Thursday, August 20, 2015

Greenland and the End of Exploration

The roving celestial beasts of Lascaux’s Paleolithic hunting scenes and the scurvy-ridden, snow-blinding odyssey of Shackleton’s Antarctic survival may be distant in time and space, but the events and their retelling share a coeval impulse. Remote exploration and extreme risk are palpable vestiges of our intrepid and predatory ways, but that these acts inform our oldest tales about our place in the world seems almost unrecognized today. 

Among the "uses of adventure" in traditional societies--from Greek mythology, the Upanishads and ecstatic shamanism in Siberia to creation myths across the Americas--individual heroism and group survival often recur, followed by revelations of nature's secrets, the cosmos, and our own origins. Adventure is possibly the oldest, most persistent subject matter we share through our stories. This historical pairing of legendary feats and their retelling appears so intrinsic to our being that we're numb to its remarkable peculiarity.

In today's literary marketplace, daunting feats in wild nature hold little appeal. How did this reversal come about? We remain fascinated by secrets, yet contemporary writing (fact and fiction) revels in individual experience, where the inner lives of characters are explored as exotic landscapes, conjured or real. Besides this turn toward inner landscapes, narrative style is emphasized equally if not more than the tale recounted--Salinger, Hemingway, DF Wallace are pioneers of this mannered approach. 

A surfeit of grandiose Everest accounts surely helped dig this grave, but the bulk of adventure writing today is low-brow, unartful or vain, approaching kitsch. Few adventure writers escape the scorn of the high-brow critic--Thesiger, Mathiessen and Gretel Ehrlich are prominent exceptions. A random pick from my Africa shelves reveals Facing the Congo: A Modern-Day Journey into the Heart of Darkness by acclaimed travel writer Jeffrey Tayler. A literary expatriate attempts Conrad's famous voyage, this time in a dugout canoe. Instead he collides with Congo's surreal poverty and extreme destitution, recoils, then finds himself grander for the experience. Self-glorification and the voyeurism of disaster tourism disguised as adventure lit? Little surprise then that the genre feels spent of originality and nuance, resorting instead to spectacle, gimmick or humor. 

I've started a short survey of expedition writing in Greenland, beginning with Knud Rasmussen's canonical Across Arctic America (1924) through to Gretel Ehrlich's lyrical This Cold Heaven (2001). The series comprises an array of accounts that track the genre's high points in the post-Heroic Age of exploration. Epic exploration effectively died in Greenland, which had long served as a staging ground for attempts on the North Pole and elusive Northwest Passage. Once these prizes were claimed, their sponsors and celebrity explorers feted, exploration's Heroic Age ended with Peary's 1909 contested claim to the pole.

Undervalued and invisible to the prize seekers of the former era, in Greenland arose a new vision of exploration and the writing it produced. The new crop of adventurers was void of fame seekers, wealthy patrons seeking new lands in their name, nations stalking glory by funding high-risk/high-return expeditions.

Rasmussen was the first figure to break the lull of this hiatus, famously testing his hypothesis of the continuity of Inuit peoples from Greenland to Siberia over five years of dogsledding, inaugurating a new mode of inquiry and exploration into human origins. Thor Heyerdahl would try a similar approach in the South Pacific (Kon Tiki, 1947), sailing a balsa raft from Peru to Easter Island and demonstrating, he believed, that the culture behind the island's famous monoliths originated not in Polynesia but with Amerindians of South America.

Subsequent Greenland explorers like Jean Malaurie deepened this appreciation of indigenous peoples as terra nova, inspiring similar approaches in the Amazon (Levi-Strauss) and Congo (Colin Turnbull). Other notable Greenland travelers arrived by accident; their nearly fatal encounters with the island rewrote their artistic careers and legacy entirely (Rockwell Kent). More recent adventurers such as TM Kpomassie (An African in Greenland, 1977and Gretel Ehrlich are more lyrical and romantic than outright expeditionary, but chronicle the deep power of remote and hostile locales to ignite our imagination by testing our physical and psychological limits. In Greenland, art and the trials of endurance have a long synergy. The literature around these efforts avoids the clunky kitsch seen elsewhere, Congo and Everest being the two most obvious examples. 

I'll be shopping this one around, so stay tuned for the full article. 

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Inside Ebola

(c) P Casaer
Last year's media coverage of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa riveted me on two fronts: seeing how western society reacted to the threat of a highly mobile, lethal virus and how the affected nations themselves (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea) managed the trauma, on the heels of decades of conflict and instability.

If you work in this business, you have friends who worked there inside one relief effort or another. Their stories are illuminating, for no man-made conflict presents so starkly the moral dilemma of Ebola: the patient you are treating is a vector of lethal contagion. In war, by contrast, we work primarily with victims of conflict, less the combattants themselves. Lethality is once removed. Ebola means handling live hand grenades, their safety pin already pulled; the infected are landmines we knowingly tread upon. 

The bravery of those who choose to do this work is astounding--particularly national staff who have nowhere to run, no voluntary exit as expats do. Ebola, the great divider: gone are the disaster tourists, the adventure-seekers, the self-glorifiers among us.

