Saturday, 18 December 2010

Only a bad dream

I first heard of the film Darwin’s Nightmare while conducting research last year amongst market-sellers in Mwanza, a fishing city located on the bay of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. Market-sellers were afraid to talk in case foreigners like myself were producing another exposĂ© documentary. They spoke of white men having come here to ‘take a picture of a fish’. These men had taken pictures of the dirtiest fish they could find, the market-sellers said, and now sales were down. This was something I did not understand until I chanced upon a viewing of the film in Oxford.

Darwin’s Nightmare is an Oscar-nominated documentary that explores how the forces of globalization have affected the lake-side city of Mwanza. It caused a storm amongst Tanzania’s political elite. According to the film, the poverty that permeates the city has been exacerbated by the furious export of the Nile perch, a fish dropped into the lake as an experiment of western scientists in the late 1950s. The fish took over the lake and has since become a popular dish within the European Union. The documentary shows Indian-run factories preparing the Nile perch for export while local Africans fight over the leftovers. The street children of Mwanza beat each other over scraps of food and sniff melted plastic at night to forget their unhappiness. Only the Russian pilots, who fly cargo in and out of Tanzania, enjoy the industry. They are, it is strongly implied, trading weapons in exchange for the fish and spend much of their time in Tanzania indulging in local prostitutes.

The film was produced in 2004 and I have visited Mwanza twice, in 2009 and 2010 for a few months at a time, conducting research with market-sellers and street children, and teaching in a local primary school. The film bends over backwards to make its claims and its suggestive portrayal of the lake-side city is not accurate. Whilst critics acclaim the film as ‘not to be missed’ and full of ‘jaw-dropping revelations’, Tanzanian politicians see malice behind its production. They are right to take offence.

In Darwin’s Nightmare, poverty is made out to be animalistic and humiliating. But it is not. Poverty is a lack of material wealth and is not dealt with better when it is exaggerated. In Darwin’s Nightmare, a child is dressed up as a pilot and speaks into the camera saying he wishes to become a pilot when he is older. At the same time, shots are filtered through to the viewer of the supposed transport of arms to the region by plane, a prostitute flirting in the pilots’ cafe the evening before she is murdered, and the nightmarish words of an old priest who refuses to promote condoms as the solution. Everything is portrayed as working together to dig Africa deeper into a hellish pit.

Hope is needed in international development, not despair. The postmodernist portrayal of the global south has room only for pessimism and does not show the real Africa. Such artists should steer clear of the continent unless they want to embarrass themselves.

Africa is a land of hope and human solidarity. To give an example: this year I held an interview with one child of 13 years who works as a plastic bag seller in Soko Kuu, Mwanza’s main market, every day of the week. He has no parents but three younger siblings and a grandmother whom he also needs to look after. The boy is ‘in poverty’, whether one measures this by income per day or access to sanitation, food, healthcare or education. His three siblings do attend state-run schools but it is through the income he and they earn through selling plastic bags that they achieve this. Each night he returns home with a bit of food. He cooks it and then wakes his siblings up so that they eat. He then goes to sleep and wakes up early the next day to continue his work. He is hoping that when they finish school they will also, in their turn, help him out.

In the midst of hardship, virtue rises to the fore. People are determined to strive higher, to punch above their weight. For some of the Tanzanians of Mwanza, hardship is borne daily. But not without cheer, not without happiness. This inner strength has to be recognised in the fight against poverty; doomsaying will not get us anywhere.

Hardships bring people together—a power just as important in dealing with poverty as it is in dealing with natural disasters or epidemics. The solution to people’s problems lies in people themselves. Portraying poverty as humiliating and debilitating is so damaging because it says precisely the opposite. People are displayed as victims of something that cannot be changed. But the first step in solving poverty is realising its limit.

