Tag Archives: Travel

On Miracles and New York City #IVLP

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What is the United States?

 

New York City. The Big Apple. No place evokes “America” as this city. Its neighbourhoods and places—Manhattan, Brooklyn, 5th Avenue, the Empire State Building—are as well-known as our backyards, the simpler places where we have spent our own lives. In that alternative universe where everyone is American, “New York” furnishes the imaginary. I was excited to see that NYC was the final stop for our IVLP to study the United States elections. I looked forward to seeing the city of New York.

New York started paying its dividends early when we approached La Guardia by air, flying over water. I got off a few shots of a bridge. I think it was the Manhattan Bridge. We were met by a bus driven by a guy called Mike and made our way to Manhattan. We arrived late in the evening and got to the business of settling down.

 

 

I love cities that can be walked, reasonably flat cities have an attraction to me. Nairobi is one of such. New York is another. We stayed at 31st Street on Madison Avenue.

I decided to go out at about 8 p.m., to walk around a bit and get a lay of the land. I walked to 34th Street where I found a small Chinese restaurant. I had the trusty choice of fried rice and chicken. Years of travel have yielded the knowledge that the two sure items for the Nigeria-attuned palette abroad are fried rice, however made by whichever Asian country, and Spaghetti Bolognaise.

I crossed to 5th Avenue and walked all the way to 41st Street before looping back, buying some yoghurt and chicken wings on the way. Honest opinion, I did not like the city that first night. For the same reasons I do not like Lagos. The too many people and too many tall buildings imposed a sense of disquiet.

We held meetings at the US delegation to the United Nations the next day with people from the UN as well as from the State Department, a recap of our programme. The Delegation is located opposite the UN Building itself. I got a better sense of the city in daylight and found myself loving it. There is an infectious energy in New York which exists, in disfigured form, in other cities. It is inimitable. I found myself in the pulse of it. It is in the yellow taxis making their way through perfectly gridded streets between wide avenues displaying the idea of a “city block”. It is in the workers manipulating a payload atop a high building with a crane… they, including a woman, in hard hats, looking up to the sky. It is in the neon signs of open businesses and the people coming in and out to service so many so many restaurants offering everything from junk food to more pricey fare. It is having a view of the Empire State building just outside your window.

I fell in love with New York the night we went to see The Lion King, showing at the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway. The somewhat heavily laden 5th Avenue of that first night was replaced by colour and dazzle. The performance itself was extraordinary and I remain grateful to the State Department for the tickets. The sets, the singing, the choreography was top notch and I found myself wondering—why can’t we have this in Nigeria? Why not? We can. All 1700 of us that night were touched by Simba’s story. In my childhood, the motto had been “Hakuna Matata!” In my adulthood, it is “Wakanda Forever!”

 

 

The Lion King was a trip to nostalgia. Nostalgia is not bitter when you’ve gone farther, further, higher. Even when there is so much more to do.

The IVLP closed and I prepared to return to my country. I was tired from all the walking I had done—Washington DC, Maryland, Miami, Colorado and NYC—but I was filled with a sense of… magic?

But, not really, not magic. It was a sense of the miraculous. The difference between magic and miracle is the supernatural agency, for which fatalism and a lack of imagination suffice often than not, that magic demands. Miracles are a different thing entirely. A miracle is the product of systems that work well and improve themselves, learn from their experience through institutional (and technical) memory. It is the grid of New York and the Builders of Eero Saarinen’s vision figuring out how to build the Gateway Arch. It is the CIA, the NSA, the NYPD, the State Department and systems imagined into being and given life to bring about certain ends. It is the Wright brothers pioneering flight at Devil Kill Hills in 1908, and NASA sending a man up to the moon fifty years later. It is a united states of fifty countries federated into one, which has lasted two hundred and fifty years. It is the seamless, everyday business of election at various levels that harnesses the will of common people into potent power—the authority and legitimacy of the government of a superpower.

These are not magic. These are in fact miracles wrought by the minds of men.

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Africa must achieve miracles…

And this is the essence of my three weeks in America. Axiomatics.

  1. The United States is a land of miracles.
  2. A miracle is a product of an intelligently designed system.
  3. Systems can (and are) designed by humans.
  4. Africans are human.
  5. Africa can be a land of miracles too.

Once again. I thank the US State Department, the US Mission in Nigeria, and the team at World Learning for my IVLP experience. It is hard to speak of the last three weeks without speaking in superlatives. Let’s just say I do not think I would have gotten this breadth and scope of America if I had merely gone to one spot or five of that country for tourism.

