Monday, May 19, 2008

Nikole and bling, etc

Nikole Hannah-Jones led a tremendous discussion about race and journalism in our group. We talked about her Jammin' 95 story and how it made it into the paper. Excellent.

No meeting next week to commemorate Memorial Day.

On tap for 2 June: "Climbing a Ladder Made of Lipstick," by Molly Hennessey-Fiske of the LA Times.


Monday, May 12, 2008

Updating agenda for 19 May

Nikole Hannah-Jones will be joining us for a conversation about her Jammin' 95 story in the HOW WE LIVE section today -- voice, perspective, meaning, etc. If there's time, we'll get around to the Hennessey-Fiske story from the LA Times (see previous post). If not, we'll slip it over to the next week. Nikole's piece below:

Peace out, hip-hop: Nikole Hannah-Jones laments as Jammin' 95.5 abandons the genre The station's changeover in format leaves a cultural void and a loss to Portland's music scene R.I.P. hip-hop: Beyond beats are messages of love, justice

By Nikole Hannah-jones
The Oregonian
Monday,May 12, 2008
Edition: Sunrise, Section: Arts & Entertainment

It's late Monday and downtown Portland is quiet. My girls and I lounge in a dim booth at a nondescript spot called Momo's. It's too small, too smoky and the crowd too eclectic to explain. But on this night, it bangs some of the hottest hip-hop spun in PDX and so draws those of us who moved here from other places and who miss that urban thump.

I sip a Beautiful --cognac and Grand Marnier --but it doesn't lift the somber mood at my table.

We're discussing the demise of Oregon's only hip-hop station --Jammin' 95.5. After months of declining ratings, today Jammin' flips to an all-talk sports station.

My friend Leesha shakes her head. "I can't believe it. I still can't believe it."

It's not that Jammin' was that bomb. Anyone who's heard hip-hop radio on the East Coast, in L.A. or in the Dirty South knows that Jammin' played hip-hop music but wasn't really a hip-hop station. Its morning show didn't jibe with a hip-hop platform. Many of the on-air personalities came off as suburbanites who sought street cred by peppering each sentence with slang. As one young, black Portlander puts it: "They were corny."

Still, it's a blow. While other young people listen to a variety of music --from pop to punk to rock to country to hip-hop --for most young black folks, hip-hop is it. The recent Black Youth Project survey found that nearly 60 percent of black youth listen to hip-hop daily compared to just 23 percent of white youth. For Portland's tiny black community, Jammin' on the airwaves was like spraying what is perhaps the whitest major city in America with a graffiti tag saying "we were here."

The day Rose City Radio laid off the Jammin' staff --general manager Tim McNamara has not returned calls --Portland-born promoter and Jammin' radio personality StarChile sits with me to talk about why Jammin' fell off. He's wearing a khaki military jacket, baggy jeans and a baseball cap cocked to the side. His fingers are wrapped around a hot toddy --he's been sick.

"Honestly, Jammin' was not a hip-hop station because a hip-hop station is going to cater to a demographic that loves hip-hop," Star says. "Portland is one of the whitest places damn-near outside of Ireland. The mentality was that we play hip-hop for white people."

He's not dissing white folks who listen to hip-hop. Somewhere in Beaverton, he says, there's a 16-year-old white girl with nothing but hip-hop on her iPod who loves the music and respects the culture.

But, Star says, Jammin's song list became too mainstream and rarely reflected that crazy spectrum of hip-hop that speaks to the diversity of black life.

Yes, some hip-hop is about the pursuit of booty, bling and busting caps. But beyond the beats are messages of social justice and love. Of fighting the power and seeking enlightenment. Of being pushed to the edge and finding redemption. True hip-hop chronicles the story of black struggle better than CNN or any newspaper.

Star's Sunday-night show on Jammin', "Hood Radio," was so popular because it acknowledged that spectrum. "I could play the most gangsta, 25-people-killed-in-the-first-verse song, to the most backpacking, hippie rap," he says. "From Compton's Most Wanted to the Black Eyed Peas. It was a reflection of my attitude and my love for hip-hop."

But, says Portland rapper Cool Nutz, too few Jammin' DJs had that freedom. Instead they played a song list compiled by a program director who wasn't a hip-hop head. "It became more strict," Cool Nutz says. "They were doing the power programming thing where you had five power songs played all day."

No Talib Kweli or The Roots --though these acts sell out when they come to town. No Little Brother or Erykah Badu. Not even artists considered hip-hop kings unless their songs blazed the Top 40 charts. Just the same get-crunk, stripper-on-a-pole music. Over and over and over.

