The Islands Down South

The Islands Down South

By J.R. Kuwanski

There are two islands down south. The people on the smaller one speak different to the people on the big one. There are more people on the smaller one. And they look out more.

The big one has the tussock, the mountains, the cold.  That’s where the movies are made. The smaller one has the beaches, the trees with the red flowers, the humidity. That’s where most of them stay.

Everyone used to have their own place on the islands; a quarter-acre they called it. But things are different now. There are more people and less of the island to go around, and now one group of islanders own almost everything.

The food is still fresh; the water is still blue and deep and blissful. The quiet earthly heavens of the coasts cannot be found anywhere else.

It’s not tropical though, it’s something more serious and philosophical than that. The foreshores and south pacific waters are located south of the lighter paradises of the neighbouring islands. Not long ago many of these neighbours travelled down, and often stayed.

Down south the people pretend well, they copy the old land – another small island far up north. They pretend with their unions, their governments, their newspapers.  And more recently the younger people have done well at pretending and copying the culture from that other big place up north, the one with the big cars and the lively night-life. In fact they have pretended so much, that at times this foreign culture has become genuine and indigenous, and they no longer have to pretend.

The people on the islands down south are quiet, but calmly charismatic. With so few people and so much space, there’s not that much room to be too flashy, it just doesn’t fit. The quiet keeps the people humble and often contemplative.

Most of the inhabitants like the quiet down there. Some of them don’t though and they leave when they can. They go to the old island way up north, where many of them came from a long time ago. When they get there they often realize how different they are; they thought they would be similar, for their great grandfathers were from here. They often stick together while they’re up there and often dream of the white sand, and flax and sunshine back down south. But they do like the northern real world. They now see how they were really just pretending the whole time back down there, with their universities, their cities, their fashions. Just following and pretending. And they often like how the people are livelier up north, and even they themselves are able to be bolder while they’re there – it’s easier when there’s more people and buildings around. The food is still cleaner down south though, and there is so little space and sunshine up north.

Most eventually go back home, but some of them stay. Those that do stay still dream of the sunshine back home, and the light green fruit that cannot be found anywhere else. They miss the space, but most of all they miss the waters. It is only once they are away that they realize that they had it all to themselves down there, pretty much all to themselves, compared to the real world way up north.

For those that stay away, they say it is because they can’t do the pretending anymore: pretending urbanity, pretending night-life, pretending politics. But perhaps more importantly, they stay away because while the space down south is so peaceful, it also makes one so aware of the void, and of the great responsibility to fill it.                               The burden can be overwhelming, and the quiet can become so very loud. Up north, the hustle spreads the burden, and alleviates the anxiety somewhat. They need the real cities, the real newspapers.

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment

Dear Hipster

Dear Hipster,

So, you did it. You ruined my New Year’s. You’ve ruined nights out before, but I didn’t think you’d be able to do this. Well done; I hope you’re happy with yourself.

I know I can’t make you, so I’m asking you. Okay, I’m begging you. Please stop. Please just stop.

Stop with the sailor costumes. Stop with the beany on the back of the head, inside. Stop with the generic gender mixing. Stop with the horrible DJing. Stop with the extortionate rent paying.

It’s hard for me to convince you. But what you’re doing is horribly wrong, you are on the wrong side of history. Nothing you or your little friends do will ever be regarded as noble or artistic. In fact, when your grandchildren look up on their hologram microchip encyclopedias inside their brain, and ask the question “What happened to Brooklyn?” and “Who killed ‘cool’?”, there you will be, with a mustache and brogues.

Understand that you are a cultural virus, a parasite of subculture. You are doing harm. Think about how much you have taken, from the cultures before you, cultures that you have desecrated, how much you have robbed from masculinity, from affordable housing. And what have you given in return? I’m sorry, but I have not seen the art that should be bequeathed in exchange for me having to look at your is-this-really-even-ironic-anymore beard.

Please. Just stop. Stop with the costumes. They’re not cool, they’re not satirical, they’re not original. You all look the same. Do you know that?

This world is not your playground. Other people built it. And you need to contribute, not just take pics with a vintage lens.

If you used all the energy that you put into dressing and acting like d*ck, and put it into something more constructive, you really could accomplish things. Yunno?

I’m willing to help. I don’t know how we ended up in this horrible mess, but I know we can get ourselves out of it. So, whattaya say champ? Yea, can we give it a shot? Stay right there, I’ll go grab a razor.


Posted in Social Commentary | 1 Comment

The Campaign Speech I Wish Obama Would Give

The Campaign Speech I Wish Obama Would Give

By J.R. Kuwanski

My Fellow Americans,

We have been besieged by the biggest economic downturn since the 1930s, but we’ve made incremental gains, we’re on the right track; we just need to stay the course.

That’s how campaign speeches are supposed to begin. But that’s not what I’m going to say.

There’s a lot about my last term that I’m not proud of. Under my term, America has become more of an unjust and undignified society. Unemployment is at a life-shattering high. The reality is, lives have been ruined under my Administration. That’s not dramatics, it’s real. Dreams have been soiled and communities have decayed over the last four years.

The statistics don’t reveal what’s really happened. People’s lives do.

Rick, a mechanic, had a two car garage and a house in Vegas, with his wife, three kids, complete with soccer practice and Xbox. Then work started to dry up. Some cuts in the household budget were made. Things would pick up again.

But they didn’t. In fact there was so little work that Rick needed to look beyond car repairs. Though employers were either not hiring, or he was too old, under or overqualified, or the position demanded a large up-front payment.

Eventually, Rick lost the house. He and the family ended up in an unused caravan – no power, no water. He is now in a motel, all four family members in one room. His daughter has a stomach ulcer. There’s gang violence outside and the kids walk home from school. At times he does not want to live this life anymore.

Or Ms Smith’s story. A story that began in New York City – where she had been earning $57,000 a year as a document processor at a law firm. Ms Smith was coming up and things looked good for her and her 14 year-old son. She wanted to have more room for her child, to provide the American dream of a home, instead of just an apartment. So she moved to Georgia and there she found another well-paying legal job. But then her entire department was laid off. As she struggled to get work, she aimed lower, to temp jobs and then to the supermarket. Then the unemployment checks stopped coming, and the repo man came for her car. She lost her way of getting to work and lost her job at Christmas. Then the eviction. Afterwards she and her son spent time in a homeless shelter, until their time-allowance ran out. Now they stay in a storage locker, while she works part-time at a dollar store.

When I was growing up I was told, and believed, that in America, no matter who you were, if you worked hard and showed talent, you would elevate your situation. You could gain education, up-skill yourself, and achieve a dignified job and dignified wage. There were always going to be jobs for everyone. People thought that poverty and destitution were merely failings of moral character and a choice.

Now, one in every two college graduates are underemployed or without jobs altogether, many stuck in unskilled, low paid, precarious positions. They are now in tens-of-thousands-of-dollars’ of debt, and worry about their future. This generation of people wonder if they will ever be what they trained and hoped to be, what they were supposed to be.

