Author Archives: davidfittell

Leftovers

Today is my last day in the Maldives. I don’t have time to write a tidy concluding piece to this blog but here is a collection of leftover bits & pieces from my notebooks that haven’t fitted into previous posts. Please note that the most recent post is at the top. To start the story from the beginning, scroll to the bottom.

The kindness of strangers

…is the title of a collection of travellers stories published by Lonely Planet. Here’s a few of mine:

  • The man in Male’ who, when I asked directions to the ATM, said “Get on my motorcycle” and took me right to it.
  • The security guard at Kooddoo airport, where the check-in hall was swelteringly hot and packed with a raucous mob of Chinese honeymooners heading for a resort. He discreetly led me to another room where I could wait for the delayed plane in quiet, air-conditioned solitude.
  • When I asked for directions to the bank, the man who replied, “I’m going there too – walk with me.” It was payday and the bank was packed with Indian and Bangladeshi workers sending money home to their families. I lost sight of my guide, but while I was lining up to take a ticket for service he found me again – he’d already got me a ticket, and a place to wait under the air-conditioner.
  • All the people I bought things from who didn’t use my ignorance as an opportunity to rip me off, including the man who ran after me with change when I thought he’d said the bag of mangoes was 50/- (a fair price) but he’d actually said 15/-.
  • Rasheed from Dhandhoo who, upon seeing a stranger walk past his house, immediately came out, introduced himself, and took me on a guided walk around his island.
  • Hosean from Hinnavaru, who saw me swimming, waded out to introduce himself and welcome me to his island and then waited on the beach until I’d finished so he could invite me to his home. He wanted to give me breakfast too, even though it was Ramazan and he wasn’t eating till sunset.

Tomatoes

Me: “Do you have any tomatoes?”
Bangladeshi shopkeeper: “No.”

It seems like a simple exchange, but if you had heard the infinite sadness in that one word, and seen look of grief on the poor man’s face, you would have realised that the meaning he was conveying was more complex: “As you well know, we have always been able to source tomatoes of the very best quality and freshness, shipped directly from my uncle’s farm in Noakhali. However my family recently suffered a great loss. While tending his tomato plants at dawn, my uncle was attacked and eaten by a tiger, and we have been unable to locate another supplier who can meet our high standards.” Or something like that.

I didn’t have the heart to ask if he had any tinned tomatoes.

Sailing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMost of the traditional dhonis had their masts and sails replaced with engines and propellers many years ago but on Hinnavaru there’s a few little ones that still have a sailing rig. In the evenings I would sometimes see an old man, crippled with arthritis, slowly and painfully baling out his boat, tidying the rigging and wrapping up the sail. Sometimes an even older man, clearly with dementia, would be trundled down to the boat-harbour in his wheelchair and they’d greet each other.

I had never actually seen one of these dhonis out sailing until one morning I woke very early and went for a walk around the island. There was the old man’s little boat dancing lightly along the horizon as the sun rose. There was no hint of the sailor’s age or arthritis – it was as if he had wings. He could have been a teenager.

In the distance was a storm cloud. It made me realise how vulnerable this old man was – there’s no lifejackets or safety gear in any of these boats. A sudden gust of wind or an unseen reef could be the end of him and no-one would notice until he was late for lunch. And then I thought – he would probably consider that a preferable outcome to ending up like his friend in the wheelchair.

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Magazine 

I read this in the Maldivian Airlines magazine while flying down to Villingili:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Every island has, by decree of a former president, a straight road up and down and across the island. The orderliness and cleanliness is remarkable.”

As you fly over the islands, you can see clearly how effectively that president’s order was carried out. My associate on Villingili told me that her family’s house was a lot bigger before the road was straightened and took out a few rooms.

The sandy beaches all look wonderfully enticing as you fly over, but once you land on an inhabited island you have cause to reflect on the magazine writer’s second sentence and wonder if they have ever been to this country. Most islands have no waste-management system apart from the daily tides.

