Of Rimbaud and Insider Information on Disasters Foretold

by Maniza Naqvi Tej

One perfect morning over several hours and cups of Tomoca macchiatos, under a clear blue sky and a sun whose warmth is like the perfect heat of a clay oven—I sit listening in at a café to the conversation at the table next to mine. Impossible not to, the short story which has engrossed me has come to an end. What better option then, but to keep the magazine open in a habit of reading and just listen instead. Two recently acquainted friends, I decipher, by way of an embassy dinner party two nights ago, sitting at the adjacent table and as Fereng as I, are arguing, or so it seems to me, about the local newspapers.

I find myself educated thus on Rimbaud and on how to read the local broadsheet and tabloids. I write here only what I have heard, from the two and not at all an opinion that I may hold myself. Far be it for me to hold such opinions for I am only here to mind my own business, and in the intervals to enjoy the mild climate and the coffee that the day has presented to me.

The scholar amongst the two, whom I have mistaken by his accent at first to be South Indian, is from Mauritius, and who, as I have understood from the conversation till this point, is on his way to Harar tomorrow, to deliver his own opinion at a local university on a paper on Arthur Rimbaud, who in this paper has been presented as the resident of Harar 1801-1807 and as the arms salesman and importer of brilles. Apparently, Arthur Rimbaud had inside information on market demand, through his friend in the palace of Emperor Menelik, the Swiss born Alfred Ilg, who was the chief advisor to the Emperor. Ilg kept Rimbaud informed about the royal household’s demands for such things as mini carafes or brilles for Tej. All this is news to me, this sunny morning, not only the poet, but also his trade. And it bears repeating, that he was the importer of arms and of the fragile long necked glass decanters from Italy called brilles, favored by the elite of Ethiopia as the vessels of choice for serving the traditional honey wine, Tej. So while other scholars would comment on his poetry, this scholar was to shed further light on the paper to be delivered there on Rimbaud the businessman in Harar, contributing to the weapons and alcohol trade. He was in the rather novel position of having to speak not of the poet’s art but rather his reasons for being in Ethiopia and his craft.

“For man cannot live by poetry alone mate!” laughs the other man at the table. “So our brille man, the poet was one of the many young and unemployed men from Europe: the soldiers of fortune who were washing up on these shores of Africa and Asia to make a killing!”

“Young, unemployed and somewhat of a deviant I’m afraid!” The scholar added.

“A no-hoper? Come now!” His friend protests, “Many a good man has been judged wrongly. Surely you are being too hard? I thought you were a scholar of his poetry! But you’re a right knocker.”

“I am indeed. Just look at the television screen behind you my friend. Isn’t that what they say in Europe for all the African young men?”

“Or Asians.”

“Yes.” The scholar points to the newspapers and asks good naturedly of his friend: “Why would you bother reading these? Not worth the paper they are written on. Dry and boring as they are! Their existence seems to be just for the habit of it, the need for there to be newspapers. I suppose if there must be states, there must be newspapers to announce their writ and decree. There must be businesses whose interests must be protected—and publically announced. If there are contracts to be enforced then there must be the existence of newspapers. That’s how they seem to me. These papers are simply memorandums of statements wrapped around procurement and legal notices!”

His luncheon companion whom at first I presume to be an academician as well or a diplomat but soon learn is in fact a businessman. Based in Dubai and of Australian extract, he is here to sell rice oil which he will import from Taiwan. The problem he is facing with his clients is “Thought it would be a piece of piss. But the bloody radiation leak has them nervous that that the rice oil might be coming in from Japan and at the moment they are nervous about importing food items from Japan after the Tsunami and the radiation leak. “Well said”, He says and repeats,”Simply memorandums–wrapped around procurement and legal notices. Good the next day for wrapping up groceries in. I suppose newspapers are first and foremost for the purpose or the need of a state to administer its writ. But here on the contrary—they are rich brew indeed if you have a taste for it of intrigue. They are anything but habit. But you yourself are about to comment on a paper which must have relied on the procurement notices and advertisements in the local papers of the time.”

“Indeed!” The scholar agrees.

