Week One in Ouaga

At a friend’s dinner party in Islington the other week, I was talking to the actor, Michael Pennington, starring shortly at a screen near you as the veteran Labour Party leader, Michael Foot, alongside Meryl Streep in the film about Margaret Thatcher. Michael, whom I first met in Moscow a few years ago, was telling me about a book he was reading, which included the tale of Mungo Park, the late eighteenth century Scottish surgeon and explorer, who travelled up the Gambia to trace the Niger River, which was then uncharted by Europeans. I thought it would be a good book to take on my trip to Burkina Faso, in West Africa. Park’s ‘Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa performed under Direction and Patronage of the African Association in the Years 1795, 1796 and 1797’ is a compelling, well-written publishing success that prefigured classic travelogues such as Toqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’ (1835) and Custine’s ‘Letters from Russia’ (1839). Park did not pass through what is now Burkina Faso, but his journey took him through several of the country’s neighbours, which are clockwise: Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.

The grey lizard on my balcony wall is keeping me company. He looks like an old man, cocking his yellow head from side to side and staring at me in laconic inquisitiveness.

Reading Mungo Park two centuries later in a place not far from where he travelled, it is striking to note the persistence of stereotypes about the peoples he met: Black Africans, Arabs, Christians and Muslims and the contrast with the physical challenges of his courageous voyage into the unknown in comparison to my early 21st century woes of intermittent electricity and internet provision and having to spend three hours earlier this week at Airtel’s head office in downtown Ouagadougou (yes, three whole hours, can you believe?!!) to get a Blackberry configured correctly so that my colleague can receive dedicated email… (Despite the air-conditioning and the comfy sofa, it was hell!). Mungo Park’s trials and tribulations were somewhat greater, not least because he suffered imprisonment at the hands of a despotic Moorish leader called Ali. He did not, however, lose his sense of humour while in captivity, as witnessed by the following passage:

The curiosity of the Moorish ladies had been very troublesome to me ever since my arrival at Benown; and on the evening of the 25th [March 1796](whether from the instigation of others, or impelled by their own ungovernable curiosity, or merely out of frolic, I cannot affirm), a party of them came into my hut, and gave me plainly to understand that the object of their visit was to ascertain, by actual inspection, whether the rite of circumcision extended to the Nazarenes (Christians) as well as to the followers of Mahomet. The reader will easily judge of my surprise at this unexpected declaration, and in order to avoid the proposed scrutiny I thought it best to treat the business jocularly. I observed to them that it was not customary in my country to give ocular demonstration in such cases before so many beautiful women; but that if all of them would retire except the young lady to whom I pointed (selecting the youngest and handsomest) I would satisfy her curiosity. The ladies enjoyed the jest, and went away laughing heartily; and the young damsel herself, to whom I had given the preference (though she did not avail herself of the privilege of inspection) seemed no way displeased at the compliment, for she soon afterwards sent me some meal and milk for my supper.

I arrived in Ouagadougou last Monday 4 April on an Air France flight from Paris. The airport has not changed much since August 1984, when I was here last time around on a cheap charter from Lyons, arriving shortly after the country’s new president, Captain Thomas Sankara, had changed the country’s name from Upper Volta, after the river, to Burkina Faso, which means the Land of Men of Integrity. My first niece Sophie had just been born and my grandfather had just died. I was travelling with two Togolese friends on my way to Lomé (the capital of Togo) from where we would continue to Cotonou (economic capital of Benin) to another friend’s wedding.

Waiting for me at the airport this time were Amy, an American colleague, who I’ve come to help set up our office here (www.developmentmedia.net) and Sylvie, our Burkinabe consultant, who is expecting her first child any day soon. The cycle of a generation: birth, life and death, child, parent and grand-parent and birth again.

Since I last came to Burkina the population has doubled from about 7 to 15 million, yet the country still has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. That’s what we’re here for; to use targeted mass media (particularly radio) campaigns to convey culturally-appropriate, relevant health information to young mothers and their families and friends which can effectively help them to keep more children alive and healthy for longer. And we aim to prove, in association with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, that we can do this is in a scientific manner that can be reproduced around the world.

