Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Monday, June 30, 2008

A helping voice to consumers.

I have tried to make my voice heard through this blog on some issues to do with the quality of service and poor attention to the customer in Barbados, based on my own and others' experience. It's obvious that a lot of people are tired with what they find on the ground, or better said, "behind the counter" in Barbados, when it comes to service. Some even talk constantly about Barbados' cohort of business prevention operatives (BPOs). That is a sad indictment of an economy that has to build on service, because it has no manufacturing base work talking about, and can only move ahead by the quality and efficiency of how it deals with people and their needs for services.

Now, through a new blog, consumers can at least air in detail some of their grievances. Barbados Consumers Watch is trying to serve that purpose. It's only been in existence a few weeks so it's far too early to know if it is being effective, but it's an opening, and from that doorways to better service can open widely. If you have a consumer issue, I would encourage you to share it with that blog, positive or negative.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Convince me, please.

I always prefer to be convinced by grand claims. So, in that vein I am going to beg those who support some notions to step up and do more than pontificate about something but give some convincing evidence that what they say makes real sense.


First, uniformity of dress code for school children. Where in the world is the proof that this is essential to building a safe society? Saying that it fosters an environment of safety, decorum, decency and discipline (see Matthew Farley's article "The case for common dress code"), is a statement with no proof. Telling me that there has been a debate in the US and Australia on the issue and that educational practioners "asserted themselves as professionals" in upholding the merits of wearing uniforms does not make the case. While we may decry the way that some children choose to dress, I want to see the proof that making them wear their uniforms neatly is going to save society from a slide that, I believe, has its roots elsewhere.

Looking around the region, Jamaica is one country where you cannot barely find a school child who is not obliged to wear school uniform from infancy, and most wear them correctly (and it's basically the same for every elementary public school; differs a little for secondary schools, and has more range for private schools). What has that done to build a safe society rather than one that now tops the world's murder rate? Taking Trinidad as a case of a country following that slippery slope, where has the lack of uniform played a key role?

Looking around the world (see link), we see the USA, France, German, most of north and western Europe (no universal dress code, and often freedom of choice from kindergarten); Japan and much of south east Asia (almost unheard of that any child can go without the standard uniforms, and impeccably laid out); the UK (most schoolchildren wear uniforms; often specific to the school in terms of colours, etc. but clearly a uniform); countries in Africa (uniforms often one national standard). What has been the relevance of uniforms, other than helping to identify a school child, and creating an orderly look, and perhaps identifying where he/she attends school?

Enough of dressing up arguments like a chicken and thinking that this makes it taste good: if the chicken is spoiled with salmonella, putting little chef hats on the drumsticks will make it look nice but it will still make us sick. So, figure out properly the what and why of Barbados' social ills and deal with those. Making a "projection" that uniforms will "certainly go a long way toward minimizing the wave of hooliganism and rowdyism..." does not make it so.


Second, where Barbados soccer stands in the world. My focus is on the poor soccer team. One person wrote in a local paper this week that we should blame the players for losing summarily to the US 8-0 away and then 1-0 at home (see Advocate report). Right, in the sense that the players played the game. But so wrong for not seeing that the players reflect their lack of ability to perform at the highest level, irrespective of what they do locally. The writer went on to say:

"Many times I have gone to see local club football and I see players executing great skill. They score with beautiful finishing moves that would make Pele proud but it's a different story when they get on an International Stage.

They don't play 'basic' football and its not like they lack that skill, they just don't do what needs to be done. Pass down the line ... pass the ball where the runner will be, not where he is ... when you get in range, score. I blame the players!"

Maybe some of the grass that one can smell off the pitch at one of the local soccer games was affecting the writer's perceptions. Context, my friend. Remember Cricket World Cup 2007? Those boys from Bermuda maybe looked good playing in Hamilton but even against one-time cricket minows, Sri Lanka, found that things are different at the highest international level. Sri Lanka whacked 321 runs in 50 overs, and poor Bermuda did well to score 78 all-out in just over 24 overs. The speed, precision, and physical demands of soccer at top international level is not anything like local football in Barbados, except when you watch it on TV. I remember the shock when I played my first university against an English professional team's reserves: the ball flew around like the winged object in Harry Potter's quidditch game. Everything we tried was anticipated; people moved and changed positions so fast. We had good one touch, but theirs was better. And they tackled so hard; when the goalie hit me he made sure that wherever the ball went I would be in no position to know or care. We were training two times a week and playing twice, but they trained five days a week and played twice. Our coach was a former player for Fulham and prepared us well, but we were just having to deal with a different level of play.

Barbados has some good soccer players, but too few of the highest quality. The skill level displayed in the local premier division is not far off the non-league/senior amateur level in Europe or the US. Only one national player, Emerson Boyce, is good enough to hold a regular place in a top foreign league (playing for Wigan Athletic in the English Premier League, and he did not play in the 8-0 rout); others who play abroad play in a variety of teams in lower level leagues. The US team has all of its first teamers either playing now in top leagues world wide (e.g., Benfica (Portugal), Fulham (England)), or having played on such teams, or playing for top teams in the US (e.g, Houston Dynamo, Los Angeles Galaxy, DC United). Organization and structure at the local level in Barbados is at best pitiful. Playing top level soccer on fields such as the YMCA is a joke; I played on better when I played Sunday football as a boy in England. For the national team, Bajan players were being dragged from left, right, out of barrels, even paying their way to come. No development program; no national trawl of talent; no training camps; no well developed schedule of warm-up games. Is there a need for coaching qualifications? In the US now at even the entry level for competitive soccer, it is virtually a must; it's not good enough or important to have played the game. You need to learn how to teach young players and also how to teach and manage adult players. The US has put all of these things in place, and specifically for their World Cup qulaification sought warm-up games that pit them against some of Europe's better teams.

The US soccer team was not long ago a soccer minnow but the national federation and communities have invested enormous sums of private and public money into soccer over the past 30 years, and it's the fastest growing sport in the country. Many top high school teams or under-18 teams would give the Barbados team a run for its money, not just with their play but also with their facilities; Barbados would struggle badly on both counts against most US top level college teams. So, you have a huge quality and facilities difference, and we wont talk about the numbers from which one can choose.

Jamaica and Trinidad managed to develop teams of players good enough to qualify for the World Cup finals. For a while, both countries had been getting players into US colleges and raising the level of their game through that route, and also through the US Major League Soccer teams. To make the step up they also went abroad to get top level national coaches (Holland's famed Leo Beenhaker for Trinidad, for example). From the World Cup stage they got more exposure on an international scale that opened the doors for many players to get offers to play in top leagues in Europe; now more than half of the Jamaican team has players holding down first team players in some of the world's top level teams. The standard has been raised enormously, and aspiring internationals now know to where the bar has been raised. So Barbados needs to look at what teams have done to raise the level of player ability, playing facilities, training, condition, etc. Kicking a ball around with skill is not the issue; it has to be done at a high level, with all the pressure that comes from doing it 90 minutes or more a game, 40 or more games a season; doing everything at high speed and with stronger challenges ALL THE TIME. It may look like the same game from a distance--though even then only a real fool and dreamer would believe that what he sees in Barbados is the same as what is played in Brazil. US coach, Bob Bradley, put it succinctly (see Sunday Sun report):

"When they do play overseas, you need to have more players who play with better clubs. I think when you have players who are playing with the better clubs and they are getting used to a good environment and winning, then when they may come back with the national team, that helps a great deal,"

So, keep letting local players wallow in the kind of morass that is local soccer and accept that it will be a miracle if they manage to improve. Build some decent facilities, train and develop players and coaches in some of the best environments abroad, create a local league structure that looks to develop the sport from its grass roots in schools, through to professional level, and you may have a chance to raise standards greatly. Don't do that? Then get used to constantly being pummeled. You don't have to be a rich country. Many African countries are deeply passionate about soccer and have put disproportionate sums into developing national stadiums, or got them built with foreign help. But using a cricket pitch for soccer matches is not the same thing as a proper soccer pitch, no matter how good the stadium and its other facilities, quoting Coach Bradley again:

"First of all, the stadium is excellent and it is nice. The pitch is excellent, except for obviously the wicket area. It is a cricket oval...That means that the centre of the pitch is very hard and the players have to be very careful in terms of their footing and that kind of thing. In all other ways, it is an excellent facility and the field was in very good shape,"

US professional teams learned over years that you could not just paint new lines on what was a baseball field and expect to see good soccer played, with the oddities of the area that was the pitcher's mound, and the sandy areas that were the running lanes between the bases. Try playing cricket on a field that is part grass and part sand. Make sense? It's a bit similar when you have to navigate the batting track.

