Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Africa, Book 1

Book 1: Africa

The New Scramble For Africa

Yup, I am officially a Southern Baptist. 

It all started when I was about ten years old. I was somewhat of an unusual child and my mother figured that the best way for me to make compulsory friends (who were compelled to be nice to me and to whom I was likewise compelled to be nice) was through church. She scouted them out and found the church with the largest youth program, which happened to be Southern Baptist. We joined the church and, contrary to my mother’s plan, I did not find my social life increasing through church activities. As my father grew tired of giving up his weekend beer, I grew tired of singing Christian pop songs and pantomiming the corresponding hand gestures in choir. Slowly, my family began to attend different churches – Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, etc. – but never actually changed memberships. Subsequently, I remain a Southern Baptist.  

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of this story (at least, to me) is that I have yet to be asked out on a date by a Protestant – let alone a Southern Baptist. It seems as if my territory lies securely with Catholics and Jews. I suppose that this should come as no surprise, as my parents engrained in me a very strong respect for Catholicism and Judaism when I was young. My mother was actually baptized Catholic, as my grandmother came from one of these very rare families from Mississippi who attended mass run by Irish Catholic missionaries. The interest in Judaism came from my father, who developed a deep appreciation for the faith later in life. He read his Torah often, wore his yamaka with pride, hung mezuzahs on our outside doors, and carted me around to seder meals and even a Purim festival (to which I arrived garbed in an Esther costume and had the opportunity to throw a pie at Haman’s face.) Subsequently, when I go to mass or to shabat, I have this peaceful feeling like I am returning to my roots – the roots of where my personal religious beliefs sprouted.

I have a similar feeling as I read about Africa – a feeling of returning to my roots. Often, my African friends facetiously remind me that if I go back far enough in my genealogical tree, I would find my roots in their villages. However, when I talk about returning to my roots in Africa, I refer to returning to a more genuine and ebullient way of thinking – which seems to me to be prevalent among Africans in general. Based on my (limited) experience and my readings (which are somewhat more extensive), the celebration of life seems to be an integral part of the way in which Africans interact with the world. Subsequently, when I read about modernity and development, I desperately hope that progress does not come at the price of losing this part of the African worldview. 

I chose this book, The New Scramble for Africa by Pádraig Carmody, because it was a recommendation from a former professor. The title evokes the so-called scramble for Africa, in which the continent was carved up by European powers (namely Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Portugal) in their quests for raw materials and empire-creation. The Berlin Conference of 1884 is often viewed as the beginning to this era of gung-ho colonialism in African history, which lasted until Europe found itself engulfed in the First World War. As the title suggests, this particular book discusses the foreign powers at play in Africa today in the modern world – including their motivations for involvement, as well as their impact on Africa’s development. The author argues that “the deepening process of globalization... has unleashed a new scramble for African resources and, to a lesser extent, markets. This is a reconfiguring of Africa’s economic geography and development, but also reinforcing previous patterns of economy and politics. ” (page 1)  

As I know I am writing for very astute readers, I do not want to provide a mundane historical background about Africa. However, I feel that at least a few statistics would be beneficial when reading this blog post. Although in modern day there are 54 internationally recognized states on the African continent, following the decisions made by the Berlin Conference of 1884, there were only 6 independent states (two of which were Boer Republics settled by Dutch.) Of course, colonialism played a much larger role than political borders. While it would be incorrect to blame Africa’s colonial past, solely, for its modern-day struggles, there is no doubt that it plays an important role, even if only to create a historical precedent for resource extraction. “Africa contains 42 per cent of the world’s bauxite, 38 per cent of its uranium, 42 per cent of its gold, 73 per cent of its platinum, 88 per cent of its diamonds and around 10 per cent of its oil.” (page 2) However, in spite of this vast wealth of resources, Africa is known for its lack of wealth and its lack of development: “Nonetheless, around half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) live on the equivalent of less than US $1.25 a day (World Bank 2010.)” (page 2)  Of course, in today’s world of globalization and capitalist forces, Africa’s population of over 1 billion people represent a large and growing market. This market will only continue to grow, as a report from the Population Reference Bureau estimates that by 2050, there could be 2.4 billion people living on the African continent. 