Burkina Faso is a dry, land-locked country where the living is hard. Its main resource is its people who bear the hardships and challenges with fortitude and perseverance. Political and social stability in recent weeks have been somewhat troubled by military misbehaviour and civilian unrest, which may reflect the underlying thirst for freedom and democracy, that the people here can see is perhaps being quenched in North Africa, just over the Sahara. To the south the tragedy of the Ivory Coast feels close to hand, as Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised President-elect, like millions of Ivoirians, has Burkinabe ancestry and this is a major factor in the conflict.

But Burkina Faso also feels pretty much like many other places where the resentment of the masses – and increasingly the educated middle classes – is building up against an oligarchy of the planetary super-rich who have appropriated a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth to the detriment of the global poor. Check out David Runciman’s article Offshore in the latest issue of the London Review Review of Books. He writes of the American economy:

The real beneficiaries of the explosion in income for top earners since the 1970s has been not the top 1 per cent but the top 0.1 per cent of the general population. Since 1974, the share of national income of the top 0.1 per cent of Americans has grown from 2.7 to 12.3 per cent of the total, a truly mind-boggling level of redistribution from the have-nots to the haves.

The figures might be different from country to country, but from the richest to the poorest country (pretty much where I am sitting today), it feels like we live in one world, in which the super-rich are getting richer, the middle classes are increasingly squeezed and the poor are getting poorer. Is it time to reverse the trend?

Here endeth the Lesson of Swithun after his first week in Ouagadougou this Sunday 10 April 2011.

2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is doing awesome!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,400 times in 2010. That’s about 6 full 747s.


In 2010, there were 6 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 42 posts. There were 23 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 10mb. That’s about 2 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was January 7th with 58 views. The most popular post that day was Lovely Londoners!.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, earth-policy.org, thersa.org, zebbakes.wordpress.com, and mail.live.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for michael wells, michael wells facebook, michael wells actor, mike wells facebook, and michael wells hands.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Lovely Londoners! April 2009


About December 2008


There is no such thing as big society… why we should listen to Mr Brown May 2010
1 comment


Storytelling with Christian Salmon in London April 2010


Mark Alexander Smith, 25 February 1960 – 2 November 2009 November 2009

In praise of public services

It is a wonderful thing to live in a civilised country, in which the needs of the most vulnerable in society are met by public institutions and paid for out of the public purse.

Micheline (not her real name, but she is real and this is a true story) was sleeping rough in a little square in Victoria. She would find clean cardboard boxes every evening and bed down between 11 pm and 5 am. In the morning she would wash and groom herself for 50p in one of those automatic public loos. She likes to keep clean and tidy. During the day, map in hand, she would walk the city, going as far as Brixton, Peckham and even Lewisham, sometimes pushing the supermarket trolley in which she kept her possessions. In the evening she would return to her comfortable little square not far from Victoria station. Sometimes people at the bus stop would give her a little money. She would buy Sainsbury’s own brand products to feed herself as they were cheap.

After over a year on the streets, Micheline was picked up by the police and placed in a psychiatric hospital under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act. The law stipulates that a mentally disordered person “may be detained for a period not exceeding 28 days beginning with the day on which he is admitted, but shall not be detained after the expiration of that period unless before it has expired he has become liable to be detained by virtue of a subsequent application, order or direction under the following provisions of the Act.”

Micheline had been admitted compulsorily to a psychiatric hospital in Victoria, near where she had been staying. She is charming, looks after herself, is quite chic in a simple way, particularly to an English eye. This is perhaps because she is French Caribbean, from Guadeloupe. She had taken the Eurostar from Paris to London in May 2009, to re-visit the city she loved, which she had first visited as an au pair in 1985, the year her parents died. She was quite confused and evasive about her parents, natural or foster, and always changed subject when asked about them, as if the best way of dealing with her grief was to dismiss it airily in a cloud of vagueness.

The 28 days of detention were nearly up, so the hospital had to present her to a Mental Health tribunal to assess whether she should be released or whether she should be further detained. Was she at risk to herself or to others? Was she able to look after herself? Did she have family or friends who could take care of her? Did she have enough money in her pocket to buy a train ticket back to Paris? Was she in a fit mental state to be allowed back on the streets of London without supervision? All these questions were asked with great kindness and humanity by the system, by the National Health Service, the police and the judiciary; in short by the bureaucracy that we have built up in Britain to take care of the poor, the destitute and the feeble-minded.