Decades ago, African countries exploited their former colonial links and had players filter away to France and Belgium to play in the top leagues. The standards of the wealthier nations, such as Egypt and Morocco, became the standards of the whole continent, and it has developed a phenomenal regional tournament played every two years, that shows that in every corner of the continent the game has reached world class level. The African Nations Cup is now a shopping showcase for European clubs. Many of the countries are still mired in poverty, corruption and other social and economic problems, but they can play football! You have to put in a lot to hope to take out a little.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Changes in the wind?

It's interesting to try to see changes in the social, economic, and political landscape. As a commentator on such issues, I am admittedly a neophyte, so I will tread warily. Today, I note two events that I think could have important repercussions.

The first issue is the dismissal of the acting head of Barbados' Sanitation Services Authority (SSA), Stanton Alleyne, and "documents pertaining to his dismissal handed over to the Director of Public Prosecutions" (see report in the Nation).

Immediate reactions on the part of
employees of the SSA to the dismissal of their head was to park trucks and put down their tools. This morning the workers will be informed by the National Union of Public Workers, what level of industrial action would be taken.

At the heart of the dismissal is suspicion of wrong doing and possible conflicts of interest at least, which involve businessman Andrew Thomas of Andrew Builders--who asked that the authorities investigate the relationship between his company and SSA. As reported, the Attorney General's office is "in receipt of copies of two cheques issued to [Mr. Alleyne] on the 19th of March 1999 and on the 8th of April 1999 from a company having a contractual relationship with the SSA, and that these cheques were subsequently drawn by him."

I want to tie this dismissal to news that the government will table by August draft legislation on integrity legislation as well as a Freedom of Information Act and Defamation Act; the hope is to put them to Parliament by end-2008 or early 2009. The Democratic Labour Party (DLP) had promised during the election campaign that in government it would take new legislation in these areas to Parliament within 100 days of being elected. I'm not going into that piece of political puffing, but now look to see if this will be a serious attempt to change something seriously lacking in the public life of Barbados. Integrity legislation should make clear the responsibilities and duties of ministers and public officials and moniter their integrity and accountability. A Freedom of Information Act should allow citizens access to much (most?) information, excluding matters of national security and specific personal information. A Defamation Act would hopefully get some clarity into issues related to freedom of expression (see summary comments) and maybe encourage journalists here to open up debate on important issues rather than ducking for cover at the threat of being sued.

From what I have seen and heard in 18 months here, public life is a bit of a free-for-all, or maybe "free from accountability for those in office", with little real sense that ministers and public officials have a clear idea of what integrity means or how they should be accountable to the electorate and the public. Amongst the local bloggers, Barbados Free Press (BFP), has been trying to kick life into this issue--cutely acronomyized as ITAL--but holds out little hope that this will be more than another piece of fooling most of the people most of the time (see BFP blog post). I take a different view, believing that fundamental changes such as these pieces of legislation will represent cannot, and should not, be the things that get rushed into play, just to confirm some electoral promise. But, I also hope that Bajans are getting ready to hold a government's and its public servants' feet to the fire, or to fire their ******, good and proper.

The second issue is an interesting and initially disconnected play on accountability and integrity, in the broader game of political football. It is today's opinion column in the Nation by political commentator Peter Wickham, entitled provocatively "Welcome, Clyde" (see article). Now, there is no veiling what Mr. Wickham thinks of Mr. Clyde Mascoll. First, there is the quick sharp elbow of faint praise, just after kick off, as the ball is being stroked around in midfield:

"Mascoll's intellect was clearly one of his more attractive characteristics."

Then, with nothing less than a period, the first gentle kick in the groin:

"He has, however, since thrown himself into the political environment and his record has been less than stellar in this regard."

But just as the trainer has used the cold sponge to dull the pain, and in case you got the impression that this leg was not seeking to please the home crowd, we smell a dogfight brewing. When discussing Mr. Mascoll's rise up the ladder of one (opposition) political party and his subsequent flip over to the ruling party, in comes Mr. Wickham with two hard but Gattuso-like legal tackles that send Mr. Mascoll crashing to the turf:

"... Mascoll ... sought to identify persons like myself suggesting we were biased and indeed unintelligent because we did not see things his way. Secure in the knowledge that he was right and armed with the advice of those who told him what he wanted to hear... Mascoll awaited what was the final assault from Thompson and thereafter still did not appreciate that his political future was better secured within the DLP. Hence instead of negotiating, he, to everyone's surprise, crossed the floor to become one of the chief architects of the same BLP policies that he was critical of a few weeks prior."

Finally, to close out the home leg:

"We will perhaps never know what prompted Mascoll to cross the floor, however history has demonstrated that he made a fundamental political error. Today he is a former junior minister in the BLP administration, while few would disagree that he could have just as easily been the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance in a young DLP administration, with the prospect of becoming the Gordon Brown of Barbados.

Mascoll will find it difficult to defend his past political judgement and for this reason one would have assumed he would be seen as a liability to the BLP. Notwithstanding, he has now emerged as the "chosen one" yet again and it will be interesting to follow his political and economic logic over the weeks and months ahead."

Some welcome that. A clear victory for Wickham in the first leg.

If you are not aware of why the ex-Minister is again the "chosen one" you will have to read his weekly columns, which have now started to appear in the Nation. I have a feeling that we are going to see some sparks flying in the next leg on the editorial pages and on the radio airwaves. We may see no clear winner and should get ready for a long penalty shoot-out with perhaps a nervy series of hard shots, with good saves, and some good goals in coming weeks and months. Game on!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Is Heaven going to help us?

One of the hardest aspects of moving to Barbados has been to deal with some important questions about religion. Simply put, I am an Anglican struggling to find a happy home with that congregation in Barbados. I was baptized, educated, worshipped, married, had my children christened, served in that branch of the Christian faith (or the US equivalent in the Episcopalian congregation). Finding an Anglican church in which to worship has been like a lot of other things in Barbados: a lot of promise on the surface but once one digs a little deeper there's a lot lacking. Maybe I should have tried every one of the Anglican churches, but I also like to feel that the physical location of a congregation near to where I live is also important, so I don't want to have to drive to St. James, or St. John or St. Lucy to worship. Having tried a good half dozen churches in St. Michael and Christ Church areas we felt that nothing much was different.

Many things explain why the Anglican church in Barbados does not appeal, one of them being the form of service that seems to remain popular here. Some funky racial issues seem to be played out in some of the churches, that make me feel uncomfortable. The services appear very stiff, very formal, less family-oriented than what I have experienced almost all of my life (from England and in the US, and occasionally in The Bahamas).

I am not so riven by the ability of the priest to preach a "good sermon". Sure, I like to feel that if you are going to talk to me from anywhere between 10 minutes to an hour you had better have something that will keep my attention. I feel intelligent enough to know rubbish when I hear it, and dressing it up with volume and grand gestures doesn't change it. What I like to hear is something that provokes me and other parishioners to ask how I can be a better person and help others to also be better people. I also like to feel that the church has some notion that it has a role to play in changing things from bad to good, from worse to better, from worst to best. I, personally, have not felt that the Anglican church in Barbados has been doing much in that change business. I have not seen or heard much from the priests and congregations that they have any sense that they need to really engage in change, not just by talking about how terrible the world has become and wish that more people would go to church or read The Bible. But hearing that from one-on-one or group contact with people in difficulty--youths, aged, criminals, drug abusers, physical abusers--or from some well-argued principles challenges is really engaging in the process of improving things. The most involved discussion I have heard was about the appallingly high cost of turkeys ahead of a possible Christmas dinner and pleas to any in the congregation who might be able to get turkeys at a reasonable price. I could put that down as "tackling cost of living issues". The major issue that a church congregation was asked to focus that I heard was on was the need to pray for the West Indies team ahead of some key games during the Cricket World Cup and to show our support by having a special service the day before the game in Barbados.

