Head of the Class
Thanks to its new free public education system, Kenya's oldest primary-school student is 84-year old Kimani Maruge:
Mr Maruge did not have the chance to go to school when he was younger because he took part in the Mau Mau rebellion against the British in the 1950s.
That's so cool. Yes, I'm a sucker for stuff like this.
He said one of his main aims for starting school was to learn to count the money he expects to receive in compensation from the authorities for fighting against the British.
He says he also hopes to learn to read the Bible - because he does not trust the version he hears each week in church.
Hard to Stomach
Two interesting articles in yesterday's New York Times. The first, titled "When Real Food Isn't An Option", chronicles the extreme lengths people in extreme hunger will go to in order to put something-- anything-- in their stomachs. The piece seems to have been inspired by photos the paper ran a week or so ago of a Haitian woman baking "dirt cakes." Africa figures prominently in such tales of gastronomic desperation:
In Malawi, children stand on the roadsides selling skewers of roasted mice.
It's important not to blur the distinction between truly desperate measures and local cuisine here. For instance, eating a chair is desperate; eating grasshoppers is tradition. Not everyone who eats bugs or rodents or what we consider cute house pets is doing it because it's keeping them from starving. As the article concludes:
In Mozambique, when grasshoppers eat the crops, people turn the tables and eat them, calling the fishy-tasting bugs "flying shrimp."
In Liberia during the 1989 civil war, every animal in the national zoo was devoured but a one-eyed lion. Dogs and cats disappeared from the streets of the capital.
But all that is, at least, fresh protein. During the siege of Kuito, Angola, in the early 1990's, Carlos Sicato, a World Food Program worker, described a man producing an old chair and promising his family, "If we don't die today, we can survive for four more." He soaked its leather for 15 hours to soften it and remove the tanning chemicals. Then, with boiling water, he made "lamb soup."
And the dirt biscuits of Haiti - called "argile," meaning clay, or "terre," meaning earth - are not exactly a final cri de coeur against starvation.
But there's no denying that hunger will drive people to eat things that never should be food. I'm reminded of my former students in Namibia. While they received three meals a day (mostly maize porridge with sauce and a little meat for dinner), they were often hungry, as active kids on a low-protein diet would be. I often had to reprimand them for swiping my colored chalk, which they insisted had flavors that corresponded with the color. Paper was also a popular substitue for gum. Their acquired taste for school supplies was partly due to youthful adventurousness and partly due to real hunger.
Like the mice in Malawi, they are a staple of the very poor, somewhere between a snack and a desperation measure.
In another article, Somini Sengupta looks at the real challenge behind defusing West Africa's wars-- finding jobs for the young gunmen.
No one even knows how many of the 55,000 disarmed ex-gunmen have found other ways of making a living. Late last year, one child soldier from Sierra Leone recalled how he took the $150 in cash and was trained as a carpenter, only to find himself jobless and hungry a few months later. He wound up seduced by a warlord's cash, picking up a Kalashnikov and going to fight again, next door in Liberia.
Both these stories, read together, present a sad portrait of what hopeless people do to survive. Eating a chair or sticking a gun in someone's face for your next meal-- which would you choose?
That same choice will sooner or later confront the thousands of young people being demobilized in Liberia now. The challenge for the United Nations is to engender a stable and prosperous peace, and not just a breather between wars, aid workers and analysts say.
The latest outburst by Robert Mugabe is a classic: he accuses Desmond Tutu of being "an angry, evil and embittered little bishop".
Free at Last
A woman from the DR Congo was just awarded asyluym in the U.S. after three years in prison. Her husband already had U.S. residency and she that if she returned home, she'd be imprisoned and tortured by the government. But Homeland Security insisted she had no reason to be granted asylym. Another example of the twisted logic of post-9/11 immigration policy at work. The Philadelphia Inquirer has the full story (registration required).
The Company We Keep
Victor Bout, who sold arms to Charles Taylor, Jonas Savimbi and Mobutu, has turned up in Iraq. But while the notorious merchant of death is wanted in Africa, he has some poweful patrons and protectors in his new zone of operations: the U.S. and Britain. This report has more on our newest partner in "rebuilding" Iraq:
Today the United States and Britain are using his extensive mercenary services in Iraq. The condemnation of his role in the diamond wars and other conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa over the past ten years is being silently erased.
