Sunday, August 29, 2010

Poem for Sunday

Here's an old favorite of mine from A.E. Housman.

To An Athlete Dying Young

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before the echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl's.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Changing Society in Egypt Begets a New Literature

I found an intelligent, expansive piece on the effect changing demographics and society in Egypt is having on the literature from the country. I'll highlight it here, even though it comes from a publication called The New Left Review (My disdain for blatant partisanship and the hell I believe Western political labels like "left" and "right" wreak in developed European and U.S. politics is a topic for another day). Here's a taste:

The generation that has come of age since 1990 has faced a triple crisis: socio-economic, cultural and political. Egypt’s population has nearly doubled since 1980, reaching 81 million in 2008, yet there has been no commensurate increase in social spending. Illiteracy rates have risen, with schools starved of funds. In the overcrowded universities, underpaid teaching staff augment their income by extorting funds from students for better marks. Other public services—health, social security, infrastructure and transportation—have fared no better. The plundering of the public sector by the kleptocratic political establishment and its cronies has produced a distorted, dinosaur-shaped social structure: a tiny head—the super-rich—presiding over an ever-growing body of poverty and discontent. At the same time, youth unemployment has been running at over 75 per cent.

The cultural realm, meanwhile, has become an arena for bigoted grandstanding, prey to both official censors—the long-serving Minister of Culture, Farouk Husni, showing the way—and self-appointed ones, in parliament and the broadsheet press. In the political sphere, the Emergency Law, in place since 1981, has been punctiliously renewed by an almost comically corrupt National Assembly. The notorious Egyptian prison system has been made available to us, British and other European nationals subject to ‘extraordinary rendition’. Since Sadat’s unilateral agreement with Israel in 1979 a widening gulf has grown between popular sentiment and the collusion of the political establishment with the worst us–Israeli atrocities in the region, and its de facto support for their successive wars: invasions of Lebanon, Desert Storm, occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Egypt’s marginalization as a regional power has only increased the younger generation’s sense of despondency and humiliation.

It is within this unpropitious context that a striking new wave of young Egyptian writers has appeared. Their work constitutes a radical departure from established norms and offers a series of sharp insights into Arab culture and society. Formally, the texts are marked by an intense self-questioning, and by a narrative and linguistic fragmentation that serves to reflect an irrational, duplicitous reality, in which everything has been debased. The works are short, rarely more than 150 pages, and tend to focus on isolated individuals, in place of the generation-spanning sagas that characterized the realist Egyptian novel. Their narratives are imbued with a sense of crisis, though the world they depict is often treated with derision. The protagonists are trapped in the present, powerless to effect any change. Principal exponents of the new wave would include Samir Gharib ‘Ali, Mahmud Hamid, Wa’il Rajab, Ahmad Gharib, Muntasir al-Qaffash, Atif Sulayman, May al-Tilmisani, Yasser Shaaban, Mustafa Zikri and Nura Amin; but well over a hundred novels of this type have been published to date. From their first appearance around 1995, these writers have been dubbed ‘the 1990s generation’.

Read all of it. It's long, but well worth your time. I'm an advocate for good literature, so hunt down work from the writers whose names you see and check them out as well.

While we're on Egypt, brilliant journalists from Monocle World Affairs did an excellent photoessay on Alexandria. Check it out here.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The UN's New Report and Rwanda - Why Now?

A draft version of a bombshell UN report is blunt on Rwanda's involvement in DRC. From the NYT:

In 1994, more than 800,000 people, predominantly members of the ethnic Tutsi group in Rwanda, were slaughtered by the Hutu. When a Tutsi-led government seized power in Rwanda, Hutu militias fled along with Hutu civilians across the border to Congo, then known as Zaire. Rwanda invaded to pursue them, aided by a Congolese rebel force the report also implicates in the massacres.

While Rwanda and Congolese rebel forces have always claimed that they attacked Hutu militias who were sheltered among civilians, the United Nations report documents deliberate reprisal attacks on civilians.