My involvement in Micheline’s London adventure came about as I took on an assignment as a Public Service Interpreter, engaged by the legal aid solicitors who had been appointed to represent her at the Mental Health Tribunal. As the solicitors do not speak French and Micheline does not speak much English, there is money available to pay for an interpreter. It was a bit less than £100 for the morning, which comes from the tax-payer, but the value added in terms of care and consideration and civilisation seems to me incommensurable. Arriving at the hospital at 8.30 am I met the external psychiatrist who had come to assess Micheline. It has to be a doctor who is not connected to the hospital in which the patient is detained. I interpreted her interview with Micheline. Then came the solicitor, a young English Nigerian woman, bright as a spark, articulate and committed. She went through the medical reports with Micheline, explained her rights to her and how the tribunal would be conducted. Accompanied by a nurse from her ward, we all went downstairs to the room used for the hearing. Also present were the hospital psychiatrist, the social worker and three member panel of the tribunal itself, all external independent people: the above-mentioned psychiatrist, a lay person and the judge, who chaired the hearing.

I interpreted for Micheline, both into and from French and left with her after she had spoken. She wished to speak first and not to stay and hear the outcome. I don’t know what decision was made; whether she is still in hospital or not.

The point of this post is simply to say that if we want this place in which we live to remain as civilised as it is, then we have to pay for it. I believe the best way is to pay for it out of public money. Tax-payers are getting value for money. Let’s not cut spending in public services, let’s raise enough taxes from the great wealth of this nation to pay for our fantastic public services. Amen!

The Tale of Two Pee

Look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves, so goes the saying.  Well, the two pence from Citibank have been a source of great amusement to me. And I have a feeling that they have cost everybody involved quite a lot more in time and money. The cashier at NatWest who credited the cheque to my account yesterday had a laugh when I told her the story.

I meant to write a blog post book review of John Lanchester’s  Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, so perhaps this will do the job indirectly instead. John Lanchester’s book is about the crazy financial mess we all got into. He starts with a description of what serious, old-fashioned people-facing banks used to do, then explores the Icelandic bank crash and explains how and why our liberal capitalist system has gone so badly wrong.

My tuppence worth backs his analysis up completely.

I returned to England five years ago and was advised by a financial advisor friend to get a credit card for my credit rating, in case I wished to buy property. I did, but with rising prices there was no way that I could afford the most modest property in London. Having lived abroad for twenty years, mainly in France, where personal overdrafts are illegal and the attitude to credit is quite different and more stringently regulated, I had never had a credit card. Not having debt is BAD, said my financial advisor, so I phoned up my bank and they sent me a MasterCard, with a reasonable credit limit. I used it occasionally, but always paid it off so as not to incur any interest charges.

In the summer of 2008, I was going on holiday to Bulgaria, flying with easyJet from Stansted. At the airport, I was accosted by a friendly Liverpudlian lady who offered me an easyJet credit card, which would earn me lots of free air miles, she said. I was reluctant at first, but was in a good mood at the prospect of a holiday in the sun and she was so friendly. She told me that she had promised to take her daughter on a shopping spree to Primark if her daughter cleaned the house while she was out working, i.e. flogging people like me credit cards. So I relented and signed the forms and sure enough, a fancy orange easyJet Citi bank MasterCard arrived in the post. I used it once or twice and they gave me a credit limit of £6,000 immediately. I sometimes day-dreamed about spending that amount all in one go and seeing what happened, but I’m not really a gambler.

A few air miles accrued, but I preferred to use my other cards, as this one was a hassle to pay off. In November 2009, I received a letter from Citi informing me that they were discontinuing the easyJet MasterCard, but that I would be transferred to a Citi Platinum MasterCard. I could redeem my points or convert them to cash by phoning them up. I got through to a nice lady at a call centre in India who looked at my points and told me that I had lost most of them, as they had expired. However, what was left was worth two pence. We had a laugh about it, but money is money and she credited the 2p to my balance.

