Wednesday, April 23, 2014



Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa

When I was reading Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin, I had a flashback to a ten-year-old version of myself. With my long blond hair tied up in a messy, sweaty ponytail, my chubby round face (I hadn’t hit my growth spurt yet) was red with sunburn and laughter. In the back seat with me was my best friend Caroline. We both stunk like horses and mud covered our riding boots. Our helmets and whips were thrown casually into the front seat. Yes, we both loved horses. But what we loved even more was the weekly ritual of being driven back home from the stable to Spartanburg, where we could recite to each other the favorite passages of the books or the stories we had read over the week. On any given day, we could be sharing the backseat with 5-10 of our favorite books, melodramatically reading them out loud to each other. 

We were both bookworms to the nth-degree, which sometimes got us into trouble. Two years earlier, instead of doing our math workbook throughout the school year during our “Individual Study Time,” we decided to read instead. (It was then that I discovered that I was quite gifted in the field of mathematics, as I somehow completed a year's worth of math exercises during the single month of May. Unfortunately, this was not the case with my friend.) However, we had similar tastes in almost everything: a love for historical things (hardly any other kids could follow our play time for all the jumping back and forth from the United States Wild West to Victorian England); a mutual hatred for the summer neighborhood swim league (which we both were obliged to do); and a propensity for playing outdoors (I swear, I don’t have one memory of watching a television program with her.) 

Needless to say, when by page 40, I came to the story of Toby the dog and the “Wizard” who kidnapped him, I found myself with an overwhelming desire to travel back in time and share the story with Caroline in our sacred weekly ritual. I understand that it might seem a bit odd that I write so fondly about a book which covers such serious topics as the Rhodesian Bush War and the transition from governance from the British monarchy to a white-minority-led republic to the regime of Robert Mugabe. (Indeed, the book ends with the author being declared an enemy of the state by the Mugabe government after he wrote a journalistic piece, which highlighted ethnic conflict and state-supported violence.) However, this is the beauty of Godwin’s book – in spite of all of these very grave and serious political events, he portrays the situation with such a deep understanding of humanity and deep appreciation for this country. His writing style has a wonderful balance of humor – using long words and going on about stories in a round-about way – but very respectful at the same time. I highly suggest it to anyone searching for an informative, but yet readable account of Africa. 

The book begins when Godwin is still a young boy. Born in a rural part of what was then Southern Rhodesia to white parents, he was able to experience African culture in a firsthand way that many white Rhodesians (especially those who lived in the cities) could not. Fluent in the native Shona language, Godwin grew up between two worlds – the scientific/ordered European one and the mystical/natural African one, which was even evident in his descriptions of the cultures’ respective fairy tales: “They weren’t like the English fairy tales I’d read which were fairly obvious and easy to understand. Shona ones were oblique and puzzling. Often they were deliciously rude and frenziedly violent.” (page 124)

However, in the midst of his childhood simplicity of heart and mind, Godwin makes some very serious observations – from the death of his neighbors by the terrorist Crocodile Gang to noting the inequality of medical care, when making rounds with his mother, a medical doctor. He is excellent at presenting these events in a way, so that the reader recognizes the gradual build-up of political events and how this build-up can ultimately transform one’s life.
Describing what was perhaps one of the most momentous occasions of Southern Rhodesia’s history as, “Apparently, while Fatty Slabbert and I were bickering, Ian Smith declared Unilateral Independence, UDI, which meant we were no longer part of the British Empire. He had done it because the Queen wanted us to be ruled by the blacks” (page 71-2), he shows how detached children were from the situation. Naturally, of course, as he grows older, he cannot escape from his country’s politics and its guerilla war. Forced to serve his country, Godwin found himself in the coveted position of a police officer instead of an ordinary foot solider and was sent to serve in a rural community. However, instead of just ensuring the resolution of conflicts, he found himself fighting (much to his dismay) in a civil war. How he recounts his transformation from the mentality of an inquisitive child to the mentality of a soldier is truly fascinating. 

Only after being forced to enter the service, did he realize “that the war we were about to enter was much more intensive than was being publicly admitted, and that it was probably unwinnable.” (page 236) The nature of the war was guerrilla-based and infinitely complicated, utilizing an unorganized and diverse assortment of black Africans from different tribes and languages, but all united by the one goal of overthrowing the government. At first desiring to make a real difference, Godwin attempted to create a community of trust between the law enforcement and the local community, utilizing black African officers. Affectionately called Mukiwa by the village’s children, he later found this fragile trust ripped apart by a foolish military maneuver by a section of the Rhodesian army. Frustrated and believing all of his work in vain, he managed to leave his country to pursue studies in Cambridge – only to find himself soon returning when his civilian sister was killed in the conflict.