“Though, mind you, I do read them from habit. I suppose.” The rice importer concedes.

The Rimbaud scholar muses: “A weekend without newspapers, any type of newspaper would be like a….a toilet without something to read. The habit of it, why even the graffiti scrawled in the back of stall door, for habit, will do.”

“Reading graffiti in the john? Considering weekends, as a john and newspapers the graffiti on its door, says much about you. But I’ll have you know that some of the most interesting and frank verse that I have ever read had been written just there. ”

“I agree! But these papers are a waste of paper! Why write if you have nothing to say?”

“But to have written is to say something? The rice oil trader offers philosophically.

“Not necessarily.” The Rimbaud scholar replies.

“Necessarily and always!” Insists, the rice oil man. “My dear man that is the genius of a newspaper—if it says nothing it says everything. And to find that everything——or rather to uncover the news in the Ethiopian papers one must read the papers cover to cover. A week’s worth of papers read like an elaborate coded message that emerges only after reading every article and every word and every notice for a job vacancy. Constrained as they are, through the arrangement of articles, and the careful deployment of compliments, the echoing and fawning over and repetition of official statements, the employment of flattery and allusions, they manage to report the big story unfolding in the country.

“You mean to say that reading these newspapers here, which seem to say nothing means guessing the news—- and connecting the dots. It is a familiar exercise to many I am sure in many parts of the world.

I nod to myself in agreement, unnoticed, for I am used to doing just this.

Asks the Rimbaudian: “And what may that big story be in these papers here now?”

“Why of course it is the big story unfolding around the world as well!”

“War? Occupation? Financial Crisis? High food prices? Tsunamis’, earthquakes, radiation leaks?”

“Yes,” Replies the rice oil dealer “Certainly it is that theme, this big story that I am talking about: war, occupation and disaster. You can say the papers here carry the tales of famines and disasters foretold.”

“Ah!” says the scholar of Rimbaud’s weapons trade, I see what you mean: “Be it, New Orleans or Baghdad, or Addis Ababa or Islamabad or Shanghai or New Delhi, the story is the same, of the same types of interest groups, sovereign funds, private equity funds, and individuals occupied in the business of the occupation of all that is lucrative and mostly of land, by displacing and relocating the present owners and residents, in the name of bringing law and order and economic growth, fortified by the help of armed security. This is the big story of the occupation over national assets, particularly land. And the story in Ethiopia is specifically farm land which is being leased and sold to foreign individuals and funds for the production of cash crops (sugar cane and flowers) and food crops (rice) primarily for exporting.”

“Yes. You see my point.” Having spent an entire Saturday morning reading a week’s worth of papers, and guessing at what is the news—The rice oil dealer now spends the afternoon repeating what he has read to the scholar of Rimbaud’s brilles. “Hundreds and thousands of hectares of farmland at $9.52 per hectare annually for the purpose of cash crops and rice for export leased by one rich investor. An 80 million birr home being built for the great revolutionary leader who currently resides in the deposed emperor’s palace.”

He laughs when he sees the scholar looking around as though, worried, checking whether anyone is listening in, a look of consternation spreads across his handsome crease lined face.

“But surely these are signs of progress, these show economic growth and prosperity. This shows that there is development under way.”

“Development?” The rice oil man asks. “You mean real estate?

“No. I mean, change for the better.”

“Development? Is that the same romantic notion of poetry and arms salesmen?”

‘You should be careful, cautions the Rimbaud scholar, “You could get into a lot of trouble talking like this! Better to stick to the price of importing rice oil!”

“Talking like how?” The rice oil dealer shrugs and asks defensively, “I’m simply telling you what I read in the newspapers. Verbatim. It’s not any secret or insider information that I’m talking to you about! It’s public information. ”

“But you are drawing conclusions that were not in the newspaper.” The scholar protests.

“I’m merely repeating the news –reading it off one after the other—I’m simply telling you the news in a sequence. It is the same as what you do, no? You will report the facts at the lecture tomorrow? The others will draw the conclusions. And as you have already acknowledged, much of the work that you will comment upon tomorrow is based on the boring and dry procurement notices, tender bids and advertisements carried in the local papers of the time. After all there lies the truth about poets!”