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The ‘swimming beach’ at GA Villingili

Skills

welderThe school curriculum is academic and theoretical – it seems that someone has intentionally removed anything that could be seen as ‘fun’. Science subjects only do the theory papers, with no practical work in Physics, Chemistry or Biology; art is only taught in primary grades and I haven’t found any music in schools. There’s no Manual Arts or Home Economics equivalents – the concept of a Technology curriculum is totally unknown – and I’ve seen no opportunities for vocational education in the islands.

However, everyone seems to have survival skills, especially in electrical, plumbing, concreting, welding and engine repairs. They do a lot of welding. Some safety-conscious welders will wear a pair of knock-off Ray Bans but most don’t bother with any eye protection. This guy is making a sign for his political party’s meeting place. He’s obviously in the yellow party, and he’s using another party’s flags as his cleaning rags.

Games

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe people on Hinnavaru love organised games. Every afternoon during last week’s Eid holidays, the streets were filled with fun and laughter. Kids and grandmas were running around with flour bombs and water pistols filled with dye. Groups of a dozen or more people of all ages were having three-legged races, sack races, tug of war, and a whole lot of games I’d never seen before.

Bashi is usually played by women, and there’s a nationwide competition. A player from the ‘serving’ team stands on one side of a tennis net and repeatedly hits tennis balls backwards over her head as quickly and violently as possible, while the ‘receiving’ team tries to catch them and avoid getting too badly hurt. The server gets a point for each ball that isn’t caught, and is out if caught.

Tug of war is exciting. You can win in the usual way, but there’s a local twist – if your team looks like losing, you can try an alternate strategy of running rings around the other team with your end of the rope and tying them into a bundle.

There’s another game similar to one we called ‘Dog and Bone’ where two teams line up facing each other, there’s a sack on the ground in between them and when a number is called, the person with that number on each team tries to retrieve the sack. The local variation is that if both players get hold of the sack at the same time, the rest of the team can then form a sort of ‘reverse scrum’ where they grab their player around the waist and haul them back over the line – unless the player with the sack lets go or has their arms dislocated.

Seaplanes

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was a kid I built a model of a 1930s Supermarine seaplane – I’ve always thought they were wonderful machines but had never seen one up close until I came to Maldives. Down in Gaafu Alifu there was a land airport (one of only a handful in the country) but when I moved to Hinnavaru I found that all the resort visitors travel by seaplane and I saw them coming and going every day from a nearby island. I considered them a risky proposition, with a necessarily high centre of gravity, and at first would watch every take-off and landing with the expectation of the plane catching a wave at the wrong angle and flipping over.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy the time I got to fly in one, I’d seen enough successful flights to give me more confidence. Once in the air I realised that when 99% of a nation’s area is ocean, an emergency landing is much less likely to go bad if you’re in a plane with floats instead of wheels.

Flying in them is great fun. There’s no airport formalities with take-off – just drop the mooring rope, point the plane into the wind and you’re in the air before you’ve gone 100 metres. They stay low so you get wonderful views of the islands, and there’s a 66% chance of getting a window seat. There’s no cockpit door so you can watch the barefooted pilots and see through their windscreen as they dive to land beside a beach or jetty.

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Take-off at sunrise

Work

Contrary to the impression I’ve given throughout this blog, I actually spent most days working at schools in my ‘Teacher Trainer’ role so I’ll write a few words about the reason I was here.

My assignment was to do a needs-assessment in the local schools and in response to that, design two Professional Development modules that could be implemented by the Teacher Resource Centres in each atoll. I designed, trialled and published those resources (if you’re interested, you can see some of my work here), but spent more of my time observing teachers’ lessons and giving individual feedback.

A major problem in education here and in many other developing countries is that everyone (teachers, admin, parents, tutors, textbook writers) focuses on  memorising facts from textbooks. Students aren’t required to use higher-order thinking skills such as applying, analysing, evaluating or creating until they encounter the UK Cambridge syllabus in high school. At that point, students who achieved ‘A’s all through primary school suddenly fail.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe focus on testing memorised facts is pervasive. Students spend much of their time in revision (which involves trying to commit large slabs of text to memory in much the same was as they rote-learn the Q’Uran) and doing mid-term test, past papers, term exams, topic tests, practice tests… but it’s all theoretical and students rarely get a chance to apply their learning.