And what about that mass of people without a college education, those who couldn’t study because they needed to work to pay for rent, and food, and transport. The loans were not enough, or the courses were too much. How are they ever going to up-skill and become part of the dreamed middle class?

What about those suburban mothers and fathers, out of work for over a year, bounced out of their decade long, college educated job; those “middle-class” parents who now rely on food banks and the charity of friends to feed their family? They have to choose between putting gas l in the car or fixing the leak in their child’s bedroom. Those parents, who as they slip further into despair and shame, check the remains of their life insurance policy to see if they are worth more deceased.

These stories come at a time when salaries, wealth and bonuses of the richest Americans have never been higher. Taxes are lower now than they were under Ronald Reagan. Wages are a smaller proportion of the economy than ever before. There is an unjust balance between elaborate decadence, of extreme, unimaginable wealth, limitless possibilities and, on the other side, the stress, uncertainty, desperation, indignity and powerlessness, for so many Americans.

This is not an economic downturn. It’s a national emergency. What else would you call it when millions of Americans are unemployed, without health insurance, moving from one unstable, unsafe accommodation to the next; when food banks are overloaded, homeless shelters overrun, tent cities emerging on the side of highways.

We’re told that this is inevitable. We have no choice. It is either stay as we are or face economic Armageddon. Many argue that it’s okay for some of us to have multiple homes, helicopters and swimming pools, while others live in storage facilities and tents. They tell us not to dare to intervene in the economy, and that if we do it will be Socialism and national collapse.

This is false. This is an arbitrary and manufactured choice, a fabricated ultimatum.

We do have a choice.

Our American economy is broken. Instead of productive industry, infrastructure and technology, and the mass employment that comes with that, the economy has remained reliant on unproductive financial speculation and frivolous consumer spending.

When I was elected four years ago I promised a change and a more just America. I’ve let you down on those promises. I’m sorry. I thought I could take a tempered approach of compromise into Congress and make incremental reforms. I thought the incessant, special-interest funded campaigns of both parties could be overhauled by my practical, direct engagement with the American people. I was wrong.

So here’s what I’m gonna do.

I’m putting forward a bill to limit campaign expenditure and contributions to 1970’s levels, adjusted for inflation, before things got completely out of control. I will lose donors, and there will be a frenzy of anti-bill publicity, spreading all kinds of misinformation. I ask you to instead consult a variety of news sources and make your own decision.

I’m proposing a public-works bill, building and repairing roads, schools, colleges, power stations and hospitals. This will increase productivity and will provide work to thousands. It will stimulate the economy within communities where the work is undertaken and help to rebuild people’s lives.

How will I pay for it? By restoring income, capital gains and inheritance tax rates to what they were under Ronald Reagan, inflation adjusted. Not socialism levels of tax, the tax rates that were under Ronald Reagan.

With the new revenue I will also increase the income eligibility threshold of Medicare, and continue with the healthcare reform bill. So that in the richest country in the world, people don’t die because they need to choose between paying rent and treating an infected hernia.

You’ll be told this is radical socialism. That’s crazy. America has always had a mixed economy of private enterprise and government involvement when and where the free-market needs assistance. For too many Americans right now, the market is not providing. Government needs to assist the market to restart, and fill the holes that it misses. These measures got us out of the last great depression. They work. We have to undertake them again now.

I’ve tried the other way. I’ve given billions to billionaires in the banks. It hasn’t worked. Neither will giving more tax cuts to millionaires. Bipartisan compromise hasn’t worked. But I can only make these reforms if I have the power of Congress. For that, I rely on your vote.

Thank you.

Posted in Politics | 1 Comment

‘Round the Corner

‘Round the Corner

By J.R. Kuwanksi

Walking on glass ceiling. The cracks are there.

Above: sunshine, conversations with girls; weekends away with friends; out to dinner and discussions of politics. Clean open homes with triangle couches. Casual games of tennis and independent film. Wholegrains and white wines. Pride and sympathy and liberal leanings, charity in good measure. Fall back funds and extended family homes. Elongated career searches and consideration of Masters programs. Fun nights out and talk the next day. Healthy bodies and good looks. Four limbs, white teeth. All is well. Struggle only in the abstract.

On single plate glass. How could you not look down. The sign reads ‘Take care. Be Aware.’ When will it break.

Below: A corner too fast. Biological mishap. Drooling now. Wipe your mouth. Mother helps. Darker room. Medical dictionary. Nerves awray, muscles wither. Avoid eye contact. Thought of pretty girls only hurt. How would you explain the brown bag. Whole in your stomach. Be judged.

Uniform job. Smile for the customer. Move again, how are you going to pay? Crowded now, little sleep. Dangerous. Pain there. Numb embarrassment that always stays sharp. Consider taking the chance, violence pays. Need is heavy. No time. Too tired. Where’s the peace? Disease running through your veins. Dirty and mouldy in here. Can’t see out. There is none. Debt in arrears. Threats are made. Do you opt out? What about the others though. How much longer? Up early, work late. Told it’s your fault. No rest when lying down. Shallow breathing, hollow eyes, hospital beds. Shame. Wait in line, come back tomorrow.

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment

The Sanctity of Cool: and the threat of modern hipsterism

The Sanctity of Cool: and the threat of modern hipsterism

By J.R. Kuwanski

They are modern society’s coiffed pariahs, the poseurs you love to hate. They are vultures of culture—the personification of style’s suffocation of substance, snark’s snuff of sincerity, jaded irony’s preemptive strike on perspective. They are the vacuous trend-chasing children of privilege, the young and the soulless. They are walking, talking empty T-shirt slogans. They are the scourge of 21st-century humanity, fakers of funk in form-fitting jeans and Nike Dunks. They are hipsters.

XXL Magazine

‘Cool’ is an unusual topic. Like Magic Eye or irony, it seems to disappear when you focus on it. But cool actually has very practical origins. While it is subtle, it’s not beyond analysis. And like many social curiosities, it tends to only be discussed in a time of crisis, or when someone’s making money off of it.

To be ‘hip’ is usually synonymous with ‘cool’. They diverge when what is trendy supersedes its origins; the trend becomes a movement in its own right, now casting aside its sociological and artistic beginnings. The style is taken out of context and is appropriated.

Nonetheless, hip is usually indicative of what society, at that time, considers cool. It’s this relationship between what’s currently hip, and those practicing it, that has led to some alarming discussions. Time Out New York, hardly a fire-brand publication, printed the article ‘The Hipster Must Die’, and the more radical periodical, Adbuster, published ‘Hipster: The Dead End of Civilization’. Websites full of scathing criticism have arisen and conjured a mass following. The trend against anti-trend has been too pronounced for even broadsheets to ignore, and London’s own Guardian mainstream newspaper printed ‘Why do People Hate Hipsters?’.

What is it about this contemporary hipsterism, and those accused of propagating it, that has led to such derision? Is it simply the usual criticism that is leveled against alternative culture? The beatniks were derided as ‘hippies’, accused of being ideological and naive. Are the recent attacks in the same vein, now targeted at the hippies modern contemporaries? Or is it something more?