“Indeed!” Laughs the scholar, “But you are turning what is written in the papers into a different story. Your listing of these news items and connecting them in this way can be very dangerous! Your insinuations are not made at dead poets.” He turns to look behind him and motions a signature in the air, to the pretty young waitress, who is standing discreetly at some distance.

She nods and goes to get their bill.

“How can it be dangerous?” Asks the rice oil trader: “Its public information! I am simply stating the news in the papers.”

“But you are drawing your own conclusions from it.” The scholar insists.

“But of course I am—I am drawing conclusions based on all the other things in the world and here that I am aware of!”

“But you could be wrong!”

“Of course I could be wrong! But that’s the risk I’m taking.”

“Why take such a risk? If someone overheard you—you could be in grave trouble.”

“They would only overhear me reading the newspaper! That is all. I am simply reciting public information to you.”

“But your tone—it makes it sound like….Look we live in a world of overseers and over-hearers—and connecting the dots in this manner can be considered a threat.” The scholar almost whispers.

“Poor you! The rice oil trader says, clucking his tongue, “You’ve been living the West too long. Are you really that paranoid of surveillance and Big Brother listening in?

I laugh. They turn to look at me—I pretend to be laughing at the cartoon in the magazine that I am holding in front of me. Feeling almost comically, the part, I readjust my sunglasses and sink deeper in my wicker armchair.

“Yes. You are right, perhaps time to return home and teach over there.” Says the scholar dejectedly.

“But you are right.” The rice oil dealer quickly concedes. “We live in a world where surveying the news reading it in the context of the world around us and making it into an intelligible context is a crime.” I read the New York Times, a paper of distorted dots for people incapable of knowing the difference of connecting dots. Look here, this story, of a trial, hard to follow but you see what they refer to as insider trading—a connecting of dots has been uncovered by wiretapping. It’s frightening isn’t it? No one it seems is connecting the dots on the acquiescence to and acceptance of wire tapping. People who can make intelligent sense of public information are considered criminals. Yet listening into other peoples conversations and over hearing and monitor people who connect dots out of context is not a crime.”

“No, that is not considered a crime. It is called maintaining order—keeping facts as facts—not knowledge. Be careful my friend, connecting the dots is a crime. Connecting the dots is like–well, it is considered having insider information. It can be dangerous!”

“So tell me,” Asks the scholar on the poet’s trade, “Who keeps an eye on the listeners? Who monitors the monitors? How much profit do the wire-tappers make off of listening in?”

The waitress arrives with the bill.

The Rimbaud scholar and the rice oil dealer argue on who has the privilege to pay. The rice oil dealer wins and they agree that the next one will be on the scholar. And with this their conversation comes to an end. Having paid the bill, and on the insistence of the waitress, collected the receipt, they promise to meet later in the week and part ways.

And with that I am left to my own thoughts and to the pile of newspapers they have left behind. I hurriedly gather these up and prepare to go through them for myself.

There is a hush on the street. The road just below the terrace where I sit has been blocked for an official motorcade—armed military police line the entire length of the boulevard. The traffic and its din start up soon after the motorcade of important dignitaries’ in their black Mercedes, has zoomed by in a flurry and noise of motorcycles and sirens. Now that the screaming sirens and the commotion of the motorcade have passed, the street rapidly returns to its normal activities. I can see from my vantage point, a man in a wheel chair waiting to cross the busy street, then finding his opening, he negotiates his way through oncoming SUVs. I recognize him, he is the same guy I pay just enough, every Monday morning to buy his charity, so that instead of holding out his upturned palm, he places it against his heart and greets me from afar each morning for the rest of the week, thereby donating to this Fereng’s sense of well being.

