Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

An open space

October 1, 2015

6 – Making Sense


So what, if anything, are we to make of this book? That is not an easy question to answer because it is not quite clear what lessons are there to draw. That we need more societal responsibility among the elites? That the elites need more backbone if they see their country go in the wrong direction? Far too easy to say when you are not directly involved. That we need better governance, or at the very least a state presence? That peace, development and all the other matters that render a country liveable will never be delivered from the outside? Absolutely. The point is that all these gaps are present in other parts of the world, too. Perhaps they have turned a shade more extreme in the CAR but they are not new.

Hence the great narratives that the writers and editors have wanted to weave around the story of the CAR. This materialise only partially. I liked the historical explanations for CAR’s current predicament, an element that is routinely overlooked when “Africa” is being reported. History matters greatly. The chapters on insecurity (and how this deeply felt notion of existential insecurity is intricately bound up with the way riches are accumulated) gave me interesting insights in a mindset that otherwise remains closed, especially in the case of the elites.

The failure of most if not all foreign interventions are all highlighted although I for one would have been much more severe with this last issue. When eleven peace-related missions have done nothing to lessen the mess the CAR finds itself in, then these missions should be put under the harshest light possible and mercilessly investigated, because they clearly do not do what it says on the label. And clearly, this does not only apply to the CAR. Mali is another place where an ill-considered, ill-conceived and dramatically misguided UN mission along the same lines is going very badly wrong.


There is really only one issue I would like to take with the book. With the exception of one, all contributions are by writers from outside the CAR and they have been drawn from basically two fields: NGOs and academia. We have a political scientist and an anthropologist editing the volume. Contributions come from a professor in African Studies (granted, with a long career in journalism), from researchers and consultants and a student of political science. This pool could have been broader. This is of course not to argue that outsiders should have nothing to say about the CAR. That would be patently risible. But more balance would have been welcome. I remember a volume of essays, done a few years ago about a country blighted by this sinister combination: a gangster state, a resource curse (in this case oil), violence against the population on an industrial scale and very little countervailing power. The volume on Sudan, (Darfur and the Crisis of Governance in Sudan), published by the Prince Claus Foundation of the Netherlands in 2009 provided a rich knowledge base not in the least because many of the contributing authors were Sudanese.

Still, as said at the beginning, this book is more than welcome as a contribution in its own right about a country few of us know a great deal about. The individual papers can be read on their own, as they tell a part of that largely untold story, fascinating, tragic and infuriating in equal measure.

Making Sense of the Central African Republic is published by Zed Books in London and costs £20 in the UK and an estimated €30 in the Eurozone.


Socialist snobs

September 1, 2014

A new book uncovers a part of Angola’s yet to be written history


Every nation has some days in its calendar that stand out as occasions for festivities or remembrance. The Netherlands remember the dead of World War Two on May 4 and celebrate national liberation from Nazi occupation the next day. Guinea has at least two reasons to pay special attention to September 28: the prelude to independence in 1958 and a massacre in the capital’s largest stadium 51 years later. Some have gained global notoriety: July 4 in the United States; July 14 in France; August 6, when the first nuclear device in world history was detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

But some countries go to extraordinary lengths to suppress any and all memory to what should be a national event, for good or ill. Angola is such a place and May 27, 1977 is the date its government wants forgotten. What happened on that day is the subject of a book by the former BBC correspondent in Angola, Lara Pawson.

All credit to the Angolan government’s success in suppressing information it does not like and memories it wants its subjects to forget: when Pawson arrived in Angola she had never heard of the vinte e sete de maio; it only lived on in the nation’s underground memory. She came across it when witnessing the suppression of a tiny anti-government demonstration. Most people, she was told, live in fear and in the words of one, ‘completely tranquil.’ According to her informants this can be traced back directly to what happened on May 27, 1977.

On that day, rebellious troops briefly took possession of the national radio station, staged a raid on the capital Luanda’s central prison and freed its inmates. There was an anti-government demonstration. The response was swift and brutal. The leaders of the uprising were hunted down and killed; the Sambizanga neighbourhood in Luanda, seen as a centre of the rebellious movement, was severely punished with the loss of many lives. The 9th Brigade, which had supported the uprising, was decimated. Cuban troops, who were in Angola to help the MPLA government against US and South African-backed invasions, were in the forefront. ‘We went on a demonstration and were met with Cuban bombs,’ was how one Sambizanga resident describes the May 27 events. How many died in the aftermath? Nobody knows but at the conservative end of the scale is “thousands” while others mention tens of thousands. But what was it and what was it all about? Pawson sets out to find answers to these questions.

In a London library she finds the official version of events, issued by the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, or MPLA but evidently not available in Angola itself. After all, the vinte e sete never happened, right? But the official MPLA document darkly mentioned “factionalism” as a menace to party unity and identified two men, popularly known as Nito Alves and Zé Van Dúnem as the ringleaders. Alves was the president of a popular football club, Progresso de Sambizanga. Football and politics have had a symbiotic relationship in Angola; during the anticolonial struggle involvement with the administration of football clubs served as a cover for political activity.

