Watch Your Step
The wonks at the RAND Corporation say that it will take 400 to 500 years to clean up all the landmines strewn around the globe. That's if we keep going at the rate we're at now. They suggest that a $50 million federal research program could help. In the meantime, never content to sit on the sidelines of weapons R&D, the US has been developing a "non-lethal" landmine that zaps victims with 50,000 volts of electricity. As an anti-landmine activsist observes, "If you're pregnant, a child or old, the effects of 50,000 volts are potentially lethal." Back to the drawing board...
Mugabe: Hell Not Yet Frozen Over
Don't start singing "Na na na na hey hey good bye" quite yet. Reports of Mugabe's early retirement are greatly exaggerated, says the Zimbawean government. "President Mugabe has not indicated a wish to leave office now, or at any other time before the expiry of his term (in 2008)," claimed an offical statement released yesterday. It dismissed speculation about the president's immediate plans as "flippant speculations and crazy scenario-building." It's not surprising that ZANU would rush to quell these rumors, but it also seems unlikely that Mugabe will ever step down quietly. Of course, those who imagine Mugabe stabilizing the situation in Zimbabwe are also guilty of "crazy scenario-building." I'd like to think it's just a matter of time before he tips over-- or is pushed.
Peacekeeping-- Qu'est que c'est?
From yesterday's dose of Paul Krugman in the New York Times:
[...] consider one of America's first major postwar acts of diplomacy: blocking a plan to send U.N. peacekeepers to Ivory Coast (a former French colony) to enforce a truce in a vicious civil war. The U.S. complains that it will cost too much. And that must be true — we wouldn't let innocent people die just to spite the French, would we?
So it seems that our deep concern for the Iraqi people doesn't extend to suffering people elsewhere. I guess it's just a matter of emphasis. A cynic might point out, however, that saving lives peacefully doesn't offer any occasion to stage a victory parade.
Mugabe Goes Down?
AfricaPundit and others are wondering whether Mugabe is working out a deal to step down. That would be great news, indeed. But I'll believe it when I see it. When similar stories were floated a few months ago, Mugabe basically said, "Over my dead body". "It would be absolutely counter-revolutionary and foolhardy for me to step down," he announced (illustrating what I meant about African leaders thinking they're revolutionaries). The combination of the recent country-wide strike and Mbeki making overtures are promising preconditions for Mugabe calling it quits. But that still leaves the question (as AfricaPundit notes) of whether the ZANU hacks, the military and the war vets would support such a move. Most important, in my opinion, is whether Mugabe can swallow his pride and paranoia and admit his time's up. I think there'd have to be something in it for him, like promises of a peaceful prosecution-free retirement in Zimbabwe.
But I am offering him free use of my villa in the south of France. I just remodeled the Mobutu suite.
Viva la Revolution!
I scratched my head when I read this line in Gwen Lister's usually smart and sane column in The Namibian:
A few more Che Guevara-type actions from our political and business elite would go a long way towards showing the citizens of this country that they care, and the people should follow suit.
What does that mean, exactly? The last thing we need is more African elites thinking they're revolutionaries! Besides, I don't think Che would have been caught dead in a Benz. (Maybe a Land Cruiser.)
Dr. Death Meets With Feds
It's a week old, but this Washington Post series on the legacy of the South Africa's apartheid-era bioweapons program is worth checking out. The first story tells how one of the mad scientists recently tried to pass on his private stock of toxins and antidotes to the US. The US, surprisingly, declined. The second story tells how Wouter Basson, AKA "Dr. Death," met with US officials last year to convince them that he hadn't let his secrets fall into the wrong hands. While the officials Basson met with seem to think he didn't come completely clean, it is interesting that he admitted to someone-- anyone-- that he knows more about this stuff than he's ever publicly admitted. Unfortunately, everything he told the US is supposed to be inadmissable in court.
The Ads Must Be Crazy
I was flipping though a recent National Geographic when I came across a Ricoh ad that really ticked me off. Above a photo of a San man, ostensibly named "Chief Obijol", was this copy:
With a series of simple clicking sounds, he can teach a force of 200 men to hunt, to treat an illness, even how to find an appropriate mate.
