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Marshalling the Real: War and Simulation

10 Jan

This post was originally given as a talk at the Urbanomic event Simulation, Exercise, Operations held in Oxford on the 11th July 2012. Thanks to Robin Mackay for the transcription of the talk that served as a basis for the present version.


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Upon reflecting on the meaning of simulation and the role it occupies in war, it strikes me that it is possible to distinguish between two distinct, if perhaps complementary, significations. There is a first signification which refers back to an older understanding of simulation and is a more etymologically faithful meaning of simulation in terms of deception, in terms of pretence, illusion, and false appearance that refers us back to the classical idea of the simulacrum as formulated by Plato. This conception of simulation invokes the notion of surface resemblance – a simulation is something that appears to be what in fact it is not. The history of the visual arts naturally provides us with numerous examples of such simulations, among others through the styles of trompe l’oeil and photorealism. Simulation here references the idea of a surface representation which may present a superficial resemblance to its object but which possesses no ontological depth.  In the military context, this kind of simulation corresponds to the decoy, for example the inflatable tanks of the Second World War that may resemble tanks from a distance but which beyond that do not capture anything about what a tank actually is and how it works. Related to this is the correlated notion of dissimulation where the exercise is there not so much the representation of something that is not but the concealing of something that is, camouflage being here the obvious military referent.

inflatable tanks

Notwithstanding the significance of such practices, there is also a more contemporary meaning of simulation that will be the main object of the present post. This is a conception that is tied into the history of computing, although it does predate it, and which suggests the imitation of processes, situations and systems through the modelling of the internal characteristics and dynamics of that system and the formalisation of the constituent variables. With it comes a claim – not a claim, obviously, that we should take uncritically – to capturing some depth to whatever is being simulated, rather than simply its surface. In fact, the simulated representation might not be verisimilar and replicate our immediate phenomenological perception; it might for example merely take the form of data points on a computer printout. One common definition of a simulation that is used by computer modellers is that of “an experiment performed on a model” and indeed the concept of the model is key here because this is what distinguishes the first sense of the simulation from the second. Implicit in this second understanding of simulation is the notion of a model as a set of interrelated propositions that purport to capture the internal dynamics and behaviour of a given system. Assumptions are made about the system and mathematical algorithms and relationships are derived to describe these assumptions. These together constitute a model that purports to reveal how the system works, the operation of which can then be tested through simulation exercises with the purpose of such experiments being to better apprehend the patterns of behaviour of the system and eventually evaluate optimal conditions and variable settings for the operation of the system.

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Obama’s Ohio Report

8 Nov

My Ohioans did it again.  In every election since 1964 (and almost every time since 1904), the winner of this state ended up taking the presidency – hence the clichés “America’s bellwether” and “as Ohio goes, so goes America”.  Having spent six years of my life studying politics at The Ohio State University not so long ago, I can’t help but identify and sympathize with Buckeye voters, a group of people that every four years gets to decide the fate of the U.S. and, some might add, the world. This is a heavy burden for many reasons, including being exposed to the fanfare of presidential candidate fly-ins (82 of them this time), thousands of attack-counterattack TV ads (that typically target only “undecideds” and/or “independents”), as well as dozens of phone calls and door knocks reminding you to get out and vote for the right person (in the final week of the 2008 campaign, Team Obama said it knocked on a million Ohio doors per day).

The phrase “key battleground state” that every news outlet likes to attach to Ohio refers to its electoral-college vote clout (the 2010 Census reapportionment gives it 18 votes until 2020) as well as its recent record in presidential elections, which is marked by small margin-of-victory numbers (4.6 percentage points in 2008, 2 in 2004, etc.). The state has a remarkable red-blue balance overall; since 1998, the state voted for three Democratic and three Republican candidates each). Also remarkable were the results of pre-election state polling in October, which showed a tied (or at least tightening) race between President Barack Obama and his GOP challenger Mitt Romney (see, for example, the discussion of the RCP poll of polls from 30 October).

To be sure, electoral pathologists – those friends of yours obsessing about assorted ‘paths to presidency’ – had probably explained to you that each candidate could have won an electoral majority without Ohio (e.g. Obama would have had to grab one or two bigger states considered tossups plus all reliably blue states, and Romney would have had to hold onto all normally red states while pulling off multiple upsets elsewhere). This type of electoral math is both fun and fantastic, but reason tends to swiftly restore the status quo ante: it’s all about “Ohio, Ohio, Ohio!

