Thursday, October 28, 2010

Paging Derek Walcott

V.S. Naipul -- yea, that one -- has a new book on African traditional religions titled The Masque of Africa. In his review of the book, Johann Hari is righteous on the right to speak of African religions. Cue the sighs.

I have stood in a blood-splattered house in Tanzania where an old woman had just been beaten to death for being a "witch" who cast spells on her neighbors. I have stood in battlefields in the Congo where the troops insist with absolute certainty they cannot be killed because they have carried out a magical spell that guarantees, if they are shot, they will turn briefly into a tree, then charge on unharmed. I have been cursed in Ethiopia by a witch-doctor with "impotence, obesity, and then leprosy" for asking insistently why he charged so much to "cure" his patients. (I'm still waiting for the leprosy.)
Where do these beliefs come from? What do so many Africans get out of them? Can they be changed? These are questions that are asked in Africa all the time, but we are deaf to the conversation. It's not hard to see why. The imperial rape and pillage of Africa was "justified" by claiming Africans were "primitive" and "backward" people sunk in a morass of voodoo, who had to be "civilized" in blood and Christianity. Just as there are legitimate and necessary criticisms of Israel but nobody wants to hear them from Germany, any legitimate and necessary criticism of the problems with Africa's indigenous beliefs will never be welcome from Europeans or their descendants. And yet there they are, ongoing and alive, waiting to be discussed. Must we ignore it?

Later on in Hari's review, he says that African religions "can bring both sweet, illusory comfort and intense terror" to Africans who adhere to more traditional beliefs. Muslims and Christians -- who make up the vast majority according to this Pew Religion in Africa poll -- also "retain these traditional beliefs not far beneath the surface." I found this interesting for several reasons: Don't the practice of religions get affected by the worldview of its adherents? How did the social evolution of Western society, for example, affect the interpretation of Christianity? Is it possible to consider traditional religions without considering the founding philosophy of respective African societies? I ask these questions, not of Naipaul's book (which I plan to read) but of this review and what it says about religion and tradition. I wouldn't have thought that V.S. Naipul would take this on, but I'm curious to see what he has to say.

(Photo Credit: Slate)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Islamic Superheroes?

This seems to have been on for awhile, but I'm only just hearing of this U.S.-based entrepreneur Dr. Naif al-Matuwa who is making a book of Muslim Superheroes called The 99. From the Guardian:
[That] conviction is that nobody from the outside is going to save Islam from its more extremist elements – it's going to have to save itself. And The 99, featuring 99 characters based on the 99 attributes of Allah, is, he hopes, that means: a way of focusing on the positive aspects of the religion, of inculcating peaceful, life-giving virtues in children and of presenting a peaceful, tolerant, multicultural version of Islam to the rest of the world.

It's a conviction that has seen him so far raise in excess of $30m in three rounds of funding from private investors, fight off a ban in Saudi Arabia (he's subsequently been re-banned but he's fighting it again), and persuaded Endemol, the company behind Big Brother, to produce a multimillion-dollar, 26-part animated series, which in the new year will be shown on Hub, the US network previously known as Discovery Kids that goes into 60 million American homes.

Interesting, huh?

I've always seen action heroes as a creation of myth that appeals to young boys, especially - a way of thinking of their new "superpowers" that come with their newfound maturity, maybe, or an amazement with physical ability that men are taught from an early age to prize. It's weird, then, seeing religion, especially a monotheistic religion, using such modern myths like action comics to launder it's image.

It's not like the marketing of Jesus didn't/doesn't have a comic book-like quality to it, though. The one thing that has always separated the religion from Judaism and Islam has been the Coca-Cola nature of its marketing. By accident of history, Christianity has been able to align itself with Western modernity, and has therefore excused itself of its more turbulent history and disturbing interpretations on now-touchy subjects that's no less violent, oppressive to women, discriminatory to sexual minorities and accepting of such things that we do not accept today (slavery, for example) than its monotheistic counterparts.

