Today cast members of South Africa’s entry for the 2018 Oscars best foreign film of the year were herded into a “safe house” to protect them from growing threats against their lives.
The “Wound” (“Inxeba” in native dialect) is a film about a young urban gay factory worker in South Africa who returns home for the traditional circumcision ceremony. Gay relationships are renewed among mentors and initiates suggesting this has been going on for years. In this particular year, though, the closets crumble. Some are outed threatening traditional marriages, parents are scorned and disgraced and the film ends in a quagmire of depression and loneliness.
This is a change in South African culture. Why now?
Marriage is now … ‘nonrefundable’ in Uganda. This brings a whole new perspective to trophy wives.
The irony here is that Ugandan womens’ rights groups celebrated this Ugandan Supreme Court Decision, once again proving that Uganda is a mirror universe of the modern day.
Mifumi is a much needed Ugandan NGO that works principally against domestic violence. SALVE international reports that 68% of Ugandan women 15-49 years old suffer serious domestic violence.
This is roughly twice the continent’s average.
The litigation Mifumi brought to the Ugandan Supreme Court was actually to make bride price illegal, essentially ending it. Instead the Supreme Court made the practice nonrefundable. In Uganda and other similar socially transitional societies, if the woman divorces her husband the bride price is refunded.
It’s hard for me to understand how Mifumi thinks this ruling is a victory, as it is anything but. It further institutionalizes a primitive custom in modern garb.
Paying the women’s parents a certain sum in order to marry their daughter is rooted in the folkways of almost all traditional peoples. But the foundation of these folkways is the institutionalized inferiority of women to men. Bride price is simply a component of this larger perception.
Now the court is telling its citizens to look twice before acting, because the act is so important it can’t be undone.
In more modern cultures like ours the man proposing, the man giving the ring, the man standing by the religious leader waiting for his bride to be presented to him … all are vestiges of these early discriminations against women, and Uganda has begun canonizing them in modern terms.
Uganda is one of the saddest stories in Africa, a once vibrant and intelligent nation that was in large part shepherded into a land of super conservatism by American republican leaders.
Click here to begin reading that lengthy story which among other bad outcomes led to the “Kill the Gay” laws that have made the country so infamous.
But like Donald Trump playing to his constituencies’ fears and immoralities, the Ugandan president has navigated his stay in power by playing to the primitive side of his countrymen.
The Ugandan Supreme Court, like all institutions in the country, is a sham controlled by the president. Its August decision on bride price reflects Museveni’s beliefs exactly.
Museveni’s victory is greater than he expected. Now even the primary womens advocacy NGO is in his camp.
I’m on vacation until July 23 when I guide my last safari of the year in Tanzania; please come back then! Meanwhile, I’m posting some of my favorite photos taken on my safaris over the last 39 years. Scenes like the one above don’t really happen, anymore. This was taken nearly 30 years ago near Archer’s Post in Samburu, Kenya. Many of the people in this area, today, remain poor compared to the rest of modern Kenya, and many will still adorn a few beads and bracelets over tattered dresses and old gym shorts, but except for some “living museums” or lodge staff dressed up in traditional regalia, this is a picture of many years ago.
A remarkable investigation published today in Nairobi shows the enormous difficulty that traditional societies have preserving their life ways in the modern world.
Kenyan Anthony Kuria concludes his excellent investigation:
“Children are meant to enjoy the purity of an untainted childhood, have the opportunity to go to school as well as the privilege to freely enjoy and experience the simple things in their lives. Finding alternatives to [“Beading”] is, therefore, an imperative.”
“Beading” by Samburu people in the north of Kenya is a practice closely associated to FGM and forced marriage. Kuria is modern. The people he was interviewing were not.
Samburu land is an area I know well, and I’ll be returning to it in February with another group of loyal travelers. It’s one of the most beautiful areas in the world, very similar to America’s great southwest. And like America’s great southwest, much of it is not particularly hospitable to humans.
Several generations ago the traditional people who lived here – the Samburu, Turkana, Rendile and Boran among others – were strictly shepheds. This is a near universal life way of people all the way from lower Egypt down to the equator who survive in very arid conditions.
The cattle munch what little greenery exists, and there’s not much. So the cattle are forever wizened and probably sick, but they are the critical ingredient for survival of these near-desert people.
The people don’t eat the cattle, they concoct a yoghurt made from the blood and milk of the herd that is probably among the most nutritious health foods on earth! (I have tried it only once and do not expect to duplicate the experience.)
The goats are kept to support the cattle: when a baby cow is born, the mother’s milk is the most nutritious, so it is kept for the people. The calve is taken away from the mother and raised on the less nutritious goat’s milk.
This simple survival method has worked for millennia for millions and millions of people. But in my life time radical changes have beset Africa. The arid lands are now rich with oil and other minerals. Even leapfrogging fossil fuels, many remote parts of the near deserts of Africa now support massive solar and wind farms.
This rapid change dislocates traditional peoples and their values. “Beading” was part of a lengthy process of ritual in the traditional Samburu tribe, linked to FGM and forced marriage, that probably was as critical to the survival of the Samburu as were cattle.