Gag. Where to begin on this one? Well, fortunately lingustics professor Geoffrey K. Pullum beat me to it a few months ago. He sent a letter to Ricoh and cc'd to a lingustics newsgroup. An excerpt:
This is not the first time I have read racist nonsense about the
hunters of the Kalahari desert just clicking and grunting at each
other rather than using a proper language with sentences like the rest
of us. Your corporation and its advertising agency should be ashamed
of repeating such stupidness. [...]
To which Ricoh responded:
It [the ad]
makes Khoi-speaking people sound more like exotic animals than like
human beings speaking a human language.
The Khoi people of Southwestern Africa do not communicate in "a series
of simple clicking sounds." Their languages are ordinary human
languages with the same kinds of complexities as are found in English
grammar. It's true that Khoi languages have velaric suction
consonants that are informally described as sounding like clicks, but
they are merely consonants, and they occur with vowels and more
ordinary non-click consonants in syllables, words, phrases, and
sentences as in any other human language. To refer to Chief Obijol's
speech as "a series of simple clicking sounds" is as stupid as calling
your own speech "a series of simple uh sounds."
On behalf of the Ricoh Family Group of companies worldwide, please
consider that the advertisement to which you refer in your recent
letter was not intended in any way to derogate the Khoisan people or
their complex, beautiful language.
I love it: But the ad agency told us it consulted an anthropologist! As if Ricoh management couldn't recognize stupid racist stereotypes when it saw them. Apparently not.
Ricoh, as a culturally sensitive organization, had been assured by our
advertising agency that a noted South African anthropologist was
employed to advise it during the production of this campaign. The
anthropologist, who has worked with this tribe for a number of years,
made sure that they were being depicted accurately and in a positive
Prof. Pullum writes that Ricoh bought into a "language myth" about how the "Bushmen" communicate using a language made up of only clicks and grunts. This was the same myth promoted by the 1980 film "The Gods Must Be Crazy", in which the San characters' dialogue (some of which was actually done in Nama, not Ju'hoansi, for you linguistic trivia buffs) was dubbed over with clicking and clucking.
Meanwhile, Ricoh still has a version of this ad on its British website. And do you think "Chief Obijol" has seen a royalty check yet?
You gotta love General-- excuse me-- President Obasanjo's response to suspicions of election fraud:
"The view that I hold is that whereas democracy must have certain standards that are common, the cultural milieu of the place where your democracy is practiced must be borne in mind," he said, at a press conference from which non-Nigerian reporters were banned.
He then added, "I'm a uniter, not a divider." Just kidding. But can't you almost imagine someone in the Bush administration saying something similar about Europe, mocking its fussy insistence on politcal pluralism over spontaneous expressions of "national unity"?
Eyebrows have been raised by Obasanjo's extremely strong performance in parts of the south of Nigeria, such as the president's home state of Ogun, where he won 1 360 170 votes – 99,92% -- to his opponent's 680.
Also unexpected was that the number of votes cast in Ogun in a simultaneous ballot conducted at the same polling stations was much lower than in the presidential poll, only 747 296 in total. But Obasanjo denied that the discrepancy was evidence of fraud.
"Certain communities in this country make up their minds to act as one in political matters ... they probably don't have that kind of culture in most European countries," he said.
Well, it looks like Winnie finally got more than a slap on the wrist. South African cartoonist Zapiro, who's been on her case for years, has a good take on her latest (and last?) fall. (Note: Zapiro links only work for a day or two. After that, look in his archive.)
On "Mbedded" African Journalists
There's an interesting opinion piece by Mondli Makhanya in today's Mail & Guardian about the roles and responsibilities of African journalists. It's a response to Thabo Mbeki's recent admonition that African journalists should "embed" themselves with ordinary Africans and use their reporting to defy negative images of the continent. What Mbeki seems to really want free publicity for his "African Renaissance." Makhanya argues that Mbeki is right to reject the tired old stereotypes of the savage, hopeless Africa. But this effort should not come at the expense of honest reporting on the realities of African life, such as the underdevelopment and repression fostered by corrupt leaders. Makhanya suspects that Mbeki is asking journalists to present an idealized version of the "African story":
But what really perturbs is the romanticisation of the notion of the "African story", which Mbeki says journalists on the continent are failing to capture.
