GABON: Boxing Libreville (2018)

Boxing Libreville is a 2018 documentary film by Gabonese director Amédée Pacôme Nkoulou, following a boxer, Christ, as he trains for a match during the contested 2016 Gabonese election. Christ works as a bouncer at clubs to make ends meet, as well as security at Ali Bongo‘s political rallies. His girlfriend (who quietly supports Jean Ping, Bongo’s opponent) leaves at the same time to work at a hair salon in France, with both of them uncertain how their relationship will work long distance. The film is both a powerful slice of life of normal people during a politically charged time, and a quiet metaphor about political change (or lack thereof) in Gabon. Boxing Libreville is available free online, with subtitles, at ARTE.

NEW ZEALAND: The Haka

What is more emblematic of New Zealand than the haka?

The Maori Battalion in 1941 in Egypt performing the haka during WWII – Source

While the haka is best known for rugby (more on that below), it’s much deeper culturally. You tend to hear of it simplified as a “war dance” – it was definitely used as such by Maori, and generally as a way to show power and prestige, but it’s also a way convey honour, pride, and values. Here’s a great one, with subtitles, at a wedding:

Or at schools, like this one honouring a retiring teacher:

It’s also used in mourning, as with these students honouring the victims of the Christchurch mosque shooting:

Of note in all the above videos is that while hakas are created and led by Maori, non-Indigenous New Zealanders (Pakeha) also take part, and in a genuine, respectful, deeply-connected way. The All Blacks, who have made it famous globally, do not take it lightly – it’s a connection to the land, their team, and to their culture:

Rugby is, of course, where most of us non-Kiwis are introduced to the haka. Below is an overview of the history of the All Blacks’ haka in international competition – other Polynesian countries like Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa also have related dances before their matches. The vid also touches on how other countries’ teams respond to the haka:

On a lighter note, what the video misses is how Canada traditionally responds to facing the All Blacks on the rugby pitch: we lose 63-0. (Our women’s team is much better, they’ll get to the finals before losing to New Zealand.)

Importantly, you can also do the haka on ice:

This month: NEW ZEALAND

Happy new year, here’s to an upwards trajectory for 2022! This month, I get the first country that I’ve actually visited: New Zealand!

So, before we get into this month, what do I already know about New Zealand?

  • I’ve been there! It was a family vacation when I was 11 or so, but there’s only so much you can absorb at that age, but we went all through the North Island. We went to Bay of Islands, Auckland, Rotorua (I remember the sulphur smell through the whole town from all the geothermal vents), Napier (all Art Deco buildings), and Wellington. I have two particularly sharp memories – seeing cute Little Blue Penguins at an aquarium, and getting violently carsick off my parents’ attempt to drive a sharp mountain route on the opposite side of the road. Sadly, I don’t think I have any pictures left of that trip.
  • That trip came about because my dad had routine business trips to New Zealand when I was a kid in the 90s – he’d have to go for two weeks every other month when a major deal was happening and come back jet-lagged out of his gourd (worse because there were no direct flights from Canada in those days). He may be a good resource this month – he’s spent a lot of time in Auckland and Wellington and still has many friends and contacts from NZ.
  • Apart from my personal experience, New Zealand is probably the most “local” and least “foreign” for me as an anglophone Canadian – we share a lot of the same British colonial history, and in particular, we have a similar simmering inferiority complex to our larger neighbour – Australia and the US – and suffer the indignity of being mistaken for them. I don’t know a lot of the specifics of New Zealand history, however, so I want to learn more!
  • I’m really interested to also learn more both about Maori culture and about the relationship between the Maori and the Pakeha (non-Maori New Zealanders). The Maori seem to have a much stronger position constitutionally than Indigenous people have in Canada – I definitely want to learn more about Maori history, and more about the Treaty of Waitangi, which I know is the legal basis of Maori/Pakeha relations but not much more. I’m also aware that New Zealand had considered changing its flag away from the very colonial one it currently has, and the idea has been floated of changing the country’s name to Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand – however I’ve lost track of where either decision has ended up.
  • NZ’s current PM, Jacinda Ardern, has made international media for being outspokenly progressive, but I don’t know much more about New Zealand’s politics – if they have even a fraction of the ridiculousness that comes up in fellow Westminster political systems like Australia and Canada, there’s going to be some good stories.
  • When I lived in Victoria, BC, the earthquake in Christchurch was a role model / cautionary tale for when/if the Big One was to hit the west coast of North America.
  • As for Kiwi cuisine, I know they’re major fruit exporters, and their lamb is particularly well regarded. They also have a penchant for Marmite / Vegemite, which did not appeal to me as a kid, but I’m willing to give the old college try now as an adult. I also would love to see what truly NZ-distinctive dishes are out there.
  • New Zealand’s most famous culinary export is their wines – I absolutely love Marlborough sauvignon blanc, with that very distinctive gooseberry/”cat’s pee” flavour. I think I’ll try out some other types of wine from NZ – apparently there’s some good red wines coming from there now.
  • I know very little about the South Island – I know it’s mountainous, so good hiking and skiing, and less populated, but not much more. How much cultural and political difference is there between the South and North Islands?
  • There’s plenty of internationally famous Kiwis, like Edmund Hillary, Lorde, Russell Crowe, Taika Waititi, and Peter Jackson (and Kiwis being sick of being connected with the Lord of the Rings movies), but I really want to learn more about “New Zealand famous” artists, comedians, and musicians – ones that are beloved at home but not really known abroad. Same goes for Kiwi movies and tv – I saw Whale Rider when it came out in theatres many years ago, but that’s about it.
  • New Zealand’s All Blacks are one of the best rugby teams in the world and is famous for the pre-game haka – I definitely want to learn more about that history.