I don't want to see people treat me as a new entrant in a church as if I am an alien: welcoming me means more than singing a nice welcome ditty and getting me to stand up and say where I have come from. It means offering me a hynmal and helping me through the liturgy as practiced in that church--because it is different from church to church. It means recognizing me as a stranger and making strides to make me a friend. It means not lecturing me for not having my own hymnal. It means trying to get to know me and my family and to ask us if we are having problems with our move to Barbados; showing an interest in getting us engaged in whatever the congregation is doing--if anything. It means following up on promises to come and bless our home. The absence of these things does not offend me, personally; I have been through many instances of the sweet smile being the most that is offered. They do upset my wife extensively. She decided, after forays into various Anglican congregations reasonably close to where we were living, that they had nothing to offer her. She found a Catholic church that has many good points in terms of what it offers in a broad social sense, not least, a solid place for children in the service. She likes the priest too, who is himself a converted Anglican, and his willingness to put out challenging arguments.

My wife is spoilt in a sense, coming from one of the most welcoming parishes I have ever met. Her family worship in an Anglican church in Nassau that her family helped found. It's a church whose services are joyous--singing praise and worship, having a special blessing for the children, celebrating every birthday, anniversary, scholastic achievement, with dynamic priests who have challenging views on many issues. The church is full to the brim every week. I am not one for long services but after three hours at this church I am not thinking about the time I spent, but about the challenges that have been set in front of me, occasionally the painful testimonies that I had heard--though these are not regular or needed, but are representative that people feel that they are ready to expose themselves and fall into the arms of their fellow worshippers. They are not an especially liberal-thinking congregation, such as we had in Washington, DC: I could say their views are typically Caribbean.

We were spoilt in the US by a church whose congregation really cared about a lot of issues and engaged actively in trying to help people overcome problems. Whether it was a feeding mission; or it was other forms of community outreach. Whether it was a long and bruising process of changing the physical structure of the church and transforming the mission of the congregation. Whether it was mounting annual phone calling drives to get each parishioner to renew a financial pledge. Whether it was a retreat for the congregation; or it was a thinking weekend for the Vestry members.

But while a place of worship for me is important, if I cannot find one that sits within my fundamental faith, I don't think I can change the faith and be comfortable, so it's harder for me to feel that my answer is to move to a branch of religion with which I have fundamental differences. In the same way that I do not feel that my spiritual or religious guidance and answers lie in Islam, or in Buddhism, or in Hinduism, or in one of several evangelical branches of Christianity. Like many Caribbean persons I have friends and family who worship across the spectrum of Christian faiths--Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Moravians, Church of God, Jehovah's Witness, etc., and in other religions. But, like being raised a vegetarian, one does not just swap over to being a meat eater because your local market has a poor selection of vegetables. One has followed a life style, maybe forgetting or not even knowing the real reasons, but it's been a part of life. Your physical and mental state have reflected that life style. While I would never criticize anyone for, or try to convert anyone from, the religion they follow, I do not feel the urge to follow another branch of religion. Maybe that's my personal mistake. (One view held by some is to abandon organized religions--see link. The world is big enough to encompass many views.)

More broadly, when I listen to the "voices" of the Anglican faith in Barbados--which are in fact rarely heard here--I hear nothing much that tells me that they are engaging many people, or are much in touch with the current realities of Barbados. The average Anglican congregation I have seen is made up of middle-aged women. It's like on a Greek island, where all the men were killed in the war. Where are the men? Where are the teenage youths? True, this is not just an Anglican problem, but I think it has become a greater problem for Anglicans. When I go past The People's Cathedral on any day that they have services the church is full and the congregation is in full voice, and a broad cross-section of the (admittedly black) population is in evidence.

Some of the Anglicans' problem may be that there has not been enough attention paid to communication and what that needs to be in the present times. I find appalling that the Anglican Church's website has its most recent edition of "Anglican News" as Easter 2007! That the article that grabs my attention is entitled "The heading power of Jesus"... Barbados may need to enlist him this afternoon against the the US to qualify for soccer World Cup 2010: many of us have heard the old joke "Jesus saves, but Pele puts in the rebound...". These things show a total lack of care about what message is being sent out or taken notice of. When I look on the site under "Youth" all I see is a picture and the words "Anglican youth arise! Proclaim a new dawn". That's it? That's how my child is going to navigate through the minefield of modern life? I look for the "Thought for the day", I get:

Seek the Lord, while He may be found,
call upon Him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways and evil men their thoughts:

Let them return to the Lord, who will have pity on them
return to our God, for he will freely forgive
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
and your ways are not my ways. This is the very word of the Lord.

Good thoughts for the converted and intitiated perhaps--if they can understand some or all of it--but nothing to draw in anyone new. But it was from January 10, 2008! The world has stood still since then?

A quick search indicated that the Anglican church was the first official religion in Barbados. Today it accounts for 33 percent of church going members, dramatically down from 90 percent reported in the late 19th century. There is a competition going on for faith and the Anglican Church has been losing badly--poorly enough to be relegated and certainly badly enough for teh management to have been dismissed many years ago. Sure, there is no reason why its position should have remained so high over more than a hundred years. But is it really trying hard to hold onto or even grow a flock or following? Is it really at a loss to know why people are streaming to other places? Does it care? I don't have the answers but in my gut I sense that it has lost its way and cannot find it with the current team and management. Are there dynamic persons in the faith waiting to burst onto the scene? I hope so. If any of them are reading this, please tell me that I have reason to have hope.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The wicket was sticky but it was really cricket.

There's a lot that goes into making a good cricket match, but a very small part of it is the score. A large part is the fun you have leading up to the match, the fun during the match, and hopefully the fun after the match when your team has won. Windies haven't given much cause for the last part in recent times so you better believe that the pre- and during-match fun gets more play. Let's bowl.

But the day started off with a damper--literally--rain was teeming down most of the morning and much of the afternoon as we looked out from the dizzy heights of a set of seats in Greenidge-Haynes stand, which gave a view onto the mountains of Barbados. What mountains? They look high from Kensington, which must be below sea level, I guess. Anyway, they looked high enough to be called big hills, if not mountains.

A bunch of tourists were having the best of times playing volleyball and football, and carrying on in the swimming pool in the newly vamped up party stand, with sand transported there to make a mock beach. Not a thing to do with cricket, but a lot to do with partee. Even without binoculars, I could see why the revellers were not ducking the rain. They had a pair of girls of stage winding their hips like snakes, even from the distance one lady's legs looked like a pair of boa constrictors trying to tie each other in knots. I covered my eyes, because I don't like snakes, but peeked a lot because the win'ing was good, boy.

Then we had the calypso and mento and sound of tyre rims being beaten. A Canadian friend, who had braved the heavy security to slide in his plastic bottle of rum, said he could not deny that he had no clue what was supposed to go on but he was learning how music could be made from almost anything.

Then out came the fish cakes, and the sandwiches, and the drink, and we waved the rags given to us by the sweet team from Digicel. The umpires came out at about 2.50. The heavy covers came off. The men brought out the box with the stumps, in a reverent fashion as befits all of cricket's traditions. Stumps were placed in the ground. Down came more rain. Off went everyone again, except the groundstaff in their lovely yellow sou'westers. The party went on. I was texting a friend with step by step details of what was going on, trying to tempt her and her hubsy to get out of their car park nest and come to the stadium. "Wha' fa'? It a rain." None of the details that showed that we would eventually play were going to dissaude her from pushing east and heading for a big feed at Jus' grillin', and so it turned out. The boos started to rain down from the crowd. The booze continued to go down the throat.

