Table of Contents

Monday, December 17, 2012

Two Years After Bouazizi the Revolution Continues

A protest in Tunis
Two years ago today, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the government building in the town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. His act of desperation set off a domino effect of protests against unemployment and the abuse of power that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and started the Arab Spring.

Has anything changed?

In short, yes. During Ben Ali’s era, religious citizens were looked on with suspicion. If you were a bearded man, or a veiled woman, you could expect trouble if you ran into the police. And to speak against the dictator was out of the question if you wished to avoid jail.

Those things have changed now. Politics are discussed in restaurants, cafés, and right on the main downtown street of Habib Bourguiba, where people often stand in circles debating current affairs. Men with beards and veiled women are seen in almost every neighbourhood, and even niquabs are not uncommon. But there are those who would argue that the pendulum has swung too far the other way, and that now it is liberal secularists who get the heat for their opinions.

During the Printemps des Arts exhibit, I interviewed Melek, a young rapper who participated in “Enti Essout”, a collaboration song that encouraged voters to participate in the October 2011 elections. He told me that he wished his group hadn’t taken part in the song. His disappointment in the government was palpable, but he was there to support his friend, graffitti artist Meen-One Calligraffiti, and so the conversation moved to other things.

One of the controversial Printemps pieces
A week later, the exhibit was attacked after a religious zealot claimed that some of the pieces insulted Islam and the Prophet Mohamed. Facebook posts threatened the participating artists with death. Meen-One was one of those artists. Instead of supporting the artists, the Minister of Culture was quoted as saying that some of the art was blasphemous, and was under investigation.

I have spoken with bloggers and activists who claim to have been targeted by the police for their opinions. And of course, only a couple weeks ago, government supporters attacked the main labour union (the UGTT) on the anniversary of their founder’s death. At a protest soon after the attacks, I spoke to a young woman who is a UGTT supporter. She was shy, and I could barely hear her voice over the chanting, but she said quite firmly that Ennahdha “are terrorists”.

This week a friend and I went out for lunch. She has worked in the Constituent Assembly, and I was interested to get her take on the current situation. “None of the politicians care about the Tunisian people,” she said. “They say they do, but they’re lying. I know. I was there in the sessions. I met them. I listened.” In June, my friend will not be voting. For someone as politically active as she, it is a powerful choice not to act. But she believes that none of the current political parties deserve her vote.

And she is not alone. The youth who fought to change their country are underrepresented in government and the Constituent Assembly. Instead, the country is ruled by an older generation, many of whom were in exile for years and are believed to have lost touch with what Tunisia needs.

Tunisian riot police
And what about people like Bouazizi? Unemployment continues to rise, along with food prices and the cost of living. The towns in central Tunisia, including Sidi Bouzid, have experienced unrest this month as a result of the lack of change. Joblessness affects the educated and uneducated alike, and young people are the hardest hit.

When I worked in an office on a busy downtown Tunis street, we watched police officers drive street vendors off the sidewalks on a weekly basis. And police brutality during protests has made it evident that the security forces are still in sore need of reform.

I once had the great privilege of interviewing an Egyptian activist, who told me, “A revolution takes ten years.” He viewed the revolutions in his country and in Tunisia as a process, not the end goal. Citizens cannot simply sit back now that Ben Ali is gone and think that politicians will make things all better, no more than those who live in countries that have been democratic for decades can. They must continue to participate in government, in civil society, in making their voices heard and in making their country a better place.

So no, perhaps Bouazizi would not be pleased with how little has changed for struggling Tunisians. But change takes time, and another eight years might be enough to make Tunisia a country he could be proud of.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Colour and Smiles, Not Smoke and Screams

I love the Tunis market. It's a place of colour and warmth: The cheese seller who greets me as a friend now, the spice vendor who walked past, recognized me and gave me a solemn nod, the man quietly reading the Koran at his vegetable stand, another cheese seller (the one with the kind eyes) who gave me a sample even though he saw I had already bought from someone else, the bread guy who was joking with us and snatched the bread from me, then grinned, the vegetable seller who called my friend and me "daughter" the other day, and the man who gave us presents (straw fans) worth much more than the couple dollars we spent on eggs and raisins. Each time I go there I am reminded of how lovely the people of Tunisia are, how vibrant and joyful and generous.
For friends overseas, these are the people you should think of when you think of the Arab world, not the outspoken, violent few who manage to make international news.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Tunisia Two Months On...

