|Monday 09th of August 2021
ONCE I TOOK A WEEKLONG WALK IN THE SAHARA by Anna Badkhen @emergence_zine
Tracing an ancient route across the Sahara Desert once caravanned by pilgrims on their journey to Mecca, Anna Badkhen contemplates human movement across shifting landscapes, the impermanence of memory, and what remains eternal in the face of erasure.
LATER WE WILL slow down to walking speed: a day of dunes, a day of black lava pavement, a day of maroon pebbles—but on our first day in the Sahara, Sid’Ahmed in the lead truck smooth-talks us past checkpoints, and we drive through the desert fast on a good road.
An hour of pale dunes. An hour of sunburnt grass, low and white, an old man’s stubble. An hour of dust storm. Oases perimeter ten-thousand-gallon pillow tanks for water, laid out like waterbeds for the giants who must roam this vastness.
Every hour or so, small perfect cubes of single-room homes, clean and pastel, peep out of sand the color of the skin on the heel of your palm, that spot where the lines of life and fate close in. A newborn neatness about them.
They stand alone or in clusters, each a concrete replica of a Bedou tent, with a pyramidical roof that aims an iron spike at the sky: a scattering of dreidels, each pinned up beseechingly to heaven, as if to keep them from flying away.
Or to allow you to pull them out of the desert as you would an onion, shake them free of sand: here and there a house is choked up to the eaves.
When we finally stop near Chinguetti, Sid’Ahmed orders us to shinny up a massive barchan—the first of the many dunes he will make us scale—and, at the top, informs us that a village is buried under our feet.
What is a place? A memory of our presence, a memory of our absence. A separation sets the two apart. Sometimes the severing takes the shape of a mountain of sand that swallows a village.
Sometimes it is a journey, a hejira, a hajj. What is a journey for? To remember, to forget. For the next week, Sid’Ahmed will lead nine of us, artists, on foot along the route on which for centuries pilgrims caravanned from the Atlantic coast to Mecca to remember devotion, to forget sin.
We will start near Chinguetti, a center of religious scholarship during the Islamic Golden Age, and for seven days we will walk through the desert westward, downwind, like the devout returning from circumambulating the Kaaba.
I do not know why my colleagues came to the desert. I came to make sense of our partings, and to remember what binds us.
It is January 2, 2020, and human movement and farewells are center stage on Earth. One in seven of us is on the move, including—though I cannot see them from this barchan—the thousands crossing the Sahara toward the imaginary riches of Europe.
In a week, the World Health Organization will announce the first death of a novel coronavirus in east-central China; and within two months, the nanoscopic virus will commence the direst season of rupture in humankind’s remembering and split us in unimaginable ways.
This, too, will become stored in our memories. I stand on the top of a dune that once was a homeland. All around me, the desert heaves and falls.
ONCE UPON A TIME, the marabouts of Chinguetti began to collect books. Some volumes they acquired on their travels to other parts of Africa, and to Europe and Central Asia and the Middle East; others were brought to town by visiting scholars, and pilgrims performing the hajj.
A library was born, then another. Now in the heart of Mauritania’s Sahara there are twelve, holding thousands of volumes: the Quran and the Hadith, books on Islamic law, astrology, medicine, and theology that have been copied and illustrated by hand; they say the oldest manuscript dates back to the eleventh century.
Each page of each book is a masterwork, a work of art.
We pilgrim to one of the libraries, the Bibliotheque al Habott. It is a single-story compound of limestone slabs set a few steps down from the road: Mauritania is nine-tenths desert, and the Sahara is rising, lapping at walls; it has expanded by a tenth since 1920, in part because of the natural cycles of rainfall and wind, in part because of man-made climate change.
A tin sign on the roof announces that this library was founded at the end of the eighteenth century and contains more than fourteen hundred volumes in twelve disciplines.
The librarian, Abdullah Habott—a descendant of the founding marabout, five generations removed—explains that the library abides by two rules: that it be maintained by one of the marabout’s male descendants, lest it shift patrimony; and that the books in its collection never leave Chinguetti, lest knowledge seep from the town.
In this way, the founder, Sidi Mohamed Ould Habott le Grand, set out to preserve memory in the desert. But the manuscripts are disappearing in place.
Abdullah Habott turns precious pages with cotton-gloved hands: some pages have been nibbled by mice; some pages are bound in embossed leather cracked by drought; on some pages, mold patinates miniature drawings in gold leaf; some books have round perforations boring through them from cover to cover where termites have drilled into the pages, as if to take core samples.
And some books are no longer books but powdery termite refuse, each a miniature bound desert, a sand mandala recording the way we become severed from our own past.
The cartilage of history is precious and perishable: millions of family chronicles of millions of people lost in transit or in the Middle Passage, lost in translation or untranslatable, abridged out of fear or neglect or unsuitability, so that we are displaced not merely in place but also in time, our ancestral narratives mislaid or missing or hidden from our sight, inaccessible.
At the Habott Library, dizzied, I begin to fall down one of the termite holes, like Alice in Wonderland.
I know that I am witnessing a marvel. I know that I am supposed to feel something profound. But I cannot. There is simply too much space-time.
SID’AHMED MARCHES US through Chinguetti’s sand-swelled alleys, halts us at an overlook, leans on the limestone stump of an unmortared wall.
A young black goat wearing a wide choker, to keep it from goring the shearer, toddles through former bedrooms; the choker, hammered from a tomato tin can, is inscribed with “USA.”
Once upon a time, says Sid’Ahmed, centuries ago, this was someone’s home. Chinguetti dates back to the eighth century—it is the same age as Beowulf, Charlemagne, the Second Siege of Constantinople—but the original structures are long gone; the ruins date back to the thirteenth century, compounds abandoned by families who moved to bigger cities, with more opportunities and less sand.
I cannot say if Sid’Ahmed entirely disapproves of urban migration: his family house in the regional capital fifty miles to the west, where we took our lunch, has electricity, a water pump, and flush toilets; but here he rues the encroaching desert, the carelessness of the locals who let their livestock roam free, global warming.
I sense nostalgia. “Another problem,” he says, “is the tourists. This ancient place they pick apart for souvenirs, stone by stone.”
To demonstrate, Sid’Ahmed plucks a rock from the leftover wall and tosses it underhand downhill. The stone thuds dully on sand.
Once back from the desert, I will read articles about Chinguetti that describe the city and her libraries as endangered. But aren’t all of us in the world endangered?
Our onward path is uncertain and perilous; our past, by and large, is a poem of erasure. The hero sets out on a quest-journey—and when she turns around to look, the breadcrumbs are gone.
What sets the ruins of Chinguetti apart from the many other ruins I have seen on other continents, in peace and in wartime, is not the desert. It is the books.
Each is an intention to connect to a past and to reach into the future, each a memory of the people who wrote it multiplied by the memories of the travelers who brought it here, the people who have read it, the people who never will. I wonder how much of the sand that is swallowing Chinguetti streets is frass.
MONTHS AFTERWARD, I hold in my hands a different book, of another desert sojourn. Yasmina Benabderrahmane’s La Bête is a collection of Super 8 still frames captured so close up I want to move the pages farther from my eyes, to look from farther away, from a barchan, say, to put some distance between us.
Something in the book is disappearing—a valley of clay potters, a bird sanctuary, a grandmother’s village in Morocco, a second cousin ill with leukemia—but the disappearance is too near to articulate, or too still to see: you can only sense it.
I look at one image after another and think, What is this? What is this? In a book insert, an interviewer calls it “the aesthetics of the fragment.”
This is how we find ourselves—in the desert, or anyplace: fragmented, confused by distance and proximity and loss, tricked or miraged or simply ignorant; something is disappearing as we watch, what is it, what, what?
ONCE I TOOK A WEEKLONG WALK IN THE SAHARA by Anna Badkhen @emergence_zine [continued]
THE OASIS AT La Gueila sits in the lee of a terraced slope of barchan dunes. It began, says Sid’Ahmed, as a camel watering hole; eventually, some of the pits the camels had shat took root in moistened sand, and now it is a date grove.
This is where we stop for our midday meal, halfway through the day’s walk. We spread our mats on the sand, recline, watch the noisy palm fronds transcribe in cuneiform shadow the account of caravans past.
Our own pack camels wander off to water; perhaps their droppings, too, will sprout a date palm, to commemorate our insignificant passing.
The dates of La Gueila taste dense and dark, like buckwheat honey.
WE WALK INTO a field of sandglass, little gray slivers. I pick up a few; they are featherlight. Sid’Ahmed explains: the sand was fused together by the flame of a meteor that is said to have crashed here between sixty and seventy million years ago, around the time of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction, the fifth, what scholars sometimes call the K-Pg event.
(Watch a simulation video of Earth’s landmass formation around the time of the supposed impact: Continents, not yet wholly parted, palm one another in geologic languor. Oceans churn.)
The first Western scholars to investigate the supposed meteorite crater, in the early twentieth century, believed the meteorite to have weighed one million metric tons. The existence of such an impact has since been called into question.
The ostensible crater was determined to be a natural hematite formation, and the only confirmed evidence of that skyfall is the nine-pound chunk of mesosiderite a French consular official picked up and shipped to Paris in 1916.
The scientific term for the mixture of iron and igneous rock that make a mesosiderite: enigmatic.
I hold a sandglass filament to the sun; it is the opaque of Roni Horn’s glass sculptures from the book she titled The Sensation of Sadness at Having Slept Through a Shower of Meteors. It, too, is enigmatic, mute.
Mute, from the Greek μύειν, myein, to be shut of mouth and possibly of eyes. Says Anne Carson in Nox, a threnody for her brother’s final and irrevocable absenting:
“Note that the word ‘mute’ (from Latin mutus and Greek μύειν) is regarded by linguists as an onomatopoeic formation referring not to silence but to a certain fundamental opacity of human being, which likes to show the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding.”
Somewhere north of the wild glass field, the aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, plane-wrecked, wrote:
“A sheet spread beneath an apple-tree can receive only apples; a sheet spread beneath the stars can receive only star-dust.”
It is impossible to wrap my mind around the heaviness of a skystone falling onto the desert, and how it might be preserved in something so weightless—and there is something exquisite about not being able to wrap my mind around things, it is like making space for the shape of a human ear, or for falling in love; I think we need to practice it more often, the unknowing.
Another version to explain the shards: lightning fused the grains together. One way or another, the shards were skymade, as we are all skymade.
IN ISLAM, THE CONCEPT of predestination is one of the six articles of faith, like the Oneness of God and the Day of Resurrection. The expression for this tenet is bibliophilic: maktoob, one says, it is written; the word originates from kitab, book.
When the Prophet Mohammed first encountered the archangel Gabriel in the Arabian desert, the archangel, who spoke not for himself but for God, reciting verbatim God’s message, ordered: Iqra! Read!
This command, which mystified the unlettered Mohammed, was the first word of the Quran—one of humankind’s three most important books—all hailing from deserts—which continues to mystify us today.
What is written? Around me, the desert documents time in micro and macro stenographies: dunes and mountains, rocks strewn by ancient eruptions, empty whelk shells from the last subpluvial, the barometric script of bent grass on fine sand.
Which of these grains remember the footfall of the people who first walked here, more than 300,000 years ago; or the Neolithic nomads who drove their cattle here from the Horn of Africa; or the Arab-speaking invaders who first brought Islam here in the seventh century of our era?
The harmattan of January blows steady from the east, from deeper in the Sahara, where each year up to 350,000 people braille the desert with their aspirant feet on their way to Libya, the main point of departure from Africa to Europe.
This year, more than a third of all the world’s migrants whose deaths en route will be recorded will die in the Sahara, though the officials who chronicle such heartbreak concede that no annals document in their entirety these deaths, these forever-raptures, and that the number of people who plant their bones in the Sahara may be twice that of those who perish in the Mediterranean Sea.
The sand grains that peck my skin as I walk behind Sid’Ahmed—have they traveled from far enough east to remember their passing?
Memory is fickle, a trick storyteller. Everything in life happens once and forever, until we will it differently, if only in our minds.