But it’s not just that it has changed, it must change.
In today’s modern Africa those who linger in the past are tread upon, ignored or miserably manipulated. They become the pawns in terrible conflicts, as today we see in Samburu where ancient enmities between various tribes are exaggerated by modern weaponry and instant communications.
FGM and associated practices like “Beading” have been outlawed in many African countries for a number of years, but enforcing these laws has – until now – been intentionally lax:
“Jail sentences only last a few days or weeks after which they are released on condition that they will not violate the rights of the girls again,” Kuria reports.
The main reason enforcing “modernity” is so hard in places like Kenya is because in the modern world, not the traditional world, tribal practices are deemed wrong and immoral. That’s a near unbridgeable divide.
Were development to occur more rapidly: were more good schools built more quickly, more good roads laid, more electricity provided, then the preeminence of “modern” becomes inviolable. But that isn’t the case yet in much of Samburu.
Not until deep oil wells or huge solar farms are cut into the landscape does real development come along. That brings its own controversies among modern Kenyans, just as among modern Americans.
“Beading,” FGM and forced marriage ought not be condoned. But to ban them without providing modern alternatives to the people who still embrace them is as equally wrong as to allow them in our more enlightened world.
At a holiday party recently, someone asked me if when I’d been in Africa recently I’d heard any of Africa’s great new music, you know, gospel.
This past weekend was Africa’s continent-wide music video award show which I found particularly interesting since artists and production companies from my neck of the woods, Tanzania and Kenya, did extremely well.
Tanzania and Kenya, compared to South Africa and Nigeria, is like comparing Hot Springs, Arkansas, to Nashville, in terms of financing and production capability. But the continent has been connected for many decades by its music and music competition, and East Africa is emerging with what I think is the greatest creativity.
Earlier in the year, the African music awards which represent the top stars in the industry was held again in South Africa.
I really listened to these closely again, and darn it, I couldn’t find any gospel.
Nigeria continues to dominate the industry. The energy of modern Nigerian pop stars makes me think it would be absolutely impossible — beyond the realm of imagination — to think that Islamic terrorists could ever take over this country.
I’m not being facetious. I’m presenting an entirely better defense against terrorism than what current politicians espouse.
The list of the hundred, even thousand top performers in Africa includes … no gospel music. Boko Haram may have extinguished them, I suppose, but rather I think you might just say … times have changed.
In fact, I remember shortly after Kathleen and I started to work in Kenya in 1972 that the two top music award winners that year in Kenya were the Kenyan Police Band and a church gospel choir.
I’m no music critic, but in listening to a wide range of modern African hits today I’m impressed by their gentler tone than we have in the west.
Most of the themes are ones of individual love lost or pined for, and many of them actually do remix the old dada da-da / dada da-da rhythm of the ancient adungu instrument.
But even that isn’t .. gospel.
Gospel is indeed part of America’s musical heritage.
It really isn’t in Africa. The gospel music that was promoted in colonial times was the music thrust on the oppressed by the overlords. They probably didn’t expect anything else was possible.
Bleeding heart baboons, some of the rarest animals on earth and some of the most stunning scenery, together with Africa’s very ancient culture. That was Ethiopia hosted by EWT owner, Kathleen Morgan, completed today.
They then spent two days in the very remote Simien Mountains.
“The Simiens were wonderful. Incredibly beautiful scenery,”Kathleen emailed.
The group had a “wonderful” experience with the Geladas, the rare (although not endangered) “bleeding heart” baboon found only in these mountains. The EWT group basically sat in a field amongst them, taking pictures and watching them interact.
Few visitors ever see this rarest of the world’s wolves. There are fewer than 400 and, in fact, most of those are actually found in a southern Ethiopian range, the Bale Mountains, so this group was particularly lucky!
There is only one lodge in the Simien. “The lodge is ok, but it was absolutely freezing. The water heater and underfloor heating are charged by solar panels. Only two rooms had hot water, one had warm water, and the others had only cold water. Everyone’s floors were freezing. We had lots of blankets and duvets and hot water bottles! The food was ok,” Kathleen reported.
While there are not safari vehicles in Ethiopia of the sort common in East Africa, it was necessary to use 4-wheel drive Nissans to climb the 11-12,000′ into the high roads of the Simiens which Kathleen described as “awful!”
“Narrow, barely allowing two normal cars to pass, and all this with a steep drop at the edge of the road – thousands of feet down to the bottom of a valley. The drivers were incredible.”
“The drive out of the park and to Axum is stunningly beautiful,” she continued. They stopped to photograph colobus and vervet monkeys on the way. EWT guest Joan Lieb who is a veteran traveler of Africa and wild parts of the world, said the villages along the road were the poorest she had ever seen.
Ethiopia was the only country in Africa never colonized, and so it retains absolutely intact its ancient culture. That culture is eclectic, a mixture of very ancient Christianity and animism.
The common “cultural triangle” begins in the city on the southwest tip of the great Lake Tana, where ancient Coptic island monasteries are still overseen by native priests who speak and write a language, Gheez, that has existed for more than a thousand years.
