At the outbreak of Algeria’s war for independence in 1952, there were one million French settlers living in that country alone. Today, an estimated 250,000 people of Lebanese descent live in West Africa. Some two million people of Indian descent live in East and Southern Africa (not counting a million or so more on the islands of Mauritius and Réunion.) Numbers like these are worth bearing in mind when approaching Howard French’s book of anecdotal reportage, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa. (Knopf, New York, 2014)
A prizewinning novel explores France’s identity crisis with lyrical panache—and a painful look back at the not-so-glorious past. But hang on a minute. A weird undertow appears to suggest that the answer to present troubles lies in more, er, sexual congress. Vraiment? I thought it was more a matter of politics.
L’Art Français de la Guerre (The French Art of War)
(Gallimard, Paris, 2013 folio edition, 776 pp)
France had a terrible 20th century. One million six hundred thousand dead in a First World War that historians remain at a loss to explain. A squalid struggle with Britain for control of the Middle East, with a continuing legacy of seemingly endless violence. Defeat and occupation in a Second World War that brought the additional ignominy of a puppet government collaborating with Nazism. Then a barbaric, failed effort to hold on to colonies in Indochina and Algeria. Finally, as the century drew to a close, propping up a crumbling dictatorship in Rwanda and intervening to protect its génocidaires. This was a long and hard fall for a nation whose 18th and 19th centuries saw prodigious scientific, intellectual and cultural achievement, prodigious imperial power, and prodigious belief in the virtues of French civilisation.
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.
Moral education. Nice to see it with original artwork, rather than on T shirts or bumper stickers. (Namuwongo, Kampala, 2013)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.