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July 29, 2003

Hello, My Name Is:

First, I'd like to thank zombyboy for taking the time to set up AfricaBlog, and for asking me to contribute regularly. My name is Kelley Martin, and I run a blog called suburban blight. I'd like to take a moment of your time to tell you a little bit about myself, and explain why and what I will be posting here at AfricaBlog.

My curriculum vitae: I'm 33 years of age, married with children. I live in the southeastern United States now, but I lived in Northern California for a few years, and I've traveled in Europe and the South Pacific. I have a degree in history from a major University in this state, as well as various and sundry other certifications in really useful things like Women's Studies and Soviet Studies. I studied extemporaneous debate heavily during college, which instilled a deep-seated belief in the value of heated (yet gentlemanly) discourse.

I have been a market research analyst, an artist's model, a singer, an antiquities broker, a technical education consultant, a systems administrator, and a housewife since I left the University.

My politics range from far right to far left. I'd describe myself as a libertarian, if pressed, but my current political philosophy has more to do with seeing past partisan or nationalist smokescreens and trying to get at the truth than with self-classification. I believe in liberty, justice, and personal responsibility.

I jumped at the chance to be a part of AfricaBlog because I am deeply, deeply concerned about what I see happening on several areas of the continent. The most glaring, of course, is the situation in West Africa, where American troops are soon to be committed, where actual cannibalism is said to have been practiced during the fighting.

Beyond the current news-grabbing scenario in Liberia, Africa is a land of a thousand different cultures - most of them dying of AIDS and AIDS-related illnesses. Millions of emotionally scarred orphans are being created all over the continent on a monthly basis, while superstition and governmental denial prevent the distribution of life-saving treatment.

I feel shame for humanity when I hear of slavery in the Sudan, genital mutilation in Egypt, hundreds of child-rapes in Namibia, where it is widely believed that sex with a virgin (of any age, down to newborn babies) can cleanse a man of HIV.

Many Americans believe that Africa is not our problem. And yes, in a perfectly objectivist reality, that statement is factually correct. But an entire continent on this planet is rotting at its core - and someone had damned well better find some solutions before Africa becomes a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

In short, I want to be part of the solution. As a member of AfricaBlog, I'll try to bring unique stories to the blog, perhaps the smaller stories that take a back seat to large-scale conflicts like the one in Western Africa. I want to delve deeply into the AIDS crisis in Africa, and into the governmental responses to the pandemic. I want to try to make sense of what's going on, and attempt to offer constructive editorial prose on the items I present.

If you'd ever like to reach me to give me personal feedback, feel free to e-mail me at my home blog, kelley [at] suburbanblight [dot] net.

Posted by at July 29, 2003 04:51 AM
Comments

I feel like I know you so much better now. And I'm impressed.

Posted by: zombyboy at July 29, 2003 05:29 AM

I am a writer and historian based in Toronto. I have travelled in much of West Africa, but a long time ago [during a period even worse than the current one, but with different areas affected].

Some initial comments:

1) While it's perfectly true that the current African borders ignore old ethnic and cultural lines, and both the colonial and post-colonial regimes have pitted ethnic groups against each other as a macchiavellian strategy, this is pretty much true of every place on earth. The borders of European countries are just as arbitrary: the product of dynastic squabbles in royal houses, and imperial conquests. France, for instance, is a patchwork of languages and ethnic groups which, even after centuries of forced absorption and suppression, are still highly visible. Belgium was created out of a civil war when the Low Countries were part of a colossal dynastic empire ruled from Austria and Spain --- and its two tribes were still in violent conflict in the 1950's. I can think of only a handful of countries in the world that are in any way homogeneous ---- and one of them is the African country of Somalia. Homogeneity did not save it from disaster. By the same token, some of the most successful democracies are built from multicultural and multi-ethnic roots. No borders could be more arbitrary than those of Canada. In functioning democracies, ethnic, religious and regional conflicts are settled by the democratic process. In dictatorships they are never settled. The concept of a "special" African problem of arbitrary borders has been consistently pumped up as a convenient explanation for problems in Africa that are, in fact, caused by one overwhelming real problem: dictatorship.