And yet where in the media did we see anything that gave us reason for empathetic pause, an unblinking gaze sufficient to register the shared humanity of this apocalyptic visitation? It was nowhere to be seen. This past weekend in Brussels I was fortunate to see Affliction, Peter Casaer's new film from inside MSF treatment centers in the affected countries. Populated by care-givers, patients and their families, the film captures the human impact of this epidemic in ways we know are essential, yet were curiously absent as the crisis unfolded and global panic spiked.

Check out the trailer -- the film has been submitted to the Toronto International Film Festival

Friday, May 15, 2015

Jon Turk profile in summer edition of Adventure Kayak

Happy to see my profile of kayak explorer Jon Turk finally out, quite a while in the making. Thanks to Adventure Kayak for appreciating the importance of Jon's message.

An excerpt: "The real distinguishing factor for Turk, the core of his wonderful anachronism, is that small-craft exploration is not an end in itself, but a means to develop and test explanations for unanswered questions in human history. How do Arctic peoples relate to their Asian forebears? How did the earliest migrations to North America happen, what beliefs motivated them and what tools or vessels helped them traverse incredible distances?

“It’s boring to just recite details from the trip,” says Turk. “I’m more interested in what grand journeys like Ellesmere, and the massive migrations undertaken by our ancestors—what do these teach us? What wisdom do they impart, and why have humans undertaken such journeys throughout history?”

Against the current tide of photogenic free climbers, big wave surfers and kayakers dropping over 200-foot waterfalls, Turk echoes an older tradition of scholar-explorers who sought answers in the wild, beyond the reach of laboratories and scientific debate."

Full article here. Longer Q&A with Turk here

Friday, May 08, 2015

Magical drinking in Congo

Like alcohol anywhere, palm wine is a formidable social lubricant but its undercurrent of magical thinking sets it apart. Amos Tutuola, Nigeria’s answer to H.P. Lovecraft, first chronicled the ritualistic, surreal excesses of palm wine in his 1952 novel. I first tasted palm wine ‘in the bush of ghosts’, and rightly so—the phrase figures in the title of Tutuola’s follow-on experimental work.

Read the entirety of this little rumination on palm wine over at Roads & Kingdoms, a newish site I'm quite infatuated with. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Commemoration and critique -- Tim Hetherington four years on

Memorable for their fleeting dignity and searing panic of private moments in battle, serendipitous snaps of civilians and combatants with poignant acumen, his early photos miraculously wove the social, political and economic threads of a conflict into a single image--a West African Breughel sans folly or satire. This was the young Hetherington: still mystified by the paroxysms of humanity in the throes of war. 

Not a bad start, but embedding in warzones is not hard to do--anyone can become cannon fodder, and journalists have been accessing armies and frontlines for over a century. Yet to the casual observer conflict imagery from Liberia proved little had changed since Conrad's 'heart of darkness'. Tim saw the perverse effects of the 'new savagery': visually exciting but reinforcing our dismissive misanthropy all the same.  
With the award-winning Restrepo, Hetherington's lens came full circle. Too well known to recount here, the film unpacks the mystery of why young men are drawn to the combat experience. It's an attraction shared in degrees by aid workers and war journalists. War is the only opportunity we have in society to love each other unconditionally, to die for each other. 

Instead we get Che Guevara's face on a T-shirt: what greater insult to minority political struggle can there be? 

See the full article over at 3Quarksdaily.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The other Lonestar state

While writing a commemorative piece on Tim Hetherington recently, Liberia was fresh again in my mind. I pulled up a short rumination on post-conflict Monrovia from a few years ago--it's still got some kick so I repost it here. With the Ebola catastrophe the country seems condemned to cyclical bouts of rebirth and dread. Amazing people, our Liberian brethren, too bad about the phantom institutions and navel-gazing leadership: nothing Gates money or the WHO can fix.


After a couple of rain-soaked days and nights in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital and on record as one of the world’s wettest cities, it was time to venture out for a quick run.

There is no green space in Monrovia, only piles of human waste and decades of accumulated debris from buildings rocked by fourteen years of civil conflict. The decline is accelerated by the pounding rainy seasons and years of neglect. Utterly evaporated is the Monrovia described in Graham Greene’s Journey without Maps: "a life so gay, with dancing and the cafés on the beach." From my lodgings in a dilapidated convent near the beach, I thought I might head in that direction. I’ve always associated coastlines with escape and was needing one now. 

Read the rest of this travelogue over at 3Quarksdaily...  (image: Chris Hondros, RIP)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Cold Remains in Greenland

There's a lot of Cold War wreckage scattered around Greenland. This 'parallel life' of the eighth continent is rarely associated with the country's more famous Inuit and Norse cultural heritage, its sealskin kayaks and narwahls.

A lovely photo essay of the ultra-remote icecap, along with several abandoned listening posts from this lost era, appears in this month's National Geographic. Murray Fredericks stands tall behind the camera.

My own article on this fascinating but little known dimension of 20th century Greenland is now out on Warscapes, a site devoted to writing on life and culture in places of extreme conflict, insecurity or marginalization.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Upcoming publications on Greenland and Jon Turk

This site seems quiet but I've been busy with a couple of articles that will appear shortly. I'll post the links here.