The report says that the apparently systematic nature of the massacres “suggests that the numerous deaths cannot be attributed to the hazards of war or seen as equating to collateral damage.” It continues, “The majority of the victims were children, women, elderly people and the sick, who were often undernourished and posed no threat to the attacking forces.”

Here's the original story where it first leaked at in Le Monde for those amongst us who speak French. From the UK Guardian:

Among the accusations is that Rwandan forces and local allies rounded up hundreds of men, women and children at a time and butchered them with hoes and axes. On other occasions Hutu refugees were bayoneted, burned alive or killed with hammer blows in large numbers.

It is the first time the UN has published such forthright allegations against Rwanda, a close ally of Britain and the US.

Read the whole thing here.

For anyone who's been paying any attention to African issues, this should come as no surprise. What's more interesting to me, however, is the timing. I, and probably many others, were surprised to see the attention Rwanda was getting over the elections. Among many international reports (Kigali Wire has an especially useful round-up of the election period and analysis here) the U.S. issued a statement of "concern" and there was this intelligent editorial from The Economist on Kagame's oppressive tactics during the recent elections. And now this.

I'm just struck by the timing of it all. What has changed in Rwanda's dealings with the outside world? Kagame has played ball with Congolese refugees, keeping them in camps with, according to the U.S. Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of State Reuben Brigety, relatively good conditions. Rwanda has continued trading with the U.S. Net Exports between the U.S. and Rwanda has been positive in U.S.'s favor and growing between 2006 and 2009 (I didn't consider 2010 because I'm not sure when the fiscal year ends), and I have seen nothing to suggest reluctance to trade with Europe either. With the new regional protocol, Rwanda is set to be a huge influence and key to bringing in foreign investment to East Africa.

In addition, one must question the political wisdom of the UN even putting these thoughts to paper. Is it wise for the UN to come out with a report this explosive against a country that is necessary for peacekeeping purposes in East and Central Africa? Rwanda could pull out of peacekeeping operations, stop helping with the refugee situation, put other East African countries in tight spot as well seeing as it's apparently one of the best places to do business in Africa. Then what? This forces the hands of the U.S. and EU to make them speak even more strongly against Kagame than they probably ever planned to, and have them acknowledge Kagame's larger crimes in the Congo. From the UN's point of view, I just don't see how this can have any upside in the long run.

Politics aside, it's imperative to add that the contents of this report do not come across as a big surprise to everybody who sees it. People in the know have written articles and blogpost upon blogpost on Uganda and Rwanda in the DRC and shouting all this out from the rooftops. The cynic in me cannot but ask: Why is this all coming out in the open now? Are we now dispensing with myths on all international organizations' best friends in Africa? Does this mean the UN et al can finally be clear-eyed about the TFG in Somalia who we know also commit war crimes and use child soldiers? Can we now call out Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi for keeping political prisoners and keeping the polity of his country in a choke-hold?

It's good to see the truth of the matter in the Rwanda-DRC state of affairs finally be acknowledged by the UN in a report, but I'll be looking out for the final version (this is a draft, after all), and reactions from the U.S. and EU thereafter. Until then, I have no idea what all this means.

Update: Re-read the post and found it to be a bit rambling. Sorry about that, but a bit too lazy to go through with a (thorough) edit.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Governance and Privatization in Nigeria's Power Industry

Goodluck Jonathan is ramping up efforts on stabilizing Nigerian energy supply, and talk of privatizing the industry is once again in the air. Economic liberalization seems to be the default mode for the Nigerian government when its called upon to act more efficiently, but the idea of ceding ground to the private sector on energy ought to make one stop and think.

I have always found the irregular energy supply in Nigeria to be an interesting policy question. Thanks to general waste and age-old corruption, Nigerian electric power authority (It's PHCN now, but I always think of it as it's old name NEPA) has been found wanting in its provision of a public good (electricity). But people have to find a way, don't they? There are products to sell, football matches to watch, drinks to keep cold. The market responds: generators in all sizes. Businesspeople know a good opportunity when they see one, so money -- within Nigeria and out -- floods into the thriving generator industry. The price of kerosene rises and falls for lamps. Binatone makes electric lamps. Out of government inefficiency arises private sector innovation.