In 1980, however, everything changed as Robert Mugabe and his ZANU party gained control of the government. Caught up in the hope for a new country, Godwin describes the enthusiasm as permeating throughout all of the Zimbabwean society: “There were thousands, whites and blacks, who came back from abroad to take part in the bold new experiment, to help create a multiracial society that would be the envy of Africa. They called us ‘returnees’ and we believed in the government’s policy of reconciliation – between races and between tribes.” (page 327) Working first in law and later as a journalist, Godwin soon saw the short-lived peace die and by 1982, the ethnic and racial equilibrium had been ripped apart. 

After exposing state-sponsored violence in the Matabeleland region, Godwin found himself declared an enemy of the state and was forced to leave Zimbabwe. This book does not go into the modern regime of Robert Mugabe, but provides an incredible insight into the political atmosphere which gave rise to his regime. I look forward to reading Peter Godwin’s other books about Zimbabwe, especially The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe. (And I promise you, once I read them, I will write more reviews!)

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

Kenya, Book 1

Kenya, Book 1

Unbowed: a Memoir

 I am an idealist. I like to believe that we live in a post-prejudice world – a world where anyone could become a CEO through determination and hard work, where being in an inter-racial or inter-ethnic relationship is not a stigma, and where there exists universal education for all.  As one might imagine, when our prejudiced world snaps around and bites me, it always takes me completely by surprise. 

I have experienced prejudice firsthand: Over the last couple of years, I was the recipient of numerous incidents of sexual harassment – especially while living in Germany. For those of my readers who have never been sexually harassed, it shakes you to the core. In my case, I could not get these strangers - their eyes, their smirks, their gestures, their unapologetically disrespectful attitudes – out of my mind. Afterwards, I  found myself shuddering when a stranger got a little too close. Then, the what-ifs inundated my thoughts: What if I had been walking on the other side of the road? What if I had stayed in Starbucks just five minutes longer? What if I had called for help? What if I had been more aggressive? Although my experiences as a victim are few, and relatively minor, I share them as a personal example that sexism and prejudice are very much alive in the western world. I was a victim because of two facts: I was a woman and I happened to be “there.”

Of course, prejudice does not just manifest itself in action, but also in thought – which poses its own problems, as they are nearly impossible to detect and correct. I graduated from Wofford College, a small liberal arts college in the southern United States. Despite the excellent instruction it now provides, it has a troubled history: not only was the main building constructed by African American slaves before the Civil War, but also it was not until the late 1970s that the institution began accepting women as students. I had never really given the latter issue much thought until one day in December 2012. After giving a presentation to a prominent service club in the community, an older man stood waiting for me near the door with tears in his eyes. He started into a monologue about how all of the men in his family were Wofford grads and how all of them thought it was a terrible mistake to accept women as students. He looked at me and said, “I don’t think that way anymore and I am sorry that I ever did.” Apparently, my presentation of the linguistics of classical musical Christmas traditions of different cultures throughout history had enlightened him to the fact that women can indeed be intellectual creatures. I didn’t know whether to smile in relative triumph or leave in frustration at the existence of the prejudices that still existed in 2012.

When I first started reading books on Africa, my cousin who works in African infrastructure at the World Bank was very excited. She began sharing with me all of the numerous and inspiring African women who have taken leadership roles in the continent’s development. This is how I came to know about Kenya’s Wangari Maathai (the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize) and chose to purchase her memoir, entitled Unbowed

Wangari Maathai died in 2011, but her legacy will be felt for years to come. Who was she? On top of a Nobel Peace Prize winner, she was a Kenyan; a member of the Kikuyu tribe, during a time that this meant that she was subsequently considered suspicious under the government; once detained by colonial forces; a United States university graduate; a graduate student in Germany; the first woman to receive a doctorate degree in East Africa in 1971; a college professor; a mother; a divorcee during a time when it was taboo; an environmentalist; jailed for “disrespecting” the court system; the founder of the Green Belt Movement;  a political activist; an author; a member of the Kenyan Parliament; and a spokeswoman for democracy.

