30 April 2011

Kapuscinski meets a member of Ghana's New Class

From The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, trans. by Klara Glowczewska (Vintage, 2002), Kindle Loc. 144-179:
Baako enjoys great prestige among the young. They like him for being a good athlete. He plays soccer, cricket, and is Ghana’s Ping-Pong champion.

“Just a minute,” he interrupted, “I just have to place a call to Kumasi, because I’m going there tomorrow for a game.”

He called the post office for them to connect him. They told him to wait.

“I saw two films yesterday,” he told me, as he waited, holding the receiver to his ear. “I wanted to see what they’re showing. They’re playing films schoolchildren shouldn’t go to. I must issue a decree that forbids young people to see such things. And this morning I spent visiting book stalls throughout the city. The government has established low prices for schoolbooks, but the word is that retailers are marking them up. I went to check for myself. Indeed, they are selling them for more than they’re supposed to.”

He dialed the post office again.

“Listen, what are you so busy with over there? How long am I supposed to wait? Do you know who this is?”

A woman’s voice answered, “No.”

“And who are you?” Baako asked.

“I’m the telephone operator.”

“And I am the minister of education and information, Kofi Baako.”

“Good morning, Kofi! I’ll connect you right away.”

And he was talking to Kumasi.

I looked at his books, stacked on a small cabinet: Hemingway, Lincoln, Koestler, Orwell, The Popular History of Music, The American Dictionary, as well as various paperbacks and crime novels.

“Reading is my passion. In England I bought myself the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and now I’m reading it little by little. I cannot eat without reading, I have to have a book lying open in front of me.”

A moment later:

“I’ve got another, even greater hobby: photography. I take pictures all the time and everywhere. I have more than ten cameras. When I go to a store and see a new camera, I immediately have to buy it. I bought a film projector for the children, and show them films in the evening.”

He has four children, ranging in age from three to nine. All of them attend school, even the youngest. It is not unusual here for a three-year-old to be enrolled in school. The mother will send him off, especially if he’s a handful, just to have some peace.

Kofi Baako himself first went to school at three. His father was a teacher and liked being able to keep his eye on his children. When he finished elementary school, he was sent for high school to Cape Coast. He became a teacher, and then a civil servant. At the end of 1947, Nkrumah had returned to Ghana having finished university studies in America and England. Baako listened to his speeches, which spoke of independence. Then Baako wrote an article, “My Hatred of Imperialism.” He was fired from his job. He was blacklisted, and no one would employ him. He hung around the city, eventually meeting Nkrumah, who entrusted him with the position of editor in chief of the Cape Coast Daily Mail. Kofi was twenty years old.

He wrote another article entitled “We Call for Freedom,” and was jailed. Arrested with him were Nkrumah and several other activists.They spent thirteen months behind bars, before finally being released. Today, this group constitutes Ghana’s government.

Now Baako speaks about broad issues. “Only thirty percent of the people in Ghana can read and write. We want to abolish illiteracy within fifteen years. There are difficulties: a shortage of teachers, books, schools. There are two kinds of schools: missionary-run and state-run. But they are all subject to the state and there is a single educational policy. In addition, five thousand students are being educated abroad. What frequently happens is that they return and no longer share a common language with the people. Look at the opposition. Its leaders are Oxford- and Cambridge-educated.”

“What does the opposition want?”

“Who knows? We believe that an opposition is necessary. The leader of the opposition in parliament receives a salary from the government. We allowed all these little opposition parties and groups to unite, so they would be stronger. Our position is that in Ghana, anyone who wants to has the right to form a political party—on the condition that it not be based on criteria of race, religion, or tribe. Each party here can employ all constitutional means to gain political power. But, you understand, despite all this, one doesn’t know what the opposition wants. They call a meeting and shout: ‘We’ve come through Oxford, and people like Kofi Baako didn’t even finish high school. Today Baako is a minister, and I am nothing. But when I become minister, then Baako will be too stupid for me to make him even a messenger.’ But you know, people don’t listen to this kind of talk, because there are more Kofi Baakos here than all those in the opposition put together.”

