on writing

Fidget, type, delete, stand up, sit down, walk aimlessly, sing, talk to myself, stare out the window. Repeat. Sometimes words flow. Other times they stick stubbornly amidst cobwebbed clutter. Writing, though exhausting, is important for me not just because it is the primary means through which I share my work with others, but also because it is a process through which I discover, generate, clarify, and organize ideas. But oh, is it hard. Lynn Hunt has a fabulous essay on this exact subject, an excerpt of which is below. It’s always good to know we are not alone in our self-made battles.

Everyone who has written at any substantial length, whether prose or poetry, knows that the process of writing itself leads to previously unthought thoughts. Or to be more precise, writing crystallizes previously half-formulated or unformulated thoughts, gives them form, and extends chains of thoughts in new directions. Neuroscience has shown that 95 percent of brain activity is unconscious. My guess about what happens is that by physically writing—whether by hand, by computer, or by voice activation (though I have no experience of the latter)—you set a process literally into motion, a kind of shifting series of triangulations between fingers, blank pages or screens, letters and words, eyes, synapses or other “neural instantiations,” not to mention guts and bladders. By writing, in other words, you are literally firing up your brain and therefore stirring up your conscious thoughts and something new emerges. You are not, or at least not always, transcribing something already present in your conscious thoughts. Is it any wonder that your neck gets stiff?

Full essay here. h/t @alleneli

Now, back to writing.

Home at last in Mogadishu

In the Somalia of today, comedians are murdered for telling jokes and journalist butchered for telling the truth. Certainly this cannot be the time for developing a constitution. I cannot but conclude that the constitutional process is nothing more than an attempt by the international community to make legitimate their engagement and support to a government they have conceived and created.  Somalia’s new elite has found in the current arrangement an environment conducive for their emergence and growth – and it is here that a marriage between the uninformed and the ambitious begins and the constitution becomes their marriage certificate.
I left Mogadishu feeling both hopeful and sad. Hopeful because of the colorful exhibition of humanity to survive extremes, dust itself off and launch a comeback. I was hopeful because in AMISOM, we see Africans attempting to solve their problems. Saddened, because I fear forces of primitive association are gaining strength. As for my own personal journey, I left feeling Somali and certainly more African than ever before. This journey laid some of my personal ghosts to rest. Yes, I am Somali and yes I am African with a billion fellow travellers.

That is Mo Yaxye in The Independent, “Coming home to Mogadishu“.

2012: the raw and promising new year

Best wishes to you and yours as we bring 2011 to a close and ring in the new year. Thanks for reading and sharing, and I look forward to another year with you in 2012.

*               *               *

An excerpt from my final column of 2011 for The Independent (Rwanda Edition):

Shuffling through memories of the past twelve months, one is reminded of the heaving, tumultuous and heady days that made up the molding of global and local politics, innovation, and society. Almost every year feels exceptional at its end, and this one is no different. Exceptional for the unexpected uprisings, reassuring surprises, and most of all, the untimely, or perhaps just sobering, deaths.

A remarkable feature of the human brain is that emotion triggers extraordinary powers of memory – emotional events, traumatic or ecstatic, are captured in a different way from ordinary occurrences. I have many such memories this year. I can recall vividly the walls and tables of a classroom at the moment I heard that Tunisia’s Ben Ali stepped down, the living room and footage on Al Jazeera of Mubarak’s fall, the computer screen announcing Bin Laden’s death, and the Twitter feed of my phone as I scrolled through news of Gaddafi’s brutal demise early one morning, all in 140 characters or less. I also recall the unusually grey and rainy Palo Alto morning marking the first day in 57 years of a world without Steve Jobs, just a few days after the passing of Wangari Maathai. I see clearly the words of Christopher Hitchen’s last column staring back at me, in stark and final relief.

There are of course many other memories, moments captured with friends and family, as well as moments alone, preserved not as events in their entirety, but as a series of snapshots. At the end of every year, as now, there is more time to sit and shuffle through them. It feels like an exceptional year, and the past ten have felt like an exceptional decade.