What is distinct about the modern anti-hipsterism movement is that it’s largely from the hipsters’ own peers. The beat generation, that was synonymous with the social revolution of the 60s, were rebuked by an older, more conservative, male generation, whose power and values were being threatened. But the tirade against modern hipsterism is from those in their 20s and early thirties, those that regard themselves as adept in bohemian culture and leftist politics. Adbuster magazine, a bastion of the radical Left, wrote:

We’ve reached a point in our civilization where counterculture has mutated into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum. So while hipsterdom is the end product of all prior countercultures, it’s been stripped of its subversion and originality.

The criticisms are wide-ranging, but themes do emerge – that contemporary hipsters have violated something that we consider quite sacred, ‘cool’. The debate inevitably leads the question ‘what is cool?’

The intuitive response is something like ‘to display a quiet confidence or grace under pressure’ or ‘to be affiliated with urban youth culture’. Though while these characteristics of calm and urbanity may be necessary for cool, a more considered investigation reveals that they are far from sufficient.

It could be said that the origins of cool can be found in the 15th century art movement ‘Itutu’, practiced by the Yoruba and Igbo West African civilizations, the aesthetic being one of poise, smoothness and calm. However, one can go back further, much further, to see such an aesthetic. Gautama Buddha after several days of constant meditation seemed to take cool to a new level. So much so that he decided to dedicate his life to telling people about it. It caught on fast, and soon entire populations in South and East Asia were focusing on how they could be more calm, more relaxed, more aware and more self-controlled.

Europe was not untouched and the sprezzatura art movement was epitomized by Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’. Her posturing is one of grace and mild detachment, but also of slight deviance. The practicalities of cool were utilized by the Turks and their ‘Anatolian smile’, the term used describe the mannerism where no specific emotion is shown, leaving the company unsure of the subject’s intentions.

But cool really went global and became a major unspoken social movement following the Second World War. The spread was due to American cultural influence, mass African American urbanization and the proliferation of jazz. American GIs when stationed over-sees made a strong impact on local cultures. Their challenging of traditional moral and religious beliefs, along with their tendency for hedonism and relaxed disposition, conjured the interest of local youth and left an immutable impression.

Norman Mailer’s seminal essay, ‘The White Negro’, published in 1957, investigated the nature of the post-war hipster. He posited that the 50s hipster was on a perpetual path of discovery and adventure – a path contrary to that of the“square’s” who seeks conformity, security and comfort. The mind-set of the hipster was one of rebellion against the social norm of a “single mate, the solid family and the respectable love life”, whereas the previous generation of youth were merely adults in the waiting, imitating and emulating their parents.

As the essay’s title suggests, Mailer proposed that the hipster was born when a three-element fusion occurred, “a menage-a-trois was completed – the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the ‘Negro’, and the hipster was a fact in American life”. Mailer wrote that “the Negro” in 1950s urban United States was in an almost constant state of survival, often subject to oppression, violence, discrimination and poverty. The post-war urban African American, having seen the hypocrisy of an overarching moral code like nationalism, became an existentialist. He embarked on a continuous search for meaning, alongside an acute appreciation for the present, knowing that the future was not promised.

While Mailer stated that modern cool was largely sourced from African American culture, he believed the phenomenon had gone much further. An entire post-war-generation-youth “contained adventurers who had absorbed the lessons of disillusionment and disgust of the Twenties, the Depression, and the War.” It was this ethos of an oppressed minority, that was acutely aware of danger, impermanence and death, that transcended norms and practiced  what we know as ‘cool’: a language and set of  mannerisms that accompanied artistic and hedonistic pursuits of an anti-establishment youth. These pursuits were not necessarily for their own end, but were borne out of a courageous search for meaning and deeper spiritual investigation, in the context of a moral vacuum and a hostile environment.

The language of cool cannot be understated and Mailer eloquently described its importance:

“If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share: at least all who were Hip.”

The dialect is purposely and inherently abstract as it makes reference to ethereal mental states, and the language can only really be understood by the listener themselves have experienced such states.

Movement and energy are common themes in the language of cool, not for the purposes of pure style or aesthetic, but in terms of hard practicalities – of survival. In a deprived or besieged situation, the practitioners of cool were required to not be wasteful in their exertion, as Mailer states:

“And so the sweet goes only to the victor, the best, the most, the man who knows the most about how to find his energy and how not to lose it. The emphasis is on energy because the psychopath and the hipster are nothing without it since they do not have the protection of a position or a class to rely on when they have overextended themselves. So the language of Hip is a language of energy, how it is found, how it is lost.”

Those practicing the way of cool were the artists, African Americans and dissidents who were either inherent targets of authority, in the case of racist institutions, or conscious subverts by means of their lifestyle or politics. As such, the style of cool was one of mild defiance. The ironic detachment sent a statement of stoicism against those in power that wished to objectify them. It was subliminal enough to hopefully avoid persecution, but psychologically powerful, as well as unnerving for the viewer

With this context in mind, it can be seen that the behavioral mannerisms of cool are not merely for fashion. Instead, they are the very significant indicators of the necessary calm and focus, not only to subvert and avoid persecution from authority, immerse further in to the present, to spiritually develop, to be stoic and in control – or as Mailer puts more poetically:

if you lapse back into being a frightened stupid child, or if you flip, if you lose your control, reveal the buried weaker more feminine part of your nature, then it is more difficult to swing the next time, your ear is less alive, your bad and energy-wasting habits are further confirmed, you are farther away from being with it. But to be with it is to have grace, is to be closer to the secrets of that inner unconscious life which will nourish you if you can hear it, for you are then nearer to that God which every hipster believes is located in the senses of his body, that trapped, mutilated and nonetheless megalomaniacal God who is It, who is energy, life, sex, force …

To be cool is “to be equipped”; to have it together for the purpose of a genuine artistic and spiritual pursuit. To be aware of the dangers, one’s own weaknesses and fears, and to persevere anyway; to not be led by the lesser drives of human-nature, like conformity, or panic, and instead to go forward with dignity and calm.

So, if that’s cool, then how does it differ from modern hipsters, and why are people so upset about it?

In a conversation with a friend’s younger sister she described one of her peers, “Oh yea, he’s cool. Some days he’s usually like gansta style, and others he’s like rocker”. The fashion of the hipster is paramount. The unique characteristic of modern hipster fashion is a spasm of style, with a strong emphasis on kitsch, including 50s décor, polaroids, Formica; with sporadic thefts from the beatniks: beards, thick rimmed glasses; along with several ironic gestures: budget sweatshirts with juvenile images; or even an occasional pillaging from hip hop culture by way of a high top sneaker.

As Matt Granfield described, in his book ‘Hipstermattic’:

Retro was cool, the environment was precious and old was the new ‘new’. Kids wanted to wear Sylvia Plath’s cardigans and Buddy Holly’s glasses — they reveled in the irony of making something so nerdy so cool.