Unlike Coca-Cola, though, I'm not sure that growth in number of "consumers" of a religion should be the goal. There should be nothing wrong with religions maintaining a certain severity, even aloofness to mainstream culture. Judaism, for example, even goes as far as being unfriendly to the idea of new recruits, and Islam does not disguise its time-intensiveness, what with encouraging Hajj, encouraging headscarves for women, praying five times a day with ablutions each time. Were I more sternly religious, I'd worry about the omissions that inevitably happen when one puts one's religion in the make-up chair, airbrushes it for its close-up and puts it on a stand for mass consumption.

More generally, I think it's depressing that there are so many efforts these days to absolve the ignorant of the burden of their ignorance. This is where I have to remind myself that the ignorant among us are often the ones who have power. This is also where I get all the more exhausted. Yes, there is truth to the ranting against misinformation of the larger public about all minorities, religious and otherwise, but it scares me to think what it says about people who are so ready to believe such inanities about other people they, in most cases, have no experience with or idea about. And isn't that what we all we are, people?

Then, suddenly, someone thinks that putting an action hero with a Muslim name on a comic book would make Islam more relatable. Good luck with that.

(Photo: The Washington Post)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Jammin' Just Because...

... it's my blog and I can post what I want to. Some Beninois jazz. And, for good measure, Jimi's awesome set with Stevie Wonder on piano. You're welcome.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Can Puntland Be Effective Against Piracy?

The folks over at Piracy Studies seem to think so. It's no secret that some of Puntland's governing officials are in the piracy business themselves -- and where there is money in an unstable situation political influence isn't far behind -- but anti-Piracy measures in the semi-autonomous region seem to be at least making the pirates squirm.

Puntland security forces have cracked down pirate hideouts. A substantial number of pirates have already been arrested and tried. An estimated number of 250 pirates are currently jailed in Bossaso, more than in any other country[9]. Moreover the government has sponsored a public awareness campaign to discredit piracy and discourage people from joining piracy gangs. For the campaign the authorities have collaborated with members of the Diaspora, religious representatives, clan leaders and community activists. It is also negotiating with pirates to give up their business.[10] For some these measures are however no more than lip service, have been inefficient and serve to shadow the role of Puntland officials in the piracy business.

The true role of the government of Puntland is probably somewhere in between these positions. While some officials might have benefited from piracy, it is also clear that the government has expressed willingness to encounter piracy and indeed already taken measures. The fact that the epicenter of piracy seems to shift to south-central Somalia, outside Puntland’s territory might be seen as supporting the view that piracy organizations face increasing operational difficulties in Puntland.

I'm surprised the status quo is changing at all, and kudos to Puntland for making any progress on this at all. I suppose I just think it is too much to ask for everyone involved to abandon short-term economic gain for a moral courage that will not pay off for a long time. Without the promise of international recognition, trade and investment in the country, asking that these people quit supporting piracy wholesale has always looked to me to be a fool's errand. I'm not being picky, though - these days, we should take our good news, however limited, where we find it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Monsanto, Monsanto, Monsanto. And China.

Yasmine Ryan at the African Agriculture blog (h/t China in Africa) has an interesting piece on the success of Malawi's agriculture policies under Mutharika and the huge GMO organization Monsanto.
Professor Pedro Sánchez of the Columbia University’s Earth Institute was one of the scientists Mutharika chose to heed despite resistance from most of Malawi’s international donors.

“We had a meeting with the newly elected president, Bingu wa Mutharika," Sánchez recalled in an interview with TakePart. "The guy told several of us, ‘Hey, I didn’t get elected to be a beggar nation, and right now we’re begging for about 45 percent of our food. Do you have any suggestions?’

“We said, 'Yes, sir. Subsidize fertilizers and hybridized seeds.' And he did it.”

Within two years, Malawi went from famine to food exportation. Now the fertilizer subsidies have caught on among neighboring countries—10 are testing similar policies, including Tanzania, Nigeria and Zambia. Faced with the evidence of success, USAID, the World Bank, and many European donors are putting their support behind subsidy programs.

Not without its drawbacks, of course.

A major criticism of the Malawi model is that it encourages farmers to turn to a single staple crop (and yes, it's corn, in case you were wondering...). Horticulturist Linda Larish notes that the traditional Malawian staple, a taro-like plant called manioc, has largely been abandoned by farmers switching to imported hybrid corn.