Sometimes memory drifts off, jumbles the stories we tell ourselves and the past we think we know.
This inadequacy is predetermined and unavoidable, a function of anatomy: neurons hold on to memories unevenly, storing some and dismissing others, and the memories they do store are malleable, untrustworthy, even possibly untrue: our brain may create them on the fly, in the very moment of the encounter, when something indefinable in the unique and ephemeral soundboard of our cortex is strummed and resounds.
Neuropsychologists call such memories ghosts; they call them superposition catastrophes. Memory is a trace, and a trace can linger forever or be erased in a minute.
I have seen this happen in the desert. A wind gust—and the cleft hearts of camel prints, the footprints of cameleers and my own, the slight dark funnel mark of my piss in the concave lee of a barchan: all gone; and once they are no longer, who can say the place is the same, or that it ever even existed, or that we ever passed through?
Then, ten paces away, the sand vanishes completely, gives way to the palimpsest surface of a reg, and I am walking on miniscule shells that remember when they were the bottom of a prehistoric lake.
The desert perpetually erases and rewrites itself, erases and rewrites. Watch the metronomic oscillation of a bent stalk of grass compass the same distance over and over and over.
The desert perpetually erases and rewrites itself, erases and rewrites.
ONCE, FOR ALMOST a year, I lived in the desert, in West Texas; it was the year newspapers announced that the Perseids would be twice as prolific as recent meteor showers: two hundred asteroids per hour.
The following morning, I found on the ground a painted bunting, a migrant bird. He was every color. He was dead. A shooting star, arrived.
But if you pull back, if you consider Earth’s progress around the sun, you can argue that a meteorite’s transient state never ends: it simply assumes, on impact, the larger body’s orbit.
The last glaciation drenched the Sahara. You can still see, from a satellite that orbits the Earth, the dry courses of the mighty rivers that veined it during the early Neolithic.
You must step that far away to access a desert’s memory. They say in fifteen thousand years the Sahara will be green again.
ONCE I TOOK A WEEKLONG WALK IN THE SAHARA by Anna Badkhen @emergence_zine [continued]https://j.mp/2VCxxXqDAY FOURTHE DAY BEFORE, Sid’Ahmed ordered us up a mountain ridge that dragon-jaws out of the desert: the Zarga Mountains, elevation 2,493 feet.
He had been driving us hard, harder than the pack camels, which he absolved, routed down lenient shortcuts. We had been slogging, heads sandward.
Sid’Ahmed, tall, sinewy, in his late forties, wearing a flapping boubou and hiking boots, seemed to never tire. But he was not without mercy.
On the other side of the ridge, he promised, we would slow down. We would lunch and make camp and stay two nights, not just one: we would not have to walk twenty kilometers the following day, would not have to walk at all. We tramped up the mountains in resignation.
What did we see from the top of the Zarga ridge? Huge crescent sandbanks. Dazzling dune chains neverending. A fallow rectangular melon patch, fenced against camels, that could have been the size of a stadium or of five.
The desert distorts scale, tricks the eye. Mirage: a word that entered the English language in the year 1800 from the French to describe the phenomenon of what an eye perceives when light rays pushing through layers of air of different densities are distorted, excessively bent.
Originally, the word referred to the optical illusion occurring in hot, sandy deserts of objects reflected on water.
The word obtained its figurative sense—deceptiveness of appearance, a delusive seeming—within a mere twelve years: such was the urgency to describe the human desire to see what we want instead of what is there.
We caught our breath on the ridge. We drank from our water bottles. Head feathers frilled by wind, a pied crow—a trickster of fables—picked apart something in the sand.
After a few minutes, Sid’Ahmed grinned, plopped down on his bony ass, and demonstrated what he swore was the most efficient method of sliding down the slip face of a barchan.
Now we wake, pee, wash our hands with sand. Pause only briefly to watch the desert dawn explode: we are almost used to it by now, the way God must have been almost used to dawn on the fourth morning of Creation.
Overnight, a small animal, maybe a lizard, left a punched tape of prints by the zip-door of my pop-up tent; I read it as “I was here,” the message all of us the world over leave behind, the only message that never changes.
It is cold. I walk toward the breakfast fire, where Sid’Ahmed and the cameleers are praying toward the Kaaba. Some say the Kaaba’s Black Stone is a meteorite.
THE COMMON MAP symbol for desert is dots, like the ellipsis. Like saying, something is omitted here. Like saying, there probably are other versions. The desert, like a book, has many interpretations, many lives.
Dots are also a common way to depict stars: omens, dreamscapes, narratives of our predestination; tokens, writes Juan Eduardo Cirlot in his Dictionary of Symbols, of both multiplicity and disintegration; promises that there is more to the story or that the story is fragile, endangered. Disaster: Ill-starredness. The extinguishing of stars, starlessness. A catastrophe. End of story.
A YEAR AFTER I arrive in the Sahara, both of my parents become infected with the coronavirus: first Mom fell ill, on January 1, on the anniversary of my crossing into Mauritania from Senegal; then Dad, on January 3, the anniversary of our stop at the oasis of La Gueila.
I am in Philadelphia; they are in St. Petersburg, Russia, eight time zones and four thousand miles away.
Two weeks pass before they begin to recover from high fever and weakness and, in my mother’s case, a nasty cough and headaches so severe she is unable to wear reading glasses or touch the hair on her head.
For the first few days of their sickness, the scariest days, I cannot write, my chest feels weighted with sand. Friends offer links to medical studies for comfort: this or that symptom indicates a milder illness; this or that treatment has proven the most effective.
The way world science is poking in the dark reminds me of desert dunes shifting, and of how tiny we are, and how unfathomable the world. I just wish there were a less sorrowful, less biblical way of being cut down to size.
I think about the people around the globe who have gone through, are going through, such impotent dread, who also, day after day, worry about their loved ones far away; those who remember and worry about and mourn the travelers who set off across the Sahara and perished, their deaths unrecorded by official ledgers.
“A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty,” writes Philippe Arriès, and each moment at least one person is missing for millions of us, often out of reach, flung apart as we are, undone transcontinentally.
The grief makes it impossible to move: this is aporia, απορία, an absence of path, a passagelessness that engenders a state of powerless, immobilized confusion, of being at a loss, a no-way that is not the same as a presence, a separation of heart and will.
Yet there is something else: the connections that may fade but never disappear, the gossamer threads of intimacy we float behind us as we disperse, the kinship that may be undone in time but that our memories sustain as vivid, iridescent as a bunting’s plumage.
Picture the brief animation anthropologists sometimes use to demonstrate human impact on the planet—a pale, luminescent tapestry of roads, railways, pipelines, cables, air traffic routes, and shipping lanes latticing a nighttime Earth—except instead of physical infrastructure, imagine the other ways in which the Anthropocene connects us: the poly-threaded, shimmering veil of yearning and missing and care and love.
Who, which caravan, carried its seed here, how long ago?
I WALK AWAY from our campsite in the lee of the Zarga, fast or slow I cannot tell. I stop. I stay. What does it mean to slow down in the desert? No stillness is slow enough. The meteorite of Chinguetti rushed headlong into the would-be desert, then slowed down.
I stretch out on my back upon the Sahara. Of lying on desert sand Saint-Exupéry writes: “this density that I could feel at my shoulders continued harmonious, sustained, unaltered through eternity.” I recall that for a while, Saint-Exupéry flew mail planes in Latin America for Aeroposta Argentina airline, connecting people.
Next to me I spot a stunted purple flower. Who, which caravan, carried its seed here, how long ago? I watch the desert be its mineral self; I watch a sand shadow build behind the flower. The desert meddles with time. It pretends to be motionless, unaltered. Lie on top of a barchan and you will think you see eternity. Lie long enough and it is you buried underneath.
But already, Sid’Ahmed is calling for lunch.
AFTER THE SWALLOWS’ hunt, past haloed moonset, when all color surrenders to sound, the Milky Way swirls in a slow, galactic zikr. Wind boomerangs between cliffs, threshes stars off their stalks. I stand outside my tent with a star-purpled book about a poet abandoned on a rocky island; I pick out the lines:
is the most distracted messenger I know
ROCK, DUNE, ROCK. A grove of Sodom’s apples with their poison fruit: turn around—or take a bite, like Alice—and the separation will take the shape of a pillar of salt: antiseptic, infertile, desolate, like the desert.
A grove of miswak trees to clean our teeth. A camel’s septum ring has ripped out, and for a couple of hours we follow the startling little rosettes of her blood drops.
The sura that begins with the invocation “Read!” is called Al-Alaq, The Clot, for the “mere clot of [congealed] blood” out of which God created the first human.
The Arabic word for human, insân, إنسان, may have its root in nisyân, نسيان, which means to forget; it also, linguists say, may come from uns, ﺍﻧﺲ: to be related, to be close to, to love and be loved.
At dusk, a narrow valley, more swallows. After supper—soup made with Maggi packets, bland pasta with chickpeas and carrots, dates—we linger in the large common tent.
I ask Sid’Ahmed what place he considers his. Sid’Ahmed and I are close in age, and I feel that we have bonded a little, through sparring half in jest over world politics and through calmer conversation about Islam and the mystery of scholarship, about having grown children, which we conduct in a mix of French and Arabic and hand gestures.
I sense a contentment about him that I envy. I also envy his knowledge of place, that in the pathless desert Sid’Ahmed remembers the paths.“My place?” The man laughs. “I’m a nomad, I don’t have a place! My place, hah. Whenever I hear the words ‘my place’ I think of that time I went to this wedding and it was late and this driver guy said we could spend the night at his place, and he had this tiny little house that was so full of mosquitoes it was impossible to sleep.”
Then, getting serious:
“In Arar I have a small plot with five date palms.”
ONCE I TOOK A WEEKLONG WALK IN THE SAHARA by Anna Badkhen @emergence_zine [continued]https://j.mp/2VCxxXqDAY SIX
SOME OF THE PAGES in Benabderrahmane’s La Bête are glossy, some matte; most images are black-and-white, and the color images are so faded they might as well be black-and-white also.
The pages in the book are not numbered, and in this, La Bête resembles Borges’s Book of Sand, which has neither a beginning nor an end and is infinite, all-encompassing of our virtues and iniquities.
The reproductions are imperfect, just like any attempt to capture the desert is imperfect. In most images, there is something at bottom left of the frame.
Sometimes it looks like an exoskeleton of a scorpion, flesh winnowed out by wind; sometimes it looks like an inscription in an ancient tongue. Something stuck to the lens, maybe a hair, or a memory.
Where are we from, and where are we taking all of our imperfections and virtues and memories; if the vanishing point is an asymptote, ever beyond reach, then what is the point of our path?
In the last book the philosopher Gillian Rose wrote before dying, Paradiso, she says that accepting aporia means accepting “that there may not be solutions to questions, only the clarification of their statement,” and that such acceptance is essential to a philosophic life.
What does that mean in the desert? Perhaps it means to remember that each footstep is a fall arrested, that each signifies both a departure and an arrival, distance and approach; and it may also mean to behold in awe this twofold gift-curse and then to let that, too, drift from focus until motion becomes distilled into a pure prayer: not a supplication or a plea—
God “needs no petition,” as the mystic theologian Abdullah Yusuf Ali reminds us, “for He knows our needs better than we do ourselves”—but a remembrance of thanksgiving, an exultation evoked, what Rose calls “a constant awareness of existence … as if on each intake of breath one were immersing one’s hands in the deep folds of some fine material saturated with glorious colour.”
And lo, on Sid’Ahmed’s orders on the outskirts of M’Heirth, we clamber up another difficult dune—and before us, downslope, iridescent and sudden, shaped like a sparkling placenta, glorious as paradise, shimmers a spring-fed pool.
For the first time in six days, I wash my face and hands with water, not sand.
THE NINETY-FOURTH sura, Al-Sharh, repeats:
Verily, with every hardship comes relief.
Verily, with every hardship comes relief.
Ali, the theologian, says the repeat is for emphasis—but note how the second line feels different from the first. This is what the desert teaches about place. You hold it in your eyes, you hold it in your hand, and you get to choose—and you get to choose differently each time. What depends on your choice? Everything.