Tuesday’s drama ended right after 11 pm Eastern Time, when the news organizations called Ohio for Obama; less than two hours later, Romney conceded the race.  To examine this outcome, let us begin with two issues identified by the media as key to this election: the auto and coal industries, and the thousands of jobs each of them provides to the state. (Compare, The Globe and Mail’s Ohio postcard of 25 October or The Economist of 27 October to the endorsement editorials in The Columbus Dispatch [Romney], The Cincinnati Enquirer [Romney], The Plain Dealer [Obama], or my favourite OH newspaper, The Blade [Obama]). In a nutshell, while some Ohioans liked what the president did with the former (that 2009 bailout of GM and Chrysler helped the manufacturing sector in the northern part of the state), others hated what he did with the latter. (Being viewed as too green on energy was expected to hobble Obama’s re-election chances in the coal-mining counties of the Appalachian part of the state).

Whatever the explanatory merits of simple storylines like these, unofficial returns bear this one out. The website of Ohio Secretary of State’s office has Obama winning by about 2 percentage points, which is lower than in 2008. The president indeed carried the populous Cuyahoga County (centered on Cleveland) plus a string of smaller counties in the northeast by sufficiently large margins, while Romney won large parts of the coal country.  What went on elsewhere in the state was more important, however. Though Romney ran strong in most traditionally Republican rural areas, he severely underperformed in the remaining half dozen big urban counties, which account for almost 40% of the statewide vote. Even Hamilton County (Cincinnati), historically a GOP bastion, went to Obama by about 20,000 votes again. (For the county-by-county comparisons over time, see Rich Exner’s page at The Plain Dealer; U.S. politics junkies might also consult a map of the 2008 precinct-by-precinct results provided by Stanford’s Spatial Social Science Lab).

Demographically, Obama probably carried the state in the same manner as he did four years ago.  How many Ohioans voted will not be known until late-arriving absentee ballots and provisional ballots are counted, but the turnout (about 68%) can safely be described as well above average. This surely helped the president: by getting its base to register and ballot (including via early in-person voting), the Obama campaign succeeded in maximizing Ohio’s Democratic potential once again (against a stream of ‘voter fraud’ legislation targeting qualified minority voters). What exit polls seem to be suggesting is that the president bested his challenger among female, young, college-educated as well as minority voters.  And what of Ohio’s white working class males (those without a university degree), who sit at the center of any “annoying, all-purpose pet theory” of U.S. presidential elections? Here, it appears that the president succeeded in avoiding a large margin of defeat, and it will be interesting to see why. The success in capitalizing on Romney’s casino capitalism sounds like a plausible hypothesis (and a nice extension of the auto bail-out storyline); but let’s recall that in 2008 Obama won 56% of votes from union households, which was lower than the national average.

What about the role played by ‘non-fundamentals’, specifically Obama’s race? Estimating this particular effect is challenging at any level of analysis, but both survey-based and non-survey-based studies have suggested that in 2008 Obama lost about 5 percentage points of the national popular vote due to racial intolerance on the part of some voters. A meaningful decline in this number would be my candidate for a feel-good story of the 2012 election.


Note: Cross-posted at the CIPS Blog, and meant to be read in conjunction with “Pre-Election Facebook Rants, #652

The Cursory Pedant: War Rape, the Human Security Report and the Calculation of Violence

24 Oct

“Cursory and pedantic”. So says IntLawGrrls’ Fionnuala Ní Aoláin of the just released Human Security Report 2012 (hereafter HSR). You may recall the team behind the HSR from their last intervention, which upset the applecart over the estimate of 5.4 million excess deaths in Congo (DRC) since 1998 and which also claimed a six decade decline in global organised violence. The target this time round is a series of putative myths about wartime sexual violence (those myths being: that extreme sexual violence is the norm in conflict; that sexual violence in conflict is increasing; that strategic rape is the most common – and growing – form of sexual violence in conflict; that domestic sexual violence isn’t an issue; and that only males perpetrate rape and only females are raped), each of which the authors claim to overturn through a more rigorous approach to available evidence. Along the way an account is also given of the source of such myths, which is said to be NGO and international agency funding needs, which lead them to highlight the worst cases and so to perpetuate a commonsense view of war rape that is “both partial and misleading”.