2) There is nothing unique about African dictatorship, war, famine and disease. It is just the "norm" of human history ---- the way all the world was for millenia. It is the way most of Europe was only sixty years ago. The cure for it is democracy, and democracy doesn't happen unless people want it, build it, and, if necessary, fight for it.

3) Since African nations were mostly created by Colonial powers that loathed and detested democracy, during a period when 99.9999% of the world's intellectuals hated democracy with passionate fury, and worshiped slavery and totalitarianism, it's hardly surprising that no functioning democracies emerged from de-colonialization. The colonial powers installed carefully selected gangsters, thugs and mass-murderers, usually trained at Sandhurst or French military academies, or at hotbeds of pro-slavery teaching like the Sorbonne or the London School of Economics ---- then they were financed for decades from outside. They continue to be financed by the World Bank. There is no mystery to this process.

3) As long as unelected gangsters are recognized as "legitimate governments" by the rest of the world, these conditions will continue to operate. As long as people who murder and torture their way into power are allowed to shop on Fifth Avenue, send their children to elite schools in America, France and England, and accumulate their loot in Swiss Bank accounts, the situation will remain exactly as it is. As long as the World Bank loans money to the slave trade [and African politics is nothing but the slave trade] to operate, nothing will change.

Posted by: Phil Paine at July 30, 2003 03:40 AM

Phil:

Good comments, but I feel you're missing a critical fact in your comparison of the general African situation to the general European situation.

African cultures were thoroughly disrupted by colonization in a way that no European culture has experienced. Adjacent European tribes were similar enough that one conquering the other would result in a fairly complete absorbtion of one culture (and not always the "losing" culture at that).

Colonial tactics introduced elements that didn't grow from the normal activities of the people as they grew naturally from European cultures. It also destroy the "chain of command" in each culture they encountered as a standard tactic. This makes the picture drawn by a direct comparison of African and European history incomplete.

Posted by: Prometheus 6 at July 30, 2003 08:55 PM

I'm afraid I don't see this supposed difference. Are you telling me that conquerors in European history didn't destroy the "chains of command" of the lands they conquered? That's news to me. I fail to see how the conquests of Napoleon, Hitler, or Stalin "grew naturally" on their victims. Did the victims at Auschwitz feel that what was happening to them was okay because they felt cultural brotherhood with the Nazis? The people being executed in Goya's drawings of Napoleon's conquest of Spain don't look to me like they are adjusting well to colonialism.

Posted by: Phil Paine at July 31, 2003 06:15 AM

There's a difference between destroying the works of a culture and disrupting the very means of cultural transmission. That's the difference you don't see.

Posted by: Prometheus 6 at July 31, 2003 10:27 AM

First, what an excellent discussion, and I'm excited to be a part of it.

I gather that Phil is a highly educated individual, but it sounds like he's approaching Africa's crisis from a very Western education. I am of that same fate (I'm a student at Syracuse University, a Magazine and African American Studies double major). But the way my curriculum has been developed is via an African, not a Western, system. I say this not to get on a high horse, but to establish where I'm coming from.

I see Africans as history's most tortured people and Jews as the most humiliated (disclosure: I'm Jewish, and white).

Europeans colonized Africa, which is a nice way of saying they raped the continent of its resources and people. When Phil says Africa's problem is not unique, it makes me wonder if any other group of people have ever suffered through 400 years of slavery, committed by foreigners and domestics alike. This slavery, brought on by whites, led to a perpetual disruption of the African continent, removing any chance for it to rebuild itself because it was getting raped, every day, for 400 years, by the entire world, itself included.

Africa's history is very unlike any history Europe, Asia or other parts of the world have ever seen. Drawing parallel comparisons to Africa's crisis is detrimental to finding a solution. It does more harm to see Africa's unique situation as akin to every other historical hardship.

-Dave

Posted by: David Hauslaib at August 1, 2003 03:45 AM

I am not "highly educated" in the sense you probably assume. I never finished high school (ran away from home, etc.). My interest in Africa began in early childhood, and gelled with eight months travelling there while a teenager, during a particularly rough period in West Africa.