One is a profile and interview with Jon Turk, award-winning endurance sea kayaker and scholar-explorer. We talk about the state of extreme adventure today, the current preference for stunts over long-term expeditions to test scientific or sociological hypotheses, such as early human maritime migration, as Turk has done. This profile will appear in the May issue of Adventure Kayak, successor to the beloved Sea Kayaker magazine, recently discontinued after a thirty year career.

The other article on Greenland, following my visit there in 2013, will appear on the excellent travel site Roads and Kingdoms as part of a series on breakfasts in obscure locales. We ate a lot of fresh Arctic char on our late morning breaks while paddling Greenland's fjords.

I'm also working on a survey of expedition writing staged in Greenland, beginning with Knud Rasmussen's canonical Across Arctic America (1924) through to Gretel Ehrlich's lyrical This Cold Heaven (2001).

Still shopping this one around so stay tuned. 

The state of Françafrique and French privilege for Africa’s most venal

In the 1960s, post-colonial Africa was the most hopeful place on the planet. Post-partum exuberance in Europe’s former colonies was infectious and abundant. Yet fate has not been kind to sub-Saharan Africa. From Namibia to Guinea to Somalia, the path of most sub-Saharan nations has traced an arc of intimate complicity with the predatory appetites of their former colonial masters. Nowhere has this neo-colonial continuation of anti-development and enrichment by and for the few been more evident than in France’s former colonies.

The nature of governance in these ex-colonies attests to the abiding power of the self-serving instinct and immediate gain, over and against the long-term goal of national progress. Such is the confounding irony of Africa’s entire post-colonial era in nations previously occupied by France, Britain, Portugal and Belgium alike: why is the colonial, predatory model of governance so faithfully re-enacted by ruling African elites? It’s as if all that negative conditioning only succeeded in instilling a predatory instinct in the new ruling class. Why are Mandela-style visions for collective prosperity not more common, given the shared experience of subjugation and occupation across the continent?

Read the rest of this analysis of Françafrique over at 3Quarksdaily.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The miracle of new primates in Congo: another major discovery

Introduced to modern science in 2012 by John and Terese Hart (and reported here), the Lesula is the second of two major African primate discoveries over the last quarter century. With exponential population growth, armed conflict, demand for bushmeat and lucrative poaching markets across Central Africa’s forests, the discovery is remarkable.

Identified only last month, a third one—‘Inoko’ in local dialects—still seems miraculous. John and Terese offer an amusing account of the surrounding events on their blog. Scientific confirmation is pending, and photographic studies of the animal are still being completed.

Read more on this welcome surprise and the amazing conservationists behind it over at Medium.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Seeing without a State -- Why James Scott matters to foreign aid

International development is social engineering, yes, but with a social justice lens. Its success hangs on its ability to translate intention into action, the offer of foreign assistance into local appropriation, application and transformation. Redundancy should be its metric of success, yet international development has become a steady career track for young westerners, many plied with advanced degrees in its theories and operational models. None of this--the academic programs, the career tracks--existed twenty years ago.  The simple vocational appeal of 'working oneself out of a job' is long gone.

In the increasing professionalization and careerism of foreign aid (development & disaster relief), what is sacrificed are the years of fieldwork needed to cultivate a hands-on appreciation of destitution itself, the human suffering and loss of potential that ensues, and their causal origins in failed public institutions and cynical leadership. Academic degrees now matter more in development than field experience; the truism that local immersion is the best—many would say only—teacher is no longer followed. In my travels and teachings, I notice among students and young development professionals an unspoken disregard for living at the village level or heart of an urban slum for any period of time. There one is bereft of social media, most modern technology and infrastructure. Life must be experienced purely on local terms. Discomfort with vulnerability and perceived risk may be part of this rejection, but personal security is almost always a question of local networks.

Read the rest of this short analysis over at Medium...

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Security Sector as Cause and Solution to DR Congo's Sexual Violence Crisis

Like any deep malaise, Congo’s rape crisis is but one expression of entrenched, systemic problems. Local witnesses, security analysts and medical professionals who treat survivors present overwhelming evidence that the primary perpetrators are uniformed Congolese security actors. A weak justice system may be responsible for the failure to discipline or punish perpetrators, but the sources of this behavior lie within the security sector itself. Accessing the security elite, Congo’s infamous ‘black box’, is notoriously difficult. As a result, very little analysis exists of the problem from the perpetrators’ perspective: analysis and evidence that deciphers the institutional culture and internal organization of the security sector, or that maps relations between senior officers, politicians and economic actors. By design, opacity reigns supreme.

More on how sexual violence is being abated through Security Sector Reform at Sustainable Security

Monday, December 23, 2013

DR Congo launches its National Investment Plan for Agriculture. Is anyone listening?

At around 2.5 per cent of the national budget, DR Congo spends the least on agriculture of all its neighbors, a figure made more minuscule given the great untapped potential of its vast arable lands. For comparison, the Republic of Congo spends close to 14%, Zambia 10% and Ethiopia over 20%.

