Oct 29 2010

Can digital devices ignite a passion for reading among African youth?

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 5:18 PM

I am reminded anew by a celebrated project in Ghana how misguided are amateur, free-lance do-gooders in the matter of “improving” Africans. The ever-insightful Russell Southwood, editor of the Afro-techno newsletter Balancing Act, has penned a new assessment of the effects on reading by African youth of giving away digital reading devices to them (or their schools). Southwood’s assessment is prompted by a new program in Ghana to give away Kindle readers to kids. The project sounds and has attracted great press for its clever founder; but both the do-gooder and the media ignore the evident high capital costs of expanding readers one computer at a time — and the damage to Africa’s own efforts to promote reading by children in its own way. The most important effort to promote reading of all ages in Africa is the spread of newspapers. In nearly African country — and Ghana is no exception — newspapers are growing circulations, increasing influence and improving quality. All of these papers are created chiefly by Africans for Africans. By importing supposedly superior digital devices, foreign do-gooders — and in this an American one — are actually doing more harm than good. Rather than supporting (perhaps through donations) the operations of African-led and African produced-newspapers (or to book publishers, of which Ghana is home to a strong locally-owned book press), the well-meaning foreigners instead undermine the economic foundations of reading in Africa by giving away digital readers, which has the direct effect of suppressing newspaper circulations (and book buying) and thus reducing revenues to papers. African writers, as a consequence, earn less money and a local effort to increase reading as an authentic African activity is diminished.

And yet the American do-gooder crows about how much better he feels after giving away the Kindles. And remember there’s also the ideological/hegemonic aspect: that instead of showing African school kids that their very own adults are creating appropriate reading material for them, we instead witness the neo-colonial spectacle of foreigners providing an alternative, based on the justification that they are filling a (phantom) void left by (uncaring) African adults. Once more, the technological sublime is presented by Americans as a substitute for authentic cultural and social development in Africa. The answer is for Ghanaians to refuse these Kindles and look to their own natural literary leaders to work with national newspapers — the Daily Graphic and the Chronicle come immediately to mind — in order to sustain an organically-grown reading culture. The task of raising reading higher in esteem is central to creating a robust civil society; if foreign do-gooders would first look and really see what’s working in Ghana, they might realize that helping what’s already happening is much superior to ignoring it — and creating from scratch an alien imported alternative.

Oct 28 2010

For Africans, an Obama defeat at polls can bring help

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:44 PM

For Africa, an Obama presidency has been a disappointment. Rather than pay attention to the sub-Saharan because of his Kenyan heritage, Barack Obama has gone the other way: giving less attention to Africa than any other region of the world. Partly Obama’s inattention to African affairs reflects the crises of his presidency. Urgent problems are elsewhere. But the situation may be about to change and because of an unlikely reason: the defeat of Obama’s Democratic Party allies in Congress.

Next Tuesday’s polls could deliver a big setback to Obama: loss of control by the Democrats of at least one house of Congress. With the Republicans back in command, Obama will face new pressure on his administration to intervene directly in African affairs, and in ways the president has so far avoided.

A glimpse of the future direction of U.S. policy towards Africa can be seen by looking backwards — to the policies of former President George Bush. For complex reasons, the Bush administration engineered an increase in financial assistance to Africa, chiefly in the form of an enormous outlay — an estimated $80 billion over 10 years — to cover the cost of treating Africans with HIV-AIDs. In addition, President Bush engineered a peace deal in Sudan that effectively brought an end to one of the region’s oldest civil wars.

Much of the impetus for Bush’s activism in Africa came from the Christian right, which saw the Sudanese conflict through the prism of religious freedom; the conflict to Republicans was between a militant Islam and a persecuted Christian minority. Evangelicals flocked to the defense of south Sudan and, even now, are among the loudest advocates for legal partition of the country — and a more muscular U.S. role in overseeing a planned election next year that could lead to the creation of Africa’s newest nation.

Obama’s studied restraint towards African issues has permitted him to ignore the liberal wing of his own Democratic party, which would like his administration to push Sudan on the thorny question of the Darfur region as well as the country’s Christian south. With Republicans in control of the House, for instance, pressure for dramatic action will grow.

Nigeria is another large, troubled country that Obama has essentially ignored but his critics say he has done so to the detriment of long-term U.S. interests. Nigeria is the fifth largest source of foreign oil for the U.S., and the country of origin for the largest group of African immigrants in America. As most populous country in Africa, Nigeria has an economic weight that warrants American attention. But the country also contains the largest number of Muslims in any African country. And one of those Muslims last December was caught trying to blow up a plane, raising the profile of militant Islamic groups in Nigeria — and their potential connections with anti-American factions throughout the Muslim world.

President Obama has done little thinking about how to support the progessive in Nigeria. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has repeatedly warned that Nigeria’s government is dangerously derelict, but she’s offered no concrete proposals on aidiing the country, whose presidential election is only months away.

Thus, the possibility exists that Obama will face two African crises — in Sudan and Nigeria — and a Congress who wants his administration to take an active role in engaging the continent. Africans, frustrated privately with the president’s lack of attention to their region, likely will welcome a new approach, even if the approach comes in the wake of Obama’s political retreat.

Oct 15 2010

the Ghosts of Africa’s future

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 8:07 AM

The future of Africa remains a prisoner of Africa’s past — but not for the reasons usually invoked.