The article can be found in the December 2010 edition of Netherhall News:

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Anxiety builds up ahead of Tanzania's Sunday election

This Sunday Tanzanians go to the polls to vote for their leadership for the next 5 years. The contest is predicted to be the closest in Tanzania's history, with one opinion poll putting the main opposition, Chadema, ahead. See the following article from the East African Standard for an update:

The election will be held on 31 October this year.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The road leading from the Kenyan constitution

Good article here from John Githongo. I especially like his closing comment:

"Thus far it seems as if we may have to contend with a major recycling of some of the most discredited figures from our past in the new dispensation. They have been announcing their intentions already. Their success will aim at slaughtering the new Constitution."

See the full article here.

Monday, 2 August 2010

In the waiting room for the Kenyan referendum

I write this entry in the waiting room of the Akamba bus station of Nairobi. The TV behind me blurts an almost constant stream of commentary on either the “Yes” or “No” campaigns for the 4 August referendum. There is tension in the air. Around me are others waiting for the 9:30pm bus leaving Kenya for Tanzania.

An article in today’s Nation, one of Kenya’s most popular newspapers, notes how people in the Rift Valley have sold up their property and moved away. They are nervous that the violence of 2008 is to be repeated in the next two weeks. Back then, over 1,000 people lost their lives as violent protests followed a disputed and almost certainly rigged election. A large proportion of the deaths came as a result of police reprisals at protesters. Extra-judicial killings (the police shooting of criminals) have long been a human rights concern in Kenya.

The TV is buzzing at the various claims of the two opposing sides to the debate. What is at stake? On 4 August, Kenya goes to the polls to decide whether to vote “Yes” or “No” to a constitution.

Churches have formed an alliance with the red “No” campaigners. They are sensitive to the apparent legalisation of abortion and the way marriage has been defined.

Predictions are bad for the country and violence is expected. According to a lady doing research here who flew out yesterday, the entire personnel of USAID, the US agency for overseas development, have been ordered to leave the country. The US embassy requests that no US citizens enter Kenya.

Despite this tectonic gloom, and despite the bus waiting room’s atmosphere of a refugee depot, I would like to suggest that the referendum for a new constitution will not be violent. This may be the wishful thinking of an idealistic student seeking to write a positive commentary on all things African, but I have evidence to support my claim.

The post-election violence of 2008 was not spontaneous. Kenya is a country of layers, and three layers together caused the chaos. The first was the violent network connected to the main opposition, the Orange Democratic Movement, led by Raila Odinga. Political parties in Kenya have been led at the centre by vocal and determined populists. They enjoy a reach to their localities through patrimonial ties mixed with genuine popular support. Specifically, MPs fund groups of youths who support them locally. In various parts of the country the groups are linked with local militia who operate outside the state. Militia groups are particularly prominent in the west of the country. In Nairobi, the Mungiki control zones in the slums where police dare not tread. Each night they extend their reach and then withdraw, battling the police or paying them off in the process.

Militia groups linked to political parties were ordered and paid to take to the streets in violence in response to the perceived rigging of elections. Then came the second layer: those in support of the election results within the incumbent government gave the green light to the most ferocious police reprisals. Evidence of deaths collected by Human Rights Watch shows numerous examples of persons shot from behind, killed as they ran. The third layer of violence came as a result of the opportunist thugs who took advantage of the chaos to steal.

Why will this not be repeated? Back in 2008, violence was in everyone’s interests. The chaos hid the ballot rigging and guaranteed the place at table of the opposition in the talks that followed. What resulted was the largest cabinet Kenya has ever seen as both incumbents and opposition formed a government of national unity.

Two years on, violence is in few groups interests. Polls put the “Yes” vote ahead by a considerable amount, and all the main parties wish to see it passed, at least according to the desires they allow to be publicised. A chaotic response to the results would only help the thugs, and even they are growing too strong for the politicians’ liking. If violence starts, it is likely to start in the Rift Valley, where disputes over land acts like tinder to the smallest spark. But the political will, at least for the moment, is against the fire spreading.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

A question of hope

There are many reasons not to have hope. In the West, our political institutions are founded on a certain hopelessness. Life is “nasty, brutish and short”, as Hobbes said, and so we need a strong state to keep us from tearing each other apart.

