Monday, January 25, 2010

More Than Just Bad News on Page 25

Of the considerable technological achievements of the twentieth century-- the automobile, the jet airliner, the Internet, DNA fingerprinting, the bomb-- none have had as profound an effect on everyday life in Africa as the invention of the plastic bucket. Consider that for centuries that women used heavy clay or stone vessels to fetch water for the day's cooking, drinking, and washing. Traditional tribes unfamiliar with wheeled vehicles required the village women to carry this heavy container on their heads over great distances. The advent of the everyday and ordinary plastic bucket-- cheap and light and to us from the West oh so sundry-- revolutionized life in Africa. Longtime resident, the Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuscinski, in his collection of writings on the continent, "The Shadow of the Sun," writes appreciatively for small things, aware that in Africa if a plastic bucket be a miracle, then to be grateful for small miracles nonetheless.

Kapuscinski, who died three years ago, spent decades reporting from Africa. Famously, as written in his author's bio, he "witnessed 27 coups and revolutions" and "was sentenced to death four times." In the compilation of his reportage from Africa, he suffers cerebral malaria, tuberculosis, nearly drowns in an ill-planned attempt to escape a coup in Zanzibar when his boat gets caught in the monsoon, survives several mechanical breakdowns in the bush, and is nearly bitten by a mammoth cobra in an abandoned hut. Critics have accused Kapuscinski of fabricating his experiences in the interests of the narrative-- while these are serious allegations, these criticisms miss the point of his writing, which although is harrowing is not the real story for Kapuscinski for all his nine lives does not seem at all boastful as he does compassionate. This not his story but the people of Africa's. If anything "The Shadow of the Sun" is a journey of a foreigner between optimism and disenchantment, an arc mirroring that of the African, who had higher hopes for the equitable distribution of wealth once his brethren took power. As anyone who pays any attention to international news at all, this transfer of power did not pan out very well. At one time or another, nearly every African nation has suffered the ignominy of failed state status. Kapuscinski, a convivial, friendly writer who seems to put his subjects at ease, translates this heartbreaking process in a variety of places and people, shattered sometimes by malicious greed, other times by tribal pathologies.

When Kapuscinski first arrived in Africa, in Ghana, in 1956, during the early years of decolonization, he found people who had been humiliated for centuries by Europeans via the slave trade and exploitation of resources, ready to demonstrate to the world their capacity for autonomous rule. But from the beginning the transition failed. As the journalist explains:

"On the one hand lay the deeply encoded remembrance of the history of one's clan and people, of the allies one could turn to in times of need and of the enemies one had to despise, and on the other hand was the awareness that one was supposed to be entering the community of independent, modern societies, a precondition of which was the renunciation of all ethnic egoism and blindness."

Here Kapuscinski is discussing Uganda but he may as well be talking about nearly every single African nation. As Kapuscinski notes later in his writings, there are comparatively few international wars within the continent. Africa's fiercest fighting is internal, between clans whose history of harmony or discord predates even the earliest European meddling. Kapuscinski illustrates this with the meeting of two men in Somalia. They give their names, family lines, clans, lineage, roots:

"Their personal rapport, their mutual sympathy or antipathy, have no meaning; their relationship, be it friendly or hostile, depends on the current state of affairs between their two clans. The human being, the singular, distinct person, does not exist..."

This is not to let the Europeans (or for that matter the Americans) off the hook. African nations have been incredibly self-destructive in their penchant for civil wars and corruption, but it is the sorrow of slavery that is most emasculating (and here, yet again, is the complicity of the African himself). But slavery has been a most complex burden, not only physical but spiritual and psychological, one that has engendered an inferiority complex.

Nowhere is the legacy of slavery so apparent as in Liberia, which Kapuscinski goes into graphic detail. There is much to tell but in summation, Liberia's story is a lesson on the extent of man's capacity for ruthlessness. By the early mid-19th century the entire coast of West Africa had been colonized by European powers save a narrow strip of land west of the Ivory Coast, disregarded; because of dense jungle thicket it was deemed impenetrable. This is where Robert Stockton, an agent of the American Colonization Society, docked in 1821, with designs to resettle former slaves in their homeland. Within a generation, these former slaves had adopted the plantation habits of their former masters including the columned mansions, The Good Book, the big gowns and stiff collared suits, as well as the enslavement of local tribes, who were denied citizenship, deemed heathens.