“Even though they are self-sufficient and can grow their own food, they are at the mercy of the seed and fertilizer companies,” Larish says.

Not by coincidence, Malawi’s policies gave Monsanto a foothold for its hybrid maize in sub-Saharan Africa. Is it philanthropy, PR, or simply shrewd business?

Many people I know are ambivalent about Monsanto. When the Gates Foundation invested in the Monsanto, for example, The UK Guardian couldn't but ask why:

Seattle-based Agra Watch - a project of the Community Alliance for Global Justice - was outraged. "Monsanto has a history of blatant disregard for the interests and well being of small farmers around the world… [This] casts serious doubt on the foundation's heavy funding of agricultural development in Africa," it thundered.

But it got worse. South Africa-based watchdog the African Centre for Biosafety then found that the foundation was teaming up with Cargill in a $10m project to "develop the soya value chain" in Mozambique and elsewhere. Who knows what this corporate-speak really means, but in all probability it heralds the big time introduction of GM soya in southern Africa.

The two incidents raise a host of questions for the foundation. Few people doubt that GM has a place in Africa, but is Gates being hopelessly naïve by backing two of the world's most aggressive agri-giants? There is, after all, genuine concern at governmental and community level that the United State's model of extensive hi-tech farming is inappropriate for most of Africa and should not be foist on the poorest farmers in the name of "feeding the world".

Monsanto responded to the questions raised in this Guardian article. And it looks like China's trying to get in on the GMO act with their 20 new organizations devoted to hybrid rice seeds and such. Only time will tell just how destructive all of this, but I foresee lots of land issues in African countries' futures from all this, none of which will be to the benefit of small farmers' livelihoods.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Another Lagos Documentary (and a Little Something on Governance)

BBC has been killing it with the Nigeria documentaries. Via my twitter friend @419Positive, here's a great one featuring Funmi Iyanda, TV personality and probably one of my favorite people anywhere. She talks to major Lagosians like eccentric entertainer Charles "Charley Boy" Oputa and Lagos State Gov. Babatunde Fashola.

Lagos, unlike the rest of Nigeria, has always had some good luck with it's leaders. We (Yes, I'm from Lagos) have definitely been a lucky state, always having one thing tangible with which to attribute to a certain governor, from Jakande (the free high schools) to Marwa (the bicycle taxis), and Tinubu (the much-needed road splitting in Allen Avenue and ambulances on Third Mainland) to Fashola (the BRTs). My theory is that Lagos is the one place in the country where you do not want to lose face. A lot of major business in Nigeria is done there, so it adds a good amount of pressure on its leaders to make sure that you do a good enough job that you can still make an appearance in those high society parties, those tennis clubs, those functions in those hotels, be taken seriously as a leader as the city evolves in its role as epicenter of one of Africa's major economies. The last place in the world a Nigerian wants to be persona non grata is Lagos.

This line of thinking definitely has its holes. Among other problems, Lagos is quite socially segregated and the ghettos are still sprawling, so this societal pressure has not worked well for everyone (Maybe it's worked best for whom the likelihood of bumping into said governor at MUSON Center or Yoruba Tennis Club are quite high). Still, everyone I've heard from who lives in Lagos quite likes Gov. Fashola. His administration has made laudable changes to improve transportation, but I do not know much about his work on Lagos's ailing infrastructure, nor on his initiatives (I believe there have been some) to encourage small business. It's also worth mentioning that I have no idea how this pressure that I think works so well in Lagos holds out in a commercial area in other regions of Nigeria, like Port Harcourt, for example.

I think I'm right on the merits and I'll stand my ground until corrected, but I'm curious if there is a correlation at all between the number of major cities in a country -- and therefore pockets of industry where a sizable middle class can thrive -- and the likelihood of there being good governance practices.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I Only Write of My Slice of Humanity

In the most recent issue of Granta that focused on Pakistan, they asked the writers featured how to write about Pakistan. Nadeem Aslam answers, "anyhow you wish."