I think that this is not just a dilemma for African journalists, but anyone who covers Africa. It's something I've thought about a lot as someone who'd like to see more and better coverage of Africa in the American media. When Africa makes headlines here, it's usually bad news: war, famine, poverty, dictatorship, etc. (And even when the news is really bad-- e.g. civil war in the DRC and Sudan-- it barely registers.) To only present these stories creates a skewed picture of Africa that can perpetuate the old "Dark Continent" myth. But presenting a rosy, optimistic picture of Africa is no alternative. Not only would that be misleading in its own way, but it would benefit the corrupt leaders who like to pretend that decolonization restored their countries to their lost glory (this being a favorite theme of Mugabe, in particular).
What, one may ask, is this mythical African story and why are we as journalists failing to tell it to Africa's people and to the world?
For African journalists, this hits closer to home. Makhanya writes that "embedding" journalists with ordinary Africans is not as simple as Mbeki implies. African journalists who try to present a realistic picture of their countries often pay a price for their courage. So he proposes a deal to Mbeki (and his fellow leaders): If you want the truth about Africa, let us tell it without limits.
African governments could do a great deal to help the continent's journalists tell our story better. This they can do by repealing repressive laws, passing and enforcing legislation that protects basic freedoms, opening up access to information, encouraging free debate in their countries and adopting policies that expedite economic and technological development.
Of course, African journalists should be allowed to do their jobs freely. This should include the freedom to work without offical decrees telling them to adhere to a predetermined, politicized storyline.
And, most importantly, they should stop harassing and incarcerating those who wish to tell the story of the ordinary African.
People... Who Feed People
Ethiopia announced that it will put together a "Live Aid"-type benefit to raise money for famine relief. Sade (AKA the Third Most Famous African Ever) has been invited to perform. An "appeal song" is also planned. Which reminds me of the great appeal songs of the mid-1980s, "We Are The World" and "Do They Know It's Christmas". Looking at the lyrics of these songs for the first time in many a year reveals them to be incredibly self-indulgent and just plain ignorant. (That didn't really occur to an 11-year old first-time listener.) For instance, here's the chorus of "We Are the World":
We are the world, we are the children
We are the world-- yes, this is really about us, right, Michael, Cyndi, Bruce and Tito? We have made an amazing choice to make this song. We're saving our own lives, for gosh sakes! Who's gonna make a better day? You and me. And my agent. And my publicist. We can blame the King of Pop and Lionel Ritchie for those lyrics.
We are the ones who make a brighter day so let's start giving
There's a choice we're making
We're saving our own lives
It's true we'll make a better day
Just you and me
The all-Brit number "Do They Know It's Christmas" had less navel-gazing in it, but was equally inane:
And there won't be snow in Africa
Those poor benighted Africans-- not only do they not have snow, they've never even seen water in any form! Or plants. They probably don't even have calendars or know how to tell time. And there certainly aren't any Christians in Ethiopia-- right, Bono, Frankie, Sting? So they probably don't know it's Christmas time. In fairness, this song sold 3 million copies.
This Christmas time
The greatest gift they'll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows
No rain nor rivers flow
Do they know it's Christmas time at all?
I hope the Ethiopian effort suceeds. The rest of the world should pitch in, too. But all you pop stars out there should sit this one out. Please.
In his Earth Day remarks today, Colin Powell plugged Jane Goodall's Congo Basin Initiative. Goodall, who spoke out against the war, was standing nearby. Powell also assured everyone of "President Bush's strong commitment to the conservation and wise stewardship of our environment":
We are deeply committed to forging partnerships among nations and between public and private sectors across the globe for the sake of our forests, our flora, our fauna, and above all, our future.
No doubt hanging out with peaceniks like Goodall and spouting this kind of mushy, one-world, diplomatic thinking is more proof of why Powell must go.
The Company is Hiring
I recently got an email from the international studies department of a local academic institution announcing that the CIA is looking for interns. Qualifications for selection include: "a strong interest and knowledge
of foreign affairs either through academic study or life experiences." Hey, maybe it's the interns who get to come up with stuff like the clumsily faked evidence of a Niger-Iraq uranium deal that was hyped as a pretext for war. Or maybe it's just the lucky MI6 interns who get to forge documents while their American counterparts are stuck making copies. Or maybe there's no difference. As an IAEA official said of the forgeries, "Somebody got old letterheads and signatures, and cut and pasted."
