â€œSurvivors tell the stories the sympathetic want to hear, and that
means making them as shocking as possible.â€
– Valentino Achak Deng
Archive for February, 2007
â€œSurvivors tell the stories the sympathetic want to hear, and that
Dave Eggers fictional memoir, â€œWhat is the What, is beautifully written. The book, which recounts the difficult life a refugee from Sudanâ€™s civil war, tells little, actually, about the state of Africa today â€“ and surprisingly much about relations between African immigrants and African-Americans. Here is one revealing confession from the subject of the novel, Valentino Achak Deng:
â€œIt is a terrible thing, the assumptions that Africans develop about African-Americans. We watch American films and we come to this country assuming that African-Americans are drug dealers and bank robbers. The Sudanese elders in Kakuma told us in no uncertain terms to stay clear of African-Americans, the women in particular. How surprised they would have been to learn that the first and most important person to come to our aid in Atlanta was an African-American woman who wanted only to connect us to more people who could help.â€
I am in Lima, Peru this week and part of next, researching some issues in agriculture. Tommorrow I will drive 6 hours into the mountains and meet the â€œcampesinosâ€ who toil the land. So far Lima seems a study in contrasts, with the city center resembling Phoenix or Atlanta and the outer areas punctuated by such poverty and class-warfare that the police private declare some neighborhoods â€œno goâ€ zones. This is only my second trip in the past five years, where I did not visit somewhere in Africa. About 18 months ago I visited Shanghai and Beijing (and China for the first time), and this is my first visit to Peru â€“ and my first time anywhere in South America. In this trip, as with my China journey, I am finding much-needed perspective on the African situation, by seeing up close the experiences of a very different region.
Of course, for relaxation reading, I am reading about Africa. Why not? I took a battered copy of Paul Therouxâ€™s â€œDark Star Safariâ€ with me. The book, first published in 2003, has aged well. His random encounters, as he moves from Cairo through east and southern Africa, remain as trivial and non-essential as when he first wrote them. His more penetrating insight into black Africa, which come like bullets at the outset of the book, are elegantly written and capture some of the paradoxes of the current fascination with Africa in popular culture, and especially the movies.
Below are some of Therouxâ€™s best lines in the first 100 pages of the book. See if you can distinguish his moronic insights from the ones that matter:
â€œAll the news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, though not for the horror, the hotspots, the massacre-and-earthquake stories you read in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again.â€
â€œAfrica is materially more decrepit than it was when I first knew it [40 years ago, in the early 1960s] â€“ hungrier, poorer, less educated, more pessimistic, more corrupt, and you canâ€™t tell the politicians from the witch doctors.â€
â€œAfricans, less esteemed than ever, seemed to me the most
lied-to people on Earth â€“ manipulated by their governments, burned by foreign experts, befooled by charities, and cheated at every turn.â€
â€œMost trains in Africa look as if they are on their way to Auschwitz â€¦.â€
Personally, I find Theroux dripping with contempt for ordinary Africans, and elites most flagrantly. I share some of his complaints about elites, though I consider the Aushwitz line a low blow â€“ but not the dumbest thing Theroux writes in â€œDark Star Safari.â€ The book is published at the height of the American governmentâ€™s lying about the Iraq war, and the war on terror generally. I can easily imagine substituting the Americans for Africans and writing: Americans are the most lied-to people on Earth — manipulated by their governments, burned by foreign experts, befooled by charities, and cheated at every turn. Therouxâ€™s biggest crime is hypocrisy. He seeks to debunk the low expectations of Africans by trading on these same low expectations. So he is really as bad as the people he complains about.
“My generation will be judged over whether it helps create a sustainable
economic miracle to maintain political freedom.”
– Zanele Mavuso Mbatha, CEO of South African mining company Incwala
An excerpt from my article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle:
Distant struggles can profoundly influence life in America. We are reminded of this insight often today as Islamic fundamentalists in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and other faraway places appear to threaten our country. In these times, when distant peoples often seem menacing, we would do well to recall how events unfolding around the world can benefit Americans, and in unexpected ways.
Coming first, Ghana’s independence had a special meaning for Americans still mired in the hypocrisies and inequities spawned by a system of racial discrimination and white supremacy that, in 1957, showed few signs of moderating, much less collapsing. Fifty years ago, government-enforced segregation, called Jim Crow, prevailed across the South, and in the “liberal” Northeast and West, blacks were denied opportunities and often harassed, mistreated and abused by government and private actors alike.