On the northeast corner of the lake is Gondar, where some of the first European settlements (in this case, Portugese castles and churches) built as 15th and 16th century missionary priests, mostly from Portugal, tried to find the mythical Prester John.
After the Simien Mountains, the group spent two days in Axum. The priests who oversee the Church of St. Mary’s claim to be stewards protecting the Arc of the Covenant. When Kathleen’s group arrived, the choir was singing and chanting with their drums and sistra because it was a holy day.
The EWT group was beckoned forward into the choir area. The women sat off to the side, but they motioned Ed Walbridge over to a bench amidst the singers. They gave Ed a prayer stick (those tall ones you can lean on) and a sistrum. He stood and swayed and paid very close attention and swung his sistrum at all the right times.
“Everyone thought it was wonderful!” Kathleen emailed, although Joan Lieb and Kathleen expressed serious disappointment when the priests brought out a precious 500-year old Bible to show them and seemed not to treat it with the care of an antiquity.
After Axum the cultural tour ends with its climax at Lalibela. In the 13th century the dynasty of kings in Ethiopia changed when the rebel Lalibela successfully came to power, claiming he was actually more closely related to the Queen of Sheba than the previous kings.
In thanks to god he vowed to build a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia. This was Lalibela. It took 32 years and begins at the top of the ground and goes down as far as 80 feet, eleven churches carved out of a single massive sandstone.
The combination of very rare animals, remarkable scenery and ancient culture is not something easily experienced on an African safari, but Ethiopia is the place to do so!
The Botswana bushmen have finally been excluded from their homeland, having lost the final skirmishes in more than a century of battling to retain their right to a traditional life in the Central Kalahari Reserve.
As of today, Botswana’s ancestral San people may only enter the reserve on month-long permits, one third the stay allowed foreigners entering the reserve for tourism. The news was reported today by a respected African publication in London.
The Botswana government claims the exclusion policy is for environmental protection and Bushman community development, but tourism has become increasingly popular in the area, and … diamonds have been found, there.
The forced removal of peoples from their ancestral homelands is hardly new. The removal of Maasai from ancestral homelands in the Moru Kopjes in 1972 led to an immediate expansion of the Serengeti National Park that substantially and almost immediately increased animal populations, making the area more attractive for tourism.
Perhaps the most egregious of forced native removals were native Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, horribly summarized in what is commonly known as the Trail of Tears.
The difference with today’s situation with Bushmen in Botswana, and the next most recent similar situation with Maasai in Tanzania, is that the Bushmen seemed to have prevailed with a 2011 High Court decision that aggregated a number of earlier decisions securing use of their homelands.
But the Botswana government simply ignored its own high court orders and has continuously refused aboriginal people entry into the reserved and harassed those who snuck in.
The government’s defiant policy has succeeded in part because the numbers of Bushmen in the area seeking traditional rights in the Kalahari has plummeted in the last decade. There were likely 5,000 Bushmen in the Kalahari 50 years ago; today there are probably fewer than 1,000.
Numbers are down because — as the government is eager to show — many Bushmen have taken advantage of government education and training programs that result in their abandoning the traditional life style.
In the last few years I’ve encountered San people working in the Kalahari in tourist camps and have admired their wit as well as their intellect. Clearly at least for those few individuals, they had no desire to return to the bush.
Last June South Africa gave a state funeral to a famous Bushman who had worked his entire life for the betterment of his people. But as with himself and his children, that was principally to educate them in modern schools and find them modern, urban jobs.
Contemporary, modern opportunities for Botswana people are considerably better than for most other Africans from other countries on the continent. Botswana’s economic situation while challenged during the global recession is far superior to most of the rest of Africa, because of its rich endowment of diamonds and other minerals.
So the question devolves simply into whether the government – the wider community – knows better what’s good for certain individuals than they themselves claim. And whether the trade-off, ancestral land for a good-paying job and healthy lifestyle, is worth it.
The age-old argument applies to peoples round the world, from such diverse theories of eminent domain to gun control. Exclusion from ancestral lands is certainly at the extreme end of this spectrum, but fundamentally is no different from any individual liberty restriction.
How far can a government go restricting individual liberties and still be moral?
The removals of the Shoshone, Yavapai and Navajo in the United States were certainly no less egregious than the Bushman from the Kalahari.
Is it just that we pine for the old days? Or are we afraid of our own power, even if it will better a peoples? Or as with native Americans, that we really don’t care what happens to them?
No time for nostalgia in Africa: The continent’s development is so fast, its demographic so young, kids are spinning like tops. It’s fabulous and scary.
We old folk simply get dizzy. Kids like dizzy. And we old folks should be very careful about criticizing this seemingly directionless enthusiasm. When the top finally stops spinning it’s going to land somewhere with a very loud thump.
Richard Engel of NBC news expressed it in a most dire fashion Sunday on Meet the Press when he said that African youth — and youth in general in the developing world — are looking away from America towards China.
He’s right. In fact I thought almost everything Engel said on Meet the Press was right, and he got clobbered by my age-peers for saying so, or just ignored. But Engel is right on. Democracy is just a tool in the basket of social organization, and right now, it’s not the most attractive one to African kids.