According to the MPLA Political Bureau, the Alves/Van Dúnem plot was percolating throughout party structures and it therefore had to be dealt with in the only way the party knew how: violent repression, which duly happened in the wake of May 27. The MPLA Politbureau renamed the factionalist movement and called it an attempted coup while dropping more dark hints, this time about foreign imperialist involvement, which made the bloody repression of Alves, Van Dúnem and their civil and military sympathisers all the more easy. In one chapter, Pawson recalls the story of one soldier who spent nights in his entirely darkened apartment while security forces loyal to the government (“all whites and mixed-race,” he says) went looking for him. The events were bloody. But what was it all about?

Pawson book cover

The official MPLA version falls apart as the book progresses but it becomes clear that there is not a single explanation for what happened on and after May 27, 1977. Certainly, it was about the direction the ruling MPLA should take and most accounts take the view that Alves and his people were getting exasperated by the increasingly bourgeois line the party was taking. They were far more radical. But other issues got in the way too. There may have been personal scores to settle, some may have wanted to really overthrow the government of president Agostinho Neto but what most definitely also played its part was the explosive issue of race and class.

During the four centuries that the Portuguese ran Angola (first the coast and then the interior) a complex racial hierarchy had evolved with whites at the top, three mixed race categories in the middle and blacks at the bottom. These categories all too often coincided with the station of life people occupied: blacks were almost universally poor and excluded from lots of economic activity while whites served as anything from administrators to taxi drivers. For centuries, mixed race people were working as pombeiros, whose job it was to sate the Portuguese unstoppable appetite for black slaves from Angola’s vast interior. Four hundred years of Portuguese rule had resulted in a country where the races mixed with each other but also had this toxic hierarchy to adhere to.

And this also permeated the anticolonial revolution. It was almost exclusively led by white and mixed-race intellectual Marxists who excelled in revolutionary rhetoric but could not help but look down on their fellow black Angolans. Socialist snobs would be the best way to describe them. Even the rebellious movement could not escape it, as Pawson discovers when she interviews the brother of Zé Van Dúnem, one of the slain rebel leaders. ‘We should really minimise the role of Nito (Alves,bp),’ the brother says. After all, he was not of the same pedigree. Elsewhere he is described as pé descalça, someone who goes barefoot. And he was black.

And racist – against whites, insists a Portuguese man. He was also caught up in the vinte e sete events but refuses to talk to Pawson about the events and instead gives her his books. He thinks the Neto presidency was a disaster but that Alves would probably have been even worse, because he hated whites and mixed-race people. This is of course unverifiable, but there are hints throughout the book that an Alves presidency (if that was indeed what he was after) would have been every bit as intolerant as the one that eventually replaced Neto’s and has been in place ever since. José Eduardo dos Santos has overseen the transition of the Marxist elite at the helm of the MPLA into the venal elite that runs the country today. What has remained is the political asphyxiation of anyone and everyone that disagrees with the professed party line.

The simple fact that this book exists is good in and of itself. It challenges the government-mandated silence over the subject and indeed the official MPLA account of the events, even if precious few in Angola will probably have heard of it. We now have some idea of what happened there and then. What we are less sure about is the why. Was it a coup, a demonstration, a violent uprising, an intra-party rebellion or all of these? Was ideology the issue, or race, or personal feuding or all of these? How much foreign meddling was involved: Soviet, Cuban, South African, American?

In the Name of the People is a welcome first attempt at a comprehensive understanding of May 27, 1977 and required reading for all those who are interested in modern Angolan – or indeed, dare I say it – African – history. Here’s hoping that more will follow. Having said that, there are a few things that grate about the book. Indeed, the Angolan stories Pawson tells are rich material, fascinating, harrowing and moving. And she tells them well. But I was far less charmed by her musings from her London sitting room or personal ruminations when visiting dramatic places like the Mulemba cemetery where some of the victims of the vinte e sete have been buried in a mass grave or an entirely superfluous tale about a dog, mad or sick, humping its mother. More rigorous editing would have cut these passages.

And then there is of course the inevitable slew of anti-male comments endemic in too many books written by female journalists. British foreign journalism previously was “male-dominated”, which we know we must translate as “inherently evil”. There is also the passage where she feigns incomprehension at a “white British male” (the terminology is a dead giveaway) describing himself as “an ordinary worker”. Yes, in the highly charged Angolan racial context he obviously connected with the elite but that does not qualify Pawson to question the man’s self-description just because she comes from a society that has not had a single positive thing to say about “white males” for the past half century or so. Stuff like this has no place in a serious work of journalism, especially when the subject matter is so rich and so complex.

Inevitable Islam

June 14, 2014

Bamako. It’s 3:30am and someone has been singing verses from the Koran non-stop for well over an hour. Not very loud but very persistent. He must be keeping hundreds awake at this hour but clearly no-one is going to tell him to be quiet.

Every afternoon the reception area in the court of the Maison de la Presse in Conakry turns into a miniature mosque. When I witnessed it for the first time I will freely admit to feeling upset. More precisely: my secular, social democratic and most of all my journalistic sensibilities were upset: why bring evidence-free religion into a building that supposedly celebrates evidence-based reporting? I was told that it was not a problem.

Dakar. The city centre goes into shutdown. Large groups of people, chain of 99 prayer beads in hand, stroll through the narrow streets and settle in any place where there is still space. The Plateau becomes one large open air prayer session for the duration of the Friday afternoon prayer, the most important one of the week.

What is going on ?

