The problem with Africa

At its best, V S Naipaul’s Masque of Africa is marked by moments of startling clarity and insight —

The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief
V S Naipaul
Picador, 336pp, £20

In his delightfully sarcastic essay "How to Write About Africa", Binyavanga Wainaina, the Kenyan-born writer and gourmand who is now a restless citizen of the world, offers some helpful tips to aspirant travel writers. "Always use the word 'Africa' or 'darkness' or 'safari' in your title," he begins, urging the writer who is setting out on his journey to treat Africa as if it were one rather than 54 separate countries, so as to hasten generalisation. "Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat," he continues. "Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation."

It's unlikely that V S Naipaul has read Wainaina's essay - he has low regard for the work of nearly all contemporary writers - but it's very likely that Wainaina has read Naipaul and many other esteemed non-African chroniclers of decolon­ised Africa, including Ryszard Kapuscinski and Paul Theroux. Wainaina's essay is jaunty and playful in tone, but the tips of his well-directed arrows of scorn have been dipped in poison and they are aimed straight at the heart of all those who presume to know and write about Africa from the outside, without knowledge of African languages or local cultures. From Conrad and Céline to Georges Simenon and, more recently, the French Canadian Gil Courtemanche, author of the novel A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, sub-Saharan Africa has long provided a ready-made setting for narratives of moral disintegration. Africa, as Chinua Achebe once put it in an essay on Conrad, is reflexively presented as the "other world", the "antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation".

Wainaina is especially contemptuous of those writer-travellers who seek to establish their impeccable liberal credentials, as well as explain how they first fell in love with Africa. Naipaul has been accused of many things - of misanthropy, cruelty, orientalism, racism and, just a few weeks ago by the august thriller writer Robert Harris, in a review of The Masque of Africa, of fascism - but never of being a liberal. (In this new book he has made few concessions to progressive courtesies, though he no longer uses the word "negro" as he did in his early writing.) Nor does Naipaul claim to love Africa.

So what is it, if not love, that compels him to return so often as a traveller and in search of a subject? "For my travel books I travel on a theme," he says. "The theme of The Masque of Africa is African belief."

By "African belief" he actually means what he mostly calls "magic" and the rest of us would call animism. Naipaul seems to think that there is something intrinsically and peculiarly African about "magic" - about ancestor worship, witch doctors, totemism, pagan initiation rights and so on - but there isn't, as any anthropologist would tell you. For Naipaul, the attempt to understand African "magic" is to be "taken far back to the beginning of things", back to the side of the African that, he writes, "resisted rationality". He could have saved himself a lot of air miles and no little anguish if he had stayed at home in Wiltshire and read instead, or perhaps reread, James George Frazer's celebrated comparative study of religion and magic, The Golden Bough, which discusses the cross-cultural similarities of the world's myths, primitive religions and rituals.

In the foreword to the Picador edition of his first non-fiction book, The Middle Passage (1962), an account of a long journey through the Caribbean, Naipaul says that "the novelist works towards conclusions of which he is often unaware, and it is better that he should". But there is a sense that the aged Naipaul is no longer surprised by what he encounters on his travels, as he was when he was working on The Middle Passage, or travelling extensively through India for the first time. Nowadays, you could say that he travels to reach conclusions about Islam or Africa of which he is already fully aware, that travel for him narrows the mind, affirms prejudices. In Gabon, for instance, he meets a lawyer who tells him that "the new religions, Islam and Christianity, are just on the top. Inside us is the forest." Inside us is the forest. Isn't this exactly what Naipaul would have wanted to be told in Gabon?

Naipaul likes to present himself as being without influence or ideology: he travels, he asks questions, he listens attentively and, above all else, he notices, often seeing what others do not or cannot. That acute gift has never left him. Even in this new book, a minor offering by a writer approaching the end, the best moments are those lit by the radiance of sudden and unexpected noticing. The worst are when he lurches into the kind of generalisation that is the keynote of so much writing about Africa by non-Africans: "Africa [is] drowning in the fecundity of its people"; "moraines of uncollected garbage . . . Africa reclaiming its own"; and so on.

The Masque of Africa is Naipaul's first travel book since Beyond Belief (1998), in which he journeyed through Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia as part of a continuing investigation into the influence of political Islam in the world, and is his first attempt to write first-hand about Africa since some of the great essays of the 1970s and early 1980s.

