Tag Archives: Africa

Taiye Selasi and the Afropolitan


So yesterday, Granta announced their once-a-decade list of the Best British novelists under 40. I’m pleased for English PEN deputy president Kamila Shamsie, who was featured on the list.

But I’m also delighted to the inclusion of Taiye Selasi, whose novel Ghana Must Go has recently been published. Taiye is the author of my favourite piece of prose published in the LIP magazine, a magazine project I worked on from 2003-07.

Continue reading Taiye Selasi and the Afropolitan

Technological Time Travellers

I’ve just started reading The Information by James Gleick (Fourth Estate). It is about the history of information, writing, and IT, and it won the English PEN Hessel-Tiltman Prize this year.

I was struck by a passage in the book, discussing ‘African Talking Drums':

Before long, there were people for whom the path of communication technology had lept directly from the talking drum to the mobile phone, skipping over the intermediate stages.

This rang a few bells.  First, this nugget from Alain de Botton:

If technology is developing well, what was normal when you were a child should by now seem ridiculous.

Which seems to me to be a variation on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous suggestion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.  What’s interesting with regard to the African Talking Drums is that they are seen as a kind of primitive technology, even thought (as The Information explains) the language is so complex it appeared to be a form of magic to the white slavers, colonialists and anthropologists who heard them.

These technological leaps are interesting, I think, because so much of our culture is tied up in technological advancement.  It dictates what kind of jobs are necessary and profitable, of course, but also influences design.

I am reminded of Jason Kottke’s posts on Timeline Twins (for example, watching Back to the Future today is like watching Bridge on the River Kwai in 1985, because the gap is 27 years in both cases), and also Human Wormholes and The Great Span (for example, this old man who witnessed the Lincoln Assassination).

It also makes me think of my great-grandfather, who (along with everyone else of his particular generation, I suppose) was alive to hear the news of the Wright Brothers achieving powered flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, and also to watch the Apollo landings on the moon from 1969-72.

Think finally of the uncontacted tribes of Puapa New Guinea and the Amazon, who must consider the aeroplanes that fly overhead to be magic.

On How We Go To War

Amid all the frantic late night comments about the UN resolution to finally act in Libya, this tweet from @techsoc stood out:

All intervention is risky & w/ great downsides. A non-intervention is also an intervention; letting Gaddafi kill using weapons we sold.

I think this an interesting companion thought to Sunder Katwala’s bolshy piece on the subject of whattaboutery (a topic Johann Hari previously dealt with in this hardy perennial). Sunder explains why it is worth intervening in Libya when we might not do so elsewhere. First, there has to be a clear and present humanitarian crisis (this is not present in most examples of despicable oppression, a small mercy). Second, intervention has to be possible and practical. This generally means the support and assistance of major regional players like the Arab League or African Union, who are notoriously lethargic. And third, the intervention requires a legitimacy, again related to what important external stakeholders think, but also what those inside the country ask for. These three checkboxes provide a case for what Sunder calls contextual universalism. It matters – at least to me – because it articulates why I had a gut feeling that the Iraq war was wrong, and the current intervention is right. This is despite the fact that the documented brutality of Saddam Hussein was ever bit as bad as that of Colonel Gaddafi.

The cautious approach is clearly a response to the bungling of Iraq. I watched some of the collegiate House of Commons debate on the issue yesterday, and most of the contributions, from Nicholas Soames to John McDonnell, were infused with the considerations that Sunder lays out. This approach to Foreign policy – the need for practicality and legitimacy, the need to be seen to be going to war for the right reasons – is obviously influenced by how unsuccessful the hawkish and shameless approach of Bush/Blair turned out to be. in 2006 I wrote in this space how protest actually serves to influence future policy more than current policy. I quoted Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads, who wrote:

… someone has to be called to account or the next batch of power-mad bastards – here or abroad – will think they can get away with exactly the same thing.

Well, Tony Blair was not forced kicking and screaming from office in the way Tim hoped. Nevertheless, the way the British and American Governments have acted during this current crisis is telling. It is clear that they have been profoundly affected by the uproar we caused last time. David Cameron is rightly being praised for his handling of the crisis, but his course of action was defined by the parameters set for him by recent history. And those parameters were set by us, the awkward squad of protesters and dissenting bloggers. For that, I think we can claim some credit.