22 April 2011

Kapuscinski on breezes and buses in Africa

From The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, trans. by Klara Glowczewska (Vintage, 2002), Kindle Loc. 200-213, 312-318:
A bus in Accra has a wooden body, its roof resting on four posts. Because there are open walls, a pleasant breeze cools the ride. In this climate, the value of a breeze is never to be taken for granted.

In the Sahara, the palaces of rulers have the most ingenious constructions—full of chinks, crannies, winding passageways, and corridors so conceived and constructed as to maximize cross-ventilation. In the afternoon heat, the ruler reclines on a mat optimally positioned to catch this refreshing current, which he breathes with delight. A breeze is a financially measurable commodity: the most expensive houses are built where the breeze is best. Still air has no value; it has only to move, however, and then immediately acquires a price.

The buses are brightly ornamented, colorfully painted. On the cabs and along the sides, crocodiles bare their sharp teeth, snakes stretch ready to attack, and flocks of peacocks frolic in trees, while antelope race through the savannah pursued by a lion. Birds are everywhere, as well as garlands, bouquets of flowers. It’s kitsch, but full of imagination and life.

The inscriptions are most important of all. The words, adorned with flowers, are large and legible from afar, meant to offer important encouragements or warnings. They have to do with God, mankind, guilt, taboos....

Bus at BoumnyebelEvery now and then our bus stops along the side of the road. Someone wants to get off. If it’s a young woman with a child or two (a young woman without a child is a rare sight), there unfolds a scene of extraordinary agility and grace. First, the woman will secure the child to her body with a calico scarf (her small charge sleeping the entire time, not reacting). Next, she will squat down and place the bowl from which she is never separated, full of food and goods of all kinds, on her head. Then, straightening up, she will execute that maneuver of a tightrope walker taking his first step above the abyss: carefully, she finds her equilibrium. With her left hand she now clutches a woven sleeping mat, and with her right the hand of a second child. And this way—stepping at once with a very smooth, even gait—they enter a forest path leading to a world I do not know and perhaps will never understand.

Kapuscinski: "The mzungu will eat you!"

From The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, trans. by Klara Glowczewska (Vintage, 2002), Kindle Loc. 948-973:
Edu and several cousins from his clan ... belong to the [Tanzanian] Sango-speaking people from the interior. They had been farmers, but their land grew barren, so several years ago they came to Dar es Salaam. Their first step: to find other Sango-speaking people. Or people from communities who are affiliated with the Sango through ties of friendship. The African is well versed in this geography of intertribal friendships and hatreds, no less critical than those existing today in the Balkans.

Following a ball of yarn, they will finally arrive at the house of a countryman. The neighborhood is called Kariakoo, and its layout is more or less planned—straight, perpendicularly aligned sandy streets. The construction is monotonous and schematic. The so-called swahili houses predominate, a type of Soviet-style housing—a single one-storied building with eight to twelve rooms, one family in each. The kitchen is communal, as are the toilet and the washing machine. Each dwelling is unbelievably cramped, because families here have many children, each home being in effect a kindergarten. The whole family sleeps together on the clay floor covered with thin raffia matting.

Arriving within earshot of such a house, Edu and his kinsmen stop and call out: “Hodi!” It means, in effect: “May I come in?” In these neighborhoods the doors are always open, if they exist at all, but one cannot just walk in without asking, so this “Hodi!” can be heard from quite a distance. If someone is inside, he answers, “Karibu!” This means: “Please come in. Greetings.” And Edu walks in.

Now begins the interminable litany of greetings. It is simultaneously a period of reconnaissance: both sides are trying to establish their precise degree of kinship. Concentrated and serious, they enter the primevally thick and tangled forest of genealogical trees that is each clan and tribal community. It is impossible for an outsider to make heads or tails of it, but for Edu and his companions, this is a critical moment of the meeting. A close cousin can be a great help, whereas a distant one—significantly less so. But even in this second instance, they will not go away empty-handed. Without a doubt, they will find a corner under the roof here. There will always be a little room for them on the floor—an important consideration, since despite the warm climate it is difficult to sleep outside, in the yard, where one is tormented by mosquitoes, by spiders, earwigs, and various other tropical insects.

