Powerful video … from justice to disappearance in Egypt

I lived in Egypt in 2012 and I remember it as a place of hope and change. It was one year after the revolution and while there were large protests and unrest, there was also a sense of dreams being possible, of individuals coming together being able to make a change in their country and their community. There was art everywhere, creativity everywhere and a strong sense of commitment to justice amongst many people that I met. People committing to justice not only in words, but through actions – be in through business or protests these people were living justice and a fairer country in their day to day lives.

I remember interviewing an Egyptian activist for the first time and being so surprised at how beautiful his ideals were. Perhaps I was naive about what justified activism, or perhaps he was naive about what could be achieved in this world, but either way I remember mostly being impressed at how beautiful his words were; how much he believed in those bohemian, idealist words like truth, justice and hope and how he was, even on the day we spoke, putting his life on the line to defend them through street battles with SCAF.

This powerful video highlights how much things have changed in Egypt since the military took back power in 2013. Those activists who believed in truth are now being tortured and disappeared. When I remember the hope that grew so quickly after the revolution, when I think of the Egypt of 2012 I feel so sad to think that the Egypt of 2016 no one is able to defend those ideals; that they are disappeared not even for speaking out, but for seeming like they might.


Lucky Dip (1)

Here goes with week 1 of recording something beautiful.

I am going to start with a man who served me in Dar El Salaam Wonder Workshop craft shop last week. My flipflop had finally broken after walking me what is probably the equivalent of hundreds of miles of Myanmar streets. I asked him for some tape to try and stick it together until I could buy a new pair. Instead he pulled out some plastic thread, expertly threaded a needle and sewed the show back together. I think now the shoe might be a good for another hundred miles…

It made me reflect on the fact that I am quite hopeless unable to fix things myself and would be more likely to throw something out rather than try and mend it. But fixing something is not just about cost, it also makes sense for the environment and makes you/me/everyone less of a slave to the corporate market. I am now more inspired to learn some useful practical skills.

Beautiful, practical and human.

A poem for now

With all the news these days – I don’t need to write it down in order for you to know what I am talking about – this poem seemed a good one to share.


This poem reminds me that in each decade, each century, each circle of life we have our darkness and also our lights. Each one of us represents the foundation and possibility of goodness in the world. Whatever peace we want to see has to start from us. This is Brecht.

“Indeed I live in the dark ages!
A guileless word is an absurdity. A smooth forehead betokens
A hard heart. He who laughs
Has not yet heard
The terrible tidings.

Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime

Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh.
Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.

Brecht, To Posterity

The Ex-Revolutionary: The Story Behind My Poem in Magma Issue 60

P1010273When I told my friend Cesar in Nicaragua that I had published a poem inspired by our old project driver, Don Silvio, Cesar laughed and said

‘Todo su vida es una novella.

(His whole life is a novel).’

When I asked Cesar where he was now, he said he worked in a potato factory and that he would tell him about the poem when he next saw him.

If you have read the poem in the latest edition of Magma on the theme of Freedom, the character of Don Silvio is a little changed from project driver, to President’s driver and I invented his family situation, because he never talked about that. Over my two years working in that project in Nicaragua I rode so many miles with Don Silvio, down to Managua from the mountains of Esteli, up to the mountains of Esteli from Managua, around Managua’s long motorways and urban sprawl, across to Matagalpa, into Jinotega through the hills, up to Sebaco, to Ocotal, up and down and over and over Nicaragua’s one main road and various bumpy and less bumpy side roads.

Stopping sometimes for rosquilla or tortilla, or on one occasion to buy a live iguana on the side of the road, but mostly just driving that one line of paved caraterra, up and down, the hills dropping to rice fields, the road becoming flatter, the smell of the chicken factory about half an hour from Managua, the coloured houses dotted along the way, the blue statutes of the Virgin Mary, the bright pink posters of the President, the valleys and the untamed mountains. Up and down, there and back, again and again and again.

In each new town,

you have a different mujer,

exotic or plain, gorda or guapa.

She offers you her local ways. Yes.

Don Silvio liked ranchero music, which is often played as we drove. He also liked to talk and loved to eat. Mostly he would chew on some gum or some other snack as we drove. As he did, he would tell me about the advantages of having a different woman in each town you visited, so ‘if one woman does not attend to you well, then you just leave and move onto the next one.’ He would also tell me what to do in different situations, which was not much advice, as a command and if it was not followed, he sulked and became grumpy or difficult.

He was a tall man, a big man, with an enormous belly and commanding presence. In the revolution, he formed part of the Sandinista rebel army which freed the country from the Dictator Somoza in 1979. Sometimes he talked about that, holding a fake gun to his arm, firing. Yes, he and many others, eventually brought down a Dictator. He remembered it all with delight and pride. He continued that fight, which has sadly become more about partisan politics, by arguing violently with anyone who wasn’t a Sandinista, often storming heavily out of the room when they disagreed with him. However, when he saw the current President Ortega, (from the Sandinista party who was also part of that historic revolutionary movement) on television, or on a poster, he would salute, puff out his chest and put on a serious expression as he proclaimed ‘My Commandante!’


