Archive for March, 2008

Nothing Standard About It

March 20, 2008

Readers in Kenya have several daily newspapers to choose from.  My favorite has become The Standard, though typically it is anything but.

If there is anything that is standardized about the local press, it is the way the government likes to use the media as an outlet for what it would call information but what often reads more like propaganda, disclaimer, or even threat.  Suspiciously, for instance, a “Public Notice” in today’s paper explains that the managers of the Capital Markets Authority, the local version of the Securities and Exchange Commission, “shall exercise the powers conferred on them by the Capital Markets Act and assume the management, control, and the conduct of the affairs and business of Nyaga Stockbrokers Limited to the exclusion of its Board of Directors.”  Further, the managers state that only at a later date – “within 7 days” – will they “communicate to all investors and creditors the procedures for making claims and/or transferring funds.”  I have always wondered why my pension plan does not invest more heavily in emerging markets.  While the United States is content to see the domestic market grow by ten percent annually, several countries in Africa are experiencing annual growth in excess of one hundred percent.  Botswana’s stock market grew by over three hundred percent last year.  I remember cursing my plan managers for not putting all my money in some zinc mine in the Kalahari.  Now I know better; it would seem that if Botswana is at all like Kenya then the government can nationalize my funds at any time.  Nowhere in the notice does it say why Nyaga Stockbrokers Limited has been usurped by the Capital Markets Authority.

Just as ominously, at least if you are Robert Kotch Otachi or Wilson Birir, is the “Public Notice” from the High Court of Kenya advising the defendants to “take notice that the matter brought against you by the plaintiff Belgo Holdings Limited will proceed to be heard and determined notwithstanding your absence.”  My suspicion is that the Board of Directors of Belgo Holdings Limited is somewhat closer to the court than either Messieurs Otachi or Birir.  Of course, it could be argued that at least the court has been so kind as to inform the defendants that the trial will proceed with or without them.

In a full page advert, the National Muslim Leaders Forum mimics the format of these governmental announcements in a similar “Notice,” in which the leaders speculate, in the subjunctive tense, “May a New Nation Emerge.”  Their lengthy text begins by asserting, “Never before has the leadership in our country saved Kenya from the brink of disintegration and collapse.”  They do not specify whether this is due to a lack of opportunity or a failure of the leadership.  Several paragraphs later, they begin to outline some of the many steps which must be taken before the new Kenya can emerge.  The first is “the bringing back of the over 27 Kenyans who were renditioned by the government to Somalia, Ethiopia, and the Guantamano Bay [sic].”  The notice is dated “27 safar 1429.”

It is not only the government doing the announcing.  On one page, in a section titled Appointments and Notices, Procter & Gamble Services announces “we shall be moving offices to Westlands;” Tianjian University of Technology, in China, offers “twenty (20) scholarships for both undergraduate and postgraduate studies;” and Kenya Police “invites qualified helicopter pilots for recruitment to join the Kenya Police Airwing.”  Applicants must be citizens of Kenya and must have integrity.  On another page, Telkom Kenya “wishes to inform our esteemed customers and the general public that…there will be service interruption on Sunday.”  Apparently, they do not feel the need to mention the service interruptions which are sure to occur on Monday through Saturday.

Of the more traditional corporate advertisements, only one caught my eye: “Platinum Habib Bank presents The Apprentice Africa,” in which Biodun Shobanjo – “the Czar of Nigerian Advertising” – plays the part of “The C.E.O.”  It is a full page ad featuring an intimidating photo of Mr Shobanjo.  He is bald, wearing a tuxedo, and comically reminiscent of Daddy Warbucks in the screen version of Annie.  “What will it take to impress him?”

An article in a section called Inspiration asks “What Are Angels?” while a letter to the editor of the weekend section Pulse! refers to a modeling photo in a previous edition and begs: “Please hook me up with her.  She is the most beautiful dudette I have ever seen.”    The editor responds: “Hey dude, we do not run a dating agency.  We do not pimp our girls to our readers.  Style up!”

In the Sport Fest section, I learned that Tiger Woods is the world’s number one golfer, with a rating more than twice that of number two Phil Mickelson.  On the local tour, the presumptive Prime Minister Raila Odinga “excited many people” when he made an appearance at the Kenya Open.

