After hours with a public-health communications specialist... The expat life, like you always imagined:
night after night in the glow of a laptop, wrestling with Communication for Development and local media culture
WINDHOEK. How did I ever think I’d get this done in two days? Here’sthe completed draft of the sketch I posted on Thursday, for the poster that’s supposed to accompany the comic book. I did the whole thing in Photoshop (for the illustration), InDesign (for the text boxes) and Illustrator (for the title art), with the drawing tablet I picked up on my way down to Namibia: a Wacom Intuos5, basically the low-end starter kit, since I’ve never really worked with a stylus before. Serious crash course. I spent the whole time fantasizing about the new Surface Pro that the Penny Arcade guys reviewed a few weeks ago (it lets you draw directly on the screen, where your art appears? there’s zero lag? mrrrgle).
To speed up on the interior pages of the comic, I’m going to have to drop a few of my time-sinks: No separate inking of the initial pencils, just darken em up and colour em in. No colour shading of any kind - just solid fills all the way. I’m happy enough with how the colours turned out, but I’m no kind of colour expert, and the characters don’t all pop out enough at a glance. (Do you have ideas? My first drafts started out much more monochromatic purple, actually - because I’m impressionable and I’ve been digging so hard on the art in David Aja’s new Hawkeye series. MRRRGHH.)
Technical notes: Over. Next up: Back to the kids’ stories, with sketches for the first interior pages.
WINDHOEK. Way back on September 1 I mentioned I was writing a proposal to do a comic with kids at the children’s homes here. I got the deal, so for the past month I’ve been working on characters and storylines at the government orphanage in Windhoek. Here’s the first sketch – now all I have to do is finish this and put together a full comic by the end of the month. I figure it’ll help me stay on track if I post my progress here every few days. Now you know what’s coming.
The Namibian government wanted a comic to teach kids at residential facilities about the standards their homes should follow: how many caregivers per kid, how many kids per room, what sort of food, that sort of thing. I guessed it would be more fun if some of the teens and I came up with a story where their characters get lost in some dangerous place and have to figure out how to run a good home themselves. Make them the heroes. They decided to shipwreck themselves on an island on their way to Antarctica: Good start, nice emotional metaphor for landing at an orphanage, and not what I was expecting in this desert country.
Future posts will introduce the characters in more detail: It really pleased me when the kids put some bad guys on the island to make the main characters’ lives more miserable (the “Boom Bang” twins at the far right in the picture), as well as a good guy who would help them out (the Zulu chief, “Hapsetsut,” at the far left - just about the best stand-in for a social worker I can imagine).
Also, Lee, the little gangster in the ball cap, is a thief who apparently killed the parents of Planet 51, the big military guy who’s still sketchy at the top of the crowd. I asked the boys who were writing them, “Are you sure he’s the guy who killed your parents? Maybe he’s just a random thief, and you don’t like him because another thief killed your parents?”
“No, he’s the one.”
“How’s your character going to react? You must hate this guy.”
“I’m going to kill him!”
The guy drawing the thief thought this was hilarious, and the guy drawing the soldier sweetly also wants to write the Zulu chief. He also suggested the name “Modern Heroes” for the group. It’s going to be an interesting desert island.
WINDHOEK. Sex and the single international development worker: two things that should go together hand in glove. Partly because we’re walking billboards for a better life wherever we show up, but partly, too, because when you take what we’re working for and strip it down, it looks like it’s all specifically about better sex, for every last person on earth. (Zero HIV would equal better sex, hands down. Ending oppression and violence against women? Better sex for everyone. Nutrition, universal education, democracy – sex, sex, sex, stronger, smarter and, um, more empowered.)
In my experience, though, sex is the last thing you’re supposed to associate with career development workers. (I’m writing as a man here, obviously – it would be interesting to hear women weigh in about their experiences too.) The point is to come across scientific and squeaky-clean, and somehow this translates to keeping ourselves more or less gated off from the countries we land in, serving up dadsy/momsy jokes at our office meetings, generally killing conversation at the back of the room by implying everyone should give up their vices. Then, we move on and do it all over someplace else. If you take it to heart, you end up lonely as hell.
