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Post Personal Update: Western Australia, Gambia, Sudan
Created by John Eipper on 12/08/20 3:22 AM

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Personal Update: Western Australia, Gambia, Sudan (Martin Storey, Australia, 12/08/20 3:22 am)

I am in Perth, Western Australia, where I shall soon be marking the 20th anniversary of my arrival to the country.

Through a combination of geographical circumstances, luck and probably some good management by government, we have had essentially no COVID here--i.e. no public health crisis, although there is an economic crisis. My state of residence has reported 9 deaths attributed to COVID (most or all arrivals from ships) for a total of 830 cases since the beginning of the crisis. Australia as a whole has had two major incidents of community spread, both due to abysmal failure of government, and that's about it. New cases have been detected regularly until recently, but these were almost all in quarantine and contained. The total number of deaths attributed to the virus stands at 908 and the number of cases in the country at about 28K, more than 25.5K of whom have recovered.

Full details here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/COVID-19_pandemic_in_Australia#Western_Australia and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statistics_of_the_COVID-19_pandemic_in_Australia .

I wrote "probably some good management," because politicians here seem to systematically deny or deflect responsibility for bad news, take credit for good ones, and manufacture both on occasions if it will increase their number of "likes." Post-truth is probably the USA's greatest export of the past four years, and it is now more difficult than ever to know what is "true," until one or a close acquaintance is witness or party to an event. I cannot write more, of course, for fear of retribution. Australia's economy relies heavily on extractive industries, agriculture, education (to foreign students) and tourism. Directly or indirectly, most of these have been severely affected this year. Let me just refer you to the (world-famous in Australia) quote, the first few words of which you may have heard before:

"Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people's ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise."

Donald Horne, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lucky_Country

Had it not been for this year's events, I would have spent some of it in The Gambia, involved in the drilling of an offshore well, only the third ever drilled in that country. Two years ago, I was there, on the offshore platform, when the second well was drilled. This was just a year after a presidential election when the country's second-ever President was voted out in more-or-less democratic elections. He had come to power in a coup, and been in power for over 20 years, but after the elections, he refused to accept defeat and to step down. Quoting from Wikipedia: "His time in office saw the authoritarian oppression of anti-government journalists, LGBT people and opposition parties. His foreign policy led to a constantly strained relationship with the sole neighbouring country of Senegal. In 2013, Jammeh withdrew the Gambia from the Commonwealth of Nations (The Gambia later rejoined under President Adama Barrow), and in 2016 he began the process of withdrawing it from the International Criminal Court (later rescinded by the Barrow government).Jammeh is accused of having stolen millions of dollars from the country's coffers to fund a life of luxury. After leaving office, his assets were frozen by many countries and he went into exile. In addition to charges of corruption and human rights violations, he is also accused of having raped a number of young women." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yahya_Jammeh ).

I was onshore in The Gambia only for a few days--ironically staying in the hotel room (palatial house) that Prince Charles and his wife had occupied just a few days earlier. I do not know if I will have a chance to return to that country, but if I do, I hope to visit Fort Bullen, a fortress across The Gambia river from the capital Banjul, "built by the British in 1826 to thwart the efforts of some European slave traders" (http://www.accessgambia.com/information/fort-bullen-barra-point.html ).

Earlier that year, the same job had taken me to Ghana, where I was fortunate to visit the Elmina Castle (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmina_Castle ), an extraordinary record of the slave trade, in spite of its small size (about the size of a basket-ball court). Again from Wikipedia: "Without water or sanitation, the floor of the dungeon was littered with human waste and many captives fell seriously ill. The men were separated from the women, and the captors regularly raped some of the helpless women. The castle also featured confinement cells--small pitch-black spaces for prisoners who revolted or were seen as rebellious. Once the captives set foot in the castle, they could spend up to three months in captivity under these dreadful conditions before being shipped off to the 'New World.' An environment of harsh contrasts, the castle also had some extravagant chambers, devoid of the stench and misery of the dungeons only a couple of meters below. For example, the governor's and officers' quarters were spacious and airy, with beautiful parquet floors and scenic views of the blue waters of Atlantic. There was also a chapel in the castle enclosure for the officers, traders and their families as they went about their normal day-to-day life completely detached from the unfathomable human suffering they were consciously inflicting."

