Friday, April 21, 2006

A magnolia tree waves gently (and temporarily) outside my study window. Temporarily because it is currently living in a wheelbarrow having been rudely excavated from the middle of the back lawn. We are the second owners of a house built immediately after the second world war (the previous owners lived here for fifty years). We were struggling with the 2m x 2m-with-three -doorways kitchen, however, and felt we should extend. The "new" house is lovely, but the garden was trashed while extending and we are in the process of redoing the entire space. A JCB is currently parked on my back lawn-to-be, the greenhouse is adrift and the magnolia is homeless. Should all settle down shortly - I am imagining summer garden party, strawberries, champagne...

I picked up Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness again this afternoon. In the context of the book Francofinn and I am working on it is important, as so many African writers have felt the need to "respond" to it. I'll let you know more once I've reread it, but based on my recollected impressions I do feel it is not about bashing on Africans, but everything to do with reflecting back onto the protagonist and the audience reading the book. Chinua Achebe was all hot and bothered about it, however, and Ngugi wa Thiongo has had a word or two to say on the subject as well, hence the reread in the context of their criticism.

Quite coincidentally, Conrad is buried in the graveyard near our house. Perhaps I shall have to make a mini pilgrimage?

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Surprisingly, one of's breaking news headlines on their homepage today is "Outsiders Criticized for Roles in Chad War." I have a very beautiful map of the African continent about to be hung in my new study - a satisfying 120cm x 100cm, with mountain ranges incorporated into the political colouring of each country, and flags for each along the bottom. Most useful for dreaming and reference. See for my version, or just a comprehensive worldwide map selection in general. It is also available from Africa Book Centre, listed under maps as AFRICA: 1: 8 000 000 MAP. On this map I am struck by the absence of roads shown for Chad - Nigeria to the west has quite a network, even Libya to the North has a few, but Chad shows only a handful and most are Southern in the area of the capital, Ndjamena. In the North of the country there are shown a smattering of what are marked as "seasonal roads" - I am intrigued.

A little research tells me Chad's oilfields are in the South of the country. Chad has only recently (2003) begun to export oil - decades of civil war put paid to this idea previously. As it is landlocked, the oil is transported 1 000km away to the Cameroonian coast for export. Not much is written in English about Chad, but last year two reports came out from Amnesty International and the Nordic Africa Institute respectively. They will date rapidly, but are worth a look if you are interested in the region.

The war in neighbouring Sudan's Darfur region is impacting Chad dramatically as refugees cross the border for safety. The best book on the civil war in Sudan is The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil War by Douglas Johnson, but this covers the civil war across the entire country. The conflict in Darfur specifically, which did receive some newstime last year from the BBC, has less written about it. Christopher Hurst & Co. Publishers in London recently began a "Crises in World Politics" series. The first title in the series is on Darfur: DARFUR:THE AMBIGUOUS GENOCIDE. The author is Gerard Prunier, the French academic currently living and working in Ethiopia - married to someone from either the Sudan or Ethiopia, I don't remember which. big, with a surface of nearly half a million square kilometres (150,000 square miles) and it is generally dry without being desert. It was long an independent sultanate (from approximately the fourteenth century till 1916), later becoming a province of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1898-1956) and then a state of the Republic of the Sudan on its independence. (Prunier p.2)

The instinctively editing part of my brain winced at the number of grammatical and spelling mistakes, but I suspect this is because the book was rushed out when Darfur hit the news. I understand Prunier is notoriously difficult to cajole into handing in manuscripts on time, so no doubt this played a part too. I found the book very interesting as I know little about Darfur, so it filled lots of gaps in my education. Prunier includes an interesting discussion on genocide - is Darfur really a genocide? does it matter? He points out that to those in Darfur, any success at remaining in the international eye is contingent on convincing the international community that it is. Either way, he argues, something must be done to pressure the Sudanese government into controlling the militias and reducing violence in the region.


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Home safe and sound! The older I get, the more I hate flying. Oh for the days when I looked forward to flights and was excited by the food (no matter what it was!), the movies (never mind how bad!) and the whole airborne experience. For the first time in I can't remember how long, we travelled unharrassed at border points of entry, and were even upgraded spontaneously (legroom!). More anon.

