“We could not allow bad leaders who kill people to be in control. If you did not elect us in 1996 and had not given us the mandate, we would have gone back to the bush to fight.” — Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda
Sep 07 2007
â€œFood miles,â€ are a new barrier to the export of African food products to the rich world.
Let me explain. Here in Uganda, where I am visiting this month, the buzz is about the push towards â€œsmartâ€ organic farming, which means farming organic without an income penalty to the ordinary African farmer. As a senior agriculture expert in Kampala told me yesterday at lunch, â€œIt is inconceivable to encourage farmers to go organic, if the switch makes farmers poorer.â€ Thatâ€™s because organic farmers often produce fewer crops per acre â€“ and yet the premium for organic isnâ€™t large enough to make up the difference. â€œWhatâ€™s needed is a package of organic tools â€“ from ways of controlling pests to enriching the soil â€“ that give the farmers yields equal to you, or even greater, than conventional farmers,â€ the adviser says.
In Uganda, organic cotton, coffee, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds are among the crops where organic is making the greatest inroads. But just as African farmers become hip to the appeal of organic â€“ and the way their own traditional methods of non-chemical farming fit the organic criteria â€“ consumers in Europe are trying to switch the rules. Radical enviros, after years of applauding African efforts to promote organics farming are suddenly complaining that that air transport â€“ the usual way that high-value African produce is brought to European grocery stores â€“ creates too great of a â€œcarbon footprint,â€ Air freight contributes to global warming, in short. So just as African producers are becoming capable of benefiting from global food trade, Europeâ€™s enviros are threatening to stop buying â€“ and even ban â€“ African organic food from European tables.
Were this threat not true it would be a cruel joke. Indeed, the BBC reports today that activists are already pushing a measure in Britain, which is the number one receipient of fresh produce for many African countries, that might could call for a total ban on imported organic African food. Any restrictions of African organics will hurt ordinary farmers, and make more difficult the task of rising out of poverty. That the British — who have made so many self-congratulatory gestures for their part in â€œaidingâ€ Africans — should be the driving force behind this new threat to Africa’s poor is a rather extraordinary example of the contradictions in the relationship between the self-styled do-gooders of the rich world and their presumed beneficiaries in the sub-Saharan.
Alas, the world has changed, and African farmers are no longer the hostage of their former European masters. Thanks to the rise of Asia, Africans need not beg, plead and prostrate themselves before the altar European self-righteousness and gratuitious moralizing in order to merely subsisit. As consumers in China and India grow wealthier, they will buy African produce at fair prices, happy for the chance to eat higher quality foods â€“ and unconcerned with the lost opportunity for empty moral gestures.
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Sep 04 2007
Bebe Cool is a Ugandan singer and songwriter who performs in a style loosely referred to (by himself and fans) as Reggae, though his music could more easily slide into the “Afro-pop” category. Last Friday night Bebe held a concert to inaugurate a new CD. Admission to the concert was $11.50 (in Ugandan currency) and yet at least 5,000 people turned out, partly to hear a supporting singer from Trinidad and Tobago, Marion Asher, well known in Uganda for a catchy song called â€œGanja Planter.â€
The concert was held in an enclosed field and on the way in I met Mrs. Cool, Bebe’s wife, who was collecting money at the gate. “Bebe doesn’t trust anyone else,” she said. I understood. In the days prior to the concert, Bebe had engaged in various lawsuits with Asher and the concert promoters and had even physically assaulted his co-star in a nightclub. “Does Bebe like to hit people?” I asked Mrs. Cool. She frowned. “He was provoked,” she said. Indeed. Beebe took exception to Asher singing in a club with another Ugandan performer a week before his own concert. Fearing his brand was being tarnished, Bebe — who in Christian-loving, God-fearing, ultra-conservative Uganda is a kind of African Elvis Presley — proceeded to beat the crap out of Asher. Fortunately everyone was moving with their body guards and the ass-whipping never reached harmful heights.
Inside the venue, I found a temporary stage flanked by two large screens on which the organizers projected, almost non-stop, advertisements for the two corporate sponsors of the event: a brewery and a national mobile telephone company. In Africa, of course, the two most profitable businesses these days are beer and cell phones, so the sponsors could afford to toss around their money. For the concert-goers, though, the question was why they had to pay so much for the priviledge of watching commercials. In between acts, there were even dedicated spots, and then the two emcees lost few opportunities to extol the virtues of the particular brew and cell-carrier.