Exams are a big deal. They close the streets around the school to avoid disturbing students. During the recent political crisis, the dates of the O-Level exams were a major factor in deciding when to re-run a failed election. The cost of printing all those papers and the amount of time taken away from learning is huge. My boss at QSA used to tell the analogy of a farmer who was so concerned about having his pigs ready for market that he spent all his days weighing them and had no time left to feed them. I’ve had cause to tell that story often, but of course had to change the pigs into cows for my Muslim audience.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Early this year, a major research study tested every Grade 4, 7 and 9 student in the country and it showed convincingly that Maldivian students don’t use higher-order thinking skills. Consequently, much of my work has focused on changing teaching and assessment programs to value higher-order thinking. Perhaps the most sustainable outcomes of my work are the changes schools made to assessment policy in this regard – some have replaced their mid-term tests with student projects, and there have been changes in the admin and teaching focus from ‘knowledge’ to ‘skills’ and ‘understanding’.

I’ve written a couple of journal articles in response to my observations. One is about to be published by the local university. Here’s a few paragraphs from the introduction:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“I saw a school that has the motto “Knowledge is Wisdom” on its front gate. I had recently observed lessons in many primary classrooms and the misconception embodied in that motto helped to explain some of the problems I had identified.

The teaching I observed is almost always ‘didactic’ – a one-way transfer of facts from teacher or text book to student. It aligned with the simplistic model of learning that Cohen (1988) described:

“If knowledge is facts, then teaching is telling and learning is remembering.”  

However, as Stoll and Schubert (1996) explained:

Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom.”

The “Knowledge is wisdom” school motto fails to recognise that teaching children to remember facts does not make them educated or wise. Knowledge alone is not wisdom.”

Here’s the whole paper: Knowledge is Wisdom? Observations from Primary classrooms in the Maldives

Election

What do people do when their election has been stolen?

Some resort to subtle irony: instead of spending Saturday as he’d hoped, supporting the yellow party (MDP) at the polling booth, Alibe sits outside his yellow house weaving a new seat for his joli with yellow rope, but wearing a pink shirt, the colour of the party in power. The message is not lost on those who pass by.

As police in Male’ block protest marches and barricade the Electoral Commission so that they can’t proceed with the election, protestors hold up mirrors to help them reflect on their actions and see what they look like from the other side.

Some make artistic statements: the Male’ surfing community built tottering coral towers on the sea walls as a symbol of how fragile democracy can be.

Pic: minivannews.com

Pic: minivannews.com

Somewhat less subtle symbols are the many pairs of large white underpants being waved around. This was the garment featured, on and off, in leaked videos of one of the Supreme Court judges who has blocked the election.

While the people on one side of politics are out protesting, demanding the right to have their vote, those on the other side have gone very quiet, perhaps looking just a little smug…

The longer the delay, the more it seems likely that the Supreme Court will annul the first-round election result, despite this: “Transparency Maldives expresses concern over the delay of the second round of elections and rising tensions as Transparency Maldives did not receive any reports that suggest systematic fraud in its nationwide observation and no credible evidence that supports such allegations has been made public.”

Seashells

The second round of the Presidential election is scheduled for Saturday, between the top two candidates from the first round. However the candidate who came third claims there’s been a major fraud (despite international observers giving high praise to the process) and has been arguing his case in the Supreme Court all week. The Court has ordered the election be delayed until they hand down a decision, but the Electoral Commission is torn between the court order on one hand, or the Parliament and Constitution on the other telling them to go ahead – there’s much confusion about which way they will lean. Widespread protests and disruption seem likely either way.

So it seems like a good week to write a piece about seashells.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI love walking on beaches and exploring what has washed in with the tide, and can’t resist going home with a few treasures in my pocket. Here, I walk on a beach sprinkled with interesting seashells every day so I have set myself some rules for collecting. After all, my baggage allowance for the flight home is limited.

My self-imposed guidelines are:

1) Just one good example of each species.

2) Don’t take shells that are inhabited.