I appreciate all the experts and regular people who talked to our group, from professors to farmers, for going out of their ways to share an experience.

Lastly, I especially thank our “minders”, the translators—Eric Goze, Chelsea Rosendale, Miguel Garcia and Meredith Rogers—who were with us each day. The best. And, best wishes.

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Goodbye, America.

 

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On #Miami and Education Reform #IVLP

 

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  City Hall, City of South Miami

Being a child of the 90’s, I remember Will Smith’s 1998 smash hit, Miami, on the World Chart Show. I just watched it on Youtube and it seems less sizzling than I remember it. The clothes are of a different generation. The idea of the radio chart show is, of course, now marginal. My generation took to mp3 and Napster-gate was a watershed for us. We won. The world changed. Now we are old.

I was excited to see that my itinerary for the International Visitors Leadership Programme to study the US electoral process during the midterms included a stop at Miami.

Our #IVLP stop at #Miami highlights the crucial role of local organizations and regular people in shaping election issues. We met with a pro-immigrant fund manager, a women’s pressure group, a small town mayor (population 14,000) as well as regular people. We also sat with the operators of a public community radio station in what was a very lively meeting. True public radio in Africa probably died post-independence, as state radio stations speedily became tools of ruling party propaganda, which made the people more ignorant and confused (the better to control them). The take away is this: structurally denying increased local participation outrages the concept of democracy.

To my mind, the underpinning of democracy throws the problem of third world democracy in perspective. It is not enough to mouth the definition or to talk about rights, or even to have a constitution that frameworks democratic ideals. Beyond this, there must be, as with a corporation, a class of people who care about the democratic system enough to keep tweaking it, animating it by their ideas. But for democracy to truly work, the people themselves must care and thus, in their own communities, demonstrate this care by acting to change their localities by interacting with power. Where most citizens do not have a basic liberal education, as is the case in Nigeria, we can neither truly have either of these crucial classes. There can be no people who spark the flame, there is no people who catch it and both shape policy and hold power accountable.

What we have instead is mimics of the first, as evidenced by “NGOism” in the third world which is essentially Officers who have crammed the jargon, know how to posture, who achieve very little but religiously monitor and evaluate same. As for the People, well, they will pose for the pictures and videos and be absolutely saved, for the sake of blankets and clothes and grants. And Power, all levels of elected officials become “contacts” who are ranked in terms of “accessibility” and being “progressive” and, on the basis of this, can transform to become NGO officers down the line if they are good.

The small town mayor we met, for example, said his town was working on increased solar energy use as well as creating bike paths in their small community. This policy thrust came from the people in his town. His council ensures the City Manager harnesses public resources to meet this. A university professor on the verge of retirement talked passionately about how she felt about the direction the country was taking, and what she had done to sensitize her students to this concern. This intergenerational intercourse of ideas ensures the young are situated correctly while they are free to make their own way. To know the battles of one’s parents is to be able to stand better, stronger, in the storms to come. A fund manager with an interest in issues of immigration and a community project manager dealing with issues of girls and women pared down the realities of how identity can be politicized in ways that are illogical and dangerous. These all are active citizens. These all are educated enough to animate a democracy.

Back to Nigeria, perhaps the key thing we must keep in mind is the necessity for a curriculum overhaul and to rethink education as a whole. In America, in Miami, I can see how central this is to development. Whatever else we do would be building castles in the air if we do not firm up the very ground for development to be built on.

On Annapolis and Alex Haley #IVLP

‪Best part yesterday was chancing on the Kunta Kinte – Alex Haley memorial #Annapolis. A sculpture of the author Alex Haley (Roots, Autobiography of Malcolm X) reading to kids. The Chesapeake Bay is where most Africans arrived America enslaved. 😦 Let the power of stories heal. #IVLP‬

On Baltimore for the #IVLP

Washington DC wrapped up nicely with a visit to USIP and the US Federal Elections Commission. USIP was particularly impressive while the FEC presents the distinctions of America’s peculiar federalism. All very educative.

My #IVLP mates and I then crossed state lines to Maryland where we observed early voting taking place. Maryland is one of the states from which land was taken to build Washington DC. Washington DC really is a federal capital territory, just like Abuja, Nigeria.

At Baltimore, what I found interesting was the low-tech unhackable balloting system in place, quite similar to West African exam sheets readable via magnetic lines. These are filled by hand, then scanned and digitized. The physical ballot papers are also collated, adding a second level of security. And, of course, digital copies are created on untamperable drives which are not on a network. So, no hacking possible. Of course, this system relies on voter education.