For more, check out the PBS program "Frontline WORLD"'s website on illegal gun running to Sierra Leone and Bout's role in it.
The Tajikstan-born Bout would be an embarrassing ally to acknowledge publicly. But the coalition partners are showing him exceptional favours as he does some of their job for them.
The UN Security Council drafted a resolution in March to freeze the assets of mercenaries and weapons dealers who backed ousted Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. Bout should top that list, French diplomatic sources say. But the diplomats and UN sources say the United States has been working to keep Bout off that list.
U.S. officials have indicated unofficially that the reason is that Bout is useful in Iraq, the sources told IPS.
One of Bout's many companies is providing logistical support to U.S. forces in Iraq, well-placed French diplomatic sources say. His private airline British Gulf is supplying goods to the occupation forces, they say.
A few days ago, Robert Mugabe said he might someday retire. Now comes this open letter to the dallying despot.
NOTICE OF TERMINATION OF EMPLOYMENT
In other words, "You can't quit-- you're fired!" If only it were so easy.
Letter From The People Of Zimbabwe
Dear Mr Mugabe,
Please receive notice that the people of Zimbabwe, your employers, hereby advise that your services are no longer required and therefore give immediate notice of termination of your employment. Please relinquish your post, vacate the offices of the people of Zimbabwe, return your vehicles and such monies and material commodities as have been accrued by you during your term of office and vacate the residential premises provided by the tax paying public. The people of Zimbabwe are not compelled to give reasons for the termination of your employment, however, given the serious nature of the breech of conditions of your employment, the following serves to explain this decision, whereafter no further debate will be entered into.
The people, the sovereign guardians of democracy in Zimbabwe, deem you guilty of flagrantly disregarding the foundations of freedom; justice and peace in their country; disregarding their inherent dignity, equal and inalienable rights and their security. You show absolute condescension for respect for human rights, resulting in barbarous acts injuring the helpless, maiming the innocent and outraging the consciences of a peace-loving nation. You deny the country the right to enjoy freedom of speech, the right to believe and the right to freedom from fear.
You invoke heinous acts that repudiate all Zimbabweans the right to reject your tyranny and oppression and you deny the people their rights to be protected by the rule of law. The people of Zimbabwe reaffirm their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of their fellow people and the determination they have to promote social and economic progress and better standards of their lives freely, but you deliberately strive to unequivocally destroy all. [...]
To avoid any further unnecessary national and international steps being instituted against you in the interest of Zimbabwe's future and stability in the region, please receive this notice with the responsible graciousness you profess to practice.
The people of Zimbabwe
cc : The People of Zimbabwe and the International Community
Will to Succeed
If you've been following Namibian news, you know that there is a behind-the-scenes in the SWAPO party over who will succeed Sam Nujoma. That there is the possibility of a political succession in Namibia is a positive development. But there are many kinds of power hand-offs. For instance, in South Africa, Mandela effectively ceded all of his power to Thabo Mbeki, while setting the stage for continued ANC dominance. In Namibia, it looks like Nujoma will still remain an active, if unofficial, player in national politics. An interesting column in The Namibian explores this process and where it could lead in more detail:
Students of leadership politics would note that the succession pattern in Swapo is very similar to the one employed successfully in China under Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Xemin and in recent years to Hu Jintao. [...]
This reminds me of the line about there being no second acts in American politics. Clearly this doesn't apply to Namibia.
When political leaders retire, they think about their legacies and how they want to be remembered.
In that sense, leaders like Sam Nujoma do not retire from leadership, they simply move from the 'first line' to the 'second line' of leadership.
In the process of choosing their own successors, they simply want to avoid a political Frankenstein who would launch an attack on their legacies.
The presidency of the country presents 'first line leadership' and the party presidency will be the 'second line' for President Sam Nujoma.
If you haven't been following this story, Africa Confidential has a handy guide to the horse race:
Foreign Minister Hidipo Hamutenya remains the front-runner in an increasingly close and bitter contest to choose the next leader of the governing South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO). The winner, who has to get a majority of votes from the 600 party delegates at an extraordinary party congress on 28-29 May, will almost certainly be Namibia's next President. A strong campaign for SWAPO Vice-President Hifikepunye Pohamba is under way, mainly because he is the incumbent President Sam Nujoma's candidate and Nujoma distrusts Hamutenya. Meanwhile, the third contender, Higher Education Minister Nahas Angula, who has sent postcards to delegates outlining his experience and philosophy, is running far more strongly than expected.
