Pragmatic-authoritarian II: throwback to Dakar/Senegal, 2007

Yesterday, an old university friend, Saqib, asked me if I would join him and another friend for a trip to Senegal. In reply I narrated the travails of my 2007 visit there while making sure that none of the enthusiasm is dampened.

Incidentally, Senegal was put by Eqbal Ahmed under the same category as Cameroon, i.e., pragmatic-authoritarian (in his research paper that I covered in my last post). Interesting too, that the regime covered by Ahmed is that of Léopold Sédar Senghor who was a poet! So I read him and a few more Senegalese poets from a collection of African poems and came up with the following poem:

I ask of the dream     song     unfettered
promise as it rained night     rained night as
as you dared to sing     your warrior
song     wounded     worded as wound     what
then of the sword     forgot to sheathe
forgot the hearth of song? I ask
of the dream     song     unfettered night.

Here is what I messaged (verbatim):

To say that getting a visa to Senegal on a Pakistani passport is difficult is an understatement. I tried to get one in Togo in 2007. The officer at the consulate said he could stamp a visa right there, but since I was from Pakistan, it would have to go through a security check. After some time, I got the clearance, and then I used that clearance number to apply for the visa in Gambia. I got the visa. When I reached Dakar, I was not allowed entry on that visa saying it was not valid. They kept my passport and allowed me to leave the airport only because I was accompanied by two goras and after speaking with someone from the ministry. Next morning, after receiving a letter from the ministry, they gave me back my passport. When I was waiting at the airport, a guy from Bangladesh told me nobody comes to Senegal on a Pakistani passport (they either use Canadian/Australian/American etc. passports to come to Senegal). I figured either because of drugs or illegal crossing over by sea. That said, I found Dakar to be quite electric. The captivating music is a giveaway to something stirring. It has been the shadiest African city I have been to. And hence closest in comparison to Karachi. We were mugged the last night we were there, but my colleague caught the guy and took him to the police station; a lady was in charge; she prayed her isha while we waited in the room. Couldn’t catch the conversation as it was all in French… so I wouldn’t be able to come, but you guys will definitely find it very very interesting.

Saqib then asked me why wasn’t the above a blog post. So I posted this as a sequel to my last one emphasizing the continuity on West African and Eqbal Ahmed’s pragmatic-authoritarian themes. Of course, this post is memory from way back in 2007 unlike the Yaoundé one which snapshots fresh impressions from last week. Saqib is an author/filmmaker. His debut book, The Warehouse was published last year.

PS: I realize that it was in 2008 and not 2007. Instead of changing the year in the text and title, I will let it be, a reminder of how memory stands in relation to fact.

Yaoundé by May

A short 5 day work trip to Yaoundé, Cameroon.  This was my first central African state so I was curious as to what is common and what sets it apart from the 9 others I have visited since 2002 starting with Ghana, my most frequented African state.

– attendant in bakery: you are from China?

– bureaucrat in his office, after I get his last name right on first attempt: I am surprised you can pronounce my name; most people get it wrong. Me: if the name is in your local language, I will get it right.

Not speaking French was a handicap    also a source of amusement for the women working in the bakery.

what is common: the quintessential African green    the booming laugh    the roadside stall    mud    old cars    70s architecture    at ease with unlit spaces
what sets it apart: too bureaucratic    policewomen at breakfast

I wrote my last post while in Yaoundé, and just before leaving the hotel room wrote this:

need of the forest    burn
of the

ashen past    will    wilnot
the bread

of fury and tread of summer
these are

kind, various, available as

To get some background, there have been two presidents since independence in 1962. The current one is in power since 1982. This bit of information alone might go some way in explaining the high bureaucratization and security. The late Eqbal Ahmed in his 1980 paper, “Post colonial systems of power” (which I visualized here), categorized Cameroon then as pragmatic-authoritarian. This is how he defines pragmatic-authoritarian:

This highly personalized system of power enjoys a certain legitimacy and the support of significant sections of the population by virtue of the historical nationalist credentials of the leader.

Two noteworthy characteristics: these deeply pro-Western regimes tend to prefer strong political, economic and cultural ties with the ex-colonial metropolis rather than the United States. The strength of the armed forces remains circumscribed and, in comparison with civilians, military officers are assigned lower status in the official hierarchy.

When it clicked

This is a different post. /The Rules, an activist organization “pushing the global narrative in a new direction”, has recently started a “When it clicked” series of “stories from people working within the ‘international development’ sector who want to share their experience of challenging the dominant narrative around poverty and development, how it felt and why it’s important to question”. I felt compelled to share my story, and here it is: “When it clicked: I chanced upon a series of eye-opening discussions on social justice with a friend”.

My poems tend to get a little abstract at times. Sometimes I anchor them with a reference, but mostly they tend to float. The post above should provide some context.


Scoundrel times

The antic of the grown up mouse
is ancillary to purpose, to
meetings that sell power and
vocabulary to pools of pus

And vermin, to ghouls of a
dependency that is not
contingent on the human but
on the abstract necessity

Of a cull, of class, of
hyenas shrilling the voice
of an unknown past on to
an unforgiving scoundrel now.

“We live in scoundrel times.” Eqbal Ahmad

the myth is not the fairytale

the myth is not the fairytale, though
it pretends

to catch the drift, the smoke and the
paltry guts

that flake off when dents of time speak
stilted ifs

and buts, when the theme of now occludes,
prevents power

from showing where it really comes from
from myth

“The language of Realpolitik offers a poor basis for constructing a popular consensus behind a corporate ideology. Hence modern imperialism has needed myths to legitimize itself. A policy which responds to the interests of the few but needs the support of the many must necessarily invoke a people’s sense of mission and fear.” ‘Political Culture and Foreign Policy: Notes on American Interventions in the Third World’ – The Selected Writings of Eqbal AhmadEqbal Ahmad

As you try and bleed the past

“We lived in a society which denied itself heroes.” – V.S. Naipaul
“This is not writing. He should stop writing. He should be selling sausages.” – Eqbal Ahmad on V.S. Naipaul

As you try and bleed the past onto the speak of now,
Look for the hooded guilt past the sentence of ilk &

Brood, the tripping verb thrilled by the possibility
Of sheen that traps the rook, the sow, the seed that

Bit the hand that fed the pith of scorn, the hand of
Up, of law. And as you try and mock the horn of dust

And cut of rain, and gasp at awe & awe again, whence
Will come the ore of night, which die is cast today? 

from rebellion to roar

The peasant of old was content with
rebellion, with skirting the fronds
of power as it descended cupfroth from
up high, with skimming the sheen
of lava as it settled down in crusty
sleep, but she bristled the unkempt
bristle often enough to prime her
peep for growl when it’s time.

A tangent taken while re-reading Eqbal Ahmad‘s insightful 1980 article, “From potato sack to potato mash: the contemporary crisis of the third world”.