Sunday, 30 January 2011

Turkmenbashi and the Palace of Ice

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 there was a fear that power vacuums in the constituent states could lead to massive instability in the region.
However, while some of the former members embraced full independence, the majority remained aligned under the new Commonwealth of Independent States.
In Turkmenistan it was assumed that the transition would be relatively smooth.
Saparmurat Niyazov had been the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR since 1985 and had been given the new role of Chairmen of the Supreme Soviet of the Turkmen SSR in 1990. Both of these were the equivalent of President and had meant that Niyazov had been in power for sixteen years at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
He was declared President of Turkmenistan in October 1991.
In 1992 he was elected as the first President the country had selected in an independent electoral process. However, some habits from his days as a Soviet proved harder to shake off.
He was the only candidate.
Niyazov had always been a hardline Soviet and supported the coup attempt in 1991 which had been led by Soviet elements. With the failure of the coup Niyazov moved away from his former partners in the old Soviet Union and set about creating a new, dynamic, independent Turkmenistan.
He decided to do this by embracing the Turkmen culture that had been somewhat forgotten in the Soviet era.
In 1993 he declared himself ‘Turkmenbashi’ or ‘The Leader of All Turkmen’
A plebiscite followed giving Turkmenbashi power until 2002 to oversee his development plan. It had a public approval rating of 99.9%.
In 1999 he was declared President for Life having overseen a recent parliamentary election where he had nominated all the candidates.
Power now secured, Turkmenbashi could move on to the business of transforming Turkmenistan.
One of his first acts was to publish a book called the ‘Ruhnama’ or ‘The Book of the Soul.’
This book contained teachings from Turkmenbashi and soon became a central part of Turkmen life. All schools and libraries were required to keep copies, bookstores were expected to display it prominently and religious buildings were to keep copies alongside their holy books.
The teachings became part of the national curriculum and a test on the Ruhnama soon became a compulsory element in driving tests.
He then moved on to the calender. The months were renamed to recognise key elements of Turkmen history and culture. These included the Ruhnama, Turkmenbashi and his Mother.
A number of laws were enacted by Turkmenbashi personally.
These included a ban on opera and ballet on the grounds they were ‘insufficiently Turkmen’, forbidding the playing of car radios and outlawing beards.
People living in the capital, Ashgabat, were restricted to owning one cat or dog due to a decree on the keeping of ‘herds’ of animals in the city.
One of his more popular decrees was to inaugurate a national day of celebration for the muskmelon, a relative of the watermelon, whose existence in an arid, desert nation often proved vital.
While some of these laws seem whimsical the genesis of others seem pretty obvious.
After heart surgery Turkmenbashi was told by doctors that he had to stop smoking.
He agreed and then banned smoking in all public places and among all government officials.
With huge natural gas reserves to export and sell abroad Turkmenistan should have been well placed economically for a smooth transition into independence.
However Turkmenbashi embarked on a huge programme of building and development which proved to be a drain on the country’s resources.
Along with a chain of palaces for his personal use and one of the world’s largest mosques (which would include teachings from the Ruhnama alongside the Koran) Turkmenbashi had also declared his intention to build a palace of ice in the Copa Deg mountains, just outside Ashgabat. Ice palaces had been popular in the Soviet Union but were usually built in the freezing cities of the North as opposed to a country dominated by the Karakum Desert.
His most notorious creation was the Arch of Neutrality in Ashgabat itself.
A celebration of Turkmenistan’s history as a peaceful nation it was dominated by a gold statue of Turkmenbashi on top of it which rotated constantly so that it was always facing the Sun.
While all this was going on all libraries and hospitals outside of Ashgabat were being closed down. Turkmenbashi felt it was reasonable for people needing medical care to travel to the capital and he argued that so many libraries were unnecessary when people should only be reading the Koran and the Ruhnama, both of which were available from all public buildings.
Another blow to healthcare came when gold teeth were outlawed. Turkmenbashi felt that people’s poor dental health was due to them not taking proper care of themselves.
He had an idea though:

"I watched young dogs when I was young. They were given bones to gnaw to strengthen their teeth. Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not chew on bones. This is my advice..."

Saparmurat Niyazov died in 2006.
The calender has changed back to the old names that Niyazov replaced, the many references to himself he put into the national anthem have been removed and the many statues and portraits of Turkmenbashi that were dotted around the country have been removed.
One anonymous citizen had a theory about Niyazov and his many self-aggrandizing projects based on the fact that the leader was orphaned at a young age:

“He didn't get enough love as a child.” he said “That's why he needs all this attention now."