Al-Sharh is sometimes translated as The Solace. This sura is also sometimes called Al-Inshirah, The Expansion of the Breast.
Imagine the other ways in which the Anthropocene connects us: the poly-threaded, shimmering veil of yearning and missing and care and love.
BEFORE WE REACH the source at M’Heirth, we walk through an outpost of seasonal date pickers. The date harvest runs from June to August, and the oasis is empty, a ghost town of rock shelters.
Underfoot: sand, dry fronds, empty sardine tins, the trick of swallows’ shadow dance. On the southwestern edge of the oasis we stop at a row of wells.
The wells are pale mortared cylinders, magnified versions of the termite holes that gouge the books of Chinguetti, rabbit holes for a full-sized Alice. They are hand-dug and plastered by hand; the water inside is nacreous, misty.
In Mauritania they call this kind of well ‘ayn: Arabic for eye but also a proto-Semitic word that means eye, fountain, or looking, seeing.
You are a fool to think you have come to the desert to see. It is you, thirsty and vulnerable, whom the desert puts on its velvet showcase display. Lean over a well: the cataractic water is committing you to memory. Maybe that is so it recognizes you should you return.
EXEUNT CAMELS, enter all-wheel-drives, and we are back on the straight paved road east to Nouakchott. Now the sensation of being transported at an accelerated speed numbs the mind.
Barchans, seif chains, regs, scarps, pale meadows of dry grass like fuzz on a plucked chicken, oases, blink past. Suddenly on the road a large herd of camels, some merely day-old calves, wobbly and puppyish. The drivers slow down.
The metal carapaces of our trucks jostle past the camels’ animal confusion, and when we pass their sole herder I remember the terror, several years earlier in Mali, of walking with a herd of zebus upon an unexpected paved tarmac that guillotined fast and merciless through the sandy scrubland just south of the Sahara, and watching helplessly the dreadful road split the bullish herd in two.
My companion, a seventeen-year-old boy named Hassan, the youngest son of a dear friend, scarecrowed madly in his blue robes to force the animals off the asphalt just in time for a silver SUV to whiz toward Bamako.
A war was raging up the road and the car had a bullet hole in the trunk door. The air quivered in its wake, the scent of hot tar billowed, stilled once more, and the rest of the cows lowered their heads as they crossed.
Born and bred in seasonal migrations through thorn and sand and periodic grasslands since the beginning of time, the animals made up all of Hassan’s family wealth, and his family’s entire history was branded into their pale rumps.
Hooves’ purchase on pavement was uncertain, as when crossing a marble floor in stiletto heels; meteorite shrapnel spilling on a reg must sound like this.
And as our all-wheel-drives finally pull out of the camel herd and speed up again toward the Atlantic coast, I think, as I thought then, that there is something immoral about a well-paved road, and about the speed of departure to which many of us have subjugated our lives.
I remember Hassan’s shoes on that day: narrow, plastic, pale-turquoise two-dollar lace-ups with thick soles, scrawled over with phone numbers in ballpoint pen.
On Sahara’s southern shore, men often write phone numbers on their footwear—contacts of relatives, of middlemen, of lovers they have left behind—to be dialed when needed or when possible from a borrowed phone.
Their shoes are dossiers, telephone books, annals of connection, impenetrable by thorn or time or termite.
Consider farewells in global terms: a seventh of the world has said goodbye to someone else, and as we part from the people who are meaningful and close—or were, or could be, or could have been—we carry with us our kinships’ map legends, the tokens of our connections, as Hassan carried on his first ever solo dry-season cattle drive a stoppered gourd with his mother’s millet couscous, a blue tarp wrapped with lengths of lasso his elder brother had given him, the family’s black milking calabash, his father’s blessing, and his phonebook shoes.
Like most men in the bush, Hassan did not write names next to the numbers, because like most men in the bush he was unlettered, so he had to memorize to whom each number belonged.
But I have never seen a man dial a wrong number by mistake, because each number signifies a particular kinship stored just so in the immeasurable library of the heart, in the ever-expanding breast, each specific part of the shoe—left and right toe box, vamp, quarter, heel counter—corresponding to a distinct thread of devotion a traveler will carry across any parting and any distance without confusion, just as I, without confusion and across any distance, carry on the underside of my eyelids the face of a beloved.
JUN 20 :: Fast Forward
Law & Politics
However, what I am noticing is a metastatic expansion of this Protest
It is about the Haves and the Have Nots. Its about the moment of Epiphany when the Have Nots appreciate the predicament in which they have been placed and identify with each other rather than a ‘’boogaloo’’ structure that has been placed upon them.
Will they have that moment of Epiphany? Well There certainly has not been a more ‘’conducive’’ moment.
21 OCT 19 :: The New Economy of Anger
Law & Politics
Nose-diving economic opportunity is creating tinder-dry conditions.
The Phenomenon is spreading like wildfire in large part because of the tinder dry conditions underfoot.
Prolonged stand-offs eviscerate economies, reducing opportunities and accelerate the negative feed- back loop.
Antonio Gramsci wrote, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. now is the time of monsters.”
In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.
Law & Politics
"At one point I decided to repeat some of the computations in order to examine what was happening in greater detail. I stopped the computer, typed in a line of numbers that it had printed out a while earlier, and set it running again. I went down the hall for a cup of coffee and returned after about an hour, during which time the computer had simulated about two months of weather. The numbers being printed were nothing like the old ones. I immediately suspected a weak vacuum tube or some other computer trouble, which was not uncommon, but before calling for service I decided to see just where the mistake had occurred, knowing that this could speed up the servicing process. Instead of a sudden break, I found that the new values at first repeated the old ones, but soon afterward differed by one and then several units in the last decimal place, and then began to differ in the next to the last place and then in the place before that. In fact, the differences more or less steadily doubled in size every four days or so, until all resemblance with the original output disappeared somewhere in the second month. This was enough to tell me what had happened: the numbers that I had typed in were not the exact original numbers, but were the rounded-off values that had appeared in the original printout. The initial round-off errors were the culprits; they were steadily amplifying until they dominated the solution." (E. N. Lorenz, The Essence of Chaos, U. Washington Press, Seattle (1993), page 134)
Elsewhere he stated:
One meteorologist remarked that if the theory were correct, one flap of a sea gull's wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever. The controversy has not yet been settled, but the most recent evidence seems to favor the sea gulls.
Guruji’s Lie The RSS and MS Golwalkar’s undeniable links to Nazism DHIRENDRA K JHA @thecaravanindia
Law & Politics
Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak—chief—of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who held the post between 1940 and 1973, remains one of the most influential figures in the Sangh’s history.
We, published in 1939 under his name, played a key part in making him a prominent figure within the RSS and was considered the first systematic explication of the Sangh’s ideology.
Taking inspiration from Adolf Hitler, it asserted that India belongs to Hindus and that the country’s minorities should be treated along the lines of the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews.
The book inextricably tied the RSS to the fascist ideology of Nazi Germany.
@WHO Weekly epidemiological update on COVID-19 - 3 August 2021
Data as of 1 August 2021
Globally, weekly cases have been increasing for more than a month, with over 4 million cases reported in the past week.
An average of over 570 000 cases were reported each day over the past week as compared to a little over 540 000 cases reported daily the week before.
Infections have been accelerating for 6 weeks now
''viruses exhibit non-linear and exponential characteristics''
$TNX 100 day, Daily Action @wallstmaster
World Of Finance
09-MAY-2021 The Lotos-eaters
The Consensus View appears to be that the Global economy is going to accelerate big time and that its going to BOOM! I beg to differ
Given the volume of money Printing and the extraordinary stimulus I have to say that the US Recovery is actually really weak and I believe it will be very short lived and the Penny will drop soon with the Bond Market and the Shorts will be forced to cover.
‘We haven’t been spared, we’re just not counting’: Sudan’s hidden Covid death toll @Telegraph
Many African commentators slammed the prophecies of doom, saying that they were at best misinformed and at worst based on racist stereotypes of the continent as a dark, diseased place incapable of looking after itself.
“[The projections] were embedded in a shallow understanding of the continent, and a rush to make headlines,” Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Telegraph in October.
But 18 months on from Africa’s first case, a far more confusing and insidious reality is beginning to emerge in some big countries like Sudan.
“Most people hide [the disease], they don’t like coming to the hospital till its too late. Then they don’t make it here,” says Maler Margi Alsaier, a nurse at Jabre hospital in Khartoum.
One study published in December by Sudanese and British researchers at Imperial College London and the LSHTM used a social media survey and results from randomised testing across Khartoum to estimate how many people had died from the disease.
They found that an estimated 95 to 98 per cent of Covid-19 deaths in Khartoum had probably gone unrecorded between March and November 2020.
This means that the city of six million people could have suffered more than 16,000 deaths directly linked Covid-19 in those first nine months and probably thousands more since.
“This figure is just Khartoum and includes only direct Covid deaths. We didn’t count other people who might have died because travel restrictions meant they couldn’t get to hospital in time,” says Dr Dahab, one of the study’s authors.
“To say that we as the African continent have been spared the worst is a myth. We’re swimming in these myths. We haven’t been spared the worst. We’re just not counting,” says Dr Dahab.
“To be counted as a Covid-19 statistic, you need to be rich. You need to be relatively wealthy to be seen. If you’re poor you die, you suffocate unseen.”
The human cost of the Tigray conflict: ‘We are in constant fear’ @BritishGQ @swilliamsjourno
In 1842 the Italian missionary Giustino de Jacobis wandered through East Africa, in search of a place where Catholics could flee religious persecution. After a two-day hike from Adigrat, a city in northern Abyssinia, de Jacobis arrived in Alitena, a tiny village perched on a hill and surrounded by parched, red mountains.
Alitena’s knot of homes, which tumbled down to a tight, shallow river bend, was perfect. Its people, an ethnic group called the Irob, had for centuries developed a language independent of the Tigrinya-speaking Tigrayans, whose region surrounded them, and an agrarian proto-democracy whereby villagers ordained leaders with blessings of a long and prosperous life.
The Irob’s hospitality, de Jacobis wrote, “goes straight to one’s heart”. He built a Catholic seminary, called the Lideta Mariam (or “Virgin Mary”) – the empire’s first – and converted the Irob.
Alitena sat at the very edge of Abyssinia, a vast, ancient empire known since Biblical times as Ethiopia. Just miles north was a land that would soon become the Italian colony of Eritrea.
Even Tigrayans thought Alitena a strange and lonely place, buried in a district, also named Irob, the size of Greater London but with the population of Orkney. Alitena was a needle in a haystack. But it wasn’t safe.
Patriarchs from Abyssinia’s dominant Orthodox faith ordered it sacked and invaders tore south across the empty border.
Over the next 150 years tyrants visited cycles of violence on Alitena, from European fascists to kings, communists and foreign troops.
Today Alitena is home to 5,000 Irob, and the Abyssinian Empire has reverted to its ancient name. The road to Adigrat now takes three hours.
But there are few prospects and scores of the village’s youth have fled into the arms of human traffickers, crossing deserts to Saudi Arabia, Libya or Europe. Some fear the Irob culture is on borrowed time.
Over the past five years Alitena distilled its hope for a brighter future in 12 young men – eight from a single family – who rose, improbably, to become one of Ethiopia’s most promising sports teams. Dressed in the red of Tigray’s flag, the Irob Volleyball Club had swept all in its path.
Opposition feared a preternatural unity the team channelled toward their star player, a tall, rawboned attacker named Yonas. He knew Alitena’s violent past better than most people. It had crushed him once before, in 1999.
This January something else awful happened in Alitena. It began on Christmas Eve – 6 January in Ethiopia’s Coptic calendar – when everybody was home with family, preparing for the following day’s feasts. Eritrean soldiers knew this fact.
That morning they crossed the border and plucked four young men from their gardens, marched them quietly across the river to a spot just outside town, lined them up and executed them.
At first nobody noticed. Neighbours assumed the four men had left Irob for supplies in Adigrat. That was still a dangerous journey. It was two months since rebels loyal to the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front), Tigray’s ousted leadership, launched attacks on five Ethiopian military bases, including one in Adigrat.