A while later my Platinum card arrived. It was silver plastic, really, but nonetheless. Wow, how about that?! Platinum credit, thank you very much. I must say I felt *BIG* wandering around town with a Platinum credit card in my wallet and six grand to splash out.

But bubbles, as they say, burst.

In April this year, I received another letter from Citi telling me that they had transferred their card services to a third party, that I was not included in the transfer and that therefore they were unilaterally closing my account and cancelling the card! So platinum dreams turned to dust.

But the people at Citi bank are good and honest and sent me the cheque for two pence, which is now safely (I hope) in my real bank account.

Whatever the moral of this story, it does seem rather a silly saga of time wasted… Will it affect my credit rating I wonder and if so will that make any difference?

There is no such thing as big society… why we should listen to Mr Brown

No, it’s not what you might think… Today is election day in the UK, so I hurried back from Brussels and made it to the polling station in good time. This blog post is not about the British general election, but in many senses our election should be about the issues raised here.

Last evening at the European Parliament in Brussels, Lester Brown, the veteran environmentalist, was launching his latest book, Plan B 4.0, Mobilizing to Save Civilization, which gives a scary account of how far down the road of environmental hooliganism we have gone, yet he remains optimistic that there is scope for action. He was hosted by sun-glassed Estonian MEP, Indrek Tarand.

Lester Brown is credited with pioneering the concept of sustainable development, which has become such a buzzword in the green – and not so green – policy environment. At the talk yesterday, he reckoned that ‘food may be the weakest link’ and raised the spectre of food wars when the food bubbles burst. If countries – which presently rely on over pumping (non replenish-able) water for their food production – run out of water, what are they going to do to feed the people?  Into the mix add the notion that the melting ice sheets and shrinking mountain glaciers are going to raise the sea level and inundate low-lying rice lands and agriculturally rich river deltas, then the number of hungry people with no place to grow food is going to increase. Lester Brown estimates that there are now one billion hungry humans on our planet.

Consider that China is number one producer of wheat, followed by India and then the United States in third place. When the Chinese ask the Americans to share their grain and the latter are not so keen, the former are going to use their collateral in American bonds as leverage. Should be interesting to see what happens then.

Lester Brown’s four point Plan B 4.0 advocates:

1. Cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2020.

2. Limiting the human population to a maximum of 8 billion people.

3. Eradicating poverty.

4. Nurturing the global economy’s natural support systems.

I haven’t read the book yet, so hope I am not doing it an injustice here, but I couldn’t help feeling pessimistic about our collective capacity to change quickly enough to avert disaster for future generations.  According to many, perhaps most commentators, the Copenhagen Climate Conference was a failure. The big reason is that our national and international organisations are ineffectual and only serve the vested interests of a relatively small range of stakeholders.  We do not have a big global society that perceives itself as a homogeneous community with a sufficient identity of shared interests to effect coordinated change. I hope that the optimists prove us pessimists wrong, that it is not too late to mobilise to save civilisation.

Storytelling with Christian Salmon in London

Once upon a time… Il était une fois…

Last week I was driving in my trusty old Ford Mondeo down the M40 on my way home to London via my friend Liz’s allotment in Oxford. I had been on a whirlwind Easter weekend road trip which had taken me from Bayswater to Glastonbury, to Kelways nursery in Somerset and then to Shropshire to pick up my mother. We had then driven to see Joanna in Bristol to deliver a special French bread tin, then on to my brother and sister-in-law’s farm in West Sussex.  After a nice family Easter egg time, we drove back to Shropshire to drop my mother off.

So there I was driving along, wondering when my next work assignment would drop into my email inbox.

I stopped at the Warwick service station to manage the output-input of fluids that human-motorcar journeys require and to consult e-mail on my telephone. Instead of the expected translation from my sort-of coal-mining client in Lille, there was a message from Sarah at Verso, the publishers, asking me if I would like to interpret for Christian Salmon who was coming to London to promote his book, Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind, which has just been published in English, translated by David Macey.

The power of the blogosphere connected us correctly. Sarah emailed me the details and I arranged to pop into Verso’s offices in Soho to meet Christian the next day. He is a charming, humorous French thinker and writer who has a wry take on the strange mediated world in which we now live. David Evans’s Financial Times review gives a succinct account of the book, which I recommend you buy, e.g. on Amazon.