Imagine if you were a just cognizant self-aware Kenyan teenager when Bush invaded Iraq, your main city of Nairobi was a massive jumble of stick buildings and sewered-over roads, your school hardly had pencils and all you and your buddies could afford were pirated CDs of MnM from China.
And today your city of Nairobi has skyscrapers and 8-lane highways, thanks to the Chinese who all you had to give them was your oil; your school has computers and you have a Smartphone, thanks to the Chinese who all you have to give them was your oil; and you’ve started your own rap group that will be performing next month at the famous music festival in Zanzibar.
Thanks to spnsorship from the Chinese who are funding the electricity in Stone Town, and all the Tanzanians had to give them was their gold.
Well, before you grow old enough to analyze all this, who would you be thanking?
Engel is right. America and the west has disengaged, not intentionally not because Obama and Hillary aren’t doing infinitely better than Bush or Condoleezza, but because youth moves faster, and today, Africa is youth.
Social organization is only one thing.
Cultural organization is equally fascinating.
Eighteen-year-old Adrien Adandé of Benin is a decent enough high school student. But after turning in his history term paper and the school bell rings, he chooses rather than join his buddies in the locker room to gear up for the school’s winning soccer team, he’ll do voodoo.
“My friends tease me and call me a fetishist,” he explains. “Others keep away from me, fearing I might harm them with my amulets. But I stand by what I do. I can combine my studies and my vocation perfectly.”
We often look back at our own youth and marvel at how things have changed. Nostalgia often gets the better of us, and we pine for the past, and the past is uniformly slower, more tranquil and seemingly less demanding of our energies.
Imagine African youth, today. They aren’t even old enough yet really to look very far back, but every second backwards is like an epoch in time. The transformation is too fast for nostalgia. Cultural takes time to form.
Radio Nederlands quoted a 23-year-old Benin philosophy student who explains Adrien’s voodoo as a means for youth to anchor themselves: “With globalization [and] the expansion of the so-called revealed religions… young people have turned away from” modern culture.
The “Market” understands. The “Market” moves faster than governments.
One of the most suddenly successful marketing and media firms in Africa is Instant Grass, which is devoted to helping vendors sell to youth. But its reports – free from its site – outdo western university Ph.D. studies on what is happening to youth, today, in the developing world.
“The rise of the Internet and mass media has also confused identity further with Western/African-American culture having a strong influence. The reaction of African youth is to create an eclectic culture that embraces both MTV and traditional practices and thinking that flits effortlessly between the two.”
Ergo, voodoo and algebra.
This is an absolutely astoundingly colorful and awesome dynamic to watch. And I truly believe the outcome will be positive. There is simply too little egocentrism in African youth, today, to result in limits to personal freedom. Dictators are gone.
But be prepared for something that isn’t necessarily the democracy of America. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that.
More wives and less freedom is the trend in South Africa as President Zuma marries for a fourth time and a draconian government secrecy law moves through the parliaments. There is a chilling connection.
The press is all abuzz with Jacob Zuma’s marriage this coming weekend to a prominent businesswoman with whom he has a 3-year old child. Zuma is 70 and Bongi Ngema-Zuma is 25 years his junior, as are his other wives. He is reported to have more than 20 children.
Zuma’s fun and games with traditional Zulu culture don’t mean much in themselves. He does receive about twice the amount of “presidential spouse allowances” that his predecessors in the presidency took, but technically there is no official position in South Africa – as in the United States, for example – for a “first wife.”
His romantic dalliance is mostly stuff for cartoons. South African family law allows for only one union, but recognizes traditional marriages as well which through private business contracts can then achieve legal equivalency with federal marriage law. It’s not known if Ngema-Zuma or any of his other wives has a contract with him.
I think it fair to say that the vast majority of contemporary Africans think Zuma’s behavior mocks rather than celebrates traditional Zulu customs. “It is ludicrous that things such as this still happen in a world that is changing!” writes Nigerian blogger, Yomi Akinsola.
But I see something more onerous in Zuma’s antics, and I think it fair to call them “antics.” Stripped of Zulu life ways, Zuma’s behavior is not so dissimilar to legions of dominating personalities with multiple sexual partners around the world. The difference is that his is totally above board and validated in current South African society.
Who cares? Lots of people who have tracked the decline of polygamy as societies evolve and prosper. Polygamy as the highlighted folkway Zuma has made it is socially regressive.
And I think intentionally so and it leads to a much more powerful issue. South Africa is slipping back into an apartheid mentality.
The ANC freedom fighters who have controlled the country since 1993, Mandela excepted, sort of anebriated themselves in traditional lifestyles that they – and their parents and grandparents – never engaged in. A sort of mixture of Bronx cheering the old Boers and celebrating majority democracy, flaunting the presumptive apartheid theory that native South Africans were too primitive to run a modern society.
But these guys are having trouble accepting modern democratic principles. They passed a draconian secrecy law last year that is awaiting endorsement by South Africa’s provinces. While not a slam dunk, it’s likely to become law, and then likely to face aggressive court challenges as unconstitutional.