Central Ouagadougou with the old Great Mosque

Central Ouagadougou with the old Great Mosque

The rise of Islam in this part of the continent is neither extraordinary nor inexplicable. After Independence, formerly French territories like Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Niger were run by political elites that singularly failed their people. No better place to go to than, once again, that epic novel by Ahmadou Kourouma, En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages, a novel I want to see on every Global Top Ten Must Read list. As Kouroumah shows, the political elites combined the rhetoric of modern nationalism and democracy with styles of leadership that had roots in local traditions. But the people at large did not see a clever hybrid or a government by the people for the people. They saw kleptocrats who served themselves and their families and in-laws, their friends, and the interests of the former colonial power, especially France. Everybody else came dead last.

Meanwhile, in came another belief, carried along by a large group of mostly Western individuals. In tandem with sections of that already discredited political elite, this imported gospel was called:


Nobody was really sure what in Heaven’s name this meant, not least because the high priests (at first) and high priestesses (later and in larger numbers) kept changing the definition every other year. First, development was to come through big, state-coordinated plans. Then culture had to be promoted and women too – not at all a contradiction in most of West Africa. Then the state had to be dismantled and decentralised while corruption had to be fought and good governance promoted. For a while, building infrastructure would bring development but then environmental degradation had to be halted. And security had to be promoted, in countries where the army had taken over power (often with widespread popular approval) but then had been allowed to turn into undisciplined racketeering machines. Exceptions duly noted.

And the people? The saw armies of Four Wheel Drives come and go, bedecked with an increasingly bewildering array of logos and labels. And they stayed poor.

Bamako, Tour d'Afrique, from taxi

Bamako, Tour d’Afrique, from taxi

I am writing this from Mali, a country that has had more than its unfair share of these multiplying and often contradictory development fads rammed down its throat. The development faith gained its disproportionate influence because of the money that was attached to it, which the elites, correctly, identified as another resource to be exploited. And the fads it brought along across the decades were always, always, always the result of development in donor countries.

As a result, Mali is the prefect example of a development state where development rhetoric was on everyone’s lips. A country where foreign-organised workshops, notoriously, passed for news items on state television. But the rhetoric is losing all of its relevance. Fast. ‘I live less than an hour away from Bamako and my village has no electricity, no safe drinking water and not even one decent primary school. ‘ It is these and other statements (including the absolutely dismal performance of the education sector in spite of  Millennium Goals rhetoric) that should compel all of us to come clean and give the development experiment in Mali and elsewhere its proper name.

An abject, catastrophic failure.

New mosque. Under  construction but already in use. Ouagadougou.

New mosque. Under construction but already in use. Ouagadougou.

The people, still poor, have already done so. They are turning elsewhere, to another imported religion but one that arguably has older and deeper roots. Islam does not promise material gain through “development”. In fact, it does not promise development at all. Neither does it change priorities every two years. Islam has a number of immutable basic tenets that, like the five calls to prayer, can act as anchors in peoples’ lives. It also has a good number of very practical rules that people can live by; solidarity is one of them, no matter how modest one’s means. In short, if offers an outlook on life that is a much closer to the majority’s lived experience than any kind of rhetoric emanating from air-conditioned offices and cars. The people do not own aircons; they own cheap ventilators.

The Sufi tradition predominates here and revulsion at the vandal hordes that invaded northern Mali and the ugly killing sprees by Boko Haram is virtually universal. This is not the kind of Islam that compels people to go and fight in Syria or Iraq, with a few exceptions here and there. What it does do, is offer refuge. The political elites have failed, the security details steal and everyone sees the Development Gospel for the scam it is.

Heretical question

January 25, 2014

Last year, in case you missed it, the world was made aware of the existence of Mindy Budgor. Indeed: an earth-shattering event, made even more so by the hagiographic BBC coverage of her life achievement. Which was: taking a short-cut to becoming a warrior in an utterly unspoilt Maasai community somewhere in Kenya, the First Female!!!! I suggest the thinking among said Maasai was probably: ‘If we just give her what she wants, maybe she will then just go away and leave us in peace.’ Oh yes, she wrote a book. Warrior Princess. For those with strong nerves, here’s the interview.

Over the last two decades or so, we have been subjected to an endless parade of individuals using a fairly randomly chosen bit of Africa (preferably unspoilt but with mod cons), as a décor for the all-engulfing drama of their own extraordinary and massively important lives. So we had Angelina Jolie shutting down Namibia because she needed the nation as a backdrop for the singularly important event of her giving birth. We also had Madonna, although she skipped the entire birth giving thingy and just went to Malawi to get herself an orphan or two. She then decided to raise the entire country in the best way possible (her own, of course) but omitted to inform the government of her plans, which, bizarrely enough, failed to amuse president Joyce Banda. Oh and we had Christina Aguilera, last September, making ‘an emotional trip’ to…Rwanda; that’s a bit like visiting Auschwitz for a very private cleansing ceremony. The website Africaisacountry took that little ego-stroking gem apart here:

I came across one bona fide example last year. She was using the tourist-infested seaside resort of Abene, in the Casamance, as her very own African backdrop. She runs, among many things, a music festival that must unfold itself in exact accordance with her wishes, musicians be damned. One day she was upset because she had received lip from a few local women she was leading in development (naturally). They apparently did not agree with her methods. The village queen in question was of European extraction but unlike Budgor, the locals won’t be shod of her any time soon, it seems.

From the exhibition in Imagine, Ouagadougou, March 2013. To my eternal shame, I admit not knowing who the artist is. Help is welcome.