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Gilbert Deya and the Miracle Babies

Gilbert Deya is a Kenyan-born evangelist preacher who moved to Britain in 1997.
He is described as an ‘Archbishop’ in his own organisation, Gilbert Deya Ministries, and has churches in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Nottingham, Luton and Reading.
They claim to be ‘the fastest growing Ministry in the UK and worldwide’ but the reputation of Deya and his church has been somewhat tarnished over the last few years.
Initially Deya restricted his activities to preaching and training new ministers.
He quickly expanded into television and publishing, producing titles such as ‘Casting Out the Devil in Jesus’ Name’, ‘Curses of Sexual Sins’, ‘Be Wise, Evil Spirits Are Real’, ‘Destroying the Witches’ Power in Jesus’ Name’, ‘Dangerous Prayers to Break Satan’s Forces.’ and ‘The Stronghold of Generational Curses’. He also produced a magazine ‘More Than Conquerors’ with advice on ‘overcoming witchcraft by the blood of the Lamb.’
Deya then went on to publish a new series of books including ‘Let All the Wicked Witches Die’, ‘Freedom From Pronounced Ancestral Curses’ and ‘Victory Over Demonic Attack’.
He then moved into the field of spirituality-based financial advice releasing volumes such as ‘Born Again to Financial Blessing’, ‘The Outpouring of God’s Financial Blessing and Rebuking the Devourer’ and ‘To Be Wealthy in Tons of Pure Gold and Plenty of Cash’.
Eventually he released a book called ‘Faith Healing of 4 Years Pregnancy and 12 Years Bleeding’ which moved him into the area of fertility and reproduction that would make him infamous.
Deya claimed that through prayer he could allow sterile women to give birth to healthy children and, with the help of generous donations to his church, would fly women over to clinics in Kenya where they would produce what Deya called ‘Miracle Babies’.
Suspicions were aroused when one woman managed to give birth to three babies in under a year and the authorities began to investigate.
Eventually Deya’s wife, Mary, was arrested at a hospital in Nairobi where she was attempting to remove a baby from the building. She claimed to have just given birth to the child but the hospital had no record of her being registered there and a DNA test later proved that she had no genetic link to the child.
Further DNA tests showed there to be no match between twenty babies that Deya had claimed that he had helped produce and the mothers he had said given birth to them.
The children were taken into care and Mary Deya was given a two year jail term for kidnapping while Deya himself faces charges in Kenya of child trafficking.
He is currently appealing against his extradition and is adamant he is innocent of all charges.
He has said:

‘I have been judged by the media as a child trafficker, which is a slave trade, but miracles have happened. God has used me and I tell you God cannot use a criminal. They are miracles.’

Monday, 17 January 2011

The Winchester House

In 1881 Sarah Winchester, distraught at the loss of her husband at a young age and still grieving a daughter that she had lost previously, visited a medium to try and find some comfort.
The medium informed Sarah that the Winchester family, heirs to the inventors of the Winchester Repeating Rifle, were cursed because the guns that they had made had taken so many lives.
Sarah was told that the only way to escape the wrath of the spirits would be to build a house.
But she could never stop building the house. If building work on the house was ever finished or stopped then Sarah would die and the spirits would have their vengeance.
The fortune of the Winchester family at this point stood at around $20 million and Sarah’s shares in the Winchester Company gave her an income of $1,000 a day.
This gave Sarah the funds she needed for the house and work began in 1884.
Because of the scope of the project there was no blueprint or overall design.
Instead, the House was built from the ground up and the interior composed of a labyrinthine series of twists and turns that Sarah hoped would baffle any spirits that hoped to find her.
Sarah also believed that the number 13 would help to ward off evil spirits and incorporated this into various features of the House. She also made use of the huge building by never sleeping in the same bedroom on consecutive nights.
The nature of the project meant that Sarah had work on the House continuing around the clock, however the workmen were paid double their normal daily rate so there was never a shortage of labour.
By 1906 the House was seven storeys tall but an earthquake caused massive damage.
It is possible that Sarah saw this as something of a blessing.
Sarah Winchester died in 1922 and her estate fell to her niece Marion Merriman Marriott.
The House and grounds didn’t fall under the terms of the legacy but the household goods and furnishings did so Marion auctioned them off.
It took six trucks working for six weeks to clear the House.
Currently the House has four floors. There are 160 rooms including 40 bedrooms and two ballrooms. There are 47 fireplaces, 47 stairways, 10,000 window panes, 2,000 doors, 17 chimneys, 13 bathrooms, 6 kitchens and 2 basements.
It is still only partly constructed...