Following the 2009 Maputo Accords, NEPAD initiated the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (or CAADP), a continent-wide compact to reduce poverty and hunger by increasing state investment in agriculture over a ten-year period, with two basic metrics: raise public ag spending to 10% of GDP and raise ag growth rates to 6% by 2020. Participating countries were encouraged to tailor their growth strategies and investment plans accordingly, and solicit the views of farmers' associations, civil society and the private sector for an inclusive national approach with popular support.

DR Congo announced its National Investment Plan for Agriculture (PNIA) last month in Kinshasa, with great fanfare and expense. A total of $5,730m is budgeted, but only $857m had been committed (93% from donors, 7% from GDRC) by the closing ceremony. So where were the investors? In interviews and public pronouncements, government officials are confident that their chosen path, the PNIA, will attract foreign investment and will modernize and monetize Congo’s vast agricultural potential, thus transforming the lives of the country's rural poor, nearly all of whom are isolated, subsistence farmers.

Outside of government, skepticism regarding the PNIA is high. The primary criticism from donors and the Congolese private sector accuses the GDRC of failing to commit to sweeping infrastructural renovation (communications, transport, electricity, etc) as the foundation of national economic growth, and instead shifting that burden onto the international firms it assumes are lining up to invest. Yet no foreign firm would consent to such a capital outlay given the country’s dismal business environment. Serious investors would expect to see government planning and budgets to this end, yet beyond the PNIA the GDRC has no comprehensive plan to address the country’s deeply eroded infrastructure (piecemeal donor projects are the norm), or resolve its regulatory morass and lack of legal protection for private enterprise.

An even greater deterrent, the current Code Agricole stipulates that any private enterprise would require a 51% ownership stake by the GDRC. These terms are currently being revisited, but the compromise under discussion is 20% national ownership -- still untenable for obvious reasons, particularly given the country's long history of nationalization (viz., Zairianisation), expropriating private businesses, stripping assets and triggering massive capital flight. This legacy is still felt today among potential investors who see Congo as too risky (unpredictable and unstable), and in the Kabila administration's patrimonial, anti-entrepreneurial policies. 

The other main deterrent for foreign investors is the cost of commerce itself which, after the endless hoops and ladders of business registration, is so high that local produce cannot compete with cheap imports. In the country’s urban centers, imported versions of Congo’s basic foodstuffs (palm oil, maize, beans, sugar, rice, and wheat flour) outnumber local varieties, except for cassava.  

This wave of imported commodities began with a policy enacted in Mobutu's final years (1992-96, known as ‘Plan Mobutu’) as colonial infrastructure finally and irretrievably collapsed, interrupting the regular flow of local produce into Kinshasa and causing food prices to soar. Allowing cheap foodstuffs from outside to saturate the market was initially intended as a stopgap measure, but the challenge of infrastructure rehabilitation proved overwhelming and was postponed indefinitely. Now as then, local produce is uncompetitive because high transport costs and extortion rackets deter trade, production and investment. Specific to local farming, the impact of systematic rent-seeking on agricultural production and trade is another crippling deterrent to rural agricultural production and commerce. Detailed studies of these organized rackets abound, but have had no policy impact.

Ambitious in vision and consistent with COMESA and AU policy frameworks, operationally the PNIA is unlikely to succeed. It is hostage to the government's general inability to address the country’s primary obstacles to economic growth—a chaotic business environment (legal protection, banking systems, transparent procedures/absence of corruption, and credit) and a very thin, highly unreliable infrastructure (power, transport, communications, etc). If in fact l'argent n'aime pas le bruit, then Congo's leaders need to concentrate on creating a law-abiding and responsive administration capable of reassuring investors that their entrepreneurism is welcome and respected.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Building Disaster Response Capacity and Resilience in Fragile States (case of Serbia)

How do we revitalize critical public services when a national government is in the throes of crisis management or distracted by the protracted after-effects of conflict or natural disaster? Solving this conundrum is crucial to making the transition from humanitarian to development assistance. Restarting basic public services is also key to rekindling a state’s credibility with its citizens, and the first step on the path from fragile to stable governance. The case of Serbia, where DAI worked for seven years on a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program to build disaster response capacity, suggests that supporting state disaster management institutions can be a powerful engine of resilience in fragile states.

In 2006, the Republic of Serbia was a fraught, divided state, its ministries run by rival political parties with no incentives to make the compromises necessary for national stewardship. Public services and state legitimacy were next to nil; popular resignation and resentment were on the rise despite the promise of a newly elected democratic government. Political paralysis in Belgrade was palpable in the erosion of public services, and meant that municipal authorities lacked the resources to mitigate and respond to natural disasters. Lives were lost and property destroyed in annual flooding, droughts, wildfires, and even periodic earthquakes.

Read the rest of this article here.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Racing in the Heartland -- Almanzo 100

Gravel racing is a rapidly growing field whose attraction is its focus on restoring the unsullied, authentic essence of bike racing before big money, ego and status permeated it. Cynics will say “You can’t go home again,” and they may be right. But at mile 81 of the Almanzo last week, my inner curmudgeon went quiet and I could see the race for what it was. Shouldering my bike and fording the second of two icy streams, I realized that a genuine love of the sport pervaded the entire event, from the welcome packet to the course design. Almanzo’s organizers don’t proselytize, but they have a clear vision of what bike racing has lost, and what it can become. Being able to take part in that vision was an enormous privilege.