I rifle through the rumpled papers now piled up in front of me. I smoothen and fold The Ethiopian Herald, and the tabloids such as The Daily Monitor, The Reporter and The Frontline. I settle on a limp and slight copy from the pile of the Ethiopian Herald, so reminiscent of the nationalized Pakistan Times. I glance across the front cover of the broadsheet. The mast head reads: The Ethiopia Herald; Established 1943; Published daily except Mondays; By the Ethiopia Press Agency; Website: www.ethpress.gov.et. On the front page it gives the daily date: European as well as the Ethiopia calendar, much like the Pakistani papers, the European calendar and the Islamic calendar, and the serial reference number in Roman for that particular volume of the paper and of course the price to be paid. The Ethiopian Herald is eight pages back to back of two broad sheets folded in half with two of the pages devoted to advertisements for jobs, procurements and legal notices under the heading: “Bids and Cautionary Notices.”

The effect on me that afternoon of reading these newspapers is similar to that of listening to CSPAN radio on the weekends back home: an absorbing of an unvarnished relaying of many different activities in the course of the week, persons attending them and what they said naturally leads to a triangulation with the context of the world, a connecting of dots. A diligent and consistent reading of The Ethiopian Herald, The Reporter and the Daily Monitor can have the same effect. It can transform these papers to substantial news even though they are meant not to for in layout and format they are more like notice boards which seem to document and record for posterity events and activities stating the time, location, speeches, and official press releases as provided by the authorities.

Indeed, the rice oil importer was right, oddly these muzzled newspapers are full of information and reading them is satisfying and instructive, would be romantics are revealed for the colonizers that they are. And unlike those newspapers which are acclaimed as examples of freedom of press but actually simply compete for sales and therefore sensationalize so that often times they read more like compilations of opinions and stories, these ones actually carry unvarnished news. The newspapers in Addis seem to have no such incentive and are therefore forced to just write the facts: What activity or event took place where, who attended, what was said. It is up to the reader to be the journalist and figure out the news. The papers are merely a drudgery and litany of facts. Indeed, it is left to the reader to connect the dots and piece together a story.

The newspapers, as I go through them are full of reports on events mostly workshops and conferences on food insecurity in Ethiopia and discussions and plans on how to change this reality given climate change and the country being prone to climate related disaster risks, drought and famine. Eighty percent of the population lives in rural areas and depends entirely on subsistence level farming, agriculture and livestock. Some 16 percent of the population is pastoralists. Every single paper, every day of the week covers at least two or three conferences or workshops held in the capital or somewhere else in the country in its most lavish hotels—on food insecurity, mal-nutrition, poverty reduction, climate change and disaster risk reduction.

PM to Get Lavish Residence.” This is the headline carried on the front page in The Reporter Vol. XV No. 758 March 11, 2011 Price 4.00 Birr: “A lavish residence is being built for Prime Minister Meles Zenawi which could cost more than 80 million birr, according to estimates. The new residence includes presidential suites for visiting guests of the PM. Prime Minister Meles and his family were living inside the Grand Menilik Palace since the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ousted the Derg regime in 1991. The First Family then moved to a Ground plus one establishment facing Sheraton Addis, leaving the Grand Menilik Palace three years ago. Varnero Construction Plc, a local contractor, who had built this house for the First Family is said to have taken up the construction of the new edifice inside the premises of the Grand Menilik Palace. The project is said to be supervised by the First Lady of Ethiopia, Azeb Mesfin. The office of the Prime Minister requested 14,207,800 birr from this year’s government budget to construct guest houses but only 6,310,000 birr has been approved by the House of Peoples Representative (HPR). In addition, the HPR approved 3,769,200 birr from the requested 29,549,000 birr for the Palace Administration to construct guest houses. According to informed sources, the budget for the new PM’s residence and guest houses will possibly come from both institutions. The new PM’s residence is expected to be finished in two years time, and the Grand Palace compound has been upgraded to a marvellous green garden.”