When it becomes law South Africa will attain the unique position of a so-called democratic state controlling the press as much as China does. And there’s a reason that these so-called traditionalist ANC leaders want this.
The press has ferreted out the most scandalous and criminal acts of these old guys imaginable. The list exceeds simply the largess of government no-bid contracts dished out to their families and supporters, to government policies based on the belief that AIDS is not a virus and bribing judges involved in their criminal court cases.
Playing Zulu king is a tactical diversion from these more important issues that vies for column inches in South Africa’s dynamic media and so tends to lessen somewhat the anticipation of horror that passing this legislation naturally evokes.
But even more important than that, regressive legislation identical to apartheid culture would be a hard move over current South African culture … unless “everything old and traditional” suddenly appears good. Sort of mix up the bad of the past with the good of the past and just take the past.
I really don’t think this is a stretch. It’s intellectually offensive when detailed like this, but when streamed through the every day life of South Africa – which by the way is pretty good at the moment – it’s the bitter pill in the coated honey.
Intentional? I don’t think Zuma sat down with his personal coach and asked him how he should behave personally to pass the draconian press law. But with time as his cultural critics tended to line up with his political critics it became rather self-evident.
The Zulu King holds the power of life and death over all his subjects. Zuma’s not quite there, yet, but he’s trying.
By Conor Godfrey
(Hello to all Jim’s readers! The actual Answerman is off finding answers in Southern Africa, so I have been asked to amuse and entertain for the better part of March—I will do my upmost.
Jim and I share some interests and opinions, and diverge quite a bit in others, so I hope you enjoy a brief change, and please feel free to leave comments or email me at email@example.com if there is an issue you would like to see covered.)
The Blue People, the People of the Veil, the Tuareg: to the people-groups that live south of the great desert, these veiled nomads are known as warriors, slavers, merchants and cattle raiders, and have been doing all of the above ever since the camel was introduced to N. Africa around 0 B.C.
For the last millennia, the Tuaregs have controlled the five most lucrative trade and smuggling routes across the Sahara – after all, the 1.2 million Tuaregs that roam the Sahara are more intimate with the desert than we are with our kitchens and bedrooms.
E.g. We call the sandy expanse from Algeria to the Red Sea the Sahara Desert; the Tuaregs see this as dozens of different deserts, each with its own name depending on its aridity, elevation, vegetation, etc…
This interlocking web of deserts goes by the name “Tinariwen”, in Tamasheq, the main dialect of the Tuareg people.
Tinariwen is also the name of a Tuareg band that won the Best World Music Grammy last week.
The band Tinariwen is what I imagine the Sahara Desert would sound like if you gave it an acoustic guitar and a drum.
“Tenere” – the Tamasheq word for the true, deep desert, is the band’s ancestral and spiritual home. Have a listen here.
They were even on the Colbert Report when they were promoting the music Festival au Desert in Timboctu. NPR calls them the best acoustic rock group of the 21st century.
There was, however, another reason the Tuaregs were in the news last week. While Tinariwen was sporting their best Boubous to collect their prize, other Tuaregs were rolling over strategic towns in Northern Mali and skirmishing with the Malian army (See map of conflict on the right.)
The ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ of this conflict (and the other Tuareg rebellions over the last century) is very difficult to parse, and probably immaterial.
When African states in the Sahel gained their independence in the 1960s from, in this case, France, they attempted to assert control over their desert interiors, putting them in conflict with the Tuaregs who refused to acknowledge imaginary lines drawn in the sand (literally)
At the same time, the trans-African trade was increasingly moved by sea, making the two thousand year old caravan routes less and less profitable.
The Tuaregs turned their dessert expertise toward less savory commerce– hostages, drugs, and guns for hire—which put at least some Tuaregs in contact with al-Qaeda and other nefarious groups.
The Tuaregs are NOT Islamic extremists – their brand of nomadic Islam is heavily blended with millennia old animist traditions, and would probably give a hard line Islamist a heart attack.
Tuaregs that do come in contact with al-Qaeda do so for pragmatic, financial reasons.
Also, the various governments abutting the Sahara have every incentive to play up the al-Qaeda – Tuareg link because the U.S. then shells out cash and personnel for military and anti-insurgency training.
(It did not help the Tuareg case that 800 Tuareg warriors fought alongside Moammar Gadhafi’s troops in the recent civil war.)
The Indigo people are a relic of the pre-nation state era; a trans-national people so intimately tied to their land that modern borders are not only unenforceable but totally irrelevant.
Ironically, Tuareg champions are now adopting the modern world’s nationalist rhetoric to express their people’s aspirations.
Malian Tuaregs and some non-Tuaregs have formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad… Azawad being the local name for the Tamasheq speaking regions of Mali, Niger, and Algeria.
The Associated armed group has been renewing the armed struggle for a Tuareg homeland since late January, 2012.
In many ways the Tuaregs have a more coherent cultural and geographic claim to nationhood than many of the modern world’s balkanized republics. Said another way, they are arguably as distinct from their Southern neighbors as the South Sudanese were from their Arab neighbors to the North.