When Bebe Cool arrived on stage about 1 am surrounded by smoke bombs and fireworks, the escape from reality was complete. Despite four hours of music up to that point, there was no word about HIV-AIDS or poverty, the twin scourges of Uganda. According to the U.N., 7 million Ugandans are malnourished, or about one quarter of the country’s population. Even accounting for the U.N. addiction to exaggeration, many go hungry in Uganda. None of the priviledged Kampalans present at the concert seemed to care, or maybe they view their musical experiences as part of a separate reality.
The only raw note among the musicians was provided by Asher. Like all the other performers except Bebe Cool, Asher sung along with his recorded CDs, a practice derisively referred to as â€œmimingâ€ by Ugandan sophisticates. Yet at least Asher sung about injustice and stopped his crooning (and the dee-jay) to exhort his listeners to fight for political change and smoke pot, which like many other crops in fecund Uganda grows very well.
Asher was a blue note in an otherwise rosey evening of music that promoted consumption and capitalism, not conscience and musicianship. As aid donors and do-gooders continue to flog Africa for its eruptions of war, disease and inequality, the elites of the region strive for the good life as conceived of by domestic tycoons and international marketers.
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Sep 04 2007
I lunched today with one of Ugandaâ€™s senior most journalists, Bernard Tabaire. Erudite and broad, Tabaire was long the weekend editor at Kampalaâ€™s Monitor daily newspaper. Since his recent return to the Monitor from a six-month fellowship at Oxford, Tabaire has done double-duty, steering both the weekday and weekend newsrooms (though this week heâ€™s getting welcome relief, with the return from vacation of the ME of weekday)
Tabaire is an editor equally adept at directing stories about culture, society or politics. Perhaps his finest moment since returning to Monitor from Oxford was a jarring story about widespread counterfeiting of products in Uganda. The victims are consumers, in the main, while producers and retailers get to peddle (maybe more wittingly than not) fake products for the price of real ones. On Uganda dynamism, Tabaire says, â€œWeâ€™re making up for lost time.â€ With an economic boom powered by increased foreign investment, returning Ugandans living in Europe and America and strong gains in farm output, Uganda is experiencing a long-term economic boom. The political system still lags the economic transformation, however, which may be why, while at Oxford, Tabaire wrote an essay, â€œPress and Political Repression in Uganda: Back to the Future?â€ The essay is a wonderful account of the competing pressures on journalists in one of the freest and creative media markets in Africa.
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Sep 03 2007
Sunday afternoon on the shores of one of East Africa’s great lake. I am with a European couple who had the foresight to purchase a large plot on a choice spot on the lakefront.Â From a comfortable seat beneath a large tree, we watch fishermen pull in their nets, their catch meager. The lake is low — though not so low as a few months ago. There is a building boom going on around the Entebbe side of the lake, with foreigners and Ugandans living abroad fueling the purchases. Good land can still be had for $20,000 an acre and a solid property with house abutting the lake can fetch $200,000+. Indeed, Ugandan real estate has reached heights barely dreamed of a decade ago.
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Sep 03 2007
I arrived in Kampala last Tuesday night just in time to say farewell to the Afrigo Band, which left a few days later for its first trip to America. Afrigo is East Africa’s top tradiitonal dance band and is best known in the U.S. for its role in King of Scotland, the Hollywood melodrama centered on Idi Amin and filmed largely in Kampala. Afrigo was the band playing at the wild parties thrown by Amin, and one of the band’s songs made it to the movie’s sound track. Afrigo is a large band, mixing West African highlife with Congolese soukous and a dash of American jazz. The band’s leader, Moses Matovu, is a fine alto saxophonist in the tradition of Johnny Hodges. Though Moses doesn’t sing, he follows in the tradition of Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, another alto player who ran a big band. Afrigo toured China on an official visit two years ago. The U.S. tour is more ad hoc, and the initial gig is for a Ugandan cultural organization in the northeast. But Moses is resourceful and over the next month American audiences may get a rare chance to hear one of Africa’s great band. The only shame is that Moses’s sponsorships were limited and he left his wonderful trio of dancers behind, including the incomparable Jasintah Wamboka, whose classic soukous-inflected song, Shusa (or Change Your Life), is a staple of the band’s exciting book.
Before leaving, Moses, Wamboka and the two other dancers shot a TV commercial, drawing on some of the band’s classic licks and dance steps. Alas, a poor consolation for the women, none of whom have ever been in America.
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