A Tunis street
Tunisia caught me by surprise. This confusing, frustrating and beautiful place is taking more time to get to know than most countries I’ve lived in. But, as I am starting to see, it is worth the effort...

 For the first few weeks here, I was miserable. To be honest, to me Tunisia was lacking the vibrant colour and warmth of Senegal. The cold bit into me at night and as I sat working during the day. People seemed so aggressive- pushing each other on the sidewalks, men catcalling me every other minute, yelling from all sides, all the time. They spoke to me in Arabic and then laughed when I couldn’t answer back. I saw things in shades of grey- the sky, the dark clothes, my mood when I was constantly harassed by men. I’ve been a world traveller since I was a kid, and for the most part I don’t experience much culture shock anymore. But this place was different. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I couldn’t get used to it. I would get home tired and discouraged. I didn’t want to read, or write, or think, I just wanted quiet from the cacophony of noise I was bombarded with each day.

One of the only things that made me smile was working at Tunisia Live. The stories I wrote were exciting, exhausting, and fulfilling. They made me think, and a couple times, cry.

Blue skies from the roof
I got to know some of the Tunisian writers as I edited their stories and asked for their help with my own. I made mistakes (some of them big), and their kindness and patience in teaching me about their country started to slowly change my view of my new home. I went to the market at lunch time, taking in the colours and laughter of fresh produce and the vendors who are colourful characters themselves. One friend showed me a used bookstore across from our office, a treasure for someone who loves to read like I do. I bought a novel by my favourite author, Antoine de Saint Exupery, and sat reading it in the sunshine by the open balcony, looking up at one of the first blue skies I’d seen since arriving. Tunisia was starting to look better.

Fashion Week Tunis: a look from Narcisco Domingo Machiavelli
And then Fashion Week Tunis rolled around. Being immersed in the creativity of a country rebuilding itself was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I have aways wanted to write about fashion and social change, but never thought that I would be able to write about both in one story. I realized then that I am doing exactly what I dreamed of when I signed up for journalism school.

It was also at Fashion Week that something else occurred to me: this is part of the Revolution too. The beauty, message, passion, joy and youth is all vital to this new phase in Tunisia’s history. And by writing about it, and more “serious” topics, I’m a part of all that as well. It’s a humbling thought. As my friend Seyf said to me one day, why wouldn’t I want to be here, crafting a country from scratch, whether it’s in fashion, art, music, politics or journalism? There is a freedom here, a sense of possibility that I have never experienced before.
Tunis in bloom

And that’s why, a little over two months into living in Tunisia, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I’ve also had a chance to travel a bit outside Tunis, and the beauty of the country has left me itching to see more. There is so much left to see, so many things I want to know. I feel like I am contributing in some small way, as a part of a team of people I am proud to call my friends. Every day is its own adventure, and every day I am learning. And for me, that’s enough to make me stick around.
A better view (by Rabii Kalboussi)

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Malian Coup

Yesterday I had the great privilege of speaking with a Tuareg man from Mali. He runs community programs for his people in Timbuktu. I was writing a piece about the coup in Mali, and I wanted some background about the Tuareg rebellion- the catalyst that led Mali's army to seize power from the government.

I don't know how long the interview lasted, but my pen could not write fast enough. The scope of the Tuareg's history, their migrations and discontent, their history in conflicts from Libya to Niger, was staggering. I felt a deep sympathy for this people without a home, but at the same time I ached for the soldiers being pitted against their superior weapons and tactics.

When I hung up the phone, I was exhausted. My colleague across the desk looked at me, quite worried, but I just shook my head. What can someone do in the face of a conflict that has lasted for over a hundred years?

My answer was, as it has always been, to write about it. I was overwhelmed, but my fellow editors and journalists at Tunisia Live encouraged me to dig deeper, and to write the article I have linked below. I hope you will read it, because Mali needs the world to understand what has been going on for too long inside their borders.