And of course, a very serious look at the crucial differences between Canada and New Zealand:

SAN MARINO: Sammarinese Radio, Podcasts, and TV

Heritage Unbounded – San Marino: A Small Republic with a Big History – A podcast from Johns Hopkins University’s Museum and Heritage Studies department, interviewing Dr. Paolo Rondelli, who served as San Marino’s ambassador to the US and is now the country’s ambassador to UNESCO. Rondelli was part of the team that got San Marino’s historic centre and Mount Titano onto the UNESCO World Heritage list, and he talks about changing ideas of historical preservation – especially as many of the buildings in the centre have been continuously used by the same institutions for centuries. He also touches on how San Marino hopes to balance massive tourism with protection for historical and environmental sites.

Futureproof with Sergio Mottola – A podcast focusing on the tech industry, with a focus on big picture questions of ethics, industry, and technological trends. It’s hosted by Sergio Mottola, a tech venture capitalist who formerly served as CEO of the San Marino Innovation Institute, a state-owned private company that supports tech ventures in the country. I listened to the episode “Our future with tech: interfering or augmenting?“, which had some good nuanced debate on how paradigm shifts are more often forced than accepted and how to tackle the ethics of tech companies.

USMARADIO Pocasts – San Marino’s university has a major department, USMARADIO, dedicated to research and innovation into radio and radiophonic studies. They have a wealth of podcasts, with some in English, that really work on showcasing and developing new artistic expressions of sound and communication. They have a lot of experimental music and soundscapes – I put on Cave I – Halfcastle for a walk on a cold, snowy evening and it set the mood perfectly. USMARADIO showcases artists and collectives not just from San Marino and Italy, but around the world. An interesting one is female:pressure_ROJAVA. It’s a collaboration by artists and poets about the Rojava conflict and Kurdish attempts to create autonomy in Syria, as well as women’s attempts to create autonomy in the movement – past just the female fighters that are usually seen in Western media.

Mount Titano and its Three Towers – Source

USMARADIO live – The live radio feed from USMARADIO also has some really interesting stuff. It varies dramatically what you get – due to the time difference, I initially started listening to overnight radio, which is mainly the very very experimental music and soundscapes that they also have in their podcasts. Then I started tuning in at different times and picked up other playlists – one morning it was relaxing African folk music, followed directly by an European medieval choral ensemble. Later, I picked up from free jazz, then some slam poetry in English set to experimental sounds. It’s really fun to get a complete surprise every time I click play. Listen live here.

Radio San Marino 102.7 FM – The main radio channel from San Marino RTV, the country’s public broadcaster. There’s a really big variety here – I’ve heard English and Italian-language classic rock, dance, jazz, hip hop, Top 40 hits, and classical music, interspersed with talk programming and news in Italian. Listen live here.

Radio San Marino Classic 103.2 FM – San Marino RTV’s music-focused secondary channel. It’s also a mix of English and Italian-language music, mainly classic rock, 90s hits, and pop, with special shows focusing on 60s music, love songs, and soul throughout the week. Minimal talk, it’s almost entirely music. Listen live here.

And if you speak Italian, San Marino RTV also has two tv channels streaming online – RTV and RTV Sport. The former is general national broadcaster formatting- news, weather, Italian tv shows. RTV Sport is live games, interviews, and analysis – I’ve caught Italian soccer and kickboxing matches streamed on it.

SAN MARINO: The worst football team in the world

San Marino holds a special distinction as having the worst football team in the world – ranked dead last internationally, behind even territories like Guam and the US Virgin Islands, which are not particularly soccer-mad places. San Marino has never even won a competitive international football match. Ever.

The Tim Traveller (who also did a good video on San Marino’s railway) went to a match a few years ago against Moldova, with predictable results and a lot of British snark.

Just last month, he went back to San Marino for another game, this time against Andorra. Once again, no dice for San Marino.

So why is San Marino’s team so bad? Partially it may be because of the country’s small size and population, but that can’t be the whole story – Liechtenstein has around the same population, and they have at least won some games (including over San Marino). The fact that San Marino’s team is almost all amateur may also contribute to it – most of the players have day jobs and only practice once a week.

San Marino did win once, when they turned around and beat Liechtenstein in 2004, but it was a friendly match. There have been calls to move San Marino and other low-ranked teams into their own pre-qualifying pool to gain experience and send only the winners to qualifiers. However, despite the team’s record, the team and their fans have a lot of pride in competing internationally and in keeping their chins up.