Paging Antonin Scalia
The State Department, acknowledging credible complaints about how the Nigerian election was conducted, has suggested an investigation. State spokesman Richard Boucher: "We urge all parties with complaints of electoral malfeasance to present their evidence to the competent tribunals and for the tribunals the consider those complaints in a fair and transparent manner." As Hesiod notes, this suggestion is somewhat ironic coming from the selected-not-elected Bush administration.
Just saw "Lost Boys of Sudan," a moving documentary about the (what else?) so-called Lost Boys of Sudan. It's playing at the San Francisco Film Festival, but will be showing on thePBS documentary program "P.O.V." this fall. Make sure you check it out. It follows two young Dinkas, Peter and Santino, as they make the journey from the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya to the US. They wind up in Kansas and Texas, respectively. Peter gets into high school and has some luck acculturating to what looks like an all-white, evangelical town. Meanwhile, Santino's working dead-end jobs for $7 an hour and waiting for the education that he expected to get here. I found their experiences very depressing. Not just because of what they'd already lived through before coming here, but how empty and lonely their lives here seemed. They have a small community of fellow refugees, mostly young guys like them, but otherwise, they seem adrift. American culture seems very harsh and soulless when you look at it from the perspective of someone who comes here with nothing. Which is not to say that life in a dusty refugee camp is preferable to being here. But the distance between Peter and Santino's past lives and their new lives is jarring. Hell, I'd feel like an alien hanging out with suburban Christian Kansans!
After the film, an Eritrean woman in the audience asked why the filmmakers had included the Dinkas talking about their negative and stereotypical views of black Americans. For instance, before leaving Kenya, they are told by an older man not to act like "those people in baggy pants" when they get to America. The questioner implied that such comments only perpetuated racial prejudices, especially when shown in front of a largely white audience. One of the filmmakers, Megan Mylan, gave a great response. She noted that negative stereotypes do, unfortunately, transcend borders, but can be reversed through human interaction. She also reminded the audience that a documentarian's job is to record what she sees, no matter how ugly or uncomfortable. It was a nice response to what sounded like a call for editing the movie to conform to an ideal of racial solidarity.
On a semantic note, it's interesting that these guys are still known as the "Lost Boys." There is a certain poignancy attached to the phrase, but as this generation of young Dinkas enters its early 20s, why are its members still being called "boys"? This word is pretty loaded when it's used to describe African men (likewise African-American men). I don't think anyone means any harm by it, but it sounds condescending and increasingly wrong. Most of these "boys" been through more than most men will in a lifetime.
Hide Your Women and Girls
You should really read this piece from today's New York Times in full (registration req'd). But I'll excerpt parts of it here:
In Remotest Kenya, a Supermodel Is Hard to Find
By Marc Lacey
URA, Kenya-- Lyndsey McIntyre, a scout for Elite Model Management, had visions of the supermodels Iman and Alek Wek in her head when she arrived in this remote village near the Somalia border, where she had heard the girls were tall, slim and striking.
A new African supermodel was what she was after, someone with a breathtaking new look. The recruit had to be at least 5 feet 9 inches tall. A slinky figure was required, as were straight white teeth.
"If I'm going to pull someone out of the bush, she has to be the type who when she walks into a room people's jaws hit the floor," said Ms. McIntryre, a 37-year-old British blonde who has spent most of her life in Kenya.
For a local girl from Bura, deep in the bush, it would be the opportunity of a lifetime, she figured. But just try explaining that to the Orma people who live here.
Predominantly Muslim, the Orma live in an isolated area in thatch-roof huts. They herd cows and camels in temperatures that soar well above 100 degrees. The very idea of "model" is little known here. [...]
Her hunt began well enough. The Orma trace their heritage to Ethiopia, and even anthropologists who have studied them remark that they are a physically striking people. Ms. McIntyre was duly impressed.
"They have the most amazing bone structure," Ms. McIntyre remarked upon rolling into the village.
Before she knew it she was surrounded by elders, and she tried to explain in rough Swahili what had brought her here. She asked the men if they had ever seen Coca-Cola advertisements, which seemed to bring some recognition. The pretty girl holding the Coke — that was the person she was looking for. Ms. McIntyre avoided using the term model at all, for fear that the men might think she meant prostitute. But she played up the great wealth that such a girl could bring back to her village.
