Category: Science Fiction

Black Migrations Day 4: Gambia

Gambia (aka The Gambia) is a country, but it is also a river (The Gambia River) which goes through several countries: Gambia, Senegal, and Guinea. This can get confusing because when historians say “the Gambia” they sometimes mean the country and sometimes mean the river. Imagine if some of the time when people said “Mississippi,” they meant the state of Mississippi, but other times they meant Minnesota, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas.

At least The Gambia is not “The Congo,” which is simultaneously a river; a river system; and two countries (Congo and Democratic Republic of the Congo, not the same place). Detouring into U.S. history a bit, it’s estimated that more than 50% of the African slaves brought to the U.S. were kidnapped from along the Gambia and Congo rivers and their tributaries. (Both of these rivers are in West Africa.) Much the same way a modern kidnapper might throw someone into a car, slavers threw people into boats so they could speed away from rescuers on foot and isolate captives.

This strikes me as particularly heartbreaking because a river is a river. It’s where you get water. It’s where you build settlements. Even knowing there are slavers on the river, you can’t really stay away from the river. So when you get caught, you probably feel angry at yourself, completely irrationally, as though it is pain you did to yourself, and this double bind is an idea which makes me furious.

Also, less relevantly, it reminds me of how in The Matrix they have to stay away from highways.

Back to the country of Gambia. It’s the smallest country on mainland Africa, with an area of 4361 square miles. (That’s four times the size of Rhode Island. Let’s all look down on Rhode Island for a minute. And it’s a little more than half the size of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, so let’s think about what this implies concerning Rhode Island.) Gambia the country is essentially the riverbanks of Gambia the river for the half of its length (the westernmost half, the half that ends with the Atlantic Ocean). At its widest point, Gambia is 31 miles wide. It’s entirely surrounded by Senegal on the sides which are not the Atlantic Ocean.

About half the population lives in urban settings. There’s a lot of ethnic diversity, with the most commonly spoken languages being Mandingo, Fula, Wolof, Serer, and Jola. English is used in government and school contexts. A lot of people speak French as well. And Gambia has its own sign language, which is based off of Dutch sign language but integrates a lot of local gestures; it’s not at all related to American Sign Language (although it’s picked up some British and French sign words). The main religion is Sunni Islam, and 95% of the population is Islamic, but freedom of religion is protected in the constitution.

The most popular sport is wrestling. The main exports are fabric, wood, and nuts. The average number of children for a woman to have is four. There is a history of welcoming refugees and immigrants, even though Gambia is not a wealthy country. (The opposite.)

Human rights in Gambia have liberalized substantially since 2016, when an authoritarian ruler named Jammeh, who had been the dictator for 22 years, was forced out with help from ECOWAS (The Economic Community of West African States), who continue to maintain a small peacekeeping force in the country. Gambia is now a presidential republic with a largely reformed judiciary. They are still going through the work of truth and reconciliation commissions, and working on what form reparations should take. I hold a lot of hope for them. I think their next elections are in 2021, so I’ll be watching how those go.