"It was getting to the point where the streets were turning away from us," Star says with a sigh and sip. "Why can't you play Jay-Z 'Heart of the City' at one in the afternoon? It's . . . Jay-Z!"

Vanessa Burchfield, a Portland State University student with hip-hop written into her DNA, says the station's narrow view of a genre that has defined a generation caused her to tune out.

"I stopped listening to the radio a while ago," she says. "You never heard anything new until it was old. I make mix CDs instead."

Even so, Burchfield is struck by the thought of the city's only hip-hop station going silent. Jammin' might not have been the best hip-hop station, but having it on the air gave the city something it needed.

"Black people don't really have a voice here if they don't play our music," Burchfield says.

* Those of us born right after the civil rights era fell in love with hip-hop as soon as we heard people rapping over the borrowed beat of music our parents played. It hooked us, and today African Americans born in the '70s and '80s are known as the hip-hop generation.

Back then, mainstream media didn't touch hip-hop. Pop stations advertised "only the hits and no rap!" MTV acted as if rap videos didn't exist. But hip-hop was all we listened to. It spoke to us, about us, as no other music had. Just as hip-hop was often maligned and misunderstood, so were we. Just as hip-hop was angry and bold, so were we.

StarChile remembers the day Jammin' came on the air in Portland. The year was 1999.

"It was like crack," Star says.

He's only half playing.

"My phone --I should say my beeper --was blowing up," he smiles at the memory. "Everybody was like, 'Yo, it's a radio station and it plays rap music.' It was like, 'Oh my God, we're saved.' "

Jammin' bumrushed the radio scene. Within a few months, its ratings jumped from 18th to third in the market for total audience and from 16th to first among listeners age 16 to 24. The on-air personalities loved hip-hop, Cool Nutz says, and it showed. Many of them went on to work in larger markets or for record labels. The station suffered, hiring people who had come to hip-hop late, who had no hip-hop memory.

But local artists say Jammin's ratings --which improved a bit recently after the station loosened its playlist --don't mean Portlanders don't dig hip-hop anymore. And they fear what the lack of a station will mean for the city's burgeoning hip-hop scene. Hip-hop stations advertise shows and give a platform for artists promoting new albums.

Finally, acts aren't going straight from Cali to Seattle. Nas is coming this week, and Kanye West in June. But who's going to come to a city with no hip-hop on the dial?

"That station has contributed a lot to the growth of this city, and this is damaging to our music scene," Cool Nutz says. "It's embarrassing and it makes me ashamed of our town because it basically says Portland is so weak that it could not sustain a hip-hop station. It's bigger than me or any of these rappers. It's about our urban culture."

* Back at Momo's, DJ Mello Cee bumps the classic Mary J. Blige and Method Man duet, "You're All I Need."

My friends and I stop talking. Each of us has a memory with that song in the background. That song takes me back more than 10 years to riding around in my friend's 1986 Chevy Caprice on dice rims. Mary and Method made a ghetto love story more real than anything we saw on TV.

We sway, eyes closed, and sing the chorus at the top of our lungs. As the song fades into the next track, Leesha asks, "Do you really think we aren't going to have a hip-hop station?"

Rumors on the Net and among local artists say that CBS station Movin' 107.5 might go hip-hop. Susan Reynolds, the marketing director for CBS Radio-Portland, won't confirm or deny the rumors, offering a coy, "If there's anything to announce, we'll do that when it's official."

So, there's still hope. Let's just pray the next station that takes up hip-hop learns from Jammin' and shows real hip-hop some love.



Shaping a story

Yet another excellent conversation this morning first with Esme about her crime and immigration story, then (with Gosia leading) about Kapuscinski. Truth or not true? No, B. Johnson says: better to weigh it as valuable or not valuable. ...

For next Monday, a story about a Mexican becoming a Mexican-American:,1,5212207.story

Climbing a ladder made of lipstick
Altagracia Valdez and other Latinas are changing the face of cosmetics giant Mary Kay. They want better looks -- and finances.
By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

January 15, 2008

Altagracia Valdez is dreaming of a perfect pink Cadillac. All she has to do to win it, according to her boss at Mary Kay Inc., is expand her list of conocidos.

Those familiar connections, she says, can adorn Valdez's 60-year-old hands with diamond rings, pump up her bank account with enough money to pay the bills, buy a house and help her finally enjoy some middle-class financial security.