If they ever do win a match, I’m sure the celebrations will be intense. There’s still lots of reminiscing over the time San Marino scored against England a few seconds into a match in 1993. San Marino did eventually lose the match 7-1, but scoring on one of the best teams in the world is definitely a big deal.

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: More podcasts

The Bamboo Cathedral – Source

Nerd World Politics: Under the Gunn – From 2018, the first podcast from Nerd World Politics – two self-described “Black nerd activists” from Trinidad and Tobago who discuss political and social justice elements of modern nerd culture. They’re absolutely fantastic and extremely thoughtful. This first episode covered the James Gunn controversy, including how calling out and forgiveness works in both nerd and activist circles, better ways to deal with inappropriate behaviour, the weaponization of cancelling, and the corporate and cultural responses to situations like Gunn’s.

The House Lime: Jemel the Entertainer – The House Lime is a fun, casual interview show (liming being slang for chatting or shooting the shit). This episode they interview Jemel the Entertainer, a prominent Trinidadian comedian on social media. It’s an intriguing interview, covering how to be successful through new media, the comedy scene in Trinidad and Tobago, the nature of local fame, and acting with professionalism and building back your reputation after a scandal (and hoo boy, he’s had some scandal in the past).

Jus’ Ole Talk: Jus’ Fix It Pt. 1Jus’ Ole Talk is a really good quality discussion podcast about everyday life in Trinidad. I listened to the first “Jus’ Fix It” episode, that looked at ways to potentially fix problems in society. The first half mainly focused on Trinidad and Tobago in international sports, and how to properly nurture young athletes with either state or private support. They particularly look at the Olympics and Jamaica, which is similar in size, wealth, and history, but is far more competitive internationally than Trinidad is. This episode also starts into a discussion about customer service in Trinidad, and I’ve never heard a funnier use of dead air in my life. I’m going to tune into the second half to hear the rest, they were starting into an interesting discussion on the colonial hangover in customer service. A quick note though, there’s at least another podcast from Trinidad with the same name, so look for the “Showtime Trinidad” one.

THAILAND: Muay Thai

Let’s start with a short intro video about Muay Thai, including a bit of history and how the fights work:

I’d also strongly recommend this beautiful documentary with Wisarut Wat Suksiriwararak, a former fighter and now coach in northern Thailand. His concern for the future of the sport comes from its overpopularity – the commercialization of it is starting to divorce Muay Thai from its traditional and historical roots.

Muay Thai really became internationally famous in the 80s with the fight between Muay Thai champion Changpuek Kietsongrit vs. American kickboxer Rick Roufus. Somewhat unfairly, many of the normal Muay Thai moves like elbows and grappling were not allowed in the fight, while all kickboxing moves were allowed. Despite this, the American, who had been bragging beforehand, had to be taken out of the ring in a stretcher.

And if you’re interested in a bit of a Muay Thai workout at home – here’s a great one with Ajahn Suchart, former Northern Thailand Champion, who moved to Canada in the late 80s to start teaching here. It’s a hell of a workout, I was feeling it in my abs the next day!

TOGO: Emmanuel Adebayor

Emmanuel Adebayor is Togo’s most famous soccer player, having played in the English Premier League and across Europe. He’s a player who seems to evoke both love and hate among football fans – take a look at this absolutely incredible goal and taunting victory lap against his old team:

Here’s some further interview and background on Adebayor, with some colour on the drama that has followed him through his career, including surviving the attack on the Togolese national team in Angola in 2010:

Togo, being a dedicated football country, is also progressively working on its upcoming youth players:

TOGO: Podcasts

ECOWAS Bank Headquarters, Lomé – Source

It’s kind of frustrating to search for podcasts on/from Togo – you have to pick through podcasts about some Disney movie about a dog, or people writing “to go” with no space. However, I did find a few really good gems both in French and English.

It’s a Continent – Togo: Resisting Authoritarian Rule (En) – An wide-ranging interview with Togolese democracy activist Farida Nabourema, covering the ruling dynasty’s hold on the government, protests surrounding rigged elections, and her own family’s three generations of activism for human rights and democracy. She also touches on the use of social media for activism in Togo, African countries being held back by France’s conditions around the CFA franc, and immigration measures in western countries that both uphold the racial status quo and create brain drain in countries like Togo. I really strongly recommend this episode.

Les Voix du Togo (Fr) – Podcast interviewing interesting Togolese people. I listened to the interview with Bernard Adzorgenu – a journalist and graduate student, and a writer for L-Frii, open-source journalism in Togo. He talks about the challenge of accessing higher education in Togo, why he is studying English, the importance of equal access to education for women, his own love for kids and religion.

RFI Danse des Mots: Les femmes dans la presse togolaise (Fr) – Interview with Togolese journalist Simone Dakiche about the increasing role of women in Togo’s press, as well as challenges and sexism facing women in journalism not just in Togo, but around the world.

BBC Sporting Witness: Togo bus attack (En) – A retrospective on the 2010 attack on the Togolese national football team travelling to the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola.

My African Clichés – Togo: le premier parricide de l’Afrique post-indépendance! (Fr) – A brief history of Togo’s independence, as well as the assassination of Togo’s first post-independence president Sylvanus Olympio.