Click here for a short bio

7/11: Ugandans pay for botched ‘counter-insurgency’

A commentary based on this article was published on the website of The Guardian (London) on September 25, 2010.

For over a month corporate sponsors had swamped TV screens and city billboards with sumptuous advertising that celebrated ‘the first World Cup played on African soil’ more vibrantly than much of the football. ‘Africa United!’ was the upbeat slogan of telecom giant, MTN. But the cracks rather than the unity were ruthlessly exposed when, on July 11, three bombs ripped into crowds watching the final match in popular Kampala nightspots.

It’s all down to Africa

An abridged version of this review essay, also discussing Paul Collier’s new book The Plundered Planet, appears on the Nation Media Group (Kenya)’s Africa Review website.

‘The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa’
by Deborah Brautigam, OUP (2009), 397 pp

Part of the Western world’s emotional response to China’s ‘rise’ has been a general alarm lest the Yellow Peril swarm across Africa in search of loot. It is as if there were a kind of Monroe Doctrine etched upon Western European and American hearts and minds: Africa is the proper sphere of influence of the white-majority Powers, ours alone to lecture, structurally adjust and bless with charity. No sooner does a Chinaman appear upon the savannah (actually, they’ve been around for decades, but few Westerners noticed them before) than we conclude that his ‘insatiable appetite for resources’ has brought him to strip-mine the continent, encouraging dictatorship, rampant corruption and exploitation along the way. Despite its unpromising title—how much longer must we endure Dragon, Tiger and Great Wall clichés?—Deborah Brautigam’s book is a useful antidote to such hysteria, correcting not just inherent bias but gross factual errors circulated by a string of prestigious media houses, international financial institutions, private think tanks and NGOs.

Nice chap, shame about the book

‘Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles’
by Richard Dowden, Portobello Books 2008, 376 pp

Richard Dowden has been in and out of Africa for nearly 40 years as, variously, a primary school English teacher, journalist (Times, Independent, Economist, Channel 4) and, latterly, Director of the UK’s Royal Africa Society. He clearly knows and cares a great deal about the continent, and this raises expectations of a work that boldly borrows Africa’s name for its main title. But what we get here is a kind of scrapbook: a blend of personal memoir (“Africa is different,” a chapter about teaching in Uganda in the early 1970s, is one of the most engaging), potted modern history and selective reportage on twelve individual countries, with rather little connecting thread or effort at synthesis. We end up clear about the author’s emotional commitment, his desire to see Africa prosper, his belief in its potential. We hear his opinions, often barbed, on numerous people, issues, places. Yet somehow this doesn’t add up to the coherent whole that the title seemed to promise.

Snapshots on a wet Sunday

Palm Sunday and I find myself invited to assume management of Cologne Football Club. The North Rhine city of Köln must, I imagine, have some sort of team of its own. My prospective lads hail, by contrast, from Cologne FC of Bbira—an outlying Kampala township—whose captain and crew I meet by chance on a soggy patch of ground just off the at-last completed northern bypass. I am drifting about in uncertain temper taking photographs. They are standing in a purposeful huddle in the pouring rain, serious in their yellow strip, reviewing tactics while waiting for a local derby with Kasubi FC, who haven’t turned up for the fixture.

The lost knack of knowing when to shut up

April 21, 2010 - 9:00am -- Nick Young

‘The Case for God: What Religion Really Means’
by Karen Armstrong, Bodley Head 2009, 376 pp

Visiting the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence half a dozen years ago my daughter, whose eight years of life had been spent in China, asked her mother who the guy hanging on the cross was. To the brief explanation that followed Tian Tian reacted with the genuine shock of one from whose eyes the scales have fallen, revealing the banality of the world: “God was a man!!!???” We took this at the time as intuitive, pre-teen feminism (Why not a woman, an Earth Mother figure?) Recently recalling the event, Tian Tian clarified that, on the contrary, her remark was ungendered: what boggled her mind was the thought that God could begin to resemble, let alone be, anything so idiotic as a human being. Before she could read more than a handful of English sentences, she had grasped an essential thread of Karen Armstrong’s theology; and, as we shall see, that almost certainly had much to do with growing up in China—and not just because of the relative dearth of Christian icons there.

A more nuanced battle of the sexes

‘The Boys Are Back’ (Dir: Scott Hicks; Screnplay: Simon Carr, Allan Cubbit; Screen Australia, November 2009) Twenty years ago Adrian Lyne’s film Fatal Attraction (1987) offered a reminder of Eve’s role in the destruction of earthly paradise. Women, it warned us, prey on the natural innocence of men and if you don’t watch out they will bust your balls and boil your kid’s pet rabbit alive. Widely acclaimed as ‘slick’ and ‘classy’, this was the 1980s’ clearest cinematic expression of heterosexual male fear and resentment of the object of desire. The Boys Are Back is a more thoughtful and provocative piece by far—a study in male virtue not only overcoming emotional adversity but finding fulfilment beyond the civilizing grip of petticoats. Thrown in for good measure is the more predictable sub-theme that Australia is a less suffocating place than stuffy old England.

Mob justice fills the policing gap

Two Friday nights ago my son Jack, 18, was swilling beer with a group of friends in Fat Boyz, a cheerful, crowded but quite well-appointed bar not far from us, when uproar broke out as a crowd of angry customers set upon a man they suspected of stealing, or intending to steal, or being the accomplice of another guy who was stealing or intending to steal, purses and mobile phones. Nothing was found on the man but he was given a sound beating anyway and crawled off drenched in blood. The bar’s armed private security guard stood by watching.

Preaching at the poor in Middle England

In the UK for a week on family business I make the mistake of travelling by public transport in a country that is configured for the private car. The journey from my sister’s house outside Ipswich to my brother’s in Northampton, a distance of around 80 miles, takes 7 hours (on three buses, one train and one taxi) and costs a total of GBP 28.30. But I’m not in a hurry, and enjoy looking out the window. January’s cold snap is over. Snowmen dissolve into the bruised grass of town parks. Where there are still fields, water lies flat upon them.

The strange geometry of an anti-gay rumpus

Uganda is making global headlines again, this time with a proposed law to execute citizens found guilty of ‘aggravated homosexuality.’ Appended below is an op-ed that I contributed to a local newspaper, The Monitor, on the broader gender implications. (This seemed the most useful issue to raise with a Ugandan readership, and the editor I spoke to felt that the ‘cultural’ and ‘religious’ aspects of the subject had already received enough attention.) Before getting to that, though, it is worth reflecting on the comedy of errors that led up to this and which now, tragically, leaves Uganda internationally branded once again as a place of crackpot dictators and murderous Christian loonies.

A world without bad guys

I come a decade late to the American political drama-soap, The West Wing, and regret taking so long to catch a show that is as captivating as Star Trek, which had me glued to the TV set 40 years ago.

The star ship Enterprise spent the Cold War zipping about the universe fighting evil, but it was not that which made it compelling so much as the informal camaraderie of its egalitarian and inclusive crew—a Russian, a Japanese, a Scotsman, a black woman with long legs, and a cute alien with pointy ears—all, of course, under American captaincy. It offered a brilliant, if distinctly narcissistic, vision of what American world leadership would be like. The BBC’s best home-grown rival offering at the time was Doctor Who—still going strong—about an old bloke who travels round the universe with a young woman assistant in a 1960s police box. It was a post-imperial eccentricity that would not sell well beyond Dover.

West Wing, I now see, boldly went where TV seldom went before: into a universe where audiences are presumed to include intelligent life.


Subscribe to RSS