East of Africa: An island divided

We’re at a small, roadside cafe – a room that consists of a few wooden planks slung together to form a humble dining area. Our server is a loud, jovial woman in her fifties and seems particularly excited to have a vazaa in her restaurant. She enthusiastically brings out six plates of over-saturated rice and sets them down on a cheap plastic tablecloth. I reach for the aluminum fork in front of me and hang it over the rice as I wait for the others to dig in.

Nobody moves. They’re all waiting for the side dishes of chicken, fish, and shredded pork to be brought – and not one person starts eating until every last plate has been set down. It seems particularly strange because the rice is presented almost as soon as we are seated, and the side plates arrive one by one over the course of fifteen minutes.

I guess I’ve lived for so long in a culture where everyone rushes to eat every meal, that it’s sort of refreshing to sit back and let the food get lukewarm for the sake of good manners.The wait creates long gaps of silence that amplify our language barrier, so we resort to watching a small television in the corner of the wooden room.

On almost every television that I’ve seen in the past few days there have been two faces juxtaposed with one another. The first is the face of a young man wearing a dark suit that seems to be a touch too large for his slender frame. The other appears to be an older, seasoned politician; smooth, polished, experienced.

I inquire about the two men, and receive an unexpected lesson in Malagasy civics.

Everyone jumps in, speaking with angst in short sentences about “the young boy” – the name given to Andry Rajoelina (rah-joh-ee-LEENah), declaring that he’s too inexperienced to be running the country. A valid argument since, at 35 years old, he’s officially the youngest head of state in all of Africa.

Rajoelina was formerly the mayor of Antananarivo, and assumed the presidency after forcing out the elected president, Marc Ravalomanana (rah-vah-lo-mah-NAHN), in a coup.

Ravalomanana is the latter man on the screen. Elected in 2002 and then reelected in 2009, he fell under suspicion of corruption and using public money for personal uses. The outrageous spending included the purchase of a presidential jet billed at $60 million; a move that has ended up landing him a four year sentence in prison.

The popular story is that Ravalomanana came out of poverty by selling yogurt from the back of his bicycle, and eventually constructed the largest domestically owned business in Madagascar.

Rajoelina on the other hand, had a much different path to power. As the son of a colonel, Rajoelina dropped out of high school and worked as a DJ in and around Antananarivo. Eventually, he established his own radio station and married into significant wealth, which opened up the opportunity for him to run for office as mayor of the capital city.

Rajoelina had been serving as mayor for roughly a year when the government shut down his privately-owned TV station. An interview with previous head of state Didier Ratsiraka was set to air, and was cited by the government as “likely to disturb peace and security.” Rajoelina retaliated by organizing a series of protests in the capital. All in all, over 100 protestors died from military resistance, further outraging the citizens of Madagascar.

Before long, Rajoelina gained the support of the military, and was able to storm the presidential palace, installing himself as President and Monja Roindefo as Prime Minister.

There are murmurs around our lunch table that Rajoelina is just as corrupt as Ravalomanana. Some suggest that he’s orchestrating suspicious business transactions with his new power as President. They say that there’s never any real change; just one corrupt politician after another.

A depressing reality, since it’s the lives of the people like the kat-mis who are ultimately affected by the actions of the people in power. Money that could be used to facilitate development is being wasted on senseless, selfish expenditures. Do we see it in the West as well? Of course. But it’s a situation that’s all too familiar in post-colonial Africa. A condition that’s nearly unavoidable in an environment with weak infrastructure, strong military power and individuals possessed by greed.

To hear and see more about the unfolding of the coup, it’s worth watching this outstanding piece from Journeyman Pictures.

Read the previous articles in the East of Africa series here!

Would you leave The States if Obama loses?

Election day is next Tuesday and Americans are poised to make one of the most critical decisions in US history. With Obama leading in many polls, Democrats have allowed themselves to be cautiously optimistic. As such, you probably haven’t heard as much of the “If the Dems lose I’m moving to Canada” chatter that emanated from the blue states in 2000 and 2004. In a recent review of Phil Zuckerman’s Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment,” Salon columnist Louis Bayard discussed why potential expatriates might shift their glances towards Scandinavia if McCain wins.