Read the rest of this review over at Rouleurville.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Seven Lessons of Sea Kayaking

I scurried around the banks of the Potomac River, burying canned food, clothing and jugs of water in the cargo hatches of my kayak. My launch down the US eastern seaboard was imminent, a journey I’d been preparing for over a year. Weight distribution was the preoccupation of the moment, as the lay of the ballast would determine my tracking ability. Fighting for a straight line over unfamiliar waters in the following weeks would waste time and drain my stamina.

Dark cumulus crowded overhead, but a rainy departure didn’t bother me—a baptism of sorts and reminder that elemental immersion and climate exposure are a kayaker’s default mode. The East coast hurricane season was at its peak, and I’d be tracking storm developments on a weather radio. The draws of an autumn trip were cooler air temperatures and less solar intensity, with coastal waters retaining their summer warmth. The clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies would have thinned, the noisy summer beaches vacated. Raptors and Monarch butterflies had begun their southern migrations down the coast, and fauna would be fattening up for the winter—autumn is a time of preparation and epic distance. Deep winter with its quiet frozen landscape is my idea of perfection, but autumn offers clement temperatures, crisper air and favorable tradewinds for long distance kayaking. It was my final window before the big freeze.

Read the rest of this story of my trip from near Washington DC to the Outer Banks here.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

New monkey species in Congo

Wonderful news from my friends John and Terese Hart, who've been working on the scientific literature behind this announcement for at least two years, with their own funding. As John points out in this Guardian article, this announcement will also hopefully draw attention to the precarity of all small range creatures in DRC, from the White Rhino (now extinct in the wild) to the Okapi.

The bushmeat trade is widespread and the Congolese state lacks the means and will to combat poaching, whose growing militarization and network of international buyers were recently described in the New York Times (for which the Harts served as key sources).

In the area where the Lesula was identified, the Harts are working with local authorities and villagers to demarcate a protected area, with negotiated access rights for specific uses. This work is hands-on, intensive and very political. Popular support is essential to its success. This work is also privately funded -- and your support is needed.

I wrote a profile of the Harts and their work a couple years ago, back when the Lesula was still a zoological unknown. Their lifelong commitment to conservation in Congo, home of the last uncharted forests in Africa, is unmatched. In our cynical era we're expected to forego idols and heroes, but the Harts are doing incredibly important work in a country where conservation efforts and wildlife are constantly under attack.

Please visit their website to learn more and consider donating. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Absurd Wars?

To remark on how seamless our online and natural worlds have become is ho-hum these days, but last week as I slurped morning coffee and chatted online with a former Mai Mai rebel (whom I’ll call ‘Dikembe’) in turbulent eastern DR Congo, I found new reason to pause. Exchanging views on our perennial topic—solutions to Congo’s problems—felt as natural as the morning paper, but his statements resisted their usual meaning and tugged at me the rest of day. The part that recycled in my mind went a bit like this:

Dikembe: Things are bad in EDRC, Kabila [the president] can’t manage the situation.
Me: What does he manage? Nothing new there.
D: That’s why we reject him.
D: So how many Congolese have to die before the international community pays attention?
Me: The int'l community is impotent, you’ve seen that countless times. You have a government, ask them. You elected Kabila, why did you choose him? Or are you saying the elections were a fraud?
D: Aha, now you understand me perfectly. We are hearing that even his own security forces are moving against him. Only the international community can save us now.

In a previous episode of Congo’s tumult Dikembe and I worked together disarming combatants and reintegrating them into civilian life. Many were minors, Dikembe’s former subordinates from different local militias. Our program offered vocational training and the tools to start new businesses but few ex-combatants took it seriously. Most went along with the programs to kill time, selling the clothes and tools they received for cash. A lesson for us was that the adrenaline of pillage and the instant authority of the gun had become integral to their identity, defining them long after the firing stopped. Many ex-combatants, especially children, remained fiercely loyal to former commanders, rejecting their families and all forms of authority. Psychologically they were listless and volatile, preferring the bustle and relative anonymity of towns to the monotony and awkward familiarity of village life. Dikembe was no hero, but sage enough not to follow the herd. I watched him adapt to civilian life in wartime, a humbling series of privations, as he resisted the lure of easy money and influence through armed crime and extortion.

Read the full post here. 

Monday, April 02, 2012

Hip Hop and the "African Spring"

Why didn’t the momentum and exuberance of last year’s “Arab Spring” extend to African countries south of the Sahel? Sub-Saharan populations, many immediate neighbors of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, followed the drama with fascination and some envy. When we spoke, I was surprised how few colleagues and friends in sub-Saharan Africa were optimistic about a counterpoint “African Spring.” They claimed their societies “weren’t ready” to rally widespread discontent towards a political tipping point.

Historically, my friends were wrong—SSA has much experience with successful opposition movements, from colonialism to apartheid. But I took their resignation to mean that social fragmentation had secured the upper hand, proof that poverty and cynical governance were not just misanthropic but bitterly divisive as well. The process of overcoming deep social, generational and political divisions, with their common denominator of skepticism and self-interest, cannot simply be ignited like the proverbial box of tinder.