If Valdez can recruit a sales force of 30 and sell at least $18,000 worth of cosmetics in four months, she can win a free lease and insurance for her first Mary Kay car -- not the signature pink Cadillac emblazoned with the Mary Kay logo, but maybe a Saturn Vue or a Pontiac Vibe that she can trade in for a Cadillac if she keeps meeting sales quotas. If she falls short of winning the car, she can still earn a promotion if her sales total $16,000. And she can always try again.

The women Valdez is counting on to broaden her direct-sales force are mostly Spanish-speakers she meets knocking on doors in Azusa, La Puente and West Covina, immigrants with little spending money but a burning desire to improve their looks and finances.

In a land of opportunity, cosmetic direct sales looks like a shortcut to the middle class, a corporate ladder whose first rung doesn't require a high school diploma or even English skills. As Latina saleswomen rise through the ranks, they are changing the face of Mary Kay, long associated with blond Texas founder Mary Kay Ash.

Mary Kay Inc. sees potential in the immigrants' battered apartments and modest tract homes. Both Mary Kay and rivals such as Avon have recently seen sales swell among Latino immigrants in California.

"Sometimes a woman can have an empty stomach, but she has to have lipstick," said Valdez's boss, Sandra Chamorro, a Nicaraguan immigrant and single mother with a house in San Gabriel and a new pale pink Cadillac convertible, the Mary Kay reward for top sellers.

"Maybe," Chamorro added, "you buy a little less milk."

In November, in the dim living room of a West Covina tract house, Valdez was making that case as she gave a facial to Mary Lee Mejia, 19, a striking Salvadoran with blond highlights, blue-gray eyes and porcelain skin.

"There are no limits -- a woman can work for what she wants," Valdez promised in Spanish as Mejia, who works in a recycling center, lifted a pink hand mirror to admire the results.

"And what about us?" asked Mejia's fiancé, a Mexican mechanic who was smoothing on hand lotion as his brother dabbed on face cream. "Can we sell too?"

Sure, Valdez said, reassuring the man that joining her sales team wouldn't interfere with his home life.

Valdez pointed to her daughter Cindy, 20, sitting beside her. Cindy is developmentally disabled, nonverbal and shy. Valdez takes her everywhere, even to her facial appointments and Mary Kay meetings. At first, Cindy hated the Mary Kay social gatherings, but she has grown to love the routine -- and the rewards. In the privacy of their one-bedroom apartment, Cindy models her mother's rhinestone crowns, prizes Valdez earned for her recruiting.

This is a family business, Valdez told Mejia and the men. "Mary Kay said first comes God, then comes family, then business."

Then Valdez made her pitch: Which items did Mejia and the others like best?


They couldn't afford to buy anything. Mejia sank into her fiancé's arms, whispering about lotion. But they were saving for a wedding, and the $22 lotion was too expensive.

Valdez changed tactics -- maybe they could sell for her. To start, she said, they would each need $108 for a sample kit of cosmetics. Once they began selling, they could keep half of the selling price -- $11 for the $22 lotion, for instance, with the remaining $11 divided among Valdez, her boss and Mary Kay Inc. She passed out Mary Kay catalogs. Give them to co-workers during lunch breaks, she said. Show them the new colors. Ask them what they like. Friends become clients you can count on to pay.

Mejiawatched Valdez pull a gold satchel from one of her makeup bags, unzip it and withdraw pink sign-up forms.

They all signed. They would find the money.

Valdez guided Cindy back to her 2000 Ford Focus, which had been acting up. She was disappointed she didn't sell anything. But the new recruits, the consultoras, give her hope.

She was particularly pleased with Mejia, a delicate girl she first spotted through the window of a nearby apartment. La guera, she called her later, "the white girl."

"Can you see that lady selling Mary Kay? She is going to make money because everybody wants to look like her."

Valdez's skin is caramel-colored, lined with age and hard times that Mary Kay creams and lotions can't smooth away. But she has learned to use her grandmotherly looks to entice customers. Immigrant women welcome her into their homes like a relative, often during the day, to buy cosmetics while their husbands are away. They call her Alta, "tall" in Spanish, an ironic nickname for a diminutive woman who stands 5 feet 2, always looking up to somebody, always listening.

"It is a vocation, talking to people," Valdez said as she drove to visit customers on a chilly Sunday night. "Sometimes they just need you there to listen, especially women."

During their free facials, women vent to her about marriages, children, jobs, the stresses of life as some of this country's most underpaid and underappreciated workers. Valdez listens, gently reminding them between peels that they deserve better -- a job, say, where they can work on their own schedule, spend time with their children and end the day looking better than when they started.

She highlights the reasons why she joined Mary Kay two years ago: to support her children, get out of the house, become independent. She doesn't dwell on the darker details -- how desperate she was after she left her husband of 33 years, an illiterate construction worker who threatened to kill their children and once beat her so hard he broke her jaw.

