“Now westlin winds and slaught'ring guns/Bring Autumn's pleasant weather.” Nearly 250 years have elapsed since Robert Burns wrote that lovely song. (A fine rendering here). Where we are, it still sings true.
It must have been the Christmas of 1993. We were out for a family walk in a stretch of woodland just outside Lilongwe (in Malaŵi, one of Africa’s poorest countries). My two-year-old son, Jacques—tired out from digging up ants and fighting with his big brother, Enrique—was on my shoulders, and I was trying to bring a little festive jollity to the traipse home by singing Good King Wenceslas. Badly, for I can barely hold a tune, my main musical training having been a boyhood squeaking out hymns in stone pillared village churches of little England alongside my equally tin-eared mum. More melodic genes have somehow surfaced in my progeny, as Jacques now demonstrated by whacking me around the head with the stick he had refused to relinquish upon ascent to the paternal loft. “Stop! Stop it, Daddy!” He couldn’t bear the noise.
Six years later he got his come-uppance. By then, life had taken us to the city of Kunming, the capital of southwest China’s Yunnan Province. For a couple of years Jacques had been learning the violin there with an American teacher. He progressed rapidly and con brio under her firm but encouraging tuition, until she had a crisis of some kind and decided she couldn’t continue. She suggested as a substitute a veteran professor she knew in the Yunnan Academy of Music: a big cheese, the top strings man, indeed, in this province of 45 million people. We went along to his apartment in the dismal academy compound and Jacques romped through his pieces with his usual zest. In daily life he was prone to breaking things, crashing his bike, pinching fingers in drawers, but when he picked up the violin those fingers became remarkably deft. The distinguished professor, who sat impassive throughout the performance, then delivered his verdict. “Well,” he said, “As I expected, he’s going to have to start again from scratch.” It was both brutal and casual, like snapping a twig.
Remote. Marginalised. Left behind. In Kenya, these journalistic and development clichés apply not just to one or two neglected backwaters but to vast expanses of arid and semi-arid land that make up fully 80 percent of the national territory. In those areas, now highly vulnerable to climate change, relatively sparse populations of pastoralists continue to raise cattle, donkeys, goats and camel on their ancestral land, but they have lived at the margins of national development since Kenya’s independence in 1966.
2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip. Spending a few months as a trailing spouse in neighbouring Jordan, I make time to visit, with around 70 words of Arabic and no guide book.
The cab driver who takes me from Amman to the border says he paid 50,000 dinars (USD 70,000) for his second-hand car and the licence to operate this route. “Jordan government is thief,” he says. “Thief.” Like nearly half of Jordan’s population he is of Palestinian origin. His family left the small city of Nablus after the 1967 Six Day War, when the Israeli army routed the combined forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan and occupied the Palestinian territories. Nablus is only 100 kilometres from Amman, but he has never been there.
Cows, what have we done to them? (Apart from stealing their milk and eating their babies.) One is standing here now, staring at me. For all the stuff I’ve read and heard, and the weight of human argument that these animals don’t have that grand ‘consciousness’ thing, it is irresistible to speculate on what she might be thinking. Perhaps she wants me to turn the radio on, as I usually do while working in the garden I am making next to her pasture.
In 1989, as communism was collapsing across Eastern Europe, Francis Fukuyama achieved intellectual celebrity—and notoriety—with a short essay, The End of History? “We may be witnessing,” he wrote, “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” A quarter of a century later, he has not quite recanted.
At the outbreak of Algeria’s war for independence in 1952, there were one million French settlers living in that country alone. Today, an estimated 250,000 people of Lebanese descent live in West Africa. Some two million people of Indian descent live in East and Southern Africa (not counting a million or so more on the islands of Mauritius and Réunion.) Numbers like these are worth bearing in mind when approaching Howard French’s book of anecdotal reportage, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa. (Knopf, New York, 2014)
A prizewinning novel explores France’s identity crisis with lyrical panache—and a painful look back at the not-so-glorious past. But hang on a minute. A weird undertow appears to suggest that the answer to present troubles lies in more, er, sexual congress.Vraiment? I thought it was more a matter of politics.
L’Art Français de la Guerre (The French Art of War)
(Gallimard, Paris, 2013 folio edition, 776 pp)
France had a terrible 20th century. One million six hundred thousand dead in a First World War that historians remain at a loss to explain. A squalid struggle with Britain for control of the Middle East, with a continuing legacy of seemingly endless violence. Defeat and occupation in a Second World War that brought the additional ignominy of a puppet government collaborating with Nazism. Then a barbaric, failed effort to hold on to colonies in Indochina and Algeria. Finally, as the century drew to a close, propping up a crumbling dictatorship in Rwanda and intervening to protect its génocidaires. This was a long and hard fall for a nation whose 18th and 19th centuries saw prodigious scientific, intellectual and cultural achievement, prodigious imperial power, and prodigious belief in the virtues of French civilisation.
Rwandans living or travelling in the West must, I imagine, hate encountering the casual question, “So where are you from?” The answer will surely evoke either polite confusion or else impertinent enquiry. Were you (or your parents) among the killers or the victims, the interlocutor is too likely to wonder, so notorious is the Rwanda genocide brand. And are you a Tutti or a Frutti, or whatever they’re called? If I were Rwandan I would definitely make a habit of claiming to originate from Burundi—a place so few people outside of Africa have heard of that you could be fairly sure of keeping the conversation on an innocuous keel.
Having this year happened to become a temporary resident of Rwanda, I felt the need to situate myself with a bit of reading. And it’s impossible to get away from the genocide as the defining publishing event. So here’s my response to five of the most readily available texts—one ‘novel,’ one memoir, one work of ‘reportage’, one of journalistic analysis, one of scholarship. I review these in the order I read them. Four were written by white North American men, so there was a clear risk that they might say more about North American men, and their way of seeing, than about Rwanda. That’s certainly the case with the first, which disturbed me most but taught me least.