In Liberia, slavery lasted well into the 20th century. 1980 and 1989 witnessed two major coup d'etats and the country has been in perennial unrest ever since. It's a fascinating tragedy but I bring it up as a detail illustrating the structure of troubled African states as well as the inadequacy of aid programs:

"International relief for the poor, starving population is an exhaustible source of profit to the warlords. From each transport they take as many sacks of wheat and as many liters of oil as they need. For the law in force here is this: whoever has weapons eats first. The hungry may take only that which remains. The dilemma faced by international organization? If the robbers aren't given their cut, they will not let the shipments of aid get through, and the starving will die. Therefore you give the chieftains what they want, in the hope that at least the leftovers will reach those suffering from hunger."

Damned if you, damned if you don't has real life-or-death repercussions here and usually for want of a better option, the warlords reap the treasures and Africa itself is regarded as a colossal failure that cannot take care of itself, still even after colonization, "the white man's burden."

There are some Africans who feel that the mess was pre-determined, that the European colonials intended that the African nation states should appear incompetent without the direction of foreign officials. These protesters (legitimately) cite the promotion of uneducated tribal partisans (Ida Amin in Uganda, for example) and the ill-advised cartographical drawing of borders (something for which the British Empire in Kashmir, Iraq, and Palestine has blood on its hands, blood still being spilled in the world's biggest hotspots). In Africa, their mapmaking error was the creation of The Sudan. The Sudan comprises 2.5 million square kilometers incorporating the Sahara and Sahel, vast desert and savannah space as well as a very green, tropical south. More importantly, the people of the north are Muslims, the people of the South, animists. The origins of the longest running war in African history began nearly forty years ago when large landholding Arabs with access to money and arms ousted numerous fellaheen from the fertile Nile Valley, converting small subsistent farms into export crop estates producing cotton and rubber. The dispossessed Arabs were prodded south towards lands inhabited by what was defined to them as pagans and savages. When the war evolved it was no longer between armies but between roving bandits, armed and hungry. They follow the women and children since this is where they can find international aid, which is taken at gunpoint. But who is killing who, so well catalogued in the West has so few reference points in places like the Sudan, where:

"... even the longest and greatest war is quickly forgotten, falls into oblivion. Its traces vanish by the day after: the dead must be buried immediately, new huts erected on the site of burned ones."

The media constantly portrays Africa as a wasteland ravaged by war, AIDS, malaria, famine, poverty and crime. It is true of course that there is little of Africa that has not been touched by apocalyptic conditions but with such reportage concentrated on the horrible, it can render a place as large and significant as Africa a place useless and vile, easily regarded in a niche of hopelessness so despairing as to beyond realistic sympathies. The media does little to focus on the resilience of the average African. That they can live an entire life uncomplaining in conditions Europeans and Americans would find intolerable within 24 hours:

"Everything is eaten, down to the last crumb. No one has any supplies, for even if someone did have extra food, he wouldn't have anywhere to keep it, no place to shut it. You live in the immediate, current moment; each day is an obstacle difficult to surmount , and the imagination does not reach beyond the present, does not concoct dreams, does not dream."

The African can never take anything for granted, as Kapuscinski explains:

"Life here is a constant struggle, an endlessly repeated effort to tilt in one's favor the fragile, flimsy and shaky balance between survival and extinction."

Shade and water and the securing of these two fluid, inconstant things is what constitutes the average African's quest. Kapuscinski does not fetishize these simple desires nor does he feel sorry for them. What comes through in the telling of his time in Africa is that the continent's failings is not an African problem but a human one. There is no pie-in-the-sky solution offered by Kapuscinski as he is not a theorist but a journalist. If there is anything to be taken from his story is inspiration. Africa needs first person accounts, people who genuinely feel compelled to understand it via experience rather than judge it with headlines from the newspaper. That's your duty, then, yours and mine.

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