Image from a large exhibition in Imagine, Ouagadougou, March 2013. One of my readers wrote in and said the work could possibly be by or have taken inspiration from the great Beninois artist Georges Adeagbo. Thanks, Judith! 

I am moved to relate all these tales because I have recently been trimming my archives. Among the papers I consigned to the dustbin were a few reviews of a book by a Dutch journalist, applauding the demise of the White Man in Africa. One review mentioned that the book related how in some parts of Africa (certainly not here in Dakar), lighter-skinned people were used in advertising because it sold the product better. Odd, that.

In another review of the Dutch journalist’s book, the celebration of ‘the White Man slipping from his pedestal’ in Africa also got a mention. Oddly enough, the reviewer went on to count the blessings of development cooperation, which historically has been rather intimately connected with the presence of said White Man. A while ago I wrote a little miniseries about the many problems associated with development.’s-talk-about-aid-final

You see, I do not consider the disappearance of the White Man from Africa a bad thing. Quite the contrary. But I find the barely concealed glee with which said disappearance is described by the (inevitably female) author a little disingenuous. In her own article, that went along with the promotion of her book “Goodbye Africa”, Marcia Luyten (the Dutch journalist in question) notes with relish that the white man ‘no longer plays a significant role,’ must ‘abandon his superiority’ and ‘arrogant paternalism’.

My guess is that journalists like her cannot help it. They have grown up in the wake of a movement that has spent the last fifty years smashing this perceived superiority of the (white) man over the head, having its remains hung drawn and quartered and burnt to cinders for good measure. Cheering at man’s individual or collective misfortune has, unfortunately, become one of its unbecoming hallmarks. Equally unfortunately, the same movement has come to dominate the discourse that has blighted the African landscape of ideas for the past half century: the discourse of development. The result? A depressing parade of cut-and-paste “Women and Development” projects, equally applied in the arch-conservative Christian-dominated regions of Southern Africa and in the stagnant matriarchies that are liberally sprinkled all over West Africa. No wonder our development friend in Abene had arguments; West African women as a rule do not take kindly to being told what to do.

Many moons ago I reviewed a book by the writer Lisa St Aubin de Teran, who was, in her own words, leading the village of Cabaceiros in Mozambique from poverty to a safer existence. Cool. She was extremely busy with a new tourism resort, schools and all the rest of what constitutes, according to Westerners, “development”. All this happened against the backdrop of – here we go again – an utterly unspoilt Africa where people play drums in the moonlight. A lot. The book came out at roughly the same time that former French president Nicholas Sarkozy made that imbecilic speech here in Dakar, declaring that Africans ‘had not entered history’. I concluded my review of the book by saying that Sarkozy got a volley of richly deserved flak for his stupidity. When, on the other hand, a rich white woman writes roughly the same, she shoots to the top of the bestsellers list. Superiority? Paternalism? I think Luyten was looking at the wrong sex. Or gender, if one is ideologically so inclined. But all this does prompt this extremely heretical question: what is it with (some) white women and their colonial fantasies?


Still, it was quite a relief to read that there was some room left for The White Man in Africa, minus arrogance, paternalism, superiority and I guess he’d better leave his testosterone at home too. On second thought, he’d better bring it along because because the first issue Luyten brings up is geopolitics, to be exact: the very real threat of jihadist fundamentalism. And lo and behold, Dutch white people (even men!) have heeded the call and taken the plunge…after the French who got there first. They will gallantly gather intelligence and do all manner of good and useful military things, in order to save the career of Bert Koenders, the former Dutch development minister (Labour), currently heading the UN Mission to Mali. He needs his succession of UN posts like a fish needs water; a goodly portion of the Dutch Labour Party views him in the same way as I imagined the Maasai considered Ms Budgor.

Another area where the White Man (minus arrogance etc, you get the picture…) can be useful is Business – although he must take a leaf out of the book of his Chinese competitors and become rather ruthless and imbued with realpolitik. Bit strange, that.

But the third reason for white people to bother with Africa is the best: humanitarianism. Yes!!!! There is still space and scope for White Saviours! Provided, I assume, they are female. It’s a bit like sex tourism in The Gambia, Casamance and Kenya, I suppose. It’s all OK, as long as (white) women do it.

War, relief and a novel

November 28, 2012

This week marks the first anniversary of the death of Lt-Col Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. Between 1967 and 1970, he led a state that started to shrink almost at the same time it declared its independence. It was a national tragedy, prolonged and compounded by a deadly mix: an intransigent local leader (the man we remember today) and foreign supporters with an insidious agenda of their own. The name of the country was Biafra, predominantly but not exclusively inhabited by Igbos. Biafra’s story is at the heart of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s breathtaking novel Half of a Yellow Sun.

There’s a large crowd in this book. None of them will remain untouched by the events that are about to unfold. At the beginning, it’s all fairly calm. We’re in the house of Odenigbo, an intellectual, a university lecturer and a revolutionary. His girlfriend is Olanna, who is described as “illogically pretty”. Try to work your head around that delicious phrase. Olanna has a twin sister Kainene and these two characters are poles apart. Like Ojukwu himself, they have been born into a wealthy business family. Kainene has an English boyfriend called Richard. He is one of those rare escapees from a thoroughly incestuous and racist expatriate scene, who will belatedly find out that he belongs nowhere.