Saturday, 8 January 2011

The Hellrides and Joyrides of Wesley Willis

Wesley Willis was born in Chicago in 1963. At the age of six the Social Services received reports of abusive behaviour towards the children in the Willis household and Wesley was separated from his siblings, six brothers and three sisters. Some of the children went into care and others, like Wesley, went to live with family.
He went to live with an uncle in Phoenix, Illinois and lived there for almost ten years, until
his uncle was arrested and charged with the sexual abuse of a child from the neighbourhood.
It was now 1978 and the fifteen year old Wesley returned to Chicago and was placed into foster care. He remained in care until he was eighteen, at which point he was no longer the responsibility of the state. With nowhere else to go Wesley moved in with his mother as his father, who was responsible for the majority of the violence towards his children, had moved out some years before. Unfortunately his mother had a new boyfriend who was more sadistic than his own father and nursed a particular resentment towards Wesley and his brothers and sisters. Wesley and his brother Ricky, the only other of his siblings still living with his mother, had to endure violence towards themselves and their mother from her boyfriend all the time they lived there.
Understandably Wesley spent as much time out of the house as possible and began to draw scenes from around the city. An untrained artist, Wesley had a natural instinct for perspective and specialised in street scenes featuring city buses. He was fascinated by the buses and they informed his work throughout his life.
Over a period of ten years Wesley became a reasonably accomplished artist and began to sell his drawings, hoping to save up enough money to move him and his mother away.
By 1989 he had saved up six hundred dollars but unfortunately his mother’s boyfriend found out about the money and took it from Wesley at gunpoint.
This night, the fifteenth of October 1989, was the first time that Wesley heard voices in his head.
Having nowhere else to go Wesley moved in with his father and spent the days riding city buses, drawing pictures to sell and enduring the voices of three ‘demons’ that spoke to him almost constantly.
Wesley named the demons ‘Heartbreaker’, ‘Nervewrecker’ and ‘Meansucker’and called the psychotic episodes when they visited ‘Hellrides’.
He was institutionalised for two months and was diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia.
In 1991,while buying art supplies, Wesley became friendly with Dale Meiners, an artist and musician from the local punk scene.
Meiners was fascinated by this figure, a 300 pound man with a permanent bruise on his forehead caused by the gentle headbutts he would greet people with.
With Meiner’s help Wesley moved into his own apartment but would spend a lot of his time at Meiner’s own apartment talking, drawing and listening to music.
A short time after this Wesley was attacked on a bus by a man armed with a boxcutter who severely injured him and left him with scars to his face.
Wesley wrote his first song about the incident.
Backed by Meiners and other Chicago musicians a new band, ‘The Wesley Willis Fiasco’ was born. The Fiasco began to play the various clubs of Chicago and surrounding towns and recorded an album ‘Spookydisharmoniousconflicthellride’ (1992)
Wesley also began to play solo shows where he would accompany himself on a Casio keyboard. His solo material followed a very basic pattern whereby Wesley would play a repetitive tune on the keyboard and sing about a person or incident with the chorus being the title of the song repeated four times. He would use only fourteen keys on the keyboard to compose his tunes. Wesley also developed his unique sign off for songs where he would say ‘Rock Over London, Rock On Chicago...’ and add a corporate slogan from a major international company or a business local to the Chicago area.
This could see Wesley mentioning Timex (‘Takes A Licking And Keeps On Ticking’)
Mitsubishi (‘The Word Is Getting Around’) or Taco Johns, a Chicago based Mexican food chain (‘It’s A Whole Lot Of Mexican’)
Wesley loved his new musical career and described the songs as ‘Joyrides’ that helped to drive his demons away. He found that songs about bestiality in particular scared away the demons and they became a key element in his repertoire.
Wesley also enjoyed writing songs about celebrities and the episodes on buses and in church where his demons would torment him and get him in trouble with bus drivers and preachers.
The pressure of the schedule of playing with the Fiasco and his own solo shows began to tell on Wesley. He began to find himself unintentionally shouting at his bandmates which caused stresses to show within the band. In 1996 the Fiasco broke up and Wesley focused on his solo career.
Wesley went on to record over fifty albums, each with over twenty tracks on them.
Wesley Willis died, aged 40, in 2003 from complications arising from treatment he was receiving for leukemia.
The emergence of the internet made Wesley a cult sensation and he had the opportunity to travel around the world performing, eventually signing up with Jello Biafra’s ‘Alternative Tentacles’ label and becoming friends with the Dead Kennedy’s frontman.
Many people were conflicted by the sight of a man with obvious mental problems performing on stage with an excited crowd whooping at him. There was a concern that Wesley was being exploited for the entertainment of crowds of mocking kids.
While this certainly did happen there were also a large number of people who loved Wesley for fully embracing the true punk ethos of a musically untrained performer getting on stage and singing about whatever he liked.
More importantly, Wesley loved to perform and his time as a singer and artist was undoubtedly the happiest of his life.
It seems more than reasonable that if someone is forced to endure the ‘Hellrides’ that plagued Wesley he should be allowed to delight in the ‘Joyrides’ that made his life somewhat tolerable...

