Born a Crime- book review

By now, Trevor Noah has become a household name in the US. As the host of The Daily Show, having taken over from Jon Stewart in 2016, Noah has come a long way from growing up in a poor neighborhood in his native South Africa during apartheid. What makes his life story even more remarkable is that his birth was a result of a criminal act – his mother was a black South African while his father was a white Swiss, and miscegenation was illegal during apartheid. Hence, the name of his biography – Born a Crime – Stories from a South African Childhood.

I got this book because a friend highly recommended it, but I have to admit I was a little apprehensive. As Noah is a well-known US celebrity, I thought his book would be tame and politically correct. Well, how wrong I was. From the start, he doesn’t pull any punches in talking about his life. He balances hard-hitting commentary with humour and bluntness as well as poignant recollections of painful memories. When he talks about how his devout Christian mother and him spent Sundays going to 3 different churches for the entire day, he says that “white church” was his favorite because of how comfortable it was and how brief the services were (just one hour). “Black church” was an ordeal, as services went on for 3 or 4 hours. “I eventually decided black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more,” he says, which struck me as both hilarious and sad. Then he complains about his mother’s old, beat-up car. Almost all bad experiences were a result of that old car, said Noah. Having to miss school, hitch-hiking, being late for work. And having to find a mechanic, who ended up marrying his mother, beating her, and eventually shooting her in the head. That escalated fast (Noah is not joking about that, it really happened). All this is just the first chapter.

South Africa is one of the world’s most fascinating countries because of its racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. I have great memories of visiting there in 2010. But under apartheid, this diversity was twisted so that it was completed corrupted and abused – blacks were forced to live separately; coloreds and Indians were treated as being inferior to whites but better than blacks; child siblings of different skin complexions could be classified separately. As the biracial, light-skinned son of a black woman, Noah is caught up in this. The remarkable thing is Noah isn’t bitter or sad, but filled with optimism as well as a resolve which stayed with him his whole life. As he says, his mother told him not to forget pain, but to also not let pain rule him.

Not surprisingly, Noah’s mother is a key figure in his life and in the book. She is a woman of great resilience and spirit, who worked and brought up young Trevor without any shame, and instilled in him a strong attitude towards life. But she is the victim of the greatest tragedy in Noah’s life, when she is shot in the head by her abusive ex-husband (not Noah’s father). She recovers, which goes to show how tough she is, and Noah’s love for her and vice versa are very apparent.

Noah fills the book with hilarious and harsh anecdotes, as well as commentary on racial and social issues. Sometimes, it sounds brutal such as when he talks about the Coloured people in South Africa – people of mixed ethnic origin. Now, you might wonder – isn’t Noah himself Coloured since his parents were black and white? No, because Coloureds were mixed going back several generations, as their ancestors were the early Dutch and European settlers and locals over two centuries ago. Noah’s point is that this is the Coloured’s tragedy because they don’t have a solid heritage. That isn’t a problem in itself (obviously there are lots of mixed people worldwide) but in South Africa, Coloureds were caught up in the middle of the country’s racial hierarchies, during apartheid and even now.

This book is a great example of this – it’s not dominated by pain and terror, but by humor and fond memories of growing up, getting in trouble, and hustling in the hood, whilst learning some hard lessons. Noah’s autobiography is a fantastic read for learning about South Africa, race, the hood, and basically how a boy from a South African ghetto grew up to become an international comedian and personality. It is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Interestingly, the last biography I read was also about a South African, Elon Musk, which was also good. The country might have some serious problems, but it produces some special people.

The Last Train to Zona Verde- book review

I recently finished Paul Theroux’s most recent novel, and I’ve just finished his second-to-last nonfiction book The Last Train to Zona Verde, in which Theroux makes a journey along the western side of Africa starting from Cape Town, the continent’s southernmost city. It’s an ambitious trip, Theroux’s last in Africa, that would have seen him travel up the continent along the western coast. But Theroux does not complete it. Dispirited, beaten down and weary, he calls it quits almost midway in Angola.

He starts off from Cape Town, first touring its vast township slums, then goes to Namibia by bus, travels around the country and attends a conference in the deep east, takes a detour to visit an elephant safari camp in Botswana, then goes into Angola, where he gets stuck in a remote area near a village for days when his minibus breaks down, which ironically is one of his better experiences.

