“The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.”

Earlier this year, as I was moving to my country of assignment, I had to travel through a certain airport in West Africa taking with me many of my cherished possessions (ok, lots and lots of ham and cheese, I confess!). With every step I inched forward in the check-in line I regretfully gripped my soon-to-be-empty wallet tighter, imagining the look of pure glee on the face of the Excess Luggage clerk when he would realise how big my fine was to be. When it was finally my turn, I noticed the raised eyebrows from the agent as I struggled to lift my suitcases onto the scale, followed by a bulging of the eyes and flaring of the nostrils when he read the actual weight. Anybody who has ever witnessed an African family on a trip home from any part of the world will have heard every possible appeal to the generosity of a check-in agent (ranging from feigned surprise that the bags are 15 kg over even though they swear that when they weighed them at home they were well within the limit to outright begging) and I freely admit that I’m no stranger to the art. But this time I said nothing, lowering my gaze to avoid the full brunt of his condemnation, fully accepting of my fate. Continue reading


To live or to collect? That is the question…

New country, new continent, new people, new job. Three months have already passed by, so fast that I can hardly believe it.
I clearly remember my first weekend here, invited to crash   birthday beach party by an Italian girl that I had met the day before (national solidarity rules). I arrived too early  (only around 10.30pm…) and did not know anybody there. I began to introduce myself to the people around me, following a well-established set of questions that rarely move away from “whatisyourname, whereareyoufrom, whatdoyoudohere (clearly referring to which UN agency or NGO the person is working for), howlonghaveyoubeenhere, howlongareyougoingtostayhere”. Questions that rarely imply a real interest in the answers, mostly a longer version of “hi, I am X, nice to meet you”. Continue reading

Growing up is hard to do…

All my bags are packed but I’m not sure I’m ready to go…I have been given an allowance of 3 suitcases to pack up my personal effects and move to another continent. In one, I’ve stuffed food and drink -enough pesto sauce to feed a family of Italians for…well, probably about a three days. In another, toiletries, in case there’s a mysterious shortage of deodorant, skin lotion and hair paraphernalia in Africa. And in another some clothes which will be dust and mud-stained beyond recognition within a few weeks. Yes, it’s finally time for me to move out and make a home of my own. Continue reading

A Modest Proposal

A Business Plan

Observation #1: Lots of Chinese businesses want to deal with Africa.

Observation #2:  Anecdotal evidence (mainly from Chinese Alliance française branches) indicates a demand for services that will help them do this.

Observation #3: While certain organisations do exist to facilitate Sino-African trade (http://www.chnafrica.org/, http://www.ifeizhou.com/, http://www.sinotf.com/, etc.), these are mainly Chinese-run with links to the state, rather than locally based organisations. Continue reading

In Which I Regret Not Having Done A Classics Degree Instead

If I had to pick the single best question to ask someone at a speed dating event, it would be “rank the tragedians, from your favourite to your least favourite”. Granted it’s actually a challenge rather than a question, but anyone anal enough to point that out would be out of the running ex-officio.

If Aeschylus were alive today he would be a Balliol don in his 80s. It is inconceivable that he could ever be wrong about anything. Ever. And anyone who suggested as much would be blown to smithereens with an A-bomb of portentious, port-soaked iambics. And his little bottle of oil. Like colonialism, smoking and raping the domestics, we’re all supposed to disapprove of that sort of thing these days, but I actually rather enjoy the certainty of it. I think a lot of actors do too. Like Forbidden Broadway‘s “As Long as He Needs Me” parody: “I’ll suffer Cameron’s scorn/ I’ll limp for Matthew Bourne/ I’ll dress like I’m in porn…” Ted Hughes did a not-especially-accurate-but-still-good translation, which should ideally be read with a glass of brandy in one hand and System of a Down’s Toxicity on the stereo. (Ted Hughes or Sylvia Plath: another good question for a speed dating evening. Either that or Harry Hill’s TV Burp.) Continue reading

The smug Samaritan

If you have even the vaguest interest in war and/or humanitarian intervention, the notion of neutrality is one that you will often be confronted with. Even outside of a conflict situation, as a foreigner coming to “help” a country, you still have to think about how your actions are perceived by whom to benefit whom.

In my case, as an election observer, it’s an absolutely integral consideration of the mission. The key thing, we are told over and over in briefings, is that the observation process should be impartial. The credibility of our entire presence hinges on the perception by all political actors and the voters that we are completely disinterested in the process, that we are somehow removed from it, observing but not participating.

Yet this idea of the observer as outside the process directly contradicts the other purpose of election observation, which is to credibilise the electoral process and to deter electoral fraud (which can fail, of course, in some spectacular ways)*. As observers, we are to be given access to every single stage of the procedure, should we demand it, because any denial would be seen as a sign of something to hide. This is not arrogance on my part, overstating how important we are –national election commissions themselves almost always refer to statements by international observers to demonstrate the transparency and credibility of the process. We don’t officially care who wins but we’re all hoping for a smooth process because, ultimately, all organisations that send observation missions have a greater ambition of supporting credible democratic processes.

So how do we reconcile being a part of something while staying out of it? To what extent do we have any right to be proactive to support a smooth process? There come times when it’s incredibly difficult to just observe…

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On being an ‘expert’ away from home

Anyone undertaking a PhD will be told at some point – with the understated smugness that only academics can muster – that “by the time you finish your PhD, you’re going to be the world expert in your field”. We are expected to be gratified by this; after all, isn’t this what researching your field solidly for three or four years is all about? Indeed, the excellent PhD advice and discussion blog the Thesis Whisperer cites the moment where you realise you know more about your subject than your supervisor as one of the key landmarks on the journey to PhD-hood.

Every year, as I have progressed further into the depths of academia, I have sworn that this will be the last stage I will reach before I leave and do something else. And yet, I keep crawling back to idea of the academic career: the comfortable, book-lined office, years spent researching my fascinating field, the interesting conversations and the excitement of new places, new people, new discoveries.

Why am I so torn between the easy attractions of staying (were it even possible to get an academic job, which is a whole other question), and the nagging feeling that I need to get out?

Continue reading