Dispatches, the quarterly news from Medecins Sans Frontieres, has arrived. In relation to my recent posting on Hochschild's KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST and the Congo, they have a somewhat wrenching update:

"The ongoing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to force people out of their homes and increase their vulnerability to disease, malnutrition and mental trauma in areas where emergency relief is almost entirely absent. In Katanga, people are still trapped between Rwandan-supported RCD-Goma forces, the Congolese Government army, and Mai-Mai militias. Where MSF is working, providing medical care, shelter, water and sanitation, we saw a total of 92,000 people displaced last year. In the last three months alone, 15,000 have taken refuge around the shores of Lake Upembe. MSF is concerned about the many people who may still be trapped in the bush, too frightened to move. The number of children under five in MSF therapeutic feeding centres continues to rise. In Mukubu, MSF has admitted between 15-20 severely malnourished children each week for the last six months. There has also been a cholera outbreak and MSF has set up two treatment centres in Mangui and Kikondja.
In North Kivu, renewed fighting has caused the temporary evacuation of MSF teams and led to 80,000 people being displaced either within the region or across the border as refugees in Uganda."

Friday, April 07, 2006

My last encounter with US Customs was memorable, to say the least. The person who kept me for questioning thought that the LHR acronym stood for London Lahore, and that the UK was a middle eastern country. Forgive my lack of enthusiasm at the prospect of my forthcoming trip to the USA as I am guaranteed to encounter US Customs on arrival this evening (oh joy!).

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Strange how some things intersect. I was reading Petrona this morning: in particular a piece she has written about the books most commonly held by libraries around the world. Naturally, this raises issues about stock libraries keep because they think they should, rather than because the books are necessarily read (a very good thing, because tastes do change; and holdings should also be about access). What made me perk up was the fact that two Twains are on the list - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the top 10, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in the top 20.

Twain has reappeared on my radar screen recently because of our current non-fiction reading group title, KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST: A STORY OF GREED, TERROR AND HEROISM IN COLONIAL AFRICA by Adam Hochschild. I think it would not be an understatement to say that most people nowadays (including many Africans living on the continent) know very little about the Congo, and I include myself in this category. Appalling really given current direct foreign involvement there. A recent Human Rights Watch report on the DRC, THE CURSE OF GOLD, reports that 2003 saw in excess of 60 000 civilians dead in the gold mining areas of Mongbwalu and Durba, with more people raped and injured, and tainted gold worth an estimated USD$60 million smuggled out to the West. Blood diamonds from the region also appear on the market and are funding military action there. This all sounds horribly familiar when you open Hochschild's book and read about the millions of Congolese people sucked into the slave trade.

Hochschild first encounters the DRC in 1961:
In a Leopoldville apartment, I heard a CIA man, who had had too much to drink, describe with satisfaction exactly how and where the newly independent country's first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, had been killed a few months earlier. He assumed that any American, even a visiting student like me, would share his relief at the assassination of a man the United States government considered a dangerous leftist troublemaker.
He describes how he came to write the book years later:
I knew almost nothing about the history of the Congo until a few years ago, when I noticed a footnote in a book I happened to be reading. Often when you come across something particularly striking, you remember where you were when you read it. On this occasion I was sitting, stiff and tired, late at night, in one of the far rear seats of an airliner crossing the United States from east to west.
The footnote was to a quotation by Mark Twain, written, the note said, when he was part of the worldwide movement against slave labor in the Congo, a practice that had taken five to eight million lives. Worldwide movement? Five to eight million lives? I was startled.
Statistics about mass murder are often hard to prove. But if this number turned out to be even half as high, I thought, the Congo would have been one of the major killing grounds of modern times. (Hochschild p.3)
The book is moving, engaging and (sadly) extremely topical. Where we now pursue expanding markets and source fuel, then empires were brutally expanded and slaves became the fuel which ran economies. Hochschild writes fluidly, and although non-fiction, the book has the ebb and flow of good novels which demand compulsive reading. His latest book (recently out in paperback is BURY THE CHAINS: THE BRITISH STRUGGLE TO ABOLISH SLAVERY. On the strength of KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST, I shall have to read it very soon.

And, oh yes, Mark Twain's anti-slavery writing? You can still buy his KING LEOPOLD'S SOLILOQUY, written for the Congo Reform Association and published in 1904. The Africa Book Centre sells a reprinted 1961 edition. Strange connections...

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