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Don't fuck with America

December 9, 2013 - 12:00am -- Nick Young

Captain Phillips (Directed by Paul Greengrass, 2013) 

The most interesting question about this morality tale of American power efficiently eliminating vermin is whether it should be seen merely as a feel-good pot boiler or whether its uncompromising resistance to depth betrays a wider anxiety about the way the world is going.

Tom Hanks, captain of a container ship that is boarded by Somali pirates, turns in a polished performance as the decent man who responds to crisis with impressive, yet not extravagant, heroism.  He was a better choice than, say, Harrison Ford, who excels in roles where the good man, finally goaded beyond endurance, comes out fighting and kicks ass. Hanks needs to be more ordinary than that, for the ass-kicking here is left to the military, with its hi-tech drones and Navy SEALs who pull off a flawless rescue. The emphasis is on collective not individual brilliance.

“Imagining” genocide

October 23, 2013 - 5:36pm -- Nick Young

Rwandans living or travelling in the West must, I imagine, hate encountering the casual question, “So where are you from?” The answer will surely evoke either polite confusion or else impertinent enquiry. Were you (or your parents) among the killers or the victims, the interlocutor is too likely to wonder, so notorious is the Rwanda genocide brand. And are you a Tutti or a Frutti, or whatever they’re called? If I were Rwandan I would definitely make a habit of claiming to originate from Burundi—a place so few people outside of Africa have heard of that you could be fairly sure of keeping the conversation on an innocuous keel.

Having this year happened to become a temporary resident of Rwanda, I felt the need to situate myself with a bit of reading. And it’s impossible to get away from the genocide as the defining publishing event. So here’s my response to five of the most readily available texts—one ‘novel,’ one memoir, one work of ‘reportage’, one of journalistic analysis, one of scholarship. I review these in the order I read them. Four were written by white North American men, so there was a clear risk that they might say more about North American men, and their way of seeing, than about Rwanda. That’s certainly the case with the first, which disturbed me most but taught me least.

Ten days in hospital

October 23, 2013 - 2:49pm -- Nick Young

May has come to South London, blustery, fresh and often wet, but many Britons on the streets are sporting short sleeves and bare legs as if holidaying in the tropics. Even the hospital, stuffy and suffocating by tradition, turns out to be airy, with a chilly draught coming from the window berth I have luckily secured. Perhaps they’re saving on energy.

Our ward has a motley, shifting crew of patients. Of the languages I know, English is the only one that confers this subtly coercive title, redolent of the administrative grandeur that made it possible to run an empire, upon the bedridden malades, enfermos, bing ren.

Petroleum could make or break the East African community

October 23, 2013 - 1:16pm -- Nick Young

This piece was published in The East African in April, 2012, at a time when I busy getting Oil in Uganda up and running. That project occupied me for a year, but it is doing okay by itself now so am I free to think about other things.

The announcement last week of a promising oil discovery in Kenya, combined with news that Tanzania’s offshore gas fields are proving even richer than at first thought, raises the prospect of an East African region transformed by hydrocarbon wealth.

Deafblindness shows rights activism must be tempered with realism

October 23, 2013 - 1:05pm -- Nick Young

I offered this piece to The East African in early 2012. I wasn’t surprised that they turned it down. No-one likes to hear that equal rights have a price tag.

It was recently my privilege to do some consultancy work for SENSE International. This UK-based NGO is working in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda with children and young people who are both deaf and blind.

The moral vanity of empire

March 26, 2012 - 9:00am -- Nick Young

Lost Lion of Empire: The Life of ‘Cape-to-Cairo’ Grogan
by Edward Paice
HarperCollins, London, 2002. (Paperback, 470 pp)

There is something rather unsettling about a book that relates so much of East Africa’s colonial history with so little mention of the ‘natives,’ who appear in these pages only as nameless and voiceless porters, servants or labourers. This is, to be fair, not a history but a biography: of Ewart Grogan (1874–1967), a British imperial adventurer and entrepreneur whose impact on Kenya was almost as formative as the impact of his hero and early mentor, Cecil Rhodes, on what is now Zimbabwe. (Kenya, however, at least avoided the indignity of ever being called ‘Grogania.’) It is, arguably, also apt that the natives should appear here as anonymous and generally passive, a mere accessory to the story of empire: for that, it seems, is how Grogan saw them. He was, on Paice’s account, a prodigiously energetic, stubborn, and in many ways visionary man. The visions, however, all turned on the economic potential of a ‘virgin’ land. What unsettles 21st century sensibilities is that seeing a place as ‘virgin’ entails—much as in the earlier colonisation of the Americas—seeing its existing human population as largely beside the point.

China cannot avoid the messiness of African politics

March 8, 2012 - 10:00am -- Nick Young

This piece was published in The East African (Nairobi) February 6-11 2012. (Web version, missing a by-line, here.)

China’s gift to the African Union of a US$200 million headquarters in Addis Ababa symbolises not only the Asian giant’s increased engagement with Africa, but also the nature of that engagement.

Whilst the West has—since the end of the Cold War, at least—ostensibly striven to promote ‘sound macroeconomic management’ and ‘good governance,’ China’s style has simply been to do business with whoever is in power. Air-conditioned debating chambers for ruling elites are a logical sweetener.

Uganda’s anti gay bill is a smokescreen for missing oil debate

March 8, 2012 - 10:00am -- Nick Young

This commentary (minus the last paragraph, which was requested as a supplement but arrived too late to be included!), was published on The Guardian (UK) website on February 10, 2012. Back in 2009, when the Anti Homosexuality Bill first hit international headlines, I discussed it in a longer piece, The strange geometry of an anti-gay rumpus.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has distanced himself from the noxious Anti Homosexuality Bill that has resurfaced in the country’s parliament, saying that he cannot interfere in the country’s democratic process. This is ironic coming from a man who, after a distinctly sleazy election victory last year, ordered violent crackdowns on peaceful protests at rising food prices and proposed a new crime of “economic sabotage.”

Security, livelihood gains are real but precarious in Uganda’s Karamoja region

November 18, 2011 - 5:41am -- Nick Young

The following reports were written for IRIN News, a UN funded ‘humanitarian news’ agency. The published versions (edited, and with pictures!) can be found here and here.

This was my second visit to Karamoja. I hope to go back, to learn and write more about a place that strikes me as one of the world’s under-reported development blackspots, in many senses. The World Food Programme has been feeding much of the 1.2 million population for decades. Development agencies and NGOs of every stripe are thick on the ground there. But despite these interventions, and despite the poverty and harshness of most people’s lives, and their all too evident ‘humanitarian needs’, the agro-pastoralist Karimajong seem, in the main, not too interested in becoming ‘modern’. (And for this reason they are widely vilified: ordinary Ugandans from other regions lament their ‘backwardness’ and these attitudes are easily discernible in aid agency and NGO staff too.)

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