She said she wanted very tall girls, very slim girls, very pretty ones. The village elders nodded enthusiastically, seeming to understand.
She returned the following day, eager to survey the prospects. But instead she was met by more elders. They wanted to hear more about her search. Again, she explained.
Eventually, to Ms. McIntyre's delight, someone gave a nod, and a group of young girls, covered from head to toe, came striding through the bush to a clearing.
Ms. McIntyre lined them up and looked them over. The lone contender was tall and striking, Ms. McIntyre found, but had a lazy eye.
From today's Onion:
Tortured Ugandan Political Prisoner
Wishes Uganda Had Oil
Right idea, but I think a reference to Mugabe would have been more appropriate. Or am I being too picky about their choice of dictators?
KAMPALA, UGANDA-- A day after having his hands amputated by soldiers backing President Yoweri Museveni's brutal regime, Ugandan political prisoner Otobo Ankole expressed regret Monday over Uganda's lack of oil reserves. "I dream of the U.S. one day fighting for the liberation of the oppressed Ugandan people," said Ankole as he nursed his bloody stumps. "But, alas, our number-one natural resource is sugar cane." Ankole, whose wife, parents, and five children were among the 4,000 slaughtered in Uganda's ethnic killings of 2002, then bowed his head and said a prayer for petroleum.
A Fanatic's Best Friend?
Global Witness has released a report detailing how al Qaeda raised money by dealing in African gems. From just a quick glance at the report, it looks like fascinating stuff. Sounds like this may be more serious than those stories about bin Laden's honey connection.
Thanks, George - Part 2
So it looks like the Bush Adminsitration took money promised to East Africa to pay for the war in Iraq. This is just another instance of how this war will be paid for by the US taxpayer while the real costs are passed on to the poor, sick and uneducated-- at home and abroad.
Meanwhile, the World Food Program says it needs $1 billion for its programs in Africa. WFP director James Morris wonders, "How is it we routinely accept a level of suffering and hopelessness in Africa we would never accept in any other part of the world?"
I just remembered that I had tickets to see Youssou N'Dour this week. But unfortunately, he's cancelled his 2003 US tour in protest of the American policy towards Iraq. That's a bummer, since the last Youssou concert I saw was one of the most amazing performances I've ever seen. I'm sure all the Afropop fans in the White House and State Department have taken this to heart. Let's hope that after November 2004 Youssou will have a reason to return to the US.
The Coltan-DiCaprio Connection
In my last post, I wondered if Americans would do anything about the illegal coltan used to make our cellphones (and other hi-tech gadgets). Coltan mining is funding the devastating war in DRCongo, but it also has an environmental side: much of the coltan is extracted from once-protected parks inhabited by Silverback gorillas. As we know, Americans tend to get more worked up over cute critters than dead Africans. OK, I shouldn't get too cynical. Stopping the flow of illegal Congolese coltan is a good thing. Even if it means teaming up with Leonardo DiCaprio, who's the public face of a campaign to get Intel, Motorolla and Nokia to use alternative sources of coltan.
If this helps save gorillas, great. But let's not forget the human cost of this war.
Why the DRC Still Burns
In today's New York Times, Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost, looks at why America and the West aren't paying attention to the war in DRCongo, which has killed over 3 million people in less than 5 years. I'll provide an excerpt here, but it's worth reading in its entirety (registration req'd). Hochschild is typically fair-minded in his assessment of who's to blame for the continuing slaughter. But he doesn't let the US off the hook.
American interest in Africa is erratic, but there is a larger reason that few countries have put much effort into ending this war. Simply, Congo's current situation — Balkanized, occupied by rival armies, with no functioning central government — suits many people just fine. Some are heads of Congo's warring factions, some are political and military leaders of neighboring countries, and some are corporations dependent on the country's resources. The combination is deadly.