This book closely aligns the new scramble for Africa with the process of globalization and economic interconnectedness. “The difference between the first and the second scrambles is the difference between colonialism and globalization. It is the difference between direct territorial control and juridical independence… However, this should not obscure the similarities. Both were largely economic in motivation – particularly in the desire to gain access to resources to sustain and grow national (post-)industrial advantage.” (page 192) The book interestingly delves into the many countries and regions currently seeking to expand their influence on the African continent. While there is a large focus on China’s involvement in Africa, the book also stresses the presence of the traditional (European) powers, the United States, and even new-comers, such as India. Although there are many points that deserve mention in this post, I am just going to introduce a few particular ones that made a lasting impact on me: 

  • I first became aware of Europe’s subsidized produce and poultry and its negative impact on small African farmers while actually studying in Europe. This point was brought up in the book and is particularly interesting – as it supports the growing influence of the African market and demonstrates the continued interference of Europe in African affairs. “On the other hand, as noted earlier, the EU has been dumping agricultural produce on Africa. In Senegal almost half of all chicken farms have gone out of business as a result of a 1,000 per cent increase in imports of poultry from the EU (Business Report, 18 October 2004, cited in Lee 2009). These chicken imports are heavily subsidized by the EU and have dramatically displaced domestic production.” (page 46)
  • This book discusses the relationship of US interests in Africa and the oil industry – which is certainly worth noting. The author notes that 10-12 percent of all oil imports into the United States come from the Niger Delta, yet US economic interest has yet to translate into a higher standard of life for Nigerian citizens: “Nigeria in West Africa has pumped more than 400 billion dollars’ worth of oil since it was discovered there in the 1950s – enough to cancel all of SSA’s debt. However, more than 80 per cent of oil revenue has accrued to just 1 per cent of the population (World Bank, cited in Watts 2006), while the majority of the population have got poorer, leading to a rebellion in the oil-rich Niger Delta.” (page 113) Likewise, the author notes the current economic situation of Equatorial Guinea: “Despite having one of the world’s highest per capita incomes, the country does not have a single bookshop, and some of the American oil company compounds are in the Texas, rather than the Equato-Guinean, area phone code.” (page 52)
  • The author also urges his readers to put increased Chinese involvement in perspective. In fact, “China has a long history of engagement in Africa and, between 1973 and 1979, China spent almost 7 per cent of its GDP on aid to Africa (Liu 2010). There are arguably three phases of the Sino-Zambian relationship, driven by solidarity, geopolitics and geo-economics.” (page 160) However, in this new era of globalization, in which consumers have very little information about from where their products come, many claim that there are threats to both the environment and human rights with the growing power of China in the African economy. “In China, 30 per cent of the country has acid rain, three-quarters of its lakes are polluted, and two-thirds of a billion people drink water which is contaminated with human and animal waste (Leonard 2008). “ (page 146)

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Sunday, February 16, 2014



The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

The French woman instructed me to try on the tiniest pair of shorts I had ever seen. After a great deal of effort, somehow, I got the button fastened around my waist. When she saw them, she became excited and showed me the wooden tennis racket that would complete my look for the athletic part of the fashion show. (To recognize the irony of the story, you must recognize my lifelong inability to hit a tennis ball over a net – that is, the net in front of me.) Needless to say, I knew that I needed to cut out everything in my diet that could possibly be considered “fattening” in order to fit comfortably in those shorts: meat, milk in my coffee, cheese, and even my wheat toast and honey in the mornings. My diet consisted of mainly various fruits and vegetables, some rice, and nuts. I cut out sugar – and drank solely water, black coffee, or herbal tea. 

When I read the book on Malawi, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, I found myself disconcerted by its descriptions of famine and hunger. I was forced to think how far removed my westernized life is from the realities of a vast number of the world’s population. Food being a scarce resource is not even a thought that enters my mind – to the point that I was willing to limit my food intake just for aesthetic purposes. While I was “fasting” for my fashion show in Berlin, there were millions of hungry people, who would have done almost anything for just a little extra food to feed their families. 

The power of this particular book is that it shares a voice that I often find missing in my readings on Africa: the voice on an ordinary person – someone who isn’t in academia, isn’t a political leader, and isn’t a wealthy business person. This book is the biography of William Kamkwamba of Malawi (born 1987), and was written with the assistance of Bryan Mealer. In 2007, he gained international attention after becoming a TED fellow for his archaic invention made by hand. (Watch both TED videos - Tanzania in 2007 and Oxford in 2009.)