In the Digger Classifieds, under “Beauty,” the reader can choose from a “Brokeback Massage,” a “24 HR HOT SUCKER,” a “Mini Big Mama,” a “Nice Mum,” or an “Aerotic Pleasure Massage.”  If the reader prefers “Leisure & Entertainment” to “Beauty,” the options include a “Lonely Love Text Message” or “Adult Pornography Done Locally by Kikuyus, Kambas, Luos, & Luyhas.  Call Tom.”

In Kenya, the deceased are not the subjects of an obituary but a “Death Announcement,” which ironically appears in a section titled Celebrating Life.  Death is either humbly accepted or sorrowfully announced.  For some, the sorrow is profound.  For two women, death simply “occurred.”  Many people do not die at all; rather, they are “promoted to glory.”

As for actual news, reporter Chris Wamalwa writes: “Kenyan Shot Dead in U.S.”  The murder is described as “a brutal assassination” in Essex, Maryland.  On the same page, the Minister of Finance consoled investors who have been hit by the economic downturn after last year’s disputed election.  “Hold your horses.  Tomorrow your worries will be arrayed.”

Many Kenyans have a hard time distinguishing between the sounds made by the letters l and r.  The mixing and muddling is indiscriminate.  I was once told that my shoes looked nice, probably because they are “leal reather.”  Perfectly, this type of tongue twisting is known as shrubbing.  Apparently even ministers are not immune.  It would seem that the editors at The Standard are equally susceptible.

Soccer Sucks

March 17, 2008

I spent most evenings last month at a local bar watching the African Cup of Nations football tournament, in which the Pharaohs of Egypt retained their title after beating the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, and in which I spent more time and vocal energy cursing the rules of the game than I did cheering, as I had intended, for the sub Saharan sides, and thereby the truly African sides, against the interlopers and imposters from North Africa.  I found many rules to mock and criticize, but most of them can be reduced to one sweeping and very consequential facet of the game: the punishments for penalties are way too severe.  Because penalties are so consequential, not just some and not just many but most games are decided not by the skill of the players but instead by the judgments of the referees.  Further, because players know this to be the case, they look first to draw a foul and only second to score a goal.

Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Samuel Eto – I watched them all repeatedly choose to take a dive rather than attack the goal.  They get bumped or even brushed by an opposing player, their arms flail, they fall to the ground, they reach for an injured shin or ankle, and they writhe in mock agony.  For their sporting performance, they are given not an Oscar, but a penalty kick, which, miraculously, they are able to take despite their shattered legs.  They are superstars, yet they are admitting that “the only way I can score is to have it given to me freely.”  It is impossible to imagine such undignified silliness from other heavyweight sports stars.  Would Michael Jordan fake an injury then immediately thereafter strut to the free throw line to reap the benefits?  Of course not; if Michael Jordan is limping, it’s because he’s hurt not because he so over exaggerated his attempt to draw a foul that his self image requires him to look injured for at least a few moments.

The penalty kick is a virtually guaranteed goal.  There is nothing wrong with a free point; basketball uses the concept by awarding free throws after a foul.  In basketball, however, a made free throw is worth somewhere between one and two percent of a team’s point total for a game.  Cumulatively, free throws are important, but with the exception of those taken at the end of a close game, no individual free throw is all that consequential.  In football, on the other hand, a penalty kick is very likely to be worth fifty or even one hundred percent of a team’s goal total for a match.  In a sport in which goals are rare, it is quite possible that a single penalty kick is the only goal scored by either team throughout the course of the entire match.  It is absurd that a referee can blow his whistle but once and essentially give the game away.

I am not faulting the referees, who are only calling the match as they see it, and I am certainly not faulting the players, who are wise to adjust their strategies in order to score the most goals as easily as possible.  It is the rule itself that is at fault.  No foul is grave enough that it alone should decide the outcome of the match, yet too often the flow and even the outcome of a match are influenced by the referees’ calls or, in the absence of actual calls, by the players’ efforts to elicit the referees’ calls.