November 11, 2012, 12:24 p.m. My phone buzzes. It’s Sean, another NGO worker, messaging me:
DAR ES SALAAM. 2013, and back to business: three days in January at a Tanzanian Hilton, training to write better pitches for scoring megabucks to help the poor. Maybe some of my megabucks pitches will actually come through this year. On January 18 during morning tea break, I jogged up to my room – keycard locks and digital safe, air con, extra bed, bidet – to take a quick shot of the view outside. I opened the curtains onto our corner of paradise, and this guy was there, hanging onto the railings three stories up. No eye contact, no hello. Who knew if he even spoke English. I left.
As I waited for the elevator, I thought how I’d wasted years of my life by not asking people about themselves. I spent my early 20s trying to write a graphic novel in Brazil, but I ended up binning it – it never seemed solid, because I never moved out to the little town where it was set, to get to know people full-time. In Vietnam after I turned 30, I wanted to do a children’s book about a sasquatch getting chased on motorbike by Hanoi’s vicious night police. Rad, but I never had the balls to talk to anyone who knew the night police, either.
I doubled back to my room, stuck my head out the window and introduced myself to the man. “What’s your name?”
“Mr. Lucas! Do people ever fall? Is it safe?”
He eyed me. He laughed. “I’m just painting here. And you’re in there in your cave.”
I loved that. 2013, and maybe it’s time to get out of my cave.
WINDHOEK. The day after I posted the title that I’d mocked up to advocate passing Namibia’s new Child Care and Protection Bill, I got this message on Facebook from Ben Reed, an old, whip-smart high-school friend I’d barely heard from in years, and is now the cowboy-hatted Horse Director at a camp near Banff, Alberta, a world away from southern Africa: “Sorry to take this in a completely different direction, but that title kind of makes me feel guilty. So whether intended or not, is guilt the best motivator for change? I dunno, just stirring the pot.”
On the left is the title and opening blurb as I’d originally imagined them. On the right is the new, more-positive version we ended up sending to our partners in government this week, after Ben got me rethinking my initial combative instincts. Everyone liked the positive spin better. Thanks, man.
My boss got right into it too, and she’s behind several other suggestions in the new version: the point-form statistics introduced with a personal appeal to the readers, and the barred circles to signal loud and clear what we we’re against. We were excited to hear back from our partners.
The politics behind these laws are always complicated, though.
WINDHOEK. A few weeks after I got to Namibia I posted on Facebook that I’d eaten a zebra, but when my friends clicked the link - no zebra. That was bad of me. I aim to make up for it with this post.
That’s me up top, fixing to stuff a whole zebra steak into my face while hanging with a table of Persian Bahá’ís last month (Persian Bahá’ís are absolutely everywhere, including Joe’s Beerhouse in Windhoek). Namibia is very much a fan of taking free, majestic animals - kudu! oryx! - and turning them into barbecue. Or record-breaking amounts of biltong (not to be confused with jerky). Special thanks to the harried-but-charismatic kitchen staff for humouring me with those “before” photos of the zebra too.
Namibian politics actually boasts nothing less than a whole zebra system, which has zero to do with zebras, and much more to do with the “quota fever“ that has been pushing equal gender representation in governments around the world for the last few decades.
angola elections 2012, post 17 | mpla wins big, gives new meaning to “free and fair elections”
When I came to Namibia for a short job this year, I got excited by the presidential election next door in Angola on August 31 - its first in 20 years, after the last ones came apart in civil war. This weekly series presents my English translation of Portuguese articles and documents related to the campaign.
My big, final take on the election: The photo that President Dos Santos plastered the whole country with - which earned some scoffs (Portuguese) over how much older he looks in real life - makes him look like a 10-year-old with grey hair and red lipstick. I cannot get over it.
They must know something I don’t, though: His MPLA is claiming 72 percent of the vote (Portuguese). That’s down from 82 percent in 2008, but still more than the 60 to 65 percent that the party’s Brazilian advisors reportedly said would look believable. UNITA stayed in, upping its share of the vote from 10 percent to 19 percent, and upstart CASA-CE took six percent. This should translate into another absolute majority of 174 seats (Portuguese) for the MPLA (down a bit from 191), while UNITA should get 32 (from 16) and CASA-CE seven.
In that first link up there with the photo, Louise Redvers gives a good rundown of where things stand now. The few observers allowed into Angola, from the Southern African Development Community, African Union and Community of Portuguese Language Speaking Countries, called the vote itself free and fair, but the opposition is still preparing legal challenges against everything that actually led up to the ballots being cast.