The ensuing war, which pitted them against Ethiopia’s army, militias from a neighbouring region and Eritrea, raised ghosts of Tigray’s violent past. Tank shells clapped into the hills around Alitena, getting closer each day.
Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s populist leader, assured the world his troops were engaged only in a “law enforcement operation” against the TPLF, which it had quickly routed from Tigray’s major cities.
He denied rumours that Tigrayan civilians had been killed in great numbers or that Eritrean invaders were flooding south across the border with his blessing to carry out horrific human-rights abuses.
Abiy’s government denied foreign media visas and it knocked out internet and phone networks, throwing Tigray into darkness.
But the 44-year-old was an economic reformer and, since 2019, a Nobel Prize laureate. Western leaders gave him a pass.
Alitena’s villagers, however, knew better. Travellers brought daily tales of looting, rape and murder, carried out by Eritreans wearing their distinct sand-coloured fatigues.
They knew such horrors would soon reach Irob. Sectarianism on both sides of the border made its people targets. Geography left them sitting ducks.
‘YOU WERE TO LAUGH WHEN THEY KILLED A RELATIVE. CRYING WAS FORBIDDEN’
The volleyball team knew that fear well. In 1998, a border dispute between Ethiopia, whose politics was dominated by the TPLF, and Eritrea, to the north, blew up into a brutal, dirty war. Tigrayan civilians – among them the exposed, mistrusted Irob – suffered the hatred of both sides.
In January 1999 Yonas and his three young brothers were celebrating Christmas when Eritrean troops burst into Alitena. The soldiers burned down the family home, stole cattle and dragged away the boys’ father, Abraham. Nobody heard from Abraham again.
Yonas, his brothers and cousins drew closer and studied hard, sometimes walking miles to attend lessons outside Alitena. They ate together and attended mass at the Lideta Mariam, the town’s quiet, uncluttered heart.
The home of the boys’ grandfather became an unofficial clubhouse. His generation evoked the days of Ras Tafari Makonnen (Emperor Haile Selassie), who seized control of Ethiopia in 1930, proclaiming himself “By The Conquering Lion Of The Tribe Of Judah, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King Of Kings, Lord Of Lords, Elect Of God”.
When Allies defeated Italy in the Second World War – which Selassie sat out – the UN awarded him Eritrea, a parched slither of land north of Tigray on the Red Sea coast, and he set about dismantling its politics, lowering its flag and banning the native Tigrinya language.
Rastafarians deified Selassie as their “black messiah”. But to millions of Ethiopians Selassie was a tyrant, an African Nero who dripped in wealth while his people starved to death.
He built a security apparatus such that an official told the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, “Ears appeared everywhere, sticking up out of the ground, glued to the walls, flying through the air, hanging on doorknobs, hiding in offices, lurking in crowds, standing in doorways, jostling in the marketplace.”
Still, Selassie left Irob more or less alone during his reign. The Soviet-backed generals who ousted him in 1974, nicknamed the Derg, or “Council”, did not.
Eritrea was fighting its own war for independence from Ethiopia and the generals targeted border dwellers as potential spies. “You were supposed to laugh when they killed a relative,” one Irob herder told me, sipping a beer in an Adigrat bar. “Crying was forbidden.”
Famine and poverty followed. A coalition of rebels – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – led by Tigray’s TPLF, toppled the Derg in 1991.
Eritrea, led by a moustached, Machiavellian general named Isaias Afwerki, won its independence.
But neither Ethiopia nor its newly formed northern neighbour agreed where its border was and when the 1998-2000 war ended, remote little Irob wound up in a UN-administered buffer. Once again its people found themselves in a no-man’s land, suspected spies.
In 2002, the UN awarded Irob to Ethiopia, infuriating General Afwerki. His new country struggled to recover from the conflict and Tigray and the TPLF became his bêtes noir, blamed for Eritrea’s weak economy.
Afwerki descended into paranoid tyranny. He tossed enemies into gulags of shipping containers in the desert and conscripted his people to never-ending military service.
The TPLF, meanwhile, tightened its grip on Ethiopia. It pursued a federal system of rule, handing out increased autonomy to Ethiopia’s ethnic-based regions.
But its own cronies always came out on top and it expanded the country’s police state to ensure it stayed that way.
Ethiopians, too, confused the TPLF with the Tigrayan people as a whole. A popular image of the powerful Tigrayan, draining Ethiopia’s wealth, grew popular.
Both countries wanted the borderland. They didn’t seem to care about its people. Alitena bore the war’s bad blood. Soldiers on both sides “were cutting trees, taking girls, everything”, Yonas told me, when we met on a quiet hotel rooftop in a city far from Tigray.
Yonas is strikingly tall, with a short, messy Afro and arms like boating paddles. A cousin translated his native Saho, the language of Irob, and we paused when people came near. Even hundreds of miles away he fears for his life, months after the massacre. Yonas, like most names in this story, is not his real one.
The 1998-2000 war baptised Yonas into a life of constant anxiety. He and the other boys found respite in sport. When they saw some older relatives playing volleyball in Alitena, they bundled some old clothes together for a ball and hitched together a “net” out of three long branches, like football goalposts.
They were good. Yonas commanded the net with a powerful spike, volleyball’s most kinetic shot. His cousin, Tedros, anchored the side. They quickly outgrew opposition in Irob. Nobody in Tigray’s 35 districts could beat them either.
People wondered if Irob’s mountainous terrain or its people’s ascetic diet was to thank for Alitena’s surprise cache of superheroes. Yonas thinks it was their togetherness.
“We were disciplined well,” Yonas told me. “We were very committed to our families and helping each other.”
‘ETHIOPIA IS AN EMPIRE AND THERE ARE CLEAR PHASES OF GROWTH, CONSOLIDATION AND DECLINE. WE ARE APPROACHING, POSSIBLY, ITS FINAL DAYS’
The Irob Volleyball Club was becoming its people’s Harlem Globetrotters, putting Irob’s precarious existence on the map. Adigrat’s cathedral funded away fixtures: its clergy saw sport as a way to hold on to Irob’s wantaway youth. “Such games,” one of them, who coached the boys, told me, “help them to at least continue school.”
But however far and wide the Irob Volleyball Club travelled in Tigray, Alitena remained home. “Their whole world was that village,” a close relative told me in Adigrat, holding back tears. “They were brought up there, married there and studied there. They didn’t know another world. For them, the biggest place on earth was Adigrat.”
By the time war in Tigray erupted, nobody had beaten the side in five years. In 2020 an Addis Ababa side playing in Ethiopia’s top division, its Premier League, signed Yonas and as night drew on 6 January he was the only member of the team not in Alitena.
Scouts hovered around three more Irob players, including Tedros, as if four young stars from a single Sunday league team were about to win Premier League caps.
As the boys retreated to their homes to eat and drink, they knew it could be their last Christmas together as a team.
Before he was elected in 2018, Abiy Ahmed confided that his mother believed her sixth and youngest son would become the king of Ethiopia. A little-known former soldier from Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous region, the 41-year-old thrilled with charismatic, elite-bashing speeches that placed him in the pantheon of world populists such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi.
He preached a prosperity gospel he called “medemer”, which would upturn communist and Western liberal thought.
“There is no life challenge that the philosophy of medemer does not solve, a barrier that it does not overcome and a hilly terrain that it does not terrace,” he wrote.
Medemer rejected the TPLF’s ethnic federalism in favour of national unity and castigated TPLF state officials as perfidious fools.
Abiy set about weakening the TPLF’s hold on lucrative sectors, such as mining, and welcomed foreign investors. He pulled power away from the regions towards Addis Ababa, trying to decant a centralised state from its diverse, fractious parts.
Ethiopia became one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. It was a “full-frontal assault on the Establishment”, a Western official told Reuters.
The human cost of the Tigray conflict: ‘We are in constant fear’ @BritishGQ @swilliamsjourno [continued]https://j.mp/3fFFRx1In July 2018 Abiy ended 20 years of “no war, no peace” with Eritrea’s president, Afwerki, at a summit in Asmara, Eritrea, seeming to end a war that had cost tens of thousands of lives. The following December he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and made an impassioned speech about his role in the 1998-2000 conflict.“War makes for bitter men, heartless and savage men,” he said. “Family units were split over borders, unable to see or talk to each other for years to come... All were worried that any small border clash would flare into a full-blown war once again.”
Both countries threw open the border. Irob celebrated, embracing friends and family they hadn’t seen for 20 years.
“Soldiers came first and it was amazing,” Yonas told me. “We’d hoped that the border problem would be solved once and forever.”
But when people on the Tigrayan side tried crossing into Eritrea, troops said no. “We’d love you to rejoice with us, as we rejoice with you,” Yonas recalls one telling him, “but the authorities told us not to let you in.”
The Irob Volleyball Club won its last match soon after, a tiring away trip five hours south to the very foot of Tigray, in the town of Alamata. Yonas told me that his cousin Kaleb, wiry and well-mannered, was the best player that day. But the atmosphere in Tigray had changed.
Abiy stepped up his campaign against the TPLF’s ageing leaders, who responded mockingly. They claimed to have the comprehensive backing of all the Tigrayan people: an exaggeration. Still, the conceit suited them – and Abiy.
To millions of people, the TPLF and the Tigrayan people were one and the same. Hate crimes against Tigrayans in major cities outside the region increased.
In December 2019 Abiy dissolved the EPRDF, the coalition of regional parties the TPLF had led, and cut it out of the Prosperity Party he christened in its stead. Months later he postponed a national election, blaming the Covid-19 pandemic.
When Tigray held its own regional election in September 2020, with the TPLF winning a dubious 98.2 per cent of ballots, Abiy declared it illegal. Whether or not Tigrayans believed that the TPLF had won almost every vote in the region, Abiy’s interference smelled a lot like past betrayals.
Then, on 4 November, the TPLF carried out its assault on the Ethiopian military across Tigray. A new civil war exploded, pitting Ethiopia’s former northern rulers against their current leadership in the south.
Tigrayans realised something terrible was happening within hours. “It was morning,” a doctor at a hospital in the region’s capital city, Mekelle, told me. “I came to my office and we had soldiers who were wounded – lots and lots of wounded soldiers. We knew we wouldn’t have the capacity to deal with it.”
The government soon directed troops to military hospitals. They were replaced by civilians suffering shell wounds and severe burns. Some had walked for days on foot, arriving with life-threatening infections.
They said soldiers from bordering Eritrea, not Ethiopians, were responsible. They were looting vehicles, homes and livestock and stripping factories bare before destroying them.
It seemed, incredibly, as if Abiy had invited them across the border to gut their common enemy. Abiy denied the Eritreans were in Tigray, while Afwerki kept quiet. Abiy’s supporters outside the country began to feel they’d been had.
“The ‘peace agreement’ with Eritrea was presumably always the endgame,” Helen Clark, former New Zealand PM and administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, told me. “‘Let’s join forces and take out the TPLF.’ Well, they’ve taken an awful lot of civilians as well.”
“In very unnuanced language,” University Of Oxford professor Richard Reid told me, “this is the ultimate revenge for Eritrea.”
Tigrayans feared their own government had unleashed a genocidal, foreign enemy upon them. “If I have an angry dog,” an aid worker in Mekelle told me, “and I tie your hands together and release it, it will attack you, tear you apart and play with you.”
Militia from the neighbouring Ethiopian region of Amhara, which borders Tigray to its west and south, joined the bloodshed and quickly occupied swaths of fertile, western Tigray.
TPLF loyalists responded by massacring hundreds of Amhara in the western town of Mai Kadra, on 10 November.
Tens of thousands of civilians fled, either west to Sudan or east across the Tekeze River, a tributary of the Atbarah River, itself a tributary of the Nile.
Women I met at an overcrowded IDP (internally displaced people) camp in a former school in Mekelle described how Amhara militia and Eritrean troops forced them to crawl along a bridge over the Tekeze on their bellies and shot young men.
The militias marched beside the women and children, telling them that they, too, would die if they tried escaping into the bush. The journey took most people more than a month.