Malawi is a small landlocked country in southeast Africa that is known for its poverty and lack of development. This is evident in the health of its people: The current life expectancy at birth for the average Malawian is 52 years of age. Over 900,000 Malawians (or 11% of the population) lives with HIV/AIDS: one of the highest infection rates in the world. However, this lack of development is also evident in economic terms: The gross domestic product per capita (or the total output of Malawi divided by the country’s population) is only $800 and 90% of the population works in the agricultural sector. 

When one reads these quotes about the economic situation, often the numbers and figures seem to ameliorate the severe reality of these facts. This is why I enjoyed this book so much, as I had the opportunity to look at the reality through the eyes of a Malawian: “My greatest fear was coming true: I would end up just like him, another poor Malawian farmer laboring in the soil. Thin and dirty, with hands as rough as animal hides and feet that knew no shoes. I loved my father and respected him deeply, but I did not want to end up like him. If I did, my life would never be determined by me, but by rain and the price of fertilizer and seeds.” (page 183)

William was born in a rural village, where (as he noted in the quotation above) his father was a farmer – focusing his growing efforts on maize, as well as tobacco (if he was lucky.) In 2001, William’s entire family fell prey to a widespread famine which affected the country deeply, brought on by a drought the previous year. In order to buy enough food to barely survive, his family indebted themselves and he was forced to withdraw from school. Not only was he unable to concentrate because of his nagging hunger, but also his father was unable to pay his school bills. Even after the famine, his family was still unable to send him to school due to their difficult financial situation. It was then that he began to find solace in a local “library” which consisted of only a few shelves. While reading a physics book, he decided that a solution to his family’s troubles would be the creation of a windmill to power electricity: “Only 2 percent of Malawians have electricity, and this is a huge problem. Having no electricity meant no lights, which meant I could never do anything at night, such as study or finish my radio repairs, much less see in the dark.” (page 81) Even more, having a windmill would mean that his family could pump water and never be forced to deal with the unpredictable rain for their survival. 

For months, as other children went to school, William dug through garbage lots, trying to find scrap metal with which he could create his windmill. This was a huge undertaking. Not only had William never seen a windmill, but he also lived in a society that still viewed modern science as supernatural force. Despite everyone’s predications that he would fail, he succeeded – at the age of 14. His tenacity inspired TED – which in turn provided him exposure and opportunities, such as receiving investment capital, returning to school, and later, studying in the United States. His story is truly an inspirational one about having faith in the unseen and the tenacity of the human spirit to survive hardship.

One of the aspects which interested me the most about this book was the concept of “power” in Africa, as told by an ordinary person. At the beginning of this book, William seemed to believe that his future was decided for him even before he was born, based on the consolidated power and wealth in the hands of a few. He criticizes former President of Malawi from 1994 to 2004, Bakili Muluzi, often calling him a “funny guy” in a tongue-in-cheek manner. In my opinion, he provides a very blunt perspective on the state of affairs in Malawi, including the “big man” syndrome. This political science term has constantly recurred in my readings on Africa, and seems to be ubiquitous throughout the continent, whether it be in a village or a national government. I found these three particular ideas very interesting:
  • Definition of the Big Man Syndrome: “Around this time, President Muluzi was busy traveling the country in his usual fashion, giving out small handouts of money and showing that he was a Big Man. Massive rallies were held for loyal officials, complete with dancers, military parades, and lots of food. Everywhere the president went, he tossed the poor just enough flour or kwacha to make sure they remembered him come election day.” (page 94)
  • Corruption among Government Officials: “These men delivered some terrible news: a few months before, President Muluzi’s people had sold all our surplus grain for profit. Much of it had gone by lorry over the border to Kenya. In addition, millions of kwacha [Malawian currency] were missing, and no one in the government was taking responsibility.” (page 87)
  • Denial of the Real Situation: “The president scoffed at this absurd idea, saying he’d grown up himself in the village where people had often died of other things, such as tuberculosis, cholera, malaria, or diarrhea, but never from lack of food. ‘Nobody has died of hunger,’ he said.” (page 139)
Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!