In Friday’s edition, the San Francisco Chronicle gave a rave review to my new memoir, Married to Africa. The reviewer, Megan Harlan, genuinely grasped the humor, insight and pathos in my account of my marriage to Chizo Okon, a Nigerian whom I met seven years ago in Accra, Ghana.
Archive for December, 2008
African writers generally ignore the subject of supernatural beliefs, or consign treatment of them to popular movies. Yet in a well-reasoned commentary published in The East African on Nov. 10, Joachim Buwembo makes the case that serious people should start to â€œthe growth of witchcraftâ€ in Africa seriously.
Buwembo is provoked to address the trend, he says, because of two recent cases in Uganda where wealthy businessmen buried the heads of murdered children in the foundations of buildings they were constructing in order to insure their success, Buwembo argues that murderous rituals demand a serious response.
â€œThe restoration of cultural institutions has its downside,â€ he notes, â€œas many of the criminal witchdoctors hide under the guise of traditional healers to carry out their evil acts.â€
Buwembo insists that African governments remain too reluctant to crack down on the trend â€“ and that they need help from outsider to tackle the problem. â€œBelief in witchcraft is changing work ethics, business and social relations,â€ he writes. â€œA humanitarian organization should quickly commission a study to and look for ways of rescuing our people from superstition.â€
On the same theme, Britainâ€™s Daily Telegraph recently published a moving article on the plight of children in Nigeria who are branded as â€œwitches.â€ The paper reports: â€œThe devil’s children are â€˜identifiedâ€™ by powerful religious leaders at extremist churches where Christianity and traditional beliefs have combined to produce a deep-rooted belief in, and fear of, witchcraft. The priests spread the message that child-witches bring destruction, disease and death to their families. And they say that, once possessed, children can cast spells and contaminate others.â€
A recent article in the Cameroon Post sheds light on another aspect of the revived interest in the supernatural: the role of mainstream churches.
African media have spent a good deal of space and energy on explaining the merits of once-maligned traditional medical practices. Herbal medicine is indeed of great value around the region â€“ so much so that some countries, such as South Africa and Egypt, have taken steps to professionalize and rationalize the activities of traditional healers.
Not so in Kenya, according to an insightful and comprehensive article in The Daily Nation of Nov. 13. Writer John Njagi explains how herbalists are using media campaigns, filled with unsubstantiated claims to drive sales of essentially quack medicines. â€œThe only law that attempts to regulate the [traditional medicine] industry is the Witchcraft Act of 1925,â€ which is only invoked if a patient dies, writes Njagi. Kenyanâ€™s lawmakers have repeatedly failed to enact contemporary controls; a Traditional Medicines Bill remains stalled.
â€œEven though herbal medicine is an important component in the provision of health services,â€ one doctor told Njagi, â€œthe law of a law to put checks on the industry continues to water down its benefits.â€
Andrew Mwenda of Kampala continues to produce some of the most penetrating analytical journalism anywhere in Africa. He recently published a revealing interview in his Independent weekly with Rwandaâ€™s president Paul Kagame. In the interview, Kagame talks passionately about the importance rural land title for peasant farmers. While on the surface promoting individual property rights, Rwandaâ€™s new land law also, as Kagame explains, promotes â€œland consolidationâ€ through â€œresettlementâ€ of peasants into what he calls â€œimidugudu,â€ or new communities that offer resettled people such services as electricity, water and schools. Kagame denies that the program essentially disposes peasants of property. â€œThe land is liberated,â€ he tells the Independent, â€œbut remains in the possession of the owners,â€ the peasants now living in â€œimidugudu.â€
Kagame seems to have entered an Orwellian zone where the word possesion and liberation assume unusual meanings. While often lionized for his personal rectitude, Kagame is increasingly prone to verbal gymanastics. Witness his government’s recent hair-splitting over what its officials are telling rebels in eastern Congo. Kagame has no patience for talk of a “proxy” war in the country to Rwanda’s west. Yet could Kagame’s refusal to admit Rwanda’s role in Congo’s current conflict be another example of his flair for word play?
“An American journalist finds the loves of his life in Africa.
New York Times columnist Zachary (Journalism and Writing/Stanford Univ.; The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy, 2003) delves within to examine the development of his relationship with his wife. In July 2001, he retreated to Ghana to write a mystery novel. At the Accra Zoo he met Chizo Okon, keeper of an abandoned chimpanzee. The novel went nowhere, but the two fell in love as they spent the next few weeks together. Seeking to unravel the mysterious attraction between a Jew from Flatbush (transplanted to northern California) and an Igbo woman from Nigeria, the author attributes some of it to the joie de vivre culture of Ghana, where their relationship blossomed. â€œI sensed I could learn important lessons from this African woman,â€ he writes, â€œat least about living in the present. Until I met her, I had lived only in the past and in the futureâ€¦This woman immersed herself in the fullness of the moment with a curious ease that I took for wisdomâ€¦I wanted a present and, I would later come to realize, she wanted a past and a future.â€ Though the narrative revolves around the coupleâ€™s negotiation of issues arising from their differing skin colors and cultural basesâ€”Zacharyâ€™s depictions of the in-law introductions for each partner are pricelessâ€”it also reveals the authorâ€™s great affection for Africa. â€œIn America, life is cloaked in a heavy garment of fear, anxiety and the relentless drive for self-protection,â€ he writes. â€œIn Africa, outer armor is stripped away, and people are permittedâ€”dare I say entitled?â€”to experience the rawness of their own solitary human predicament. For reasons I cannot comprehend, in Africa I feel more human than in America.â€
Zacharyâ€™s witty tale of opposites attracted also provides an illuminating portrait of African and American daily lives.”