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Cargo Cult of John Frum (And His Brother)

‘Cargo Cults’ originated in the Micronesian and Melanesian regions of the Pacific Ocean during the 19th Century when the tribal peoples native to these areas first met Westerners in the form of explorers and missionaries.
The residents of these islands were fascinated by the supply ships that accompanied their visitors and the constant flow of goods that the ships continued to bring for the new arrivals.
With the outbreak of the Second World War the islanders saw a huge influx of Japanese and American combatants arrive in the area, bringing with them massive amounts of supplies, establishing ports and airstrips to ensure a reliable stream of materials and using radios to coordinate the delivery of the goods.
At the end of the war these ports and airstrips were abandoned, along with the military bases they supported and the stream of supplies stopped.
Trying to attract further deliveries and continue the flow of these goods to the islands the residents began to practice ritualistic exercises designed to mimic the actions of the servicemen that they felt had caused the materials to appear.
They built crude landing strips and models of aircraft and radio equipment and imitated the actions they had seen the soldiers engage in to cause the deliveries.
This involved parade ground drills with abandoned rifles or copies made from wood, carving out headphones from wood to be used in replica control towers and waving in planes on the runway using the landing signals they had seen the airmen use.
Interestingly, the majority of the cargo cults based their designs and actions on the American servicemen they had seen. It is believed that this is due to the fact that, while both sets of soldiers had initially shared their supplies with the natives, the relationship between the Japanese soldiers and the islanders deteriorated rapidly.
One of the most popular of the cargo cults was that of ‘John Frum’, a charismatic figure from the island of Tanna in Vanuatu.
This originated in the 1930's and was originally established to drive out Westerners from the region.
A native in a Western coat began visiting villages in the area and proclaimed that if the people of Tanna rejected the practices that the Europeans had brought in, like money, Christianity and the export of their goods, and embraced traditional ‘kastom’, or customs, he would lead them in forcing out the Westerners and securing the material wealth they enjoyed for the locals.
In 1941 the followers of John Frum rid themselves of their money in a blitz of spending, removed themselves from the missionary schools, churches and plantations and moved into the centre of the island to dedicate themselves to traditional feasts and rituals.
The Europeans sought to suppress the movement and eventually arrested and exiled Frum but the enterprise survived and developed into a cargo cult during the Second World War.
By the 1950's this evolved into an organisation called the ‘Tanna-Army’, a ritualistic group that organised military-style parades and wore t-shirts proclaiming themselves to be ‘T-A USA’
or the ‘Tanna Army of the USA’.
This group is still active today and celebrate ‘John Frum Day’ on February 15th each year with a parade as they believe that Frum will return to lead them on the 15th of February.
They just don’t know what year...
The Yaohnanen tribe of Tanna also believed that John Frum had a brother, a divine being, who had travelled over the seas to a distant land and had married a powerful lady who had made him a King.
During the 1950's Yaohnanen met up with British colonial officials and were told about their Queen, Elizabeth II. The tribesmen were excited by the news of this woman from a distant land who had the power to send men around the world in her name. They asked if she was married and were informed of the existence of Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
The tribal leaders were convinced that this must be the brother of John Frum who had left them to seek his fortune and told the colonial officials their story.
They also established the ritual worship of Prince Phillip at this time, although the form it took is unclear.
The Royal couple visited Vanuatu in 1974 but were unaware of the cult at this point.
After the visit the tribal leaders informed the British Colonial Office of their beliefs and asked that the Prince be informed.
The British Resident Commisioner relayed this back to London and suggested the Prince might like to send a portrait of himself to the islanders. A signed photograph was duly sent and in return the tribal leaders sent Prince Phillip a Nal-Nal club, a traditional weapon of the Yaohnanen people.
Prince Phillip then sent back another photograph, this time showing him posing with his new club.
In 2007 a delegation of Tanna natives visited the UK.
They met privately and exchanged gifts. The Prince’s gifts to the Yaohnanen people included a new photograph which was taken back to Tanna to be kept with their other pictures of Prince Phillip, the only focus for their worship until John Frum’s brother returns...