Basically, Congo has become the kind of laissez-faire free market that pro-business types dream of: no rules, no regulations, no worries. I wonder what libertarian capitalists would say about this disturbing picture of free enterprise unleashed. (Bonus question for libertarians and anarchists: would a world with no central government look more like eastern Congo or post-war Bagdhad?) Hochschild ends his piece with an important question that brings the conflict closer to home: "And if conflict diamonds can be made taboo, why not conflict gold or conflict coltan?" Are Americans ready to stop buying cell phones containing "blood coltan"? Sadly, I doubt it.
To begin with, the warlords of most of Congo's factions are happy to divide up its vast treasure of mineral wealth while spending little on public services. [...]
The continuing turmoil also suits the various countries nearby, above all Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe, whose troops have long propped up one or another side in the conflict. In return, they have received a stream of timber, gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt and columbium-tantalum, or coltan, a valuable mineral used in cellphones, computers and many other electronic devices. At its peak price a few years ago, coltan was selling for $350 a pound.
Finally, the Balkanization and war suit the amazing variety of corporations — large and small, American, African and European — that profit from the river of mineral wealth without having to worry about high taxes, and that prefer a cash-in-suitcases economy to a highly regulated one.
An exhaustive report to the United Nations Security Council last year detailed the dozens of companies now making money from Congo's conflict, based everywhere from Ohio to Johannesburg to Antwerp to Kazakhstan. As a result, neither the United States nor any other nation now seems to have much interest in seeing a strong Congolese central government keep profits from the country's patrimony — the word the White House uses about Iraq's oil — mostly at home.
(The lengthy UN report mentioned above offers fascinating details about the tangle of nefarious business connections that fuel each side of the conflict. Download the whole thing as a PDF, or read this summary.)
We're Not Alone
I'm starting this blog mostly out of personal interest/vanity but also because there aren't too many Africa-related blogs out there. There are a few already, though. For another American musing about events far away, check out AfricaPundit. Or for first-hand accounts from folks over there, drop by A Taste of Africa or Swamp Cottage, who are lucky enough to be in Somaliland and Kenya, respectively.
What's the 419?
OK, I know that writing about Nigerian advance-fee email scams is like, so, 2002. But I just got a couple of new 419 messages (so named after the Nigerian fraud statutes) in my inbox, which reminded me of a table I drew up after receiving a slew of messages from across the continent. I calculated how much money each of my prospective business partners was really offering, as it was usually a percentage of a much larger sum. Turns out South Africans offered the most (up to $55 million promised), while Sierra Leoneans and Cote d'Ivoireans were real cheapskates (no more than $4.5 million). But the most aggrressive entrepreneur was a fellow claiming to be Jonas Savimbi's son "Henry." He even sent me a photo of his "father's" bullet-riddled corpse as proof that he was who he said he was. Despite such a slick pitch, I got cold feet and decided not to forward my bank account number and Social Security number to him. Besides, he was only offering me $1.85 million of his deceased dad's box of gold bricks or whatever it was.
Good News, Bad News
South Africa plans to prosecute apartheid-era criminals and pay one-time reparations to their victims. But the Mbeki government also announced it won't support lawsuits against foreign corporations that did business with white South Africa.
Ranking Full Stop
Africa Almanac has complied a list of what it's calling the "700 best-known Africans in history." This rigorously scientific ranking is based on how often references to famous Africans turn up on the web. Numbers 1 and 2 are, unsurprisingly, Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela. So far, so good. But the rest of the top 10 is dominated by pop culture figures such as Sade, Charlize Theron, Seal and Lou Bega (born in Uganda, it turns out). While these four are African by birth, they're hardly identified as African in the Western media that has been the primary vehicle for their fame. You have go keep scrolling down to find more eminent figures: Desmond Tutu is ranked number 17, Chinua Achebe is 20, Miriam Makeba is 25. Congolese musical virtuoso Tabu Ley Rochereau is all but forgotten at 532 and Kenyan freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi is buried at 682.
So what does any of this mean? To me, this is further evidence of how the Internet can distort and inflate the significance of the Lou Begas of the world. Just because 85,000 websites mention the creator of "Mambo No. 5," does that make him truly better known than someone like Tabu Ley, whose fans don't bother writing about him on the web (or don't even have web access)? In the long run, whose songs will be remembered and listened to over and over? Probably not a one-hit wonder like Bega. And while Sade is cool, she doesn't deseve to be "better known" than Miriam Makeba. And please don't get me started on Charlize Theron...