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12.31.2003

 
Furaha ya Mwaka Mpiya!
... just dusting off my Swahili to wish you a very happy new year.




12.25.2003

 
An "A" for Effort?
Take the Beeb's end-of-the-year Africa quiz. I got 6 out of 12 right-- but some of the questions are kinda silly if you ask me. (Call me a sore loser.)


 
Once Upon a Time in Africa...
Kwame Anthony Appiah gives a thumbs up to Nelson Mandela's new collection of African folktales. It's an eclectic and ecumenical assortment:
Mandela ignores the temptations of a "folkish" Africa in another way: the stories here include "Malay-Indian" tales from Cape Town, like the one about Ali, a young man who, while seeking shelter at a mosque, spends his last five hundred coins to save a corpse from grave robbers and is rewarded by the dead man's spirit. [...] And there is a wonderful Boer story, "Van Hunks and the Devil," which, in good folk-tale fashion, explains why Table Mountain, above Cape Town, is so often covered in clouds—the result of a pipe-smoking competition between the devil and a reclusive Dutch sailor called Van Hunks (as yet there is no winner). These are tales told by people whose ancestors came—as slaves or colonists —to southern Africa from Holland or the Dutch East Indies. [...] [T]he collection reflects, as we would expect, the cosmopolitan spirit of Nelson Mandela: these are African stories because the people who tell them are living in Africa now. [...]

Nelson Mandela's favorite stories from Namaqualand and Kibena have become the common property of us all. [...]
From the New York Review of Books. Get the book here.




12.23.2003

 
A Battery of Tests
It is going to be pretty slow around here for the next couple of weeks, what with holidays and an increased work load. But I'd like to wish both of you a happy holiday season. And before you go off and quaff your favorite festive brew, I'll leave you with this cautionary tale of what goes into the popular Namibian homebrew, tombo:
Tombo contains more than 80 per cent alcohol, over double the concentration in other, more conventional spirits.

Nine bottles of tombo were tested by the National Forensic Science Institute at the request of a Rehoboth community worker after she noted the gradual deterioration of health among those who regularly imbibe the popular drink. [...]

Tombo is traditionally made from a mixture of water, wheat grain and sugar but in some areas people are known to add battery acid and other corrosive substances to the brew.

The samples tested proved to be highly acidic with paraldehyde, a corrosive substance, also present. [...]

The ingestion of these substances can lead to gastric problems, fluid accumulation, weakening of the heart muscle, blood pressure problems and even death due to respiratory paralysis.
When I was in Namibia, it was rumored that a potent batch of tombo should include a pair of soiled women's underwear. Bottoms up!


 
The Malan Files
Today, by sheer coincedence, two posts involving South Afican author Rian Malan. Malan's the author of the memoir My Traitor's Heart, a complex and often frustrating tale of being an anti-apartheid Afrikaner. I've broken the posts in two. In Part 1, Malan plays lit critic and psychological analyst. In Part 2, Malan seems in need of some analysis himself.

Part 1: International Man of Mystery
My interest in JM Coetzee drew me to an article by Malan in the Daily Telegraph (not available online). It's titled, appropriately, "Invisible Man." Coetzee, as discussed below, is something of an enigma wrapped inside a mystery. Despite Malan's fruitless efforts to crack Coetzee's aloofness (Coetzee once returned a set of interview questions with "sharp insights into my intellectual shortcomings, but... nothing about the man himself), he provides a concise appreciation of Coetzee's work. His early novels, writes Malan, are "the greatest books ever written about the experience of being white and conscious on what we are no longer supposed to call the dark continent."

What has gotten him in trouble back home is not his disdain for publicity or the literary world, but his refusal to be easily defined. He was against apartheid, but refused to side openly with the ANC/UDF anti-apartheid movement. Then he came out with Disgrace, "a seemingly withering dismissal of the fragile hopes on which the Rainbow Nation is based." Oddly, this insistence on remaining above the fray also makes him seem somehow morally tainted. In a country where everything is political, his opacity seems like an insult. But Coetzee, writes Malan, is a better, more enduring writer because of his reluctance to be a joiner or an activist. "[He] always offered something deeper and more disturbing."