Click the link: The Malian Coup - Decades of Rebellion and One Night of Gunfire

A Tuareg in Algeria sits in his army fatigues. Photo by Garrondo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tunisia Live

Hello all!
I am now settled in my new job in Tunis, Tunisia. Posts might be sporadic as I learn the ropes of my new home and position as an editor for Tunisia Live.
Check out for articles I write or have collaborated on. And follow me on Twitter for more consistent updates on what I am doing or working on.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January 31st Protest

It was to be expected: I arrived early, like I usually do. The protest started late, as things in Africa usually do.

I met up with the team from Al Jazeera and let them know that the police were setting up just past the monument. We got some shots of them forming a perimeter around 2:30pm, well before anyone arrived for the demonstration, which was scheduled for 3pm in La Place de L'Obelisque (or, as some old-school Dakar residents will know it as, The Monument).

By around 4 pm a crowd of a few hundred had gathered. It was a mixture of mostly men, groups of young women, children and a few older women milling about in the triangle in front of the Obelisque. I stopped one elderly lady and asked her why she was there.

"Wade needs to leave," she said. "We are tired of him."
"Are you here for your family?" I asked
"I am here for myself, I am here for everyone."

Another young woman said in an interview with Al Jazeera that she didn't understand why Wade had told Gaddafi to leave office, but now was insisting on his right to run for a third term.

As the people grew quiet and bored waiting for the M23 leaders to arrive, Y'en a Marre was assembled behind the monument. They held signs, chanting and singing in preparation to march to the open area in front of L'Obelisque.

Then opposition leader Macky Sall arrived, waving from an SUV as his supporters walked down the street yelling. This was where things got going. By the time they reached the square there were thousands gathered.

As I walked across the sand to the other side of the monument, I stopped to take a picture of three little boys. They were quite fascinated by my audio recorder, and one little boy started talking into it quite loudly in Wolof. One of his friends laughed and told him to speak in French. I managed to piece together that they were Idrissa Seck supporters.

"He's going to help us," they said.

"And what about Wade?" I asked

"We want him to go."

I gave them my orange for their trouble and hoped they would get out of there before things started to heat up.

The Al Jazeera team and I headed to the upper floor of a nearby building to watch from the balcony. Y'en a Marre marched on the square, forming a huge mass of people that filled the space in front of the monument and the surrounding street.

Then Youssou N'Dour arrived. A huge cheer went up from the crowd. There was a definite air of celebration and hope in the air as people sang the national anthem of Senegal. It was quite moving to see so many people (my estimate would be over 10,000) coming together to stand up for their rights as citizens of this country.

When the speeches began I decided it was time to leave and caught a taxi home. Just in time apparently, since people began tweeting that the protesters were burning tires and the police were shooting tear gas soon after I left. Several people have been injured tonight, and reports say that one young person has died after being run over by a police vehicle. After watching a video of the attack, I am shocked more people were not killed. The armored police vehicle drove right into a crowd near the Obelisque, as another truck came behind firing shot after shot of tear gas.

Here is the report by Al Jazeera that I helped with. I'm just a bit tired now, so it might give you the information my muddled brain missed.

Good night everyone. Pray for peace in Senegal.

Monday, January 30, 2012

AJE Interview

My interview with Al Jazeera English about the current situation in Senegal should air on the 9pm news from London, UK tonight.

Update: Senegal

Here is what has happened since my last post:

- Riots on Friday left one police officer dead, and the remnants of burned tires and market tables in the streets
- Senegal's Constitutional Court has said that Youssou N'Dour is not eligible to run, as 4000 of his required signatures were deemed invalid
- The court denied the appeals of N'Dour (to be able to run), the opposition (to disqualify Wade) and Wade (to disqualify certain opposition candidates)
- A youth who was said to be a leader in the M23 protest movement was killed in Podor
- 80% of news websites operating out of Senegal are said to be not functioning properly
- An M23 protest is scheduled for 3pm tomorrow at Place de l'Obelisque
- The opposition and Youssou N'Dour have all been quoted as saying that they will not allow Wade to become president for a third term. Opposition parties say that they will make the country "ungovernable".