Having been struck by the vast poverty-filled townships on the outskirts of Cape Town and Windhoek, Namibia, he sees worse in Angola and is utterly disgusted. Angola is a country that is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, but also one of the poorest. Having been ravaged by a 30-year civil war that lasted into the 1990s, the people have been neglected by a corrupt, oligarchic government. Theroux sees desperation and poverty everywhere in Angola, from the capital Luanga, where growing slums encircle the city, to smaller towns like Benguela and Lubango.

Theroux holds nothing back in his final chapters where he explains how and why he got to his breaking point, despairing over the squalor and the “broken, unspeakable” and “huge, unsustainable” cities: “No poverty on earth could match the poverty in an African shantytown.” Theroux believes that continuing on the journey would only mean going into more cities and hence, the same sight and disappointment over and over. Then there is also the danger. Timbuktu was Theroux’s intended endpoint but by then, Mali had been engulfed in civil war and the fabled city was in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Nigeria was also on the itinerary but Boko Haram was, and is still, ravaging a large part of the north.

There are a few bright spots such as isolated Angolan village where Theroux hears native ceremonies every night and see people living a traditional life, and a visit to a remote Bushman (Ju/’hoansi) community in Namibia. The book veers into an anthropological tone about these people, who may be the oldest living people in the world, but even then, there is disappointment when Theroux realizes everything is not as it appears.

The bluntness of Theroux’s despair is a little shocking to me, despite having read a couple of Theroux’s other books, as it can make one wonder if there is any hope for Africa.
There is, of course, though perhaps not in places Theroux visited such as Angola in particular. I have been to South Africa and visited townships in Cape Town and Johannesburg, so I know Theroux isn’t exaggerating the physical size and extent of poverty there though there is also progress (he does mention this as well). Theroux contends that any improvement in the slums results in more people coming and hence the poverty remains constant while the slums get larger.

While one could wonder whether Theroux should have bothered publishing this book if he felt so hopeless about those countries, the truth is there are very few books or articles, at least in the English language, about Namibia and Angola, and his writing is still a worthy if not pleasant contribution to literature on those countries.

The strange case of China’s arrest of British and South African tourists last week

So after threatening stock traders and arresting over 100 human rights lawyers and activists two weeks ago, China decided to move onto new targets – tourists. Last Tuesday (China time), I saw rather bizarre news about a group of British and South African tourists being arrested in Inner Mongolia in China. What was strange was how little coverage it got with short articles in Sky News and the Independent being the only sources of info. On Wednesday, the Guardian reported on it and eventually the BBC. It was never breaking news or the headline story.

The more details there were, the more disturbing the incident seemed. The 20 tourists were a bunch of mostly senior folks, some doctors and executives, who were on a 47-day organized trip around China, but the authorities claimed they were suspected them of having “links with terrorism.” There was no specific details then, but the Chinese authorities kept insisting these people did something involving “terrorism” by “watching propaganda videos.” In addition, though the news had been reported on Tuesday, these people had been detained the previous Friday suddenly at the airport in the city of Erdos and they were not allowed to contact their embassies or anybody else. Their tour agency became suspicious over the weekend after not hearing from them and sent somebody to Ordos check on them Monday.

As the incident dragged on, no proper details were given by the authorities other than the tourists had been doing something related to terrorism. It turned out the terrorist activity the tourists had been doing was watching videos in their hotel. A spokesman for two of the detained said they had been watching a documentary on Genghis Khan. Yes, he was a terror to China… over 800 years ago. Some of the tourists were Muslim and had Islamic surnames and were members of a South African charity, which might have aroused attention from the Chinese authorities for whom even charities and religious organizations are suspect bodies. It seems the Chinese authorities had made a big mistake though they of course refused to admit. The tourists were eventually deported, 11 of them on July 15 and the rest on the 17th.

To get the Chinese official stance, read this http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-07/18/c_134424744.htm.
I certainly don’t find it convincing in the least.
“According to the police investigation, the foreigners first watched a documentary in a hotel room. After some of them left, the rest proceeded to watch video clips advocating terrorism. Police later found similar videos stored in a cell phone belonging to Hoosain Ismail Jacobs, a South African national.
The police detained five South Africans, three British nationals and an Indian national on July 11 in accordance with China’s criminal law which stipulates punishment for “allegedly organizing, leading or joining terrorist groups.”
All the detainees admitted to their illegal acts and repented.”
The whole incident raises a lot of questionable issues.
First, the fact the authorities arrested these people on watching a video in their hotel room meant the tourists were being spied upon, which is a disturbing case.