Of course, out of private sector innovation come the trouble of incentives -- Who really wants there to be 24-hour electricity? Think about it. The generator-makers certainly don't, or what would then happen to their business? And these energy companies, who would they profit? Certainly, their services would be obtained by many, not all of whom can afford it.

A good metric, I think, for how an exclusively-private power industry can be found in ICT. It is difficult to find hard data on these things (Though page 9 of this study gives some idea) so I have not run the numbers, but I bet that average usage of ICT services per 100 inhabitants would be surprisingly low compared to how many people actually own cell phones, particularly outside urban areas. Why? Because cell phone services are actually quite expensive. People text on their phones much more than they actually talk. They have found a way to make their money stretch further within the current system, and in so doing entrenched the status quo.

The fact of the matter is that the private sector is already in the power industry, and they have served only to entrench the status quo with their products, not challenge it. Nigerians -- the whole continent, I suspect -- prides itself on gritty resourcefulness. Learning how to manipulate your surroundings to the best of your ability is great in the short-term, but it does nothing to turn the incentives in your favor in the long-term. When there is no real consumer protection agency to speak of and the industry is more connected to the government than consumers are, the designated body can take your writhing for comfort as silence in consent.

In order for privatization to work, it needs to make sense for the market to provide energy services at every price range, something I am not convinced will happen. Without that, all this is doing is creating another item on the list that "only certain people" can afford and maybe even adversely affecting the start-up cost for businesses in an economy badly in need of diversifying. In our bid to make more money for GEJ and all his moneyed friends, the questions Nigerians need to be asking is whether all the pieces are in place to ensure that turning over the energy industry to the market can actually work. Privatization cannot simply be a way for elected leaders who need a way out of their duties to govern.

The Importance of Fiction

This post by Lorin Stein over at The Atlantic lets us in on the importance of fiction.

Literary writing (or, if you prefer, imaginitive writing) has certain advantages of its own, none of them weakened one bit by technology. It can often be funnier than other kinds of prose. It can deal more humanly with sex. It can say shameful things about family life—not by treating them as scandals but, on the contrary, by showing that they're normal. More sins are confessed more deeply, through the screens of verse and make-believe, than you will ever find on a talk show or reality TV. Literature gives the best accounts of intimacy. Lena McFarland is right—you may not learn stuff you didn't know from a work of fiction. But there can be great comfort in seeing the troubles of daily life put into words of power and beauty.

And as David Foster Wallace observed, literature has a way of making you feel less alone. TV doesn't do that. It entertains and entertains, but there is a part of you it gives the silent treatment. In my experience, even the Web can you leave you feeling lonelier, once you turn off the computer. Fiction and poetry connect you, or they can, to something bigger and quieter and more lasting than the day you had at work. The question of posterity is fascinating. Some writers hope to live on, through their words, after death. Some write for the present day. Either way, they take us out of the moment and out of our smallest selves.

I find this all to be true. Read all of it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

I love this song!

Spoek Mathambo is a king in my ears right now.

SPOEK MATHAMBO – MSHINI WAM from spoek mathambo on Vimeo.

Check out his mix on Fader's podcast right here.

Copyright Laws and Industrialization

Over at Der Speigel, Frank Thadeusz wonders if the absence of copyright law is what was key to Germany's industrial expansion, and contrasts it with England's.

[Not having copyright laws] created a book market very different from the one found in England. Bestsellers and academic works were introduced to the German public in large numbers and at extremely low prices. "So many thousands of people in the most hidden corners of Germany, who could not have thought of buying books due to the expensive prices, have put together, little by little, a small library of reprints," the historian Heinrich Bensen wrote enthusiastically at the time.

The prospect of a wide readership motivated scientists in particular to publish the results of their research. In Höffner's analysis, "a completely new form of imparting knowledge established itself."