The Economist Intelligence Unit reports that 40% of Angolans abstained from voting, because of apathy and the last-minute voters’ lists that required many people to vote “hundreds of kilometres from their home.” The activist rappers at Central 7311, who’ve been running the informal watchdog site I described last week, have been digging deeper: Electoral rolls are being found unused in the trash (Portuguese), instead of where they were supposed to be at polling stations, where thousands of people were denied the vote because their names weren’t posted. And in the article (Portuguese) that I’m translating this week, the activists do some pretty sweet number-crunching on absentions in the capital, Luanda, and discover disturbing patterns. When Deutsche Welle talked with the group yesterday (Portuguese), Carbono Casimiro (the owner of the house where protesters were attacked back in May) put a brave face on the regime’s landslide win: “We’ll continue our work. I don’t think any of us are frustrated, just the opposite … We want the movement to reach all the youth. We want there to be critically minded youths in all of Angola.” Their muckraking on the Luanda results after the jump:
WINDHOEK. This Guinness commercial came on the little screen on my treadmill at the gym the other night - it’s how I get my local pop culture these days, apparently. In a minute and a half, it gives a emotional master class on the relationship between African cities and countryside - it’s set in Nigeria but apparently works for Namibian markets too - and what people see as a real man in these changing societies. For my money, the whole thing does a better, more nuanced job of selling what African promise feels like than yesterday’s Coke ad did.
The spot, called “The Ticket,” seems to have struck a chord with Nigerians too, and its local actors and local-language versions haven’t hurt. The Nigerian Guardiangushed: “With the success story of The Ticket, there are indications that the era of shooting TV commercials meant for Nigerian market abroad will soon become a thing of the past.” The irony is that Guinness shelled out for a South African agency, which hired an Italian director at a U.K. production company, plus London-based effects people ”to help enhance the appearance of bustling city setting, removing modern elements from scenes, and adding refined smoke effects” - making the shots more African than Africa.
One of the first things this ad made me think was how commercials often simply have the motivation and depth of pockets to place their finger on the zeitgeist in the most focused, concentrated way possible. The Onion A.V. Club made the same ambivalent point about U.S. Olympic coverage last month: “What is really unfortunate is that NBC is failing in its video content where commercials are succeeding with … embarrassingly moving mini documentaries.” And hell, with some ads, I’m moved and I’m not even embarrassed.
WINDHOEK. On August 26 my guesthouse shut down, and the manager hauled everyone to a new property off on the far end of town. No more more walks to work, evidently. I’ve landed in a place that looks like Club Med, but at the same chintzy price as I was paying before, because life is hard. When I took the upper picture from my front porch today, birds were singing everywhere, and the garden left my hands scented like sage. Everything here is just kind of - lovely.
The lower picture is me on my new eight-kilometre commute, riding the secondhand bike I scrounged up, and that Coca Cola billboard is part of the new scenery I get to ponder each day. It’s part of a continental campaign that raised a lot of debate when it came out last April. The TV spot pits the feel-good promise of Africa’s current boom years - the middle class here is the fastest-growing in the world - against the mess everywhere else, and of course places Coca Cola firmly on Africa’s side:
The last line is what got to most people: ”While the world worries about the future… 1 Billion Africans are sharing a Coke.” So Coca Cola is poo-pooing Africa’s problems, or it just thinks Africans are dumb enough to care more about soda pop?
WINDHOEK. My last chart for the orphanage report I started writing about back on August 3, showing how the facilities we helped regulate represent just a small - and shrinking - fraction of the child services that the government has its hand in here. In that earlier post I wondered whether it’s an issue that Namibia has virtually no orphanages in areas with the most orphans, but since then I’ve spoken to officials who’ve said they have no intention of opening more. Their strategy is to fund better family-based foster care for everyone who needs it, and you can see the dramatic results of that campaign above. A deputy director told me I should add in adoption figures for comparison, because they’re starting to promote that too, even though it’s not nearly as much part of the tradition here. She called it a human rights issue: Adoption is better at making sure the kid has a stable identity and proper care.
I like my mile-high overviews like these, but I also realize they don’t give any idea of what the kids themselves are like down in the thick of things - which is the whole reason we should care. I haven’t been able to visit any of the homes yet, but once I wrap up this report and the advocacy piece I’m doing, I get to put together a proposal for a comic that the ministry is asking me to do with the children. More on that when the time comes.