Meanwhile, we had paid our B$65 for our seats and our spirits were not being dampened. Our spirit was being downed, for sure, and we were getting a tad damp. No large golf umbrellas could be brought into the ground, according to the pre-match fliers for the Cricket Gestapo. So, I guess all those golf umbrellas that spouted up one the rain pelted people in the lower stands were growing out of people's heads, or did they have some little lapse in security that allowed in those hundreds of umbrellas? For true, the security was about as low as the pitch was set: "Cooler? Bottle? Howitzer? AK70? Yes, yes. Ignore the beeping. Pass in. Hurry up. Next." It wasn't like this for Cricket World Cup, when it took a good hour to pass through the gate; now we were done in 2 minutes. What? We don't care anymore? The terrorists only come when they think there will be worldwide TV coverage? Leave that for another day.

Light was fading, meaning it was getting near to 4pm, and we still don' see no ball bowl yet. We all remembered that this was the stadium of no lights, except those facing in towards the stands and inside the plush boxes--that they cannot rent. Back came the texter. "Look like is goin' to be 5-5 not 20-20. Is a hexpensive tikit dat! I'm tuckin' into grilled tuna." But I was going to get the last laugh. Please. Out came the umpires again. Crowd was getting very raucous now. Off came the heavy covers again. Then there was a short UN Summit meeting near the pitch. The man with the stumps came running. Players started to warm up: interesting that the Aussies kicked around and caught an Aussie Rules football, but the Windies boys kicked around a regular football--maybe a few were hoping to make last minute impressions to get selected for Barbados to maybe save them against the US soccer team on Sunday coming. This looked like the real thing. Players stretched, and sprinted and twisted, and yes, put on pads. Time coming! It was for real now, as the boundary ropes, resplendent with Johnnie Walker signage, were straightened out.

Before we got to the real event, I had one of those thoughts about how people treat cricket like a religion. I had to then wonder about the juxtaposition of the barely clad Digicel dancing girls in a row of seats right next to a fully clad group of Muslim ladies, who didn't react in anyway at the traditional dancing of the cricket religion.

But time to focus now. The first ball was bowled.I texted back my friend to remind her of her rash bet that she would eat she purse. I hoped she had left space past the tuna, and that enough pepper sauce was at hand to add flavour. Runs, running, run. Cricket was on. Not incident free. Poor Fidel Edwards had done too much of the football warm up and as the boy ran in for his first ball, saw the umpire and immediately went for a slide tackle. My wife's concerns about the rain and how it might be slippery and make it hard for the players to run and play properly were not misplaced, after all. Roach sent in a first ball that must have slipped from his hand and was a head high full toss that the Aussie player miraculously steered over his head. Body line?

The details of the match? If you must. Australia reeled off 97 runs and lost 3 wickets in 11 overs. Less than a hundred and we sure to win? First ball Windies faced? Dispatched for six. So it went on with Xavier Marshall knocking off runs like he was picking mangoes. Second over gave us 24 runs. Game done. Bravo--great name for the captain of the day--put some icing on the cake and put a few good balls including one six over our heads and over the roof. Yes, man! Windies threw away a few wickets--the grass was slippery--but finished with a six to make 102 for three wickets down. My wife never stopped talking afterwards about who was going to eat humble pie on Monday, and why did Market Vendor not have any faith that the boys could rally without Shiv Chandrapaul, Gayle, blah-blah. Now, she's Bahamian and they have so little cricket that Alan Stanford apparently had to give them a team for 20-20. Now she is a pundit to rival Tony Cozier; I think she is writing a book called "Cricket and Junkanoo-the unknown connections".

So, decked out in our cool maroon Windies ganzies and those tasteful red Dicigel bandana-scarf-rags, we hit the road for post match drinks and bickles and telling anyone who asked what the score had been. No one believed us and they just gave us more liquor and food for pity. But we had the last laugh. No dream. Windies did win, and it was time to celebrate.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Don't kick me. I'm down already.

I have to be honest and say that I was too absorbed by the first round of football in the Euro 2008 finals in Switzerland and Austria to really pay more than a passing interest in the possible fate of regional teams in the World Cup 2010 qualifiers that started over the past weekend. I also have to be honest and say that I know a bit about football and could not see any reason to focus on the local scene over what was on offer in Europe. I could not even find local coverage of the game; maybe I missed it or it was pushed out by the Test match.

I now hear cries around the island in Barbados after the national team got a proper pounding in Carson, California, going down heavily to the US 8-0: "Why dey sen wi boys to Califourneeya an spen nearly US$ 250,000 so dat dey could heng dey hed in shame?"..."Is jus greedy officials who luv fi shop, travel an get big up, an too proud to forfeit."..."How di team go win wen we na ha no facilities...no practice...ha fi borra any and anybody who can spell Bim fi play fi we?" Et cetera. Of course, Barbados had no chance of winning, unless the US decided to not play. The press there have had a field day, even suggesting that Bim could not even beat a local high school team--Ouch!--as is their right and usual: the US got its biggest ever international win; they scored their fastest ever goal (in 53 seconds), so Barbados in the record books.

Now, as of June 2008, FIFA ranks Barbados 121st; the USA is ranked 22nd, that's out of almost 200 countries (see the full table). The giants are Argentina (1st), Brazil (2nd), Italy (3rd), and Germany (5th), each of whom has won at least two World Cups and won 14 of the 18 tournaments between them (see list). So, Barbados followed the form book. They should not cry as much as little Bahamas--about the same size in population--who rank 167th, but got spanked good and proper by Jamaica (ranked 98th), 7-0 on Sunday and 6-0 last night, when they also played the "away" leg in Jamaica out in the bush in Trelawny, and I guess got lost on the way. The region wont be setting the world alight anytime soon, despite the heroics of Jamaica and Trinidad (ranked 89th) in making it to the finals dances and doing pretty well to show that whether reggae or soca rhythms drive the team, they can win' up good enough to not be shamed. Mind you, some of the Soca Warriors must have been liming too much to allow Bermuda (ranked 139th) to beat them in Trinidad. Spare a thought for Aruba, Anguilla, and Montserrat, who rank bottom at 199th with Papau New Guinea. No, we are not really on the world map for football.

I watched some of the video highlights from the Barbados game, and you can too. It's not X-rated. Barbados never looked likely to repeat the US's "miracle on grass", when in the 1950 World Cup group games, the US beat England 1-0, that after the Americans had lost their previous seven international matches by the combined score of 45–2.

But they did better than did the team of Long John Silver impersonators--one of my favourite sketches from Monty Python.

I also did a forensic analysis of the US team, their tactics and their personnel. Look what I found. They have secret signals. See how the hands all set the same? I never see no signs like that before, and I suspect that it may also mean that they are some aliens sending back to their planet the DNA of the Bajan players, which was then converted into that of tortoises. Everyone knows the US can' play real football, so how they win? Not because they spend billions of dollars and develop scholarships at university and set up a good league and get their players onto major teams in Europe. They good at basketball, baseball, American football, and win world championships only when they don't compete against anyone else but have east coast versus west coast. What? Play foreigners to know that the US is better than them? You cannot be serious!

They also had twice as many players on every ball. How the referee did not notice that? My views on FIFA's ability to organize and deal with officials are not worthy of printing, so here we have another lapse.

They can fly. That boy, Landon Donovan, fast but when you have wings on your feet, there's no Achilles heel on the team. For sure he's not using those ""blade runners" used by South African Paralympian Oscar Pistorius--maybe Barbados needs those, though. See how the Bajan boys' feet glued to the ground? In a few years time I'm sure that we will hear that the game should be given to Barbados, so if the US win the World Cup, Bim can look forward to having it awarded to the island, just like Marion Jones' Olympic medals.

Now, people here going to get all huffy that not enough money going to the sport, and, and.... Same old blah-blah about everything except cricket. But they better get real. Football is not a passion in Barbados; cricket is. People don't duck work to go watch football matches; they save that for cricket. Politicians don't speak in footballing metaphors; they use cricketing terms: They say "The honorable member for St. Peter is batting on a sticky wicket, and if he not careful I will have to send him to silly mid-on, if he continues with this nonsense." Rather than, "I think that the member for St. John has just scored an own goal with his recent remarks and I will have to show him the red card if his performance continue to be so foul." People don't flock to stadiums or fields to watch football; they do that for cricket.

