A few pleasant days in London entertaining small grandsons—chasing pigeons in the park, stamping in puddles, riding on trains and buses—are marred only by occasional incivility, which first surfaces at the London Transport Museum.
Tom Mutyabule may or may not be a brilliant dentist, that’s not the kind of call I could make, but he is certainly a charming one and an accomplished salesman.
A day is not long to spend in Madrid, and the two hours we can spare for the Museo del Prado are hardly sufficient, so we ignore most of its treasures and concentrate on Goya.
We go up the valley looking for Lorenzo, who grazes his cows on our patch of mountain. Twenty seven cows this year, not much to keep a family on, but not too bad either. Smallholder husbandry has declined steadily in the years that we’ve been coming to Cantabria, but Lorenzo seems to be clinging on somehow, almost thriving. He has Parkinson’s disease, causing a distracting shake to the hands that he clasps around a long walking staff, so it takes some time to notice the surprisingly jaunty twinkle in his eye.
A commentary based on this article was published on the website of The Guardian (London) on September 25, 2010.
For over a month corporate sponsors had swamped TV screens and city billboards with sumptuous advertising that celebrated ‘the first World Cup played on African soil’ more vibrantly than much of the football. ‘Africa United!’ was the upbeat slogan of telecom giant, MTN. But the cracks rather than the unity were ruthlessly exposed when, on July 11, three bombs ripped into crowds watching the final match in popular Kampala nightspots.
An abridged version of this review essay, also discussing Paul Collier’s new book The Plundered Planet, appears on the Nation Media Group (Kenya)’s Africa Review website.
‘The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa’
by Deborah Brautigam, OUP (2009), 397 pp
Part of the Western world’s emotional response to China’s ‘rise’ has been a general alarm lest the Yellow Peril swarm across Africa in search of loot. It is as if there were a kind of Monroe Doctrine etched upon Western European and American hearts and minds: Africa is the proper sphere of influence of the white-majority Powers, ours alone to lecture, structurally adjust and bless with charity. No sooner does a Chinaman appear upon the savannah (actually, they’ve been around for decades, but few Westerners noticed them before) than we conclude that his ‘insatiable appetite for resources’ has brought him to strip-mine the continent, encouraging dictatorship, rampant corruption and exploitation along the way. Despite its unpromising title—how much longer must we endure Dragon, Tiger and Great Wall clichés?—Deborah Brautigam’s book is a useful antidote to such hysteria, correcting not just inherent bias but gross factual errors circulated by a string of prestigious media houses, international financial institutions, private think tanks and NGOs.
‘Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles’
by Richard Dowden, Portobello Books 2008, 376 pp
Richard Dowden has been in and out of Africa for nearly 40 years as, variously, a primary school English teacher, journalist (Times, Independent, Economist, Channel 4) and, latterly, Director of the UK’s Royal Africa Society. He clearly knows and cares a great deal about the continent, and this raises expectations of a work that boldly borrows Africa’s name for its main title. But what we get here is a kind of scrapbook: a blend of personal memoir (“Africa is different,” a chapter about teaching in Uganda in the early 1970s, is one of the most engaging), potted modern history and selective reportage on twelve individual countries, with rather little connecting thread or effort at synthesis. We end up clear about the author’s emotional commitment, his desire to see Africa prosper, his belief in its potential. We hear his opinions, often barbed, on numerous people, issues, places. Yet somehow this doesn’t add up to the coherent whole that the title seemed to promise.
Palm Sunday and I find myself invited to assume management of Cologne Football Club. The North Rhine city of Köln must, I imagine, have some sort of team of its own. My prospective lads hail, by contrast, from Cologne FC of Bbira—an outlying Kampala township—whose captain and crew I meet by chance on a soggy patch of ground just off the at-last completed northern bypass. I am drifting about in uncertain temper taking photographs. They are standing in a purposeful huddle in the pouring rain, serious in their yellow strip, reviewing tactics while waiting for a local derby with Kasubi FC, who haven’t turned up for the fixture.
‘The Case for God: What Religion Really Means’
by Karen Armstrong, Bodley Head 2009, 376 pp
Visiting the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence half a dozen years ago my daughter, whose eight years of life had been spent in China, asked her mother who the guy hanging on the cross was. To the brief explanation that followed Tian Tian reacted with the genuine shock of one from whose eyes the scales have fallen, revealing the banality of the world: “God was a man!!!???” We took this at the time as intuitive, pre-teen feminism (Why not a woman, an Earth Mother figure?) Recently recalling the event, Tian Tian clarified that, on the contrary, her remark was ungendered: what boggled her mind was the thought that God could begin to resemble, let alone be, anything so idiotic as a human being. Before she could read more than a handful of English sentences, she had grasped an essential thread of Karen Armstrong’s theology; and, as we shall see, that almost certainly had much to do with growing up in China—and not just because of the relative dearth of Christian icons there.
‘The Boys Are Back’ (Dir: Scott Hicks; Screnplay: Simon Carr, Allan Cubbit; Screen Australia, November 2009) Twenty years ago Adrian Lyne’s film Fatal Attraction (1987) offered a reminder of Eve’s role in the destruction of earthly paradise. Women, it warned us, prey on the natural innocence of men and if you don’t watch out they will bust your balls and boil your kid’s pet rabbit alive. Widely acclaimed as ‘slick’ and ‘classy’, this was the 1980s’ clearest cinematic expression of heterosexual male fear and resentment of the object of desire. The Boys Are Back is a more thoughtful and provocative piece by far—a study in male virtue not only overcoming emotional adversity but finding fulfilment beyond the civilizing grip of petticoats. Thrown in for good measure is the more predictable sub-theme that Australia is a less suffocating place than stuffy old England.