Cities across Tigray suffered unprecedented bloodletting. The worst massacre occurred in Axum, a city in central Tigray, once the seat of a mighty, ancient empire and reportedly home to the Ark Of The Covenant, the chest containing the Ten Commandments.
Over two days in late November, Ethiopian troops stood and watched as a foreign force, Eritreans, murdered, witnesses say, up to 800 of their own people.
The killers refused to let families bury their dead. Some were able to pile bodies onto the back of wooden carts. Others were eaten by hyenas.
“God is angry,” one priest told me, wiping a tear from his eye. Beside his church lay dozens of concrete graves. Each one, he reckoned, contained around 20 bodies.
Abiy’s government arrested journalists and rounded up or killed politicians loyal to the TPLF. Diplomats with ties to the former government – which, given its 27-year control of Ethiopia, could be anyone – received orders to return to Addis Ababa.
“It is beyond profiling,” Kassa Gebreyohannes Gebremichael, who fled Ethiopia’s embassy in Moscow this March, told me. “It’s genocide.”
In late November Abiy flushed the TPLF out of Tigray’s major cities. Its leadership vowed to regroup. But artillery continued pounding towns, churches and mosques.
All the while Abiy denied his soldiers were doing anything other than restoring “the rule of law” in Tigray.
Afwerki launched drones from a base in Eritrea that flew high above Adigrat “like blackbirds”, a priest told me.
He, and thousands of others, fled for shelter in nearby caves. “Everybody was shocked,” he added. “Why are they invading us again, after 22 years?” Perhaps more importantly: why was Ethiopia standing by and allowing it?
The violence hit the volleyballers’ village of Alitena “like hailstones”, an elder told me. A shell killed one mother and six died when medical supplies to the village were stopped.
On 6 January the invading Eritrean troops committed their first killing. The following day they flooded back into Alitena, searching for young men, just as they had done on Christmas Day 1999.
This time townsfolk heard them coming and locked their doors, praying the Eritreans would spare their home.
The soldiers found Yonas’ three brothers in their childhood home and pulled the four remaining Irob Volleyball Club players from their families.
Nine boys were herded downhill to tall grass beside Alitena’s river and told to line up just yards from the spot where they had begun playing volleyball. Then the soldiers raised their guns and started shooting.
One by one the boys fell back – some from headshots, others in the chest – into the water. Kaleb was last in line. He decided to run. He bolted but a bullet hit him in the leg, throwing him into the reeds.
He tried getting up but another thudded into his shoulder and he collapsed into the river’s shallow water. He held his breath and played dead, expecting a headshot, drenched in his teammates’ blood. But it never came. After a few moments the soldiers walked away.
Kaleb stayed down. When the Eritreans disappeared, he heard townspeople rushing to the spot. They knew enough from stories elsewhere in Tigray not to move the boys’ bodies, but when Kaleb moved they hauled him up and rushed him two miles to the Lideta Mariam, whose nuns took him to a clinic and treated his wounds.
He wasn’t safe there either. Within days the Eritreans discovered they’d left a man alive and returned to Alitena.
Twice the nuns helped Kaleb escape. Eventually they snuck him out of the clinic, but he was alone and confused and cried every day for his teammates and cousins.
The Irob Volleyball Club had spent five years becoming their people’s unlikely champions. The Eritreans took moments to execute almost all of them.
I spent three weeks in Ethiopia this spring, as the war in Tigray rolled into its seventh month. It is the most consistently gruesome conflict I have covered.
Every place I visited held tales of mass killings, rapes or, somehow, worse: women violated with shards of plastic or raped by 25 men; family members tied to posts and forced to watch the bodies of their relatives rot for days; fathers shot dead for refusing to rape their own daughters.
These kinds of stories are not outliers but the norm. One NGO worker I met told me he alone had treated more than 500 rape victims since the war began.
Shallow graves mark Tigray’s main roads and its factories are blasted open like ribcages. Its pharmacies and stores are empty and roads are shut. People walk around burned-out tanks, buses and cars as if they’re trees or market stalls.
Imagine a massacre was carried out in Kent tomorrow and that Boris Johnson had invited French troops across the border to do it. It would have catastrophic effects across Europe, perhaps the world, and thousands of reporters would arrive to cover it.
Tigray has suffered so many of these killings, I don’t have room to report them all here. Yet I have barely seen the conflict make the news in Europe since November. Only a small handful of journalists have visited the region.
Civilians are desperate to memorialise their dead. In some towns in Tigray I would interview victims, leave their home and another group would flag me down, eager to point out another execution spot.
More than 60,000 people have died since November. Many survivors cannot access healthcare or food: the UN estimates that 4.5 million people are in danger of starvation. Businesses, farms and homes lie in ruin. Hundreds of thousands are jobless.
Eritrean and Ethiopian troops have weaponised rape against Tigrayan women and girls across the region and I lost count of the number of people I met who had either been raped or had loved ones who were suffering its effects.
A Mekelle doctor broke down for minutes while describing cases he’d seen there. “Some of them can’t walk, they can’t control their bladder,” he told me.
“Almost all of them have contracted HIV. They have aborted. They have lost their children. It is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”
Large parts of Tigray are still information black holes, offline and out of phone coverage. Digital work is impossible and ATMs are out: each morning queues for banks stretch back hundreds of yards in major cities.
It took Abiy Ahmed almost five months to admit that Eritrean troops were active in Tigray at all. Now they occupy land more than 200 miles into the region, including all of Irob.
Imagine that those French soldiers now occupied pockets of land from Dover to Birmingham. That is happening in Tigray now.
Thousands of young Tigrayans, meanwhile, have joined the TPLF’s rebranded Tigray Defence Forces (TDF), motivated by revenge and a desire for self-rule.
One guerrilla, no older than 20, told me he and others weren’t even supporters of the TPLF before the war began.
But Abiy, he added, “killed many kids, raped our sisters, destroyed our companies. The TPLF is the only organisation working to help the people of Tigray from its misery.”
In February, Eritrea’s Afwerki told his state television network that “the system of ethnic federalism applied in Ethiopia for the past 20 years and more by the narrow clique is bankrupted now. In our language it is called ‘game over’. And Ethiopians have said ‘enough’.”
But it isn’t over. The TDF, Ethiopians and Eritreans now fight pitched battles in the Tigrayan outback. It is hard to see how anybody will land a decisive blow.
In early April, just before I arrived in Ethiopia, Abiy offered an admission he’d underestimated the TDF, while leaving room for more violence against civilians.
“Eliminating an enemy which is visible and eliminating an enemy which is in hiding and operates by assimilating itself with others is not one and the same,” he said.
“It is very difficult and tiresome.” Abiy has imprisoned a small number of soldiers for crimes committed during the war. He still denies widespread abuse, including the horrors in Axum. Neither country’s officials would go on record for this story.
Afwerki may have overstretched his hermit kingdom, dubbed “Africa’s North Korea”, in Tigray. “This is seen as outrageous military adventurism by many in Eritrea and opposition figures,” says Crisis Group’s Ethiopia senior analyst William Davison. “It just exacerbates the image of [Afwerki] as a disastrous leader for Eritrea.”
People may claim to love their neighbours, but through the length of human history conflict is the resounding status quo. There are more than 30 wars being fought right now and almost every one of them is over land.
What makes Tigray’s war unique is the presence of an invading foreign army, invited by its neighbour to destroy an entire ethnic group.
Abiy Ahmed has treated Eritrea like a hired gun, contracted to kill, rape and pillage however much it wants. Neither is it simply a military war. Revenge and deep-seated hate have opened the floodgates to barely fathomable levels of violence and cruelty.
The human cost of the Tigray conflict: ‘We are in constant fear’ @BritishGQ @swilliamsjourno [continued]
Tigray is a nightmarish extreme of fractures happening all over the world and close to home. The political far-right, hopped up on nativist dreams concocted by populists, have left even the mightiest democracies teetering.
From the 6 January rioters in Washington to Brexit, our hyper-connected world isn’t bringing people together, it’s tearing them apart.
ERITREAN AND ETHIOPIAN TROOPS HAVE WEAPONISED RAPE AGAINST TIGRAYAN GIRLS
Populists follow a familiar playbook. They wage war on marginalised communities, dressed up as a fight against “elites”.
The TPLF’s corrupt hold on Ethiopia’s economy was worth fighting, but Abiy and his allies have leveraged it into ethnic cleansing, supported by armies of keyboard warriors and pliant state media.
Eritrea is the least technologically connected country on earth: just one per cent of Eritreans are online.
Analysis by Humanz of a number of pro-Eritrea influencers suggests a high level of irregular activity, including a synchronised explosion in activity and engagement on one day in April, as Ethiopia and Eritrea faced sustained media scrutiny over the war.
Abiy has slapped a scarlet letter on all Tigrayans as TDF combatants. We should expect more human-rights abuses to follow.
Arrests have swept up hundreds in Addis Ababa and many fear to speak their language in public.
Despite their poverty, Tigrayans are seen as rich, sucking the wealth of the nation, and dirty, a dehumanisation that has fuelled genocides from Armenia and the Holocaust to Rwanda.
Nobody I spoke to in Tigray considers themself Ethiopian any more. Other regions, rattled by Abiy’s autocratic rule, are roiling too.
“Look at what the collapse of Syria and the chaos of civil war has meant,” said Jeffrey Feltman, a senior diplomat the US appointed to the Horn Of Africa this April, referring to the collapse of a nation of 22m people that gave rise to Isis.
“Ethiopia has 110m people,” he added. “If the tensions in Ethiopia would result in a widespread civil conflict that goes beyond Tigray, Syria will look like child’s play by comparison.”
At the time of writing, Abiy had rescheduled the national elections a second time, for late June. Tensions are high. Tigray has brought into question what Ethiopia even is.
“Ethiopia is an empire,” says Norwegian professor Kjetil Tronvoll. “And in empire theory, there are clear phases of an empire of growth, consolidation and decline.”
Since the student movements that ousted Haile Selassie, Tronvoll adds, “Empire traditions have been weakened decade by decade. And we are approaching, possibly, the final days or the fall of the empire of Ethiopia.”
What happens next is hard to say. The TDF’s young men know their land, are well equipped and steeped in the tales of the TPLF’s great victories over the Derg and their Soviet paymasters.
Supporters told me the kinds of apocryphal tales that often spread through the ranks of rebel groups: 5,000 Ethiopians beaten by a battalion of 600 TDF; Eritreans drinking the blood of goats to stay alive.
All were convinced they would secure an independent Tigray. With its economy in ruins and fertile land occupied, it is difficult to see how that state would function.
Abiy has nowhere to go. In March he said TPLF fighters had dispersed “like flour in the winds” and in May he designated the TPLF a terrorist organisation.
“There’s absolutely zero chance of Abiy or [Afwerki] doing a deal with the TPLF,” a former Western military official told me.
“For [Afwerki], it’s totally unacceptable. For Abiy, it would collapse him, because he’s vilified the TPLF for everything they’ve done, to the point that if he were to say, ‘Now we would have to do a deal with the TPLF,’ the rest of Ethiopia would say, ‘Fxxk off.’”
International actors have finally begun to pay attention to the conflict, as media reports the worst of its crimes, while the US has brought Feltman out of semiretirement to monitor developments and it has tabled sanctions against Ethiopian officials.
“The large-scale human-rights abuses taking place in Tigray, including widespread sexual violence, are unacceptable and must end,” wrote US President Joe Biden in a statement in May.
“Families of every background and ethnic heritage deserve to live in peace and security in their country. Political wounds cannot be healed through force of arms. Belligerents in the Tigray region should declare and adhere to a ceasefire and Eritrean and Amhara forces should withdraw.”
But movement is slow: as with the waves of violence that preceded it, 60,000 dead Africans just doesn’t seem enough to persuade countries to act decisively.
Irob, meanwhile, faces an existential threat. More than 80 of its people have died in the conflict and many, many more have left.
Troops have forced some to carry Eritrean identity cards. “If this continues,” said another, “you will only see the Irob in Google.”