Valdez doesn't tell them that many of the 1,000 other mostly Latina sales consultants in her local network earn significantly less than their boss, who is one of 500 national sales directors. Talented new consultoras earn about $2,000 a month without benefits. By comparison, Chamorro, their boss, earns a six-figure annual income and is eligible for group health insurance.

Valdez has been promoted higher than a regular consultora -- she's a "super estrella," or superstar. But she still needs one more promotion, to director, to make her eligible for health insurance.

Valdez doesn't tell her new recruits how torn she feels trying to move up the corporate ladder, to manage business and family, help her consultoras and please her boss.

Chamorro's top sellers gather by rank for their monthly meetings at a small office in Alhambra. The veterans sit up front, flaunting their $300 purple suits, black pumps and real diamond and gold pins. Then come the new recruits, recent immigrants, hair tied back, clutching pictures of their dream cars as they slip in late and sit on folding chairs at the back. There's Maria Sanchez, Carmen Torrez, Lorena Ramirez, Rosario Molina, Rita Villareal and Reynata Arradondo -- about 40 women, almost all mothers, some grandmothers.

If Valdez reaches her sales goal, she'll be sitting up front with the veterans, too.

At the November meeting, Chamorro assumed her seat at a pink table at the front, flanked by portraits of the late Mary Kay Ash, who once invited her to tea at her famous pink Mary Kay mansion in Dallas.

What was your dream when you came to the U.S.? Chamorro asked her top sellers in Spanish. A ranch house in the hills? A pool? A car? All you need to achieve those dreams, she said, is to sell.

Your children will bug you for rides. Your husband may not respect your work. Don't listen, she said. Stay focused on that dream.

Family is Valdez's weakness.

She has seven children. When her oldest daughter, a public school administrator, needs a baby-sitter, Valdez cancels facials. When her recently separated son has trouble with his kids, Valdez stops by instead of calling potential customers. When Cindy, her baby, gets sick, Valdez stays home.

"When it comes to the family, I just can't say no," she said.

Many of her consultoras and customers have the same problem.

At one stop, a tract house with cars packed onto the narrow driveway, Valdez was greeted by a pregnant woman, an undocumented immigrant. She wanted cream to treat the spots on her face, but her husband insists that she save for the baby. The woman gave Valdez $70 to buy her a crib instead, a favor her trusted superstar consultora agreed to in the hopes of future sales.

Sometimes, Valdez cuts corners to recruit poor consultoras. She helps them cover their start-up costs. She gives some of them free makeup kits until they earn enough to pay her back. She supplies others with a few items to sell. Instead of paying them in cosmetics and pocketing the difference, the way some Mary Kay managers do, Valdez lets the women keep half the selling price.

Her generosity binds consultoras to her and helps her feel better about using them to achieve her goal.

"She's really very good. Have you heard her on the phone?" said new recruit Esperanza Garcia, 21. Valdez was signing her up at Garcia's office, a West Covina payday loan store where neon signs in the window announce: "We Buy & Sell Pesos."

It was Nov. 30, Valdez's last day to meet her $18,000 sales goal, and it was pouring rain.

Customers were canceling facials. Garcia, whose first name means "hope," was the final recruit Valdez needed to meet her goal. The new consultora had $3,000 in sales lined up, but prospective sales didn't count toward Valdez's goal. She was about $2,000 short.

So Valdez slipped on her gold suit and climbed back into the car with Cindy, next to a pile of handouts her boss had made for her sales force.

"This is a decisive month for Altagracia Valdez to arrive at her goal," the handouts said in Spanish, urging consultoras to sell at least $200 worth of makeup.

"Remember, to give is to receive."

In the rain, Valdez approached locked apartment courtyards on Dora Guzman Avenue in La Puente, calling to children in Spanish to let her in. Inside, it smelled of Mexico -- cheap laundry detergent mingling with the sweet scent of simmering corn tortillas.

Valdez made her way through mud puddles, past garden Nativity scenes and apartments with pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe taped to the windows, to a rickety stone staircase. Cindy climbed ahead. Valdez, loaded down with pink Mary Kay cosmetics bags, sped up behind her on JC Penney pumps.

Just as she reached the top, she slipped and fell.

Almost instantly, Valdez was up again and smiling, reassuring Cindy that she was OK. She knocked on the door of a consultora, a pregnant woman who had promised to recruit customers. The windows were dark. Neighbors didn't know where the woman was.

Valdez tried a few other apartments, plodding with Cindy through the cold and damp. No luck.