Equally frustrating, though unconnected, is the silly adolescent celebrating that automatically follows each and every goal.  Celebration is fun and exciting, but the style of it in football is embarrassing.  The players always look truly surprised to have scored a goal.  In my head I can hear them, in valleygirl hysterics, jumping up and down and screaming, “Oh my god! Oh my god!  I can’t believe I just scored!”  The implicit lack of confidence is pathetic.  Just once I want to see a footballer score, pump a fist, then exit gracefully.  I want to see some swagger, some confidence, even arrogance, something to suggest that he knew all along he was going to score that goal.  Michael Jordan never screamed like a valleygirl.

Yet still I watch and enjoy football.  For me it has little to do with sport and much more to do with global communion.  There is no question that football is the most popular sport in the world; it is played and followed with enthusiasm by people on every continent.  I can’t help but be excited to watch what the world is watching, but it would make much more sense to me if the world were watching basketball.

The American Dream

March 16, 2008

I come from two big families so there are far too many of us to celebrate every birthday individually; instead, we lump them all together by month.   The September family birthday party is always the largest.  Last year, between toys for my younger cousins, cards for my aunts and uncles, and cake and ice cream for everyone, my extended family asked about my work with refugees.

It was immediately clear that while I have one perspective about refugees specifically and immigrants more generally, most of my extended family has a very different perspective.  Where I see cultural and economic benefit, they see potential terrorism.  I became defensive and then aggressive – I answered their questions in haste and missed an opportunity to tell my family about the work that I do and why I believe it should be done.

Generally, a refugee is exactly what the popular conception suggests: someone fleeing from warfare.  Legally, for the purposes of immigration to the United States, the definition of a refugee is more precise.  To paraphrase and simplify, a refugee is someone who flees his or her country of nationality because of persecution, or fear of persecution, for at least one of five reasons: race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  There are more than ten million refugees worldwide, though it is not a static population.

It is my job to help a refugee explain his or her story, and in particular his or her fear of persecution, which I then record so that an immigration officer can determine the legitimacy of the applicant’s request for refugee status in the United States.  The stories, as expected, are often obscene.  It is unbelievable what people will tolerate before they are willing to make the traumatic and fearful choice to flee home for something unknown.  Most don’t go far, largely because they don’t want to go far.  They cross the nearest international border for immediate safety, then hover there hoping that soon enough they will be able to return.  Years and even decades later, many find they are still hovering in that limbo.

It is this type of refugee that typically is resettled to the United States.  They are people who have been warehoused in refugee camps, people for whom there is no durable solution to their displacement, people who cannot repatriate and who are not allowed any substantive local integration in their country of first asylum.  They are registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, vetted by the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, & Migration, and finally approved for resettlement by the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship & Immigration Service.  Their names are checked and their fingerprints are scanned.  Of more than ten million refugees worldwide, it is about 50,000 who are resettled to the United States, in a good year.

Once in the United States, most adult refugees are working within ninety days.  Most children are in school.  They pay their bills and their taxes, shop for groceries and clothing, and go to church or the mosque.  They buy a television, which they gather around at night to watch whatever is on.  They save to buy a car.  They are, just like the rest of us, normal.  After five years, they are eligible to become naturalized citizens.  At that point, the fact that they were not born in the United States does not make them any less American than anyone else.

The beauty of being American is that we’re not as easily defined as other nationalities.  We’re not this color and we’re not that religion.  We’re everyone and we’re no one.  Many foreign observers say that the one thing most Americans tend to be is optimistic.  We tend to believe that with a little effort and creative savvy, with enough entrepreneurial pluck, we can succeed.  Much of the world marvels at our optimism; they call us naïve.  It is our bravado, not our wealth, which makes much of the world dislike us.  By the standards of Europe, we’re young.  We swagger.

Refugees and other immigrants naturally embody this American spirit.  They come to the United States with nothing but their determination to work hard and rebuild.  They believe that if they do, they will grow and prosper.  With typical American optimism, they believe that each generation will be better off than the last – their children will be better off than them and their grandchildren better off than their children.  This vitality is exactly why the United States needs its immigrants.  America is not white and it is not Christian; America is optimistic.  Immigrants, with all of their many and varied American Dreams, should not be feared.  They should be embraced. 

This is what I should have told my family.