The Irob Volleyball Club’s coach now spends hours each day gathering information about the war. The first time we met, he scattered the passport photos and IDs of men murdered at a local factory.
Later, he sent me 30-second videos of their faces and names, accompanied by local, religious music, so they would never be forgotten.
Ethiopian forces have warned him twice not to speak out about the war. He doesn’t think there’ll be a third. I only saw one small group of boys play basketball outside Adigrat’s cathedral during my visit there.
“Now we have no time for fun and games,” the priest told me. “We’re just trying to survive these beasts.”
Abraham’s grandparents never recovered from Abraham’s abduction. They hoped he might one day walk back through their door and suffered from depression all the way up until their deaths a couple of years ago.
“When I see the soldiers of Eritrea today I understand that he’s not alive,” Abraham’s brother, Aaron, told me in Adigrat, breaking into tears. “I see how they kill everyone.”
One sunny afternoon, Aaron invited me to look at pictures of the Irob Volleyball Club boys on his phone, celebrating Christmas in 2020. In one, eight of them are huddled around a campfire, eating and joking together.
In another they are standing, lined up, shoulder to shoulder, arms draped lazily over one another.
All the boys look relaxed and happy. When news of the massacre reached Adigrat a week after it happened, Aaron knew it would be them.
“My nephews are always together because they really love each other. And especially during the feast days they celebrate. Even on ordinary days they are always together.”
The nuns moved Kaleb to a location outside Alitena, where he remained until the time of writing. The wounds on his body are healed but his mind is destroyed and he cannot go outside in case the Eritrean soldiers recognise him.
After a day, the people of Alitena moved the boys’ bodies from the river to the crypt of the Lideta Mariam. They lie there now, together, in their home, somewhere the village can come and pay their respects in relative peace.
But the sight of the river running red with their blood has scarred the boys’ mothers and they refuse to drink its water. “If they go there,” Aaron told me, “they feel as if it is happening now.”
Yonas has two sisters in Addis Ababa. One of them fainted when she heard the news and still requires medical care for depression. He believes he can be the best volleyball player in Ethiopia, but he is lonely and poor and the massacre haunts him. For a long time those boys were his universe. Without them, in a sprawling city of five million people, he feels lost.
Yonas has a Tigrayan teammate: sometimes, at training, they speak Tigrinya, the native language of Tigray, to each other. He’s not sure how long that will last.
Tigrayans are increasingly afraid to speak their mother tongue outside the region and police crackdowns have swept up hundreds of them across Addis Ababa.
“We are in constant fear,” he told me, gazing wildly at the traffic below. “If things get worse here, we will be the victims.”
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Economic woes set to weigh heavily on high-stakes Zambia vote @AFP @sofiacsn
Soaring food prices and economic hardship could sway this week's tightly-contested Zambian presidential vote in favour of the opposition, as citizens grapple with the fallout from rampant financial mismanagement.
President Edgar Lungu, who is vying for re-election in the August 12 poll, stands accused of borrowing unsustainably, to splurge on infrastructure projects.
The copper-rich southern African nation last year became the first country on the continent to default on its debt in the coronavirus era.
The value of the kwacha currency plummeted to record lows and inflation surged past 20 percent during Lungu's presidency, which also saw investor confidence decline as external debt ballooned to around $12 billion last year.
"Mismanagement at the macro level is affecting common people," said Zambian economist Trevor Simumba.
"The poor don't have mechanisms to adjust their living costs".
With tensions rising ahead of the elections next week, Lungu ordered an unprecedented deployment of the military to clamp down on violence.
Economic troubles in a country where more than half the population lived below the poverty line before the pandemic do not bode well for a president who only eked out slim victories in previous polls, analysts warn.
Results of an Afrobarometer study published last month showed that poverty, hunger and economic inequalities had worsened compared to five years ago.
According to a survey at the end of May, 80 percent of Zambians considered the economic conditions "bad".
The upcoming election is expected to be the tightest contest yet between Lungu, 64, and his longstanding rival, main opposition candidate and sixth-time-runner Hakainde Hichilema, 59.
Lungu's "popularity has gone precisely because of how the economy has performed," economist Grieve Chelwa said speaking from the capital Lusaka.
For the typical Zambian voter, who has a low paid job or is informally employed, the election is "all about the economy", said Chelwa.
- 'Can't eat roads' -
In his campaign manifesto, Lungu boasts that Zambia has "experienced unprecedented transformational development" and is "better than it was in the 47 years under previous administrations".
He promised to ensure food security, affordable cost of living, and job and wealth creation.
Roads in the bustling capital city have improved drastically since Lungu took office in 2015.
Flyover bridges have replaced gridlocked roundabouts, potholes were filled and thoroughfares widened.
"Driving has never been this nice," Chelwa acknowledged, but "you can't eat the roads".
A monthly average basket of basic goods for an urban family of five cost 8,400 kwacha ($436) early this year, according to the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection -- more than eight times the minimum wage.
Joblessness has been exacerbated by coronavirus and the streamlining of two major copper mines, in which the government has stakes.
"A lot of Zambians feel they are paying for government debt through rising living costs," said Zaynab Mohamed of consultancy firm Oxford Economics.
"Lungu is going into the election on a weaker footing because of the financial mismanagement," she noted.
Critics denounce unnecessary government spending, inflated costs of public projects and say state corruption is widespread.
Accountability of such projects is "very weak", said Simumba.
"They have built clinics and schools but they haven't employed doctors or teachers because they can't afford it," he said.
"The government's budget is a mess and, ... they haven't been servicing their external debt."
The final months of Lungu's first term were weighed down by difficult negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.
A deal is believed to have been clinched with the IMF, but Lungu has dragged his feet on financial reforms, and worked instead on curbing the coronavirus and garnering electoral support.
"The government realises how badly things are going, that businessmen in particular are disaffected... and more likely to support the opposition," said University of the Witwatersrand's Nicole Beardsworth.
Hichilema's electoral promise is to fix the economic and political landscape.
The economist and wealthy entrepreneur has a "more business-friendly approach" that is less focused on resource nationalism than Lungu, said Aleix Montana of the research firm Verisk Maplecroft, adding a change in government will likely boost investor confidence.
In the 2016 vote, Lungu eked out victory with 50.35 percent of ballots, just enough to avoid a second round run-off, and Hichilema came a close second on 47.63 percent.
Zambia weathers a winter of discontent @thecontinent_
Approval of the president’s performance has dropped by 27 percentage points since 2013, to 46%, in parallel with a sharp decline in satisfaction with the way democracy is working (from 68% to 37%).
Ominously, only about one in five Zambians (22%) think the country is going “in the right direction” – about one-third as many as thought so eight years ago.
One indicator that’s on the rise is the measure of lived poverty: The share of Zambians who frequently go without basic life necessities has shot up from 47% in 2014 to 74%.
.@CyrilRamaphosa reins in the spooks and picks new finance chief @Africa_Conf
Cautious to a fault, the President has shuffled the pack sending out mixed signals to ANC loyalists and investors
Two weeks after a failed insurrection cost 337 lives and inflicted over US$4 billion in damage to the already stuttering economy, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on 5 August that he has dismantled the State Security Agency (SSA), which was set up by his predecessor Jacob Zuma.
Early the next day it was announced that Zuma, currently serving an 18-month sentence for contempt of court, had been taken into hospital.
Whether the Zuma-era securocrats were guilty of sins of commission or omission is to be determined by a full investigation into the attempted insurrection and the laggardly response from South Africa's security system
Ramaphosa hasn't waited for its conclusions. He has centralised the key intelligence and security functions in the office of the president, in the tradition of another predecessor, Thabo Mbeki.
Sydney Mufamadi, security minister under Nelson Mandela, is to be Ramaphosa's National Security Advisor.
He led the probe into the security services, which had been highly politicised under Zuma. He will also play a critical role in the panel set up to review the intelligence services.
Ramaphosa has also sacked Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. She had insisted the uprising in protest at Zuma's jailing had not amounted to an insurrection despite the attacks on electricity sub-stations, a water purification plant and the organised distribution of firearms and ammunition.
After Ramaphosa's office slapped her down, she reluctantly changed her line. She has now been replaced by Thandi Modise.
Another Zuma appointee, State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo, has been demoted.
The President brought in Zizi Kodwa as Deputy Minister in the Presidency responsible for intelligence to replace her.
More problematic for security is the survival of Police Minister Bheki Cele, whose explanation for inaction in the early stages of the insurrection stretched credulity.
Worse still, Cele is at war with another Zuma appointee, Police Commissioner Khehla Sitole, who was judged by the Court of Appeal to have 'breached his duty' in a probe into claims of corruption in police procurement.
The other big news is the appointment of former head of the Development Bank of Southern Africa, Enoch Godongwana, as Finance Minister in place of Tito Mboweni, who had asked to leave the government.
Godongwana has far more traction with the governing African National Congress than the periodically irascible Mboweni.
But Godongwana also has his critics in the party who have raised questions about his role in the crash of Canyon Springs Investment, which had managed the pension fund of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers' Union. Godongwana denies wrongdoing in the matter.
Mondli Gugubele, former Deputy Minister of Finance, takes over as Minister in the Presidency after the death of the highly-regarded Jackson Mthembu.
The promotion of Joe Phaahla to Health Minister from the deputy position has been widely applauded after Zweli Mkhize, suspended after a corruption probe, sent his resignation to Ramaphosa.
Likewise, the appointment of Senzo Mchunu as Minister for Water Affairs, now a critical economic and security issue across the country, has been welcomed.
In recognition of that, the Water Affairs portfolio has been separated from the Human Settlements ministry.
The rise and fall of the Matatu King @thecontinent_
Kenya’s capital is now run by an unelected army leader. He succeeds the taxi overlord Mike Sonko, who used the power and profits from his blinged-out transports to buy and batter his way to the governorship.
His dramatic rise to power challenged the vested interests of the country’s ruling elite. So they fought back. And won.
Journalist and Debunk Media’s Editor-in-Chief Isaac Otidi Amuke pieced together Sonko’s rise and fall from original reporting, public records and the utterances of those involved. The story is extraordinary. And true.
In the mid-2010s, before his 40th birthday, Mike Mbuvi Gidion Kioko Sonko straddled Nairobi’s Eastlands like a colossus; a king and his bulging fiefdom.
Eastlands is many things, one among them being a constellation of colonial housing estates and their post- independence imitations.
Once upon a time, Eastlands was the hallmark of arrival for the Black African elite. But upon seizing state power, that gentry migrated en masse to hitherto Europeans- only neighbourhoods.
Left to its own devices, Eastlands saw swathes of urban ghettos burgeon across its flanks. Later attempts at urbanisation yielded poorly designed high-rise residential structures made up of mostly cramped and poorly-lit flats.
But Eastlands wasn’t dwindling. Eastlands was transforming.
Out of the dusty roads, unlit streets and dried-up taps came Sheng, a popular slang made from an intricate mix of English, Kiswahili and bits and pieces of other vernacular. The language paved the way for Kenya’s 90s rap culture, a punchy co-option of American gangster rap.
Art forms such as graffiti piggybacked on the music, with both the music and graffiti finding their way into matatus, the unruly public transport minibuses that are ubiquitous in Nairobi.
This evolution saw matatus morph from plain-looking jalopies into manyangas – cozy rides with ostentatious bodyworks and exteriors embellished with avante garde artwork, blasting deafening music.
Matatu crews – drivers, conductors and hangers-on – lived up to their billing as some of the most fashionable men in town.
Dressed to the nines –and so blinged up you’d be forgiven for assuming they’d just teleported in from the set of a Snoop Dogg music video – they had tattoos, they dyed their hair and they wore gold and silver teeth, chains, bungles and rings.
The deres and kanges – the drivers and the conductors or touts – were a hip hop version of the DR Congo’s immaculately- dressed sapeurs.
Earning a modest daily wage– spent as quickly as it was gained – these exuberant personas were demigods in Eastlands’ jobless corners.
They regularly sponsored bottles of cheap liquor and bundles of khat, the narcotic shrub, to the delight of their less-blessed peers and admirers. The matatu subculture became an integral part of Eastlands’ fabric.