Essentially the only method for disseminating new knowledge that people of that period had known was verbal instruction from a master or scholar at a university. Now, suddenly, a multitude of high-level treatises circulated throughout the country.

The "Literature Newspaper" reported in 1826 that "the majority of works concern natural objects of all types and especially the practical application of nature studies in medicine, industry, agriculture, etc." Scholars in Germany churned out tracts and handbooks on topics such as chemistry, mechanics, engineering, optics and the production of steel.

In England during the same period, an elite circle indulged in a classical educational canon centered more on literature, philosophy, theology, languages and historiography. Practical instruction manuals of the type being mass-produced in Germany, on topics from constructing dikes to planting grain, were for the most part lacking in England. "In Great Britain, people were dependent on the medieval method of hearsay for the dissemination of this useful, modern knowledge," Höffner explains.

Read all of it.

This got me thinking a lot about the issues with development today. Taking the world as a whole, the educational epicenters of our world are in the West. When the UN, World Bank, AGOA, et al say they're trying to help and shaft huge amount of funds into aid projects et al, they center on money-making, not knowledge-making. How does one ensure long-term economic growth without ensuring long-term availability of knowledge by, say, issuing grants to African universities for R&D? Oh, that's right - shoddy economic conditions mean that after all that work in university you probably won't find a job when you graduate, so it's best to focus on primary and secondary education and leave the tertiary be. But if you neglect the tertiary institutions, you're neglecting the future thought-leaders, the pool from which African countries can choose educated leaders and professionals that will create more jobs in the future. Development-wise, their thinking is more like England. We need to get more like Germany.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is Goodluck Running for President or What?

Goodluck Jonathan is oscillating so much on his 2011 plans, he makes Hamlet look decisive. He can't just be doing this for kicks - what's his endgame?

From all the tea leaves before us, this next election is not going to be pretty. Northerners want a Northern president (well, they always do, but..) because Yar'Adua didn't have his full term due to his protracted illness and eventual death. To zone or not to zone has been a question for months. Former military president Babangida has voiced interest, so he along with former vice and now out-of-favor with ruling party heads Atiku are said to be the choices for the Northern leaders' endorsement as the election draws nearer. Attahiru Jega, electoral body INEC head, has already started playing doomsday prophet even after the senate granted him funds for conducting the election. It's interesting times in Nigerian politics, and I don't blame anyone wanting to stay away. I sincerely doubt, though, that Jonathan is "scared". One expects, in fact, that if he keeps his Golden Boy image, he's one more CNN and BBC interview away from Kagame (pre-election) Status and he's earned himself a soapbox for life, abroad if not at home.

There's a lot of real politique going on here. Jonathan is not Igbo (which probably wouldn't have helped much anyway), not Yoruba, and certainly not Hausa. It's already a very long shot that he gets the nomination with the heavy-hitters gunning for it, so he has to speak softly and not look like he's trying to assert authority from leaders he doesn't have within a party system that very much depends on where you come from. Waving a cane in the face of leaders from the North and South when you don't have the political pedigree and support that they do would strike me as quite silly on his part. For my money, GEJ absolutely wants to run for president, but he has to win the staring contest first. And if he does, and earns his party's nomination, then he's certainly worth his first name.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Just How Bad Is Nigerian Police Corruption?

This bad.

The Nigeria Police made a total of N20.35 billion between January last year and June this year from extorting money from motorists at illegal checkpoints, a report by the global organisation, Human Rights Watch has revealed.

Emeka Umeagbalasi, the chairman of the International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law presented the report in Lagos said checkpoints in the South East yielded the highest sums. Giving a breakdown of what is made from the different regions, Mr. Umeagbalasi said N9.35 billion was realised from the South East, South-South brought in N4 billion, while the South-West nets the police N4 billion. In the North Central, which includes Abuja, N2 billion was made, while the North East and North West brought in N500 million each.