Barbados does not care about sports other than cricket. I just spent 10 days in a medium sized French town that has a population of around 80,000 people. They have more football pitches provided by the mayor/municipality than there are pitches in the whole of this little rock. (They also have more tennis courts, rugby fields, swimming pools, cycle paths, buses, trains, shopping malls, supermarkets, etc.) The town, not strange for the country as a whole, votes for people who are interested in developing its youths and social standing and provides a range of facilities to ensure that. So, enough of the bleating and the crocodile tears. You reap what you sow. Very few Bajan players have enough opportunity to play on a decent field unless they make it to the national team and play abroad--the national stadium is being refitted to make it meet FIFA's standards, remember). It does not take much to realise that the standard here is too low, and that unless kids get a chance to play in better structures and on better facilities they will continue to suffer at the adult and higher levels. One Bajan player has managed to make it to a world class league (playing for Wigan in the UK premier league, though they just got relegated thanks in part to an own goal from him).

So, let's forget about the football. Put all of the sport eggs into cricket. We and Windies can rule the world there. No mind that none of the players can get into a university with the sport. No matter that it takes sometime up to five days to get a tie. No matter, no matter. Now send a US team down here for a cricket match. 8-0? Do they know how to count to a 1000 in runs? You wait!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A regular guy...and a father.

I am really not one for celebrating days like "Fathers' Day", "Mothers' Day", etc. My honest view is that you don't wait for a special day of the year to celebrate the fact that you are, or have, or want to be. The year has 364 more days that are not being properly used. That said, if it focuses attention then I can see that it will have its attraction.

Today is interesting because one man known for being a great father and who admired enormously his own father, died last Friday. Tim Russert, the moderator of the famed Sunday morning US TV program on NBC, "Meet the Press".

The tributes are interesting, as they always are in public, and of course are positive. A strong theme comes through, though. He was a native of Buffalo, New York, and was never afraid to revere where he came from and take the opportunity to pump it up. He was also remembered for being a "regular guy", ready to just share a beer, or go to a football game, or just be in his town/city.

I won't claim to know Mr. Russert, though through one of life's coincidences I have met him and know a little his sister and a niece of his, through school connections of my wife and step-daughter. What I remember about him from a few short meetings and I see a lot in the images that are now being put out are his almost ever present smile or laugh. On "Meet the Press" he dissected politicians and issues always with that smile on his face. A smile can be very disarming, but it can also display what is really inside--a real pleasure in what you are doing.

But words and phrases like "mentor", "reached out", "supporter of young [journalists]", "father figure", "someone to look up to" are being reeled off. Those attributes need celebrating every day, not just once a year, and making the needed change to make them apply to women and mother. I'm not going to make a big spiel today about the bad rap that fathers get. It's just good to hear more of the praise and less of the dispair today, for Tim Russert's sake, but for many others too. There's ample evidence that many men/father fall short, but there's plenty of evidence that puts the same criticism in front of women/mothers. I am listening to a TV ad: "We all need care" it says. That says it. Tim Russert said parenthood changed his life and that he never missed out on any of the important events of his son, Luke's, boyhood. He felt truly blessed to be a parent. Better to do try to do that caring and parenting, however it happens to apply, for more than one day a year.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Who's calling me from an unknown number?

One of those current reggae songs that I like, for the beat, not for all the lyrics, is "Unknown Number (Private Call)", by Busy Signal--gotta love the Jamaican DJ names:

Key lines that ring in my head are:

Number ha' fi sho' pon me ID ...

Na pik it up if it's a private call ...

They set fi ketch wi ...

No call me numba if yu no wan' me fi see ...

Plus one then the area code then the digits - everything cool

Though I'm not a gangsta, I am beginning to take the same view. Why is some organization calling my private number and blocking their, what should be public, number? There was a wave of cold calling in the US and UK, and after years of suffering laws were pass giving the right to could opt out from this harassment. A great blessing to stop those calls that always came around dinner time, or in the middle of homework, or putting the kids to bed. That was a great relief.

Increasingly, I get I don't know what to call them calls, maybe they are "warm calls"--, i.e., there is supposedly an existing relationship. The callers from institutions in the US are asking for me or my wife by first name wanting to discuss "personal business matters". Not even, "Hello. This is Meleesha, from X Factor Inc." But I look at the phone and I see "unknown number" or "private call". Is who dem? Me no kno' you! How yu get so familiar? Me is Mr. -- and she is Mrs. --. Last night, I heard the phone ringing on the overseas line and ran to pick it up--one of the older children about to announce some major life change? As soon as I answered I saw "unknown" number. I just decided that as the woman getting all friendly with my wife that I would get equally unfriendly. I had enough of being just unfriendly when the female asked if I was "... the husband ...". What? Me na ansa dat question! Is not fiyu bizniz. An' is who yu? I don't watch much TV, but could be NSA or some malicious bunch as bad as online identity thiefs.

Anyway, she's gone now. Well, I guess whoever she represents doesn't want to be traced. But I traced off the woman calling from some center and I guess that as she had a bank of such calls to make was glad to put this one down for later. Still, I ready again for next time. I am in full consumer strike back mode this weekend, so me a warn unnu.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Back in town.

After two weeks away from these lovely shores, it's funny what happens to bring you back to ground with a hard landing, so to speak. I think I am a keen observer of social behaviour, so I am constantly intrigued why almost all the rational, tolerant, equitable, and pleasant Caribbean people I know who live here rail against the surly, rude, dismissive, angry animal called the Barbadian service worker. Where we come from in other parts of the region we were brought up to expect a certain civility and respect for customers. That seems to be something that is evidently lacking in Barbados. We puzzle over whether it is a reflection of something called "national character", or springs from a clear lack of training, or both.

Take at random some offerings over conversation last night. Why does a conversation with one of the major phone carriers, who in Jamaica is known as "Careless and Worthless"--not my terms, just local parlance, end with a remark from the customer that it has been a "painful experience", and the response from the service provider employee "For me, too!" You pay for a service; you don't get it; you seek to find out what to do next; you get hit with hostility at worst or a clear lack of sense of what the customer needs. "We have someone on it." is not what the customer needs. I remember when my Internet service went down some months ago and I asked for an idea of how long it might take to repair, to see if I needed to find another solution. "I can't say." Give me a rough idea, I asked: a few hours, a few days, adding that each hour could cost me several hundred US dollars. "Oh, that would be putting my neck on the block." came the reply. Well, hello, my head is already in the noose as I can't work. After pushing more, I got an indication that it would be within the next 72 hours--that's very long but at least I had an idea. It turned out to be less, so in the end I was relieved. But clearly there is not a standard service time of if it exists, the employees are reluctant to commit to it. Why? It cannot be met? By contrast, I am told, experience with the other carrier that sells digital phones is a contrast in courteous behaviour. Does the behaviour spring difference spring from the days when one had a monopoly and could do as it pleased? In a little defence of Cable and Wireless, I have found some employees there who are pillars of great service and civility, but they acknowledge that they are exceptional.

Why does a cashier in a supermarket named JB's (Jaw Breaker?) respond to "Could you give me change for $20, please?", with "No...I'm not going to ask my colleagues if they have change, either." Why is it that when asked if she would check the engine at a gas station, the pump attendant responds "I wont touch no radiator. Who goin' pay if I get burn?" Perhaps the concern is legitimate, but there are ways to express it that don't make the customer feel that she has done some wrong.

There is a feeling amongst my friends that this treatment has a racial element. I am not convinced. Sure, I have had the "You black, I go treat you like dirt" treatment in the stores, while seeing some sickening fawning over some half naked white tourist, who perhaps can't count well enough or is so taken with the good exchange rate that he does not care. Over the phone, I have not had enough experience of how white/non-Caribbeans are treated, and true, I sound much less Jamaican than English. Can that explain why surveys of tourists find that the friendliness of the people is a major attraction of visiting this treasured isle?

Some Bajans say that they are proudly confident people. People from other Caribbean countries often note a certain inferiority complex. That squares more with the view of other Bajans who say that amongst Caribbean nations they have a special characteristic--an inherently passive nature. So, repeated Reudon Eversley in today's Nation, entitled "The 'suffering' Bajan":

"It's our inherently passive nature which works sometimes to our detriment. It exposes us to being taken for granted. It can encourage people to do things to us."