In all this, the international media is starting to realize that the story is not that Youssou N'Dour, international superstar, is getting into politics- it's that 80+-year-old Wade isn't getting out of politics.

More updates are posted on my Twitter.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Evac Pack

Was it only yesterday that I wrote the post below?

All of Senegal is now waiting, bracing itself to find out whether President Wade will be allowed to run for a third term or not. Yes or no, there will likely be violence and protests in the streets tonight. Opposition parties got started early today, protesting at the Obelisque, despite a government ban.

The Canadian embassy has advised us to "maintain a high level of vigilance". My family and I made lists tonight of what we would bring in case of evacuation. Instead of my two suitcases and two carry-ons, I may only get one backpack- my Evac Pack. We've been choosy.

I don't think I would be so worried or uncertain, if not for our friends here who evacuated from Cote D'Ivoire in 2002. They came with almost nothing, the sounds of gunshots still ringing in their ears. Tonight, we are praying that our country doesn't come to that- and I'm getting my audio recorder and camera ready in case it does.

Update 9:45 pm, Jan. 27: Wade can run. Here we go.

Great coverage by Rukmini Callimachi of AP here.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Packing for Life Overseas

Whether you are leaving home for a week, a month, a year, or forever, the most common question that visitors and expats ask when traveling is, “What should I bring?” I asked my own “What should I bring?” questions to friends in Tunisia before I packed up my life. I had the added issue of how to pack for an indefinite amount of time. Will I be back to Canada in the next year or two? I’m not sure, but I’m leaning on the side of no, so I had to think hard before filling my suitcases.

Here are some questions to ask yourself before you pack:

1. How much room do I have?
- DON’T go over the airline weight limits and specifications, unless you want to pay a whole lot extra, or have a whole lot more trouble. Some airports allow you to mail things you had to take out of your suitcases, but some don’t. Personally, I try never to risk it.
2. What will I need while I’m there?
- These are the practical needs. Clothes, resources for work, medicine that you might not be able to get at your destination. Asking questions of people on the ground will really help you weed out what you really need and what will just take up space. Less is more, especially when it frees up a place for...
3. What will I not be able to get there that I will really miss?
- These are what you take only if you have room. You might bring favourite food or treats from home, keepsakes, photos of friends and family, pass-times, and things that just make you happy.

So how did I answer the questions?

In this case it was two 50 pound bags, one small backpack (and I mean SMALL if you don’t want to run into trouble. Here is a link the one I carried, with my 13 inch laptop, a small camera, a Zoom audio recorder and my passport inside), and a mini carry-on case.
I also brought another suitcase full of Christmas presents for my family, since I stopped in Dakar to be with them over the holidays. The suitcase was made possible by some kind friends in Canada. It allowed me to fit my Dad’s new laptop in my carry-on and bump some of my necessities to the extra suitcase. We don’t always have that luxury, but it’s always nice to be able bring some Christmas cheer from home.

For me, this was mainly clothes, but also some resources for my job.
The first thing to think about is the plane. I always wear comfy clothes and shoes, then put another outfit, a scarf, hoodie and sandals in my carry-on if a quick change is needed (or in case my luggage is lost). An iPod, magazine, lotion and lip balm for the dry plane, and a travel neck pillow are pretty good companions too. Any important or expensive things also travel with me on the plane.
For clothes, makeup, jewelry and toiletries, I tried to think about how my routine would change, and pack accordingly. I brought some clothes that would be suitable for fall weather, since Tunisia can get pretty cool. Some of my must-haves were my leather bomber jacket, lace-up ankle boots, warm socks and a couple of hoodies. For the warmer weather I brought Birkenstocks, below-the-knee skirts and lots of tee shirts, with some nicer dresses and tops thrown in. And of course, I included a journalist staple- button down cotton shirts. I tried to keep in mind what would be culturally appropriate and modest, while still focusing on comfort and practicality for my work.
In terms of what I need for my job, the electronics in my backpack about summed it up, but I also picked up a copy of the Associated Press Style Guide just before I left. For free-lance work I brought the Canadian Press Caps and Spelling, and for survival purposes a tiny Larousse and my Becherelle.
I also packed some medications that I knew I might not get for a while. Many things will be readily available to me in Tunisia, but there were some (like ibuprofen liquid gel-caps) that I just did not want to risk being without.
The last real necessity that I brought was my small, well-worn ESV version Bible. It’s better than any compass I know. Without it I’d be lost.