I'm curious to know how one goes about getting such figures nailed to the exact number, but I have no problem with the number per se. Corruption breeds waste. Over at Loomnie's blog, this quote from Elizabeth Dickinson over at the FP magazine as she ruminates on the new Human Rights Watch report on Nigerian corruption:

Like all corruption, there is an element of victimization on both sides of the equation, unfortunately. The people who are extorted from are, obviously, suffering. But so too are the low level policemen in many cases. How can I best illustrate this? Perhaps the fact that the officers were forced to buy their own bullets, uniforms, and pay for their own transportation because the upper ranks had taken the bulk of the funding for themselves or other pet projects. The majority of the officers also likely believed in being policemen, and wanted to be a positive force for their countries. They were proud of their roles and sought to do the best job they could. But they were also pretty hungry sometimes. And as I was once wisely told, a hungry man will do anything you ask.

What is so irritating about Nigerian corruption is just how anti-Robin Hood it is. I think of it as the Sallah theory: What's the wisdom in killing a skinny cow? You'd just end up having to kill more and more skinny cows to get just as much meat as if you'd just waited, fed it with grain, kept it healthy. But these policemen rob a people who cannot afford to be robbed, and so they gain little,which keeps them coming back again and again. And in that way they're just like all the other leaders we have, coming back again and again and robbing a people a lot, little by little.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Aid Bubble and African Agency

Folks are pointing out the sea change in Western involvement in Africa. Via Africa Unchained, this from AfriCommons:

One big obstacle to aid is the politics of spending money on other nations’ problems. President Bush enjoyed a Nixon-goes-to-China credibility with conservatives, who tend to be more skeptical of foreign aid. But Obama’s low popularity among conservative voters makes it nearly impossible for him to sell an aid program to them. Reaching out in this way might feed into American stereotypes that Republicans are tougher on national security while Democrats prefer soft power.

What’s more, Americans are not in a generous mood. In a poll released last December by the Pew research organization, nearly half the Americans surveyed said that the U.S. should “mind its own business” in the world. This figure was the highest level of support for isolationism in decades. And it is not just the U.S.; polls show that this isolationism is matched in many wealthy nations in Europe and Asia, including Japan, long one of the biggest donor nations.

It is not surprising that nations such as Italy, one of the weakest industrialized economies, have slashed their aid budgets by more than 30 percent, while France has not met promised commitments, and the Obama administration has presided over reductions in the budget of the Millennium Challenge Corporation from $3 billion requested for 2008 to $1.4 billion this year.

I tend to find stories about the change in Western attitudes towards aid depressing, not because I love aid so much but because it has nothing to do with the countries that receive the aid. This article illustrates that the huge sense of foreboding I feel about Africa's future socioeconomic certainty and the question of African agency in the solving of Africa's problems. Slavery didn't stop until machinery was sophisticated enough to generate capital without using slave labour, thereby allowing for Westerners to grow a conscience. U.S. stopped its involvement with the apartheid SA government* because it stopped being socially acceptable (what with a civil rights for blacks in the U.S. and a more integrated black populace and all). In my view, aid reigned because it served to assuage the guilt of ruining these countries in the first place while providing bargaining chips in dealing with said countries (whose resources, the way, the developed world needs). Many people don't agree with my last point, but seriously, if the U.S. et al were trying to help ensure food security, the right move would be something more like encouraging the liberalization in the trade of agricultural products, not buttressing U.S./French/Dutch farmers with agricultural subsidies. If you cared about the cotton industry, the right move would be exportation of technologies to reduce the start-up cost for textile industries. If you, like Hillary Clinton always says, care about intra-Africa trade, then why have rules of origin that undermine an area you're trying to help?

This, coupled with how divorced many African governments are from those whom they govern, make me deeply skeptical about any shiny development plans anyone may come forward with. I suppose there's the case that when you throw China-Africa trade into the mix the link wouldn't be so inescapable anymore, but that only sounds like an argument that even if the political economy of developed countries were to guide towards demand for more efficient government, we still might not get it in most places. I would love to be wrong about this.