The legacy of colonial rule and the earlier ravages of slave trade forever changed the “trajectory” of African development. That is the biggest cliche of African studies, however axiomatic. What is less appreciated is how “independence” from colonial rule was constructed in order to promote personal rule of a sort that, however unique to the sub-Saharan, exhibited parallels with forms of personal rule elsewhere in the world, notably in China (under Mao) and the Soviet Union (under Stalin).

Zambia provides a lesson in microcosm of the past as prologue for Africa’s future. The country’s independence movement delivered a crypto-Marxist national leader, Kenneth Kuanda, who over the years constructed a form of personal rule that profoundly influenced Zambian society as well as its political culture. In a new essay, Chanda Chisala, one of Africa’s brightest minds on political economy and culture, examines the legacy of Kuanda, who left the presidency nearly years ago — and yet despite the distance of time, Zambians have had great difficulty in escaping the long shadow of his (mental) tyranny. Chisala’s article, published in Zambia Online, has quickly become one of the most read pieces of writing in Zambia’s history.

There’s every reason why Zambians are devouring Chisala’s frank assessment of the long tail of post-colonial history. Writing with a verve and nuance rare in African letters, Chisala delivers a body blow to the standard version of African marginalization and suggests a new vision for integrating the fragmented pieces of Zambia’s national narrative. “Let our history books be reset,” Chisala writes. “The struggle for African independence was not always as hard (or perhaps even as urgent) as our old “freedom fighters” and their “historians” claimed. What has been really hard is the struggle against tyranny – after independence.”

Chisala’s words should leave all friends of Africa speechless, and yet breathless with anticipation. Out of these ashes, what comes? Something better, surely.

Oct 13 2010

the important adaptations to climate change should be made any way

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:05 AM

There’s confusion in the international response to the challenge of climate change to Africa — and there’s no sign of a remedy.

One major problem is that climate modelers are struggling to better grasp the possible effects on African agriculture of climate shifts. Exaggerated claims have been made — about catastropic declines in food production — have been followed by serious critiques of the methods emtployed in the reckoning. The old specter of Afro-pessimism — that Africans are doomed, not matter what, destined to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time — seems to inform the mindset of those in international community who are quickest to cry that climate change inevitably will grievously harm Africa.

To be sure, climate change complicates an already complex dyanmic in sub-Saharan Africa between land, people and resources. Yet friends of Africa around the world make matters no easier by paying insufficient attention to the potential adaptations that Africans on the ground can make in response to new climate patterns. Some of these adaptations are occuring for other reasons. For instance, the shift in population from country to city is accelerating. No one knows how increased urbanization will alter the effects of climate change, but the movement of people from rural areas to cities is having the effect of improving the relative quality of those farmers who remain, for the logical reason that the most successful farmers are staying put, and even gaining control of more land and thus improving their farm productivity through brute-force scale effects. The growing quality of African farmers, who have been profiting, if unevenly, from rising commodity prices, also should mean that rural Africans possess a growing capacity to make useful adaptations to climate change. One excellent example lies in water usage. Irrigation is virtually absent from the African farm landscape. Even ground water is rarely used to feed plants. Yet starting to shift away from rain-fed farming can be done relatively inexpensively in most parts of Africa simply because the “low hanging fruit” has yet to be picked. Untold thousands of easy irrigation projects can be launched in Africa, quickly and at little cost, taking advantage of the reality that the first gains will be the easiest. In this regard, I am reminded of one of my visits to a UN Millenium district — this one in Malawi, where I witnessed farmers spooning water onto rows of vegetable plants from small plastic pails. The water was hand-carried from a nearby well. While this manner of irrigation is time-consuming and tiring, the benefits are clear: no capital equipment, relatively effecient use of water and immediate improvements in farm output.

Of course, Africans must take the lead in adapting to climate change in their own region. But the situation is neither as hopeless nor impossible. Many of the most important adaptations by farmers to climate change should be made any way; the benefits to farm productivity — of better use of land and water, of seeds and other inputs — are clear, whether the climate is changing or not. Similarly, for African city dwellers, many improved ways of living — from transport to sanitation, from water to power consumption — are beneficial in themselves, irregardless of climate threats.

Tactically, the lessons that can be drawn from this analysis seem indisputable. Encourage Africans who are doing the right things to keep doing them. Put international money into “adaptation” funds. Conduct Africa-specific studies of the trajectory of climate change in the region but do so carefully, recognizing that more science, at least in the near term, will only produce more uncertainty. And finally, avoid apocalyptic predictions.

Oct 01 2010

Nigeria’s bittersweet birthday

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 8:30 AM

The 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence is proving bittersweet. The enormity of the country’s problems, on the eve of a national election, prompted an impressive collection of stories from the pre-eminent chronicler of economic Africa, the Financial Times. But behind the relentless co-evolution of wealth and poverty in Africa’s most populous nation stands a sense of loss, of missed opportunity and of the hope that arises from hopelessness. Nigeria, it sometimes seems to me, must spawn its own Camus, an existential writer who can defuse the national tendency towards wild, overblown public optimism coupled with private cynicism of profound dimensions. Perhaps Femi Kuti, Fela’s son, hit closest to the mark, in an interview, when he calls today a “sad birthday” from his homeland. After listing the suffering of ordinary Nigerians, Kuti said: “We have survived these terrible times.” Out of the survivor’s tales, perhaps can come rebirth: Nigeria version 2.0.