Megan MacKenzie isn’t impressed either, especially by HSR’s take on those who currently study sexual violence:

[HSR's view is] insulting because it assumes that those who work on sexual violence – like me – those who have sat in a room of women, where over 75% of the women have experienced rape – as I have – listening to story after story of rape, forced marriage, and raising children born as a result of rape, it assumes that we are thinking about what would make the best headline, not what are the facts, and not what would help the survivors of sexual violence.

Laura Shepherd (who like Ní Aoláin and Megan has written at some length on these issues) took a slightly different approach: “It makes not one jot of difference whether rates of [incidents of conflict-related sexual violence] are increasing, decreasing or holding entirely steady: as long as there are still incidents of war rape then the issue demands serious scholarly attention rather than soundbites”. Activists are concerned less by what the report says than by how it will be interpreted and the effects this will have on victims and survivors of rape (the danger, in Megan’s words, that “painting rape as random is another means to detach it from politics”). By contrast, Laura Seay (who has previously addressed similar issues in relation to Congo) is very supportive: “it’s hard to find grounds on which to dispute most of these claims. The evidence is solid”. Andrew Mack (who directs the HSR) similarly replied that the data supports HSR’s claims and that, despite criticisms, it had been checked rigorously.

So what is going on here?

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A Foolish Discipline?

1 Oct

This is the third post in a symposium on John M. Hobson’s new book, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. The series began with a post by the author summarising the argument of the book, followed by Meera’s response. In the next few weeks, we will have a posts from Brett Bowden, followed by a reply from John.

Update: Brett’s response is now up.


Interest in the history of International Theory has grown, but the academic study of its origins has received relatively little attention to date.  The reasons are multiple: the complexity of the subject, a powerful commonplace view that ‘disciplinary history’ equates scholasticism and navel-gazing, and, I would hasten to add, a collective unwillingness to deal with racism that often pops up in the writings of mythicized fathers of international theory.  John M. Hobson is not hindered by any of these obstacles.  What he does in The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics is tell a story that begins in 1760 and ends in 2010, assessing hundreds of international theorists past and present, from Adam Smith to Anne-Marie Slaughter.

This wide-ranging, authoritative book is a continuation of the author’s previous achievement of note, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. There, Hobson argued, echoing Edward Said, that nineteenth century European imperialism was symbiotic with Europe’s “racist identity.”  This symbiosis has had many implications, but none as big as this: “had racism not existed and had the West viewed the Eastern peoples as equal human beings, imperialism might never have occurred” (2004: 241).  This meta-point is now revisited in a major way:

international theory is to this book what Western literature is to Edward Said’s Orientalism….given Said’s claim that Eurocentrism has a clear link with international politics – in this case imperialism – then international theory should logically constitute the ultimate litmus test for revealing this discourse in Western academic thought (p.2; all subsequent in-text references are to this book, unless otherwise indicated). Continue reading

Navigating Neoliberalism: Political Aesthetics in an Age of Crisis

11 Sep

For those who are interested, here’s a copy of the talk I gave last weekend on the technological sublime, machine perception, and cybernetic economies. Held in the beautiful Treignac area at The Matter of Contradiction: Ungrounding the Object event, it was a lot of fun and filled with some fascinating discussions. Many thanks to the Treignac Projet for inviting me and organizing the event. Check out more of their work here.

How Many Buddhists Are There in Northern Ireland?

9 Aug

Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening extravaganza was many things, but one thing it was not was a history lesson. If you were looking for any acknowledgement of the place of empire in the British national narrative, you would have had to concentrate quite ferociously during the hauntingly beautiful Abide With Me section, sung by Emeli Sandé, to see Akram Khan’s dance troupe mime the whipping of slaves (1:21:04 into the BBC’s coverage of the event). It’s possible that I simply imagined this because I was looking so hard. Anachronistically, moments before, Empire Windrush had arrived on stage, without context, like a Caribbean cruise ship blown off course (Columbus revenge). Two moments that you would have missed if you’d blinked, leaving you mystified about how the opening ceremony, Team GB, and indeed Britain itself had become such a multiracial spectacle.