And from this new weave of Kenyan material culture emerged Mike Sonko, the Matatu King.
In 2010, when the rest of Nairobi and Kenya got to know him, the 35-year-old Sonko – or Mbuvi, as he was known then – was already the undisputed supremo of Nairobi’s matatu subculture.
He owned a dozen of the swankiest nganyas, the Sheng word for souped-up matatus had evolved from “manyanga” in the 90s to “nganya” in the 2000s and, more recently, “choda”.
These all plied route number 58, operating between downtown Nairobi and Buruburu shopping centre, a busily congested hub populated with pubs, hypermarkets and discotheques.
The rule for matatus is the more ostentatious the better, so Sonko went all out, pioneering the installation of big screen TVs at the front of the passenger cabins of his 32-seater matatus, and giving them names like Brown Sugar, Convict, Ferrari, Lakers and Ruff Cuts.
Commuters could now watch the music video as the song played. Mbuvi even added a double- decker bus to his fleet, affording Buruburu residents a lofty view as they traversed their city.
For Mbuvi, who just 12 years earlier was serving time in a maximum security prison, this was already a remarkable turnaround in fortunes. Few realised then that he was only just getting started.
Escape from prison Born in Mombasa and raised in Kwale, Mbuvi had been a resident of the two coastal towns for most of his life.
His father ran a property brokerage company, and the young Mbuvi dabbled in the family business.
But Mbuvi’s wheeling and dealing occasionally crossed the line.
In 1995, aged 20 and already making petty cash, Mbuvi was arrested and charged with assault.
The following year, Mbuvi was charged with impersonation in the course of cutting his land deals. He was released on bail on both occasions.
But he kept failing to appear in court, which violated the terms of his bail and eventually, in 1997, saw him rounded up and sentenced to six months in prison.
Mbuvi was dispatched to the Shimo La Tewa Maximum Security Prison on 12 March 1998 as prisoner number P/No. SHO/477/1998.
After a month behind bars, he feigned illness and was admitted to Coast General Hospital in Mombasa, from where he vanished on 16 April 1998, only to reappear in the vast Buruburu housing estate in east Nairobi.
Mbuvi’s justification for skipping jail was that he needed to pay his last respects to his late mother, Saumu Mukami, whose funeral he had missed while he was behind bars. But in reality he just needed a fresh start.
Speaking Kiswahili with a coastal accent, Mbuvi landed in Buru with a bang. Together with his wife Primrose, he scrounged for capital and set up a hair salon, a barber shop, a video library, a cybercafé, an outlet for selling automobile parts, and a clothes boutique.
As a fugitive, Mbuvi operated in the shadows. Primrose ran the show, and the businesses flourished. The couple opened a popular nightclub, and then ventured into the matatus business.
Initially, Mbuvi couldn’t afford nganyas, so he settled for a couple of worn out matatus, which he deployed into the deep of Eastlands in Dandora, a sprawling settlement which hosts Nairobi’s largest dump site.
It was while operating on these Eastlands back routes that Mbuvi got a deeper understanding of the business – and of the place.
It was also around this time, aged 25 in 2000, that Mbuvi got himself into trouble with the law again, over yet another property deal gone south.
It was while Mbuvi was detained at Nairobi’s Industrial Area Remand Prison awaiting trial that wardens connected the dots backwards to his escape from Shimo La Tewa prison in 1998, and promptly moved him first to the more secure Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, and then on to Shimo La Tewa.
Mbuvi found himself back where he’d started, with the remainder of his original 12-month sentence ahead of him.
After nine months, he applied for a review of his sentence. In his dramatic affidavit, Mbuvi claimed he was epileptic and HIV-positive, and suffered from chronic tuberculosis and peptic ulcers. He was released on the strength of his supposedly dire medical condition and reported good behaviour.
Back in Buru, Primrose had grown their businesses. With satisfactory liquidity, it was now time to get into the top league of the matatu business.
Making it their main hustle, Mbuvi and Primrose accumulated a fleet of Nairobi’s loudest and most dashing nganyas, thereby dominating the Buru route. And the money streamed in.
The logic was simple
There is a hierarchy of nganyas, which works in the same fashion as music charts. The longer a song stays at number one, the more the artist earns.
For nganyas, those at the top of the pecking order make more money per day: by charging higher fares or making the highest number of round trips, or both.
The audacity to charge higher rates emanates from the fact that nganyas always have a steady stream of passengers – call them fans or groupies – who will wait at the terminus until their favourite nganya shows up.
This group of commuters has no qualms about paying something extra for the comfort, choice of music, or simply the prestige of riding their favourite nganya.
More importantly, reigning nganyas manage to make as many round trips as possible since they are ordinarily exempted from certain protocols within the matatu ecosystem, including the first- come-first-boarded rule at the pick-up and drop-off points.
This meant that whenever Mbuvi’s nganyas got to downtown Nairobi, they skipped the queue, filled up instantly and turned around.
The same applied when they got to Buru shopping centre, never allowing the ignition to turn off.
As long as the nganyas were on the move, Mbuvi’s bankers were elated.
However, the biggest advantage nganyas had was that they were a law unto themselves. In their pursuit of making as many round trips as possible, nganyas overlapped, took short cuts, bullied motorists off lanes and occasionally drove on the wrong side of the road.
All of this, christened “matatu madness” by Nairobians, was made possible through collusion with traffic police, who were on the payrolls of the matatu barons.
According to deres of some of Nairobi’s top nganyas (the routes they ply can’t be named for fear of victimisation) there has always existed a cascading bribery food chain, where the top cops are paid monthly, and the amount trickles down the ranks: the lowest earners are the roadside cops, who take as little as half a dollar per nganya per day.
This rule-breaking by nganyas was deemed necessary, considering it cost an arm and a leg to transform a regular minibus into a nganya.
Matatus made Mbuvi incredible amounts of money — he has previously estimated that at the end of the morning shift on an average day, he’d have a clean $200 per nganya, excluding whatever he’d make during the evening rush hour.
But more than the money, Matatus also made Mbuvi “el jefe”. A boss.
To run his ever growing matatu empire, Mbuvi recruited some of the shrewdest youngsters across Eastlands to be his deres, kanges and hangers-on, making him the leader of an influential network across Eastlands.
It was in this era of Mbuvi’s life that he earned the nickname “Sonko”, which is Sheng for boss or the monied one.
Mbuvi’s other moniker, whispered only – and never among strangers – was Kabumba: a Sheng term insinuating black magic.
The rise of Mbuvi – now Sonko – had been so meteoric that some onlookers suspected sorcery.
These hushed rumours were partly fueled by the fact that he was from the coast, and tapped into the popular myth that there is a powerful form of wizardry that draws its powers from the Indian Ocean.
Sonko did little to discourage this impression; he even donned gold rings, one for each finger, emblazoned with eldritch animal figures. There is power in bling. Sonko was happy for it to be occult.
The rise and fall of the Matatu King @thecontinent_ [continued]
Stepping into politics
By the time a parliamentary by-election arose in Nairobi’s Makadara constituency in April 2010, Sonko was already a powerhouse across Eastlands.
More than simply the flamboyant owner of the flashiest nganyas, he had risen to become defender-in-chief of all Eastlands matatus, which had elected him as chairman.
As early as 2007, when the government attempted to relocate the pickup and drop-off points for Eastlands matatus from central Nairobi to the edge of the city in 2007, he had gone to court and successfully stopped the move.
In the land of the matatu, Sonko was king. Outside of Eastlands, however, he was still an enigma; the mysterious owner of the infamously rowdy Buru matatus. But Nairobi would soon come to learn plenty more about him.
Sonko’s interest in the Makadara by- election was stirred by the fact that, in his estimation, no one had the kind of network, manpower and infrastructure he had across the cosmopolitan constituency which had Buru shopping centre as its nerve centre.
If he activated his extensive web of drivers, conductors and hangers-on on his nganyas and decided to use his matatus as a campaign tool, he would be miles ahead of the other candidates.
Moreover, Sonko had stacks of ready- to-spend cash courtesy of his nganyas, which he splashed around with abandon.
Part 2: The dishonourable member
Sonko immediately caused a splash in Nairobi’s usually staid political scene. Who was the skinny lad on the billboard, with the outrageous fashion sense? And who was he to call himself “Sonko”?
Word quickly got out that he owned the infamous Buru nganyas, and then it all made sense. The nganyas made him tons of money – hence Sonko – and being their proprietor accorded him immunity.
From that point onwards, and throughout his theatrical decade in politics, his multiple faux pas stood forgiven on account that he was the embodiment of umatatu: an anarchist phenomenon characterised by brashness, vulgarity and braggadocio, and personified by carefree matatu crews.
However, much as umatatu brought Sonko fame and fortune, it also attracted judgemental frowns. Kenya’s established political parties wouldn’t touch him, despite his repeated overtures. He did not play by the rules of the political elite, and was not welcomed there.
Nevertheless, despite going up against locals and the established order, Sonko won – and Makadara had a new MP.
He began his parliamentary term with a bang, keen on leaving a quick mark considering he had just over two years before the 2013 general election.
Living up to his name, Sonko dished out bundles of crisp currency notes indiscriminately to destitute Nairobians whenever they caught his eye or ear, conveniently broadcasting his generosity on social media.
To keep the streets talking, he rode around town in gold- plated SUVs, wore kilos of gold jewellery and dyed his hair gold.
This attracted plenty of attention – not all of it welcome.
Allegations of corruption
Three months after his election, police raided Sonko’s office and Buru residence on suspicion that he was involved in drug trafficking, following a tip-off from the US embassy (the minister for internal security owned up to parliament about this leak from the Americans).
Playing hide and seek with the cops, he complained bitterly to parliament about police harassment.
In a subsequent police report, detectives said Sonko had been afraid to meet investigators. When he did, they said, he denied being a drug dealer, but did confess to taking part in a multimillion- dollar land fraud syndicate, an admission which the police didn’t pursue further by charging Sonko with fraud.
The scams involved working with government officials to grab parcels of land whose leases were about to expire and secretly transferring the title deeds from original owners to fraudsters who use them to con buyers.
The report listed three companies – Casuarina Club, Primix Enterprises and Tungwa Brand Design – as businesses registered under Sonko’s name, none of which was paying taxes.
Possibly trying to protect her and their businesses, Sonko told investigators that his wife Primrose was actually his sister.
The report barely mentioned Sonko’s matatu empire, except to observe that “he operates several matatus christened ARTUR within Nairobi”.
Sonko did indeed operate two nganyas named Artur, but the police were hinting at something else.
It was one of those if-you-know-you- know scenarios.
On 10 November 2005, two brash gold-chain-wearing Armenians named Artur Margaryan and Artur Sargasyan landed in Nairobi. Presenting first as businessmen, then as playboys and then as security experts, over time the pair cultivated connections at the highest levels of Kenyan society.
Ultimately they proved so useful to their collaborators in whatever shadowy shenanigans they were involved in that they were both appointed deputy commissioners of police.
Kenyan journalists repeatedly linked the Arturs to drug dealing. And so, though the police could not prove that Sonko was himself involved in drug dealing, by pointedly mentioning his nganyas named Artur – even writing ARTUR in capital letters – they seemed to be implying that even if he wasn’t guilty, Sonko’s fondness for suspected dealers was a telltale sign.
Deserved or not, the drug dealer label stuck to Sonko (perhaps that’s why he decided to formally change his name in 2012, from Mbuvi Gidion Kioko to Mbuvi Gidion Kioko Mike Sonko).
Not that it seemed to do him any harm: his popularity was skyrocketing.
Sonko saw the drug trafficking allegation as a shot across the bows, and knew he needed to find political protection – fast.
Similarly, his by-election win didn’t guarantee future political success, especially as he had now set his sights on becoming the first-ever senator for Nairobi (a position created in Kenya’s new 2010 Constitution).
He needed to align himself with one of the two political parties. And this time, his timing was exactly right.
Uhuru Kenyatta, then one of two deputy prime ministers, was about to run for president on The National Alliance (TNA) party ticket.