It is difficult to watch some of the last trans-national nomads locked in a losing struggle with the modern world.
As many of the world’s nation states splinter along civilizational lines (Iraq and Syria, Sudan(s), Nigeria, etc… ), and identity politics grows stronger in developed and developing world alike, I wonder the Tuaregs were not simply ahead of their time in thinking that national boundaries were just imaginary lines in the sand.
Does unmitigated faith cure, kill, lead or mislead to victory? Ask the tens of thousands of people flocking to a faith healer near the Serengeti. Or ask the ragtag fighters pushing into Sirte. It’s all the same. And who are we to interrupt the jihad?
An endless line of cars, bikes, walkers trekking into a remote mountain location near the Serengeti in Tanzania has caused turmoil in Tanzania’s government, eight traffic fatalities, more than 50 deaths of those waiting for the “miracle cure,” and raised serous questions about the role of traditional medicine in Africa.
It may be hard to believe 76-year old Lutheran pastor, Ambilikile Mwasapile, that he can cure everything from AIDS to diabetes to all forms of cancer for a 30¢ cup of herbal medicine “touched by God”, but nothing seems to deter an unprecedented pilgrimage into the Tanzanian bush.
Tanzania is a very superstitious society, and there are healers and medicine men everywhere. But to my knowledge this is the first time that established, traditional clerics have supported such an individual. Monday, Mwasapile gained support from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT). Western trained Bishop Thomas Laizer told one of Tanzania’s major newspapers that he would begin raising funds to build a large healing center that could better serve the thousands of people seeking treatment daily.
This ideological breakthrough followed Sunday’s decision by the Tanzanian government to send paramilitary troops into the remote area to stop further lines of cars, trucks and helicopters from visiting “Babu,” as Mwasapile has been affectionately named. The government said this was only a temporary halt. Needed to bring some kind of stability to a pilgrimage clearly getting out of hand.
But the humanitarian move by the government may have backfired. Not only did the established Lutheran church then issue its unequivocal support, but Parliament got uncharacteristically rattled. Member of Parliament Steven Ngonyani told the government “Hands off!” the work of the healer.
“The government …should show its support to him and not break his heart by imposing modern methodologies… What has Tanzania Food and Drug Agency to do with regulating the works of a traditional healer?”
According to Nairobi’s Daily Nation 24,000 people were lined up and waiting for the cup of elixir Saturday night. The BBC said the line of cars, trucks and bicycles was more than 15 miles long.
People wait for days to pay Tsh 500 (about 30 U.S. cents) to drink a cup of tea brewed from a root more commonly used as a poison, personally handed to them by Babu himself. In fact, Babu claims that if anyone else brews the tea or hands it out, it won’t work.
There are no hotels or hostels in the area and sanitary conditions are appalling. Businessmen from the cities have set up tent camps offering bottled water and places to sleep at outlandish prices.
The deaths and injuries to those waiting forced the government’s hand. Most of the deaths are of persons who were dying and had been whisked out of traditional hospitals by relatives and transported into this rugged, remote and mountainous area of northern Tanzania.
Reports that all of Tanzania’s main government officials, including President Jakaya Kikwete, as well as officials from Oman and the Emirates had come to take the cure, remain unconfirmed yet strangely undenied as well. And helicopters do arrive regularly with persons who break the queue by paying ten times the normal rate (Tsh 5000, about $3.50).
I cannot find a single published testament that the cure works, despite my own employees in Tanzania recounting many stories of relatives and friends who have been cured of a whole range of disease. But no one will come on record. Neither will the President of Tanzania deny the widely circulated rumor that he’s taken the cure.
On record are physicians decrying the hoax (see YouTube below), but none have so far published their skepticism locally.
The 76-year old cleric has a Facebook page that is – remarkably – well serviced for an old man who is supposed to be handing cups of cure to supplicants for 12 hours a day. All the entries I could translate were requests for the cure; I didn’t find one testament to being cured.
On my safari last week into the Serengeti, we saw trucks and cars stuffed with clearly sick people in an unending journey into this remote wilderness.
Tanzania is a very superstitious place. The most educated Tanzanian remains worried all his life that he’ll be cursed. My Mzungu (white, European) boss for many years in Tanzania regularly visited Maasailand for herbs. Some of the finest tourist lodges in the country refer to themselves as “Spas” dispensing herbal remedies.
The tsunami of optimism breaking over earth at the moment comes not without the turmoil of death and destruction. It is this same dialectic that infuses the thousands of sick people making the pilgrimage to the Serengeti.
Wandering children run over by cars, dying patients left on the side of the road, children “wailing and flailing as they were forced by their mothers to swallow the concoction.”
What the heaven does this mean?
That faith heals?
That people are desperate?
That the spirits rattling the world at the moment are alive and well?
That freedom and democracy will follow the slaughter of Tiananmen Square. That transparent and uncorrupt government will now rule Egypt. That despots like Gaddafi will be replaced by Mahatma Gandhis.
That faith in the struggle is the single most important ingredient to victory?