 
Part 2: Loony Tunes
Now on to Rian Malan's extracurricular activities as an budding AIDS dissident. Anyone who's read My Traitor's Heart knows that Malan is anything but doctrinaire, but it's still strange to see how he's now come out as a "plague skeptic" and "moral leper." Malan's "research" says that estimates of infection and death rates are wildly exaggerated and that populations across the continent are in fact growing. But that doesn't mean there's no crisis, he insists:
'Please don't get me wrong,' he wrote. 'I believe Aids is a real problem. Governments and sober medical professionals should be heeded when they express deep concerns about it. But there are breeds of Aids activist and Aids journalist who sound hysterical to me. On Aids Day they came forth like loonies drawn by a full moon.'
Malan's become big with the AIDS dissident crowd-- that other bunch of "loonies" that once included Thabo Mbeki. So why is Malan on this kick? Some accuse him of trying to gain notoreity or jumpstart his career. Maybe. But I sense that this is just another sacred cow for him to rail against.




12.18.2003

 
Campus Notes
"At any hour you must be ready to fight. On the Metro, on the road, on the street, everywhere." So says a Cameroonian exchange student in Moscow, where a dorm housing foreign students was recently torched, killing 42. The New York Times has a disturbing piece about the violence against foreign students, particularly Africans, in Russia. Things are so bad that one Liberian student prefers to be back with his family in a refugee camp in Ghana:
"The only time I feel safe is when I am in my room -- at least, 60 percent safe," he said. Unlike some poorer students, though, he is able to take a break during the summers to visit his wife and sons in their refugee camp.

"When I return to Ghana, it's like I'm released from prison, like I'm a free bird," he said. "I get so happy. I am so happy when I sit on the airplane. I don't have to worry who is going to beat me."




12.17.2003

 
Ignoble Prize
Ouch. From the Chicago Sun-Times' review of JM Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (not available online):
The new Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, a South African who teaches at the University of Chicago, has come one whale of a cropper in Elizabeth Costello. It is a succession of almost unimaginably tiresome ruminations, cast in the form of formal academic addresses, about big-ticket issues ranging from storytelling to cruelty to animals, from the mystery of artistic genius to evil pure and simple.

Elizabeth Costello is not a novel but an anti-novel, doubtless part of the point but of little consolation to the reader who must wade through its brief yet endless bloviations. Precisely what Coetzee is trying to say may be clear to him but is often a mystery to the reader.

In all, there are eight of these harangues, or "Lessons," as Coetzee calls them. Most were delivered on scholarly occasions or published in scholarly journals. Why he did not publish them as a collection of nonfiction rather than fobbing them off as a work of fiction is a mystery he alone can solve.
I have to confess that when I picked it up in the bookstore, it didn't draw me in. Think I'll wait for the next true work of fiction.


 
Common Sense for Dummies
As Andrew at Southern Cross notes, this Guardian columnist who got taken by a 419 scam (hand-written, no less!) is playing with a few cards short of a full deck. That she blames the prevalence of such cons on the crony capitalism of Bush & Co. is going a bit overboard, even for my tastes. C'mon, you can't blame Dubya because you have no common sense.


 
Debt of Attitude
A question-- why does the US insist that the world forgives the massive debt racked up by the power-mad and corrupt Saddam Hussein while it ignores the long-standing plea to forgive the debts racked up by power-mad and corrupt leaders in sub-Saharan Africa? Just wondering.


 
Senz-sational!
The folks who make Senzero, the first Ethiopian-made plastic doll, have asked me to tell both of my readers that the li'l guy is available for international purchase. Proceeds go to fight polio and set up a child-care training center. Just think how jealous your kids' friends will be when they see the only Senzero in town!




12.16.2003

 
Read His Lips
George W. Bush's AIDS policy, as satirized/ distilled by the folks at the infamous whitehouse.org:
Early this year, during my State of the Union address, I stunned the world by announcing that I would request $15 Billion dollars in funds to combat AIDS in the nation of Africa. Of course, within a matter of days, when my dearest friends from the Christian Coalition discovered that the plan involved a budgetary pittance devoted to condom distribution and sex education for poor and ignorant folks, they got so worked up, I was afraid Pat Robertson was going to issue a fatwah on my ass!

(Laughter.)

Well that's why, when it came time to actually pony up the first $3 Billion, not only did I slash it by 33%, I also insisted that 33% of the remaining $2 Billion be devoted exclusively to abstinence education.

(Laughter.) Wait! It gets better! Because then I said that not a single impoverished African village could have a goddamned penny unless they somehow scraped together the funds to build entirely different mud huts in which to do their filthy condom and non-abstinence sex-ed talk.