Well, if you don’t buy it, at least read it, as it gives a lot of insight into the whoppers we have been fed about Afghanistan, Iraq and the way in which politics has been reduced to propaganda rather than democratic debate. There are some great stories (sic) about Weapons of Mass Distraction, the use of Afghan nail varnish removing press conferences to prompt our indignation and obtain our consent. And there are chilling accounts about how the link between video war games and real killing has blurred the distinction between real and virtual reality.

Thursday morning early a BBC car took us to the BBC television centre in White City, where Christian was interviewed by Sarah Montague for the Radio 4 Today programme. Another car dropped us back in town. The sun was shining as we walked across Hyde Park, resplendent in Spring blossom, so we stopped by the Serpentine to drink coffee and bask in the cool sunshine. Christian explained the ideas behind the book, which was first published in French in 2007 and has since been a surprising success, translated into several languages and selling tens of thousands of copies around the world.

Check out the Afterword to the English edition: Obama in Fabula for an explanation of Obama’s Magic Square: storyline, timing, framing and networking and you’ll get the picture.

We wandered through Green Park and St James’s Park and I showed Christian around the the fascinating area between Hungerford Bridge and Waterloo Bridge, which I blogged about in my Adelphi Amble post. Self-referential, moi?!

The Royal Society of Arts grandly hosted us in their auditorium, which used to be a covered street running from the Strand down to the Thames. Steven Poole, the writer and Guardian columnist, introduced Christian, I interpreted and there was an interesting discussion with the audience. I spotted Simon, a former JustGiving colleague, but he left before I had time to ask him what he’d thought about it. Christian’s Storytelling aroused a lot of interest, and he was interviewed on an iPhone by David Wilcox for Social Reporter.

After lunch and a period of quiet at home to calm a buzzing mind, I met Christian in the evening at the ICA for a talk about Making Believe, hosted and chaired by Ekow Eshun, with Julia Hobsbawm and Neil Boorman. Lots of engaged people were there, but there was not enough time to talk more about the invidual as personal brand-maker and self-promoter in our neoliberal capitalist age. This is discussed in Christian’s latest book, Kate Moss Machine, which is not yet available in English, but you can get it in French here.

Propaganda and debate. I heard the wonderfully incisive Shropshire Lass, Mary Beard on the radio this morning talking about the forthcoming British elections. She was lamenting the fact that there was so little to discuss in terms of content. Why would any one not want a fairer society? Why would anyone want to vote for one storyteller rather than another. The ‘historic’ debate‘ on the BBC this evening is perhaps just that, a hiSTORY. Let the people decide, I wonder about what? At least I am happy that I will be able to vote for Big Society, not Big Government, a Fairer Society and a Future Fair for All. Everyone needs at least three historic votes… Qu’en conclus-tu, Christian? What do you reckon, Christian?

Bland Brands @ the Bush

So today I finally made it to the Westfield shopping centre at Shepherd’s Bush Green. Very impressive and clean and shiny, but somewhat dull I have to say.

It reminded me of a long stopover at Dallas Airport about 15 years ago, when I sat reading my book, surrounded by people all looking the same and bumbling around like contented zombies.

What struck me most about Westfield is the branding. There are brands and nothing else. No room for inventiveness, no room for individuality, only conformity and conformism. Perhaps something like the Church of England before Methodism.

Still, I was very happy with my chicken noodle soup from Pho, a little Vietnamese chain, whose place in Clerkenwell is a favourite. And I bought a couple of things and the sales people were friendly.

The second thing that struck me after the blandness of the branding, was the nature of the private public space, which is the thing with shopping centres. I’m sure as a young girl out shopping on Shepherd’s Bush Green in the 1930s my mother would have felt she was in an open public space, with a shape of personal freedom that has been clinically removed from the new shopping centres. People must like the security and the security cameras and the security guards and the lack of dirt and tramps and other undesirables, but I couldn’t help wondering quite where I was. I suppose the fact that there was a branch of Boots reminded me I was in England, but otherwise I could have been anywhere else in the galaxy.

Happy shopping, fellow consumers!