Several aspects of this book enticed me, but perhaps none so much as how Wangari constantly confronted prejudice and indeed beat it down. While her entire political movement began partially as a women’s rights movement, this is perhaps most evident in her multi-faceted private life:
  • Growing up “African” in a colonial world: Wangari was born in 1940, 23 years before Kenya gained its independence from Great Britain. Growing up in this colonial world, Wangari constantly felt a conflict between the values taught to her at western-style schools and churches and the values she learned at home. Perhaps what was most disconcerting to her was the so-called monitor system, in which students were humiliated for speaking in anything other than English: “Now, as then, this contributes to the trivialization of anything African and lays the foundation for a deeper sense of self-doubt and an inferiority complex… it also instilled in us a sense that our local languages were inferior and insignificant. The reality is that mother tongues are extremely important as vehicles of communication and carriers of culture, knowledge, wisdom, and history.” (page 60)
  • Being Kikuyu during the Mau Mau Rebellion: Wangari and her family were a part of the Kikuyu tribe, which was highly involved in the Mau Mau rebellion against the British. By 1952, Kenya had been declared to be in a state of emergency and many of the Kikuyu tribes were forced into either detention/concentration camps, or emergency villages - like Wangari’s mother. “New historical research suggests at one point around 1954 three out of every four Kikuyu men were in detention… Even though I was young, being a Kikuyu meant that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was enough for me to be thrown into a detention camp, where Kikuyus belonged.” (page 67) 
  • Being an Educated Woman during a Time when Women Were Supposed to be Subservient: Wangari discusses the painful nature of her divorce in 1979 – which was played out on a national stage, as her husband Mwangi was a member of Parliament.  Although she did not hear this directly from Mwangi’s mouth, she notes that, “During the trial, Mwangi was quoted as saying that he wanted a divorce because I was ‘too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn, and too hard to control.’” (page 146) Wangari was indeed an independent woman, and even held a higher educational degree than her husband. To add insult to injury, a statement that she gave to the press in regard to the decision of the court (it should be noted that she wanted to stay married and her husband asked for the divorce) was viewed as slander and she was subsequently sentenced to a jail term of 6 months. When she was released from jail, she found herself without a job or enough money to support herself.

Wangari’s political career started right before her divorce. Remembering back on her childhood, she was shocked and frustrated to see the state of Kenya’s natural resources and forests. Beginning as a colonial system, by the 1970s almost all farmers had turned their lands into solely cultivating cash crops (coffee and tea) to sell in the international market. Not only was this harmful to the environment, but it meant that families had to buy their food and malnutrition occurred a result. Recognizing that she could empower women to make a change, she began the Green Belt Movement: “As women and communities increased their efforts, we encouraged them to plant seedlings in rows of at least a thousand trees to form green ‘belts’ that would restore to the earth its cloth of green. This is how the name Green Belt Movement began to be used. Not only did the ‘belts’ hold the soil in place and provide shade and windbreaks but they also re-created habitat and enhanced the beauty of the landscape.” (page 137) 

Needless to say, I found Wangari’s professional work just as inspiring as her personal fight against prejudice. The idea that she sought to utilize women (a group which was overall marginalized in Kenya) for environmental change gave these women an opportunity for their voices to be heard and the organization evolved to meet their burgeoning political needs. Wangari stated, “Democracy does not solve problems. It does not automatically combat poverty or stop deforestation. However, without it, the ability for people to solve problems or become less poor or respect their environments, I believe, impossible.” (page 289) While I believe this to be true, she leaves out a key component of the equation for functioning democracy: the sacrifice and examples of people such as herself, striving to overcome societal prejudice. 

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

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Rwanda, Book 3

Rwanda, Book 3

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda

I recognize that my college experiences were not exactly typical. This is perhaps most evident in the one (and only) college party I organized: the birthday party of my Rwandan friend, Angelique, at which an eclectic group of students feasted upon Chinese food, birthday cake, and orange Fanta. I remember as it got later and later in the night and as people began to bid farewell, the birthday girl suddenly disappeared. She reemerged with a giggle and the next thing I knew, loud African music was pumping through the entire apartment. Everyone started smiling and she grabbed my hands to lead me in a series of elaborate steps and stomps.

I soon found myself caught up in the middle of a whirling frenzy of African dancing – stomping, clapping, waving our arms through the air. All of the sudden, the music changed into a drum solo. My friend motioned for me to stop and I heard a loud shout in the Kinyarwanda language. One of the guys leaped an easy four feet into the air. He started shaking his head and twisting his body, like an animal. My friend leaned over, smiled at me, and whispered, “He’s the lion: the lion that we are encouraging our warriors to go out and kill.” 

Soon, the entire group was all dancing again. It was then that we heard a loud knock at the door, “Is everything alright in there?” Worriedly, someone ran to turn off the music. Afraid of the repercussions of our very loud dancing antics, we cautiously opened the door. However, instead of a campus security officer, there stood a huge African American guy, one of the star players of our college football team. As I stood there, gauging what he might be thinking of the sight before him, I realized that I was the only white person in the room. I smiled to myself – it wasn’t the first time this had happened, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last! 