*On this point, I should say I'm being purposely facetious. The U.S. was hanging with the apartheid government well into the late 1980s under Reagan and helped fuel the civil war in Angola that probably would have ended a decade earlier had it not been for U.S., under Bill Clinton, funding UNITA and shielding Savimbi from UN action. I'm probably leaving other stuff out, but bear with me. The purpose of this post is more about aid in Africa than U.S. screw-ups in Africa.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Slum Tourism

So some people like to tour slums on their vacation? Really? Well, Kenny Odede, writing for the NYT, objects:

Slum tourism has its advocates, who say it promotes social awareness. And it’s good money, which helps the local economy.

But it’s not worth it. Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really “seen” something — and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community right where we were before.

At its best, slum tourism is a bit like white/middle-class kids who listen to rap - you get to hear Rick Ross and Biggie and Nas talking about doing illegal stuff and carrying guns and dealing with women who like their men to be big, rich, tough guys. Except you're probably not. You're probably just an average kid who likes a bit of escapism with your breakfast. Ditto for the comic books you read. And the James Bond movie. And Rambo. It's gory but entertaining, all entertainment, and when you're done with it, you get back to your life, knowing that no matter how hypothetically awesome it sounds or grotesquely bad as to warrant your curiosity, you're perfectly happy right where you are, thank you very much.

Slum tourism truly is poverty as entertainment, nothing more. Odede tries to give the tourists the benefit of the doubt -- maybe they're going to learn about poverty! -- but come on, there is no learning to be done when you throw yourself head-first down the rabbit-hole for an hour or less of emaciated people and poor sanitation. There's only staring and ooh-aahing or cringing. Maybe pity, but then you probably already had that before.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Moyo's Aversion to Aid, and Governance Issues in Africa

Heh. I never saw this edition of BBC Hardtalk with aid critic and author of Dead Aid Dambisa Moyo slugging it out with Allison Evans of the Overseas Development Institute.

Moyo held her own in this debate, but one cannot deny that Allison Evans dealt a real blow to her thesis here: One has to accept for want of proof that there's no correlation between aid and economic growth, let alone a negative impact that Moyo argues. Evans' argument also fell short, though; she tries to de-link bad governance and not having aid work, which I think you can't. If aid is going to work for a large population, you'd have to make sure that the government has the political will to do so. A government cannot have the political will to do so if it's more accountable to foreign governments and aid agencies than the people who need the aid.

Still, if you were to phase out aid, you'd be working under the assumption that governance will somehow have gotten more accountable to its people. Will it? One can see glimmers of this in some places. Nigeria has seen a few governors who are doing and have done good work (Bola Tinubu, Donald Duke, Fashola, et al). As economies develop, perhaps we will see governors getting younger and/or more involved in business in their countries, thereby aligning their interest to make profit and creating a good environment to do so through policy and governance mechanisms. The era where Europe and America can pay off some military bonehead like they did with Mobutu and Idi Amin to come into power is largely over (I hope), but it did leave an old guard of people who are used to power and not likely to leave. But as we see in Guinea, Niger, Eritrea, and Egypt -- and to a lesser extent in Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Nigeria -- this era has not come to an end everywhere. I don't have any answers for what the best development model is going forward, but I seriously doubt that within a 5 or 10 year time-frame all African leaders would suddenly care a damn about their people enough to come up with development strategies for their betterment. In her quieter moments, I'm sure Dambisa Moyo would too.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Why Isn't Bill Gates a Businessman in Africa?

Over at Ratio Magazine, Nairobi Star's Andrea Bohnstedt can't shake her unease about the Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation, in contrast [to aid agencies], is subject to no controls, and the article tellingly describes a meeting of Gates with some of the richest individuals who allegedly refer to themselves as the Good Club and muse how to fix the world. The article also raised the issue that the foundation sometimes invested its endowment in industries and sectors that were seen as detrimental to the poor who the foundation aims to help. The only sector that the endowment cannot be invested in is the tobacco industry, but apart from that it seeks to maximize returns.