I did not see The Andrew Marr Show but @DrEvanHarris did:

Shami points out Blair Iraq effect coming home to roost. No public appetite for deploying ground troops even in humanitarian cause. #marr

Chimanmanda Adichie's Single Story

An interesting TED talk by the novellist Chimamanda Adichie on the power of stories, and how a multitude of stories are required in order to fully understand other people.

Key quote is thirteen minutes into the speech:

I have always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person, without engaging with all the stories of that place and that person.  The consequence of the Single Story is this: It robs people of dignity.  It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.  It emphasises how we are different, rather than how we are similar.

That’s my kind of multiculturalism.

Guardian Gagged

Houses of Parliament at dusk.  Photo by yrstruly on Flicker (CC licence)
Houses of Parliament at dusk. Photo by yrstruly on Flicker (CC licence)

This cannot be left without comment:

Today’s published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.

The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

If it is any consolation, the order papers are in the public domain1, so those with a mind to do so have followed the trail.  The consensus on Twitter and the blogs is that it refers to this question:

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.

Thanks to The Third Estate for doing the legwork.

It would be no surprise if these extrapolations turn out to be true.  The Guardian has been following the Trafigura story for months and reported in May on the dumping of toxic ‘slops’ in the Ivory Coast.  The theory is that the paper wanted to publish details of the Minton Report by consulting scientists MTD.   The report recently appeared on Wikileaks.

This is also another example of the Streisand effect in action.  The fascinating TrendsMap shows that the words ‘Trafigura’, ‘Dumping’, ‘Gagging’ and ‘Guardian’ are the most talked about keywords. As @alexmassie says on Twitter:

Had never heard of Trafigura until they tried to ban the reporting of parliamentary proceedings. Fools.

1. As an aside – The House of Commons website is bloody awful. Anyone using the official record for any reason is likely going to want to cite a particular column, line, or question, rather than an entire webpage. The list of questions should be properly numbered so I can link direct to the part I want – in this case, question 61.

Why They Cheer

There has been plenty of outrage over the release of Lockerbie Bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. The scenes of him arriving in Libya to a hero’s welcome have provoked disgust in the UK.

Why cheer a terrorist? It’s worth considering the situation from the Libyan point of view. First, al-Megrahi’s conviction was not water-tight. The manner of his identification by a witness in Malta was, I recall, highly irregular. I remember seeing a documentary about the case last year, which made me worry about the certainty of the conviction. And if Ordinary Britons are uneasy about the case, you can bet that Ordinary Libyans will be too. The conventional narrative there will be akin to that of the Guantanamo detainees – a Western power pursuing a vendetta against and unfortunate scapegoat.

This doesn’t take al-Megrahi’s side, or excuse Libya’s stte terrorism. But it does give an alternative explanation for the crowd’s exhuberance. It is more an expression of Libyan nationalism, than simply barbarians cheering a murderer.

Social Cost of Slavery

Via Blattman, by way of Sides and Sullivan, an interesting piece of research on how the slave trade had an impact down the generations:

we show that individuals whose ancestors were heavily threatened by the slave trade today exhibit less trust in neighbors, family co-ethnics, and their local government. (pdf)

This reminds me of several things.  The first is the debate between Alan Keyes and Barack Obama in 2004, when they contested the Illinois Senate seat that Obama eventually won by a landslide.  Keyes essentially accused Obama of being “not black enough“:

Barack Obama and I are of the same race, but we are not of the same heritage. And there is a distinction. Race is something physical. Heritage is something that may have an element that is physical or biological, but that also includes other elements of history and experience–the kinds of things that have helped to shape the mind and heart of an individual and that are not determined by physics and biology. And we are of different heritages. I’m of a slave heritage, and he is not.

Although Keyes was right to make the distinction between heritage and race, he was wrong to think it had any electoral relevance.  And in the light of the Harvard research, it looks like he was wrong about the extent of the differences between his and Obama’s heritage.   Even if Obama, through his father, is not of slave descent, he is however from a people from whence slaves were drawn.  And that brings with it similar social problems to bona fide slave children (as Keyes would have it).