The drama of these and other lives unfolds while Nigeria, barely seven years old, begins to tear at itself. “A collection of fragments held in a fragile clasp,” is a memorable description of the country the British left behind. A number of quick blows in 1966 lead to war. A coup. A counter coup. Accusations as to who are behind these moves. A pogrom against Igbo people in the mainly Hausa North. In the city of Kano, Olanna gets caught up in the violence as she visits family. As she rides back on a train to safety, she sits opposite a woman who is clasping a calabash. It contains the severed head of her murdered child.

Then: The proclamation of Biafra’s independence, by Ojukwu, on May 30, 1967, followed by the Nigerian response and a war that will leave one million dead in its wake.

As a kid, I used to walk to school in a village near Amsterdam. Before leaving home, there was breakfast. And the radio brought news from a world that was definitely less protected as the working-class bubble I grew up in. Two names kept coming back time and time again: Vietnam and Biafra. Terrible things were happening there. But why? And how?

Reading up on the Biafra war, one is struck by how (already!) some of these deadly and sinister patterns of local dynamics plus foreign interference established themselves. In his book La Françafrique, le plus longue scandale de la République, the late François-Xavier Verschave details French involvement in the Biafra conflict, which served to prolong the war in the same way that the “international community” made things worse in Vietnam, Sudan, Iraq, Congo and Afghanistan, to name but a few.

Large quantities of French arms were sent to Ojukwu’s war effort, often mixed with relief supplies. Relief supplies were financed by an international audience, whose heart and purse strings continue to be pulled by pictures of starving children. The relief effort was also taxed by the receiving government, which proceeded to use these funds to buy more arms, according to Verschave. Here’s a quote from Jacques Foccart, the architect of France’s Africa policy in the 1960s”: ‘Journalists have discovered the Biafran suffering. It’s a good story. The public is moved and asks no further questions.’


Some of that relief ends up in places where Kainene is trying to prevent people from dying. Her sister sees a poster in the relief centre. It reads: WCC. World Council of Churches. But someone else has scribbled: War Can Continue. Adichie could not have been more poignant.

Odenigbo, ever the intellectual, is fond of using the word “ignoramus” when people don’t share his sharp but ultimately rather pointless analyses. I wonder what he would make of all these help-the-people-telethons. Biafra set the pattern that has led us straight to Band Aid, We Are The World, Bono, Save Darfur. Plus ça change…

Like Biafra itself, the houses where Odenigbo and Olanna flee to as the war progresses, get smaller and smaller until they live in a crammed room, amidst other refugees, while those who have managed to get themselves into positions of influence do rather well. Kainene, who is the most observant (and acerbic) character, is not so sure whether an independent Biafra would have resembled the promised land. Socialism? Here? As per Odenigbo’s wishes? Pull the other one. There are hints of illicit enrichment and Ojukwu is not particularly tolerant of people who disagree with him.

In January 1970, it’s all over. Nigeria’s leader at the time, General Gowon, is careful and uses the phrase ‘neither victors nor vanquished’. Ojukwu flees to Côte d’Ivoire, France’s staunch ally in this war. He launches two unsuccessful presidential bids in 2003 and 2007. Tellingly, this is Gowon’s comment on the death of Ojukwu, according to New African: ‘I’m happy he died as a Nigerian and not a Biafran.’

There are many more characters and strands in Half of a Yellow Sun. There’s love, infidelity, family intrigue and there’s my personal favourite: Ugwu. He is a young village boy whose family brings him into Odenigbo’s household at maybe thirteen. In a few short years he learns to grapple with all the unbelievable thunderstorms life throws at him and somehow manages to retain that original wonderment that you need to become a true philosopher. No, I’m not going to tell you more. Read this book, all of you.

Orwell’s Zimbabwe

October 7, 2012

The Africa Desk at Radio Netherlands recently had a report on the latest antics of Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, focusing on his highly complicated love life. More about that here:  

It brought me back to school.

Two decades ago, I was teaching English language and literature in a secondary school in the Nyanga area, Northeast Zimbabwe. Proof, it is useful to recall, of president Robert Mugabe’s dedication to education. Among early Zimbabwe’s most enduring legacies will be millions of well-educated Zimbabweans, including my own former students. President Mugabe was, after all, a teacher himself. More on that here (go to the bottom of the page and listen to Part Two of my interview with the late Heidi Holland – the other parts are good as well…):

Two decades ago, I was living in my little corner of Northeast Zimbabwe and to my eternal shame not very well aware of the bloody backdrop to the new unity government that had just been been announced. The main order of the day, I felt, was decolonizing the literature curriculum. I kicked out boring 19th century rural English lit and introduced Chinua Achebe, Wilson Katiyo, Shimmer Chinodya and others. For students wanting to take a deeper literary plunge I could point to Zimbabwe’s greatest national treasure: Dambudzo Marechera. Not yet Yvonne Vera, that other great treasure; her first book came out one year after I had left.

Personal contacts in and outside the school gradually began to reveal a country where political intolerance was the order of the day. Hidden, mostly, between elections; palpable, in campaign time. When the ruling party came up for re-elections, talk in bars moved resolutely away from politics: even then it was unwise to proclaim one’s own dissidence in public. The armed dissident movement in the South and the West of the country had just been wiped off the face of the earth by North Korea-trained soldiers of the Five Brigade. At least according to government propaganda. In reality, there had been an almost completely concealed campaign of mass slaughter going on, which had killed 20,000 people. A fact that was only hit home when in 1999 the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission published its report called “Breaking the silence”.