350 years since Hobbes was writing, new economic opportunities have not given any new ray of hope. Increases in economic well-being have seen a mirrored rise in suicide, divorce, abortion, depression and euthanasia. Go to where people are best off materially and it is hard to find suspicions of a utopia just around the corner.

But people of faith do believe a utopia is just around the corner and this makes them strange.

Yesterday I took tea with two men of Nairobi whom I had met at the Holy Family Basilica. They showed me to a cafĂ©, asking me to keep my bag close as we paid the equivalent of 15p each for tea to a cashier behind an iron grill. They were interested in Europe and how things are there and I tried to explain it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

“People are very wealthy in Europe but at the same time many are quite poor,” I tried to explain. “There aren’t many morals—a kind of spiritual poverty.”

I had met Patrick, one of the two companions, last year when he had approached me after Mass to ask for a job. Last week, over coffee between us two, he had opened to me his thoughts about the ups and downs this year had brought.

“You see, the problem is work. I have no job and I look around and see lots of people with lots of qualifications. Me, I have no qualifications, no education.”

Patrick was not born in Nairobi but came here like so many others to find new opportunities.

“Offices are looking for young people with education. I am not young so they are not interested in me.”

But Patrick had said there had been ups as well as downs so I ask him what the ups have been.

“The good thing is that I know Jesus Christ is looking after me. I have been praying, you know, praying for my salvation. I know Jesus is watching over me and that things can get better.”

I would normally dismiss this as cheap testimony, the sort of testimony you might get from a washing powder advert. But I can’t because the poverty around me is real and I know this is his burden on a daily basis. Really, he hopes in Christ.

“Even now,” Patrick concludes, “I am grateful to God for meeting with you here.”

These rumbles of lives filled with hope are difficult to avoid. Yesterday I entered the Basilica through the side entrance and was cornered by a girl of no more than 8 years old who displayed twice the sneakiness of any distributer of the London Evening Standard.

“Please sir, I would like to ask if you will sponsor me for Youth Empowerment.”

And inside, the church is never empty. A nun passes me a booklet with words of the rosary of divine mercy. She has highlighted the lines of response to make it easier for me. Going to confession I have to wait 30 minutes in the queue and at the end the priest tells me to ask the others to go to the other confessional because he has to start saying the Mass.

Faith is tied with hope. This is a problem for many who want Africa to develop. Faith is seen as a distraction to the pursuit of profit, blinding people from their economic situation.

But here one cannot help feeling that faith and hope are worthwhile. In fact, people of faith are the most in touch with the poverty that surrounds them. They know it and they breath it. They want to fight economically, not just for themselves—like a capitalist—but for everyone they know. They can think to their own welfare and others’ at the same time, because they have hope.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Article from the Daily Nation, Mon 19 July

The Daily Nation is one of the two of Kenya's leading intellectual newspaper. Below is an amusing article I'd like to share, produced in yesterday's paper:

Fatherhood opens eyes to innocence of children

A man took his daughter to kindergarten and when she returned home after her first day in school, he asked:
“Did you enjoy yourself?”
“Very much,” the girl replied.
“What was your favourite activity?” he asked, glad that her daughter was doing so well in school.
“Break-time,” the girl answered with a big smile.

But the same could not be said of the niece of a friend who had always been pestering his mother to be taken to school. Well, the day finally dawned and the boy was taken to school where he had the time of his life.
The following morning, his mother dutifully went to wake him up at around 6am.
“It is time to go to school,” she said. The boy could not believe his ears.
“Again?” he asked in disbelief.