I was mulling this ‘venture philanthropy’ with the niggling feeling that I had overlooked something. Eventually, I realized what it was: That Bill Gates, a man clearly so talented in doing business, in earning money, decides that The Poor must be helped through charity. This bifurcation has preoccupied me for a while: People who have been wildly successful in their career in the north will not bring that talent to developing countries. Instead, they bring charity, turning Africa into a theme park for good intentions.
Bono and Geldof don’t play African concert tours. They collect donations for Africa, but don’t seem to invest in plain old boring regular companies around here. Bono’s wife runs an ethical clothing company that will get Kibera school kids (because it’s gotta be Kibera, right?) design t-shirts. Why doesn’t she invest in mass production of regular t-shirts? After he sold Celtel to MTC, Mo Ibrahim has set up a private equity fund, Satya Capital, but makes more headlines with his Mo Ibrahim foundation. Why can’t Bill Gates bring his immense business talent to, well, business?
If the Gates Foundation prides itself on doing things a different way, it still does not challenge the aid industry as such: it gives grants to intermediary foundation, many of whom represent the business-as-usual of the aid industry and the illusion of the fixability of single issues.

Here's my calculus.

I don't think the Gates Foundation is completely unencumbered. It could potentially deal a blow to aid agencies, the calculus goes, for the word to get out that African countries also present economic opportunities. With the PR machine having done such a good job of telling people how messed up things are, it would now be hard to be seen as making money from a land where everyone is poor. It'll be hard to spin that, because it'll involve a counter-narrative, one that could potentially be harmful to all the efforts to generate aid for projects all over the continent. Too many images of happy, smiling, not-emaciated children eating cheeseburgers and playing basketball after schools not in clay huts, and next thing you know the Western audience breathes a sigh of relief and thinks, "Oh, good! They're not basket cases anymore! Now we don't have to care since they can take care of themselves!" Folks would stop buying baskets from Africa with proceeds to go to the One Campaign's efforts in some random village. And the US will then feel more comfortable relaxing its 0.7% of GDP aid commitment to African countries (which they already don't meet anyway), and reducing for PEPFAR (Which, even as good as the PR machine is, they're currently doing). Funds slip. HIV rages on. Malaria stays on. Diseases we think we've gotten rid of like Ring Worm re-surface with no funds to fight them. And all because people decided to do what they wanted to all along - look away. It's just easier, the calculus goes, to fall in line with the narrative that already exists.

The sad fact is that reality in African countries is more complex than many give it credit for, but the media - in the U.S. especially - doesn't work with nuances. And when one does the calculus, aid agencies think it's better for folks to see Africa as totally helpless so as to gain attention to their cause. This has a nice tangent to the Kristof brouhaha. A decision on how to represent Africa has been made, and I bet if you were to ask people in aid agencies off the record and in their quieter moments, they will tell you it's for Africa's own good.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Dancing and Liberation in Zimbabwe

Brian Chikwava, Zimababwean writer of Harare North, has a fantastic piece in Granta on iskokotsha, a dance style former combatants of the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) in the early 1980s popularized as they re-integrated into civilian life looms large in the early days of independent Zimbabwe. I like the way his memories of newly independent Zimbabwe have so many elements feeding into it -- the dancing, sexuality, politics -- and how such apparently disparate narratives form such a cohesive whole in his memory.

In 1980, when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, the country woke to the full impact of the cultural tremors that had flattened much of sub-Saharan Africa: the boys and girls from the bhundu (the bush), as the guerrillas were called, brought iskokotsha from their training grounds in Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. A new way of being had arrived. They emerged from the bhundu hot-stepping to the Zambian copper-belt sounds of Dr N. P. Kazembe & his Super Mazembe, Tanzania’s Orchestra Super Mazembe and others – all of them mutations of Cuban rumba-inspired sounds from the Congos.