In the reams of mostly laudatory commentary that has followed the ceremony, some have suggested that it might not have been appropriate to stage imperial conquest and plunder on an occasion that was meant to welcome the world to London. The insinuation that opening ceremonies should be mind-numbingly ‘fun’ is belied precisely by what made this one meaningful. Boyle deserves credit for trying to do history—any history at all, however potted—and indeed what makes his exclusions telling and problematic was precisely the emotional depth and maturity with which he was able to stage historical trauma (the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars, 7/7) and individual vulnerability (children in hospital, the references to children’s literature evoking the darkness of growing up) without detracting from the spirit of celebration. Yet some traumas are clearly easier to commemorate, some dead easier to remember, than others. Boyle’s history was curiously blinkered, resolutely domestic, almost wilfully blind to anything that happened outside this ‘green and pleasant land’. (An alternative potted history entitled ‘How to Keep Your Land Green and Pleasant’ might read ‘Step 1: export surplus population, preferably of the lower orders, preferably to places quite far away; Step 2: export dirty industries; Step 3: repeat step 2 for as long as you are able to.) The problem may have begun with the title—Isles of Wonder—that foreshadowed the geographically circumscribed view of history with which we were presented. Indeed the extraordinary, infuriating and continuing dilemma of British identity is that only the cultural right does geographical justice to Britain’s role in forging the modern world, albeit in registers of racism and supremacism. If Boyle’s historical imagination is anything to go by, the left, it would seem, prefers amnesia.

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The Anglosphere, Part Two: Of Liberal Leviathans and Global Turns

31 May

Viewed from the perspective of liberal IR, Britain’s globe-spanning empire can be described as “Liberal Internationalism 1.0.” According to G. John Ikenberry, the “liberal ascendancy” had everything to do with the “growth and sheer geopolitical heft of the world’s liberal democracies.” The British may have been the first to harmonize national interest with the stability, openness and rule-following in the international systems, but it was the Americans who “fused” them. “If the liberal order was built after World War II primarily within the West, the end of the Cold War turned that order into a sprawling global system” [1].

The question that has always fascinated me is how we got from Liberal Internationalism 1.0 to Liberal Internationalism 2.0, or how, to freely borrow from Ikenberry, power shifted between two liberal Leviathans, Britain and the U.S. What is puzzling here is the absence of the Wars of Anglophone Succession. Instead of fighting each other at least once or twice, the two empires first found ways to cooperate and coordinate their imperial activities around the globe, then engaged in what can be described as a pacted transition, even as a corporate merger. Here’s one verdict, taken from “The imperialism of decolonizationpiece by Wm Roger Louis and Ronald Robinson:

The British were welcoming the Americans back into the British family of nations and, informally at least, into the Commonwealth . . . [the post-war empire operated] as part of the Anglo- American coalition . . . like a multinational company.

Putting aside the historiography debates about its scope, timing and sequencing, this historical process was no doubt of momentous importance for the evolution of the liberal order, both in terms of the accumulation of hegemonic power, and in terms of social and institutional learning. The Anglosphere, in other words, begins here. So how do we explain it? Strategic calculus and/or a putatively liberal predilection for cooperation, compromise, and conciliation (last word Churchill’s) are only parts of this story, as Charles Kupchan notes in his How Enemies Become Friends:

British appeasement of the United States and the practice of reciprocal restraint that followed cleared the way for rapprochement. But it was the emergence of a new discourse on both sides of the Atlantic – one that propagated notions such as a “shared Anglo-Saxon race” and an “Anglo-American family” – that produced a compatible identity, consolidated stable peace, and laid the foundations for the strategic partnership that exists to this day.

I could not agree more. Racialized identities operate as social structures of power, and this was a time when they explicitly authorized unity and superiority for Us against Them in ways that had profound consequences for the evolution of the so-called liberal international order. Anglo-Saxonism enabled the U.S. and Britain – or their elites – not only to position themselves favourably vis-à-vis each other at the turn of the twentieth century, but also with respect to the rest of the world and in a longer term. The Anglo-American rapprochement was no “global turn” of the sort that Kupchan talks about in his latest book, but it arguably comes close to it in macro-historical term. For one, the paths, pace and outcomes of the 1945-1951 international institution-building spree – that foundation of Liberal Internationalism 2.0 –followed the patterns of UK-U.S. cooperation first established during the colonial wars and near-wars in the 1890s. The much-disclaimed “special relationship” has its origins in this period – something to keep in mind next time we hear that U.S.-hugging remains in someone’s national interest, as General Sir David Richards, the head of Britain’s armed forces, argued last week.

