Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh

Cover image. © Penguin Books.
It is unfortunate that, although thoroughly enjoying this book, you can't help but feel a little bit dirty for having read it and liked it. That said, Evelyn Waugh picks apart the colonial world of the inter-war years wonderfully and treats most parties involved with the contempt they deserve. 

The story itself follows the story of a fictional African island state of Azania. Their Oxford-educated monarch, Emperor Seth, starts a programme of reforms to modernise his country. Emperor Seth recruits an Englishman, Basil Seal, who, needing something to do with his life, decides that working in Azania is a great idea. 

So with a cast of characters designed to add an element of chaos to the story, things move forward at quite a pace. The French consul, Ballon, becomes increasingly disgruntled with the modernisation plans, as do the church leaders - especially when their place of worship is threatened in an infrastructure building programme. 

Inevitably, all roads lead to a coup d'état and Seth is overthrown, to be replaced by his senile, and hitherto incarcerated uncle, Achon - who promptly dies during the coronation. 

One assumes that a lot of the story and the references to different ethnic groupings, and their relative characteristics, is based upon the author's time as a reporter in Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia). There are many striking similarities between place names in Azania and Ethiopia, and there is something very 'Haile Selassie I' about Emperor Seth. 

In Black Mischief, Evelyn Waugh goes to town with mocking and satirising just about everybody who had an involvement in East Africa in the early twentieth-century; the British (pompous and out of touch), the French (paranoid and sly), the Africans (disorganised), the Arabs (greedy) and the church (getting involved in subverting the government). 

This is an interesting personal take on East Africa and is very much of its time. Some might argue that Waugh's treatment of the Africans in this story is racist at points - one example is the naming of one female character 'Black Bitch' by her white husband and this is before we consider the connotations of the title. A counter to this argument would be that because just about every big player gets the same treatment, the humour wins out.

For further critical reading: http://www.js-modcult.bham.ac.uk/articles/issue4_greenberg.pdf

Monday, October 24, 2011

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie

Following on from my first foray into the world Agatha Christie's Poirot earlier this year, I couldn't resist picking up another novel from the collection. Similarly to last time, I selected a novel set in the Middle East, this time in the British Protectorate of Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq.

Published in 1936, and set prior to Poirot's most famous case, Murder on the Orient Express, this novel is centred around a group of scientists on the site of an archeological dig - something close to the author's heart as her second husband, Max Mallowan, was himself an archeologist. Most of the action doesn't take place at the dig though, but rather focuses around the claustrophobic confines of the staff compound.

The narrative starts with a preface by Dr Giles Reilly, who goes about introducing us to our narrator, Nurse Amy Leatheran. Nurse Leatheran assumes the narrative, retelling the story of what happened subsequent to her employment by Dr Leidner, one of the archeologists, to look after his wife; the rather jumpy and increasingly unbalanced Mrs Leidner. 

In a typically Agatha Christie way, we have a group of characters so disparate in their personalities, that they actually become believable. In addition to the nurse and the Leidners, we have: a lover, a drug user, an angry lady, a Bertie Wooster sound-a-like, a stroppy daughter, a French priest, and for good measure, a dead first husband.

When Mrs Leidner gets killed after having seen strange apparitions at the windows, and after a local Arab man is seen peering into the compound, it seems that any number of suspects could be responsible. Cue our favourite Belgian detective to come and sort out the situation, but not before another murder can be committed.

Nevertheless, this novel contains as many surprises as you would expect from this writer and this genre. Poirot is typically masterful in discovering the truth, despite having no real proof. The tension within the walls of the compound is unbearable, the murders ingenious and plot is not what you would expect.

Poirot starts his revelation of the truth with, "Bismillahi ar rahman ar rahim". Telling us that it is, "the Arab phrase used before starting out on a journey," and this storyline is quite a journey.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

World Food Day 2011: Food Security

Mass catering at Kigezi High School, Uganda.
In one of my endless Twitter conversations with Inii Ukpabio, I recently learned of something that had gone hitherto unnoticed in my knowledge of development studies. It related to different types of security and the fact that there was such a thing as ‘food security’.

Unknowingly, I had already shown some awareness of the issue of food security in East Africa by looking at the choices families may have to make between food costs and education, and also when looking at aid distribution during the current East African famine.

And so, being a latecomer to the international development party, I scratched my head a little and then realised what a massive issue it really is and could continue to be for the world and in particular, to my beloved corner of East Africa.