The other day, I found that Wouter "Dr. Death" Basson has been making the rounds as a public speaker. Chris at Isangqa wonders what P.W. DeKlerk will speak about when he comes to San Francisco in a couple of weeks:
The death squads that operated on his watch? The township wars that his security services fueled, even as he negotiated with Mandela and the ANC?
I heard P.W. on the Beeb a few weeks ago, and he remains unrepentant about these and other skeletons, while still taking his fair share of credit for ending apartheid.
The Suffering City
There's a profile of Somali author Nuruddin Farah in the Times today. His new book, Links, is set in the beyond-Wild West setting that is contemporary Somalia:
"Links" takes place in modern-day Mogadishu. " 'Through me the way into the suffering city," Mr. Farah writes at the beginning of "Links," quoting Dante's "Inferno." " 'Through me the way to the eternal pain,/ Through me the way that runs among the lost.' "
Sounds like a libertarian's paradise. Well, at least the lack of public services and abundance of small arms.
Mogadishu was once beautiful, cosmopolitan, a trading center with the Arab world. "Orderly, clean, peaceable," he writes, "a city with integrity and a life of its own, a lovely metropolis with beaches, cafes, restaurants, late-night movies." Now it is a "city of death," taken over by armed, ghat-chewing teenagers.
Mr. Farah describes a city with no centralized government, postal service, public schools or telephone system. One character in "Links" has three phones, owned by subsidiaries of companies based in the United States, Norway and Malaysia. Men defecate in the streets. To travel safely requires armed bodyguards. Membership in a clan is no protection. Your own relatives will kill you if they want what you have.
Now I'm a Believer
The Dave-Eggers affiliated mag The Believer has done some good features on Africa recently. Last month, they ran an interview with Chris Abani, author of Graceland. This month, there's a fascinating first-person history from Dawit Giorgis, the former international spokesman for the Ethiopian Marxist dictatorship known as the Derg. And Eggers continues his oral history of a Sudanese "lost boy." None of it's online (The Beliver is so quaintly old-fashioned, you know), so look for it at your local bookseller.
Guess which African leader reportedly said the following:
I want to retire from politics. I have had enough. I am also a writer and would like to concentrate on writing after this term of office is over.... I don't think I will miss a successor. Out of 30 million people, there must be a capable person to take over after me and he will be the chosen one.
The answer: Robert Mugabe, who says he really really wants to quit and hand over the reins of power. In fact, he wants to retire so much that he's going to do it in four years. Well, maybe five if he has writer's block.
Dr. Death Takes a Holiday
Tim Kingston has an interesting piece on ZNet on life in post-apartheid Western Cape. But what caught my eye was this:
The white community's conservatism is indicated by a speaking invitation from the Chamber of Commerce to Dr. Wouter Basson, better known as "Dr. Death" for allegedly masterminding a chemical and poison warfare campaign against Anti Apartheid Activists.
Why anyone would invite Basson to speak to them (unless they're unreconstructed racists) is beyond me. This is like inviting Dr. Mengele to give a talk in Buenos Aires, circa 1957. Wonder what Basson's speaking fee is.
Brenda Fassie, R.I.P.
South African pop diva Brenda Fassie died a few days ago. She was 39. I wasn't a real fan, but liked her songs, from the breezy "Weekend Special" to the triumphant "Black President." The BBC article linked above gives a good sense of her volatile, self-destructive personality-- think Courtney Love. But the best piece on her is in Mark Gevisser's Portraits of Power, a decade-old yet still excellent collection of incisive profiles of South African movers and shakers. Worth getting if you can.
The Beeb is collecting questions to pose to Sam Nujoma when it interviews him on the 21st. You can submit your queries here.
Update: Whoops, sorry. Nujoma's not taking questions anymore.
Your Farm, Please
The Namibian government is politely forcing some white farmers to put their land up for sale. One of the farms has allegedly mistreated its workers, including six who are living in a riverbed after being fired and rehired by the farm manager, whom Nujoma has called a "criminal." Let's see what happens next.