The next day will be Edu’s first in the city. And despite the fact that this is a new environment for him, a new world, he doesn’t create a sensation walking down the streets of Kariakoo. It is different with me. If I venture far from downtown, deep into the remote back alleys of this neighborhood, small children run away at the sight of me as fast as their legs can carry them, and hide in the corners. And with reason: whenever they get into some mischief, their mothers tell them: “You had better be good, or else the mzungu will eat you!” (Mzungu is Swahili for the white man, the European.)

Once, I was telling some children in Warsaw about Africa. A small boy stood up and asked, “And did you see many cannibals?” He did not know that when an African returns to Kariakoo from Europe and describes London, Paris, and other cities inhabited by mzungu [the Swahili plural should be wazungu—J.] his African contemporary might also get up and ask: “And did you see many cannibals there?”
Most people who've done fieldwork in very different cultures have had the experience of being used by mothers and other caretakers to scare younger children.

10 April 2011

Wordcatcher Tales: Binga, Befam

The dusty dirt road from Lolodorf to Ebolowa was only 107 km long, but it took us three hours to cover the distance in our hired Toyota sedan, over ten years old and without air-conditioning, so we often had to choose between keeping the dust out and the heat in, or letting some dust in to get some fresh air. By the time we reached the outskirts of Ebolowa, we were ready for a refreshing lunch stop in as nice a restaurant as we could find, so we began asking people on the street to direct us to the nearest hotel, which turned out to the brand-new, European-standard Florence Hôtel. (We found out too late that we would have had many more choices had we driven into the city center first.)

We felt out-of-place from the moment we entered the front gates and noticed the newer Mercedes and Land Cruiser parked inside. The feeling only increased as our parched and dusty party of four were ushered to a linen-covered table with fine silverware opposite a wooden bar counter with a premium selection of duty-free-shop liquors on the wall behind it. Despair mounted as we perused the menu. The cheapest main dish cost 4,000 francs CFA (< 10 USD), and the price of the table d'hôte buffet set out for a banquet meeting then underway of visiting dignitaries from the Société Nationale d'Investissement du Cameroun was 12,000 francs CFA.

We finally settled on vegetable soups for starters and fruit plates for dessert (each about 2,000 francs), with nothing in between, and bottled water to drink. Our waiter was pleasantly accommodating and even brought us extra water at no charge. He very likely assumed we were missionaries, especially after we quizzed him about the words that marked the women's and men's rooms, binga and befam, respectively. (It was like seeing wahine and kane on the restroom doors of a French brasserie in Honolulu.) The restrooms were otherwise to European standard, spotlessly clean, with hot and cold running water, airjet hand driers, and toilet paper. In fact, they were the nicest restrooms we used during our two weeks in Cameroon.

We stopped later in the afternoon at the Repere Bar on the outskirts of Yaoundé in order for our driver and my brother belatedly to eat their main courses, beef stew with manioc and rice, respectively, for 500 francs each, while my wife and I each had a large bottle of Guinness, for 900 francs each. (The facilities there were rather more basic.)

The language we had encountered on the doors was Bulu, a dialect of the Beti language group widely spoken across the rain forests of southern Cameroon and neighboring countries. The current president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, comes from the Beti-speaking region. According to our Florence Hôtel waiter, binga means 'women' and minga means 'woman', while befam means 'men' and fam means 'man' (a near homophone of French femme). Speakers of Castilian or Catalan can get a taste of the closely related Fang dialect online.

This kind of distinction is typical of Bantu languages, which mark different noun classes with prefixes that distinguish singular from plural in the case of count nouns. Or at least they do so in Narrow Bantu, if not so regularly in Wide Bantu (or Bantoid) languages. In fact, the word bantu means 'people', while muntu means 'person'. And that's why so many placenames in parts of Cameroon start with Ba-.

The most memorable introduction to this phenomenon that I've ever read was a passage in African Language Structures (U. California Press, 1974) by William Everett Welmers, who on p. 160 applies Bantu noun class and concord systems to words borrowed from English:

kipilefti ~ vipilefti 'roundabout(s), traffic circle(s)'
digadi ~ madigadi 'fender(s)' (< mudguard)

KeRezi (a fictional Bantu language)
mudigadi ~ badigadi 'bodyguard(s)'
mutenda ~ batenda 'bartender(s)'
matini 'martini' (with ma- marking mass nouns for liquids)

UPDATE: We're back from Cameroon and will have more tales to tell, but only after finishing taxes, posting more photos, and hitting the road for another week of travel.