 
Putting the "Awwww" Back in Addis
After dissing his blog, I'd like to point out a piece that Abraham McLaughlin wrote on Americans adopting Ethiopian kids. OK, his recent blogging from Addis was not real inspired, but I found the article interesting. And call me a sucker, but those triplets are darned cute.




12.11.2003

 
Power Trip
An interview with the multitalented Samantha Power about her visit to Zimbabwe (via mostly Africa).


 
Stop the Presses
Last week's genocide conviction of three Rwandan journalists was celebrated by several Africa bloggers ("[T]hey should count themselves lucky that they continue to breathe," wrote zombyboy at AfricaBlog "That is far more than they deserve."). I was inclined to join the fun. Anyone who's familiar with the story of the Rwandan genocide knows the role that Hutu media played in inciting and directing the killing. From a human rights standpoint, it seemed like a clear victory and a powerful warning to those who might try to use the media to foment similar abuses. In short, the message of the decision was: there's a difference between shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre and telling the audience to douse the place in gasoline and then throw in a match.

But, writing in Slate, Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists argues that the reasoning behind the International Tribunal's conviction was flawed. Not only was it based on a restrictive view of press freedom, it may give new ammuntion to governments that seek to silence the press under the name of fighting "hate speech" or "incitement." The Rwandan journalists should have been tried and convicted, he argues, but not using the logic used in this decision.


 
I Love It When a Plan Comes Together
If you can come up with a way to deliver Charles Taylor to justice, Northbridge Services Group would like to hear from you. The British security outfit says it needs an investor to fund an effort to nab Taylor. If it all works out, the investor will split the profits from the $2 million award. So presumably, your plan would have to cost less than that. I don't know much about these things, but I'd think that infiltrating Nigeria to kidnap a guy who isn't exactly a sitting duck would cost at least $2 million if you wanted to do it right (i.e., not kill anyone-- which Northbridge says it can do). Maybe the A-Team will come out of reitrement-- no one ever died in their operations.


 
Profiles in Coinage
After vowing to eradicate the type of personality cult fostered by his predecessors, Kenyan prez Mwai Kibaki has OK'd his face being put a coin. Jeeze, good thing such a shameless attempt at public-mandated ubiquity for a living leader couldn't happen here. Oh wait-- I'm wrong.




12.10.2003

 
Lost in Translation
Over at Slate, Jeremy Kahn acknowledges how difficult it can be for journalists to get accurate translations in the field.
In order to interview Ouedraogo, I pose a question to my translator in English. He translates it into French, and tells our driver, who in turn translates the French into a Burkinabe language and asks Ouedraogo. When he answers, the process reverses itself. It's all a bit like a game of telephone, and I wonder how much linguistic entropy is taking place—how much meaning is being lost in each subsequent translation.
This is something that is rarely noted in most reported pieces, which print quotes as if they were transcribed verbatim. But faulty translations are evident in the simplistic way many sources sound. For instance, villagers who talk in short declarative sentences with the odd rhetorical question thrown in. Kahn avoids this problem by paraphrasing his source, but sacrifices the immediacy of direct quotes. It's not an easy balance, but at least he addresses the problem honestly.


 
Holiday Surprise
According to today's Wall Street Journal, Bush is already reneging on his promise to increase funding to fight AIDS in Africa and the Carribean. Since registration's required to see the article, I'll invoke Fair Use and provide an excerpt:
President Bush plans to ask Congress for relatively small funding increases to fight AIDS and poverty in the developing world, stepping back from his highly publicized pledge to spend huge sums to help fight them.

With the federal budget stretched to pay for the war in Iraq, tax cuts and homeland security projects, the White House has warned cabinet departments that the president's fiscal 2005 budget proposal will include $2.5 billion in new money for his Millennium Challenge Account -- an initiative to reward well-run nations in Africa and elsewhere -- and $1.1 billion in increased spending for international AIDS projects, according to people familiar with the president's proposals.

Combined with appropriations still awaiting final congressional action for fiscal 2004, those amounts represent just 18% of the $30 billion in spending increases that the administration has promised would take place by 2008. Should Congress fund Mr. Bush's request, it would effectively put off the vast majority of the promised spending until after next year's presidential election.