Second, I’m reminded incidentally of the correlation between the counties that voted blue (i.e. Democrat) last November, and the cotton picking regions of mid-nineteenth century America.

Thirdly, I’m reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s formulation: “We are the heir of all ages”.

Which in turn allows me to ponder the idea of ancestor worship, popular in many African cultures.  Taken literally, the idea that your forebears might be watching you seems like an irrelevant and primitive idea.  However, seen through the prism of the Harvard research, the idea of being haunted by your country’s collective past takes on a new and very real meaning.  The unease of great-grandparents long-since buried, still festers in the soul, and it cannot be excised by education, science or modernity.

Part of the 'Gambella Stories' series by Turkairo
Part of the 'Gambella Stories' series by Turkairo

Fear and Loathing in Zimbabwe

Zimbabweans have voted in presidential elections. Good luck to them.

Ten years ago, I was living in Zimbabwe, working for the charity SOS. I lived in Chiwaridzo, a township attached to the town of Bindura, a mining town and capital of the Mashonaland Central province. Its one of the northern provinces currently being described as ‘Mugabe’ country, and he has been holding rallies in the area in the run up to today’s vote. About an hour from Harare, Bindura sits at the top of the Mazowe Valley, one of the most fertile parts of the country.The period 1997/98 was a very interesting time to be in Zimbabwe. In retrospect, it was the turning point in the country’s fortunes and its international reputation. At the start of my time there, the economy was in rude health, with the exchange rate sitting at about seventeen Zim dollars to the pound.

The new British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, met Robert Mugabe. A photo of the two men appeared on the front page of the Herald, Zimbabwe’s state owned newspaper. (I remember it well, because the obnoxious white farmer who showed me the photo pointed out how both men were sitting with their legs crossed. “What a couple of poofters,” he said, and I was too young and nervous to challenge this casual prejudice). So when people say that Mugabe has spent the last 28 years ruining his country, remember that only a decade ago he was a leader of good international standing. He was not an international pariah in 1998, nor was he in the business of demonizing the British in the manner he does today. Continue reading Fear and Loathing in Zimbabwe

Voting for Someone Different

Posting here has been light due to a catastrophe that I cannot yet bring myself to discuss.  Don’t worry, no-one has died, but its a bereavement of sorts.

The political crisis in Kenya, and the US Presidential Primary season, remind me of some old thoughts on the nature of democracy.  First, is voting along ethnic lines really democratic?  Apparently the Kenyan crisis has an ethnic element, with supporters of Kibaki and Odinga dividing along tribal, rather than ideological lines.  As I said before, such voting seems to be nothing more than a count to see who has the bigger gang, and undermines the rationalism on which democracy is supposed to rest.

Meanwhile, a race row circles the Democratic Party like a vulture. “Is America ready for a black president?” squwark the commentators, comfortable with their cliches.  Just under a year ago, I wondered whether a good indicator of a mature democracy is when someone who is not from the traditional ruling elite is elected.  I admit this is a rather optimistic stance when Hillary and Barack are mudslinging, but I think there’s a kernel of truth here.  Voting for someone who is different, be it gender, colour or ethnicity, requires a certain confidence in the system.  It is an acknowledgement that you have certain things in common with someone from a different background (this is what the Dalai Lama calls multiculturalism).  And of course, it means there is a high level of political equality.

The counter argument is that, in a democracy, we don’t get to set the terms on which people vote, and that a citizen can vote based on whatever criteria they choose – including racist or sexist considerations.  Attempting to stamp this out would be ineffectual and illiberal.  This may be true, but I think the point about the relative health of a democracy still holds.  If you’re voting for someone purely on the basis of ethnicity or gender, then I’m sorry, but you’re not doing it right.

Other countries are not immune.  I recently read that Jacob Zuma will probably become “South Africa’s third black president“, as if his ethnicity was politically interesting in that country, with its very particular history.  A white president in modern South Africa is currently impossible, but that would be the more politically significant milestone, because only then will politics be blind to race.

Here in London, Rushanara Ali is the Labour Candidate for Bethnal Green & Bow, and therefore stands a good chance of becoming the UK’s first female Muslim MP.  If she is elected, it may count as a contrived first, but I understand that the campaign against her is likely to centre around her religion and gender, rather than her ideas or achievements.  Not very mature at all.