3) Only keep shells I’ve found myself – no outsourcing to souvenir shops or schoolboys wanting to earn pocket money (because shops and schoolboys don’t follow Rule #2).

Rule #1 gets relaxed a bit because some are just too nice; a range of sizes is interesting; and I want to share some with  grandkids, but I’m inflexible on the other two.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’d have a much more interesting and diverse collection if it wasn’t for Rule #2 and hermit crabs. There’s a few beautiful species of shell that I don’t have because, no matter how soon I get to the beach after high tide or storm surge, hermit crabs have been their first. They are discerning, only taking up residence in the very best quality shells. However a colleague tells me that on his island a population explosion has caused an accommodation crisis and homeless hermit crabs have started moving into Coke bottle lids.

Ambitious hermit crabs are particularly annoying. They’re the ones who move into a shell several sizes too large and can hide around the corner when I check if there’s anyone in residence. I only find out about them when I’m half way home and start getting nipped through my pocket lining.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday I saw a species of shell that I particularly wanted, and that hermit crabs particularly like. It was lying on the beach surrounded by half a dozen hermit crabs, but was still vacant. It looked like they were having a meeting of the housing committee to decide who should move in. More likely, they were all waiting to grab it but weren’t game to move out of their current home and expose their tender parts while others with sharp nippers were watching, so it was a standoff until I dashed their hopes and pocketed their prize.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe spider conch makes the most spectacular shell I’ve seen around here. They’re too big and awkward for hermit crabs but the creature is delicious to eat so I’m competing with humans for this one. Around the island they were wiped out long ago but people still bring them back from outer reefs – piles of smashed shells on the beach are evidence of barbecues. Too bad they can’t extract dinner without destroying the shells.

I did find a small one on the beach after a storm. Its owner/builder was deceased but hadn’t entirely vacated the premises so I had to let the ants in my courtyard work on the clean-up for a few weeks before it could come inside.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI don’t know whether I’ll be able to take my small collection home. I’ve been told that Maldivian Customs will only allow you to take out shells if they were purchased from souvenir shops and have ‘Maldives’ stamped on them – this proves that they are actually from Thailand. There may also be problems at the Australian end despite my ethical collecting practices, so I’m taking plenty of photos just in case I can’t keep the real thing.

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Resort

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAResort #1

After six months in Maldives, I finally had my first visit to a resort. Too bad it was only for a couple of hours in the company of 55 Travel & Tourism students.

Kuredu is about 40 minutes by launch from our island, but a world away in every other sense – literally eye-opening for many of these students from a conservative Islamic community, with their first impression being how little clothing some guests wear (especially the ones with bodies you’d prefer to be covered up a bit more – yes, large German couple, I’m talking about you).

When I was down south in Gaafu Alifu I never met a local who’d been to a resort, even though there were a couple nearby, because they source all their labour and supplies directly from overseas. Here the business model has much more benefit to the local community. They prefer continuity of employment and several of their managers are locals who started as cleaners 20 years ago. Their presentation to students focused on employment options and encouraging students to work towards a career in the resort – very refreshing to hear, as young adults I met down south told me how they feel trapped on an island with no future.

I found out why my island has a rubbish dump when many others don’t. The Dive Centre manager explained to the kids: “People from all over the world spend thousands of dollars to come here and swim in your beautiful oceans and dive on your amazing reefs. They don’t want to swim with your garbage. That’s why our resort manages the dump on your island and our barge comes to take the rubbish away. We need you to help by not dumping stuff in the sea, because keeping the beaches and reefs clean and beautiful will secure your community’s future.” OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The dive guy offered to come to our island and give the kids free snorkelling lessons. He asked who had ever been snorkelling and seen live coral: no-one except me, not even teachers or parents. He asked who could swim a bit, because that was a prerequisite for the snorkelling lessons: six hands, boys only. It’s so sad that in the few weeks I’ve been here, I’ve seen more of the amazing environment that surrounds this island than most of the people who’ve lived here all their lives.

On the launch ride home, kids tossed their empty bottles into the sea.

