpetual problem, never mind medicine and school. After a day of roaming around the city, trying to make some quick cash fleecing tourists from America, what's there to return home to after sundown?

In the context of such gloom, it is difficult, almost nigh-on impossible to find something that will entertain them and make them look forward to the next day. There's lots of anger and frustration, and since there probably isn't a TV set to throw, the next best thing is probably sex with the missus - a universal painkiller. The odds of this would be further enhanced if these poor people get some access to alcohol of some kind, usually fermented fruit juice (a can of Heineken isn't exactly common, and it probably will cost more money than these people have in their pockets). If this kind of picture seems familiar, it's because we see this in the First World as well, among the poor who aren't taken care of by the state through welfare schemes, and who can't find work because no one will hire them. This usually sets things up nicely for spousal abuse, and the women find themselves helpless. It happens in the First World, and it happens in the Third World albeit on a larger scale.

Sex, in these circumstances, can't exactly be described as pleasureable. It is but a momentary escape from the torments of life, where you can't find a job, can't feed the family, and can't move to a sturdier roof that has power, water and gas. After the whole thing is over and the sun rises, these people wake up to the realization that nothing's really changed, and the cycle repeats itself in a manner that is sheer mental torture. Not exactly a little night out with a prostitute, or a quickie in the bushes during the Woodstock party. It's merely a sad precipitate of a combination of depressing factors these Africans actually have to face on a daily basis. If they were really having hot bunny sex, life must be pretty good for them.

Myth: Africa is barren and can't produce food.
Fact: Without producing the exact statistics (that is left to the reader!) it's pretty easy to refute the claim that Africa is barren. A substantial number of African countries have either a shoreline or waterways across the land, which provide opportunities for fishing. While fleets from other parts of the world account for the majority of the tonnage in terms of fish hauled, African countries do have enough fishermen. Furthermore, more than half the continent's economy is dependent on agriculture, with a variety of food as well as cash crops. Meat is also part of the range of possibilities for the African diet, so it's not as if the options are not there altogether.

The problem for Africa is not non-production, but under-production. Production rates struggle to meet demand due to a large and growing population. I may have mentioned that Africa may be underpopulated, but numbers-wise there are still many mouths to feed. Unfortunately production is not quite fast enough for various reasons. One of them is simply the lack of labour to till the fields, thanks to rural-urban migration, as described above. Another factor that, indeed, even has a push effect on this migration is the usurious rate of taxation by the landlords owning the fields. This is not a uniquely African problem, but very often farmers have to give as much as half of their harvest, possibly more, simply to stay on the land. What the landlords do with their fat cut is anyone's guess, but it's probably a good guess if I said that these will turn into some sort of monetary profit for the landlords, who in all likelihood could be wealthy merchants from the First World.

If lack of labour limits the size of the harvest and landlordism leaves peasants with less to sell, then artifices in the market make it hard to make money out of what's left. Europe's common agriculture policy prejudices in favour of European farmers when European merchants want to buy agricultural products, as the pressed-down prices make export to Europe, Africa's nearest neighbours, horribly difficult. Traversing long distances to America and Asia create problems of their own that challenge the viability of selling to these continents (never mind Australia and, worst of all, paranoid New Zealand). Within Africa, countries are so poor trade with each other can't really earn that much. This explains why neither the cash crops nor the food crops are pulling in massive quantities of cash, and why Africa continues to have to depend on exports of precious metals, gems and petroleum to make money (although tight control of these industries by First World megagiants like Shell and Barrick means that little trickles down to the average African).

The natural consequence of this shortage in earnings is that farmers can't easily invest in things that will improve the farm, like fertilizers (natural or artificial) and machinery. They are thus continually forced to be dependent on human and animal labour. The paradox of this is that more hands in the field will mean more mouths at the dining table, and poor healthcare and sanitation would reduce the number of hands in the field, but not necessarily the number of mouths at the dining table, because sick people can't work so fast, but they'll eat roughly as much as usual just to stay alive.

Perhaps, then, it wouldn't be silly to conjecture that Africa does not really need Monsanto seeds to grow corn in the Sahara, at least not as much as it needs to mobilize its citizens to go back to the fields, slash tribute rates to the landlords and earn higher revenue from selling its fish and produce.