In real life, and in my writing, I can’t pretend that all Pakistanis are angels any more than I can pretend that all Pakistanis are deceitful. (When they hear the name of the English town Tipton, most people will think of the Tipton Three – the three young men who were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. I do too. But I also think of a mosque in Tipton where a mullah was sexually abusing the children who came to learn the Koran from him: when one of the parents found out about it and decided to go to the police, the members of the mosque organisation pulled a gun on the father.) As to the question of what to put into a book, and what to leave out: a good deal is said about the ‘clichés’ that are to be found in sub-continental writing – the mangoes, the monsoon and the spices, the verandahs and the mosquito nets and the extended families. But I would not wish ever to be told that these things are out of bounds to me. Who will tell Derek Walcott that the blue of the Caribbean Ocean is a bit of tourist-board cliché? The palm trees, the warm sands, the beauty of the black women and the beauty of the black men: every page the great man has ever written is full of these things. ‘Verandahs, where the pages of the sea / are a book left open by an absent master …’

This is not to say that these are not tourist clichés – but they must remain available to the artist as well as the non-artist. The genuine artists will bring human warmth and longing and complexity to what is two-dimensional in other, lesser hands.

He's talking about Pakistan, but it can really be true of everywhere. I'm still thinking about the topic of my previous post -- the issue of creating a governance index that I feel is more in response to Western perception of Africa that many Africans have internalized and defensiveness thereof than any wishes to actually change governance in Africa -- and it gets me thinking of how best to react to negative perceptions of where one is from. I like Aslam's approach to this topic. Still, I'm never going to stop being irritated by the quest for a definitive narrative from non-Western writers. It adds to the weight of importance of every news article, exhibit, novel that broaches the topic of Non-Western nations, and I'm beginning to wonder if it is not grossly unfair to the writers as well as to those who are being represented. No one asks Gary Shtyengart or Jonathan Franzen or Dave Eggers to write a piece that sums up the American experience, after all, and that is as it should be. No one should ever have to shoulder that responsibility.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Who Exactly Do African Governance Rankings Talk To?

Something that irks me about Mo Ibrahim's governance index is that the people in these badly-governed countries have little agency with which to correct the situation. This would take voting, for example. A plebiscite, maybe. A changing of the old guard preferably by popular vote to instill good governance in a transparent, efficient manner that respects the people it governs.

For the most part, if you were to go on the streets of Niamey or Luanda and tell people their ranking on the index, they'll probably just shrug. I don't blame them. When I saw Nigeria's ranking, I texted my Nigerian friends and had a good laugh about it.

Increasingly, I wonder if the point of the index is to show, not that many African countries are governed badly, but that there are "good Africans" out there who care that respective African countries are governed badly. I think this is a good thing to say and think. The problem, however, is to which audience this is directed at.

The world in which so many non-Western people live is such that one must go West -- Europe, America, Canada -- to prove oneself worthy, even amongst ones own. Nigeria's literary darlings are proof of this. Chimamanda Adichie wouldn't have gained such acclaim, for example, had she been based entirely in Nigeria and only been published in Nigeria. Even beyond that, so many Africans in the diaspora are in the diaspora in order to get educated, that we may go to our respective countries and be taken seriously and/or noticed.

The yardstick with which so many Africans -- non-Westerners, really -- measure themselves in decidedly Western. As such, the problem with being known as the "basket case continent" is that you, being from there, have to prove that you are not crazy. There arises this need among some to advertise their humanity, and the people to whom the governance index is being advertised is not to the citizens of the respective African countries who have to endure the bad government, but to them.

Mo Ibrahim's governance index drives home how badly we need to be looked in a good light, but not because we need the investment dollars. Surely, if you are Somalia you aren't getting any, and if you were rich in resources you'd get the investment anyway, well-governed or not (Nigeria and Angola are pretty low on this index, you'll notice). It's because the good guys amongst us need to be seen as separate from the bad guys. The need that people have for this, and the fact that indexes like these are welcome, is just terribly depressing to me.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Poem for Sunday - Venus Hottentot

The story of Saartjie Baartman is a gruesome one about human beings' ability to objectify so willfully as to render one incapable of being anything except what we want them to be. I'm not going to rehash it - read the Wikipedia entry here.