Still, she didn't lose hope. To win a car, she said, "we have to put our hearts into this and pay the price."

Later that night, Valdez and one of Chamorro's deputies calculated her final sales tally. Huddled over a pocket calculator on Valdez's kitchen counter, they did the math to see if she had won the car.

In the end, she was $2,200 short.

There was some good news. Valdez was only $200 shy of her promotion. The deputy promised to make up the difference. Valdez will be crowned again with rhinestones, join the weekly managers' meeting in a new black uniform and become eligible for health insurance. Most important, she said, she will double her commission on her consultoras' sales, from 13% to 26%.

As for the Cadillac, she said, she will just have to go back to her conocidos and try again.



Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Adam Hochschild on Kapuscinski's Magic Journalism

In his book on the fall of the Soviet Union, Ryszard Kapuscinski describes a visit he took to Armenia in 1990 to report on the worst of the many conflicts that erupted as the empire crumbled. The USSR was still officially one country, but Armenia and Azerbaijan were unofficially at war over the mountain enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited largely by Armenians. The Soviets were attempting unsuccessfully to suppress the bitter guerrilla fighting there. Among other things, they were trying to keep inquisitive foreign journalists like Kapuscinski out of the besieged territory, which lies entirely within Azerbaijan, and can be reached from Armenia only by air.The Soviets control the airports at both ends. How can Kapuscinski get there? (...) GET HARD COPIES FROM ANNE SAKER

Magic Journalism By Adam Hochschild
from Finding the Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels
first appeared in The New York Review of Books, Nov. 3 1994


Ryszard Kapuscinski's Shadow of the Sun

More than anything, one is struck by the light. Twilight everywhere. Brightness everywhere. Everywhere, the sun. Just yesterday, an autumnal London was drenched in rain. The airplane drenched in rain. A cold wind, darkness. But here, from the morning's earliest moments, the airport is ablaze with sunlight, all of us in sunlight.

In times past, when people wandered the world on foot, rode on horseback, or sailed in ships, the journey itself accustomed them to the change. Images of the earth passed ever so slowly before their eyes, the stage revolved in a barely perceptible way. The voyage lasted weeks, months. The traveler had time to grow used to another environment, a different landscape. The climate, too, changed gradually. Before the traveler arrived from a cool Europe to the burning Equator, he already had left behind the pleasant warmth of Las Palmas, the heat of Al-Mahara, and the hell of the Cape Verde Islands.

Today, nothing remains of these gradations. Air travel tears us violently out of snow and cold and hurls us that very same day into the blaze of the tropics. Suddenly, still rubbing our eyes, we find ourselves in a humid inferno. We immediately start to sweat. If we've come from Europe in the wintertime, we discard overcoats, peel off sweaters. It's the first gesture of initiation we, the people of the North, perform upon arrival in Africa.

People of the North. Have we sufficiently considered the fact that northerners constitute a distinct minority on our planet? Canadians and Poles, Lithuanians and Scandinavians, some Americans and Germans, Russians and Scots, Laplanders and Eskimos, Evenkis and Yakuts--the list is not very long. It may amount to no more than 500 million people: less than 10 percent of the earth's population. The overwhelming majority live in hot climates, their days spent in the warmth of the sun. Mankind first came into being in the sun; the oldest traces of his existence have been found in warm climes. What was the weather like in the biblical paradise? It was eternally warm, hot even, so that Adam and Eve could go about naked and not feel chilled even in the shade of a tree.

Something else strikes the new arrival even as he descends the steps of the airplane: the smell of the tropics. Perhaps he's had intimations of it. It is the scent that permeated Mr. Kanzman's little shop, Colonial and Other Goods, on Perec Street in my hometown of Pinsk. Almonds, cloves, dates, and cocoa. Vanilla and laurel leaves, oranges and bananas, cardamom and saffron. And Drohobych. The interiors of Bruno Schulz's cinammon shops? Didn't their "dimly lit, dark, and solemn interiors" smell intensely of paints, lacquer, incense, the aroma of faraway countries and rare substances? Yet the actual smell of the tropics is somewhat different. We instantly recognize its weight, its sticky materiality. The smell makes us at once aware that we are at that point on earth where an exuberant and indefatigable nature labors, incessantly reproducing itself, spreading and blooming, even as it sickens, disintegrates, festers, and decays.

It is the smell of a sweating body and drying fish, of spoiling meat and roasting cassava, of fresh flowers and putrid algae--in short, of everything that is at once pleasant and irritating, that attracts and repels, seduces and disgusts. This odor will reach us from nearby palm groves, will escape from the hot soil, will waft above stagnant city sewers. It will not leave us; it is integral to the tropics.