Ganfield posits that the hipsterism movement began as a kind of tacit rebellion against current trend and norms:

“While mainstream society of the 2000s had been busying itself with reality television, dance music, and locating the whereabouts of Britney Spears’s underpants, an uprising was quietly and conscientiously taking place behind the scenes. Long-forgotten styles of clothing, beer, cigarettes and music were becoming popular again. … They wanted to live sustainably and eat organic gluten-free grains. Above all, they wanted to be recognized for being different — to diverge from the mainstream and carve a cultural niche all for themselves. For this new generation, style wasn’t something you could buy in a department store, it became something you found in a thrift shop, or, ideally, made yourself. The way to be cool wasn’t to look like a television star: it was to look like as though you’d never seen television.”

Even if it is accepted that this was the origin of contemporary hipsterism, it quickly turned awry. The supposed movement against current trend became a fervent trend in its own right and the pretense of irony soon became tired. The theorized artistic and social foundations of the hipster trend (antipathy towards pop-culture) simply became a pop-culture itself; the focus was now on the fashion, not the arts, nor the politics, nor social change.

While Mailer talked of the 50s hipster being an amalgamation of the bohemian, delinquent and ‘the Negro’, the modern hipster is an amalgamation of the bohemian, the yuppie and the consumer. Following the demise of punk and grunge, the sub-cultures of the yuppie and metrosexual arose. Unlike the sub cultures before them, these fads had no underlying narrative or subversive premise; they were expressions of material wealth, pruning and technological advancement. The modern hipster continues on this vein, no undercurrent of menace or spiritualism, just quirky bric-a-brac and fervent self-absorption. As posited by Christian Lorentzen in his article ‘The Hipster Must Die’:

they are afflicted by that other ism sociologists made an industry of decrying in the 20th century: narcissism. The late prophet of our current moment, George W. S. Trow, posited that television had obliterated the context of American life. The only refuges remaining were TV, God and the self. Young people who live in cities notoriously shun God and television to cultivate themselves.

Previous subcultures focused on change or creation or rebellion, and the aesthetic was a symptom of this impetus. But contemporary hipsterism has turned in on itself, a fashion for its own sake, entirely self-important. It could be said that the modern hipster would dedicate great time and energy searching for brogue shoes and a waist coast, but would only consider attending a political rally or a spoken word event as an afterthought, and then only to show off the new waist coast and shoes. Sub-culture had turned inward, consuming itself in a feverish spasm of post-modern self-reflection. The concerns lies in that this subculture is the production of our contemporary society, and what does that say about our current state of affairs?

Douglas Haddow, in his article ‘Hipster: The Dead End of Civilization’ summates well:

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.

The modern hipster does not wish to cultivate the world outside of him, or rebel from it. He does not wish to investigate one’s self, or produce awe inspiring art, music or writing. He does not wish to transcend the self to an elevated level of being, to travel to the space beyond the ego, either in a flurry of hedonistic fury or meditation,  nor by intrepid adventure, or bar brawl, or via heavy hallucinogens. He wishes to wear a v-neck, short shorts and thick rimmed non-prescription glasses.

But why should this arouse us so? Not all members of society are obliged to seek spiritual transcendence, nor are they expected to protest social norms or be committed to the arts. An upheaval of criticism hasn’t been levied against the common man for not aspiring to do so, nor has it been levied against their chosen fashion sense, so why such derisive criticism towards the hipster?

The style of the hipster bastardizes and emasculates every sub culture that came before them. It cheapens and denigrates them. The hipster arrogantly ignores the cultural foundation from which the fashion spurred and instead seeks to consume culture itself.

The purpose of the style is the style itself. The hipster skims across decades of movements and accessorizes from each. He incessantly opts out of culture, cowering behind the excuse of irony, while parasitically feeding off all predecessor sub-cultures that were bold in their statements. The same goes for music, where modern consumer technology reflects the attitude. Spotfy and mp3 files allow the hipster to evade taste and instead flick from one genre to the next. This, all under the auspices of kitsch, is in reality the manifestation of both laziness and gluttony.

It is the sanctity of counter culture and cool that is violated here. For the last five decades each evolution of counter culture has spurred on cultural progression and change, not to mention real political and ethical advancement. Is this now the end point, where the youth are left to only reflect back on the past, make a playlist out of it, and dress up as a pirate? It is the lack of originality, the cowardice, the self-absorption, narcissism and conformity that offends. The modern hipster emits the veneer of rebellion, of innovation, of bohemia but offers none.

In the Adbuster’s article ‘Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization’, former Vice magazine editor Gavin McInnes, asserted that critics of the supposed hipster were merely those who were “mad at these young kids for going out and getting wasted and having fun and being fashionable”. But that is not the cause for incitement. It is the loud pretense of Bohemia that the hipster shouts, only to then scurry behind a Mac book if anyone looks.

Posted in Social Commentary | 10 Comments

Two Weeks to Makes Sense

The little understanding I had of African poverty were relic memories of 90’s World Vision advertisements, of children with bloated stomachs and flies on their faces. My only knowledge of West African conflict was early 2000s’ news footage of children running across deserted dirt roads, with large guns.


Despite trying to convince myself that these were outdated stereotypes, I feared that they were, in fact, what I would be met with when I exited the plane in Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa. In actuality though, I was met with a lengthy wait for the airport shuttle, unwanted baggage handling services and not-so-subtle pleas for tips.

I walked out of the the small airport I checked my phone. I was expecting instructions from a friend, who had been living in Sierra Leone for 6 months, working as a volunteer in the government’s Agricultural Department. My phone hummed and the text read “Ferry guys have fucked it up, look for a blond Dutch girl called Jenny”. There were certainly no blond girls, Dutch or otherwise, and as nightfall was quickly approaching I figured I’d try my chances with the slight building just outside the terminal; the one with the ‘Ferry’ sign. After a blur of stamps, a hurried “go with him”, another plea for a tip, followed by a mischievous smile and a “first time in Africa?”, I found myself in a crowded van, hoping things were going well, as opposed to horribly wrong.

The van drove for 15 minutes on a gorged dirt road with street side stalls and long grass running alongside. We arrived at another ferry building, where the seeming confusion began again: bags taken and carried to an unknown destination, sparse pigeon-English instructions. Fortunately this led to me boarding a speed boat, heading towards my destination, Cockle Bay. I sat in silence as the boat sped through the pitch black with unknown passengers and unknown crew. After what was perhaps twenty minutes we arrived safely at the opposite side of the Sierra Leone river.

To my relief I was not besieged by desperate parents lining the streets, holding up their skeletal children, tugging at my shorts distraughtly, begging for me to take their offspring. I quickly concluded that all was well and those early 90s images accompanying the 48 hour famine charity appeal (in which I had great fun as a child, sleeping in school halls, with friends, as I consumed absurd amounts of calories through barley sugars and Just Juice) were no longer relevant and it seemed even African absolute poverty wasn’t nearly as horrific as I had dreaded.