These ex-combatants revelled in being strangers among their own people: on the street, at the beer garden or in the shebeen. Here they were, with a glint of danger, revolution and a new exoticism from north of the Zambezi. The way they moved on the dance floor made people sit up – they had to decipher this language, to learn new ways. You are one thing today and then, in this new tomorrow, as old notions of the self fall away like masks of mud-cake and turn to dust, you are something else, someone else. At least that seemed to be the case. Iskokotsha arrived and people found, to their amazement, that they too could do it; it seemed inconceivable that beyond pantomime, words would be necessary. With iskokotsha, faces would light up with recognition, yet no one could actually name what it was that they recognized. Then again maybe, with hindsight, people left unmentioned what they recognized here because, as the girls walking past us and the guerrillas by that fig tree had made clear: whatever had the shadow of death behind it, we pretended not to see. We could not be witnesses. We had, in Zimbabwe, found a way of acting out our sexual urges but not a way of talking about the more difficult questions around sex, my mother would say a few years later. By then the dance had taken on a life of its own and was now a far cry from its freedom-fighter origins.

I couldn't find a video of the dance, sadly. Oh well.

Read all of it.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

For the Ladies - In Rap, as in Life

I've been re-listening to Biggie, especially some of his gems on Ready to Die and came across some of the Junior Mafia tracks that features Lil' Kim. It got me wondering about Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj. And, for a hot second, Jay-Z and Foxy Brown. All the female proteges were hot rappers on their own, but word is Weezy writes some of Nicki's stuff. Ditto for Biggie and Kim. I'm not sure about Jay and Foxy (was in Nigeria at the time, and I was a kid) but I bet there was talk of that, too.

Seriously, what's up with that??

It's not like these ladies can't rap. Before Nicki put on so much plastic she's now somewhere between Terminator and Barbie, she was actually a sick rapper (OK, still is). I heard her rhyme tight on that "Warning" remix she did back in the day, and if that was any indication, she does NOT need anybody writing for her. Even for Kim, when you hear her stuff after her Biggie, you can see she's a dope rapper. It makes you wonder why the hand-holding was necessary.

Rap is obviously very much a testosterone-filled industry mostly catering to young guys with a need to let their id run wild. My point is that if you're going to have a female rapper, then have a female rapper who's dope, who can slay anyone in front of her in a battle, who has earned her place.

I refuse to believe that overt sexuality among female rappers precludes them from being toe-to-toe with other rappers male AND female(Of course, Eve definitely tones it down more than, say, Kim or Nicki). Someone should ask the more popular female rappers what they think the relationship between them and the male rappers is. And if its not the sexuality holding them back -- and I don't think it is -- them what is it? Why do they feel as though they have to split the playground and separate the players by gender? I remember how annoyed I was by Busta in that "Touch it" remix he said "I'm not even gonna talk to y'all/I'mma let the queens of the game get at y'all" (What, you're too big to talk to haters, so you'll send your minions after them?). It's especially grating when Eve or Trina or whoever else talks smack obviously directed to other female rappers. I know the Busta thing is just one instance - look also at Ludacris' "My Chick Bad" remix with all the female rappers in attendance where he played the magnanimous host to all "his chicks". These women are seen as being no threat.

My suspicion is that if you were good enough to take some prominent rappers down, you'd never make it anywhere near mainstream. By and large, female rappers make it to the top by proving that they're not coming after the Kings of the Game and are only comparing themselves to fellow female rappers. A woman, the minority in this case, has to prove that she's no threat for her to be acceptable to the larger fold. And in that way, being a minority in rap is just like being a minority in every other field in modern life.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Poem for Sunday

I remember hearing a live recording of his amazingly droll piece America and thinking how differently it sounded to me when I read it myself. I think the same can be said for all Ginsberg's work; the way it sounds to you varies every time you read it.

This one, however, I've always read with a smile, or with an odd sense of empathy even as I don't find the poem particularly sad. Still, A Supermarket in California is one of my favorites from Allen Ginsberg.

A Supermarket in California

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the
streets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit
supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles
full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes! --- and you,
Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the
meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price
bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and
followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting
artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does
your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to
shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in
driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you
have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and
stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?