Second, the fact these tourists were arrested for basically watching a video shows people from other countries can be arrested for the flimsiest of reasons in China.

Third, the Chinese authorities never clarified exactly what the tourists had done. If the tourists had been watching “clips advocating terrorism,” which is very vague, the authorities should have specified what clips were being watched and should have said that at the start rather than vague claims about terrorist links.

Fourth, during this entire time, the case, which seemed like a major diplomatic incident, attracted little attention from the international media and the governments of the countries involved. Neither the UK or the South African government spoke out about this. It’s strange when you consider one country arrested 20 tourists, most of whom were seniors, suddenly and held them for days, all the time without specifying details or legitimate reasons. Of course, all the tourists were allowed to leave and the lack of official criticism and media attention probably helped, but it’s absurd that a country can be allowed to get away with such flippant abuse of foreigners.

I wonder if this is the end of it or will it have repercussions in future.

Random links – Cambodia, Cape Town, Game of Thrones

I’m in the midst of a three-day “weekend”, given due to today’s holiday which is dedicated to workers – Labor Day. However, I’m not in a very celebratory mood because right after the “weekend” ends, I get to look forward to a 6-day work week. It’s not too bad, though I’d prefer it if the order was reversed. It’s also an example of the wacky work rescheduling in China (and Taiwan) for holidays, that happens due to the need to make up days. For instance, we only worked three days this past week, but in return we have to work one more day next week, which actually meant we got one extra holiday.

Anyways, another reason I’m not in a festive mood is because on Tuesday I got hit by a car (my first time ever). I got struck by a taxi making a right turn while I was at the side of a road. It wasn’t too serious so I didn’t make a big deal out of it but the aftermath concerning the taxi driver and one of his colleagues left a bad impression on me, which I’ll probably describe in a future post soon.

For now, let me just introduce a few links.

My last travel post was about Cambodia, so it’s fitting I’m turning back to that country. Cambodia has its own version of kickboxing, Kun Khmer, just like how Thailand has its Muay Thai, but sadly this legacy was almost destroyed during Pol Pot’s genocidal reign. This VICE Fightland story takes a look at a new Cambodian mixed martial arts (MMA) outfit that is already competing in Asia after having outgrown the local scene.

South Africa’s Cape Town is a cool city and it’s this year’s “World Design Capital.” I visited in 2010 and it is the most beautiful city I’ve been to, with Table Mountain looming right above and its attractive colonial buildings and harborfront. Unfortunately it’s also possibly the most divided city I’ve been too, and the inequality is still there and strong. Basically, the more well-off and white residents live within the city, while the poor live in huge township slums on the outskirts, which are a completely different world. Khayelitsha, one of the more well-known townships, has over 400,000. Conditions in the townships are rough and dangerous, and attempts to improve local infrastructure often doesn’t help and instead exacerbates the poverty and alienation of the people from the city. Back in 2010, I went on a township tour and the guide, a black South African, said some harsh things about Cape Town, such as that it is a pretty city, but it is not for black people, a blunt remark about how few blacks lived inside Cape Town. My airport driver, a white local, pointed out new homes in the townships while driving past them on the highway, and said how those were attempts by the ANC, the ruling party, to move more blacks into the region. I wrote a piece about slum tourism that year that covers a lot of what I saw in Cape Town, including that township tour.

Game of Thrones is one of the baddest TV shows out now, and along with many other people, I watch it regularly. Among its strong points are its impressive sets and beautiful landscapes, which are shot on location in Morocco, Malta, Croatia and Iceland. Yet it’s Northern Ireland that provides the backdrop for much of the show, and I confess I was ignorant about how attractive it is. A lot of those ancient cities and formidable castles and fantastic scenery in the show really do exist. I’d never thought of visiting those countries, except Morocco, but if I ever do, I’d definitely like to visit the places where the GoT scenes are shot.