The new article from the pen of normally astute African Uber-journalist William Gumede rehashes a self-serving argument against Chinese engagement with black Africa first advanced in December by South African president Thabo Mbeki. He warned that Africans ought to worry about falling into a “colonial relationship” with China, which is rapidly expanding its commercial ties with sub-Saharan nations. The G-Mbeki argument is laughable except that serious people are, well, taking it seriously. Africa has a long and terrible history of exploitation so tossing around the C-word is inherently incendiary, designed to immobolize critics by raising the specter of racism and rank exploitation.
In fact, Chinese investments in Africa are a mixed blessing, with some measure of exploitation co-mingled with important new opportunities spawned by Chinese contacts. A more balanced view of the situation comes from Andrew Mwenda, the great Ugandan journalist and a friend of mine who is spending the academic year at Stanford University in Palo Alto, where I will be teaching a journalism course this April. Mwenda argues that fears over Chinese engagement with Africa are exaggerated. I agree. Africa suffers, fundamentally, from too little engagement with the wider world, not too much. Yes, the Chinese pose a challenge. They too often import workers to run their African enterprises; even hotel maids are flown into Africa to staff Chinese-owned hotels and bricklayers to work as builders on Chinese construction sites. The Chinese also resist giving real power to their African employees in Africa. Nevertheless, Africans at all level can learn something from the Chinese, and their engagement with Africa is much healthier than the situation of ten years ago, when China traded with and invested in everywhere else in the world except Africa.
“He’s married black. He acts black. But there’s a lot of distance
between black Africans and African-Americans.” — Deborah Dickerson on
President George W Bush has approved a Pentagon plan for a command centre for Africa to oversee US military activities on the continent.
The U.S. is likely to put this in Djibouti, near Somalia. It isn’t clear whether the new arrangement simply formalizes what already is or means increased military activity in Africa for American forces. Last month, U.S. forces based in Djibouti struck Islamicist fighters in Somalia, and the so-called Horn of Africa remains the focus of American military planners.
From Djibouti Americans could also stage missions to Darfur, another hotspot. Nigeria’s oil-rich Delta region in West Africa also preoccupies American military planners, though last year the Pentagon turned down a request from the Nigerian government for assistance in patrolling its coast.
Ever since the grisly killing of American soldiers in Somalia in 1993 (in the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident), the U.S. government has been unwilling to send forces into African hotspots. Bill Clinton passed on aiding Rwanda during the genocide, and George Bush wouldn’t allow American troops to engage in fighting in the final months of Charles Taylor’s bloody rule in Liberia. There is little reason to expect a change in American posture, despite the formalization of a new command. Nevertheless, pressure for intervention by U.S. troops is a constant refrain among some “friends” of Africa, especially the Darfur lobby, which sees intervention as at least a temporary solution to genocide. I have argued elsewhere that an African military intervention by the U.S., even in the case of Darfur, is less appealing than international efforts to halt or reduce conflicts in the region.
Absent from an otherwise uplifting article in today’s New York Times about the freeing of children working for commercial fishermen in Ghana was the question: if it is against the law to indenture these children in the form of virtual slavery, then why must foreigners come and pay a large sum of money to the men holding the children in order to “free” them. Why can’t government — and there is one in Ghana — simply seize the children, removing them from the fishermen holding them illegally? The example, described in a prominent news article by the Timesm, seems another case of where foreign intervention undermines personal responsibility and government performance. Rather than freeing the children themselves, foreign good samaritans should have demanded government do so. The Times never raises this important possibility, which points to an alternative approach to helping Africans from afar.
I have argued repeatedly over the past year that, despite the collapse of the WTO talks on reducing agriculture subsidies in the U.S. and Europe, there remains a chance to substantially improve the terms of trade for African farmers exporting to Western markets. Yesterday the Bush administration lent support for this perspective, introducing a wideranging set of reform measures for the nation’s extensive and expensive farm-subsidy program. Large cuts in farm subsidies are both justified on economic grounds and morally right. As I have written in the Milken Institute Review and San Francisco Chronicle, reform of farm subsidies will enable the U.S. to seize the moral high ground in debates over African poverty and economic development. But opponents to these cuts are numerous and the political farm lobby is hugely influential, with ties across both parties. The fight over farm subsidies is sure to be closely watched around the world, especially in Africa, where farmers lose about 10-20 percent of their potential income, across a variety of crops, because of America’s policy of paying its own farmers not to grow or to grow at a loss.