'They aren't quite willing to put the money out there to match the rhetoric of the president's speech,' said Steve Radelet, formerly the top Africa hand in both the Clinton and Bush Treasury departments. [...]

When the president announced the Millennium Challenge Account, the administration said it would involve $5 billion in new spending between fiscal 2004 and 2005, and $5 billion a year after that -- a total of $20 billion through fiscal 2008. Instead, Congress looks set to approve $1 billion for 2004, and the White House is proposing $2.5 billion for the following year, leaving the remaining $16.5 billion for later.

'They're obviously way behind on that,' said Mr. Radelet, now a fellow at the Center for Global Development, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.

Mr. Bush pledged $10 billion in increased spending for AIDS over five years, with the grants focused on 14 hard-hit countries, from Haiti to Kenya, but so far has advocated only $1.9 billion in increases. Congress was preparing to spend $1.6 billion a year on global AIDS when Mr. Bush made his announcement, and health activists say that figure should serve as the baseline from which to judge whether the president keeps his promise.
Don't hold your breath. But the adminstration will undoubtedly continue to trumpet how it took a compassionate stand against AIDS, even while nothing new is being done.


 
Waiting for the Librarians
JM Coetzee isn't getting his props back home:
Coetzee is not well-known in his native South Africa and few newspapers bothered to report his Nobel win, said the BBC's Barnaby Phillips in South Africa.

'Local newspapers have shown no interest... and black intellectuals say he is not a worthy winner,' he said in a report for the BBC's Today programme on Radio 4.

Interviewing white South Africans in a Johannesburg suburb and black students at Witwatersrand university, Phillips found few people who had heard of the writer or new about his Nobel. "
Perhaps this is due to Coetzee's long career as an expat, mostly in the US and England. Perhaps it's due to politics; specifically, Coetzee's undogmatic approach to post-apartheid South Africa.




12.09.2003

 
Soft-Boiled Detective Stories
Alexander McCall Smith speculates on the popularity of his Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series in the States and Botswana:
"These books are very non-aggressive, very gentle,’’ says McCall Smith. “They’re quiet books, there’s a lot of drinking of tea. They’re about good people leading good lives. I think the Americans who read them are fed up with in-your-face social realism — here’s something that is much more gentle, somewhat old-fashioned. They’ve been going through a terrible time domestically, and my books are an antidote.”

So Americans are reading them in droves. How about Botswanans? “I think people in Botswana are pleased that my books paint a positive picture of their lives and portray the country as being very special. They’ve made a great success of their country, and the people are fed up with the constant reporting of only the problems and poverty of the continent. They welcome something which puts the positive side.”
On an unrelated note, Smith claims he can crank out 1,000 words an hour. Lucky bastard. Kalahari Typing School, indeed...


 
Bill Gates, Move Over
Mugabe's headed to Switzerland to an Internet confab. Word is that he's going to unveal his new blog, InstaDespot.




12.08.2003

 
Traffic Control
How illegal weapons are tracked down-- parts of this first-hand account read like a thriller:
We started our investigation by looking at weapons held by deserting government soldiers and rebels from neighbouring Sierra Leone brought across the border into Liberia.

And it was in no-man's land, in the middle of the Mano River Union bridge between Sierra Leone and Liberia, that I first realised we were on the right track.

A rebel child soldier showed me his AK-47 assault rifle which was stamped with M-70 2002 and a serial number.

I knew immediately that this weapon had been made in Serbia.

The child told me that he had captured the weapon recently from a Liberian Government soldier he had killed.


 
Among the Thugs
On Slate this week, a travelogue from rebel-held Ivory Coast. Jeremy Kahn says Les Forces Nouvelles are deceptively charming:
The rebels grow on me during my two days in Bouaké. I meet with members of the Forces Nouvelles' political wing, the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast (which goes by the French acronym MPCI), who I find to be extremely intelligent and articulate. While they may not have defeated the government on the battlefield, they have clearly won the media war. This is true in part because, while the government attacks the foreign press for bias, the rebels welcome foreign reporters to their territory. They have a sophisticated communications operation, with representatives in several foreign capitals including Washington, and, interestingly enough, Tel Aviv. The other thing about the rebels is that, at least for an American, their political agenda has great appeal. They want to end discrimination against northerners and allow immigrant farmers to keep their land. One has to keep reminding oneself, however, that their method of achieving these goals—i.e., war—is totally antidemocratic; it has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians and forced tens of thousands more to flee their homes.


