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.
May has come to South London, blustery, fresh and often wet, but many Britons on the streets are sporting short sleeves and bare legs as if holidaying in the tropics. Even the hospital, stuffy and suffocating by tradition, turns out to be airy, with a chilly draught coming from the window berth I have luckily secured. Perhaps they’re saving on energy.
Our ward has a motley, shifting crew of patients. Of the languages I know, English is the only one that confers this subtly coercive title, redolent of the administrative grandeur that made it possible to run an empire, upon the bedridden malades, enfermos, bingren.
This piece was published in The East African in April, 2012, at a time when I busy getting Oil in Uganda up and running. That project occupied me for a year, but it is doing okay by itself now so am I free to think about other things.
The announcement last week of a promising oil discovery in Kenya, combined with news that Tanzania’s offshore gas fields are proving even richer than at first thought, raises the prospect of an East African region transformed by hydrocarbon wealth.
Lost Lion of Empire: The Life of ‘Cape-to-Cairo’ Grogan by Edward Paice HarperCollins, London, 2002. (Paperback, 470 pp)
There is something rather unsettling about a book that relates so much of East Africa’s colonial history with so little mention of the ‘natives,’ who appear in these pages only as nameless and voiceless porters, servants or labourers. This is, to be fair, not a history but a biography: of Ewart Grogan (1874–1967), a British imperial adventurer and entrepreneur whose impact on Kenya was almost as formative as the impact of his hero and early mentor, Cecil Rhodes, on what is now Zimbabwe. (Kenya, however, at least avoided the indignity of ever being called ‘Grogania.’) It is, arguably, also apt that the natives should appear here as anonymous and generally passive, a mere accessory to the story of empire: for that, it seems, is how Grogan saw them. He was, on Paice’s account, a prodigiously energetic, stubborn, and in many ways visionary man. The visions, however, all turned on the economic potential of a ‘virgin’ land. What unsettles 21st century sensibilities is that seeing a place as ‘virgin’ entails—much as in the earlier colonisation of the Americas—seeing its existing human population as largely beside the point.
This piece was published in The East African (Nairobi) February 6-11 2012. (Web version, missing a by-line, here.)
China’s gift to the African Union of a US$200 million headquarters in Addis Ababa symbolises not only the Asian giant’s increased engagement with Africa, but also the nature of that engagement.
Whilst the West has—since the end of the Cold War, at least—ostensibly striven to promote ‘sound macroeconomic management’ and ‘good governance,’ China’s style has simply been to do business with whoever is in power. Air-conditioned debating chambers for ruling elites are a logical sweetener.
This commentary (minus the last paragraph, which was requested as a supplement but arrived too late to be included!), was published on The Guardian (UK) website on February 10, 2012. Back in 2009, when the Anti Homosexuality Bill first hit international headlines, I discussed it in a longer piece, The strange geometry of an anti-gay rumpus.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has distanced himself from the noxious Anti Homosexuality Bill that has resurfaced in the country’s parliament, saying that he cannot interfere in the country’s democratic process. This is ironic coming from a man who, after a distinctly sleazy election victory last year, ordered violent crackdowns on peaceful protests at rising food prices and proposed a new crime of “economic sabotage.”
The following reports were written for IRIN News, a UN funded ‘humanitarian news’ agency. The published versions (edited, and with pictures!) can be found here and here.
This was my second visit to Karamoja. I hope to go back, to learn and write more about a place that strikes me as one of the world’s under-reported development blackspots, in many senses. The World Food Programme has been feeding much of the 1.2 million population for decades. Development agencies and NGOs of every stripe are thick on the ground there. But despite these interventions, and despite the poverty and harshness of most people’s lives, and their all too evident ‘humanitarian needs’, the agro-pastoralist Karimajong seem, in the main, not too interested in becoming ‘modern’. (And for this reason they are widely vilified: ordinary Ugandans from other regions lament their ‘backwardness’ and these attitudes are easily discernible in aid agency and NGO staff too.)
“El Hombre que Amaba a los Perros” (“The Man Who Loved Dogs”) by Leonardo Padura (2011, Tusquets Editoriales, Barcelona; 765 pp)
There are three main dog lovers in this well-crafted reconstruction of the exile and death of Leon Trotsky: Trotsky himself; Ramon Mercader, the Catalonian communist recruited by Moscow to assassinate him, and Ivan, a young Cuban whose literary ambitions have been reduced to sub-editing on a veterinary magazine when, in 1977, he meets the dying Mercader on a beach outside Havana and eventually becomes the reluctant narrator of the assassin’s tale. The narrative manages to generate suspense despite our knowing in advance the sticky end that awaits Trotsky. Equal skill and scrupulous research are brought to the wider, historical canvas, which features ‘live’ excerpts from the Spanish Civil War and the Moscow show trials as well as snapshots of Kruschev-era Russia and the mass exodus of Cuban citizens from that island in the mid 1990s.
“The Mountain People” by Colin Turnbull (1973, Pan, London; 253 pp)
In Uganda’s far northeast, bordering Southern Sudan and Kenya, the Kidepo National Park offers visitors a rare experience of African wildlife undisturbed by people. Road access is still difficult, but upmarket tourists can charter a light aircraft to fly in to a luxury tented camp where the abundance of game is matched by the abundance of culinary comforts. People who have made the trip say it is unforgettable. Now largely forgotten, however, is the human cost of creating this safari wonderland.