The football player didn’t seem to know how to react, so I asked him to join us in the traditional African lion warrior dance. At first he declined, but based on the persistence of me and my friends, finally caved in with a smile and the words, “I have always wanted to be a lion.” It was a surreal moment in which cultures collided, blended, and merged. When the music began again, we all lost track of time and danced late into the night.   

Based on when I was born, I do not “remember” the Rwandan genocide: I never saw the newscasts or the images on television, highlighting the bloodbaths and massacres. Indeed, my mental images of Rwandans are like the one I mentioned above – based on my experiences. Instead of mutilated bodies, I see faces full of joy, full of excitement, and full of pride for their Rwandan culture. Sometimes, when I am with my friends, I forget that they have experienced the firsthand effects of genocide. Some of them survived (and remember) the genocide. But even if they were born outside of the country to Rwandan parents and moved to the country as young children, all of them lost relatives and loved ones. Moreover, they returned as children to a country depleted of nearly 10% of its population, its political moderates, its cash reserves, and its industry. These hardships doubtlessly have affected my friends, but I often find it difficult to see this in their day to day lives.

However, April 7 always sneaks up on me. On this day (which is recognized as the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Rwanda Genocide), all of my friends immediately change their profile photos to commemorate the genocide: a single lighted candle in the dark, a purple heart (the color of mourning in Rwanda), or a photograph of a lost loved one or a lost national hero. This year of 2014 is a particularly important year, because it commemorates the twentieth anniversary of the genocide. With these thoughts on my mind and the testimonies of my friends bearing heavy on my heart this month, I decided to write about the third book I have read on the country of Rwanda: Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, written by Canadian Lt. General Roméo Dallaire.

Dallaire was the Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda from 1993-1994. In short, he saw the escalation of the violence and his worst possible fears played out on a mass scale as genocide took hold in the country. (It is important to note that nearly 1 million people were murdered in the space of 100 days.) During his stint as Commander, he was constantly warning the United Nations of the possibility of genocide and asking for additional support in the form of troops, supplies, and weapons, in order to maintain peace to prevent it. Instead, he found himself in control of a ragtag force, which was much smaller than he initially requested and was supplied with sub-standard materials and weapons. When given intelligence information about the upcoming slaughter of Tutsis, he was told by the UN not to move against the government to prevent the flow of weapons. At every turn, Dallaire was caught in a bureaucratic war with the UN. Two instances of this particularly caught my attention:

  • In regard to the international force sent to enforce peace: “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I knew at that moment that there was no way these [Bangladeshi] soldiers would ever be able to perform in a real emergency… Bangladesh had only deployed its contingent for selfish aims: the training, the financial compensation and the equipment they intended to take home with them.” (pages 204-5)
  • In regard to the lack of support for the soldiers trying to assist Rwandans during the genocide: “I resolved to put on the pressure to bring them [UN officials] on field trips to Kigali so they could smell first-hand the acrid odours of death and starvation, and experience what it was like to eat expired tinned rations and to cope with the resultant diarrhea without toilet paper or running water.” (page 417)

There is no way I can even attempt to do this book justice. It is perhaps the most worthwhile 500 pages I have ever read – providing insights into the failures of our international institutions, the apathy of the “First World” nations for Africa, and the descent of a country into chaos. Even more, it is an incredibly insightful and challenging memoir. Dallaire was a peacetime career military officer in Canada. Initially optimistic for the future of Rwanda when he first arrived, Dallaire was excited to utilize his military knowledge in a practical, real-world situation, where he could make a difference for good. Subsequently, the events of Rwanda unfolded in his mind like a nightmare. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to prevent the widespread massacre of ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate ethnic Hutus. Equally distressing, fifteen of the soldiers under his command died. (In fact, the radical Hutu government even targeted UN soldiers from Belgium, in order to follow in the example of the United States failure “Black Hawk Down” in Somalia. They believed that the West would not continue operations in the country if western soldiers died.) The nightmare eventually followed him back to the western world. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and attempted to commit suicide in 2000.

Throughout the entire book, Dallaire questions himself and his actions when dealing with the many forces at play in Rwanda leading up to and during the genocide. In my opinion, one of the most powerful passages from the book is his recollection of meeting with leaders of the Hutu government (who were génocidaires) in order to better establish a “peace,” according to UN standards. Recalling an instance when he had seen spattered, dried blood on one of the leader’s shirts, he recalls his desire to administer his own justice by killing them: “I don’t know what the three Interahamwe [government] leaders made of the gesture, but I was fighting a terrible compulsion to shoot them on the spot. This was no fleeting urge. I had to consciously take my weapon off and put it away from myself. Why not shoot them? Wouldn’t such an act be justified?” (page 370)

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