In all my historical thinking and writing, I am extremely suspicious of the endless stream of cliches that flow out of the Universities, coming into fashion and falling out of fashion. I am especially suspicious of claims of "uniqueness" about this and that, because they rarely stand up to critical examination.

Every region, of course, has unique twists in its history, and every culture has a unique flavour. But when I hear sweeping generalizations about vague abstractions assigned to large regions of the globe, I generally become extremely doubtful, and look around to find what ideological agenda they are serving.

For instance ---- is the experience of a large region being mined for slaves for centuries unique to Africa? Well, let's stop and survey.

Northern Europe above the Alps was the source of slaves for the Mediterranean for more than a thousand years ---- and I'm not talking about domestic servants, but the millions who were processed through the lead mines and industrial plantations of the Classical world, who perished at a rate as horrendous as the slave labour camps of Communism and Nazism, or the Silver Mines and Sugar Plantations of the New World. The largest ethnic cluster of the region ---- that of the Slavs ---- became our very word for the process: "slave", in most European languages. In the process, virtually every trace of Northern Europe's ancient cultures was eradicated, leaving only dim and half-remembered fragments embedded in the subsequent Romanized and Byzantine societies.

The impact of alien conquest and slavery on the New World was so devastating, that almost all the achievements of New World Civilizations are only known to us by painstaking archaeological work, done centuries later. Vast empires, immense cities, all vanished from memory. There was once a Native American city of perhaps forty or fifty thousand, a great entrepot of commerce and culture, in the middle of Illinois. Now we don't even know what language it's inhabitants spoke, let alone any of its history. All we know, from a handful of relics, is that they must have been brilliant artisans and artists. Where are the hundreds of thousands of books in the Aztec and Mayan libraries? All vanished, except for three or four codixes that we can only partially translate. The very existence of Mayan urban civilization was completely forgotten, even by its living descendants.

The Carribean islands once teemed with native peoples and cultures. This was only a few centuries ago, yet the impact of slavery was such that we now know next to nothing about them...virtually all of them were ground to dust by slavery, exterminated in the mines. They only survive as a minor whisp in Caribbean gene pool.

Mao's Communist slave labour camps, pogroms, and famines engineered to break the peasantry, murdered about seventy-five million human beings --- about fifty-five million exterminated during a four year period. He also attempted, like several emperors before him --- to erase all of China's literature and most of it's high culture. It has taken decades of intense struggle by the peasantry to partially recover and reconstruct what they lost ---- a process which is nowhere near safe from another assault from the Communist aristocracy.

The impact of the Mongol Empire's conquests on the Middle East was so devastating, that whole regions which had been highly populated, cultivated, urbanized, and agriculturally productive for millenia were reduced to empty deserts, and the cultural and scientific leadership of the Islamic world was effectively destroyed. The Mongol overloards enslaved millions, and murdered entire cities at a time, leaving gigantic piles of human skulls.

I have spent a long time trying to make people aware of the scale and horror of slavery in Africa, and its devastating impact. But it is precisely because it is NOT unique that it is urgent for people to face it and understand it. It is not just some weird event unconnected to the rest of the world. It is an example of what can (and has) happened over and over again. And if people are not innoculated against the concepts and ideologies that make it happen, it will happen again.

Posted by: Phil Paine at August 1, 2003 04:49 AM

Those who know me would certainly chuckle at hearing me described as having a "very Western" education or viewpoint ! I have virtually devoted my life to debunking the concept of the very existence of some special or unique "Western" culture or viewpoint, and I have been at perpetual war with the host of fallacies and incoherent concepts taught in universities. In fact, I do not recognize the term "Western" as a valid concept at all, and refuse to EVER use it except to denounce it as gibberish.

Posted by: Phil Paine at August 1, 2003 04:59 AM

The funny thing is, no one not raised in the West denounces the concept of a specifically western viewpoint.