A little over 35 years ago, I graduated from Stanford, seriously damaged from having crammed an undergraduate degree in just two years as that was the duration of my scholarship. At the time, military service was still compulsory in my native France, so I had to leave the USA and return to France for that reason. What ensued is a long story, but I eventually was exempted on legitimate medical grounds. By then it was too late to return to the USA for graduate school, so I volunteered for a few months with the UN (in Belgium) and put an application to volunteer for Médecins Sans Frontières, a.k.a. "The French Doctors," 1999 recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. On 24th of December 1985, in the midst of a record cold winter in Belgium, I was offered a role with them over the phone, to go to Bhutan, and accepted it there and then. I rushed to France to say goodbye to my parents, wore or packed all the warm gear I had in anticipation of life in a Himalayan country, and on 25th December, I went to the airport where I was given my plane ticket to fly to ... the Sudan. Less than 10 hours later, I landed in Khartoum International Airport wearing moonboots and a fake-fur parka in 120 degree F heat. I spent there nine months of the most exciting times of my life, as the administrator of the Belgian branch of MSF there, involved in what was at the time the largest humanitarian relief effort ever, the "Air Bridge" to Darfur.

After that, I returned to California for a MSc degree in Electrical Engineering, but by then I was keener to return to places like Khartoum than San Jose. After cramming that second degree too, for the same reason as I had crammed the first, I surprised my academic advisor by declining offers of doctoral studies and instead went back to volunteer for the UN. I have not returned to live or work in North America, nor in Europe, apart from the few months I spent in Belgium with the UN, since. No choice is without compromise, but "non, je ne regrette rien."

Stay sound and stay safe.

JE comments:  Likewise, Martin.  Your far-ranging travels and adventures are the stuff of WAIS legend.

Australia by and large has been spared the horrors of Covid--the Lucky Country?--although I note that Victoria (Melbourne) has borne the overwhelming brunt of that nation's pandemic.  Sydney and New South Wales have suffered only 53 deaths so far, compared to Victoria's 820.  Still, these are tiny numbers compared to the rest of our ravaged world.

Martin, any chance you got photos of Elmina castle?  I'd love to post them.  Built by the Portuguese in 1482, Elmina is the oldest extant European construction south of the Sahara.  Its nefarious connection to the slave trade is indicative of Europe's historical role on the continent.

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  • Haunting Legacy of the Slave Trade: Elmina Castle (Martin Storey, Australia 12/11/20 3:47 AM)
    Thank you for asking about Elmina castle, in Ghana.

    From https://visitghana.com/attractions/elmina-castle/ , which has slave trade statistics and some videos:

    St George's Castle, a Unesco heritage site, was built as a trading post by the Portuguese in 1482, and captured by the Dutch in 1637.

    The main Dutch trades were gold and slaves; they reconstructed the castle between 1770 and 1775. Until 1872, the castle served as the focal coordinating point for Dutch Gold Coast activities. In 1682, the author Jean Barbot described St. George's Castle as having "no equal on all the coast of Guinea, with respect to beauty and strength."

    On 6th April, 1872, the castle was ceded to the British. In recent years, it has served as Police Recruit Training Centre, a secondary school, and it is presently a historical museum. St. George's Castle is featured on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

    I don't usually take many photos and I don't seem to find any of that particular stop. I find it easier to speak to local people without a camera. However, below are a few photos from Wikimedia.

    JE comments:  A chilling testament to humanity's cruelty.  To think that the castle could have been celebrated for its "beauty and strength."  Thank you, Martin, for teaching us about a forgotten place that played such a significant role in world history.

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