This story I wish to tell can be expanded and contracted empirically (Anglo-Saxonism is dead today, but its effects can be found everywhere from university scholarships to contemporary military alliances) and theoretically (through, say, an account of core-periphery relations that made global capitalism possible), but the main substantive point remains the same, and that is that we cannot fully understand the “liberal ascendancy” without pausing (as Siba Grovogui might say) over the pervasiveness and power of racialized identities that connected Liberal Internationalism 1.0 and 2.0 [2]. Continue reading

The Anglosphere, Part One: What’s in a Name?

30 May

What do you get when you intersect indices that rank top two dozen nations of the world by political freedoms, GDP per capita, productivity, literacy, and patent applications in late 2000s? The answer is you get some kind of an “Anglosphere” – usually the quartet of Australia, Canada, the UK, and the U.S., but also, depending on the underlying measures and thresholds, New Zealand, Ireland, Singapore and so on.

Using data from the World Development Indicators, The Economist Intelligence Unit, and International Labour Organisation, among others sources, I’ve played this game in my research methods classes quite a bit. No methods textbook endorses such mindless empiricism, but students, from what I can tell, tend to appreciate the loose structure of the exercise. This is because the objective – familiarizing students with comparison, measurement, scaling, and so on – almost always shifts onto the “why?” questions, at which point everyone (ok, not everyone) tries to come up with his/her social scientific narrative on what makes this or that grouping “interesting,” “different,” or “special.”

Joel Kotkin, one of America’s premier demographers, and his nine collaborators have shown me how this game can be played at an infinitely more sophisticated level. Their argument – developed primarily in a collection of the Legatum Institute papers entitled “The New World Order”, but also in two shorter pieces penned by Kotkin and Shashi Parulekar at NewGeography.com and in City Journal – is that globalized economy by and large operates in and through three large “tribal groupings” or “spheres”: the Indosphere, the Sinosphere, and the Anglosphere [1]. As the authors note, their narrative can claim a formidable intellectual pedigree: “we have followed the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun’s notion that ethnic and cultural ties are more important than geographic patterns or levels of economic development.”

Kotkin et al offer no shortage of interesting and novel observations and analytical points, but one of the project’s key punchlines is in the title of the Anglosphere section in the New World Order: “We are not dead yet.” The project’s foil, in other words, is the current wave of American declinism:

The era of unipolar domination by the United States and its key allies — which dates from the fall of the Soviet Union — has come to an end. Yet despite this, the core Anglosphere remains by far the largest cohesive economic bloc in the world. Overall it accounts for more than 18 trillion dollars, one quarter of the world’s GDP, far more than any other cohesive global grouping.

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Mapping the (In)Visibility of Gender in Politics and International Relations

15 May

Do elite institutions teach the global politics of gender and sexuality on any scale or in any depth? Emma Foster, Peter Kerr, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Byrne and Linda Åhäll (all of Birmingham, at least when they did the research) have an Early View piece up at The British Journal of Politics and International Relations addressing just this question. Surveying the course content of the 16 top Politics and IR Departments in the UK (‘top’ meaning either in the top 10 in student satisfaction scores or in REF scores), they give some empirical confirmation of what many of us might have known anecdotally:

Our findings…show, in our view quite strikingly, that few political science and international relations departments offer extensive or in-depth coverage of gender and sexuality issues. As a result, many political science and international relations undergraduates merely experience a brief introduction to ‘feminism’ as their only encounter with key debates over gender inequalities and sexual identity.

Of 629 modules in IR and Politics identified across those Departments, only 9 existing full modules related to gender or sexuality (increasing to 12 if Aberystwyth’s ‘forthcoming’ courses are included). That’s 1.4%. Only an estimated 8.9% of all surveyed modules offer at least one week on feminism/gender as part of their wider sweep. The study also shows up some noteworthy cases where there is Departmental expertise but no teaching provision. Warwick and Oxford both have seven staff listing gender/feminism as a core research interest, but Warwick hosts only one gender-related module and Oxford none. Although the paper does not pursue this in great detail, the suggestion is that the relative paucity of courses is not a result of absent expertise, since the progress of feminist and gender studies has been sufficient that all Departments surveyed (with the exception of de Montfort) have staff members with a gender interest. Indeed, on the average of these 16 elite institutions, there are some 3.9 gender specialists in each one (although numbers are always, of course, shifting).