And finally, the most important discovery--the people. The locals. How they fit this landscape, this light, these smells. How they are as one with them. How man and environment are bound in an indissoluble, complementary, and harmonious whole. I am struck by how firmly each race is grounded in the terrain in which it lives, in its climate. We shape our landscape, and it, in turn, molds our physiognomy. Among these palm trees and vines, in this bush and jungle, the white man is a sort of outlandish and unseemly intruder. Pale, weak, his shirt drenched with sweat, his hair pasted down on his head, he is continually tormented by thirst, and feels impotent, melancholic. He is ever afraid: of mosquitoes, amoebas, scorpions, snakes--everything that moves fills him with fear, terror, panic.

With their strength, grace, and endurance, the indiginous move about naturally, freely, at a tempo determined by climate and tradition, somewhat languid, unhurried, knowing one can never achieve everything in life anyway, and besides, if one did, what would be left over for others?

I've been here for a week. I am trying to get to know Accra. It is like an overgrown small town that has reproduced itself many times over, crawled out of the bush, out of the jungle, and come to a halt at the shores of the Gulf of Guinea. Accra is flat, single-storied, humble, though there are some buildings with two or more floors. No sophisticated architecture, no excess or pomp. Ordinary plaster, pastel-colored walls--pale yellow, pale green. The walls have numerous water stains. Fresh ones. After the rainy season, entire constellations of stains appear, collages, mosaics, fantastical maps, flowery flourishes. The downtown is densely built-up. Traffic, crowds, bustle--life takes place out in the street. The street is a roadway delineated on both sides by an open sewer. There are no sidewalks. Cars mingle with the crowds. Everything moves in concert--pedestrians, automobiles, bicycles, carts, cows, and goats. On the sides, beyond the sewer, along the entire length of the street, domestic scenes unfold. Women are pounding manioc, baking taro bulbs over the coals, cooking dishes of one sort or another, hawking chewing gum, crackers, and aspirin, washing and drying laundry. Right out in the open, as if a decree had been issued commanding everyone to leave his home at 8 a.m. and remain in the street. In reality, there is another reason: apartments are small, cramped, stuffy. There is no ventilation, the atmosphere inside is heavy, the smells stale, there is no air to breathe. Besides, spending the day in the street enables one to participate in social life. The women talk nonstop, yell, gesticulate, laugh. Standing over a pot or a washbasin, they have an excellent vantage point. They can see their neighbors, passersby, the entire street; they can listen in on quarrels and gossip, observe accidents. All day long they are among others, in motion, and in the fresh air.

A red Ford with a speaker mounted on its roof passes through the streets . A hoarse, penetrating voice invites people to attend a meeting. The main attraction will be Kwame Nkrumah-Osagyefo, the prime minister, the leader of Ghana, of Africa, of all downtrodden peoples. There are photographs of Nkrumah
everywhere--in the newspapers (every day), on posters, on flags, on ankle-length percale skirts. The energetic face of a middle-aged man, either smiling or serious, at an angle meant to suggest that he is contemplating the future.

"Nkrumah is a savior!" a young teacher named Joe Yambo tells me with rapture in his voice. Have you heard him speak? He sounds like a prophet!"

Yes, in fact, I had heard him. He arrived at the stadium with an entourage of his ministers--young, animated, they created the impression of people who were having a good time, who were full of joy. The ceremony began with priests pouring bottles of gin over the podium--it was an offering to the gods, a way o making contact with them, a plea for their favor, their goodwill. Among the adults in the audience there were also children, from infants strapped to their mothers' backs, to babies beginning to crawl, to toddlers and school-age children. The older ones take care of the younger ones, and those older ones are taken care of by ones older still. This hierarchy of age is strictly observed, an obedience is absolute. A four-year-old has full authority over a two-year-old, a six-year-old over a four-year-old. Children take care of children, so that the adults can devote themselves to their affairs--for instance, to listening carefully to Nkrumah.

Osagyefo spoke briefly. He said that the most important thing was to gain independence--everything else would follow naturally, all that is good will emerge from the very fact of independence.

A portly fellow, given to decisive gestures, he had shapely, expressive features and large, lively eyes, which moved over the sea of dark heads with an attention so concentrated as to suggest he wanted to count each and every one of them.

After the rally, those on the podium mingled with the audience. It was loud, chaotic, and there was no visible police protection or escort. Joe, who had brought me, elbowed his way toward a young man (whom he identified as a minister) and asked me if I could come see him tomorrow. The other one, not really able to hear over the buzz and commotion what the issue was, replied, at least partially to get rid of us, "Fine! Fine!"

