In this past Sundayâ€™s San Franicsco Chronicle, I published a review of a new book, â€œLose Your Mother,â€ a mediation on roots and identity by an African American writer of great skill and perception. The book is cut from the cloth of the narratives analyzed in James T. Campbellâ€™s magnificent “Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005,â€ published last year and sure to win some major prize this year. While I look forward to another visit next month to sub-Saharan Africa, I am temporarily preoccupied with Africans coming to America. My wifeâ€™s own daughter, who arrived 12 days ago, from Togo, started public school Tuesday, and this past weekend I hosted an important Cameroonian journalist at my house. On Sunday night, he addressed a network of professional Cameroonians living in the bay area and my friend reported to them on some positive developments in this West African country. Last week, which I spent â€œin residenceâ€ at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, I spent a good deal of time with Ugandaâ€™s leading political journalist, Andrew Mwenda. So I have been immersed in African reactions to America. Both the Cameroonian and Uganda journalists quizzed me about the quagmire in Iraq, President Bushâ€™s apparent insanity and the eating habits of Americans. The only question from these Africans I could satisfactorily answer involved eating and our diets. Our American food consumption seems downright hazardous by African standards, and both journalists noticed my own expanding girth. I told them I need a good long stretch in Africa â€“ in order to eat less and get in touch with my own â€œmotherland,â€ for indeed Africa is mother to us all.
Jan 31 2007
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Jan 23 2007
The BBC has published a fascinating and comprehensive survey of the state of African media. The report is funded by a variety of donors from the U.S. and Europe who are seeking to help promote development in Africa through “stronger” media. The logic is clear: “Fostering a stronger media in Africa is an indespensable part of tackling poverty, improving development and enabling Africa to attain its development goals,” according to the report’s introduction.
Media in Africa are burdened by many problems, which I saw first-hand when I trained journalists in Ghana in 2003 for the Toronto-based organization, Journalists for Human Rights. Last September, I led a seminar with journalists in the capital of Malawi, and I was reminded that bribery of journalists remains a scourge in sub-Saharan Africa.
For some years now, the World Bank and other aid donors to Africa have been pushing the notion that stronger media can help reduce poverty and promote economic growth. I am skeptical about this proposition, which arises from the frustration that official aid experts have over the macroeconomic programs they have pushed onto many African countries. Rather than examine the failures of these economic programs, donors have simply shifted the blame onto “weak” civil society institutions such as the media, who they say should hold politicians more to account. That would be good of course, but media failures are no more the cause of inequality and poverty in Africa than the success of the Bush Administration to win political support for its moronic Iraq project flows from the American media’s relatively uncritical acceptance of the effort. Media remains a reflection of powerful social and political-economic forces, not the cause of them. African journalists actually do a terrific job of holding power to account, generally showing great resourcefulness and bravery in the face of relatively low pay government opposition and the suspicion of their fellow citizens. To be sure, African journalist can do better, especially by working harder to include what I describe as the “voices of the voiceless” in their reports.
However, donors are wrong to put the onus on the media for the difficult task of expanding the willingness of citizens to challenge bad governors.
Citizen movements against government incompetence and corruption arise from political mobilization of the grassroots — and in turn ignite media agressiveness. The pattern is actually the reverse of what the donors suggest. The record in Poland during the 1980s, for instance, when Samizdat undermined the legitimacy of the Polish government, provides a classic illustration of how citizen activism drives media reforms — and not the other way around. New media tools, such as text messaging, also highlights the way in which ordinary people — rather than professional journalists — can more effectively counter the propaganda of rogue governments. Professional journalists remain too vulnerable to official intimidation because they operate in the open. Citizens, on the other hand, are harder to identify and have many more communication tools available than they had even 5 years ago, what with the spread of cell phones, the Internet and radio in recent years.