He goes on to say:

"Suffering in silence is very much part of the average Barbadian's experience. It's a choice which mirrors a deep inner feeling of helplessness which so many Barbadians reveal in their everyday language."

Is this leading us to the answer? Bajans are bitter and tired of suffering and the fear of being taken for granted so take it out on anybody who asks for any favour--kick before you get kicked? No more suffering in silence if someone needs you to guide them. I need some Bajans to confirm that they get the rough shod boot in the goolies treatment.

The irony of the article is that it talks about how the consumer, grouping together, can get producers and service providers to do better. Mr. Eversley focused on the fight for lower prices and adds:

"Many years ago, I made a conscious decision not to pay the ridiculous prices asked for some items in Barbados. If more Barbadians would start doing the same, they might be pleasantly surprised at how quickly some prices will start to fall. ... A consumer boycott, as a "spontaneous expression of disgust", can enhance the struggle for better prices. It's an effective and powerful weapon!"

As I have written before, I am amongst several who have taken similar decisions as regards eating out, and in another vein avoid supermarkets like I do serpents and dragons.

But this fight needs to drive for more than lower prices. It needs to be a fight for better service, too, and service with a sense that the customer merits consideration. The problem is that somehow the Bajan worker does not see eye to eye with the consumer on this, and the client is often viewed as a problem. Admitted, we customers can also be unkind. But if an employee justifies a bitter set of responses by saying we are frustrated, tired, unhappy, etc., then join the club. Worse is, keep treating customers like dirt and get used to the idea of staying home and remembering the days when there was a paying job. Or is job security too assured?

The words from Mr. Eversley which ring loudly with me are:

"Consumers must recognise their enormous power and put it to effective use. Every business relies on the patronage of customers. Without customers, no business can survive."

Have Bajan businesses started to learn this lesson? If so, are they going to share it with their employees.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Breathing life: A solider's story.

I say that everyone has some stories to tell. A friend I had met in Africa a few years ago, who lives in France, and with whom and his family I just spent nearly two wonderful weeks, shared with me some of his little adventures. Nothing much, he said. Well, he has parachuted and dived and a few other thrills, such as dodging rioting crowds to grab his children from school.

I asked him to share with me some of his stories, and he did that. He has shared with me a report he wrote a couple of years ago about an incident in 2003. I have not changed much of it, except to translate it into English, shorten it a little, and remove some details about locations. This is the stuff of novels and movies, but it's also just another day in someone's life.


It was December 2003, in the Central African Republic, and we had a take off fixed for dawn, from the M'poko military airport. At first, all went well, and we navigated using GPS, but planned landing and Guiffa was blocked with containers, etc, so we had to do further, but first took a "technical break" at Bamingui to recover. We took off again soon after, and hoped to reach our destination just after midday. On arrival at Avakaba, I paid the military post there and gave them also a TK 80 radio and made an inventory of their various technical needs. We took off again around 3pm, and hoped to reach Monovo at 4pm. There we were welcomed by a local environmental protection group and given the room reserved for us; our refuelling needs were also taken care of.

Next morning at dawn we took off again towards the Gounda camp to check the feasibility of installing a transmisson station to help in the fight against poaching. But, 20 minutes from the airport we had our first incident: a loud, suspicios noise. So we decided to cut short the flight to make some checks. We soon found that our exhaust pipe had broken. I made a quick repair using two jubilee clips and a piece of conduit so that we could continue and then make more substantial repairs.
We decided to head toward Ndele to make better repairs.

We took off and made some tests that the repairs were adequate; the noise was much reduced. But as we climbed we realised there were more problems: a dramatic loss of power led us to a sharp fall in altitude. The pilot immediately sought somewhere to land, but we were above a forest and there was nowhere nearby to safely land the plane, so we crash landed in an area that had been cleared by burning. Our SOS calls were in vain! The pilot had been excellent: he had cut the motors several meters above the trees and tilted the plane backwards as much as possible so that the shock of the landing would be minimized and the landing as long and slow as possible.

It was now midmorning, and we were several kilometers from our destination. We got out of the plane; the two reservoir petrol tanks had been punctured. We went back a short while after to get the most equipment we could and two litres of water.

I was a soldier, so time to take control of operations. What did I have to consider?

- we were 18 kms from our destination;
- radio and GPS no longer working;
- gasolene everywhere, on and in the equipment, electrical functions nil;
- six and a half hours of daylight remained and a night in the jungle, without proper equipment and only two litres of water could not be envisaged.

Decision: We should walk as far to the west as possible and hope to find a trail to our destination. We started walking just before noon, using the sun as our reference--northern hemisphere so I kept the sun where my shadow was at about 2pm for an hour, then at about 3pm for two hours, and so on.

We soon found a little mound of rocks around 2.15pm and I climbed to get a good view of our location. But it was clear that there was nothing to confirm my direction to the west. My companion was getting tired and his morale was waning. I remembered some fundamentals from my time as a commando trainee in French Guiana:

- don't panic;
- don't stand still for too long to avoid cooling off;
- don't drink too much, save water for later;
- don't change your mind and stay positive.

It was just after 4pm, and I asked my "guiding star" to give me a reason for hope, but in a few minutes my thoughts became more somber. I must find a reason to be positive. Then two minutes later, a miracle! A trail, in the middle of the forest.

Some men had passed by earlier and naturally had returned to their village, but by good fortune their tracks were heading due west.

This essential discovery, which would lead us back to civilization bizarrely lowered the morale of my lieutenant; his logic was totally different than mine. His thoughts were that now that I am on a trial I can relax and walk more slowly. My thought was I can now move fast so that we get clear of the forest as quickly as possible and surely before night. So, there was a small war of words between us. I was constantly in front, walking firmly and motivating my partnerwith my voice.

A short while later I quickly realized that his body was not following, but moreover his mental situation had deteriorated. He stood still longer and longer, and ate unknown fruit he found on the trees. Things got more complicated as we found ourselves in a glade full of termites nest. I had already crossed but he refused to go any further.
Now, it was nearly 5.30pm and little sunlight was left.

I took my last mouthful of water but kept the flask for later use. My mouth was really dry and I could not produce saliva; the first signs of dehydration were evident. It was not the time to crack up.

My lieutenant asked me to leave him and come back later for him. I had no idea how much further we had to go and in my condition did not see anyway that I would come back this evening; also we set off as a pair and would finish that way. The threats of leaving him alone with wild animals gave him a bit of mental and physical strength. I had to keep hopeful, though my morale was falling: I thought of my wife and children, and it was my son who gave me motivation; he had always been proud of his father.

The sun was setting. Got to move fast; no falling back. My lieutenant did not want to do any more; it was really his body giving up--his head had gone a long time ago. We walked into a field of cassava and I thought about giving him a couple of good slaps or shock him back into action. I stopped and rested my head on a branch on the ground; the lieutenant arrived two minutes later and assumed the same position, and immediately fell asleep from exhaustion! I got up after five minutes and screaming very loudly, made him believe that I had heard voices. The five minute nap had done him good and the yells motivated him. We walked on quickly.

Walking out of the field we saw smoke from a village. As we neared, I could not feel my legs any more, my Achilles heel was burning, but get to the village first and figure out the physical consequences later. The sun was no longer visible.

In a tree, a bird trap. The village was near. I heard children's laughter in the distance. My legs decided that we were near our target and I had the impression that I was running. I crossed the little stream and did not even think to refill my bottle; night was drawing on fast and the villagers were unlikely to be accustomed to seeing a white man arriving armed in the middle of the night.

I saw a house and three goats. I moved forward, my bottle in my handand, saying that I was not unfriendly. My lieutenant was 300 meters behind me but my yells guided him and he arrived a few minutes later. The women and children fled, only the men approached cautiously.
Seeing quickly that I wanted water, a villager gave me a filled washing bowl. I emptied it trying to swallow as much as possible, without thinking about the possible problem for my stomach. I did not speak the local language, Songo, and French was not much used here; soon the lieutenant arrived. He also drank several mouthfuls and asked for a chair. The villagers now came in groups and the chairs too. Water was no longer a problem and I emptied my second bottle. The villagers refilled the bottle while the lieutenant had to drink in a booth. The luxury of white people!