Overcoming Child Malnutrition-Producing Prolific Posterity: On the back page of the Ethiopia Herald March 24, 2011, Megabit 15, 2003 Vol LXHII 167 Price birr 2.00, is a full page article with the headline: “Overcoming child malnutrition-Producing prolific posterity.” And within the article “Needless to say, Ethiopia is one of the nations which have not achieved food security and are depended on aid,. As a result it is not difficult to guess that prevalence of under nutrition is massive in this soil. Indeed malnutrition particularly under nutrition is widespread in the nation and contributed to over half all child deaths in the country according to sources. It has also been proven that Ethiopia has the highest rate of malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa. “Dr. Twewlde Birhan Hailu, Senior Country Director of Alive and Thrive Ethiopia said that in Ethiopia, the prevalence of stunting is higher with almost half of under five children are stunted.

Company to Invest 2.5 Billion in Rice Farm: On the front page of the Ethiopia Herald March 24, 2011, Megabit 15, 2003 Vol LXHII 167 Price birr 2.00, is a the headline: “Company to Invest 2.5 billion in rice Farm”: The article reads “Addis Ababa-Saudi Star Agricultural Development Plc. Owned by the Ethiopian tycoon Sheikh Mohammed Hussien Ali Al-Amoudi said it was set to invest US$2.5 billion by 2020 developing a rice farming project here. The company based in Addis Ababa leased 10, 000 hectares (24, 711 acres) in Ethiopia’ s western Gambella state for 60 years at a cost of 158 birr (US$9.42) per hectare annually, Chief Executive Officer Haile Assegide said. The company also plans to rent an additional 290,000 hectares from the government, he said, according to Bloomberg. Over the past 15 months, Saudi Star spent US$140 million buying equipment, clear a part of the land in Gambella and developing a 25 hectare trial plot, he said. Another 130,000 hectares has been allocated and there are plans to lease a further 160,000 hectares. Two thirds of the food produced will be exported mostly to Saudi Arabia while the rest will be sold domestically, according to Haile. This month the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry said the agreement with Saudi Star required the company to sell 40 percent of its produced domestically while 60 percent could be shipped off shore. Saudi star farm will eventually produce as much as 1.5 million metric tons of rice a year and directly employ 250,000 people because of its strategy to reduce mechanization. “We don’t want to make it capital intensive” He said “we want to make it a mix of labor and capital.” Saudi Arabia invested more than any other country in Ethiopia over the past five years as Ethiopia plans to attract foreign and domestic investment of 703 billion birr over the next 5 years. Al Amoudi 66 is the world’s 63rd richest person and second wealthiest in Saudi Arabia with assets worth US$ billion according to Forbes magazine’s annual global ranking of billionaires.”

Hortiflora Ethiopia 2011 Opens Another headline on the front page: “Hortiflora Ethiopia 2011 Opens.” The article tells us “Prime Minister Meles Zenawi yesterday opened the 4th Hortiflora Ethiopia 2011 an international floriculture and horticulture exhibition organized by Ethiopian Horticulture Producers (EHPEA). Association Chairperson Tsegaye Abebae said on the occasion that the income the country obtains from the sector has been increasing by 25 percent since the last two years adding it envisages to get 190 million USD this year. Tsegaye also cited the provision of adequate land for flower famers in the states among the efforts being made by the government to increase the area of flower farms to 3000 hectares from the existing 1,600 hectares. Ethiopian Horticulture Development Agency Director General Haile Silasie Teki n his part said the viable investment policy and incentives binge provided by the Government attract more local and foreign investors to inject billions of birr in the sector. HE said the number of investors involved in the cultivation of flowers now increased to 90 from only five a decade ago. Some 150 companies from 30 countries are displaying their products in the three day exhibition held in the Millennium Hall. “

Premier Blossoms: The Reporter Vol. XV No. 759 March 26, 2011. Also carries a story on the fourth trade exhibition organized by the Horticulture Producers and Exporters Association. A huge picture of the PM receiving a beautiful bunch of long stemmed yellow roses graces the center of the front page under the headline Premier Blossoms.

In the same edition of The Reporter Vol. XV No. 759 March 26, 2011: Correction: On the bottom right hand corner is a small box headlined Correction it reads: In our story headlined “PM to get lavish residence” published on the Reporter Vol. XV No 758 (March 25, 2011) it was erroneously reported that the residence was intended for use by the the PM Meles Zenawi alone. However, the residence will be used by any PM in office. We would like to apologize for any inconvenience created.”