In Uganda, where the shilling remains so weak and inflation so high, the implications on food security are seriously high for the average citizen on the street. In the urban environments, wages aren’t going as far as they once may have done and this means that households will have to tighten their financial belts.

The knock on is, that regardless of Universal Primary Education and Universal Secondary Education, families may find themselves with the choice between being able to adequately feed themselves and being to educate their children or get medical help should it be needed. The need for such choices shouldn't exist in the first place.

This isn’t the only problem though facing many. There are an increasing number of reports in the press about multinational corporations buying large tracts of land directly from various African governments. The Guardian newspaper, in this time of serious food insecurity for East Africa, reported as recently as October 14th that a UK-based forestry firm had evicted a possible 22,000 people from their land in central Uganda – many of whom would have been subsistence farmers.

Rwandese tea plantations on the Kigali-Gatuna road last year.
The impact is profound for rural communities. Many could be forced into the unfamiliarity of urban communities with the higher rents and general living costs that this entails. Many others will have to deal with the loss of self-sufficiency and the extra few shillings that could be made selling surplus produce at markets. Either way, all would have been left facing disputes over land with much higher powers - powers they don't have the resources to fight.

In a recent Oxfam report, one such evictee, Francis Longoli says, ‘I remember my land, three acres of coffee, many trees – mangoes and avocados. I had five acres of banana.’ He continues, ‘my land gave me everything from my living to my children’s education. People used to call me Omataka – someone who owns land. Now that is no more. I am one of the poorest now.’

Governments shouldn’t be fooled into believing that signing away land to multi-nationals for economic reasons will result in a better existence for the populous. Many of these deals, even if they are to be with a food production company, are unlikely to bring any direct benefit to farmers or their communities.

So, as I reflect on my state of relative financial security and my strong personal food security on this World Food Day, I consider the future for people like Francis. The Uganda I know, with its little patches of cabbages and beans, hugging the sides of buildings and hills across the countryside, shouldn't be allowed to suffer for the instant financial gratification of governments. 

What many people want, as they tend to their shambas, is to be the masters of their own destinies, to have safe houses and to be able to provide food for their families.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Right Kind of Aid II: East African Drought Crisis

Umi, three months old, in a medic's arms.
Anyone with a heart, or even a scrap of interest in their fellow human beings, will find it hard not to have been moved by the scenes of hunger and desolation coming from the Horn of Africa. Countries such as Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Sudan are having all been affected in some way by an immense drought that has it the region. Eritrea may also be affected, but according to the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) data is hard to come by there. At a time like this the support of a foreign government towards an affected group of people shows the great degree of compassion that people can show to their brothers and sisters around the world.

Indeed, it can go some way towards restoring my faith in humanity – especially where the Western powers are involved. In this spirit, on the 6th July, the UK Government stated that the size of their assistance will run to £38 million pounds (just under $61 million at mid-market rates) which, according to DFID is going to Ethiopia. This money is designed to assist the 3.2 million people who DFID believe to be at risk there and will be enough to feed “1.2 million people for three months” (DFID, 2011).On the 6th July, Andrew Mitchell, MP for International Development, added, that “the UK has also provided strong support for Kenya and for Somalia in the last financial year, funding emergency nutrition, health, water and sanitation and livelihood support activities.”

Why is it then that, in spite of this great act of kindness from one government to another, that I feel a little uneasy? The answer lies in the way in which foreign aid is dealt with. Questions that come to mind include: how is this to be distributed? Who is going to be responsible for its distribution? What measures are going to be put into place to prevent a similar crisis from happening again in order to ensure the long term ‘food security’ of East African people?

Some of the biggest problems with foreign aid are the strings that can come attached. In the case of the Horn of Africa crisis, DFID hasn’t made clear, publically at least, of any stipulation for the aid being sent to Ethiopia. This is not always the case. In 2005 the US government pledged $15 million over five years to fight AIDS – the conditions were that money would go primarily to pro-abstinence programmes and steer clear of clinics offering abortions (Moyo, 2009).