I sat in a chair and the lieutenant lay on a mat.
I was hungry; the little breakfast was long gone. We were a bit more relaxed as were the villagers; the village chief offered us everything that they had to eat. The tea flowed freely and was exquisite. The oranges were excellent, and I ate a good dozen.

Now, to take stock. The villagers had no vehicles and even less by way of communications. The school master arrived, he spoke French. I could therefore ask him how to find the nearest gendarme post. It was by bicycle, 25 kms away, that we got a message to the prefect [local adminstrator] that we were safe and sound in the village of Zoukoutouniala. The prefect and six armed men arrived at 11.15pm. We were taken to the town so that the lieutenant could get treatment on his left foot, and then taken on to our base at 3am.

It was at 6am Thursday that the gendarme at Ndele signalled the accident to Bangui [the capital].
The next day it was thanks to the help of two French men working for a nature preservation and anti-poaching associationthat we found our plane so that we could do the repairs.

Friday midday a twin prop plane arrives and we are taken to our destination at 4pm.

Conclusions. We had made no errors just that equipment had failed us. I never had a sense of panic nor doubt that I would succeed and return alive. But it's one thing to think that, and another for it to turn out true.

Planes can fail and the possibility of crashes exist, but it's important to imagine the worst in order to manage the best. There are not many wild animals in the central African bush--thank God! I love life and my first tour of duty in Africa will reinforce my love of my own life.

I took two planes after the crash and I am impatient to take back the one who will bring me back home. I don't know if I want to go up again in another plane like that which crashed.

Dammit! It's good to breathe.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Damned English

A language can be a fiend. That's what the French think of theirs; but the English think so of theirs too. I'll deal with French soon, but I had to tackle the English fiend during my recent visit to France. The children in the home where I stayed all study English at school and the two older ones had spent a couple of weeks in England to improve their spoken skills. Well, it's not an easy task and I gladly offered to let them make all the mistakes they wanted. But it was fun too; or should I say also. The two children had too much trouble figuring out who to talk to, and that two too nice children, one of whom wore a tou-tou at ballet classes, soon found out that English has too many words that sound the same, are spelt differently, and mean different things.

A friend just reminded me how even after years of speaking the language we can fall found of some silly errors. She was sick and the chicken pox spots were all over her body: "legions are now drying up...", she wrote and I had visions of shrivelling soldiers lying on her body. She meant lesions. It's rare that a 'g' and an 's' give the same sound, but there you go.

But English has a lot of these 'false friends': plum (fruit), plum (desirable), plumb (lead weight for accurate vertical measurement)--that hanging plum plum's hanging plumb; right (side), right (correct, straight), wright (skilled worker), rite (kind of ceremony)--the rite is to go to the wright's right, right. And many more.

After a quarter hour of playing with some of these words, my French students of English were worn out. C'est tout. They said.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Your number's up.

France will go into a new Dark Age. Starting in 2009 new vehicle registrations will be in place. The current system has licence plates with a two digit code at the end that signifies the département (regional adminstrative area) of the current owner, for instance 1111-XY-95, with the 95 signifying one of the suburbs of Paris (see example alongside). The new brain child of some egoistic bureaucrat in the Interior Ministry will no longer require designations of automobile owners' home district, but geographic appellations will be voluntary. The new plates, to be adopted over time, will instead follow the life of the vehicle. Like a born-on date, every new automobile in France will have a licence plate specific to the vehicle. Automobiles will keep their licence plates even if they are sold or their owner moves to a new part of the country. The coming design has two letters followed by three numbers followed by two letters. With 13 million address changes per year, the current system is running out of new combinations. Owners may chose to add numbers and regional logos to the right side of the plate, indicating a specific place, and people will be free to choose any location they wish for their license plates.The new registration model is the same as that successfully introduced in 1994 in Italy; now administrative ideas from Italy are not usually those to recommend. If vehicles currently licensed are not sold they can keep their current registrations. So, France will have a dual system for many years to come. Interesting.

The current plants have been unchanged in structure since heaven knows when and are as much France as are baguettes, Gauloises, frogs legs, and berets. One of the fun aspects of travelling the roads of France is to hail vehicles from the same area, similar to what is possible in Barbados with the letters of the parishes, or in the US and Canada with the state or provincial plates. Under the current system vehicle owners must re-register their vehicle if they relocate permanently to another département. There used to be a once-per-year tax on cars, called the vignette, whose rate depended on the département. This tax now exists only for corporate-owned vehicles (and there exist exemptions for small numbers of vehicles); it is thus no longer important to know the département of a car on sight. Furthermore, computerized files allow large national databases to be maintained without the need for them to be split at local level. A side effect of the vehicle tax system was that many corporations registered their vehicles in départements, such as Marne (51), with lower rates. Regulations aimed at preventing such schemes were passed in 1999.

But is this change necessary? Many schemes exist for knowing the uniqueness of a vehicle, not least its chassis number, which is usually located prominently and visibly near the dashboard. Technology also allows for many forms of electronic tracing or registration without the need to invent new licence plates. Some French people mentioned to me that bureaqucrats like to leave their trace. It was funny when the new designs were shown to a French government minister this week: he asked where was the département number, and had the system explained to him. No. He was not happy and was not going to change. Who did the bureaucrats talk to?

Still, with 7.5 percent unemployment in France and a tendency to complain it's understandable that this fluffy system is around. New jobs. New reasons to groan.

Friday, June 06, 2008

France goes beserk: Monsfils loses. Nadal is not human; Djokovic needs to replan. Federer makes space for a new trophy.

First, Rafael Nadal, the Spaniard and world number 2 in tennis played Novak Djokovic, the Serb and number 3. The Serb could not serve up anything hard enough for Nadal. On the other hand, Nadal served like a bomber; ran like a gazelle on Extacy; strong armed his forehand like an Exocet; whipped his two-handed backhand to ridiculous angles that defied maths and showed that he is really right handed; forced Djokovic to sometimes simply look on and clap; jumped into the commentary box to discuss his own match in between returns of service; umpired the match; started a Mexican wave as he began his service; appeared on a TV program in Madrid. All this while thumping his way to a three set win. Beautiful and near perfect tennis and I'm sorry for the opposing finalist, who we now know is Roger, who will be unable to dodge questions if he loses--again--to Nadal, even on clay. Nadal is not human; that is clear and he should be analyzed to check that he is not an androyd sent by some aliens to convert us all to mongo-tennis. He has the heart of a bull. He has the legs of a stallion. He has arms like The Hulk. He never tires. He jumps like Dick Fosbury. He is as aggressive with his racket as John McEnroe is with his mouth.

His fellow finalist will be his best bud, Roger Federer, the apparently ever-calm Swiss, who often misses out when playing Rafa. Rog overcame Gael Monfils and all of the French nation to win in four tantalizing sets. The Fed Express showed all his class and grace in the first set. But Monfils, the world number 1 junior in 2004, ever the plucky youth, cranked himself up, as if he was ready to do his Solja Boy routine, and pulled victory out of the face of defeat in the second set. Game on. The third set gave the impression that Rog was on his way to another early dinner with Myrka, but Gael had other ideas and cancelled the reservation by dragging out the third set. The fourth set saw Monfils build a rapport with the French people that meant that as he slipped and slid on the clay, someone would come out of the stands and pick him up, hold Roger in a bear hug while Gael was being cleaned up, keep the umpire and lines people occupied while keeping the ball in the air so that Gael could then run up and hit a screaming forehand winner. Well, Roger has shown lots of human frailities this year and missed so many volleys one had to wonder if he had bet on his own defeat. Then with two match points at up stepped Roger and fluffed the forehand winner. Argh! What the ....! So Monfils gets a lifeline. This time he sets up the Mexican wave, with all of France rising and waving its arms, even the commentators; I wondered what John McE was saying in his commentrary box. The umpire calmed the nation after several minutes. So at 5-6, Gael steps up to serve and Roger's phone goes off: "Honey, dinner is getting cold!" No nonsense. A bit of letting the crowd think that Gael could get out of gaol yet again. Boom. A few crisp volleys and superb drives and Roger showed that this was a VERY IMPORTANT MATCH. He jumped for joy, and skipped like it was his first final. Some people sho do not understand what motivates athletes keep asking about Fed's desire. Duh.... There is unfinished business. Sixteen consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals tells me the man is a great player. He just has not won the French Open, yet...