I first heard of this story in college. A drama professor made us read "The Black Venus" by one of my favorite playwrights hands-down Suzan Lori-Parks. I saw an award-winning rendering of her play Topdog/Underdog, and became interested in her other work. Prof. Harris -- that was his name -- told me that the one of the few plays to ever make him cry was Suzan Lori-Parks' The Hottentot Venus.

This play has been turned into a film. Check out the trailer for it here. Tambay over at Shadow and Act saw it at the NY Film Festival and already has a review up, though I've been made to understand that festival versions are not always the final cut.

Elizabeth Alexander wrote an amazing poem about Baartman called The Venus Hottentot. It's your poem for Sunday.

The Venus Hottentot (1825)

1. Cuvier

Science, science, science!
Everything is beautiful

blown up beneath my glass.
Colors dazzle insect wings.

A drop of water swirls
like marble. Ordinary

crumbs become stalactites
set in perfect angles

of geometry I’d thought
impossible. Few will

ever see what I see
through this microscope..

Cranial measurements
crowd my notebook pages,

and I am moving closer,
close to how these numbers

signify aspects of
national character.

Her genitalia
will float inside a labeled

pickling jar in the Musée
de l’Homme on a shelf

above Broca’s brain:
“The Venus Hottentot.”

Elegant facts await me.
Small things in this world are mine.


There is unexpected sun today
in London, and the clouds that
most days sift into this cage
where I am working have dispersed.
I am a black cutout against
a captive blue sky, pivoting
nude so the paying audience
can view my naked buttocks.

I am called “Venus Hottentot.”
I left Capetown with a promise
of revenue: half the profits
and my passage home: A boon!
Master’s brother proposed the trip;
the magistrate granted me leave.
I would return to my family
a duchess, with watered-silk

dresses and money to grow food,
rouge and powders in glass pots,
silver scissors, a lorgnette,
voile and tulle instead of flax,
cerulean blue instead
of indigo. My brother would
devour sugar-studded non-
pareils, pale taffy, damask plums.

That was years ago. London’s
circuses are florid and filthy,
swarming with cabbage-smelling
citizens who stare and query,
“Is it muscle? bone? Or fat?”
My neighbor to the left is
The Sapient Pig, “The Only
Scholar of His Race.” He plays

at cards, tells time and fortunes
by scraping his hooves. Behind
me is Prince Kar-mi, who arches
like a rubber tree and stares back
at the crowd from under the crook
of his knee. A professional
animal trainer shouts my cues.
There are singing mice here.

“The Ball of Duchess DuBarry”:
In the engraving I lurch
towards the belles dames, mad-eyed, and
they swoon. Men in capes and pince-nez
shield them. Tassels dance at my hips.
In this newspaper lithograph
my buttocks are shown swollen
and luminous as a planet.

Monsieur Cuvier investigates
between my legs, poking, prodding,
sure of his hypothesis.
I half expect him to pull silk
scarves from inside me, paper poppies,
then a rabbit! He complains
at my scent and does not think
I comprehend, but I speak

English. I speak Dutch. I speak
a little French as well, and
languages Monsieur Cuvier
will never know have names.
Now I am bitter and now
I am sick. I eat brown bread,
drink rancid brother. I miss good sun,
miss Mother’s sadza. My stomach

is frequently queasy from mutton
chops, pale potatoes, blood sausage.
I was certain that this would be
better than farm life. I am
the family entrepreneur!
But there are hours in every day
to conjure my imaginary
daughters, in banana skirts

and ostrich-feather fans.
Since my own genitals are public
I have made other parts private.
In my silence, I possess
mouth, larynx, brain, in a single
gesture. I rub my hair
with lanolin, and pose in profile
like a painted Nubian

archer, imagining gold leaf
woven through my hair, and diamonds.
Observe the wordless Odalisque.
I have not forgotten my Xhosa
clicks. My flexible tongue
and healthy mouth bewilder
this man with his rotting teeth.
If he were to let me rise up

from this table, I’d spirit
his knives and cut out his black heart,
seal it with science fluid inside
a bell jar, place it on a low
shelf in a white man’s museum
so the whole world could see
it was shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, unnatural.