Ghana’s peaceful national election have won justified praise but the looming run-off election later this month may prove vulnerable to political passions. The West African country’s ruling New Patriotic Party was hardly shocked by the narrow result, which saw the opposition party of former president, Jerry Rawlings, denying a majority of the vote to NPP’s candidate. Current president, John Kufuor, an avuncular man known for personal rectitude and a lack of imagination, failed to put his favored candidate on the ballot; instead, one one of his most dour and uninspiring ministers, who in public appears to campaigning for a seat in Britain’s parliament, won the primary election. His rival is an aging Rawlings loyalist who lost twice to Kufuour by wide margins. But mass discontent is rising in Ghana because the country’s “macro” prosperity has failed to spread wide benefits and government service, never good, failed to improve under Kufuor, the complacent. Attah Mills, the candidate for National Democratic Congress, wisely chose a dynamic younger politician, John Mahama, as his vice president. Another Rawlings acolyte, Mahama is smart, articulate and drawn to the sort of economic that Ghana sorely needs after decades of elite-driven policies. Mills may yet lose the run-off yet the NDC already has won a stunning victory, by gaining more seats in Parliament than NPP. The ascendance of the opposition carries risks. Rawlings is a wild card; he never came to terms with Kufuor personally and has suggested, more than once, that extra-legal means of political resistance remain warranted in Ghana. Moreoever, his record as president brought as much shame as pride to Ghanains. Mills and Mahama, if they do win, must first and foremost settle the status of Rawlings, who ought to have any formal role in Ghana’s next government.
Burundiâ€™s most influential personality — an accomplished journalist — is running for president, highlighting the continuing allure of political office for African media leaders.
Alexis Sinduhije, whom I first met in 2000 in Bujumbura, is a talented and courageous radio journalist who has worked at his Radio Publique Africaine in one of the most difficult cities in the world to perform journalism. His run for president in a country long divided along ethnic lines is an inspired example of how partisan political journalism in Africa can easily lead to the pursuit by journalists of elected office.
In Ghana this fall, Kofi Coomson, the owner and publisher of the daily Ghanaian Chronicle, spoke with me at length about his tortured efforts to win a seat in his countryâ€™s Parliament. Like Sinduhije, Coomson is a former Nieman journalism fellow at Harvard University. After being disqualified by the ruling party to stand in a primary election, Coomson decided against contesting for a seat as an independent in Ghanaâ€™s December national elections.
Sinduhije continues to push for a place in Burundiâ€™s elections, scheduled for 2010. Coomson, meanwhile, ponders whether to invest more heavily in his media properties â€“ and leave politics to the politicians.
In the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, development economist Paul Collier takes aim at the â€œpolitics of hunger.â€ In his thoughtful article he urges politicians to take steps to lower food prices. To do so, he argues, could be unpleasant, however, since governments must end their â€œbias against big commercial farms and genetically modified crops and doing away with damaging subsidies.â€ The real enemy, he insists, is â€œpopulism,â€ a brand of politics he believes â€œwill block the policies needed to address the food crisis.â€
A report from the World Health Organization, on sensible steps that could â€œeliminateâ€ the disease, got buried in the international media. Only the BBC appears to have produced a serious report, raising the puzzling issue of why such an electric possibility failed to ignite the worldâ€™s attention.
The BBC report clearly laid out the implications of a new study:
â€œUniversal testing for HIV, followed by immediate treatment could cut the number of people developing full-blown Aids by up to 95%, a Lancet study says.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also found that such a strategy could virtually eliminate HIV transmission.
The study used computer modeling to project what would happen if everyone over 15 was tested every year.
But the WHO said that weak health care systems meant that universal testing was not a realistic idea.â€
The report received attention from specialized sites but not the mainstream media. The Washington Post ran a brief wire report.
The New York Times missed reporting in its news pages on the Lancet study but the paperâ€™s editorial page rebounded a few days later with a piece on the importance of the study. The editorial carried the hopeful headline, â€œA Breathtaking Aspiration for AIDS.â€
The fascination in the African media with our President-elect continues. Writing in the pages of Freetownâ€™s Concord Times, Abdul Karim Bangura claims that Barack Obama is not the first â€œblackâ€ president as many as a half dozen American presidents before him had â€œAfrican blood.â€ Bangura, a native of Sierra Leone who is a professor at American University, cites claims that Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight David Eisenhower all were part black.