Archive for January 2013

My poem on the African Cup of Nations 2013

Here’s a new poem I wrote for the BBC World Service to mark the opening of the African Cup of Nations, hosted this year by South Africa and defended by Zambia, last year’s unlikely winners. Hope you enjoy it.


The African Cup of Nations
Is boxing disguised as football
Every year there’s a rematch.
Last time, after jabbing their way through the early rounds,
Humble Zambia uppercut everyone;
Now, they are the punch each country sees coming.
Ding, ding:
A whole ring of sixteen continental contenders in South Africa
Who all want their belt back.
The World Cup was only a warm-up;
Yes, that tournament was global
But these rivalries are personal,
More bitter than Tottenham
Versus Arsenal.
So let’s go, Togo;
Let’s go Ghana, Cape Verde, Niger,
Nigeria, Algeria,
Ethiopia, Tunisia,
Let’s swing our limbs till the referee tells us it’s time to give it up;
Let’s go Burkina Faso,
Mali and Morocco,
DR Congo, Angola, Ivory Coast –
Let’s go up against the hosts
And the reigning champions
For this is the African Cup of Nations
And only one will get to stand in the sun,
Arms raised,
To a standing ovation.

A poem about the Haiti earthquake, “Maybe”

So, will we learn from Haiti? –
Maybe. –
What can we learn
From this blackest of distasters
That had a shamefaced Satan holding back his laughter
When Fate told a bad joke:
Folk who were flat broke,
Flat out of cash, hope,
Felt the world crack ope –
Four fifty-three:
War-torn instantly
In the slums, ports, courtyards and the ministries:
See BBC, weep, flee
To ESPN for a few hours; then to CNN, to weep again;
Citizens pity them, thank God it isn’t them;
Amorous cameras point, click, click at men
Dragging out survivors, loving these images
Of those groping for hope where the ghosts are:
Hearts rose when, though the odds were very very small,
Somehow that child lived – incredible!…
Seems each time that the Earth turns murderous –
El Nin’, Katrin’ – it brings the best and the worst from us:
With the earthquake, Earth made its choice –
Then we made ours, putting cash where the voice is
Or putting voices to our fears, with poignant
Poetry and song, since some spirits needed ointment –
Or we raised Haiti’s disappointments:
Pointed were fingers at poverty, voodoo,
Ex-colony politics as usual;
Most of us, though, in the face of the brutal,
Saw faith within us, and was this we stayed true to…
But can we learn from Haiti? Maybe not;
Things that we learned this month, we already knew;
Grief; relief that our own lands aren’t, as yet, as cruel –
We look upon, then away from, the terrible.

A short post on Kevin-Prince Boateng

Kevin-Prince Boateng has done what Mario Balotelli threatened to do at the Euro 2012 tournament.  In response to racial abuse from a section of fans during a friendly match against Pro Patria, the AC Milan forward walked off the pitch, shortly followed by his team-mates.  The game was abandoned soon afterwards.

There has been support for Boateng’s actions, with several players, fans, and members of the public sending their support to the Ghana player’s Twitter account.  However, there has also been concern that his decision to leave the field will make the problem worse: that it will actually provoke fans to louder and more offensive tirades.  In addition, there is worry that footballers are taking the law into their own hands, and that they and not the match officials will have the key say in when games should be called off.

I believe that this fear is overstated.  Footballers, after all, want to play football above all else.  I do not think we should expect a mass exodus from the pitch each week. Today’s act of protest by Boateng and  his colleagues was certainly disruptive, as is the nature of all effective protest, but judging by the reaction of many on Twitter – among others, Vincent Kompany, Patrick Vieira and Rio Ferdinand – it was somewhat overdue.

The conversation has now moved on to what can be done to prevent racist chanting at football matches.  This, of course, is a good thing. There was a time when foreign players did not have the leverage or the goodwill to encourage such a conversation.  Now they do.  Perhaps there has been complacency around this issue to date, with foreign players largely expected to accept dehumanising rants as part of the matchday experience.  Yet just because they can play through these outbursts, it does not mean that they should.

Syria, 60,000 dead, and the myth of awareness

So: Syria.  I first started following the story of the Syrian revolution, which began as a peaceful uprising, early last year.  I started by reading the Twitter accounts of @edwardedark, @wissamtarif (who later received significant criticism, and so whom I set aside), and a few others.  Through them, I learned of protests brutally suppressed by the country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad; through them, I learned of unrest that evolved into the ugliest of armed conflicts, with the stories of cruelty that emerged often overwhelming.  As it stands, the death toll has now exceeded an official total of 60,000, and with the variety of armed actors now operating within the country’s borders that doesn’t look set to stop climbing anytime soon.

So here we are a few months later.  I’m now relying mostly on @jenanmoussa, @edwardedark, and @NMSyria for my updates on what’s happening there.  And I think I have learned a lesson.  As someone with a background in (and a passion for) communications, I had always assumed that raising awareness of a social issue was the primary path to its solution.  But now I’m not so sure.  For the best part of a year I have been forwarding links about Syria, and during that time I have seen many people switch off from this conflict.  Including, at times, myself.

One YouTube video will stay with me: a boy, looking blankly at the camera, with his jaw blown clean away.  The damage looked beyond reconstruction.  Watching it at the time I was fine.  Later that night, though, it hit me.  I was brushing my teeth, and as I looked in the mirror I remembered that boy’s image.  Before I knew it, I was in tears.  I feel foolish to relate it now, but in my mind I found myself apologising to the boy for a world in which such a vicious fate could befall him.  Instead of being spurred to action by the tales of new atrocities from Syria, maybe endless stream of horror has actually had a numbing effect.  The slaughter itself has served to perpetuate the slaughter.

I wonder why this is.  I suspect it is because, thousands of miles away with no direct recourse to a remedy, the easiest available option is to switch off.  Extreme violence carries a taboo all of its own, which is perhaps why the media will readily display a starving child on our TV screens but will not so often show bodies torn apart by explosions.  Maybe it’s one thing to see a human being suffering on TV, but it’s quite another to see a person reduced by weaponry to a form that is no longer recognisably human.

I wonder if this is the lie behind why so many of us must switch off: that those 60,000 Syrians dead didn’t die peacefully with their eyes shut but, instead, in paralysing fear, or in unimaginable agony.  I don’t think that many people are looking away out of apathy.  I think they are looking away out of a sense of helplessness, and perhaps a sense of their own good fortune, that they were not born into such a struggle at such a time.  Many of my family fled from Uganda when Idi Amin was gearing up towards his worst, and perhaps I have inherited some of their desire for the quiet life, their gratefulness for a calmer climate abroad.  Looking out of my window, into a suburban garden that could not be a more peaceful scene, I am readily reminded that my own connection with what is happening in Syria may only ever be an exercise in sympathy.

Sympathy is probably no use to anyone, but perhaps it is a start.  In the end, I think I have written this only to commemorate the unending procession of the dead, as every day I read of a new batch of casualties, always in double figures and very often in triple figures, in Aleppo, Damascus, Houla, Hama or Homs.  If attention is as much as I feel that I can pay right now, then I must at least pay that.