African Geography Notes: Comoros

For Day 2 of Black History Month 2019: Black Migrations, I would like to share some facts about about Comoros, a volcanic island chain off the east coast of Africa, between Mosambique and Madagascar. It was settled in probably the 6th century and is mostly Afro-Arab. The dominant religion is Sunni Islam and the legal system is based on both Islamic law and the Napoleonic Code. Their inheritance law is interesting because some types of property and authority pass along the matrilineal line (similar to Bantu practices) and other types pass along the patrilineal line. The island of Ngazidja is particularly matrilineal. Official languages are Comorian, Arabic, and French. Near as I can tell, mostly Comorian is for regular talking, Arabic is for religion, and French is for official government business. It’s a federal presidential republic and part of both the African Union and the Arab League.
As an American, your main interaction with Comoros is probably as a consumer of perfumes. Comoros is the top producer of ylang ylang. Better than 50% of their GDP is made up of sales of spices and essential oils.
The population (I’m going to hedge here for reasons that will become clear in the next paragraph) is about a million people, and the population density is high because there are only so many places you can build a building on a volcanic archipelago. There are significant disparities in standard of living, and significant infrastructure problems in ways that remind me of Hawaii.
Comoros declared independence from France in 1975, but also didn’t. There are four main islands, and one of them, Mayotte, decided it wanted to stay a part of France. So it’s still part of France and has representation in the French senate. But it’s also part of Comoros. The UN recognizes it as part of Comoros. But that one island has French/EU citizens and uses the Euro, and people from the other three islands can’t necessarily work there legally. A lot of them work there anyway, illegally, without legal protections. I can’t think of a perfect paralell for this situation; the closest I get is Hong Kong in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, the non-Mayotte parts of Comoros have experienced at least 20 coups or attempted coups in the last 40 years, often with assassinations involved. Consequently, the people don’t have a lot of confidence in the politicians or political system – there’s been a lot of turmoil, some of it violent. Comoros is one of the world’s poorest countries and is very worried about climate change. It’s had trouble attracting investment and tourism because of the instability, although they’ve developed recent partnerships with China. The current president is working on green energy projects.
I got interested in Comoros last year when I needed a volcanic island chain for a futurist short story about guaranteed minimum income, refugee policy, and the invention of a new battery/fertilizer. (The story is not published yet; I need to revise the third act, which I rushed through in the first draft.) I zeroed in on this particular set of islands partly because in interviews I watched with Comorian laborers, I liked them a lot. I wanted to write protagonists that acted like the people I was watching. My story is not set on Comoros, but it seems to me that one could easily write a lot of SF inspired by Comoros. It seems to contain a lot of the structural elements people try to write into Star Wars, Final Fantasy, etc.
Here is a short BBC video on YouTube with good images of the island of Anjouan.

New BBC shortform doc about the Great Green Wall

Watch it here.

The most sci-fi moonshot project going on right now isn’t the hyperloop—it’s the Great Green Wall. They are literally fighting a battle to hold back the desert with a gigantic created forest that cuts all the way across Africa. It’s like the Wall in Game of Thrones, but with heat and not cold. The African Union has been building it since 2005 (I don’t know how to get across how huge it is) and I love it and will always post news stories about it. Hats off to Senegal particularly.

Vengeance Demon at Heart

A pretty common narrative in stories of male misbehavior is that the woman is told to keep it quiet because “do you want to ruin his career? do you want to break up his family?” This is apparently a very effective (and very messed up) way to take some of the best parts of socialized femininity (empathy, concern for community) and warp them into something harmful, which is my least favorite kind of con.

But also it draws my attention to how much of a vengeance demon I am at heart, because yes absolutely I want to ruin his career and break up his family. That’s exactly what I want—it sounds great. I’ve never been sexually assaulted and I’ve never met this guy, but I am basically a tornado in human form. If you’re reading this, I have probably considered breaking up your family and ruining your career at least once and probably right now. I think about doing it to my own self, even. I might actually be one of the Furies.

Money Origami Flower

The short film I’m working on (“Tick Tock Toe”) involves a magic trick in which a flower turns into money, so I’ve been prototyping the stunt 5-euro note. This is what I’ve got at the moment.

Under slightly different lighting conditions:

Strange but true: one of my overarching strengths as a filmmaker is having done a lot of origami as a kid.

To answer the obvious question: no, unfortunately I can’t give you instructions. I’m not sure I myself could make this exact fold again. I just kept sculpting the bill until it looked ok.

James Comey’s Firing and the Obstruction of Justice

I think we can all agree that when your boss tells you he wants you to do [x], after which you don’t do [x], and then your boss fires you and says it was because you didn’t do [x], it’s pretty clear the boss felt he had ordered you to do [x]. We don’t have to imaginary time travel back to the initial conversation to parse words and wonder what they might have meant back then. We know! We know because we are in now time.

Also, if we have time machines I’d like to use them for something else. PM me if you’ve got one.

Would also accept a magic rainbow we could gallop a unicorn across while dropping colored stars off the side.

Matt says: I have several time machines—some even conveniently fit on my wrist—but they all appear to be stuck in “move forward as usual” mode, despite my best efforts at getting them to do something else. Also, they frequently lose power and have to be reminded when they are, but their failsafe mechanism seems to keep them safely where they were at when they lost power. (Granted, they are not space machines—not moving through the manifold on their own, but they enjoy it when I take them on trips with me)

Some are getting a little old and forget a few seconds every day, but they don’t seem to be any less happy than the others.