I kept Orwell in class. Animal Farm: a dangerous choice.

After much discussion, I asked the students if they would want to write essays comparing the story in Orwell’s fable to events in their own country. Not without risk but they jumped at the opportunity – and the insights they offered were razor sharp. How about this? They mentioned…

The revolution that kicked out the former owners.

The short-lived but genuine euphoria: we’re free!

Ubiquitous use of the word “comrade”.

Dissent and infighting in the top ranks; dissidents being banished or coopted.

Sly propaganda to keep the populace in line. Frequent trick: asking, rhetorically, menacingly: do you want the former owner back?

Violent repression of those who disagree with the new rulers.

Writing certain undesirable elements out of history.

It was all there, in the writings of the students. And that was long before the “international community” suddenly discovered that there was a problem in the state of Zimbabwe.

Yes, this country’s history has followed an uncannily large number of the twists and turns from Orwell’s tale, including personality cults and replacing a universal anthem by a “proper” national anthem. It also added a few twists of its own, including the 1997 revolt of the revolution’s rank and file. Their anger was paid off and the “war vets” were co-opted into Zimbabwe’s infrastructure of political violence.

Another extra-Orwellian twist was the emergence of a group that could, perhaps, maybe, help liberation further along by kicking out the liberators. Predictably, Zimbabwe’s leaders wasted no time in painting Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change as stooges of the former owner. Do you want him back? President Mugabe’s ruling party election slogan was nothing more than a simple statement of fact: Zimbabwe will never be a colony again.

Indeed. No-one, except for a few deranged white supremacists, has been suggesting anything else. But the second wave of euphoria has been even shorter-lived than the previous one. Today, with Tsvangirai’s love life at least as untidy as that of the president, you could forgive my former students for turning to the last page of Animal Farm and concluding that, inevitably, would-be liberators bear an eerie resemblance to liberators-turned-leaders…

Fifty years of independence – pull the other one…

January 22, 2012

Venance Konan is an Ivorian writer, journalist with an acute knack for satire. This he applies in spades in a book that came at the very end of an entire year of earnest celebrations. Independence – 50 years ago. From Kinshasa to Mogadishu via Bamako, Dakar and Abuja; everyone had a thing or two to say about how things went, could have gone better, who’s to blame for the state of play – and so on.

Konan, whose own country also celebrated 50 years of Independence, has decided to rain a little on those earnest parades. His offer: the Afro-sarcastic chronicles. Mostly Francophone.

You see, France and Africa live together like a big family in a lovely village. It was founded in the early 1960s by France’s post-war president Charles de Gaulle (whose biggest achievement, Konan writes, ‘was that he made the whole world believe that France had helped defeat Germany’) and his special Africa advisor Jacques Foccard, whose job it was to make sure that the ex-colonies would take on board ‘the very good idea of staying friends with France’.

Now, all big families go through spots of bother. There are a few bad apples, some people decide to leave the village (bad), there are family plots and family gossip and family in-fighting, lots of people get killed (unfortunate) but most of the French-African family have stayed together in their lovely village. In fact, the village has grown. Former Belgian Congo has joined, for instance. They also tried to wrestle Biafra from Nigeria but that didn’t work. Neither did Rwanda.

Konan walks us through the French-African village and tells us wry miniature stories about the one party state, money, soldiers and coups. He also touches on the Holy Grail of Development. ‘That means, living like White People,’ he asserts, ‘and having snow in your country.’ He notes that the comrades from the former Soviet Union took this very literally by shifting a bunch of snow bulldozers to that unhappy country called Guinea. Guinea, you see, left the French-African village before it had actually properly been built and some say it is still paying the price for its deviant behaviour.

Two former pillars of La Françafrique. The late president of Gabon, Omar Bongo Ondimba (right) and Jaques Chirac (left)

Development – that also means having to work with NGOs. They’re nice, those NGOs, Konan writes. They teach us how to breastfeed, how to work, how to shit, how to make love with our wives, how to organise elections… Also nice, he notes, are the Chinese. They sell us crap, build cheap roads and stadiums and palaces and give us money. And in return (because we’re nice too) we have given them our forests, fish, minerals, oil, even our women. Strangely enough, he concludes, the Chinese don’t want our women. Maybe that’s because they bring their own brothels too…

The village has seen many prominent inhabitants come and go. Konan portrays a whole bunch of them. Not all of these mini-biographies are good (Mobutu for instance) but others work very well. Take Sarko, the one who celebrated his victory in a night club, ‘divorced his wife to marry one that looked better’, tried to get his son a prestigious job. Could have been one of us, Konan concludes but then he ruined it all with that idiotic speech he made in Dakar in 2007. Dakar is, of course, home to Abdoulaye Wade, who on New Year’s Eve 2011 bored the nation to death with an address that was both inaudible (he’d lost his voice) and interminable. Konan says of Wade that he’s ‘got ten thousand ideas every day. Most of them bollocks,’ he continues, ‘but because he’s the president nobody can tell him that…’. On New Year’s Eve Wade promised the exasperated Senegalese – wait for it – driverless trains…

For me, the best part of Chroniques afro-sarcastiques is the series of personal dramas that befall ordinary people. Kipré, the ultranationalist who sees another ultranationalist friend come back wearing very nice clothes. He’s been…to France. Kipré decides to give that France a try after all. Kadidiatou, a lovely nice and very determined girl who uses the internet café in search of a white husband. She receives humiliating treatment online. Or Dagobert, the young man who has an affair with an elderly French female who then sends him money and a ticket so he can be in the sweet company of his lovely Djenéba who lives in another town in France. I’m not going to tell you all of them. Buy the book!