Posted by: Prometheus 6 at August 4, 2003 08:50 PM

The concept of "The West" --- always incoherent, inconsistent and undefined ---- was created by European intellectuals. It is the quintessential Eurocentric cliché, accepted without question by virtually everyone educated in Europe and America. If you have encountered anyone else other than myself who denounces it as invalid, I am extremely surprised. Who is this person?

Posted by: Phil Paine at August 4, 2003 11:37 PM

Phil writes:

It is not just some weird event unconnected to the rest of the world. It is an example of what can (and has) happened over and over again. And if people are not innoculated against the concepts and ideologies that make it happen, it will happen again.

And I agree. What happened (and continues to happen) in Africa is not unique in the sense that "it hasn't happened elsewhere." But I do believe Africa's situation is unique in that its the cause and effect of a very specialized system of European hegemony.

Sure, you can find European influence elsewhere, but its impact on Africa is entirely unique. And I think precisely because of the individual nature of the harm done in Africa is why the world should be taking notice (not that the world shouldn't take notice of other war-torn regions, etc).

I see Phil's example of the Caribbean as an entirely relevant connection, but it too was the result of European slavery and its effects are those mirrored by Africa's. I am not saying the events there are any less trivial, but I do see them as differing.

-Dave

Posted by: David Hauslaib at August 5, 2003 12:12 AM

David,

Just a quick (if lengthy) note--to say that Africa's situation is unique due to "a very specialized system of European hegemony" is to deny the role African nations have played in their own destruction. Not that I'm denying the effect that Europe had on Africa, but to realize that there are distinct realities that must be respected when discussing solutions to African problems.

The issue I have with that is that a dishonest approach to the continuing causes of problems (that is, to place all the blame directly on Euorpean shoulders) ensures that other, home-grown problems wll not be addressed.

For example, you keep referencing "European" slavery and its effects, but that discounts two issues: the slave trade was alive in Africa before Europeans took part and the slave trade is alive now that Europeans have bowed out. The European part in the trade is remarkable and important in the discussion, but the current slave trade problem is not created by Europeans. It's a home grown problem that is based not only in economics but in religion.

Certainly, we all note the effect that bad policies have had on the region, but let's try to be honest about all the causes when trying to find ways to help.

Phil,

I tend to think there are cultural issues that make African experience distinctly different than the general European experience, much in the same way that various Asian cultures have a "unique" history born of very different cultural dynamics. I'm with David in thinking that, no, slavery is not unique, but the cultural reaction, the extent, the lasting effects, and the long-term solutions to the problems created are unique.

I don't think our interest in Africa has to stem from guilt about historic European interaction, though. I understand the concept of obligation in this arena, I just don't necessarily think that it's the primary reason for my hope to see new thoughts on policy and aid to African nations. My desire stems entirely from two points of view: the pragmatic belief that if we don't do what we can to help solve the problems, we'll have created our own national security and economic issues for the next century; and the ethical belief that we do have some level of obligation to help those less fortunate than us. What exactly that obligation entails is still open, in my mind, to debate.

-Thanks.

Posted by: zombyboy at August 5, 2003 12:47 AM

I have been following the discussion between Phil and Dave with some interest. I'm afraid I must second Phil's position as against Dave -- Dave, are you sure you haven't been drinking insufficiently deeply from the Pieran spring of fashionable postcolonialist theory?

The degree of misery may be deeper and widerspread in Africa at the moment than the norm of human life for the last 10,000 years, but even that is hard to tell simply because we've just started to pay attention for the first time. Living in the middle of Nietzsche's "classic era of war," it was startling and dismaying to be told that the mass genocides and decimations of whole nations during our lifetime, in Central and South America, in Cambodia, let alone those just before, during WWII and the terror-regimes of Stalin and Mao, and those going back even farther to the Armenian genocide at the turn of the 20th century, don't exist on the cultural map, are somehow different in kind. We don't have to turn back to the Goths and the Golden Horde, we don't have to turn the leaves of sanitized history in which human suffering has disappeared over the event horizon of historiography. The speaking of the word "Serbia" ought to do it for you.