Internet connectivity was clearly an enabler for the Arab Spring, and SSA still lacks reliable connectivity and familiarity with social media. But coastal North African countries are different from their southern neighbors in infinite other ways as well. Despite non-western culture, values and religious beliefs, North Africa’s Mediterranean exposure imposes a definite political and economic orientation towards Europe, for ill or good. Solidarity in any form—security, economic, ideological—is almost non-existent between countries divided by the Sahel. Few North African countries look south for constructive economic or political opportunity. Exploitation of less developed southern countries (human trafficking, resource predation) is more the norm.

I’ve written here before about the Nile Basin Initiative, an internationally-funded effort to negotiate equitable use rights for the countries of the great river, killed by mutual mistrust in 2010. The late Colonel Gaddafi led Pan-Africanism, the only other north-south unification effort. His utopianism managed to defy open ridicule thanks to his hefty wallet, but never commanded serious attention. In hindsight it proved far more effective at ensconcing the dinosaur club of out-of-touch leaders, like Gaddafi himself, for decades. This retrograde model of leadership, widely practiced among newcomers to power, is arguably the continent’s greatest impediment to modernity.

Continue reading "Hip Hop and the “African Spring”"

Saturday, July 23, 2011

How to Write about Congo

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. The Collapse of Congo and the Great War of Africa, Jason K. Stearns (Public Affairs: 380pp, 2011)

How best to make sense of Congo’s enduring crisis, a tale of daunting political complexity and extraordinary cruelty? Many writers have tried, for no other African country captivates the western literary imagination as much as Congo. This fascination long precedes Joseph Conrad, who indelibly described King Leopold’s Congo Free State over a century ago. But faithful subjects do not good art make, and most western writing on Congo is unreadable or, at best, unbearable.

The sheer complexity of Congo’s dramatic history is one contributing factor behind all the dreadful writing. Many an author sacrifices compelling narrative for rigorous scholarship, resulting in a turgid swamp of acronyms for all the armed groups, the Security Council Resolutions and the doomed peace deals. Epic chronicles like Africa’s World War (Gérard Prunier) may be valuable to scholars but are so microscopically detailed as to be opaque to non-specialists.

Adventure writing, the other main genre of Congo literature, is equally abundant and can carry a plot, but the stories glorify the exploits of the author and ignore the Congolese. “Watch me as I commune with gentle pygmies, wrestle crocodiles on the great Congo River, escape beheading by a throng of stoned child soldiers”— setting the bar for unbearable reading. Common to both schools is the absence of Congolese voice; for both, Congo is a neutral, muted stage for the author’s performance (scholarship, “survival”). Faced with such output, one thinks, the trampling of Congo just goes on and on.

Jason Stearns shares this lament. A recognized scholar and field analyst with years of human rights reporting from the country’s most remote zones of conflict , he tackles Congo’s complexity head-on, unpeeling the onion of its myriad wars within wars. But Stearns is after larger game than demystifying Congo’s “inscrutable chaos” for a western audience. By capturing the political rationales and individual motives as voiced by key players themselves, abhorrent though they may be, he personalizes Congo’s tumultuous ups and downs. Taming this wooly complexity with character-driven narrative and firsthand experience, the book is ultimately a challenge to the reigning stereotype of Congo as an inchoate mêlée of raw power devouring the meek and innocent. Recalling the reductive lens that framed colonialism’s “civilizing mission” (humanity over barbarism, reason vs. unreason), it’s not hard to discern an unbroken line between western perceptions of Congo in Conrad’s time and our own elitist, arguably racist, comprehension today.

Continue reading this review here.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Haiti's Splendor Within

  While other countries are rediscovering people power and casting out dictators, Haiti is allowing them back. ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier came and went last January; Aristide now has a passport and may return any moment. If Baby Doc’s mute visitation was a desperate bid to correct a country’s freefall, his affect conveyed the opposite: an unreadable face and inchoate gestures of a now pitiful, once grandiose despot. Aristide’s return will be neither silent nor impassive.

So ended 2010 in Haiti, surely the country’s worst year since independence in 1804. The massive quake in January, then Hurricane Tomas, followed by a crippling epidemic of cholera. The year ended with a rocky electoral contest, still unresolved. These unwelcome malheurs conspired to attract the gaze of international media, holding it momentarily. Other spectacles now crow for our attention. Eclipsed by Libya and her neighbors, Haiti’s grip remains tenuous, its silence ominous. Jokes about the depths to which it has sunk—now a platform for foreign dignitaries so low even Sarah Palin can step up—would be funny if they weren’t true.
Leveled to rubble in January 2010, Port-au-Prince is gradually reconstituting itself, but progress will be painfully slow. The city was already mired in failed urban policies long before the catastrophic shudder; the flight of human capital among the political class only advanced as Haiti’s crisis deepened. Today’s void means easy access for anyone of means seeking political office, including pop singers at home and abroad (Michel Martelly and Wyclef). Haiti’s exhausted political class requires new blood, but where are the viable candidates? Popular elections rarely mean the collective interest is served; instead, a leader’s wish becomes his followers’ command. State-sponsored thuggery is a Haitian specialty.