For surely what I was to find here, in Sierra Leone, was to be some of the worst. Rated 180 out of 187 countries on the United National Development Indicators list, with a life expectancy of 48 years, one in five children not reaching the age of five and 63% of the population living on less than $1.25 USD a day – this is where I would find the nitty-gritty.

The country’s past is one of horror – a graphic display in human cruelty, incompetency, suffering and injustice, leaving any witness with their eyes deeply set and a hole in their stomach. European contact began in the 15th century; shortly after the visitors began kidnapping locals and enslaving them, owning them as property and often working them to death. Soon some Sierra Leoneans themselves caught on to what could be a lucrative trade and began enslaving members of rival communities and sometimes members of their own. They sold their captives to the Europeans in exchange for rum, cloth, beads, copper, or muskets – items on par with a human life, and the inconvenience of obtaining one.

In the late 1700s the slave trade had become somewhat of a faux pas with parts of the British upper classes. Their attitude was similar to the modern movement against hen battery farming – still legal but considered a good turn if one could afford to not participate in it. Some British gentry thought it would be progressive to rehouse the now freed slaves – largely those who had been freed, having fought on behalf of Britain in the American War of Independence. These luckless individuals that were the target of this British group’s altruism had had the most remarkable lives. After being captured, sold, transported, forced into relentless hard labour, undergoing the horrors of the American Civil war and now living in such bizarre and estranged locations from their origins as the bitterly cold Nova Scotia, Canada, they were being offered Freetown, Sierra Leone as their new home. The West African nation was chosen despite the fact that most of the freed slaves were from other parts of Africa or even another continent entirely, India.

Once considering their own perilous and often impoverished situation, even as ‘free’ as it was, many agreed to the voyage. Around 400 ‘settlers’, along with a handful of British sex-workers, were resettled in Freetown. Not surprisingly, with many of the group having lived in the United States and Britain for over a generation, the migrants were decimated by the local environment – either killed by malaria, other tropical diseases, starvation or murdered by the local people.

The British group of do-gooders, the Sierra Leone Company, were undeterred and decided to try again, this time upping the numbers and sending over 1000 former slaves. While over 60 of those sent died en route, the second attempt proved more successful. Most of the new immigrants survived and some even flourished. But an unexpected plot turn took place, much to the displeasure of the English philanthropists. This new colony in Sierra Leone, that was to be the bastion of African independence and sovereignty, began enslaving the local population – with the freed slaves becoming slave owners themselves, passing on the spirit-shattering degradation, suffering and despair to which they were once victim.

To darken the twisted irony, following the British prohibition of slavery in 1807, ships full of human cargo coming out of West Africa en route to the Caribbean and U.S. southern states, were intervened by British forces. The ships were made to turn back to Africa. Although the individuals were not being repatriated to their home from which they were taken, they were returned, indiscriminately, to Freetown – where they were at risk of being enslaved again , often by former slaves. Several of the returned slaves even took up the trade themselves. Over time the business began to slow and the local government caught on, hundreds of years later, outlawing the industry in 1928, after a history of three iterations of slavery.

The horror didn’t end there.

In the early 1990s during the Liberian civil war, General Charles Taylor in his bloodlust appetite for violent power, was arming, drugging and indoctrinating Liberian children, sending them to commit mass rape and murder. Taylor began ordering his adolescents across the border into Sierra Leone. Some of the local youth joined in and wreaked untold destruction across the northern part of the country. It was a war without a grand narrative, instead it was one of superstition, paranoia and an overwhelming intoxication of power and greed, funded off the sparkling rocks that Westerners so adored.

The brutality of the child soldiers was demonic and Charles Van Someren in his book ‘The Civil War in Sierra Leone: Misguided Conventional Diplomacy and the Clinton Administration’ describes the insanity poignantly:

‘Descriptions of their (child soldiers’) methods are nauseating: they were infamous for their young, frenzied troops storming into villages armed with machetes and asking their victims if they wanted “short sleeves or long,” the answer determining whether the victims’ arms would be amputated at the elbows or the wrists. They knocked teeth out with hammers, amputated noses and tongues, placed bets on the gender of an unborn child and then hacked open the mother’s womb. Besides these and other barbaric practices, the RUF engaged in many acts of sexual violation, to say nothing of their looting and pillaging of the Sierra Leonean countryside. Many of the RUF rebels were in fact young children whose parents had been killed by the RUF; others were children who had murdered their families.’

The abhorrence continued for almost a decade as any semblance of normal life drifted into distant memory. A private mercenary squad, Executive Outcomes, halted the tyranny of the RUF temporarily, but the end finally came by way of British intervention in the early 2000s. Rays of peace and civilization began to appear from the decade of Hobbesian brutality.

So what was the state of the place now? How does a country and a people recover from such devastation and trauma? And what could I gather in two weeks from the statistics? What was the look, smell and feel of a nation at the very first rung of development, and what was the story and experience of this. In short, what was the meaning of a life born out of the most graphic violence, now faced with abject poverty?

With my friend Steve and a couple of other Western volunteers, I began a trip up north, to Kabala, to see some more remote villages and to start our 2 kilometre climb of Mt Bintumani. One of the first things noticed by a Westerner in Sierra Leone is the roads. Most are in a drastic state of disrepair. It becomes apparent very quickly what kind of impact this has on every aspect of life. The simplest of errands become a serious undertaking – travelling less than a few miles, to go the bank, or to work, becomes a precarious, long, expensive and exhausting task, bumping over dirt roads and paths, with deep potholes, on the back of speeding motorcycle, in dense and erratic traffic. The forebears of modern western civilization knew this, the Romans, and they carved an empire on good roads. The lack of road infrastructure goes hand in hand with a couple of other Sierra Leonean life-essentials. One is dirt. With no solid asphalt roads, or footpaths, you are at the mercy of constant and ubiquitous fine, brightly coloured, orange-brown dust, which sticks. Much of the locals’ lives are taken up with stemming the tide of the dust. And this links in with a couple of other quiet essentials – two things that really help to fight the battle against the dust – clean running water, and electricity. Both are in short supply in Sierra Leone, with electricity intermittent at best, and a population unable to afford if it even it were. This means that toilets don’t flush and showers don’t run. As a visitor, soon you are welcomed into a Sierra Leonean regular, the bucket filling and hand washing routine. The sheer time and energy that this involves can be debilitating to productivity. Every glass, every plate, every t-shirt, every bowel movement, every floor, requires buckets of manually sourced water. Following this, there is scrubbing, more water, another flush, another bucket of water, another rinse, a dry, and another bucket of water.