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Jan 19 2007
We need to attempt to explain what is actually happening on the ground in
Africa, however, unpalatable it may be.â€Â Â Â Patrick Chabal & Jean-Pascal Daloz
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Jan 19 2007
An excerpt from my new essay on GM and Africa for Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes:
For many years genetically-modified (GM) crops have been held out as a panacea for Africaâ€™s chief economic problem: poor farm productivity. Fears of GM, however, have stopped the technology cold in sub-Saharan Africa in what is perhaps the most pervasive example of anti-technology backlash in the world. Despite intense interest in raising food output by Africans, GM is essentially a non-actor in the farm drama. No sub-Saharan country outside of South Africa (exceptional for many reasons) currently permits the growing of GM crops or the sale of GM seeds. European opposition to the technology has greatly influenced African politicians who say they do not wish to despoil traditional agricultural settings or become reliant on imported agro-technologies. The impasse over GM in Africa has been considered a tragedy by some promoters of new technologies who insist that the technology can help produce the â€œGreen Revolutionâ€ that so long eluded sub-Saharan Africa. Proponents cite the spread of GM crops in the US (85 % of soybeans, 75% of corn and half of cotton are GM varieties) and the popularity of the technology with American farmers (who adopt the technology because it simplifies the growing process and, often, reduces costs). Opponents counter that traditional crop breeding can satisfy the needs of African farmers more quickly and less expensively than bio-technology. They darkly suggest that, worse, GM is part of a Western conspiracy to indenture African farmers to foreign seed companies. The technology, in short, is a kind of agro-colonialism.
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Jan 19 2007
I wrote this letter to an old friend from Ghana, an African American professor who lost a teenage son while living in Ghana — to the scourge of malaria. She now lives in America and this morning I told her: “My wife’s daughter arrived from Ghana this week to live with us permanently. We are both thrilled. The girl, who is 14, has been attending school and she’s more mature and focused than when we last saw her 3 years ago. We hope she will be attending the same school as my son.
I thought of you this morning also because I’m reading a fascinating book about the entire history of African American visits to Africa. “Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005” is a vivid account of “back to Africa” movements from the 1700s through the 1990s. The author
is a professor at Brown named James T. Campbell. His research is exhaustive and his writing is majestic: always clear, balanced his judgements. He never shies from tough questions and is honest about the contradictions facing African Americans living and working in Africa over the centuries. He writes an especially good chapter on Ghana and the community of African Americans in the late 1950s and 60s (drawing in part on another new book of interest,
“African Americans in Ghana” by Kevin Gaines, a professor at the University of Michigan). Some of the mini-portraits in the Ghana chapter will of course fascinate you because you may well know these people. The whole subject of the relation of African Americans to black Africa is an enormously elucidating angle with which to view Africa, period, and to view the shifting perspectives that Americans, black and white, have on their own identities. As a white American who has become “engaged” with Africa in many ways, both personal and professional, I am struck by some of the parallels between the experience of black Americans in Africa with my own. Of course, on one level, I am not surprised by these parallels since we are all shaped by our American-ness and we bring this lens to our experience of Africa. Nevertheless, because my encounters with Africa are fundamentally singular and therefore lonely I take some emotional and psychological solace in reading about the experiences of my fellow Americans in Africa. Their blackness, to me, does not make their experiences seem alien but rather help illuminate my own rickety project of understanding Africans and their place in their own terms — but also in my terms, since my encounter with Africa is part of a long, usually sordid and immoral, encounter between whites of European descent and Africans of the soil. Judging by my own journey, whites have come a long way in facing Africa, and judging by Campbell’s extraordinary book — which I dare say may win the Pulitzer Prize, despite receiving little review coverage in the press — African Americans have come a long way too.
Please send news, and do read this book. You’ll love it.
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Jan 16 2007
One of the most satisfying responses I received from readers of my New York Times article on cotton in Africa came from a young professor, soon to begin teaching at Yale University. Here’s the guts of the exchange: I read your article in the Times today with interest. It was an excellent piece. It also ties in remarkably closely to the policy we have been advocating to the humanitarian and government community, namely widespread agriculture promotion. After reading your article, it occurs to me that we’ve been barking up the wrong tree, and perhaps ought to be speaking to private sector actors. I’ll be in Uganda March and April, and I’d be really be interested in contacting the Dunavant staff there (and perhaps also in the US) about evaluating in a formal way the direct and indirect development impacts of their programs, including what works, for whom, and why.