Then there is also the risk of aid getting into the wrong hands. According to Dr Adwok Nyaba, the SPLA – to some a rebel militia group, to others Southern Sudan’s de facto military until independence last week – had been diverting food aid away from the needy. He said, “[S]ince humanitarian assistance is only provided for the needy civil population, the task of distribution of this assistance fell on specially selected SPLA officers and men who saw to it that the bulk of the supplies went to the army” (ESPAC, 1998). The net result of this meaning that suffering citizens are left wanting.
Save the Children are one of the charities on the frontline in East Africa.
So how can we work with aid to ensure that it gets to those who need it the most? It is a difficult question, especially when you are dealing with food and unstable regimes. In the case of Somalia the people have not only food security to worry about, but their own physical safety too in a country where the government is seen as practically ineffective. Al-Shabaab did state on the 6th April (BBC, 2011) that they would allow food aid in, but how far can they and will they be trusted to not use the relief aid as a weapon against their own people?

Ultimately, programmes to manage the distribution of aid have to be loosely co-ordinated by an overseeing body, the UN for example, but I feel that in as many cases as possible governmental involvement should be kept to a minimum. The responsibility of ensuring people can survive these testing times should lie with good-intentioned NGOs. The governments should be busy in the meantime coming up with strategies to ensure that this kind of humanitarian devastation does not happen again.

Simply providing a lump-sum of money to a foreign government will not do. Simply providing bags of grain to a government to pass on to its people will not do. Well-managed distribution of food, by groups free from political bias, religious bias and desire to ruthlessly profiteer from the vulnerable, acting independently of governmental interference is the only way. Even then, this should only happen as a starting point in a longer-term strategy to deal with firstly the refugee crisis growing in northern Kenya as a result of the Somali civil war and secondly the food security of the people of the Horn of Africa region.

How this can be achieved, with all of the world’s nations’ vested interests, I do not know. It is my sincerest hope that the money pledged to Ethiopia by DFID will be managed in a way that only benefits the people who actually need the assistance – not people looking to make money off the destitute. I also hope that this money is free from any political terms and conditions.

As for the other countries affected, I hope that suitable donors will come forward to assist in their management and survival through this potential catastrophe, but we must all recognise that, as people who love and care for Africa, as people who have Africa running through our veins, it is partly our responsibility to hold rogue elements to account whilst ensuring the survival and eventual flourishing of our brothers and sisters who may currently be suffering in East Africa.

This article was first published on 16th July 2011 on Africa on the Blog. All photos are copyright 2011 Save the Children UK.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Bakiga Window: The Closest Thing to Eden?

The view over Lake Bunyonyi from Itambira Island.

The sun is setting to my left as I sit looking out over what could be paradise on earth. The trees are helpfully beginning to mute the warmth of our most powerful star as it sinks lower and lower behind the line of hills to the West.

It is Saturday 16th April and I am sat watching the evening sky paint its moving picture over Lake Bunyonyi, from a vantage point on the Itambira Island resort of Byoona Amagara.

As with every year, after a week of attending meetings, organising my own students and working on education projects with various institutions around Kabale, we retreat to Lake Bunyonyi to relax and reflect for the weekend. As with previous years, we have come with a group of Kigezi High School students and staff.

I will admit, that at this moment, I am leaving all and sundry to their own devices and, although I am sat with two close colleagues, no one is speaking and I am glad of that fact.

This place is so unspoiled by humanity – I guess I mean large numbers of westerners. The resorts, be them around the banks of the lake or on islands in the middle of the lake, are all eco-resorts and live symbiotically and peacefully within the environment.

It is the purity of these surroundings that encourage your heart to bare itself. You think about your time in East Africa, the friends you’ve made, the things you’ve seen and often your failures to complete certain projects. This is a place that ideas grow within your soul. This is a place where you resolve to improve yourself, rather than demand improvement in others.

One such thought I am having, as I look out over this small bay, relates to the local population of Bunyonyi. At this moment, one of my biggest failures is my lack of knowledge about the rural communities here.

After three annual visits to Kabale, I am getting a good idea about many regional quirks. I can even say a few things in Rukiga – albeit very bady. I understand that if one of my Bakiga friends tells me they’re going for a short call, it doesn’t mean that they are off to use their mobile phone.

All well and good, but life is different for rural communities and I know that. Embarrassingly I haven’t visited the school on the Bwana Island that lies to the right of this natural picture frame in front of me. In fact, I haven’t visited the small village to the north of Itambira that lies to the right of my natural picture frame.

So it is, that as the sun continues to set, I whisper to myself a resolution: next year the men, women and children of Itambira and Bwana will be my educators and kill off this ignorance I have of their communities.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...