The next day, I found my way to the Ministry of Education and Information, a new building set amid a growth of royal palms. It was Friday. On Saturday, sitting in my small hose, wrote a description of the preceding day:

The way is open: neither policeman, nor secretary, nor doors.

I draw aside a patterned curtain and enter. The minister's office is warm. In semidarkness, he is standing at his desk organizing his papers: crumpling those he will throw into the wastepaper basket, smoothing out others to place in his briefcase. A thin, slight figure, in a sports shirt, short trousers, sandals, with a flowery kente cloth draped over his left shoulder; nervous gestures.

This is Kofi Baako, minister of education and information.

At thirty-two, he is the youngest minister in Ghana, in the entire British Commonwealth, and he has already had his portfolio for three years now. His office is on the third floor of the ministry building. The hierarchy of positions is reflected in the ladder of floors. The higher the personage, the higher the floor. Fittingly, since on top there is a breeze, while toward the bottom the air is heavy as stone, motionless. Petty bureacrats suffocate on the ground floor; above them, the departmental directors enjoy a slight draft; and at the very top, the delicious breeze caresses the ministers.

Anyone who wants to can come and see a minister whenever he wants to. If someone has a problem, he travels to Accra, finds out where, for instance, the minister of agriculture can be found. He goes to his office, parts the curtain, sits down, and sets forth in detail what's bothering him. If he doesn't find the official at the agency, he will find him at home even better, because there he'll get a meal and something to drink. People felt a remoteness from the white administration. But now these are their own people, they don't have to feel inhibited. It's my government, so it must help me. If it's to help me, it has to know the situation. For it to know, I have to come and explain. It's best that I do this on my own, in person and direct.

There is no end of these supplicants.

"Good morning!" said Kofi Baako. "And where are you from?"

"From Warsaw."

"You know, I almost went there. I was traveling all over Europe: France, Belgium, England, Yugoslavia. I was in Czechoslovakia about to go to Poland, when Kwame sent me a telegram calling me back for the party congress, our ruling Convention People's Party."

We were sitting at a table, in his doorless office. Instead of window panes there were shutters with widely spaced slats, through which a gentle breeze passed. The small room was pfled high with papers, files, brochures. A large safe stood m a corner, several portraits of Nkrumah hung on the walls, a speaker wired to a central system stood on a shelf. Tomtoms pounded from ~t, until finally Baako turned it off.

I wanted him to tell me about himself, about his life. Baako enjoys great prestige among the young. They like him for being a good athlete. He plays soccer, cricket, and is Ghana's ping-pony champion.

"Just a minute," he interrupted, "I just have to place a call to Kumasi, because I'm going there tomorrow for a game." ld

He called the post office for them to connect him. They to him to wait.

"I saw two films yesterday," he told me, as he waited holding the receiver to his ear. "I wanted to see what they're showing. They're playing films schoolchildren shouldn't go to. I must issue a decree that forbids young people to see such things. And this morning I spent visiting book stalls throughout the city. The government has established low prices for schoolbooks, but the word is that retailers are marking them up. I went to check for myself. Indeed, they are sellig them for more than they're supposed to. '

He dialed the post office again.

"Listen, what are you so busy with over there? How long am I supposed to wait? Do you know who this is?"

A woman's voice answered, "No." "And who are you?" Baako asked. "I'm the telephone operator."

"And I am the minister of education and information, Kofi Baako."

"Good morning, Kofi! I'll connect you right away."

And he was talking to Kumasi.

I looked at his books, stacked on a small cabinet: Hemingway, Lincoln, Koestler, Orwell, The Popular History of Music, The American Dictionary, as well as various paperbacks and crime novels.

"Reading is my passion. In England I bought myself the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and now I'm reading it little by little. I cannot eat without reading, I have to have a book lying open in front of me."

A moment later:

"I've got another, even greater hobby: photography. I take pictures all the time and everywhere. I have more than ten cameras. When I go to a store and see a new camera, I immediately have to buy it. I bought a film projector for the children, and show them films in the evening."

He has four children, ranging in age from three to nine. All of them attend school, even the youngest. It is not unusual here for a three-year-old to be enrolled in school. The mother will send him off, especially if he's a handful, just to have some peace.

