Friday, 12 December 2008

Barbarian epiglottal clicks vs. Miriam Makeba's songs

A month ago, Miriam Makeba died. She was a legendary South African singer. And the voice raised for claims of dignity, in more than only one nation. Her songs, in many different tongues, undermined physical and mental borders as powerful echoes of international solidarity. 

Reading obituaries, especially when they are dedicated to fully accomplished personalities as her, makes feel like our lives could be fold up into the pages of a newspapers. "What is life? A Frenzy. What is life? An illusion, A shadow, a fiction, And the greatest profit is small". At least, according to Spanish playwright Calderon for whom "Life is a dream"...

Perhaps in a journalist's dream, life would be these few lines classified in the last pages of broadsheets, tabloids and berliners: obituaries.

When Miriam Makeba died, I did not really felt like reading any mummified portrait though. At least, watching videos or listening to her voice while having a quick look on the tight sentences of press agencies seemed a better way to remind of her art. 

This was until I incidentally found this very interesting text published by The Economist (13/11/2008). Though more interesting than the article itself were the reactions of readers, pointing out inaccuracies you would not expect from such a reputed publication. 

"Five marriages, four ending in divorce, the first with a man who beat her and the fourth, in 1968, with Stokely Carmichael, the leader of America’s Black Panthers. She loved him, and failed to see what loving Stokely had to do with anything else."

Two readers hopefully stressed on the fact that Stokely Carmichael was actually not the leader of the Black Panthers.

But another passage is a bit dissonant too:

"Ms Makeba could soar like an opera singer, but she could also whisper, roar, hiss, growl and shout. She could sing while making the epiglottal clicks of the Xhosa language. Clicking, clapping, dancing or dreaming, laughing or sad, she seemed to contain all the strength, warmth, sensuousness and burnished beauty of Africa, as well as all its sounds." 

The "sensuousness and burnished beauty of Africa" unfortunately sounds like an advertising for some safari trip where adventurous white people are not afraid of qualifying a language they do not understand of "epiglottal clicks".
And so what? That is the way they speak actually. The others, the barbarians.

In the third part of Race and History, Claude Lévi-Strauss, a French anthropologist offered a very useful analysis about the words "savage" and "barbarian", relating the latter to a false perception of the others' language, whose growling speech is considered less rational and civilized than the smooth Occidental ones:

"The word "barbarian" is probably connected etymologically with the inarticulate confusion of birdsong, in contra-distinction to the significant sounds of human speech, while "savage" — "of the woods" — also conjures up a brutish way of life as opposed to human civilization. In both cases, there is a refusal even to admit the fact of cultural diversity; instead, anything which does not conform to the standard of the society in which the individual lives is denied the name of culture and relegated to the realm of nature." 

By qualifying a different language of "epiglottal clicks", the Economist's writer reveals that his own speech is actually not so rational. Being unable to understand something does not make it not understandable for the rest of the world, except if you think the world revolves around your language and culture. As Lévi-Strauss again remarked, this is a typical feature of  "barbarians". Even if it is not sure that these words of "savage" and "barbarian" would make any sense without the reference to a dominant culture.

"This attitude of mind, which excludes "savages" (or any people one may choose to regard as savages) from human kind, is precisely the attitude most strikingly characteristic of those same savages."

Economist's epiglottal clicks?

Miriam Makeba of course already experimented this "ethnocentric attitude", long time before it was echoed by the famous magazine, as she said in the intro of Click song:
"In my native village in Johannesburg, there is a song that we always sing when a young girl gets married, it is called the click song by the English because they cannot say omotwan."

Miriam Makeba, with a few words and one song, is post-mortem throwing in the grave The Economist's inaccurate obituary. This is the revenge of epiglottal clickers: creating with their multiple minorities languages a new expression that shakes and often enriches the "proper", major speech.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Scheduling conflicts

The International Conference on Financing for Development 2008 is a four-days UN conference currently taking place in Qatar. Few Western leaders actually decided to attend this summit while the heads of IMF and the World Bank are simply absent. 

It looks a bit like there was no direct line between Washington (or Lima where the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting took place) and Doha. Amran Abocar writes for Reuters:  

"International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn and World Bank President Robert Zoellick cited scheduling conflicts."

At the same time, "according to World Bank estimates, 40 million people will be dragged into poverty in 2009 as a result of the global financial crisis and related economic meltdown."