03 April 2011

NGOs Drive Negative Reporting

The March/April 2011 issue of Columbia Journalism Review has a long-overdue article by former Peace Corps volunteer Karen Rothmyer under the provocative headline, Hiding the Real Africa: Why NGOs prefer bad news. Here's how it begins.
And now for some good news out of Africa. Poverty rates throughout the continent have been falling steadily and much faster than previously thought, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. The death rate of children under five years of age is dropping, with “clear evidence of accelerating rates of decline,” according to The Lancet. Perhaps most encouragingly, Africa is “among the world’s most rapidly growing economic regions,” according to the McKinsey Quarterly.

Yet US journalism continues to portray a continent of unending horrors. Last June, for example, Time magazine published graphic pictures of a naked woman from Sierra Leone dying in childbirth. Not long after, CNN did a story about two young Kenyan boys whose family is so poor they are forced to work delivering goats to a slaughterhouse for less than a penny per goat. Reinforcing the sense of economic misery, between May and September 2010 the ten most-read US newspapers and magazines carried 245 articles mentioning poverty in Africa, but only five mentioning gross domestic product growth.

Reporters’ attraction to certain kinds of Africa stories has a lot to do with the frames of reference they arrive with. Nineteenth century New York Herald correspondent Henry M. Stanley wrote that he was prepared to find Zanzibar “populated by ignorant blacks, with great thick lips, whose general appearance might be compared to Du Chaillu’s gorillas.” Since the Biafran War, a cause célèbre in the West, helped give rise in the late 1960s to the new field of human rights, Western reporters have closely tracked issues like traditional female circumcision. In the 1980s, a famine in Ethiopia that, in fact, had as much to do with politics as with drought, set a pattern of stories about “starving Africans” that not only hasn’t been abandoned, but continues to grow: according to a 2004 study done by Steven S. Ross, then a Columbia journalism professor, between 1998 and 2002 the number of stories about famine in Africa tripled. In Kenya, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1960s and where I returned to live four years ago, The New York Times description of post-election violence in 2007 as a manifestation of “atavistic” tribalism carried echoes of Stanley and other early Western visitors.

But the main reason for the continued dominance of such negative stereotypes, I have come to believe, may well be the influence of Western-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international aid groups like United Nations agencies. These organizations understandably tend to focus not on what has been accomplished but on convincing people how much remains to be done. As a practical matter, they also need to attract funding. Together, these pressures create incentives to present as gloomy a picture of Africa as possible in order to keep attention and money flowing, and to enlist journalists in disseminating that picture.

Africans themselves readily concede that there continues to be terrible conflict and human suffering on the continent. But what’s lacking, say media observers like Sunny Bindra, a Kenyan management consultant, is context and breadth of coverage so that outsiders can see the continent whole—its potential and successes along with its very real challenges. “There are famines; they’re not made up,” Bindra says. “There are arrogant leaders. But most of the journalism that’s done doesn’t challenge anyone’s thinking.”

Over the past thirty years, NGOs have come to play an increasingly important role in aid to Africa. A major reason is that Western donors, worried about government corruption, have channelled more funds through them. In the mid-1970s, less than half a dozen NGOs (like the Red Cross or CARE) might operate in a typical African country, according to Nicolas van de Walle, a professor of government at Cornell, but now the same country will likely have 250.

This explosive NGO growth means increasing competition for funds. And according to the head of a large US-based NGO in Nairobi, “When you’re fundraising you have to prove there is a need. Children starving, mothers dying. If you’re not negative enough, you won’t get funding.” So fierce is the competition that many NGOs don’t want to hear good news. An official of an organization that provides data on Somalia’s food situation says that after reporting a bumper harvest last year, “I was told by several NGOs and UN agencies that the report was too positive.”
Fundraising organizations, whether NGOs or GOs, prefer narratives of impending doom or ongoing catastrophe.

via Black Star Journal