Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Blaine Harden Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent

TITLE: Africa: Dispatches from a fragile continent
AUTHOR: Blaine Harden
PAGES: 333
PUBLISHERS: Harper Collins Publishers, 1990
GENRE: History

Blaine Harden has an upper hand in writing on Africa. When writing the book Harden was the bureau chief of The Washington Post in Sub-Sahara Africa stationed in Nairobi. Harden wrote African news for an American audience. Harden transverse the continent and brings dispatches from seven countries in sub-Sahara Africa. Seven ain’t a small number if you consider the countries: Sudan, Kenya, DRC, Zambia, Nigeria, Liberia, and Ghana.

From the seven countries Blaine Harden crafts, with a masterful stroke, the lives of Africans from the powerful to the powerless to illuminate African values.

The book ain’t comprehensive survey on African political and socio-economic challenges because not all countries are covered. In addition the target audience was primarily American, western. But Africa: Dispatches from a fragile continent, some what checks how the African society changes and grapples with modernity.

The book begins with a boat passage through the Zaire in ‘Big Bad River’. Harden makes the reader live the story of dissemination of DRC to poverty. From the smell of the rainforest, squeaking chimpanzees and bleating goats for slaughter to the big man Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Wa Za Banga, christened Joseph Desire Mobutu at birth. Although channeled with aid from western allies, Mobutu en massed a fortune which was over DRC’s GDP and loan.

Ironically, a sociology professor in Ghana specializing in African family studies is harassed by his family who constantly need money. The cynical and angry don is tied to his family by guilt. An Ashanti adage to which he belongs goes: “if your elders took care of you while you were cutting you teeth, you must in turn take care of them while they are losing theirs.”

The Sudan’s Darfur war is told through the life of a Dinka cow head turned NBA star, Manute Bol. Harden tackles the root cause of the civil war. Among the tallest players in the history of NBA at seven foot six-and-three-quarter-inch Bol, whose head reached the basketball hoop is used by the author from when he ran from home to the NBA.

Bol dodged the war by his Dinka tribe against the Khartoum government when rebels recruited youths. Against many odds, like not knowing any word in English, Manute prevailed with some coaches predicting that he would ‘break like a grasshopper because of his height. An arm here, a leg over there.’

The skirmish between the African-Christian southerners and the Muslim-Arab north is caused by slave trade. In 1871 a war broke between the first war broke between the Negro south and Tarco-Egyptians slave traders aided by the Arab north. The schism was further scaled by the coming of British colonialists.

By divide and rule southern African tribes were separated from the aggressive Muslims who resisted the spread of Christianity. After a half a century of British tutelage the two regions looked like two different states.

Racism flared, the ignorant north wrote a sharia constitution for Sudan and barred southerners from powerful positions. The Arabs considered the Negros no more than slaves. Hell broke loose, the Darfur war was ignited.

Of the seven chapters in the book the longest are on African leadership. From the kind man president Kenneth Kaunda who carried white handkerchiefs for weeping in public when emotionally charged to his hold to one party system.

Semi-illiterate Samwel Doe who seized power on 12th April; 1980 in Liberia and within ten years survived 38 coup and assassination attempts due to support from US who considered him a cold war assets.

Blaine Harden analyzes Nigeria extensively. Nigeria, the most populous African country boasting many educated intellectuals is seen by most as the country to play in Brazil, Malaysia and India league.

Though known in the continent in negative adjectives as loud, dirty, violent and corrupt, infamous Nigeria even among Nigerians gives a glimmer of hope. Even the editorial board of New African writing conversely on Africa to the western media espouses. Harden confirms: “I believe that Nigeria’s mix of talent, resources, and gall will one day pull out of Africa’s nth world.”

Moi’s regime

Harden covers the Kanu regime and the insipidly acquisitive former vice-President of Kenya Daniel Toroitich arap Moi. A curious character.

While serving as Jomo Kenyatta’s vice-president young Kikuyu ministers in government often insulted him mistaking his quietness for stupidity.

A Tugen, a small non-factor sub-tribe from a small non-factor tribe of Kalenjins made him appear like a passing cloud. His adversaries were mistaken when Moi stuck in power for 24 years surviving the 1982 coup.

The cunning Moi enforced discipline, built loyalty, kept pretenders off balance and motivated flatterers and sycophants to sing even louder. “I would like ministers, assistant ministers, and others to sing like a parrot after me, that is how we can progress." Moi said on 1984.

Blaine had run-ins with the Moi’s regime when a story he did for The Washington Post rubbed Moi the wrong way and almost caused him his work permit. The story was inspired with a lawyer Gibson Kamau Kuria.

The author remembers Kuria’s hair and beard looked as if they had been trimmed with garden shears. He was round and rumpled, it seemed he slept on his pinstriped suit. All this apart what was most unusual was Mr. Kuria’s legal specialty – human rights- which was not sort of specialty for smart lawyers during Moi’s regime.

Mr. Kuria’s misgiving was representing an anti-government politician, Mirugi Kariuki from Nakuru on detention without trial. He was arrested twenty four hours after filing suit and charge with uttering words and conducting himself in total disrespect of the head of state and being a member of the outlawed Mwakenya.