Aside from the hours that it will steal from your leisure time and comfort, a darker aspect of the dust-water-electricity conundrum became apparent. As we trekked through from Yumbya village to the base of Mt Bintumani, through the banana trees, sporting their wide, bright green flora, we were accompanied by five porters. These adolescent boys demonstrated incredible fitness and strength, carrying our heavy bags across steep and inconsistent terrain. I, a supposedly fit young man, was finding the hike hard enough without fifteen kilograms of luggage on my head. As we stopped to filter some water from the stream, we were naively amused that the porters requested a sip. We thought this was absurd as these young men had been drinking unfiltered water all their lives, surely they had built up the necessary immunities from what may be lingering in the stream. When we enquired with one of the young men he responded, “There’s bugs in the water you can’t see. There’s no health centre in Yumbya so if you get sick you need to go to Yiffen. By then you might die”. Our pseudo medical smugness soberly vanished.

After three hours of trekking towards the Yumbya village, moving through the tropical rolling hills, the rope bridges, the mud, we came to the village entrance. Word had caught wind of our arrival and some small children were waiting. Upon first sight of us their excitement was apparent. The kids were running back and forth, yelling with their little voices “Hello, hello!”. They seemed fascinated with white men and women; their warmth and exuberance were intoxicating and you couldn’t help but to be swept with a sense of euphoria. Their eyes were intent on our faces and a daring would begin to walk along side us, holding our hands. Even with their often snotty noses and no doubt unhygienic small hands, it was hard to have the heart to refuse.

The isolation that the young porter explained became clear by way of the journey. The only thing connecting Yumbya to the outside world was one path to another small town, Yiffen, three hours walk away. Following that, the next closest village was Kabala, a further 8 hours walk. Even if you were wealthy or connected enough to have a car, the road was often flooded, meaning the sick and elderly were often stuck. For most of the villagers, it seemed likely they would have only travelled to Kabala, the neighbouring town of 18,000 dispersed people, and perhaps many of the elders or children had only gone as far as the neighbouring village. This was the extent of their world.

The older villagers were more relaxed than the ecstatic children. They had obviously been through this experience before, as the NGO community had become pronounced following the war. The hardest customers, understandably, were the teenagers and young adults. These kids had been through the massacres, some of their peers may have participated in them. Many had now seen some television, maybe perhaps had heard stories of how people their own age, like myself, not only were able to afford and have access to education, but also employment, not to mention domestic and even global travel. They did not show the wonder and excitement that the children did when we entered.

The beauty of the village setting was quite remarkable, surrounded by jungle covered mountains, an opening in the middle and a solitary path leading off into the tropical forest. The school, a rock building with a rock and mud floor, with half a blackboard with a hole in the middle of it, was designated as our sleeping quarters for the evening. Once we placed our bags in our new abode, we walked to the near-by stream to wash.

Two of the local boys were already in the stream and we began to chat: how old we were, how long we were staying. The elder of the two brothers, had astute English and a relaxed but competent manner, a likeable young man. Kefu was perhaps in his late teens, or early twenties. It was often hard to tell the age of the local boys, as the manual labour and meagre diet meant extremely muscular slim physiques beyond their years, or, at times, meant stunted growth due to malnutrition. After washing, we began walking back to the village, through head-high grass. We were told how he was here to work the rice fields, with his younger brother, to help his family and save for his next school semester. The larger baskets of rice that he had collected earlier that day were carried back to the village on his head, the technique referred to as toting. My friend Steve offered to help, wanting to try the technique himself – a rather unusual image, a white man toting, even when demonstrating solid amateur technique. At points throughout our conversation we had discussed what we were doing here, our lives, and the young man did the same. It was a strange parallel. As the conversation continued, the young local young man stated several times, “This is how we live; this is how we live here”. My travelling partner, making reference to the toting technique, responded “It’s good”. The young man turned slightly, still walking forward with the large basket above his head, “It’s good? No, it’s not good, we are dying”.

The young man’s, Kefu’s, expression was far from dramatic though. This was common life in Sierra Leone and West Africa. It was normal. The illnesses and injuries, the malnutrition, it wasn’t sensationalist, it wasn’t ominous. It was partial, often subtle, and these were risks, not certainties. Life went on. And it went on largely with dignity, sometimes humour, with acceptance. The natural beauty and amicability in the country seemed to diminish much of the lingering solemnity. The thick mist that covered the hills in the morning and the large low orange sun that descended behind them in the evening appeared to give serenity, or at least respite. Sion, one of the boys that carried our brutally heavy bags up the mountain, reflected the sentiment well. When I asked him if he would climb the mountain again, he responded:

“Yes, I want to see the top”.

“But didn’t you find it hard?”

“Yes,all my life is hard, all my life is struggle”.

My travelling partners and I considered whether life would be better in the country or in Freetown, the bustling, noisy dirty capital. We had heard through another NGO friend that several of the children leave their families to pursue adventure in the big city. The children often ended up on the street, subject to sexual and violent abuse, prostitution, substance misuse and other tragic afflictions. Nonetheless it could still be seen why kids left, considering the simplicity of village life, which involved waking early, working the rice fields or collecting bananas, returning to the village, cleaning, and then perhaps a game of soccer at dusk. That was it, day in day out, with the same hundred or so people that you have known all your life. No radio, no tv, no literature, no cars, no shops, no movies, no bars, no computers, in fact, no electricity.

The phenomenon of younger people moving from a relatively peaceful environment to one fraught with danger, stress and hardship, was not exclusive to Sierra Leone. George Monbiot, a Guardian journalist, observed a similar trend in South America:

‘An ethnographer I know who worked among peasant communities in the Amazon found that many of the people he met were obsessed by the idea of moving to the cities. In view of the hellish nature of many Brazilian favelas – especially in the booming Amazonian towns – he wanted to know why. “You have a wonderful life here: the rivers are teeming with fish, your gardens are crammed with food, you work an hour or two a day to meet your needs. You can’t read or write: if you move to the city, you’ll have to beg or steal or sell your body to survive,” he pointed out. “What you say is probably true,” they answered, “but in the city you can dream.”’

While life in the Sierra Leonese countryside was far from one of comfort or abundance, nor was it without grave risks, it was largely peaceful. The city was thought to be more exciting and offer more opportunities, real or otherwise. But it was very possible that life in the big city may not end up any more exciting, though almost certainly more stressful. As we drove out of the city, crowds of young men approached the car, many of which may have been boys originally from the country. Amongst the constant beeping, filth, fumes and frantic hustling, the young boys would rush the car, hawking bags of water, soft drinks or fruit. Again, there was rarely an overt look of sorrow, more of a simple hustle, and on several occasions, a hint of humour; although my moments of observation were sure not to tell the whole tale.

After pondering the pros and cons of country versus city living, we also pondered whether these young men and women would be better off in their home towns, in Sierra Leone, or in a large developed city like London. If in London, the Sierra Leoneans would be dislocated from their community and culture, would still be prone to poor housing, although admittedly much better than the corrugated iron and dirt floors available in their hometown. They would still be earning meagre money in an alienating job, they’d be vulnerable to loan sharks, drugs, alcoholism, gangs; they’d be separated from nature. But they would have much greater access to healthcare, food and education. Steve summarised the debate succinctly, “Yeah, but they could eat bro”.