Random links- football features and Kenyan NGO comedy

I’m a bit late to it, but here’s a series of feature stories about football worldwide, done as a leadup to this year’s upcoming World Cup in June. The one about the South African football magnate/ Robin Hood is an interesting piece that starts with a straightforward success story of a football club before delving the ambiguous and delicate social situation in that country. The site, Roads & Kingdoms, is a very interesting one that combines journalism and travel, the sort of thing I’d like to do if I had the ability.

Meanwhile, this TV series seems interesting- a Kenyan “mockumentary” comedy about a corrupt, inept NGO. The country, and sub-Saharan Africa, has more than its fair share of these kinds of organizations, as well as good ones too.

Beijing blues- the saga of the “psycho” rental agent; and South Africa’s funeral farce

The weekend is supposed to be a time for relaxation and joy, but so far it has been the complete opposite, full of anxiety and concern.

This is because of the latest threats from my apartment agent in which he wants me to meet his demand or else pay over 5,000RMB. I say latest, because this is part of an ongoing drama stemming from when I moved in, having taken over from the previous tenant whose lease still had a month. Unbeknowst to me, the agent hadn’t been informed I was actually moving in so when I called him, saying I was the new tenant, he literally blew a gasket and ordered me to go to his office right away. When we actually met in person, among the agent’s first words to me was to threaten to kick me out of my home. “Who said you could move in? Who let you live there? Get the hell out! Where you going to go?”
Eventually we settled on a new lease, in which he raised the rent by a substantial amount, and I also had to pay him an extra fee for the time remaining on the previous tenant’s lease (which she had already paid the agency for, and which I had paid her). The agent wants some sign of a deal between me and the previous tenant, which was private and doesn’t concern him, and he gave me an ultimatum by next Tuesday to cough it up, even if it’s a handwritten scribble. Otherwise he’ll (A) make me pay up 5,000 for that time I spent on the previous tenant’s lease, (B) call the police and (C) notify the authorities. Such a prolific guy he is, he combined several threats within one main threat. I believe the latest drama from him is because of a dispute he has with the previous tenant over her deposit which he still has. Way back in October, after he got over his pique and let me sign a new lease, he talked to her and said she’d get her deposit back. Since then, he’s apparently reneged and finally has drawn up this subleasing accusation. Which has some validity to it (I wasn’t aware of it), but given he made me pay an extra fee and let me sign a new lease for an increased rent, he benefited from it. In addition, the fact I moved in while the previous tenant’s lease was ending made it easy for him since it meant continuous rental revenue and no need for him to go search for a new tenant.

This is a lesson about life and society here, and one that’s shaken me a bit. The guy is a bit of thug, a tall, lanky guy who always look as if he’s sizing you up, his agency is a small one, and I don’t rule out the possibility of him showing up to demand money from me or calling people to get physical on me. Regarding this issue, I’ve had two different people, both local Chinese, tell me not to be too trusting or honest about dealing with people. As one said, you might be honest but you think the other person will be the same and admit if he’s wrong?

Coincidentally I was going to write an article for my paper about settling in to Beijing with the headline being what the agent said to me. My point was going to be that despite Beijing having a rough reputation, it wasn’t so bad. Given the new threats from my agent and that I might be forced to leave my current place without my deposit, I’m not so sure right now.

Aside from my rental agent problem, I was shocked, amused and then angered by the news about the fake interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. What happened is this guy who was supposed to be doing the sign language interpretation for all the speakers at the funeral, including Barack Obama, was faking it the whole time and making gibberish gestures. Understandably South Africa and the ruling ANC government have been embarrassed, as they should be (one official even claimed the interpreter was overwhelmed by the English because he’s a Zulu speaker!). Usually such a farcical incident would be really funny, which I initially thought, but taking the broad view, it’s a shame that the funeral of such a famous and influential icon is being tainted by this BS. That very “interpreter” had the nerve to claim he is schizophrenic and had a schizophrenic incident as he was signing at the funeral, accounting for his meaningless and ridiculous gestures. Obama also had his own incident at the funeral, where he was pictured having a “selfie” taken with the British and Danish prime ministers, the latter of whom Obama also appeared to be very happy with as they sat next to each other. Usually I’d be disgusted by the taking of a selfie at a funeral, especially when the people have big smiles as if they were hanging out at some restaurant or mall, but the circumstances kind of mitigate that. The local culture in SA concerning funerals means there’s singing and dancing which means it’s not only about being solemn and shedding tears.