MY RESPONSE: I am glad you read the article and see MNCs as an option. too many people in the humanitarian field dismiss private actors out of hand, yet these actors have effective networks on which you can piggyback social services. My general view is that friends of Africa need to be more concerned with effectiveness rather than ideological or “process” coherence. Private corporations should be viewed as a tool. When applied to the wrong problem, they are the wrong solution. but sometimes you have a nail and they are the hammer. To admit this doesn’t mean you are pro-MNCs. We all reserve the right to make nuanced judgements. The light-side, dark-side duality presented by many NGOs working in Africa is a cartoon version of reality. In the real work, partnerships are temporary and contingent, and they only last so long as they notch accomplishments. When state-ownership works — and it does — use it. When private actors get things done, use them too. I suspect you will find that your life in the humanitarian field will become very lonely, however, when you begin to engage MNCs. For it turns out that many friends of Africa actually want to use Africans to make didactic points about ideological struggles that are far removed from the existential challenges faced by poor African farmers.
Even this experience is useful though.
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Jan 14 2007
An excerpt from my article in today’s New York Times:
“Because of tectonic shifts in textile production that have made China and India global leaders, Americans, the richest cotton growers in the world, compete directly with Africans, the worldâ€™s poorest. And Dunavant Enterprises, based in Memphis, buys from both, at essentially the same price. Finally, the pursuit of cotton in Africa is drenched in history. More than two hundred years ago, American cotton growers imported slaves from Africa to turn cotton into one of the nationâ€™s economic engines. Contemporary cotton kings, in yet another commentary on how small the world has become, go directly to Africa for their product â€” and, led by Dunavant, they are helping Africans become more competitive with American growers.”
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Jan 14 2007
“If they want to live here, have kids, have grandchildren, they must make an
effort to adapt to the society where they live.”
— Nyamko Sabuni, Sweden
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Jan 14 2007
I’ve long believed that the future of Africa is tightly bound up with the future of Africans who have moved to Europe and the United States to pursue careers, education and family ties. African immigration has exploded in the last 20 years and shows no signs of moderating. Demand for skilled African, especially in low-birth-rate Europe is rising. In the short run, African societies are harmed by the departure of so much talent, but in the long run the homelands of talented Africans invariably will reap a bonanza.
I am much more optimistic about the ability of people of African-descent to revive and reform the economies and societies of east, west, south and central Africa than I am of the potential for foreign-aid donors to do the same. Success at home invariably flows from the dedication and ingenuity of the poor born there. Once a place is successful — like the U.S. — plenty of people from around the world will join the party. I dream of a day when my grandchildren see Africa as a place to pursue their legitimate self-interest, but for now Africa remains a place that is more beloved (especially by talented Africans working in America and Europe) in the rear-view mirror.I make a point of collecting small stories of the next generation of African leaders — people making a name for themselves right now in Europe and the U.S. One such person is Nyamko Sabuni, a rising star in Sweden, where she is a minister in the government. The daughter of a Congolese exile, Sabuni is married to a Swedish native and harbors important views about the importance of immigrant success in adopted countries. For African immigrants, the lesson is key. The more success they have away from home, the more they will be able to help their (original)home in the years ahead.
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Jan 14 2007
The National Academy of Science has published a fascinating second volume in the academy’s important “The Lost Crops of Africa” series. The volume is a landmark work on traditional vegetables in Africa that are ignored by global agro-business. Many of these vegetables deserve more attention from both scientists and Africans themselves. My hats off to professors Calestous Juma, Jane Guyer and others on the NAS team which chaired the research project and publication. Among other things, the volume unravels a personal mystery: I have long wondered why my wife so enjoyed Egusi and now I have the full story! Professor Juma tells me, â€œEgusi is the queen of African vegetables. The princess are many and Gynondropsis gynandra is my vice queen. Whoever managed to extend its shelf life will collect a lot of laurels. Princesses include Vigna, Corchorus and Crotalaria. For the volume, go to the National Academies Press.
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