The pace of progress, innovation, and change makes each decade, and increasingly, each year, feel remarkably different from the previous. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, we experienced tremendous economic growth worldwide, a sharp break from the previous several decades. By the mid-2000s, nearly every single country in the world experienced positive economic growth. The number of new infections of HIV is falling by the year, and deaths due to HIV peaked in sub-Saharan Africa and worldwide in 2004/5. Around the same time, Google went public, and together with Facebook, is now a household name in the global village. Mobile phone use has increased exponentially worldwide. In 2000, there were 12 mobile phone users for every 100 people. Today, there are around 69 mobile phone subscribers for every 100 individuals around the globe.

Change, therefore, is brazenly constant. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either deluding themselves or not paying attention. This is as true in Africa as in the rest of the world, although many both in and outside of the continent have been slow to recognize that the former has not, in fact, been standing in place while the latter dashes on.

The churning and surging marketplace for ideas is open. The stepping-stones placed by yesterday’s innovators serve as a launching pads for vaulting into the next year and decade. Even in the destruction strewn by mad and ordinary men lie the pieces that will build society anew. One can pick them up, or stargaze at glittering towers and soaring skylines far from home.

Entering the new year, we are without many of those who began 2011 with us just one year ago. The most memorable deaths on the news circuit were violent, painful, or both, untimely or just-in-time. The world is short a few tyrants, but short a good many great and beautiful minds too. Their exit is a reminder of the inexorable march forward that spares no one. There is no standing still, but there are choices, and our own expectations.

Here is to the raw and promising new year.

why blog?

Given the many other things that need to get done in a day, why blog? This is a question I have been repeatedly asking myself, especially in deciding what to write here.

There are lots of tips out there on how to blog. A 2008 Slate article featuring Arianna Huffington, Om Malik and others (book available here) gives the following tips:

Set a schedule and blog often

Write casually but clearly

Add something new

Link to other blogs

Be patient

Sounds simple enough. Really, I could have given that advice, and I’m an amateur! There are hundreds of websites dedicated to blogging tips and advice, getting more traffic, blogging for money, and the like. But many don’t answer the question, why blog? — which is the far more difficult question.

Andrew Sullivan, formerly of The Atlantic (now at the Daily Beast), writes why he blogs in a very thoughtful essay:

To blog is therefore to let go of your writing in a way, to hold it at arm’s length, open it to scrutiny, allow it to float in the ether for a while, and to let others, as Montaigne did, pivot you toward relative truth. A blogger will notice this almost immediately upon starting. Some e-mailers, unsurprisingly, know more about a subject than the blogger does. They will send links, stories, and facts, challenging the blogger’s view of the world, sometimes outright refuting it, but more frequently adding context and nuance and complexity to an idea. The role of a blogger is not to defend against this but to embrace it. He is similar in this way to the host of a dinner party. He can provoke discussion or take a position, even passionately, but he also must create an atmosphere in which others want to participate.

I think my own purpose in writing in this very public (if not terribly widely-read) forum, is both to document for myself the ideas and experiences I encounter and develop (I will surely forget the majority of those that I do not commit to “paper”), and to mold, refine, and even cast aside ideas and arguments with the help of time and those who will share their own ideas, knowledge, and experiences here.

I guess you are not supposed to say in your blog that you sometimes have difficulty writing at all, but there you have it. I have considered, begun writing, and dumped several ideas in just the past week (let’s take the KCCA vendor issue as one example), not to mention many times before that, mostly concerned about posting because I hadn’t fully developed an argument, didn’t have all the facts, or wasn’t entirely confident in my analysis.

But herein lies the difference between an article and a blog (at least mine) — I don’t promise perfectly penned prose, but rather my frank thoughts, open to your ideas, looking for new knowledge, in the hope that we can think through issues together. That is why I blog.