Personally, I’d love to have seen Venance Konan have a go at that ultimate do-good icon of the French-African village, Bernard Kouchner but he does make short work of another bleeding heart, Dakar-born Ségolène Royal (and ex-wife of presidential hopeful François Hollande). Another highly obvious job – and most welcome too! – would have been putting the weekly magazine of the French-African village, Jeune Afrique, through the grinder. But he does a good job of ever-so-gently demolishing the village’s radio service, RFI.

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed these Chroniques afro-sarcastiques and am looking forward to Konan taking aim at the next crop. Apart from Kouchner and Jeune Afrique, may I suggest logistics chief and West African port collector Vincent Bolloré, Guinean president Alpha Condé (big buddy of Bernard Kochner), Ivorian president Allassane Ouattara, Christine Ockrent (until last year a very Big Shot in France’s state media and partner of – sorry, there he is again – Bernard Kouchner), France Télécom, the International Criminal Court, Air France (nicknamed “the taxi” in Conakry), oil, José Eduardo dos Santos, oil, Idriss Déby Itno, oil, the child abductors of L’Arche de Zoë – and of course the next president of France. And why not – Jacques Chirac! Does Bono speak French? Then please throw his sanctimonious ass in here too, grand merci M. Konan!

A review of The Fear, by Peter Godwin – conclusion

January 18, 2012

Godwin’s descriptions make your heart wrench. What makes The Fear hit home so closely is of course that this time, the violence Mugabe and his generals unleash may have happened to people I have known personally. Or – there is no room for illusions here – may have been perpetrated by people I have known personally. There are literally thousands of these criminals crawling the length and breadth of Zimbabwe. From the local ZANU-PF village leaders who burnt down one man’s house and sent his wife and child scampering for safety, to the ZANU-PF Members of Parliament who were seen participating in atrocities against the people they are supposed to represent, to the vigilantes who burnt the house of the newly-elected mayor of Harare, murdered his wife and traumatised their small son…all the way up to ministers and generals like Perence Shiri and Constantine Chiwengwa who co-organised this orgy of violence, as they did the last one.

Heroes' Acre, Harare. Pic: MastaBaba on Flickr

Like the president, they have visions of themselves lying in one of those special burial places reserved at the bombastic North Korea-constructed national shrine, called Heroes’ Acre. But if there is a God, there will be a special place in Hell for all of those who destroyed thousands of lives and made the lives of countless more a living hell – on earth.

I read this book in Dakar, home to another octogenarian who thinks he is larger than God and in possession of the divine right to govern until eternity. He also got the North Koreans to construct a monstrosity known as the Monument for the African Renaissance  and nobody is any the wiser about the deals he has made with the late Kim Jung Il and his friends.

To be sure, Senegal is as different from Zimbabwe as Finland is from Portugal and president Abdoulaye Wade lacks the degrees in violence that Mugabe so proudly boasts of. Yet, as a presidential election edges nearer in which Wade stands for a highly contested third term, the nation’s Criminal Investigations Division has “interviewed” editors, journalists, website owners, political activists, human rights advocates. One of whom has gone on record saying that said Division ‘is becoming more and more like a political police’. And a campaign manager told me that he was keenly aware of the lengths to which the ruling party was prepared to go, in order to ensure victory. No, certainly not The Fear but these are sinister signs just the same. Lord, deliver us from megalomaniacal gerontocrats!

A review of The Fear, by Peter Godwin – part two

January 17, 2012

‘There is a green hill far away,

I’m going back there one fine day…’

Glastonbury Song, The Waterboys, 1993

The Eastern Highland village of Chimanimani used to be my sanctuary. Take a bus down from Mutare, the prettiest town in the world, and after hours of twists and turns through a magic forest landscape you’d arrive on a large open space, mostly quiet. There was an eland sanctuary close by and a large hill overlooking the town. It is not the one The Waterboys sing about but it always enters my mind’s eye when I hear the song.

Not exactly green but in my memory it was. Pic from

Chimanimani boasts an old colonial hotel and my most vivid recollection is this: a group of Zimbabwean teachers sitting around the fireplace in the evening, outdoing each other in citing lengthy Shakespeare soliloquies, from memory. Teachers used to be able to afford hotels like these. I know, because I was one. I went to Chimanimani for my Zimbabwean holidays. Peter Godwin spent some of his childhood not far from here.

Yes, I was one of those volunteers that he describes “pouring in from around to world” to help Zimbabwe attain the highest literacy rate on the African continent. In fact, at 92%, it was the envy of the world. I worked in two different schools. Work, optimism, dedication, triumph, tragedy and – more work. All in plentiful supply.

I was vaguely aware of the terror that Mugabe had let loose on the southwestern part of this new nation, a terror Godwin has described in one of his other books, Mukiwa. When I entered the country in 1988, the Unity Accord had just been signed, between Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – People’s Front, or ZANU-PF. What I understood only later was that this created a de facto one party state. There was no unity. This was Mugabe’s victory over his greatest political rival – a victory that came at the price of 20,000 deaths and many more lives scattered.