Merry Christmas.

gambitch [ 1:46 AM]

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

In a previous life, I had an intimate relationship with music. At different times I have been a keyboardist, a music mixer and a Flash movie composer, and of course I listened to a large volume of music. I do have a couple of friends to thank for some of my music adventures, like accidental introductions to Spyro Gyra and Miles Davis. Oh the other hand, I have been listening to my own share of non-mainstream Chinese and Japanese music and show OSTs. Nor can I forget my acquaintance with Moby and Bond (I have met neither in the flesh, in case you ask).

I used to be the resident music maestro when it came to huge events. Not beach parties, no. More like events involving people of a certain level of rank, the formal suit-and-tie kind of stuff. Even though my personal collection of music is, I would say, modest, I think I made really extensive use of what I had to put together what is referred to in the business as "house music". You know, the one hour or so of tracks people play to generate ambience. I suppose you could easily get away with just playing a whole CD from Yanni or Kevin Kern. Careless Chinese restaurants make do with some pirated instrumental rendition of Mandopop songs, or slightly odd performances by incomplete Chinese orchestras. In pretty much typical fashion, however, I never settled for that kind of thing. I had pretty exact demands - so much so that I even dictated just when what music is played, give and take two minutes.

On occasion I even have dreams about making Flash movies. Not just any Flash movies, actually, but more like Flash presentations with a background soundtrack. Part of it has to do with the fact that I have been at several events, but if I wasn't the music phreak I was, I suppose picking up Flash would have been less fun. It certainly is not the average kind of fun when I had to take three days to make a Flash presentation that lasted only a little over three minutes. It's insane work, but I suppose I found my own enjoyment in piecing together my own artistic work by building on the foundations laid by others.

These two nights, I've been turning to my jukebox, which is something I have not done in a little while, and while going through my collection of music I was having renewed visions of Flash movies I could perhaps do. I could practically see what I would want to do with the music, and the scenes I'd shoot. Already I have something in mind involving Bond's Allegretto (which is very pacy and perfect for introductions), and something else involving Midori, taken from a Japanese movie soundtrack (which one it is I'll leave it to you to guess).

The only problem is that I've no platform to do my stuff. I'm no longer in the events industry, and entering the events business for serious money requires qualifications I don't already hold (which is somewhat stupid, how we judge everyone on the papers we hold). I do think there's a certain kind of thrill that comes with doing events - although I could equally turn that into a good reason why I should not risk my health (which is somewhat resilient but at the same time shows potential for fragility). The buzz with events comes from having to plan everything beforehand and then execute it like clockwork. It's not a job for just anyone; you need the big vision guy as much as you need the person taking care of the details (knowing the details is a hidden challenge, I assure you).

In my time, I have done my share of events, and if the truth be told, I had some other events in mind I never got around pulling off. I suppose my audacity knew no limit, such was the brashness of my youth, but I had once thought of doing an event which would involve nightmarish logistics and a participant size coming to some 600 people. All this with a planning committee that would effectively be no larger than 20, not all of whom may already be as experienced as I was - and given that I really have a limited amount of experience, you can imagine the strength of the working pool. As it is, the event never came off because of money problems, so we would never know if I could have pulled off the big one.

I dream up such big things not because I'm looking for fame - although if the limelight courted me I suppose I would give it a thought. No, more than the fame itself, I guess it was more about proving myself, about setting myself a challenge that would be interesting, doable but not easy. And in subsequent extension, the same would go for everyone who would have been working, putting their energies into this massive project that would consume our lives and souls until it came off. It was not just about bettering those who came before us; it was about besting them all and besting ourselves, and setting a new standard for those who would come after us.

After all, if we're going to burn, we might as well make our fire the biggest ever seen. Otherwise, when it's all over and done, we'll always ask that perennial question.

Could we have burned brighter?

I'm back on the jukebox again, and as I type this I'm listening to one of Kitaro's compositions - the theme song for The Soong Sisters.

My mood now? Like this music - very taut and heavy. Which isn't a surprise, as this is the time when we wait for dew to form.

The one thing I hate about blogging is that it's text (and for some, pictures). But were I to put music on my blog, I will be accused of copyright infringements, and sued to bankruptcy (which is not hard at all because I'm not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination). As an end user, you just can't win.

How much music
Can your body understand
When your soul
Has not learnt
The meaning of sensitivity?

(And yes, this entry's a mood-blog.)

gambitch [ 3:29 AM]


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