Resort #2

The local musos I have been playing with got an audition gig at the staff club on the same resort island. They’re great players, especially the front man who sings like Bob Marley and channels Clapton guitar solos. The middle of every song is very good, but they’ve never bothered with intros or endings or having a set list. I pushed them to prepare for the audition by planning the sets and working out some arrangements but it was hard work. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The gig started with resort staff arriving at the practice room to carry all our gear to their launch. While they stowed it on board, the band headed for the top deck and reclined royally on couches. At the resort, the gear was delivered to a nice little stage they’d set up beside the pool. We got the ancient PA going without too much drama, but during sound-check I broke one of the equally ancient bass strings. Major problem. The nearest spare is in Male’.

The locals don’t carry spares of anything. Preventative maintenance is unheard of; risk management is based on the principle of “Insha’ Allah” – “God willing.”

A brief detour: My colleague Peter’s ferry commute to Male’ passes a submarine that takes tourists down to the reef. I asked if he was going to try it. His response: “Are you kidding? You’ve seen how they do maintenance in this country!” OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Back to the gig: I’ve tried to resurrect broken bass strings before but never succeeded. However this time, because I had a pair of pliers and a local guy had dexterity, we got the bass going again. No such luck when the lead guitar broke a string in the first song of our set, but Ibbe’ played on convincingly and the resort has offered the band some work.

We were given dinner while staff lugged our gear and then we relaxed under the stars for a launch cruise through the islands back to Hinnavaru. I tried to tell the guys that rock-star treatment like this is not typical in the music scene – that my trip home from a gig usually involves junk food and bad coffee to keep myself awake as I drive down the motorway soaked in sweat in a car overloaded with gear that I lugged myself… but they don’t believe me.

Resort #3

One Thursday afternoon, some of the Indian teachers said they’d been planning to spend a night on a resort, and invited me to join them. I said, “Sure, which weekend?” and they said, “We’ll see you at the boat harbour at six o’clock.” I thought it was only Maldivians that had that sort of long-term planning.

We took a speed boat to Kuredu. As we arrived, damp and bedraggled after a rough crossing, I got the impression we weren’t expected. I asked who had made the booking: no-one had, it wasn’t necessary. Then they delegated me to negotiate our accommodation. Thanks guys. Fortunately the security guy at the jetty remembered me from the band gig, so at least we got ashore.

I waited a long time for various levels of staff to phone each other a few times. Then I was taken to reception where I spoke to more people until finally the accommodation manager came out and introduced himself. He was very nice and told me that he’d love to have us all stay any time that we give him 24 hours notice. However there was no way he could give us rooms tonight and we should leave. Right now.

So we sat on the jetty, watching fabulous big fish chasing little fish that had come to the light, until we could hitch a lift home on the staff dhoni. I could have felt annoyed, but I really didn’t have any other plans for the evening and I guess you could classify this as an adventure.

And when we got back to Hinnavaru they bought me dinner, so all is forgiven.

Resort #4

There was a risk of violence during the Presidential election. We had an Australian volunteers’ team gathering coming up so our bosses decided to manage the risk by bringing it forward and holding it in a ‘secure location’ over the weekend. Finally, I was at a resort as a guest!

An 'uninhabited' island

An ‘uninhabited’ island

As I said earlier, these places are a different world – so different that the government classifies them as ‘uninhabited’ islands. This is a convenient way to get around the nation’s Islamic law and allow tourists the beer/bacon/bikinis that are illegal for locals. Dogs are illegal too. I wondered whether the resort might have a friendly one to share my morning walk like I found in Thailand but no such luck.

Another brief detour: There were two dogs in the Maldives for while. They were employed as drug-sniffers at the airport, but they had the misfortune to sniff drugs in the luggage of a senior politician so they were immediately diagnosed with rabies and had to be put down. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The resort had many of the things that I’ve been missing all year – every kind of fruit & vegetable; real coffee; other beverages that helped when the Australian election result came through; a bed that didn’t smell of mildew; beautiful clean beaches and undamaged coral reef. But the thing I enjoyed most was long conversations with people who shared the same first language. Everyone I work with in the schools has English to some extent, but none are native speakers and communicating is such hard work. Conversations tend to be at a superficial level because there is not enough shared language to deal with complex issues.

