Monday, June 24, 2013

Firebrand to Politican to Statesman

Kenyan luminary Raila Odinga addressed a group at the WIlson Center in Washington, D.C. on June 18.  Coming off a lost presidential bid, Odinga took the high road.  Although he stated that he personally thought he won the elections (including the one in 2007), he said he opted not to contest the judicial confirmation of the results. He noted that such an appeal would be futile and only result in renewed violence.  Sometimes in order to foster democracy one has to accept the imperfections and move on. He noted that as AU special envoy to the Cote d’Ivoire, he had encouraged Gbagbo to do the same.

In his main address Odinga said that this century would be Africa’s.  Africa’s time had come. He foresaw better governance, more effective growth, involvement of youth, functioning democracy, some pooled sovereignty via regional associations and the acumen to manage global power shifts.  Food production, land use and health would be priorities.  AIDS and mega cities would be problems.

He then reviewed the goals established by the OAU fifty years ago:  decolonialization, liberation and peace.  Peace, he said, remains to be accomplished - not just peace from conflict, but peace from hunger, ignorance and deprivation.   However, Odinga noted an AU shortcoming as lack of commitment to social inclusiveness.  He criticized the organizations previous stance of embracing despots and non-interference in the internal affairs of states, noting that it was now moving more to a stance of “non-indifference” to internal issues. 

Turning to today’s issues, Odinga saw flickers of hope in Somalia and the Great Lakes, but was less sanguine about problems in Mali, Guinea Bissau and the Central African Republic.    

In response to questions Odinga praised parliamentary systems opining that perhaps they would serve Africa better than political systems with a heavy concentration of power in the presidency.  He stated that Kenya would be able to handle oil revenues in a positive fashion. He explained that Kenya’s success in engendering a middle class grew from its mixed economy, elimination of government marketing boards and efforts via “Kenyanization” to include more people in the modern economy.  He said that current legislation permitting indigenous NGOs to receive government funds would not inhibit their independence because no organization would be required to participate.  Finally, Odinga expressed the hope that the improving situation in Somalia would permit refugees currently in Kenya to return to their homeland, perhaps into IDP camps inside Somalia as a first step.

Comment:  Odinga was in fine form and quite comfortable in his new role as senior statesman for Africa.  Although  aware of Kenyan specific issues, he is also looking more widely at continental concerns.  He has already served the African Union as a special mediator for Cote d’Ivoire and will undoubtedly get other such assignments in the future.     

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The End of Adventure - bashing around southern Africa


Following is my review of Paul Theroux’s The Last Train to Zona Verde - My Ultimate African Safari, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, NY, 2013

Paul Theroux asserts that his recent journey through southern Africa, recounted in this book, is his last.  That is probably a good idea.  Theroux’s wonder and fascination with the realities of the third world have turned sour. He has been there and done that.  Enough of being crammed into dilapidated jalopies, bad food, hovels for hotels and hearing the cynicism of fellow travelers and/or those he encounters along the way.  To his credit Theroux does not mince words. His descriptions paint vivid pictures of the squalor of contemporary Africa, particularly the vast parts of the continent that stretch out beyond the high walls of diplomatic compounds or the carefully guarded game parks.

Theroux’s journey began in Cape Town where he was struck by the gap between rich and poor.  Astonishingly, the squalid townships that ring Cape Town have become tourist destinations themselves.   Visitors simply come to experience the poverty and the hubris of those affected.  The pervasiveness of poverty and the futility of those trapped in it became a theme of the book.  Indeed Theroux offers a voyeuristic window into the lives of the dispossessed.

Throughout the journal, Theroux recalls and meditates on observations writers have made over the eons about travel - about what it is, why one does it and for what effect?   He also ruminates about his role as a traveler. How is he viewed and what impact does he have?  An elderly white man traveling on a local bus in out of the way Africa cannot just be an observer. Inevitably he is drawn into the milieu of life around him.  While Theroux fretted over this dilemma of observation versus involvement, nonetheless he readily engaged.

The second part of the journey is into Namibia where there is much commentary about the excesses and failures of German rule, contemporary racism, and some interesting encounters with the !Kung/San people.  The !Kung/San are the Kalahari bushmen, the oldest inhabitants of Africa, and traditionally peaceful  hunter gatherers.  Although Theroux cited many scholarly texts about their lifestyle and culture, those individuals he found mostly remembered some of their culture rather than lived it.  Even though well intended outsiders - and even some !Kung/San as well - seek to preserve the vanishing way of life, Theroux concluded that it is already doomed.

 In another odd stop Theroux visited the safari camp where one can ride African elephants into the bush.  The elephants used for this purpose are mostly from European and American circuses and have been browbeaten into service.  Such a safari has the advantage of uniqueness, but the whole operation smacks of exploitation - not just of the animals, but of the whole idea of exclusive tourism.  Staying consistent Theroux also derided as reverse zoos the mass tourism as exemplified in Etosha Pan Park.

He ventured across Namibia’s northern border into the war devastated regions of southern Angola.  There Theroux found little of value.  Officials were rude and people mired in nothingness.  There was no indigenous economy, only an influx of hated Chinese.  A chance encounter with a traditional tribal rite during a bus breakdown offered only a glimpse into what values the community might have possessed.  The Angolan cities were even worse; cesspools of humanity, slums surrounding a collapsing core where the corrupt rich held off the despair of the masses.  Several brave intellectuals predicted that revolution must come, but most just wanted to leave.  Theroux’s criticism of German rule was harsh, but his excoriation of Portuguese colonialism and its legacies, including the current ruling class, was scabrous. 

Finally, Theroux had enough.   He (correctly) concluded that venturing further north through the bush, the zone verda - green zone-  of the title, would provide no new experiences, nor would visits to the mega cities of Kinshasa, Lagos and elsewhere.  So he went home.

What is the value of the book?  It is well written and does provide lots of descriptions and opinions on contemporary Africa that a reader is not likely to find elsewhere.  Well reasoned outspokenness certainly adds to understanding of places and peoples.  This book makes that contribution.