As the son of Kenya’s founding father Jomo Kenyatta, Uhuru Kenyatta was political royalty, but he had a major problem and needed all the friends he could find.
Kenyatta was one of four Kenyans facing crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
These stemmed from the 2007/2008 post-election violence in which more than a thousand people were thought to have been killed.
Sonko cast himself as Kenyatta’s defender-in-chief. Mourning more than the bereaved, Sonko went as far as asking his barber to carve Kenyatta’s name on his head. He flew to The Hague to lead demonstrations in support of Kenyatta whenever he appeared in court, always wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Respect our Prezzo, Takataka nyinyi ghasia”. Respect our president, you pieces of shit!
Sonko’s support paid off.
During the 2013 general election, Kenyatta and running mate William Ruto – who was also facing crimes against humanity charges at The Hague – won the presidency by a slim margin, and the cases against both leaders were subsequently dropped.
Riding Kenyatta’s wave of tacit support, Sonko became Nairobi’s inaugural senator with a staggering 808,705 votes: the highest number of votes ever cast in Kenya for a single politician who wasn’t running for president. He was unstoppable.
Like most of the new senators-elect, Sonko realised he might have made a miscalculation. Much as the title is grandiose, the job itself is limited to oversight.
The real power lay with governors, who controlled huge budgets and could therefore affect lives and livelihoods.
So he hatched a plan. He established a privately-funded pro bono service delivery entity known as the Sonko Rescue Team (SRT), which comprised ambulances, fire engines and water bowsers.
He enlisted the services of hundreds of youth to operate the entity, and asked them to pick up litter at the same time.
He got the new organisation to pay the medical bills of those needing specialised treatment in Kenya and abroad; and, in the unfortunate event of a beneficiary passing on, Sonko used his famous Buru nganyas as free hearses.
No one, including the incumbent Nairobi governor Dr. Evans Kidero, could compete with Sonko’s apparent generosity.
Critics questioned how Sonko could afford all this, given that he earned less than $10,000 per month as a senator.
Sonko brushed off the haters: he told the city that he would be Nairobi’s next governor, and at a public rally declared himself to be Kenya’s third most powerful man, behind only the president and his deputy.
He was not afraid to use this power: whenever a government official got in his way, Sonko would get President Kenyatta on the phone, putting the call on loudspeaker as the ever-present media cameras rolled.
Taking their cue from their incorrigible boss, Sonko’s bodyguards started showing up in public spaces wielding AK-47s, as if operating in a war zone. At a senate meeting, Sonko attempted to get into a fistfight with Governor Kidero, the man he wanted to unseat.
None of this hurt him. Sonko was untouchable. For now.
The rise and fall of the Matatu King @thecontinent_ (further)
Part 4: Infamy, they’ve all got it infamy
With his control seemingly total, Sonko and his umatatu went wherever they wanted, did whatever they wanted, to whoever they wanted. Until one Saturday morning in April 2018, when they went too far.
Timothy Muriuki, the demure former boss of the Nairobi Central Business District Association, was addressing a press conference at the Hotel Boulevard when a gang of heavily built enforcers stormed into Hotel Boulevard in downtown Nairobi and violently disrupted proceedings.
Muriuki was considered an inconsequential Sonko critic who nevertheless needed to be taught a lesson: as journalists scampered, the heavies moved in to rough him up.
Grabbing Muriuki by the waist, one attacker tried to throw the smartly suited Muriuki into the hotel swimming pool. Kicking and pushing, Muriuki eventually freed himself from the man’s grip as journalists begged the attackers to not drown him.
‘‘Please read my statement,’’ Muriuki pleaded. ‘‘I wasn’t attacking the governor.’’
Unmoved, the goons frogmarched the businessman from the compound. When he fell, they shoved him into the mud, but he managed to get back on his feet and attempt to sprint away, only for the assailants to grab him by his blazer and resume their kicks and blows.
He finally escaped when the journalists convinced guards at a nearby building to rescue him.
The entire Boulevard episode was one of the most embarrassing forms of public humiliation Kenyans had ever witnessed. And it was done in Sonko’s name. One attacker had invoked his name. Others were seen in his entourage.
The establishment strikes back
As the public mood shifted against Sonko, the civil servants and businessmen who had twice failed to dislodge him decided to try once more: this time they would use Sonko’s own paranoia against him.
Fearing that City Hall was bugged, Sonko oscillated the running of Nairobi’s affairs between a nondescript pied-à-terre in the city’s Upper Hill area – which he converted into a personal office – and his gigantic hilltop Mua Hills mansion on the outskirts of Nairobi, filled with ostentatious gold furnishings.
Through their influence in the press, Sonko’s detractors sponsored one unflattering headline after another, to a point where Sonko declared he was a target of Kenya’s “deep state”, naming Permanent Secretary Karanja Kobicho as the puppet master.
Before the ink could dry on these damaging stories – that he drank at work, ran City Hall like a mafia boss, never listened to his cabinet, and was going broke – the country’s anti-corruption agency struck.
Various transactions in Sonko’s bank accounts were flagged as suspicious, more so in instances where Sonko had previously received payments from companies which later on traded with City Hall.
To curtail his operations, Sonko’s Upper Hill base was placed under investigation, on account that it had been acquired irregularly.
Determined to fight back, in May 2019 a fired-up Sonko pulled up at a TV station carrying over 1,000 title deeds and 150 logbooks, intent on proving he was already a wealthy man before going into politics.
With tears in his eyes, Sonko attributed his troubles to the Kenyan aristocracy, which he said was displeased that a poor man’s son had risen to become Nairobi governor and was willing to share his meagre earnings with the people of Eastlands.
That being said, Sonko made it crystal clear that much as he came from poverty, he was no pauper. He gloated: ‘‘If I liquidate my title deeds, I am worth more than Nairobi’s annual budget.’’
Nairobi’s budget for the 2019/2020 financial year was $320-million.
Playing to the gallery did little to divert the attention of the authorities. An arrest was planned at the end of 2019.
Hearing that he would be facing charges ranging from money laundering to corruption, Sonko went on the run, intent on laying low at one of his coastal hideaways.
But his convoy was intercepted at Voi, between Nairobi and Mombasa, and Sonko was bundled into a helicopter and flown back to the capital.
The show of power made it clear to everyone that the Matatu King was up against President Kenyatta himself.
That escalation might have had something to do with Sonko committing the cardinal sin of forging an alliance with Deputy President William Ruto, who had fallen out with Kenyatta.
Like Sonko, Ruto fashioned himself as a Robin Hood of sorts, traversing the country dishing out millions of shillings as he preached the pro-poor gospel.
Calling himself a hustler, Ruto – who is campaigning to become president in 2022 – peddled a catchy us-versus-them narrative where he and others like Sonko presented themselves as case studies of the rags-to-riches trajectory, while castigating President Kenyatta and his allies for being offspring and beneficiaries of oppressive dynasties.
By becoming Ruto’s ally, Sonko chose to become Kenyatta’s foe.
On being arraigned in court following his Voi arrest, Sonko was slapped with a staggering $150,000 bail, and was barred by the court from accessing City Hall until the matter ran its full course.
In this moment of Sonko’s weakness, President Kenyatta went for the jugular.
The rise and fall of the Matatu King @thecontinent_ [cont]
On the night of February 24 2020, Sonko received communication summoning him to State House, the president’s official residence. He arrived two hours late for their 6am meeting. Kenyatta had left.
When Kenyatta returned that afternoon, he instructed Sonko to surrender a number of Nairobi County functions to the national government, including but not limited to planning, health, transport, public works, ancillary services and revenue collection.
As consolation, Sonko would remain the governor, albeit a lame duck.
At 4pm, a visibly subdued Sonko appeared at a press conference with the president, eating humble pie as he sheepishly signed away his electoral mandate.
The aspirant had been put in his place by people used to wielding power on a national scale.
In less than a month, Kenyatta proceeded to set up and deploy the opaque Nairobi Metropolitan Services, which has since been declared an extra- constitutional entity by the courts but now effectively runs Nairobi.
In another signal that he meant business, Kenyatta appointed Major General Mohamed Badi to lead the new entity.
Tellingly, Peter Kariuki, the man who had been previously sent to rein in Sonko, was seconded to the entity.
And just like that, Kenya’s largest city and capital lost its elected governor and was now being run by a tough-talking military general.
Despite his earlier acquiescence, Sonko rebelled. As governor, Sonko was the official signatory for the Nairobi County bank accounts, so he refused to sign funds to the Nairobi Metropolitan Services.
Kenyatta struck back, engineering Sonko’s impeachment by the Nairobi County parliament.
Falling back to his umatatu roots, Sonko airlifted a sizable group of Members of County Assembly to the coast, to make it impossible for the city’s legislature to get the votes required to impeach him.
Videos surfaced of tens of assembly men and women showing off bundles of dollar bills as they frolicked with Sonko on one of his many beach-front properties.
Undeterred, Parliament decided that due to Covid-19 protocols, those at the coast could – and must – vote electronically: And, so, just before Christmas last year, Sonko was impeached and removed from office.
Out of work and disgraced, a bitter Sonko went on the offensive. He leaked a recording in which the president’s sister, Christina Pratt, appears to lobby him to appoint her friend as deputy governor.
He then joined Deputy President William Ruto on his rallies across the country, standing on podiums and attributing major corruption scandals to the president’s family.
The attacks aggravated Kenyatta – to the point where his mask of genteel detachment slipped.
At a meeting with leaders near Mount Kenya, he owned up to having orchestrated Sonko’s ouster.
‘‘I tried to help my friend the other day... he eventually declined my offer for assistance because he wanted to keep wearing goggles and boasting, and keep stealing... so I told him if that’s the case, then goodbye. Nowadays he is busy insulting me. I have no problem with him but I know Nairobi is in better hands.’’
Aggrieved, Sonko countered the president’s remarks within the hour, disregarding the Kiswahili idiom usishandane na ndovu kunya, utapasuka msamba – a warning that you shouldn’t get into a shitting contest with an elephant because you’ll split your bowels.
Speaking at a roadside rally in Machakos in February, he played Kenyatta’s speech on loudspeaker, before calling the president a drunkard, with whom he used to smoke marijuana.
‘‘I won’t mention his name because if I do he will either get me arrested or killed, that is his problem,’’ Sonko said.
‘‘But what my friend is not saying is that he is the one who introduced me to goggles back when we used to smoke marijuana together. He taught me to put on goggles to hide my bloodshot eyes after smoking... he taught me about goggles, drinking and marijuana.’’
He was wrong, though: he had not needed to mention Kenyatta’s name.
Sonko was arrested 48 hours later and held in custody for over a month, charged with terrorism – the state now alleging that Sonko runs a private militia that poses a threat to national security.
Umatatu worked for Sonko until it didn’t. Those that he sought to defeat – the businessmen, civil servants and dynastic politicians – have outmanoeuvred him.
The Matatu King has fallen.
.@Kenya_Re Kenya Re-insurance Corp. Ltd. reports H1 2021 EPS -66%
N.S.E Equities - Finance & Investment
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Kenya Re reports 6 months results through 30th June 2021
HY Gross Premiums written 9.588630b versus 9.073816 +6%
Less: retrocession premiums [0.769904b] versus [0.256037b]
HY Net Earned Premiums 8.688950B versus 8.660175b +0.3%
HY Investment Income 1.896506b versus 1.904899b -0.44%
HY Total Income 10.732319b versus 10.613697b
HY Net Claims and Benefits [6.283172b] versus [5.148480b] +22%
HY Cedant Acquisition costs [2.215203b] versus [2.146006b] +3%
HY Operating and other Expenses [1.060138b] versus [0.956943b]
HY Providion for doubtful debts [0.411373b] versus [0.270993b]
HY Total Claims Benefits and other expenses [9.969885b] versus [8.522422b]
HY Profit before Tax 762.434m versus 2.091275b -64%
HY Profit after tax 533.704m versus 1.568456b
HY EPS 0.19 versus 0.56
Asset Base 54.24b +2%
Government Securities 18.354456b
Cash and Cash Equivalents 6.621277b versus 7.722234b