It was great to catch up with the other AusAid volunteers. You meet interesting people in this role. All our projects are in some aspect of education – currently there are four of us working in the atolls as teacher trainers. The rest are at the new university in Male’:

  • a Professor of education developing HR programs, grappling with issues of ethics and accountability;
  • a surgeon/public health expert creating a Masters in Public Health course in a country where hospitals and clinics often have no trained nurse or doctor;
  • a political scientist developing programs in – you guessed it – at a time when the first democratically-elected President has recently been toppled in a coup and an earlier corrupt dictator still holds sway in the parliament and courts;
  • a counsellor/mental health professional creating courses in a field where virtually nothing exists;
  • finally, the new guy designing open learning programs that are so necessary in this scattered collection of islands.

The Presidential election went well, generally free and fair and without violence. The previous President (the one forced out in last year’s coup) was clear leader with 45% of the vote but not the 50% required for a first-round win, so the top two candidates will have a second round vote in three weeks. The potential for trouble is deferred until then ( the governing party have said they won’t hand over power, even if they lose), but we’re not likely to get another resort weekend out of it. Especially after seeing the new Australian government’s plan to hack the AusAid budget.

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We were relaxing by the resort pool on election day, having a few beverages and dissecting the Australian results. Someone said, “If the Murdoch press got a photo of us here, imagine the headline! The rest of the AusAid budget would be gone by Monday.” OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Snapshots

Some words and pictures about things I’ve noticed lately.
(Click on thumbnails for bigger pic)

Evening walk at the boat harbour

Evening walk at the boat harbour

The delight on a little girl’s face as her dad lets the kite string run free. The spool of thread whirls crazily around a stick she’s holding while the kite dances across rooftops all the way to the other side of the island. When it’s out over the boat harbour, dad grabs the string and the kite shoots skywards until it’s almost lost to sight in the storm cloud.

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Chillis drying

A noisy card game in the middle of the haruge (political party’s meeting place) while old guys at the back try to stop them drowning out their presidential candidate’s speech on the video.

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Haruge

Dhoni

Dhoni

I’m having fun playing funky reggae and Dhivehi rock with the local band at an Eid party celebrating the end of Ramazan. The dancing kids part as a lady in black appears in the middle of the room: the mother of the rhythm guitarist has come to take him home. A couple of weeks ago, a visiting speaker at the mosque delivered a long Friday sermon on the evils of music – especially this kind of music.

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The anticipation on boys’ faces as the fat kid does a 30 metre run-up for his belly-flop into the harbour.

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A wild monsoon storm is raging across the soccer field. A corner kick floats the ball across the goal mouth, a brilliant overhead scissor kick slams home the goal, Riverside win the final and a young man becomes a local legend.
(I don’t know why his team is called Riverside – there isn’t a single island in this nation that’s big enough to have any kind of river).

Sunrise, with dhoni and seaplane

Sunrise, with dhoni and seaplane

3:30 on a hot, still afternoon. The streets are deserted; everyone is indoors waiting for the heat to go out of the day. Dark clouds in the west promise cool relief and a spectacular sunset, while thunder rumbles like distant cannon-fire until it is drowned out by calls to prayer from the three mosques, their interweaving melodies creating random harmonies.

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The school caretaker is watching his friend fishing in the harbour. He snaps a narrow leaf off a palm frond, folds the thick end into a triangular knot, and strips the rest away from its spine. Later, he’ll thread it through the gills of half a dozen fish to carry them home.

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It’s late evening and floodlights have been set up so the men who’ve built a new haruge on my street corner can finish the painting. It’s bright pink, colour of the ruling party. Across the street, another group takes advantage of the pink guys’ lighting to paint the corner yellow and put up posters for their party. Next morning, a building on the opposite corner has its faded pink from the last election replaced with the red and green of a new party. Later in the day a few pink flags go up on poles in the street. Not to be outdone, the yellow team comes back in the evening to erect a 20 metre flag pole in the middle of the intersection with flags covering the guy ropes that radiate in every direction… and it’s still three weeks till the election.

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