 
Eyes Wide Shut
Andrew at Southern Cross is not impressed with Christian Science Monitor scribe Abraham McLaughlin's first impressions of Jo'burg:
I don't know what irritates me more about the post, the fact that the guy expresses surprise that Jo'burg has 6 lane highways, 'just like LA', the fact that it's, 'more sophisticated and functional' than he was expecting it to be or, perhaps this, the clincher, when listing ways in which SA differs from America, he says, 'for one thing, we hear Khosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, English, and some of South Africa's 7 other official languages. And instead of "Hi" people here say, "Howzit?" - as in "How's it going?"

Really, they don't say 'Hi', wow, that is different.
Such wide-eyed naivete is not a good sign, considering that McLaughlin will be exposed to places much further off the beaten track than Johannesburg. But it's not entirely surprising. If he's like other American correspondents in Africa, he got sent there without knowing much about his new assignment and only because it's a stepping stone to other international assignments. It will be interesting to see what he writes in the weeks ahead.




12.05.2003

 
Important Business Details Modalities
Nigeria is busting 419 scammers. So far a new anti-fraud unit has retrieved $200 million from the sons, brothers, widows, and erstwhile business partners of Africa's deposed and deceased leaders.


 
Focus on Polio
Sebastiao Salgado's latest subject: the crippling disease that is almost-- but not quite-- a thing of the past.


 
Look, But Don't Touch
Wow-- this is the kind of silly thing I only thought they did for Bush when he goes abroad:
As leaders of her former colonies converge for a Commonwealth summit, Queen Elizabeth II was to visit a mock-up Nigerian village populated by actors playing villagers, coming as close to ordinary people of this country as she is likely to because of security concerns. [...]

The village at Karu, 20 miles (32 kilometers) east of the capital, Abuja, is the set of a BBC radio soap opera, with its plot set in a Nigerian market. Local traders have been allowed to set up stalls for the occasion, but will be kept 100 meters (yards) back, authorities say. The radio actors would be allowed to meet the queen, but it was unclear whether the market-sellers would come within range.
It would be unfair if I didn't mention that at least the Queen and Bush are seen in public when they travel. Some leaders don't even bother with the pretense of visibility. Just read about Mugabe's shadowy recent visit to Namibia.


 
A Bad Rap in Soweto
A music columnist in the local alt-weekly looks at what happened when American rap stars visited South Africa. Not everyone was feeling the love. Kinda interesting, even if you're not into the music.
There are stories going around Johannesburg and Cape Town about Ja Rule. Earlier this year, Ja (who's still very popular in other parts of the world) trekked to the mother continent for some concerts. The highlights – some exaggerated, some accurate – include Ja mistaking Soweto for a bangin' club he wanted to check out, Ja accusing South African blacks of not being tough enough, and Ja's cronies roughing up a local DJ for dropping a 50 Cent song in his presence.

[...] It's interesting how the affinities you imagine in your head look when you travel. Ja assumed Africa would feel him unconditionally, and he wasn't the only one: agit-rappers Dead Prez made a similar sojourn, and though they were far more respectful of the conditions of black life there and, as a result, far more loved, they also crashed the nation's tenuous postapartheid landscape with their clunky, us-versus-them moralizing.




12.01.2003

 
Something to Digest
I'd be remiss if I didn't provide links to the two big stories that came out over the holiday. I wonder if their release was timed to coincide with Americans' celebration of their bounty.
FAO's report on hunger

UNAIDS' Epidemic Update
Some of the devastating stats from the UNAIDS report:
• Sub-Saharan Africa remains by far the most devastated by AIDS, and the situation is worsening. In Botswana, the country with the world's highest HIV rate, nearly 39 percent of adults are living with the virus, an increase of 3 percent from two years ago. Nearly a third of Zimbabwean adults have the virus, and five additional countries in sub-Saharan Africa now have HIV prevalence rates higher than 20 percent.

• Up to 50 percent of new mothers could die in the sub-Saharan African countries with the highest HIV prevalence rates.

• Of the 14 million children orphaned by AIDS worldwide, 80 percent, or 11 million, are in sub-Saharan Africa. The risks for these children are great: About half or more are forced to drop out of school when they can no longer afford to attend, and many are exploited as child laborers. Despite the social and familial networks in Africa that would otherwise accommodate orphaned children, adults are typically reluctant to care for those orphaned by AIDS.