Low Wages, Pesticide Exposure Concerns in Ugandan Flower Industry: Reads an inside page headline of the Ethiopian Herald on April 7, 2011. The article is a lengthy discussion on the flower industry in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. It is about the abuse and exploitation of female labor, the health risks and the environmental destruction due to the usage of harmful pesticides.

Federal Government Earmarks 75 million birr for Sugar Development: The Report on the same day carries another news item: “The Ethiopian Federal Government has allotted 75 million birr in an effort to place Ethiopia on the sugar producers’ map of the world and get a slice of the world market. The project is expected to take up 325,000 hectares of land for sugarcane plantations and the erection of 10 sugar cane factories. The budget which is set to take effect over the coming 5 years is 8 billion birr shy from this year’s federal budget. Upon the projects’ going operational annual sugar production is expected to total 2.2 million tons while 181 million liters of ethanol production is also planned. According to the projects plan 150,000 hectares of land is earmarked in the south Omo zone of the Southern nation, Nationalities and Peoples regional State (SNNPR) for sugarcane plantation and the erection of six sugar factories at an outlay of 4.4 billion Birr. The Awi zone in the Amhara Regional State and Metekel zone in the Benisshangul Gumuz Regional State and 50,000 hectares of land federally committed for a similar plantation and the construction of two factories thus picking up 14.4 billion birr of the budget among themselves. On the other hand, 8.8 billion birr of the funds goes to the construction of one sugar factory that operates on sugar cane input from a 25,000 hectare plantation in the Tigray Regional state. The Dedessa valley in the Oramia Regional state is also planned to harvest sugarcane over 50,000 hectares and set up two factories. Currently Al Habesha Sugar, a Pakistani company is engaged in sugar development over 29,000 hectares and is already constructing one of the factories. The projects in the Oramia region are planned as a joint venture between Al Habesha Sugar and the federal Government. “Two more factories are also expected to be established by private investors” PM Meles Zenawi disclosed in his recent press briefing. “For the first time (in Ethiopian experience) necessary equipment for sugar factory operation will be made locally” he added. The Metal Works Engineering Corporation established by the Council of Ministers last year is expected to produce the majority of the factory components and is in preparation for the task. The currently operational state owned sugar factories (Wonji, Shoa, Finchaa and Metahara) produce a total o 300,000 tons which has led the government to import the commodity so as to make up for the appetite supply gap. Ethanol too is in demand owing to the trend of mixing it with benzene for consumption n and around Addis Ababa. It is in light of these rifts in local economics that the government is embarking on such a mammoth project on top of the additional plan of exporting sugar to the international market. The former Sugar Development agency has been restructured anew and renamed the Sugar Corporation. This institution will oversee the implementation of the project. “All attempts will be made to secure the funds (for the production of the components and the factory constructions) from local financiers,” a senior executive of the corporation told The Reporter.”

Tomoca Coffee Export Manager Appeals to Supreme Court.” The Reporter that day also carries the news of a crime and its punishment. The headline for this item is: “Tomoca Coffee Export Manager Appeals to Supreme Court.” This news item is about the small and very popular coffee shop and café in the Piazza area of Addis. The article reads “ After found guilty on charges of effecting a sale of a cup of coffee without issuing a Value Added Tax (VAT), Wubayehu Wube and Akalu Wube, general manager and cashier respectively at Tomoca Coffee Export, appealed to the Federal Supreme Court on March 7, 2011. Wubayehu and Kaalu were found guilty by the 10th Criminal Bench of the Federal First Instance Court in December. Prosecutors of the ERCA not satisfied with this decision and appealed to the Federal High court on December 24. They were sentence to six months and fourth months terms of imprisonment respectively. The prosecutor of the Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority (ERCA) presented his case and told the court that the applicants committed the offence intentionally and the sentence given by the lower court is according to the law. He moreover requested the court to approve the sentence given by the lower court. The court heard the two parties and adjourned the case. A decision will be made on April 6, 2011.”

Also by Maniza Naqvi (here)