Do you sacrifice a small group of ancient people to promote a larger society? We put Indians onto reservations. Should the Kenyans evict 36,000 Ogiek from their forest?
It’s one thing for an activist to threaten you and your grandchildren with no clean water. It’s another when your kitchen faucet stops dripping.
That’s what’s happening in Kenya, today, right now. Even while giant factories are blossoming like mushrooms in my backyard after a morning drizzle. It’s happening right now as 12-lane highways are creeping across the country.
The water rationing schedule announced each week in the newspapers is as ordinary as a TV guide.
And all the needed water comes from one place: the Mau Forest. It’s the only indigenous forest in Kenya, and by our standards for instance, terribly small, only 675,000 acres, an area about the size of Rhode Island.
The Mau provides 7-10 million people with not only clean drinking water, but water for factories and cleaning. Moreover, the recent reduction of the forest has contributed to mud slides and soil erosions that has been devastating.
The Mau has sinisterly been eaten away for nearly a hundred years. British colonials recognized its rich soil and confiscated huge portions for their settlers. Independence only deepened the problem as corrupt politicians confiscated more.
The deposed dictator Daniel arap Moi may own as much as 300,000 acres of what was once Mau Forest, now tea estates.
Kenya is the world’s largest tea exporter. Take it from me, it’s the best tea in the world!
Then, during the political violence following the 2008 election, hundreds of thousands of people fled to the hills. And those hills were largely the Mau. As many as 100,000 people began to squat in the Mau.
Then came the Developed World’s haughty solutions to global warming. In Copenhagen in 2009, then Cancun in 2010, developed countries proposed not reducing their own greenhouse emissions right away, but rather a sort of Global Cap-and-Trade policy without the Cap called “REDD’’ — Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries.
$30 billion to the developing world by 2012, and $100 billion more by 2020. Kenya’s portion, if it ever comes: a few hundred million. But that’s sizeable to Kenya, and in order to get it, Kenya has to preserve the Mau. There’s no other forest it can “trade”.
Colonial land grabbing, corruption politician land grabbing-cum-tea development, internally displaced persons and REDD. And not a drop to drink.
In what is really a radical, radical move, the Kenyan government has decided to evict everyone from the Mau. All those colonial land-grabbers, some of the modern politicians with tea farms, all the displaced persons from political turbulence, buying all the previous land owners and squatters new land somewhere else, at billions and billions of shillings (that will still be less than the compensation from REDD).
And, the 36,000 Ogiek who have lived there for a number of generations.
The Ogiek are forest people. The generation before the current one was almost entirely hunter/gatherers and bee-keepers. The Ogiek were themselves displaced from arguably better forests around Kenya in the 1930s by British land grabbers. But when they moved, they took their lifeways with them.
But the Kenyan government policy is without qualification. Everyone goes. Including the Ogiek. And, their bees?
No one is wondering about the bees. Unlike temperate forests here at home, forests in Africa rely much more on pollination and cross-pollination to survive. The diversity of the forest biomass is much greater in the equatorial parts of the world like Kenya. Without a constant diversity, the forests collapse.
The diversity is dynamic to some extent, a sort of constant evolution of new species and sub-species. Quite apart from the morality of evicting the Ogiek, the longest living residents of the Mau, what about the bees?
Money talks. REDD talks. Bees don’t.
Great video below about Ogiek and bee-keeping. Stick with the first 30 seconds which have nothing do with Ogiek or bee-keeping.
The gay bashing which became gay beating two weeks ago in Uganda was widely reported worldwide. But not enough has been said about the U.S. Christian right which fomented the violence in the first place.
In September I wrote that the “C Street Players” – a list of prominent leaders and politicians on the U.S. far right – were implicated in rigging the re-election of the Ugandan MP who introduced draconian legislation to punish gays and people who knew people were gay.
Fortunately that bill was tabled by Uganda’s president after substantial pressure from the west.
But the evil continues. A rogue newspaper, not registered (and were it anything but a gay basher tabloid would have been viciously suppressed by the Ugandan regime), incited incredible violence earlier this month by naming the country’s “Top 100 Homos.”
It’s really impossible to know if American money is behind this new tabloid, and in a sense, it doesn’t really matter. Hate on the level C Street brought to Uganda in the first place, which promulgated legislation that couldn’t possibly get even rightest attention in the U.S. (execution for certain gays), was intense enough to start these brush fires.
Fewer than 2000 copies of the Ugandan Rolling Stone issue were circulated, but that seemed enough to cause something of a cultural rampage in the capitol. Shortly thereafter, the real violence began. Four gays were seriously beaten, others injured, scores intimated.
This is a terrible story, but I actually believe the more terrible story is how effective the American Christian right is now in East Africa.
Much of this current violence can likely be traced to Lou Engel, an American evangelical, who received permission to hold a kill-gays rally on the campus of Uganda’s most prestigious university, Makerere. More than 1300 people attended that rally in May.
As reported then in the Huffington Post Engel was a picture perfect conservative rabble rouser. To the American press he disavowed any animus towards gays and even any knowledge of the bill before the Ugandan legislature.