To a new arrival, as I recently was, the obstacles confronting the average Haitian appear to stack up, layer by layer, to a point of monolithic immobility.

Read this rest of this piece here.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Follow the Money Trail...

Book Review: It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower, Michela Wrong (HarperCollins, 354pp, 2009)

A fast-moving tale of intrigue, deception and murder, It’s Our Turn to Eat follows conflicted patriot John Githongo into battle with a $1 billion USD corruption scheme directed by co-workers in Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki’s administration. The arc of events leading to his exile in Britain, the barrage of threats by Kenyan security agents and Githongo’s prodigal return are recast through the lens of classical tragedy, but with a single, telling anomaly: there’s no redemption, no glory. This is the real world, not Hollywood.
Returning in 2007 after two years in hiding, Githongo watches Kenya plunge into a fratricidal abyss following botched national elections. Waves of inter-ethnic violence push Kenya to the brink, with much of the bloodshed fomented by political elites, six of whom are now wanted by the International Criminal Court. That political violence between ethnic communities was not caused by tribalism, as many outside observers believe, but was a direct result of state-sponsored corruption is the deep water current in this book.

Read the rest of this review over at

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Love a Man in Uniform? Think Twice in Congo

In today’s world, rarely do raping and pillaging so routinely coincide as in Eastern Congo's conflict. Increased scrutiny from the US Congress and concerned activist networks are highlighting the systematic rape and abuse of Congolese women and girls by marauding security forces, particularly Congo’s National Army. Equally appalling is Congo’s 'conflict minerals' problem—mineral ores extracted from mines controlled by various military factions, fueling the lucrative anarchy that is crippling the East and supporting the communications technology central to our way of life. Greater scrutiny should bring practical solutions, but our policy makers are missing the elephant in the room.

So is it greed, governance or grievance driving this crisis? Eastern Congo is a vast ungoverned space; some of its many armed groups are foreign, others domestic. Yet none treat the civilian population as brutally as President Kabila’s own National Army. A recent Human Rights Watch survey indicates that Congolese soldiers are the primary rapists in the East.

Read the rest of this post here.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Comrade for a day in the former Yugoslavia

Once departed, many dictators are reviled and forgotten. Others are respected, even loved, long after their demise. Strange perhaps, and all the more so as their degree of popular endearment isn't always linked to their political deeds while alive, good or bad. A regular surprise in formerly autocratic states that I visit, the public estimation of departed dictators is more often arrived at through comparison with whatever political dispensation fills the void left in their wake. Few seem concerned by the human costs of a demagogue's quixotic quests or the excesses of his unreconstructed id. However Orwellian their experience, people tend to remember the good, not the bad.

In today's multi-polar world a full-blown autocrat is a rarity, although during the Cold War they multiplied like so many mushrooms. In Serbia, the jewel in the Yugoslav crown, Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980) is today neither despised nor idolized. Far greater concerns preoccupy the Serbian political imagination. With two former leaders in The Hague (Milosevic never left), a virulent nationalist movement and its stubborn denial of Kosovo independence, Serbia's ghosts are never quiet. Despite progress towards EU membership and greater economic integration of its ethnic minorities, a stable and prosperous Serbia is still very much a work in progress. While Tito cannot be blamed for Serb aggression and its ethnic cleansing campaigns in the 1990s, the breakup of the Balkans is directly related to the how and why of Tito's pursuit of a unified communist Yugoslav state. Tito-life

And yet on Tito's birthday last week in Belgrade, I witnessed the malleability of national memory as public spectacle. Tito fans converged to celebrate the achievements of their former leader and to indulge their fondness for the cultish kitsch that accompanied his reign (1943-1980). In a large garden on the grounds of the former headquarters of the National Youth League, we were led to benches in the sun, and limitless beer. Trumpets blared and the Yugoslav flag was raised. No one stood as the former national anthem was sung, but all were smiling and singing along. A Tito impersonator bounded onto the stage, launching into a series of tongue-in-cheek speeches. "Everything is changing, except we who remain the same," he declared to shouts, laughter and applause.

Read the rest of this post over at

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Protect and Serve: John and Terese Hart on Preserving Congo’s Wildlife

“Don’t share this image with anyone,” John Hart wrote after our first meeting, attaching a photo of a newly discovered species of primate. “The official scientific announcement isn’t out yet.” We had met in Washington as John was presenting his vision for a new national park in eastern DR Congo. The three river basins of the Tshuapa, Lomami and Lualaba Rivers (the ‘TL2’ in Hart-speak), all tributaries of the continent’s massive aquatic artery, the Congo River, contain the country’s most remote forests.

Straddling Orientale and Maniema provinces, the planned protected area forms part of the largest continuous canopy remaining in Africa. Living almost continuously in these forests since 1973, John and Terese now devote all their time and resources to the TL2 project. “We have the largest forests on the continent,” the couple explained when I met them later in Kinshasa. “And these contain the only unmapped areas left in Africa.”

What makes conservation in Congo unique is that many of its protected species exist in no other country. Among the best known are the Congo peacock, bonobo, Grauer’s gorilla, northern white rhino, and okapi, though there are many others. It has the highest diversity of mammals in any African country (415 species); 28 of these are found only within its borders. Of more than one thousand bird species, 23 live only in DRC. More than 1300 species of butterfly have been identified, the highest for any African country. Of the more than 11,000 documented plant species, 3200 grow only on Congolese soil.