This issue of nutrition really became apparent when we were camping up the mountain. Once we finished eating, one of the porters tentatively approached and gestured towards the remains of a honey pot we had used for the past few nights’ meals. There were merely drops left in the bottle and so we didn’t register at first, thinking that the boy was referring to something else. But it was the honey he was asking for, the remains of a bottle, a slim lining on the bottom, which would have without hesitation been thrown away in the developed world. The petty inconvenience of extracting the last pittance would have been considered too be far too onerous for the honey itself. Rice was what was eaten here. Twice, maybe three times a day. Maybe with some kasava leaf. Maybe a banana. And that seemed to be pretty much it. Every day.

I realised around this time how much impact, dramatic life changing impact, someone from the developed world can have on one of these young boys, girls or their parents’ lives. The amount that I would spend on a night out could potentially mean years of education, or a dramatically improved diet, or simply a varied experience from what was unyielding life-long monotony. Some further absurd comparisons emerged. We discussed how one of our travelling partners’ family had pet horses, in Surrey, who I have no doubt were fed and housed far better than most of the local people we interacted with. I myself was going on to travel around the world, spending thousands on air fares alone. The realization was bewildering and sickening. I often found my stomach to grip with guilt and angst and despair.

However I’m not sure if many of the local NGO workers shared in this experience of self-reproach. Instead, some volunteers recounted stories of supposed exploitation, not that the Sierra Leonese had suffered but that they were victim to themselves. Situations where they would be charged an extra 10,000 Leonean dollars, less than 3 US dollars, for unsolicited tailoring, when they had alterations made to their cocktail dress. The shock of this abhorrent crime seemed very real, etched on the victim’s face, before they purchased a beer and pack of local cigarettes – the cost of which would be beyond many locals weekly income. Or the supposed and self-proclaimed 23 year old ‘anthropologist’, that would ruthlessly bargain with local taxi drives over a $1.50, and then at the last minute inform the driver that they were in fact to go further than first stated, to drop off her friend. These workers were essentially volunteers and so did have a budget to adhere to. But the same rules of stringency didn’t seem to apply when at the bar.

Nonetheless, it was easy a passing traveller, like I was, to swan in, cast judgement far and wide, and leave. These women and men, often quite young, were performing roles that I didn’t have the stomach for, living at times very uncomfortable lives and undertaking very difficult roles. When I asked “How do you handle it, emotionally, the poverty?” the response was “Well, I guess you either stay, and accept it, and do what you can. Or you say, ‘oh it’s horrible’ and runaway.” I chose the latter and as such most likely forfeited the privilege to criticise those who chose the nobler and more courageous alternative.

And the volunteers and NGO workers themselves were not entirely exempt from the health risks. The cold reality of healthcare shortages became apparent in the passing conversations:

“Where’s Sally gone? She had a hard run didn’t she.”

“Yea, she had to go home, emergency flight.”

“What did she have? Typhoid?”

“They think so, but maybe something else as well. Hope she’s alright”

The necessity of the NGO workers, and the brutal reality they had to face, was demonstrated when one of the NGO doctors, who worked up-country in a small town that was effectively devoid of any medical care (much like all the other small towns) explained that if they took a couple days off it would most likely mean someone would die, that would not have otherwise.

It was interesting to gain a local’s perspective on the matter, one who had lived in both the developed world and Sierra Leone. “In some ways I think we have it better because of this, because to most of us here when you get sick, you die. But that is it, you accept it, it is why we say ‘c’est la vie’”, Joseph states, as he leaned, almost exaggeratedly, against his beach-side bar, with his mouth lazily agape. Joseph, who had lived in Denmark, London and Wales, then went on, “There are many poor people in London and New York, the only difference from here is that there they get help. No one gives us help here. Here you get hungry, you die. That’s it. There is no one to help you. If you have no job, no one will help you. You need to find your way. I prefer to live here. You think I could have this in the U.K.? No, too expensive in the developed world” as he gestured to his bar on the white sand and accompanying accommodation, that I somehow suspect may have been funded, at least in part, from his wages earned in UK.

I can hear the cheering Tory elite now, along with Ms Rand and the blue collar conservatives, congratulating Joseph for his brave and true philosophy. Although I imagine that the hundreds of Sierra Leoneans that take to open boats each year, departing from the African coast in the hope of reaching Europe, a journey likely to end in mass drowning or fatal dehydration, may hold a different opinion. Also the 2002 Sierra Leonean Commonwealth athletes, of whom almost all absconded from their barracks in Manchester, never to return home, may wish to refute some of Joseph’s arguments.

But it was not simply a case of money. The poverty in Sierra Leone was systemic, and not entirely discrete from many of the Sierra Leones’s behaviour. There were cases where money was thrown at the problem, thousands given to local ministers for healthcare, who then took over half, and unashamedly responded to the donors “I have twelve children.” Sierra Leone and its people were tangled in a complex web of corruption, incompetence, poor education and poverty, reinforced by nepotism and superstition. Poignant examples were found in the heart of healthcare, amongst nurses, where there was a drug shortage, because the nurses would steal and sell them, because they hadn’t been paid in months, because the government payment system was in disarray and the coffers were largely empty. A common response in the nurses’ exam, when asked what to do if a patient’s drip becomes detached, was to “pray to god”. Or in education, where a peace-corps worker explained, “I’m supposed to be teaching 9 year old children Shakespeare, that’s what’s in the syllabus, but they can’t read, and we don’t have any books.” The peace-corps volunteer, I likeable American guy in his early 20s explained that dangerously the kids were adopting commercial hip-pop culture – a nihilist belief in quick-money hedonism. When I asked how he responded, considering the lack of resources and the lack of familial emphasis on education, he said that he just had to try to ingrain the fundamentals of knowledge, the thirst for learning, so kids could think beyond today, beyond here and now. He explained that this mental opposition to abstract thought was what was stopping co-operative farming, was what was stopping growing and storing and selling more than what was just needed for today or this week.

The other huge impediment to growth was casual extortion and corruption. On all the main roads outside of Freetown there are temporary police check points, often in the form of a string across the road, held up by a policeman or member of the military. Depending on your skin colour and the car you drive the string will either remain up or be let down if white or wealthy – lowered for white drivers in Land Rovers, held up for everyone else. A contribution, fine, fee, or whatever the guard at the time decides to call it, will ensure the string is lowered – a regressive tax to be levied on the poor and powerless.

At times however, the extortion will be levied from tourists and NGO workers. As we approached the bay across from Banana Island we were met by a group of young men who had been drinking, some having beers in their hands. They insisted that the charge for parking would be 7000 Leonean dollars per person (around a $1.50) as opposed to the usual charge of 7000 per car. The increased charge, however minor, was largely considered to be extortionate by my friend and NGO workers in the vehicle. Perhaps the thinking was that it was unlikely to be passed on to the villager who owned the property, or reinvested back into the community – a fee without a service. The charge could be considered an arbitrary unproductive additional cost on the economy, making it more difficult and expensive for locals and foreigners to do business. And while it was a relatively small amount of money, Butcher in his Sierra Leone based novel, summarised it well:

“In a country like Sierra Leone corruption feels like sand in an engine. No individual grain is going to do much harm but taken together over a long time the grains grind the engine to a halt.”