Zuckerman’s book, as well as Bayard’s column, focus less on Scandinavians’ high life expectancy, healthcare, economies and social mores and instead channel their energies on religion and faith. Scandinavians live in predominantly secular cultures. Bayard notes that,

As few as 24 percent of Danes and as few as 16 percent of Swedes believe in a personal deity. (In America, that figure is close to 90 percent.) In Scandinavia, belief in life after death hovers in the low 30 percent range, as opposed to 81 percent in America. Some 82 percent of Danes and Swedes believe in evolution, while roughly 10 percent believe in hell. Their rate of weekly church attendance is among the lowest on Earth.

Ideally, people who are disenchanted with the outcome of the election will remain in The States and help fight for their causes. If I was inclined to leave my homeland, however, I don’t think I’d head to Scandinavia. I loved my visits to Iceland and Sweden but I’m not so sure that a long, dark Nordic winter would soothe my soul should the American electorate let me down. And Scandinavia’s suicide rate is twice that of the United States’. I wonder if that has anything to do with their high rate of alcoholism.

No, I think I’ll stay here and be part of the solution if things don’t go my way. Or head south. I’m a warm weather guy. Hmm, maybe I should check out the tax laws in Chile.

Would you leave the States based on the outcome of the election? Where would you go? Drop us a line in the comments.

Canada Holds Elections, Conservatives Win but Not by Enough

While their neighbors to the south fret over their own upcoming trips to the polls, Canada got on with it and elected, or in many cases re-elected, its parliamentary leaders earlier this week. The results: the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper won 16 more seats while their Liberal peers dropped 18 seats. However, the results are not enough to give Harper’s party control of parliament. That means that they will have to form a minority parliament, relying on alliances with other, smaller parties to get things done.

Some of the other parliamentary players include the New Democratic Party (NDP), which earned 37 seats, and Bloc Québécois (BC), which now has 50 seats. The BC is a unique party because it seeks the Independence and sovereignty of Quebec Province and is not concerned very much with the rest of Canada. They gained two more seats in this election than they held beforehand. In the end, though, it seems that the elections did not alter the balance of power too much.

[Via CBC]

Wearing a political T-shirt can get you shot if you happen to come across a nutcase

The U.S. election is heating up–even in Great Britain. Earlier this week [UPI.com reported the story on Oct. 7}, a man in London was shot three times because he was wearing a T-shirt in support of Barack Obama.

At the time of the shooting, the man was buying a cell phone and minding his own business when a guy came up to him and shouted racial slurs about the Obama T-shirt.. Not comfortable with the barrage of verbal abuse, the man zipped up his jacket and got into his car.

At that point, the nutcase pointed a gun at him and shot him–not just once once, but two more times for good measure. After being shot, Dube Egwuatu drove to call for help and was taken to a hospital. He said that the gunman had tried to get him to go somewhere with him.

Good thinking Egwuatu. As everyone ought to know, you never, ever, ever, ever, go with a person who is pointing a gun at you. That’s what I’ve read anyway. You have a better chance of survival if you immediately try to get away.

The gun, a gas-powered ball bearing pistol, left a piece of metal in Egwuatu’s jaw.

Personally, I’d say the gunman has a few screws loose, and is using the T-shirt as an excuse to go all vigilante on someone who happens to be black. Still, it’s unfortunate that cases like this one points out that freedom of speech can have dangerous consequences if one happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time–although, I’m betting that such instances are very, very rare. Although, I was living in India during September 11 and was very uncomfortable driving in any car that had a U.S. government license plate. After awhile, the feeling lessened.

The story did not say if the gunman was caught. I sure hope so.

Just yesterday, as I was driving through a neighborhood with both McCain and Obama signage peppering its yards, I thought how great it is that neighbors can have differences of opinion and still rake their leaves together, say “hello” and lend cups of sugar if asked.

Help for overseas voters

With the American Presidential elections less than two months away, the latest polls show the race at a statistical tie. If the last few elections have taught us anything, it’s that every vote is crucial. If you are an American citizen currently living out of the US, the Overseas Vote Foundation wants to make sure your vote is counted.

This non-partisan, non-profit organization is designed to help overseas Americans register to vote, learn about the candidates, and participate in the election process. If you are living overseas and need to register, OVF can help you, but don’t wait — registration deadlines are closing in. The website provides information on the candidates as well as resources for youth, first-time voters, and military voters.

If you are in the country now but won’t be around on election day, you will need to request an absentee ballot. You can vote absentee by mail, or in some areas, you can vote absentee-in-person by casting your vote prior to election day. If you have questions about absentee voting, call your local registrar’s office.