I’m a big fan of eating whatever is available on my travels, so the only “food” item I packed was Vanilla Earl Grey and Vanilla Rooibos tea. Those two are as much about stress relief as a taste thing for me!
There were a few magazines (Outside, Relevant and Lula) that I knew I would be missing and made sure to bring. Then I added Le Petit Prince (my all time favourite book). Luckily I received a Kindle for Christmas, so I was glad I hadn’t lugged half my library with me like I’d wanted to.
Before I left I got some photos printed. I picked my favourite people and memories and will have them on display in my new place on a rotating basis.
Finally, I brought some mini scented candles from Bath and Body Works and some mini perfume bottles (Pacifica Malibu Lemon Blossom, DKNY Be Delicious, and Very Irresistible Givenchy, in case you were wondering). I also chose a few colours from my embarrassingly large nail polish collection. Everyone has their little indulgences that help them get through the busy times, and these are some of mine.

Packing for any length of time can be stressful. but I’ve found that when I remember these three questions, it can actually be a lot fun. I like to imagine the adventures the things I pack will have with me. And, frankly, living with less is never a bad lesson to learn for most of us Westerners, so I don’t sweat the small stuff. Because really, you will live, no matter what you forget or don’t have room for (unless it’s life saving medicine- please don’t forget that!).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Different Senegal

I'm typing from the other side of the ocean now.

I've officially left Canada, with no plans of returning any time soon. A stop-over at home in Senegal for a month or two seemed only natural as I prepare to enter the international journalism scene (more on that another day). I'll be moving to Tunisia soon, but for the time being I am soaking up the sunshine in my second home. And let me tell you, while so much has remained the same, this is not the Senegal I knew growing up.

The Arab spring has had a huge effect on the usually peaceful Senegalese. Peaceful (and not-so-peaceful) protests are popping up on a regular basis as our country gears up for an election in February. Our aging President Wade (his age is contested, but most agree he is in his late 80s to mid 90s) has decided to run again, claiming that the constitutional change limiting a president to two terms doesn't apply to him because it occurred during his first term. While Wade was in opposition he opposed corruption like this from his nemesis Abdou Diouf: Now he has a bevy of his own discrepancies to answer for.

Before I leave, I am adding a conversation with a group called Y'en a marre! to my Senegal bucket list. "Y'en a marre" translates to "had enough," after a song written by Côte D'Ivoirian reggae singer Tiken Jah Fakoly. The was group, led by popular Senegalese rappers, formed in February of last year to protest against Wade's candidacy. The leaders of the group have stirred up young men in the country to political action. They've been imprisoned, but have kept fighting for democracy and change in the country. They are made up of the impoverished working class, a collection of youth who refuse to align themselves with a political party. To me, that sounds like much-needed change, but I'd like to interview them first-hand to be sure.

About a month ago my dad and I watched a video online of a man shooting at a crowd of protesters. He was calm, nonchalant and swaggering as though he were doing nothing more than shooing away a few pesky little boys. What is even more disturbing is that people are walking by in the video as if nothing as happening. They most likely believed his was shooting off fireworks since it was the holiday season. One young man died that day, as the police stood back and watched. The man who shot him is Barthelemy Dias, whose face was all over the paper my old friend Moussa brought me the next day. Dias is the opposition Socialist Party's youth leader, and he has now been arrested on murder charges and possession of an illegal firearm. He was shooting at a group of young men from the ruling party, who he claims attacked his office.

This is not the old Senegal, a place where the only major violence happens down south in the Cassamance. This is not the Senegal that held the first ever peaceful transfer of power in Africa. This is a Senegal of anger and frustration, of protests and riot police. This is a Senegal with embassy emails about contingency evacuation plans, and notices saying to avoid going downtown. But maybe it will be a Senegal of change in the weeks and months to come.