But once at the rally his tuned changed significantly and he was dispensing hate with incredible efficiency. He seemed to know that the five-year long fight for an anti-gay bill in Uganda so beautiful maneuvered and heavily funded by the U.S. Christian right was in trouble.
So his response was to say incredibly vicious things. “…he whipped up bizarre fears of evil gays lurking in schools in Uganda” according to Wayne Hudson in that Huffington article, along with screaming that Uganda was “ground zero” in the fight against gays.
This is what the American right does: lie, then use that lie to engage the deep-set anger of those foolish enough to consider it. Once engaged, the anger is finally corrupted to any use they wish.
Senators De Mint and Coburn will never succeed in punishing people in the U.S. for being gay, and not even Lou Engel could preach such nonsense here. So…
…they go to Africa, where the angers are greater and deeper, and they shift their lunacy for power there.
Mark Jordhal, a blogger friend in Kampala wrote me recently:
“The proposed bill found fertile ground here and, frankly, if you asked out on the streets at least 90% of Ugandans are fully in favor of the bill. The only thing that kept it from coming to be was the fierce international response and the fact that a third of Uganda’s national budget comes from foreign donors. Five years from now when that money is replaced by oil revenues, the story might be much different.”
Here at home there’s a glimmer of light that the ton of negative lying campaign ads are actually having a backlash effect.
I hope in the end Ugandans themselves will realize how they’re being manipulated, and manipulated not by some foreign power preaching an ideology, but by demons preaching hate, who have little concern for Ugandans themselves.
This month Habib Koite and his group Bamada will be playing in venues across the U.S.—you must not miss them.
Before I rave about Habib’s music, we should talk about the Griot tradition he comes from.
When I first arrived in Guinea, I stayed with a Malinke family (an ethnic group prevalent in Northern Guinea, Southern Mali, and the Northern Ivory Coast).
As an adopted son of this family, I was given the name Mamadi Dioubate. Mamadi is simply the name Mohamed re-engineered to fit the phonetics of the Malinke language. The history of Dioubate however, is the history of the West African Griot.
The following story was first related to me by another Peace Corps volunteer baptized a Dioubate, and subsequently recounted numerous times by Guineans and Malians with both major and minor variations to the story.
‘Sundiata Keita was the founder and most celebrated king of the Malian Empire. He also possessed the most famous balafon in the whole of the empire.
His balafon was made of ebony from the Central Africa forest, ivory, teak, and all the best materials the empire could offer, and no one could touch the balafon but Sundiata.
One day as Sundiata and his retinue rode out from his compound they heard stunningly beautiful balafon music coming from the Emperor’s compound.
Two things were immediately apparent. First: the music was coming from the Sundiata’s personal balafon. Second: the doomed soul playing it was beyond a doubt the best player in the empire.
So Sundiata and his followers turned around and followed the music back to the compound where Sundiata planed to kill the upstart. The emperor left his retinue outside and entered the room with the balafone.
There he confronted a peasant playing the balafon with such skill and beauty that even he, the emperor, could not have hoped to compete. Eventually the music petered out as the player realized his time was up.
Just as Sundiata opened his mouth to condemn the man the player took up the balafon mallets and started praising the emperor in time with the music.
He sang about how just Sundiata was, and how generous. He sang about how healthy the empire was, and how well Sundiata guided his people.
After a few minutes of this effusive and articulate praise, Sundiata made up his mind. He would not kill this peasant.
Instead the man would become his official praiser, following him across the emperor to extoll Sundiata’s virtues to his subjects. And thus was born the Griot tradition….
According to my older Malinke brother, Dioubate is a modern corruption of this original Griot’s family name.
Today numerous “Griot” families claim this legend or one of its variations as their founding myth.
Whether Dioubates or Cissokkos or Sussos formed the original caste of Griots, the Griot tradition is alive and well across West Africa.
From Mali down to the Ivory Coast all the way up to Western Sahara, Griots act as the keepers of oral tradition, entertainment at weddings and baptisms, and current affairs pundits.
In my village on Thursday nights, people showed up at the local youth center in droves to dance the Marmayia to traditional music played by Griots. (Until the local elder banned them; village rumor mill said his wives were having too much fun at the dances)
Habib Koite and countless other West African singers keep this tradition alive.
He sings mostly in Bambara (a Malian national language), and to a lesser extent in French, though he experiments with other Malian dialects and sometimes will even switch into English.
Habib blends regional styles from across Mali as well as incorporating flamenco rhythms and guitar from the Afro-Cuban tradition.
He is the darling of American stars like Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, has been featured in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, and he even made an appearance on David Letterman.
I saw Habib & Bamada in Bamako, Mali and it was one of the best live performances I have ever seen.
Most Americans listen to world music because it intrigues them; the music uses new sounds and might produce a new and interesting mood.
People play world music in the kitchen while doing something else, or in the background of a cocktail party to lend the apartment a certain exoticism.
Habib’s music goes well beyond the merely ‘different’, or ‘interesting’—it will blow you away. You will soon be reaching for his CD in your car and trying your best to sing along in Bambara.