Kofi Baako himself first went to school at three. His father was a teacher and liked being able to keep his eye on his children. When he finished elementary school, he was sent for high school to Cape Coast. He became a teacher, and then a civil servant. At the end of 1947, Nkrumah had returned to Ghana having finished university studies in America and England. Baako listened to his speeches, which spoke of independence. Then Baako wrote an article, "My Hatred of Imperialism." He was fired from his job. He was blacklisted, and no one would employ him. He hung around the city, eventually meeting Nkrumah, who entrusted him with the position of editor in chief of the Cape Coast Daily Mail. Kofi was twenty years old.

He wrote another article entitled "We Call for Freedom," and was jailed. Arrested with him were Nkrumah and several other activists. They spent thirteen months behind bars, before finally being released. Today, this group constitutes Ghana's government.

Now Baako speaks about broad issues. "Only 30 percent of the people in Ghana can read and write. We want to abolish illiteracy within fifteen years. There are difficulties: a shortage of teachers, books, schools. There are two kinds of schools: missionary-run and state-run. But they are all subject to the state and there is a single educational policy. In addition, five thousand students are being educated abroad. What frequently happens is that they return and no longer share a common language with the people. Look at the opposition. Its leaders are Oxford- and Cambridge-educated."

"What does the opposition want?"

"Who knows? We believe that an opposition is necessary. The leader of the opposition in parliament receives a salary fron the government. We allowed all these little opposition parties and groups to unite, so they would be stronger. Our position is that in Ghana, anyone who wants to has the right to form a political party--on the condition that it not be based on criteria of race, religion, or tribe. Each party here can employ all constitutional means to gain political power. But, you understand, despite all this, one doesn't know what the opposition wants. They call a meeting and shout: 'We've come through Oxford, and people like Kofi Baako didn't even finish high school. Today Baako is a minister, and I am nothing. But when I become minister, then Baako will be too stupid for me to make him even a messenger.' But you know, people don't listen to this kind of talk, because there are more Kofi Baakos here than all those in the opposition put together."

I said that I should get going, as it was dinnertime. He asked me what I was doing that evening. I was supposed to go to Togo.

"What for?" He waved his hand. "Come to a party. The radio station is having one tonight."

I didn't have an invitation. He looked around for a piece o paper and wrote: "Admit Ryszard Kapuscinski, a journalist from Poland, to your party. Kofi Baako, Minister of Education and Information."

"There. I'll be there too, we'll take some photographs."

The guard at the gates of the Radio building saluted me smartly and I was promptly seated at a special table. The party was already in full swing when a gray Peugeot drove up to the dance floor out in the garden, and Kofi Baako emerged from inside. He was dressed just as he had been in his office, only he held a red sweat suit under his arm, because he was going to Kumasi tonight and it might get cold. He was well-known here. Baako was the minister of schools, of all the universities, the press, the radio, the publishing houses, the museums--of everything that constitutes culture, art, and propaganda in this country.

We soon found ourselves in a crowd. He sat down to drink a Coca-Cola, then quickly stood up.

"Come, I will show you my cameras."

He pulled a suitcase out of the trunk of his car, set it on the ground, knelt down, and began taking out the cameras, laying them out on the grass. There were fifteen of them.

Just then two boys walked up to us, slightly drunk.

"Kofi," one of them began in a plaintive tone, "we bought a ticket and they're not letting us stay here because we don't have jackets. So what did they sell us a ticket for?"

Baako rose.

"Listen," he answered, "I am too important a man for such matters. There are lots of little guys here, let them take care of it. I have issues of government on my mind."

The twosome sailed off unsteadily, and we went to take pictures. Baako had only to approach, cameras hanging around his neck, for people to start calling to him, asking for a photograph.

"Kofi, take one of us."

"Of us!"

"And us too!"

He circulated, picking tables with the prettiest girls, arranging them, and telling them to smile. He knew them by name: Abena, Ekua, Esi. They greeted him by extending their hands, without getting up, and shrugging their shoulders, which is an expression of seductive flirtatiousness here. Baako walked on; we took many photographs. He looked at his watch.

"I have to go."

He wanted to get to the game on time.

"Come tomorrow, and we'll develop the photographs."

The Peugeot flashed its lights and vanished in the darkness while the party swayed and surged till dawn.

Excerpted from The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski. Copyright © 2001 by Ryszard Kapuscinski. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Monday, May 5, 2008

Dan Barry's magic

Yet another excellent discussion this morning on Dan Barry's 21 April reader in the NYT. This is a writer who doesn't really worry about readers. He worries about making himself understood. And that's very different. For next week: An essay by Adam Hochschild; discussant, Gosia. I have hard copies. ...


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Another beauty by Dan Barry

Lisa Grace recommends for our Cinco de Mayo session:

Reminding: Everyone welcome.