The story turned Moi’s trip to the White House on Reagan’s administration to coax for military and economic aid into a fiasco. The four column story headlined Police Torture is charged in Kenya accompanied with Reagan and Moi’s picture at the top of front page appeared on The Washington Post.

Moi was infuriated.

He left USA well ahead of schedule and in a foul mood. What followed was drama as the government owned Kenya Times and government officials joined fray of condemning foreign journalists. Nicholas Kipyator Biwott, Energy minister then called a press conference attacking the author thinking he was a woman

To cut off political legs of more educated and polished rivals Moi used the balloon and needle theory. “You know a balloon is a very small thing. But I can pump it up to such an extent that it will be big and look very important. All you need to make it small again is to prick it with a needle.”

Moi once told an anonymous Member of Parliament. Attorney-General Charles Njonjo makes an interesting story. Njonjo had his balloon ego inflated.

Moi encouraged the pride.

The wealthy lawyer wore a red rose on his three piece suits inscribed CH(Charles Njonjo) all around. The suits were specifically made and flown from London. Very British. The AG was knighted Sir (sic). So powerful was the AG that he was given illusions of wielding more power than the president.

He casually dropped words like ‘my government’ in conversations. The needle came when Moi labeled him a traitor for trying to take the presidency with the help of foreign powers while travelling outside the country in 1983.

He was disgraced and failed in legal forum to regain his post.

To digress, the last time he appeared on the Kenyana press Njonjo was calling for a new constitution during the referendum when banana and orange peeling were an eyesore. He was surrounded by citizens, common wanainchi wa kawaida.

A far cry from former AG locked up in the bureaucratic doodle and hell to minimize contacts with Kenyans. In another incident a puzzled child pulled on the rose on a funeral.

Too much for an imbecile whose footsteps can’t be meaningfully traced on the sands of time.

Jomo Kenyatta was a prolific at taking large tracks of lands legally while leaving squatters. On the other hand Moi was a Kleptocrat. The government and civil society followed suit.

A good story in the book is illustrated in “Good intentions’ about an ill-planed and kickback induced project of the Turkwell Gorge dam.

The lead story.

The story Battle for the body drew me to the book. It brings the episode of the most talked about corpse in Kenya: SM Otieno. The body was buried 154 days after death at Nyalgunga in western Kenya.

It is the first time to read the story in un-interruptible continuous flow way from tit bits thrown in a story.

Harden writes the story against tribal leaning and sheds lights not only for the struggle for the body. the But thee struggle for modernity and African values during time and the back drop court room maneuver are brought fore.

The court room was a proxy battle field.

The score between Kikuyu and Luo was to be was to be settled. Government used the court as tribo-politics chip.

Rich and vibrant S.M Otieno, a Luo, criminal lawyer, married Wambui who was from Kikuyu chiefdom. Wambui was imprisoned with the Mau Mau for three and a half years at Lamu. She begot a daughter while in detention from a rape ordeal with a white warden.

Prior to meeting Otieno she had three more children by another Luo man who planned to marry her but the marriage was nixed on tribal grounds.

The two met when Wambui went to Nairobi court house to visit her father who Otieno worked for. The rest as it is put is history.

Back to the funeral the first ruling in favor of Wambui was issued by a Briton high court judge Justice Frank Shield and was overruled by the court of appeal. The case was heard at the courtroom of Justice S.E.O Bosire who was considered from a neutral tribe, Abagusii. A Bantu like the Kikuyu and bordering the Luo’s in Nyanza province.

The widow was represented by London and New York University educated John Khamirwa. Khamirwa specialized in family and criminal law. S.M Otieno elder brother Joash Ochieng’ Ougo, a co-litigant, was presented by Richard Kwach who studied law at university college, Dar es salaam and communication at university of Pittsburgh in Michigan. Although Kwach had no major trial case, he was a better orator.

Twenty four witnesses gave testimony. A prominent lawyer. A journalist. Several well to do family friends, and Otieno’s first son Jairus. The testimony of Albert Ong’ang’o, a grave digger who dug Otieno’s father grave gave the final verdict to Otieno’s clan. He claimed the lawyer instructed him personally to dig his grave.

A year later after burial the court of appeal, the highest court in Kenya got a new judge. Justice Richard Kwach. The writer sees Moi’s maneuver in the selection and verdict.

Final verdict.

Africa: Dispatches from a fragile continent is thoroughly researched, the footnotes and selected bibliography gives credit to most story line. But the story is slanted one feels it was meant specifically for the western audience by not leaving an objective thinking.

The language and the prose flow with simplicity that captures the reader.

Harden is superb writer and a reporter. In 1987 he won the Lavington award for feature writing.

1 comment:

  1. I am reading Blaine's book in 2011 but the story is as gripping as ever. Some things have changed - for example in telephony - across the continent but the underlying malaise of leadership festers.

    Luckily for us the grassroots everywhere are getting more empowered, so soon change will come that is completely liberating and durable.
    John Onyando