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!

President in the presidential suite – at the Waldorf Astoria

Obama was hereWhere’s the president? The presidential suite. At the Waldorf-Astoria.

Every president since Herbert Hoover (who lived in a Tower suite for 30 years) has stayed in the presidential suite at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, and this week, Obama added his name to the legacy, along with two-dozen other heads of state for the 64th United Nations General Assembly. Insider and former executive chef John Doherty dishes about the commander-in-chief’s visit to ABC News here.

According to USA Today, George W Bush “was fitted by Italian clothier Brioni for the suits worn at the debates with Sen. John Kerry” in the very same suite — and it also happens to contain one of JFK’s rocking chairs and General Douglas MacArthur’s writing desk.

The suite includes four bedrooms, and the hotel hand-monograms towels for the first lady and president (whomever they may be at the time) when they visit.

For $7,000 per night, you too can sleep where Obama, Nikita Khrushchev and General Charles de Gaulle, and all your favorite presidents slept. No word on whether “Obama was here” is inscribed in the bedpost. I’m guessing no. Click here to book.

[via abcnews]

Maldives President proposes green tax for tourists

The Maldives, an archipelago of over 1000 islands in the Indian Ocean known for their stunning beauty and expensive, luxurious resorts, aren’t exactly cheap to visit. And they aren’t about to get any cheaper. The President of the Maldives has proposed a $3 per day “green tax” on tourists.

The tax would help fund the President’s plans for fighting climate change and for making the Maldives a carbon-neutral country within the next decade. He has a vested interest in stopping global warming – the Maldives are the lowest-lying islands on the planet, with an average elevation of only 7 feet above sea level, and it is estimated that they could be completely submerged by rising sea levels within the next ten years.

With an average of 700,000 visitors, who each stay around three days, visiting the Maldives annually, the tax could provide the country with over $6 million per year for environmental initiatives. With most resorts in the Maldives costing $500 (or much more) per night, $3 per person, per day is a small price to pay to help protect this vulnerable country from the dangers of climate change.

AeroMexico plane hijacking resolved peacefully

Shortly after taking off from Cancun on Wednesday, the pilots of AeroMexico flight 737 radioed the control tower to say the plane had been hijacked. The hijacker had showed off a bomb (later found to be fake) and demanded to speak to Mexican President Felipe Calderon. He threatened to blow up the plane, which was carrying over 100 people, and said he needed to warn the President of an impending earthquake.

The hijacker was unable to get into the cockpit, and the plane landed safely in Mexico City, its intended destination. After the plane landed and taxied to a part of the runway designated for emergencies, passengers deplaned, and security forces boarded. They quickly apprehended who they thought were the nine hijackers, but it later became clear that there was only one, Bolivian-born Jose Flores, 44, who told police he was a Protestant Minister and that “it was a divine revelation that made him carry out his actions.” The other suspects, innocent passengers caught up in the confusion, were released.

Most of the passengers had no idea that the hijacking was even taking place until it was over, and no one was injured in the incident. This was Mexico‘s first major hijacking situation since 1972.

[via Washington Post]

Obamas will spend summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard

When you’re the President, it’s easy to vacation in style. And that’s just what President Obama plans to do this summer. The President and his family are renting a secluded 28.5 acre retreat called the Blue Heron Farm in the small town of Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard.

The waterfront home has a main house, 5 bedroom guest house, and a small boathouse on the water. The grounds feature a 300-yard fairway and putting green, basketball court, vegetable garden and reconstructed Pennsylvania barn. There’s also a private saltwater pond, beach, pool and dock, and a catamaran and several kayaks for the Obamas to use.

The house, which was sold in 2005 for over $20 million, is the second most-expensive piece of real estate ever sold on Martha’s vineyard and is no stranger to Presidential visits – the previous owners hosted the Clintons in 1998.

There’s no word on how much the property rents for, but comparable houses cost $35,000-$50,000 per week. The rental fee will come out of Obama’s pocket.

[via New York Post]