If you were asked: what way would you have it?
You would laugh, like it is a game

¿Quién sabe, verdad?

you would say.

Somehow, for me, his presence embodied exactly Nicaragua’s past and present; the country’s nostalgia for what was, their revolution and reality of what is: a place which has seen peace since 1990, but where life for most people remains a sustained poverty, hard work and dreams. It was with all that he drove us up and down those roads. It was like that he became a poem.

Quotes are from the poem ‘The Ex-Revolutionary’. You can read the whole poem and other great poetry in Magma, Issue 60.

Lucky Dip: Where are designer clothes changing attitudes to poverty?

Tolouse and his similarly dressed crew, who call themselves the Commandos, are wearing outfits that, “kop to tail” (head to toe), cost up to $1,120 each. In South Africa, groups like this are called skhothanes, an adaptation of a Zulu word meaning “to lick” or “to boast.” The day’s occasion is similar to a dance-off, but the broader subculture it is a part of, known as izikhothane, is specific to the “born free” generation—those born at the end of apartheid—living in the townships of South Africa. Born-frees like Tolouse have no direct memory of a time when nonwhites lived in townships like Soweto by force instead of economic stagnation.

As they skhot (boast) about the names of the high-end Italian brands they’re sporting—Arbiter, Rossi Moda, Sfarzo—they never fail to mention the price tag, too. For young men living in a country where economic development hasn’t translated into what’s needed most—jobs for young people—skhothane culture is not just a way to stand out, but a way for young South Africans to move up in a society that offers them few options. While this social mobility may be more perceived than actual, one township local summed up their motivation nicely: “When they do what they do, absolutely no one can do it better. They feel like kings.”


Despite this evolution, headlines such as “Why Are Poor South African Teens Buying Expensive Clothes and Destroying Them?” still persist. Such stories follow a simple logic: Removed from the struggle of apartheid, these morally bankrupt and entitled youths ostensibly see no problem wasting the money that not long ago their parents would have barely been able to earn. These headlines imply a more loaded question: Why would anyone in Soweto spend their money on anything but getting out of Soweto?



Photo by Motheo Modaguru Moeng.

Photo by Motheo Modaguru Moeng.

Greg Potterton, managing director of Instant Grass, a Johannesburg-based agency that specializes in studying pockets of youth culture in Africa, says that in a place like Soweto—which is bordered by freeways and was designed during apartheid to be isolated—Tshepo’s local pride is often a product of circumstance. “When a lot of these kids are growing up, they really don’t have much option or aspirations to go anywhere else because they didn’t know about anything else,” Potterton says. “Then, you get reverse innovation happening: In the absence of luxury, creativity is born. Over time, it’s become a cooler place to be.”


From Soweto Style by Rosie J Spinks in Roads and Kingdoms

Waves: Travelling to Ometepe, Nicaragua


At SeaFrancisco doesn’t drink. He listens. Later when we are alone he speaks out into the darkness.



“In this country, few are rich, most of us are poor and the rich don’t give the chances to those who need chances. It is like a tree with a hand over it, not giving it light.”



We look at Nicaragua on the globe in the lobby of the hotel, shining a small flashlight on the continents. We point to countries with the beam.



“There is Scotland,” I say as I point the tiny country out to him. “Al lado del Inglaterra.”  Then we spin the globe.



“Y Nicaragua esta aquí.” He lays his finger over the country. We spin the globe some more. “Allí esta Estados Unidos, América, Francia, Australia.” For each country, we spin, point, examine, explore.



As the globe turns I think of home in Europe, a continent on the brink of recession, grasping onto its prosperity. I think of the USA bailing out banks and the UK handing out rescue packages to financial institutions. I think of how Europe must look to Francisco on this globe, a distant outline, a place of opportunity. I think of our advantages, of our running hot water and our grand universities and I think of all that we have broken: our crumbling communities and the poverty we hide in our own nations. I think of Nicaraguans waiting to discover who will control their municipals for the next four years. I think of stock markets where the FTSE drops, when the Dow Jones falls with no hand to catch them. I think of the way Francisco’s hand steadily holds the globe as he turns it around and around.



“Our governments want power, not better things for their people. We used to be the strongest country in Central America! Now we are the first in poverty, in illiteracy and corruption.” He pauses and stops spinning the globe. “I would like to learn English. Like most Nicaraguans, Francisco speaks only Spanish.  English could mean a better job, other opportunities. He considers it a while. “Sí, quiero aprender inglés,” he confirms.



From the balcony beside our room, I watch Francisco beside the hotel listening to the sound of the world moving in the dark. I think of all the ideas he shares with us and of the municipal elections which invite Nicaraguans to vote, without seeming to listen to what they express.


The full essay is published in Kweli Journal.