Monday, June 30, 2008

The Eye of the Leopard - a book review

The Eye of the Leopard by Henning Mankell was published by The New Press, NY, 2008.

This novel by Swedish author Mankell was first published in 1990 in Swedish. The English translation came out earlier this year.

The story bounces back and forth between the Sweden of protagonist Hans’ youth and his later days as a farmer in Zambia from 1969 to 1987. It is a complex novel that takes American readers into two different cultural worlds, both of which are not easy to understand.

Hans comes from a broken home where he was raised by a drunken father. Mostly an observer in his home village, he had but two friends: a boy his own age who was injured in a tragic accident and a disfigured woman Janine about ten years his senior. Theirs was a weird ménage, but out of the destructive force of their friendship came the impetus for Hans to abandon Sweden to seek his fortunes in Africa.

Initially Hans only aspired to visit a missionary hill station to honor Janine, who had always wanted to go there, but circumstances got complicated and rootless Hans was drawn progressively into a continent and culture that he was poorly equipped to fathom and never really understood. Befriended by European farmers, at the behest of a widow, he took over a chicken farm that he ran for nearly twenty years.

Hans’ Africa education allows author Mankell to investigate many aspects of Europeans’ encounters with Zambians. The thrust of the story puts Hans in league with the small community of post-independence European farmers. Although critical of their attitudes, he comes to understand their fears, if not their love-hate relationship with Africa and with Zambians. Despite trying to be more modern in his relationships with Africans, Hans increasingly faces the conundrum of not belonging. Betrayal, violence and political intrigue bring matters to a head.

In the course of the novel author Mankell touches on racism, witchcraft, missionary zeal, sex, work ethic, foreign assistance, corruption and politics - all in compelling fashion.

“Superstition I can understand, but how can one convert someone from poverty?”

“It isn’t normal to live a life surrounded by hate.”

“The poverty of the whites is their vulnerability.”

“Aid work would be easy if we did not have to deal with Africans.”

“A white man in Africa is someone who takes part in a play he knows nothing about.”

Neither Europeans nor Africans come off well in this novel. No one breaks out of the stereotype assigned by the author, but their interactions do provide a solid background for the drama of the plot. There is considerable introspection by Hans about what life is or means, mostly when in a malarial fever, but this provides the mechanism to jump back and forth in time and between countries.

Although set in Zambia (and authentic in regard to geography), every part time visitor to anywhere in Africa will recognize the cultural dissonance that provides the grist for the book. It is an intriguing read that works slowly to one of two possible predictable ends.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Prime Minister Raila Odinga in Washington

I attended this talk and wrote the following report.

The Honorable Raila Odinga, Prime Minister of Kenya, spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on June 17 on the topic of “Kenya: A Way Forward.” The Prime Minister thanked the U.S. and high ranking officials for their support during Kenya’s recent difficulties. He commended foreign partners led by former UN Secretary General Anan and retired President Mkapa from Tanzania for helping to achieve internal peace. He noted that the transition government was now 60 days old. He admitted that the process of establishing the “grand coalition” had required soul searching, sacrifice and compromise, but that the Orange Democratic Movement was determined to make it work. He later added that he and President Kibaki have a viable partnership.

Reflecting on post election violence, Odinga said that Kenya “had lived a lie” in thinking it was immune from such disturbances. It was not an island of peace, but its façade had hidden disparities, inequalities and anger. Some issues dated from colonial times, others came later; all should have been addressed earlier. However, now was the time. A first step would be a new constitution. He also pledged investigations into election irregularities and human rights violations. He supported the creation of a truth, justice and reconciliation process.

The Prime Minister noted that Kenya now faces enormous economic difficulties. The chaos stalled the economy and the rains have been poor. Growth has tumbled. The new cabinet – bloated he said by necessity – will work through committees to redress the nation’s ills. Reviving the economy is a major task. Kenya will count on its friends and outside investors to help.

During his talk Odinga also strongly criticized President Mugabe of Zimbabwe saying that elections there were a “sham” and an “embarrassment” to the continent. He called on African leaders, especially President Mbeki to step up and help resolve the crisis.

In answering a question about how to restore the social fabric, the Prime Minister said that Kenya would draw on the experience of others such as South Africa to help salve wounds. Proposals for a truth and reconciliation commission were being studied. Those persons involved in mob violence would face no sanctions, but perpetrators of crimes would be prosecuted. Abuses by security forces would be investigated. Issues of compensation for victims have not been decided. Odinga noted that in the aftermath of violence, Kenyans themselves discovered their interdependence. Matatus needed passengers, just as passengers needed matatus; similarly for shops and shoppers, farmers and markets. He implied that these interconnections boded well for reestablishment of societal trust.

The Prime Minister acknowledged that land issues remain troublesome. He said that many internally displaced persons - not just Kikuyus, but Luos too - had long been settled outside of their traditional homelands. Generations later these folk have little knowledge of where their ancestors came from, so they have no “homes” to return to. He stated that land reform would be a priority and opined that the breaking up of large European farms into small plots that were increasingly sub-divided had not served the nation well. He suggested that agricultural advantages of scale could be achieved and better services provided to citizens if farms were managed cooperatively.

Comment: Prime Minister Odinga made an impressive presentation to the effect that Kenya is on the way back and on a thoughtful track. Clearly, he knows the issues and appears determined to treat them straight forwardly. Whether or not the governing coalition will permit this to occur, remains to be seen. That notwithstanding, Odinga’s visit to Washington and contacts with policy makers in the administration, the Congress and the World Bank was designed to raise Kenya’s (and Odinga’s) image and to assure interlocutors that serious efforts – that merit American support – are underway. Without doubt, that message is being heard.