For the rest of this piece on the Harts and their amazing work, go here.

This article is the first in a series on conservation in the DRC, and the Harts' work specifically:

Monday, November 30, 2009

Siam I am. Thoughts on Thailand.

Nature captivates in Thailand. Its beaches and islands are legend; its birdlife and tropical flora endlessly entertain. On this visit though, nature bored me. A relentless jetlag was partly to blame. Its disorientations so warped my perceptions and instincts that I acquiesced to its inversions, accepting the Thai night as my day. Also, I was hungry not for nature but for the artifice of human imagination: grand emanations of culture, artisanry, cosmology. Has our petty species generated anything that I’ve never seen, never imagined? In creativity is there redemption for Homo Faber? For answers to this question Thailand is a gold mine.

Heavily subject to international marketing strategies and thus cast as the ‘Land of Smiles’, Thailand wants desperately to be permeated by magic. Of all possible reasons to be ‘desperately seeking’, permeation by magic is worthy enough, and seemingly free of ulterior motive. Orientalism and its facile seductions be damned, I thought, after my first week in country. If this place holds even one treasure of the human spirit, its authenticity will be self-evident to the most gullible and the most jaded.

From where I live it’s an 18-hour flight to Thailand. I learned to stop fighting jetlag long ago; it is now my companion and confidant. Wandering Bangkok streets and alleys at 3 am, nothing remained of the diurnal parade of human pursuit to entertain me. Roaming dog packs and the occasional buzz of a moto taxi broke the surprising silence of a vast urban labyrinth. I was left with night’s shadows and breezes, long walks along empty boulevards and closed shop fronts, the constant hum of yellow street lamps and neon. Repetition sets in and one begins inspecting a city for its anomalies, its artifacts of human touch, the physical traces of the shopkeeper at home ensconced in dreams.

Continue reading Siam I am...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Under the Sun of Kimia II

Four different military operations are being pursued on Congolese soil today. The largest, the UN peacekeeping operation, is a patchwork of contingents from around the world, very few of whom are francophone. Most of the UN’s troop contributing nations are developing countries themselves. Their armies are poorly trained and equipped, and are hungry for the cash injection of a UN contract. The result is a purely symbolic peacekeeping force, where actual deterrence (protection of civilians) is hoped for but rarely demonstrated. Several UN contingents--Moroccans, Pakistanis and Indians among others--have been investigated for sexual abuse, arms and mineral trafficking. Like the country's national army and police, foreign troops under the UN banner are largely above the law.

Supported by Congo’s national army (FARDC), Uganda is pursuing remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army who've adopted Orientale Province as their base arrière. The LRA continue their attacks and abductions of civilians, having been reduced to survival mode. In October, Angola ‘invaded’ the Bas Congo province, sparking a diplomatic row, to liberate the Cabinda enclave from long-standing rebel control. If successful, these operations will create a more peaceful neighborhood. Routing rebel forces on neighboring terrain is the only way to end years of mutual suspicion and accusations of ‘supporting the enemy’. Most Congolese pay little attention to these operations, or the civilian abuses they entail. One reads security conditions like weather patterns, and adapts accordingly.

Prominent in the public eye is Operation Kimia II, underway in the Kivus. After years of pressure from the Congolese government, the UN joined forces with the FARDC and Rwandan troops to capture, kill or route FDLR forces involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide that have since disappeared into South Kivu’s remote western forests. Ostensibly a counter-terrorism operation, Operation Kimia II is producing mixed results. Local populations have lived for years under FDLR control, subject to a parallel administration widely reported as preferable to the Congolese administration. An absence of forced displaced from FDLR areas over the years attests to pacific relations between FDLR masters and local populations.

But as Kimia II advances into occupied territory, FDLR retaliations are frequent and civilians pay dearly. Recent travels into these areas have been fascinating, and infuriating. Typical of FARDC behavior around the country, soldiers assume control of local taxation structures (roads, markets), local mining operations, and pocket the money. Civilian authorities are shunted aside; local populations ignored or abused for having ‘cohabited with the enemy’. Congolese security culture retains the old Mobutu model: bapopulation baza bilanga ya bino (the population is your revenue source), dark sunglasses, macho pomp and hushed secrecy are de rigueur. No appreciation for classic counter-insurgency approaches, or the need to win the support and trust of civilians. Moreover, there seems a deliberate absence of planning for the transfer of power to civilian authorities, or a return to rule of law. Under FDLR, farmers farmed and miners mined in a climate of moderate prosperity. Now ‘liberated’ by Congolese forces, locals are subject to battering, forced labor, illegal taxation, rape and displacement. The gap between the objectives and methods of Kimia II could not be greater.

The premise of reconstituting eastern Congo by routing rebel forces and their parallel administrations, allowing the country’s civilian authorities to resume basic services and restore rule of law, is a farce. Under Kimia II there is no evidence that Congolese authorities, military or civilian, want or are able to provide those services. Even the modest first steps on Congo's long road towards modern statehood have yet be taken.