Well, these are just some of the gems that I have been sharing with my friends in the recent past after I too joined the club of fatherhood. But the story that I still recall though it was told to me many years ago was of a sanctimonious father who was trying to demonstrate to his son just how much advantage the boy’s generation enjoyed compared to his father’s.
“In our time,” the father said, “we used to go to school without shoes.”
“Ah,” the boy answered after some thought. “That means you would walk all the way in socks?”

I am told that as a boy, my father had threatened to abandon my grandmother in the bushes by the road after she and I had a quarrel while travelling. According to the tale, we had just been stopped by the police when I asked my father whether he had brought along his gun when my grandmother pinched me for being “careless” with words.
And every time we came across a bush, I would joyfully ask: “Is this one good enough, daddy?”

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Why Africa is stronger than the pro-choice agenda

In Kenya, discussions buzz in anticipation of the referendum for the new constitution to be held on 4 August. Whilst most agree a constitution is needed, religious groups have rallied for a “no” vote in response to the apparent unrestricting access to abortion guaranteed therein.

There is a sweeping undercurrent in Western thought that associates progress with individual autonomy, and it is this school of thought that sees access to abortion and contraception as solutions to Africa’s challenges. Anthony Giddens, for example, believes the family to be a product of social dependency, a crutch no longer necessary in areas of the world with high GDP and vast opportunities for social mobility. Economic empowerment will see the triumph of the individual over family and religion.

Writing from Nairobi, one of the most buzzing capitals of Africa, I have the impression that this pathway to individualism will not be tread here in quite the same way, if it is tread at all.

Access to contraception and abortion are heralded as two proud traditions the West has to offer the world as central to development and emancipation. Western NGOs and corporate bodies invest heavily in advocating their strengths for ensuring the eradication of poverty and female dependency. But few Africans want them. Abortion and contraception have shown little prospect for helping the fight against AIDs and poverty, and so the whole endeavour seems like a playback of colonialism: you will succeed if you do things our way. Restrict your numbers and follow our values, we will see your lives made prosperous.

Two words capture the position of the West: morally bankrupt.

There is something here in Africa that trumps the incessant individualism found in Western Europe and North America on a daily basis. It is not something that cannot be found in the West, just something that is stronger over here.

In Africa there is more friendship, more community. This does not excite many policy-makers who see problems as problems of the bureaucratic connection of state to citizen, but it does excite me. The trajectories of the Western “sexual revolution” are as much about the loss of friendship and community as the gain of individualism.

In the West it is frowned upon, for example, to suggest that the proliferation of abortion in the UK—over 6 million since 1967—is a crisis of fatherhood. Fathers in UK are encouraged not to give a damn about abortion. To give it significance amongst fathers would be to put pressure on the decision-making autonomy of the mother.

In Africa, fatherhood is deep with meaning. To be a father is something to be proud of; it is a sign of your place in the community and a sign of your dedication. Whilst in Africa fatherhood has spiritual significance, men in the West are assumed to have little spiritual capacity altogether. In the West men are, ironically, assumed to be hormone-driven hunter-gatherers. Deplorably, this view of manhood is being told back to Africans through the provision of condoms as the only way of stemming the spread of HIV.

On the question of poverty there is a strong case for arguing that too much population growth is unhealthy. But it is important for policy-makers to understand that a call for responsible family life must still recognise such a thing as family life to exist.

The question of abortion, for example, is actually a question of what children are and what motherhood is: are they gifts or burdens? If motherhood and children are burdens, the policies of the West will work. Widespread provision of abortion and contraception will render women autonomous and fatherhood irrelevant, and a reduction in births will result. But if motherhood and children are gifts, the policies of the West will meet difficulty. Rhetoric for the sexual revolution will clash with communities who feel their values to be under threat. Communities will turn defensive and reject Western policy as interventionist. Western commentators will turn to consider the essential backwardness of Africans. Sound familiar?

If the Western traditions of contraception and abortion are to have any head-way here, they must break up family, community and friendship first.