The overall picture, then, is of some progress (perhaps surprisingly limited) in getting gender (but not sexuality) included as the spectral “week on feminism”, presumably primarily in theoretical survey modules. But this vague and introductory inclusion is not supported by more concentrated work either theoretically (as in a module on different perspectives on gender) or empirically (as in an issue-by-issue survey of gender in global politics). Although Foster et al. do not map changes in Faculty composition, this appears to be happening at the same time as gender and feminist academics are increasing in strength within IR.

As is to be expected, this leaves a number of issues unaddressed. Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA: Researching Sexuality in ‘Difficult’ Contexts

24 Apr

In September 2009, Ugandan Parliamentarian David Bahati introduced a draft ‘Anti Homosexuality Bill’ that proposed enhancing existing punishments for homosexual conduct in the Ugandan Penal Code, introducing new ‘related offences’ including ‘aiding and abetting’ homosexuality, ‘conspiracy to engage’ in homosexuality, the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, or ‘failure to disclose the offence’ of homosexuality to authorities within 24 hours, and mandating the death penalty for a select class of offences categorized as ‘aggravated homosexuality’. The bill remained bottled up in parliamentary committees for the duration of the 8th Parliament, thanks in large part to a sophisticated local campaign that sought to bring international pressure to bear on the government of President Yoweri Museveni, but has since been reintroduced in the current 9th Parliament and therefore remains a live concern. In August 2010, I travelled to Uganda to interview a range of actors associated with ongoing debates over sexuality in the country. Rather than commenting on the urgent and pressing substantive concerns at issue in these debates, at an ISA panel entitled ‘Researching sexuality in difficult contexts’, I chose to reflect on some of the methodological dilemmas I encountered in the field, for which my training in international relations had left me unprepared. Emboldened by recent ISA panels on storytelling and auto-ethnography (and utterly bored by what passes for mainstream IR), these reflections take the form of excerpts from my diary (italicized), interspersed with the more censorious, academic voice that I trotted out at ISA. (I make no apology for not writing about the more ‘serious’ issues at stake—on this occasion—because it occurs to me that where sexuality is concerned, the pursuit of fun can raise deadly serious questions, making distinctions between the trivial and the serious difficult to sustain.)

Uganda, August 2010: I am here to do interviews and I spend most of my day setting them up, preparing for them, travelling to or from them, or conducting them. The rest of the time I hang out, people watch, trying to piece together a picture of how life outside heteronormativity survives in a climate that seems—on the surface at least—as inhospitable as Uganda is supposed to be. On Friday, Al (name changed, and this account provided with permission) invited me to a strip-tease. This was going to be a straight strip-tease, but one that some of the gay men went to so that they could watch the straight men getting off on watching the women strip. It sounded convoluted, but unmissable. Plus, I’d never been to a straight strip-tease, so it seemed important to plug this gaping orifice in my sexual history. We entered a dimly lit hall and took seats at the back in a group near the bar. I think I was the only brown man there. There was also one white man in the whole place, in our group. He had evidently been to the place before, and because he came with the same motivations as Al, he had been traumatized on a previous occasion by the way the women flocked to him (money?). So Al was instructed to tell the emcee (a short guy dressed in a white track suit) to make sure that the women didn’t come to our corner. The real attraction, from the point of view of the gay guys, was that the women sometimes got the straight guys to get on stage and strip. Al told the emcee to do his best to encourage this possibility. Call it Straight Guy for the Queer Eye. I was impressed by the brazenness with which Al communicated all this to the emcee. As for the show, let’s just say it took the ‘tease’ out of strip-tease. The first woman (girl? all the performers looked like they were in their 30s, but they could have been younger and prematurely aged by their work) danced to some vaguely familiar Western pop number. She was followed by another woman with bigger hips. Somebody in the group, setting himself up as my informant, tells me that she is ‘a real African woman’. She danced to Shania Twain’s ‘From this Moment On’ (a song I played to my last (and final, I think) girlfriend on the first day I met her, after a year-long correspondence). Just when Shania reached the second verse, the woman dropped her panties. None of the performers took off their bras. ‘African men aren’t interested in breasts’, my self-appointed informant intones. The next half-hour is a blur of female anatomy. So here I am, in a country that people have been calling ‘conservative’ and that American evangelist Rick Warren has decided is ripe for transformation into the world’s first ‘purpose driven’ nation, looking at more naked women in ten minutes than I have seen in ten years, to the soundtrack of my failed romantic history.

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