By the way, Doha what?

Friday, 28 November 2008

After the fact: international coverage of Washington summit

G20 summit in Washington took place more than a week ago, on November, the 15th.The event’s coverage reveals how big promises eventually led to little action, as many articles published in the international press tend to prove.

For the Economist (16/11/2008) though it was “not a bad weekend’s work”. Despite a negative headline, the general report reflects some satisfaction . “The success of this weekend’s gathering has permanently changed the machinery of international economic co-operation”. But readers are not told how it did precisely.

Moving away from a European coverage, in Nairobi, the Business Daily Africa (25/11/2008) considers “G20 did not tackle real issues facing financial system”. John Kemp, a Reuters columnist, explains how the comparison with Bretton Woods prepared unrealistic expectations. Both due to a lack of preparation and regulatory will.
The Hindu Business Line (18/11/2008) covered the meeting in a rather critical article available as well on the Chinese Elections and Governance website. It is entitled “G-20 summit: No happy ending”. J. Srivinivasan says the summiteers’ good intentions sound like “political escapism” and highlights a contradiction: “Till yesterday the champions of ‘light touch’ regulations, today they want financial market transparency.”

But good intentions are not enough to moralize finance markets. “None of the banks that took help from British government to recapitalise has passed on interest rate cuts.”
According to J. Srivinivasan, China and India differed in their response to the crisis and have been blamed for doing what G20 leaders are promising now: “Strengthening countries financial regulatory regimes”.

As a consequence, Washington may partly give up its leading role. Martine Bulard, in Le Monde Diplomatique (French edition, November 2008) outlines the increasing importance of China who “became the United-States banker”. Al Ahram Weekly (20-26/11/2008), published in Cairo, develops the same argument. Gamal Nkrumah says “China, however, would not bail out the Western nations unconditionally”, hinting at a new stake in international relations. This may be the last but not least political consequence of the economic crisis.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

What about your own bailout?

Read in The NationLetters (10/11/2008) page 2

"(...) I have contacted my Congressman asking where to get the forms for my own bailout. Unfortunately, I haven't heard back."
Greg Hillier, Quincy, Mass.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Right time for meeting Anas Aremeyaw Anas, investigative reporter

Invited by the Centre for Investigative Journalism (City University, London 24/11/08) Anas Arameyaw Anas, a Ghanaian reporter, developed his own views about ethics in reporting.

Taking "an African perspective", he mentioned different stories and justified the methods of undercovered journalism by the search of public interest. 
He said: "whatever you do, you are taking risks; go for the hard ones!" Yet, this does not mean he wants to die.  Anas evoked the different stories he covered for his newspaper, the Crusading Guide. One of the most interesting is entitled "Ghanaians eating maggots?". It is related to Eurofood company (13/06/06) whose flour was infested with maggots. "Products of Eurofood can be found in the markets of Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte-d'Ivoire" and other West African countries. His investigation raised an issue of public health and reflects as well how far some companies care for their Third-World clients. Business is business. 

He talked about timing as well - which seems to be a crucial question for investigative reporters. How to decide when is the right moment? This reminded me of a distinction made by Greek philosophers between kronos and kairos. The first expression refering to chronological time while the second is a moment of undetermined period of time. Period of time in which something happens.
Anas explained: "you have to be careful and patient, but being too careful and too patient, you might miss the story".

Apparently Anas Arameyaw Anas - who received last month the Kurt Schork award - knows quite well how to deal with contingent circumstances. He masters "time in between": such stuff our stories are made on.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Why a smart phone would never replace a smart brain and a strong stomach

Read yesterday in the Style supplement of the Sunday Times (November 23, 2008), a pathetic review by AA Gill, about a mobile phone:

"Getting a new phone is like getting a voracious Ukrainian mistress - it looks brilliant and you want to stroke it all the time, but it's high maintenance."

This sexist metaphor is served up throughout the article but a taster is enough, as the poor quality of a starter often reveals the complete failure of main dish. Gill's metaphor is actually greasy and tasteless. Though he probably thinks he is a super brave guy with a great sense of provocative humor.

The fact he is writing in a magazine published by a famous British newspaper might strengthen his illusions and impunity.
Confusing his sexual fantasies with geopolitics, Gill believes that Ukraine is a huge reserve of poor starving sexy women, presumably waiting to be saved by pompous Times journalists. Bon appétit!