A heated argument began to occur between the car’s occupants and the local men outside. In the exchange of broken English, voices began to be raised and at a point hands came into the car. But it finished as quickly as it started when my friend stoically announced “We’re going to pay you the usual charge, and we’re going to drive on now. If you have a problem with that, you can call the police” and we continued on.

The event did trigger an interesting debate in my mind. There were often conversations about the charging structure of okadas, the motorcycle taxis that were ubiquitous throughout Freetown and other major towns. A short trip on the okada was considered to be 1000 Leonean and a longer one 2000. Some NGO workers spoke of how they would be stern with drivers and not get “ripped off” by paying 2000. I thought to myself, which party was actually getting ripped off and why it wasn’t considered the prerogative of the supplier, as is the case for power companies or banks, to set the price, and why the okadas couldn’t factor the increased cost of fuel into their charging. For how were local businessmen expected to develop if they did not have control over their pricing, and at what point would it be deemed acceptable by the NGO workers for this arbitrary price ceiling to be changed? Could it be the case that the NGO workers felt they were being discriminated against and that was the injustice here? If so, surely this would be no surprise as the free market is based on discrimination, on the customer being able to pay. For they themselves, the NGO workers, were discriminating against the local drivers, as the equivalent service in the developed world would be much higher. And it is a common economic phenomenon that as more wealth enters an economy inflation occurs, as demand for goods and services increase, and therefore prices rise (and the price increase acts as a signal in the market to encourage an increase in supply)… Econ 101. I can’t be sure if all these matters were considered, at least not in length, by the NGO workers, who seemed to be casual economists in their own right. But I couldn’t help but to think that the NGO workers had been at least partly indoctrinated by a neo liberal mantra that states that poor peoples’ competitive advantage is desperation, and therefore they should be willing to work for cheaper, in turn gaining more business. But this doctrine tends to lead to a dead end. As the desperation market is already flooded, and in a country where the life expectancy is 48 years of age, with many passing before such a time, I’m not sure if the young men driving the okadas can afford to wait it out and hope for the theoretical rising economic tides to lift them, and their motorcycles, out of poverty.

Frances, a boy in his late teens that approached me at the airport, represented the youth that were trying to get ahead by way of honest means. Originally from Liberia, he came to Sierra Leone as a young boy, a refugee; both his parents had been killed in the civil war. German soldiers looked after him until early adolescence, when they left. He then began hustling at the airport, offering to carry bags etc. He was sleeping outside, “which was dangerous, because you could get sick”. He then, over several months, managed to save enough money to attend a boarding school, not far outside of Sierra Leone. His determination for education was fervent. He insisted that I choose a country, any country, and he would tell me about it. True to his word, any country I could think of, he would recite the population, political structure, currency and key elements of history. His vocabulary was astounding and he spoke eloquently. He explained that he would like to become a judge or a lawyer but it was difficult as “The Sierra Leoneans are very nationalistic, and they do not like the fact that I am from Liberia”. There was also the difficulty of nepotism. “You have to know someone, you need a connection”. Each school break he would return to the airport, to hustle for tips and donations, now sleeping at a friend’s house. Every term it would be undecided whether he would gain the funds to return for the next semester. Or, even if he did graduate, what employment, if any, would be available to him then. Like Sierra Leone, it was hard to say what Frances’s future would hold.

With such an uncertain prospects for the Sierra Leoneans, I was surprised to hear from the NGO workers that they had few concerns for their safety. They would baulk at the idea of a threat to life, reporting that they felt more unsafe in London or Manchester. I took solace in their convictions, particularly when we found ourselves in situations in which I would have otherwise been very concerned. Like one evening when we sat at a very non-descript small road side bar. The establishment was attended by a couple of locals and was adjacent to a typical Freetown ally way – a narrow, uneven dirt path, sporadically interspersed with dirty water-filled potholes, shanty housing running alongside. As we sat outside at the plastic table, the generator died and the music fell silent. All that could be seen were embers of cigarettes in the alley way and intermittent murmurs.

I was told by Steve that the lack of violence in the country was largely due to “the people being exhausted of it”, after over a decade of atrocities. It was understandable considering the history, but I couldn’t help to think that now there were many young teenagers that may not remember the war, and with so little to lose and no real hope to gain, this foundation for peace was tenuous at best.

Image | Posted on by | 1 Comment

Guys from the gym

Guys from the gym

By J.R. Kuwanski

Steve’s bulging frog-like eyes give him an unusual appearance. Combined with his receding hair line, high and protruding cheek bones, coupled with his thin tied back dreadlocks and 6’2 height, his appearance can at first be off-putting. Although as time passes his quirk, mild manner and honesty become endearing. His south-east London accent, with the quick staccato inflection of his Nigerian heritage, means he can be difficult to understand, speaking quickly and slightly under his breath. He tends to stand at a distance, and his eye contact is never held long without being interrupted by an abrupt glance away, and then back, during conversation. But he often ends his sentences with a rapid “you-understand”, indicating that despite his remissive posturing he does want you to listen.

After a London military school until the age of ten, his Dad moved him back to Nigeria. An unknown boy with a British accent amongst excitable, adolescent Nigerian boys was not an easy experience, nor was waking at five am every morning to fetch the water. He learnt to hunt and fish around the village, the boy from London, to supplement the food he was supposed to get from the school, for which his father had paid.

His African adolecence seems to have stayed with him, as his yellow-tinged bulbous eyes may be due to the yellow fever he contracted when he was young. “It attacks your liver, so does Malaria, but not like yellow fever. It really destroys your liver. You become the walking dead. You understand”.

His morning begins early, starting around five am at the road-works, finishing around four in the afternoon. On Fridays, after work, he comes to the gym, usually holds the pads, in which his timing is a little awkward, and returns home for a few hours rest before working the door at a club in London’s west end, until five am. “When I come in and don’t spar, now you know. It’s not ‘cos I don’t want to. You understand now.”

Despite working in the industry, he expresses a disconnect with the club-scene, often finding it a place for manipulation, on behalf of both genders. And when asked if it’s a good club, his response is “I don’t know, I don’t drink. I cant because of my liver.”

One also can’t help but to wonder what Steve’s experiences with women have been. “I always come to the gym unno. ‘Cos you can’t give it up for a woman, ‘cos they won’t care when they leave you.” In his late thirties, or possibly early forties, there’s been no mention of children, but when asked about his long working hours, his reply is “I need the money. The pay is so shit that you have to work the hours. You understand.”

When passing him from outside of the ring, you can notice a quick and nervous glance towards you. And once the buzzer sounds, ending the round, he often looks over and asks “how-was-that?” His senstivity is also shown by unusual remarks in between rounds, “I think a lot of the young guys in here are rude unno. Once they get out of the ring they dont talk to you, they just walk away.”

Posted in Character portrait - creative nonfiction | Leave a comment