Fast forward to December 2011. Robert Mugabe’s party endorsed him to run for yet another term as president. He will be 88 this year and can live until he is one hundred. If the elections take place in 2012, then reading The Fear will give you an idea how he intends to win yet another term in office. The Fear deals with the elections of 2008.

This was the second time his God-given right to rule was seriously challenged. Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), roundly defeated him in what, unfortunately, was just the first round of the presidential elections.

Very few in the world can match Robert Mugabe’s skills of political survival. He is on a par with the late Gnassingbe Eyadema (immortalised in Ahmadou Kourouma’s seminal novel En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages). He has the crass power instincts of the Birmese generals although they seem to be loosening up these days. But most of all, he understands power in the way his mentors understand it, the ruling parties of China and North Korea (the one that recently lost its “Dear Leader”). All have used a mix of political manoeuvring, election fraud, intimidation, lies, vicious propaganda and violence on an industrial scale in order to stay in power. Peter Godwin describes how these ingredients were applied to keep one octogenarian autocrat in power in Zimbabwe.

The first round results were doctored, to make a second round inevitable. This bought the president and his henchmen enough to time to organise a huge wave of systematic political violence. The scenarios were ready; the organisers were ready. In fact, the organisers were the exact same people that still have to account for the massacre of the amaNdebele in the 1980s. In exactly the same vein, they set about, literally crushing the political opposition in 2008. Godwin documents their victims’ stories.


The patterns emerge: people who have “voted wrongly” in the first round have their homes firebombed; their bones are broken, the soles of their feet and their buttocks are whipped until they are raw and become septic; their skulls receive heavy blows. The means are crude and effective: iron bars, wooden clubs, whips, ropes, rocks, fists. And no-one is safe: men get targeted but women and children too. Even the elderly are assaulted: Mugabe’s thugs have no problems breaking towering cultural taboos. And the schools? The places where young and eager children once learned to read and write and discuss literature and debate and do sports? They became torture bases. Difficult concept for this ex-teacher to get his head around.

(Third and final part to follow shortly)

A review of The Fear, by Peter Godwin – part one

January 17, 2012

This book is about a country where I lived for almost four years. And even though I am now working from an entirely different corner of the continent almost 20 years later, it is easy to revive the image of my former home. Neat houses sat behind hedges that somehow managed to grow from the sandy soil, there was a shop run by my namesake, a man as generous as he was grumpy. ‘Yes, come and bring your bloody money tomorrow…’. The mill for grinding mealies would growl into action a couple of times per day and then fall silent again. And, of course, there was the inevitable drinking den known as “the bottle store”. Perched on top of a hill close to the river, it was run by a woman who managed to be friendly and imperious at the same time. She lived with her son in a modest compound. When she felt like it, the bottle store was open. When she decided she couldn’t be bothered today, it was closed. No amount of pleading or cajoling or begging could sway her. You just had to find another drinking spot.

There was no other drinking spot.

A dirt road ran right through the middle of this quiet place. Twice every day, this deep, mostly sun-drenched rural silence would be shattered by the arrival of The Bus From Town. Its habitual stop was under a tree almost in front of the bottle store. There it is, engines revving. Passengers pour out of the ageing vehicle and they start pointing at the roof. That one? No! That one, yes, over there! Young guys have climbed on top of the bus and are tearing the sacks and cardboard boxes and huge multicoloured plastic bags loose from the roof rack that runs the entire length of the bus. All done, the driver impatiently revs the engine and then begins the slope down to the river, spanned by one of those small concrete bridges just wide enough for a bus or a truck to pass. He’s gone. Silence reigns again.

Nyautare, Zimbabwe. Incredibly, I found this digital picture of my old house at St. Monica's Secondary School. The picture came from this website:

The vehicles almost always made it across those brigdes. But sometimes, it went horribly wrong. Once, while negotiating the many twists and turns of the road in this mountain-strewn part of the country in a rented car, I came across something unusual. A crowd, looking at a troop transport vehicle known as a  “Hippo”. It was lying on its side, had missed the bridge. Having taken lifts in these vehicles I knew that there had almost certainly been drinking and dope smoking going on inside. It appeared that there had only been two soldiers on board. Were they dead? No, but badly injured certainly. They were on their way to the nearest hospital, 50 kilometres down the road.

Having read The Fear, Peter Godwin’s harrowing book on president Robert Mugabe’s ultra violent 2008 re-election campaign, I was left wondering if the soldiers, torturers, murderers, arsonists, thugs and rapists were taking mind-altering substances when doing the head of state’s political bidding. It certainly was the case in Charles Taylor’s Liberia. The boys who did the killing and raping during the West African wars told me they remember nothing and that this was due to a cocktail of alcohol, amphetamines and hashish they were fed before being sent on their murderous ways. What did Mugabe’s goons have to ingest, for them to commit their crimes?

There are a few characters in Godwin’s book who can reliably be described as bona fide psychopaths, the ones that can always be relied upon to surface in the service of a totalitarian dictatorship. Godwin describes the actions of one Joseph Mwale, who smashes the car windows of two opposition activists, douses the insides with petrol and watches a young man and a young woman get out and stagger to their flaming deaths. Mwale resurfaces a few more times, overseeing torture. In his final appearance, Godwin spots him on television, licking his “homicidal fingers” at one of Mugabe’s lavish birthday dinner parties…

part two will follow shortly.