Posted by: Bill Patterson at August 5, 2003 01:33 AM

As for the question of uniqueness ---- well every historical event is unique in some way, obviously, just as the experience of every individual human being is unique.

People raised in places like the United States or Canada are usually extremely sheltered. They are only vaguely, if at all, aware of the vast slaughterhouse of human history, and the mind-boggling suffering that has pervaded the planet. When they undertake to learn something about the world, and encounter some colossal atrocity somewhere, they often resist learning that it is not particularly exceptional. It is hard enough to grasp the horror of the Holocaust or the Great Leap Forward or the African Slave trade, or whatever.... it just seems too much for them to find out that the horror they have just managed to digest is actually only one of a long list. That is when the impulse to nail it down with "biggest", "worst" and "only" comes into play. The way of getting over this impulse is to approach the planet's history as if one were a visiting alien from Arcturus, to get some grasp of all the world's history, THEN to look for repeating patterns and underlying principles.

The relevance of the impact of imperialism and slavery on the Caribbean, and other examples I gave, seems pretty evident to me. David said he wondered if any other place had suffered four centuries of slavery, or if anyone else had experience so devastating an impact on their culture. The answer is yes, in both cases, there are many examples. In some cases, absolute extermination occured, or such thorough an eradication of culture that its very existence was forgotten.

Europeans, since they achieved a global hegemeny for a few centuries, had their hand in a large number of these cases ---- ranging from the total genocide of the native inhabitants of Newfoundland and Tasmania [and it's hard to top complete anihilation for impact] to financing brutal dictatorships today. But there are plenty of other cases, as well. Previous hegemonies did not encompass the whole globe, but they did the same crap in the chunks of it they did control.

Posted by: Phil Paine at August 5, 2003 02:08 AM

Dear Phil,

With much interest I read your article on Africa Blog. You certainly have a strong convincing argument. By the look of the time that has passed since you last posted there is no hint of any counter argument. Either the opposition is still scurrying to justify themselves or are convinced and cannot bow to your superior knowledge. As they might say in government, I commend it to the people.

Being center stage, you might not see it like the picture I have composed. Probably you would, as you have already said, not in so many words, prefer a more vocal constructive argument. As it stands, on this subject you have vanquished the reactionary. Though you have the history and track beneath your feet, the course cannot be designated as final until you have added all the sums of your ground together to draw a finishing line.

Looking from the past perspective and from that standpoint I admire your grasp on the subject, do you have any ideas that might be put together to create the basis for formulating future answers applicable to African?

Posted by: Martin Dowling at September 16, 2003 09:45 PM

Sorry, I couldn't get back to this blog for ages---- survival issues. I really didn't mean to stomp so heavy-footedly in the discussion.

In isssues like this, I find that there is a lot of sincere, but mis-directed effort. People are side-tracked by the pronouncements of "experts", which often have a vested interest in presenting issues in an abstruse and over-intellectualized fashion. Underneath, there is often an agenda --- the support of dictatorship and the perpetuation of oppression. It is often difficult to find one's way through the fancy talk.

I remember once watching a small CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Company] documentary on the Ivory Coast. In it, one of the Big Men in the regime explained to the documentarists that democracy was an alien concept to Africans, and that the people of his country preferred to be ruled by a single man. The interviewer nodded. This, after all, is what every university in the world teaches, the Received Wisdom in every book and article about Africa. The documentary then interviewed a university professor, who also explained that democracy was a foreign concept that was completely unsuitable for African, and that the people of Ivory Coast would never understand it. A wealthy businessman was interviewed. He explained that democracy was something that nobody in Ivory Coast wanted, understood, or needed.

Finally, the documentary moved to a small village in the interior. The interviewer struck up a conversation with an old man, in presentable but not very fancy traditional dress. He had lived all his life in a small village. "Of course we understand democracy," the old man said, in accented, but perfectly clear French. "Of course we know its better that what we have. Do you really imagine that we are so stupid that we don't understand how we're being screwed?"

Posted by: Phil Paine at October 12, 2003 05:36 PM
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