However, Africa has been present in some of his more recent fiction. The novel Half a Life (2001) was set partly in a nameless African country that was a thinly disguised Mozambique at the point when the old mixed-race, or "mulatto", elite, with their vast plantations and estates, were losing hold of power as the Portuguese prepared their chaotic retreat. In that novel, the central character, Willie Chandran, an ethnic Indian who has been living in London, is fascinated by the Africans he sees around him but whom he can never properly know or understand - theirs was "an African life at which I could only guess", he says. Later, restless and increasingly unhappy, he visits African prostitutes in a garrison town that has been cut out of the humid bush; these scenes of sex are among the most luminous and affecting in what is a very strange book, among Naipaul's most Conradian in its ambiguities and ambivalent positioning.

Naipaul, who is 78, is operating in twilight mode as he travels through Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon and finally South Africa, doing the fieldwork, as he always has, but now with the shadows lengthening around him. His style is much sparer, his still-graceful sentences no longer as multilayered or richly detailed. At times, the effort seems too much. On one journey he returns after many years of absence to Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire (in the 1980s he published a fine long essay titled "The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro"), birthplace of the country's founding president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. It was here that Houphouët-Boigny built, as a memorial to himself, the world's largest cathedral, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, with its signature dome echoing St Peter's in Rome.

During his first visit, Naipaul called Yamoussoukro one of the "wonders of black Africa", but now he loathes what he sees and hates what he hears and hurries away. The whole episode feels curiously perfunctory, reading more like a postscript to the original essay than an exploration of the larger themes of the book.

In his original essay on Côte d'Ivoire, he had written that "true life was there, in the mysteries of the village" rather than in the artificialities of the modern African city. Yamoussoukro, with its spectacular airport, golf course and luxury hotel, showed one face to the world during the day and quite another at night. At night, one had a greater sense of the mysteries of Africa, or so Naipaul thought. But this time in Côte d'Ivoire he makes no attempt to venture out into the villages. He leaves, despondent, reflecting on the rape of the land and the disappearance of the elephants, hunted into oblivion, from whose ivory the country took its name.

After this, his next stop is Gabon, the setting of Simenon's African novel Tropic Moon, which dramatised the last, listless days of corrupt French colonial rule. What interests Naipaul about Gabon is its dense forests: "A little way inland the true forest began, primal and tall and tight." He wants to know about the forest lore and how the forest-dwelling pygmies live, what they believe and how they structure their lives. He has absolutely no interest in the wider politics of Gabon, and says nothing about the country's oil wealth or about the career of the Francophile Omar Bongo, who ruled from 1967 until his death in 2009 (he was succeeded by his son) and was both the world's longest-serving leader who was not a monarch and one of the richest people in Africa.

This is a baffling oversight: the lack of socio-political context is one of the failures of the book. At least, when in Ghana, Naipaul rouses himself to sketch some of its troubled post-colonial history. In an amusing scene, he has lunch in the home of the former military ruler and president Jerry Rawlings, where we learn that the despot's house is "well run" (good), the pets are kindly treated (even better) and Rawlings himself is "built like a boxer" (Naipaul does not specify at which weight Rawlings would have boxed, so the simile is meaningless).

There is a sense of last things in all of this, of a kind of leave-taking. In old age, Naipaul, his curiosity still dictated in part by his colonial Trinidadian background, returns to some of the African places he visited as a younger man, and there he finds no signs of progress, general improvement or enlightenment. He finds, instead, only more evidence of human rapacity and carelessness. "The land is full of cruelty which is hard for the visitor to bear," he concludes as he leaves Côte d'Ivoire. "The bush was almost barren of wildlife, but these people were managing to squeeze out the last remnants, while their fertile land remained largely unused," he says towards the end of his stay in Ghana.

None of this is surprising. It's exactly what one expects Naipaul to say. Yet, for all this long-nurtured pessimism, Naipaul has managed to carry his burdens through the decades: he began as a comic writer, one capable of great empathy, tenderness and forgiveness, and has ended by allowing himself to be caricatured by Robert Harris and others as a kind of latter-day Oswald Mosley. This is as absurd as it is unfair, because in one important sense he has never really changed. From the beginning, when he left Trinidad on a scholarship to Oxford, Naipaul has been consumed by an idea of the writer as truth-seeker, loyal to no one or nothing but himself, or at least loyal only to the persona he has created of himself as the great-souled writer. Or, more simply, in his own self-description: The Writer, as if there were only one.

As he travels, often irritably, through Africa on this, his latest and perhaps final long journey, complaining along the way of the usual money worries (Naipaul is exceedingly wealthy, but always alert to those he feels are ripping him off), of inferior hotel rooms and the mistreatment of animals, especially cats, he is sustained by the old ideal of unadorned truth-telling. Like Edgar in King Lear, he speaks what he feels, not what he ought to say - which is admirable and is why even now, so late in the day, you still read him with all the old fascination while at the same time recognising what a deeply odd and eccentric man he is, quite unlike anyone else: The Writer, still the only one.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial

Fox via YouTube
Show Hide image

Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.