We know the tape on Nadal-Federer. We know the 411 on Nadal on clay. So, why do I think that Roger will win? Because it seems so imporbable given the way that each got to the finals, including the last matches. Rafael has not dropped a set and has shown that no one else need bother try to play him on clay; even compatriot Almagro, who had almost twice as many aces as anyone, looked like a dope-on-a-rope against Rafa in the quarters. Roger keeps looking vulnerable. Why? Too much caution to ensure he gets his date with destiny again? I'm not sure. It's a felling. Also, my tennis guru, Sydney tells me that he knows that this time Roger will do it. I know that Sydney is no fool. We will see on Sunday.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

So, Obama won the nomination. Now what?

I wont pretend to not having a sense of pride that Barack Obama has won the nomination to the Democrats' next presidential candidate. He has stepped over a racial threshold that has been tantalyzingly hard to cross for many years. But in another sense he has moved closer to the ultimate political prize in US politics much faster than seems plausible: a first term Senator barely half way through that term (see official website).

A lot sits on his shoulders. He now has to try to sew back together the fabric of a party divided by a campaign that posed again each other the two elements of a possible "dream ticket": him, a young man of mixed black African and white American parentage--a true African American worthy of that title; opposed by her, a female Senator with a long political history who is the wife of a recent very popular president. Together, they could (and maybe still will) be a formidable electoral offering. But a lot of kissing and making up would have to be done between them and between their respective campaign staff to overcome some of the acrimony exchanged during the campaign. In truth, they were not that nasty to each other; a lot of unfortunate remarks were made, but on the political landscape they were really cute to each other. More problematic to me, as I have told anyone who wanted to listen, is the "elephant in the room" in the form of the "over attentive husband", aka Bill. I frankly cannot see how you have as a vice president someone who comes with a partner who is a very recent former president. Not just any former, either, but Bill, aka "America's first black president". This ex is a larger than life character, much more loved than his wife, with a bunch of policy ideas still in his head, and an apparent inability to stay in the background. Maybe it could work but not in my head. It could make for a terrific TV series, though. You can imagine the introductions: President Obama, Vice President Clinton, former President Clinton, my lords....

Now that Obama has the nomination, and now that Hillary has nearly (still not quite) acknowledged that he has the nomination--a process that has more like pulling teeth and filled with a certain denial that was incredible--comes for me the real test. America is about to show how much it has changed in terms of racial tolerance. It passed the first test of nominating a black man. Some sociologists will explore the way people chose between two historic choices--first black man or fist woman. To me the chose the more appealing candidate who was also more promising in terms of offering a different future. Sorry, Mrs. Clinton, analysts will show that you offered more same-old politics. Obama's "hope" message means something. Now America has to show if it has the stomach to be led by a black man. This is less of a challenge given that many pillars of American life already have at their head a black man. But it will still be a big ask. Obama's position on Iraq will be one of the key elements in his favour, I believe: it's hard for John McCain to shed the mantle of Dubya-bis.

If Obama becomes president he will be plunged into real politics and the needs of national and international balance. I'm sure there is wide suspicion that Obama as president would be tempted to favour blacks, but in American national politics this is less of a concern than at the local or regional level given the true minority status of blacks in the country. On the other hand, if blacks do not receive some notable favours they may quickly damn Obama as being "just like the rest". It will be interesting to see how he moves to these varous tunes.

The world has changed a lot in terms of gender roles. With the possibility of a Hillary nomination I suspect that there was a great hope that she could introduce female leadership into American national politics as a real force--no disrespect to Condaleeza Rice, but no one voted for her. Sometimes arguments that a woman's leadership has a different feel than its masculine counterpart make sense, but at other times it seems just talk. Having lived through the leadership of Margaret Thatcher in Britain I did not feel any special gentility from her style of leadership; if anything the country took on a hardness that was really hard to stomach. True, I lost a job because of her policies and I lived in parts of the country where the local economy was transformed radically by her policies promoting privatization and ending nationalisation.Telling people to "get on your bike" did not sound like the right motivation to people whose livelihood was being wrenched from underfoot; it's a long ride from a Welsh mining village to the London suburbs. But the different perspective that can be brought by a woman could argue that Obama has a duty to seek a female VP.

So, let's move on to the next phase, with the two presidential candidates duking it out through November. It has already been a fascinating set of contests so far, and I'm sure that we have a few more interesting episodes ahead.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Why are we here?

I came to France specifically to watch the French Open; not every match live at the stadium, but really to savour the atmosphere with French friends. We had tried to book tickets by Internet months ago, through the French Tennis Federation, but that had not worked, but we managed to get them through another option--not for the desired first Saturday but for the Moonday of the second week. The French were getting very excited because for the first time since most people were born there were 5 Frenchmen going into the second week.

Tennis is not much about patriotism, but as soon as a nation sees that a few of its own is doing well then out come the flags, the songs, etc. In tennis, it has become lopsided in the women's game with central and eastern Europe dominant, especially Russia, and now with Serbia. As I write, the Serbs are serving up at least one woman finalist, perhaps Ana Ivanovic (pictured) or Jelena Jankovic, famed for her splits, willbe vic-torious this year. Russia has already one woman semifinalist and may produce a second; but at least we will be spared the Neaderthal-like grunting of Sharapova, who has changed totally the meaning of putting some oumph into it, and more importantly the disgusting behaviour of her father, Yuri. Sport should not be about degrading your opponent, but Yuri does not understand that and given that I speak Russian I have heard his insults clearly and wondered how his kid puts up with him. So, I was delerious when Safina came back from near death and a point from defeat to beat "La Maria".

On the men's side, Spain has started to become dominant, not just through the tennis equivalent of a matador, Rafael Nadal, but through a lot of others who have come through a well-developed system. (Andy Murray, a Briton who went through this system, must have missed a few classes.) The south Americans from Argentina and Chile are close behind. At least one Serb, Djokovic, wants to break up the party for Nadal on clay. Switzerland, though, hopes that it has the solution. Known for little more than being little, having three official languages, yodelling, a very safe place to hide money, and a flag often mistaken for that of the Red Cross, it has one player who has upset the apple cart more than his historic countryman William Tell--Roger Fereder. If the Fedora had been named after Roger, then it would have been apt: he is cool, calm, collected, and clean in every sense in a sporting world that functions often in terrific heat, and so accepts sweat and grime. He is elegance and grace and charm and ability and talent and....Probably the most complete athlete in any sport at present, rivalling Tiger Woods. When I heard Andre Agassi describe RF with reverence last Fall during some commentary for the US Open I knew that the current number 1 player was special and regarded as such by his peers and better; and the comments put in sharp contrast the "he's lucky" remarks of Davydenko, who perhaps burdened by investigations of gambling on his matches must have "lost his bearings". So, now I am done drooling about Roger.

But, on that patriotic track, as is often the way, when you turn your back or relax that's when stuff really happens. I leave the Caribbean and have the bitter taste of my country's PM saying what I am not surprised to hear him say about not working closely with his fellow man if he is gay and feeling really ashamed that the island is so bigoted, other countryman help big up the country. Usain Bolt, lightning fast, blasts through the 100 metres record, with 9.72 seconds snatching it away from our fellow man, Asafa Powell.I know that Jamaican bickles are good, but come now, this thing getting embarrassing. Everyone now focuses on Jamaica for what is good about it, its athleticism has jostled to gain higher ground than its musicality; for a while people wont focus on us killing eacxh other more than ever or looking for the next gay person to burn to death.

So, back to my question. It was posed rhetorically not literally. Everone should find a reason to enjoy the life they have. Sometimes it's easy to live through all that you do. Othertimes, you need to live it through others--often through your children and preferably their successess; Othertimes still, it is lived through those you know or can associate with, especially your countrymen and women and your friends. I often think of something I studied as part of English Literture, that speaks for itself a quotation from John Donne (1572-1631), in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII:

"All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness....No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."