Two Friday nights ago my son Jack, 18, was swilling beer with a group of friends in Fat Boyz, a cheerful, crowded but quite well-appointed bar not far from us, when uproar broke out as a crowd of angry customers set upon a man they suspected of stealing, or intending to steal, or being the accomplice of another guy who was stealing or intending to steal, purses and mobile phones. Nothing was found on the man but he was given a sound beating anyway and crawled off drenched in blood. The bar’s armed private security guard stood by watching.
In the UK for a week on family business I make the mistake of travelling by public transport in a country that is configured for the private car. The journey from my sister’s house outside Ipswich to my brother’s in Northampton, a distance of around 80 miles, takes 7 hours (on three buses, one train and one taxi) and costs a total of GBP 28.30. But I’m not in a hurry, and enjoy looking out the window. January’s cold snap is over. Snowmen dissolve into the bruised grass of town parks. Where there are still fields, water lies flat upon them.
Uganda is making global headlines again, this time with a proposed law to execute citizens found guilty of ‘aggravated homosexuality.’ Appended below is an op-ed that I contributed to a local newspaper, The Monitor, on the broader gender implications. (This seemed the most useful issue to raise with a Ugandan readership, and the editor I spoke to felt that the ‘cultural’ and ‘religious’ aspects of the subject had already received enough attention.) Before getting to that, though, it is worth reflecting on the comedy of errors that led up to this and which now, tragically, leaves Uganda internationally branded once again as a place of crackpot dictators and murderous Christian loonies.
I come a decade late to the American political drama-soap, The West Wing, and regret taking so long to catch a show that is as captivating as Star Trek, which had me glued to the TV set 40 years ago.
The star ship Enterprise spent the Cold War zipping about the universe fighting evil, but it was not that which made it compelling so much as the informal camaraderie of its egalitarian and inclusive crew—a Russian, a Japanese, a Scotsman, a black woman with long legs, and a cute alien with pointy ears—all, of course, under American captaincy. It offered a brilliant, if distinctly narcissistic, vision of what American world leadership would be like. The BBC’s best home-grown rival offering at the time was Doctor Who—still going strong—about an old bloke who travels round the universe with a young woman assistant in a 1960s police box. It was a post-imperial eccentricity that would not sell well beyond Dover.
West Wing, I now see, boldly went where TV seldom went before: into a universe where audiences are presumed to include intelligent life.
The G4S security guards contracted to protect us had an anxious few days during the riots that shook Kampala six weeks ago, leaving 27 dead and auguring none too well for the 2011 elections. There was no need for anxiety on our account since it would take a most extraordinary riot to penetrate the haven of Kololo hill, where foreign diplomats, aid workers and the local elite shelter behind bougainvillea and hibiscus. But there were grounds for anxiety about what might happen to the guards at the end of their shift when, along with Kololo’s domestic servants, shop girls from the local plaza and the beggars who ply their trade outside, they melt away home to their lower quarters in the mud and jumble of Kamwokya.
‘Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa’ by Dambisa Moyo, 2009 Allen Lane, London, 188 pp.
‘Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror’ by Mahmood Mamdani, 2009 Verso, London, 398 pp.
Dead Aid contains little original thinking but it is new and refreshing to find aid scepticism synthesised by an African woman with a big brain and a voice that is loud and clear: “Aid has become a cultural commodity. Millions march for it. Governments are judged by it. But has more than US$ 1 trillion in development assistance over the last several decades made African people better off? No.”
One of British colonialism’s minor legacies here in Uganda is an odd way of talking about travel outside the capital city. Londoners, if they go away for the week-end, always go to ‘the country.’ Could be Berkshire, Devon, Norfolk, doesn’t really matter, if it’s not London then it’s just ‘the country.’ (Come to think of it, New Yorkers talk the same way about ‘upstate.’) Ugandans too have adopted this cosmopolitan, syntactic mannerism. New inhabitants of the steadily expanding capital soon learn to divide this complex, multi-ethnic country, with 32 million people speaking 30 different languages, into just two parts. There’s Kampala and then there’s ‘up country.’
Last week I went up country—to Lira District in the mid north. This seems to have settled down now after the long rebellion by the Lord’s Resistance Army and the government counter-insurgency campaign. My main interest on this trip, though, is in what is happening to Uganda’s farmland, the country’s primary, and almost sole, natural resource. But war and its aftermath are the ‘back-story’ that keeps jumping to the fore.
Forthcoming in the June 2009 issue of New Internationalist (under the title ‘The Cultural Crusades’), this essay was commissioned as a discussion of the question whether, and how, China’s overseas Confucius Institutes are a manifestation of ‘soft power.’ It starts, however, by considering the changing fortunes of Confucianism within China.
Half way through my twelve years in China I discovered that an office manager I had just taken on spent his every free moment reading ancient Buddhist texts. At first I connected this to the trauma of a close shave with death in a car crash that had left him permanently disabled. But when I looked further I realized that the personal quest for meaning was widespread in our small office.
‘Africa Since Independence: A Comparative History’
2004, Palgrave Macmillan (Basingtoke and New York) 620 pp.
It takes a brave historian to write about the recent past and an ambitious one to span an entire continent. (This portrait is in fact confined to sub-Saharan Africa but that still encompasses vast environmental and cultural diversity.) Paul Nugent, a Reader in African History at the University of Edinburgh, marches on boldly—for the sake, he says, of “the student and the general reader” (p. 5)—and gives us an impressively compendious work, packed with process-specific case studies from numerous countries.
It is not long, however, before he stumbles into pitfalls that he himself flags at the outset. One problem is that, compared to the breadth of the title, the approach is rather narrow. This is principally a work of political history, the story of the struggle for and practice of power. Within a few score pages the reader is hard put to cope with the growing cast of named actors—individuals, political parties, movements—across the continent. Yet we get less feel for the varied and changing social and cultural life lying behind the names and organisational forms, or for the ways in which power in Africa is understood and legitimated, although these are among the under-the-skin complexities that a non-African student or general reader may well find the hardest to grasp.
The International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, is already serving—just as the African Union had feared—to worsen the plight of people in Darfur and to threaten peace processes in the region. More broadly, it bodes ill for efforts to create a new moral order based on the principle of no impunity for war criminals.
Bashir, who rode to power 20 years ago on the back of a military coup, is charged with war crimes in Darfur. No doubt he has blood on his hands. But this is a complex conflict that predates his presidency, and there have certainly been other villains in the Darfur piece—by no means all of them ‘Arab.’