The idea of early voting is also very attractive, allowing those with other things to do on polling day do their civic duty for about a week before the polling day proper. I think, at the centre of Nigeria’s voter apathy, is the sheer stress of election day—the queue and the hubbub of it. We should look into this.

Thinking on a lark: perhaps, in Nigeria, the Independent National Electoral Commission should be merged with the National Examinations Council? If for nothing, both can leverage their expertise and have more efficient elections.

My cohort then met with the local Democratic Central Committee for Baltimore County as well as the Young Democrats. Made new contacts and I hope that I can help a Nigerian political party I have my eyes on to prepare for the 2022 elections.

Baltimore is a lovely city, not so much of the highrises of Washington, and a lot of red-brick building lovely to see. A friend commented that in his country, banks would not finance a brick building. I thought about explaining how mortgage “works” in Nigeria but changed my mind. Driving around in our bus, we were able to see a good slice of the city, across levels of affluence. Stopped to have lunch at the Baltimore harbour. I got a chicken burger with fries, which they call “frites”. Bought a book for a friend at the picturesque Barnes and Noble bookstore by the harbour. Posed for photos most of which did not come out so well.

Then it was about an hour drive to Annapolis, where we are now, in what promises to be a full day as well. The #IVLP experience presents a unique opportunity to study a system, not perfect, as ours is not perfect, from which we can learn just as we share our own experiences with elections in our countries.

 

On Sightseeing in Washington DC #IVLP

Arrived a very clear but cold Washington DC for this year’s #IVLP Processing through Dulles was efficient, thanks to the organization. We drove across Virginia, crossed the Potomac and wallah, DC. Yesterday was a city tour, Lafayette Square, the MLK and Lincoln memorials and more.

Colourful Casablanca

Yesterday’s adventure involved changing hotels. It would seem I am not very good at picking hotels from booking.com. Perhaps I should just look for the Ibis in any town I’m in danger of nomading through? But, you tend not to interact with the culture of a place when you’re staying at a “proper” hotel and culture really is the point. I enjoyed spending the night at the Old Medina but my lodgings left much to be desired.

I got lost looking for the new hotel. All precautions were taken, including the Google Maps download. Eventually, the taxi driver dumped me—said “ah, it’s just over there” and pleaded traffic. And there I was on Rue Moulay Yusef unable to interest another driver in my stuff and me. That said, I was propositioned by marketers marketing other hotels and spas… The girls in Casablanca are very pretty, alhamdulillah. I deny no favours of my Lord.

Settled into the new hotel on Rue d’Azail but was unable to summon the strength to do any exploring.

This morning, I tried to go to the bazaar part of the Old Medina but gave up the effort. It was unimpressive—less interesting than Rabat, incomparable by any means to Marrakesh. Then I plotted coordinates for the United Nations building but all my effort at saying “Place des Nations Unies” in an appropriate French Arabic accent got met with a universal urban taxi driver huh? Sensing defeat, I respected myself, withdrew the intention and settled to go see the Corniche.

We passed the Hassan II mosque already rhapsodized about HERE and the Phare d’Hank lighthouse then turned into a splendid ocean walk. I walked it all, punctuating that with photo-taking (and catching a breath), ate junk food at a McDonalds, had mint tea at a restaurant, and shopped at the Anfaplace mall.

On my way back that I realize—Casablanca truly is colourful. It is the city of chic and style. Casablanca is the city of people who just wanna have fun and sometimes, I can be that people.

I did not like Casablanca at first sight, but it does have its charms. And, the work the Moroccan government is doing with upgrading its port infrastructure reiterates the fact that Morocco is a destination for the African businessperson. The King, like Comrade Paul Kagame, is exactly the sort of leader Africa’s youth should rally around in the slow but necessary process of creating a new African market.

At the Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca

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Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca, Morocco

It is quite impossible to capture the Hassan II mosque in #Casablanca. Perhaps because my camera is rather limited and not being a professional, I was unable to find the right angle? Further, the ornate grandeur of both scale and design humbles the person, affects the eye…

Here is my best shot.

It was closed for renovation today. You can see the scaffolding. The minaret is 600 plus feet high and I was told it’s one of the biggest mosques in the world. The courtyard is massive and I can imagine the denizens of Casablanca praying here in orderly, colourful rows.

First impression was to not like Casablanca. It seemed a let down from Marrakesh—missing my train station didn’t help. But Casablanca does have its charms. The mosque is by the corniche, which I could not walk because I got a call from Naija. I will go there. There is a lot of development going on at the Marina. Urban renewal, urban maintenance everywhere you go.