The triumph of Africa in America

In Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began, he spends a great deal of time talking about the fife and drum music of the northern Mississippi hill country, a genre I was completely unfamiliar with. He makes a big deal about how “African” the music is, but his prose alone didn’t quite convince me. (How does one describe completely unheard music, anyway?) I took a look on YouTube found several fascinating clips.

I was instantly enchanted with the unique sound — jazzy flutes and polyrhythms. It reminded me of something, too, but not something I knew in American music. I racked my brain and decided I had heard something like this when I was briefly in Chad in 2006. I looked through my old files and found the following.

I got chills as I watched my 10 year-old videos and realized that this was, in essence, the same music. I compared the audio again and again and found that the drums were all but synced, the phrasing of the woodwind was almost identical, and the vocals at the end of the phrase were quite similar as well. These two groups could easily jam together, with few adjustments.

It’s common to hear music in Latin America and the Caribbean, from Haiti to Colombia to Brazil, that has pretty obvious African antecedents. Although we all know that African music had a huge influence on American music, the links are not always quite as easy to hear. (And sure, Fela Kuti and James Brown may have some similarities, but they were listening to each other.) This is different. I don’t think Mississippian fife and drum players and Chadian flute and drum groups have had any recent interaction, yet they play, in these recordings at least, almost as if they know each other.

Slavery in America was singularly extreme in its repression of cultural heritage. Drums were banned almost everywhere. Ancestral languages were lost. The hinterlands were isolated and the control of the slave state probably more total than in other countries. Yet, through all of that and more, these black Mississippians kept their musical heritage alive. In the notes of their music we hear the voices of West or Central African ancestors who brought a specific musical skill with them and transmitted it to their children, and they to theirs.

Maybe they didn’t think of that transmission of music as a heroic act. Maybe they didn’t consider it “African” — a word that in many contexts was almost a slur for so long in America.  Definitely, it would have been hard for those musical stewards to guess that something called the internet would one day make their sounds so widely available. But they kept the flame of this musical tradition going because it was good and they recognized its power.

I can’t help but feel that those fife and drum players are heroes. Their performance is the telling of a history whose record was forbidden. It’s a triumph of human spirit through generations of unthinkable suffering. It is music as resistance. They kept a flame alive that had gallons of water thrown on it. They didn’t just endure: they overcame.

Bonus video: a short documentary, produced by Lomax, shows more context for the Mississippi music.

A look back at my trip on the Lunatic Express

The Lunatic Express got its name from its notorious expense and the high death rates of the largely South Asian workforce that built it at the turn of the last century. But the main thing that was insane about the railway when I rode it in 2010 — and I suspect little has changed — is the absurdly long time it took to transport me from the coast of Kenya to Nairobi: some 14 hours for a trip that could be made by road, in good conditions, in about six.

Why rush though? My overnight journey on the clattering train was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my many trips to Kenya. Waking up in a cheap sleeping compartment and watching giraffes watch you from an expanse of parched savannah was otherworldly.  Those 14 hours were some of the most peaceful I’ve had in a long time.

I reported a story on the trip for the Global Post, though they seem to have taken down the (awesome) audio slide show I did for them. Good thing I still have the recording of my interview of a curator of the Nairobi Railway Museum. Have a listen.

 

With news that a significant portion of the new coast-to-capital railway will supposedly be finished by 2017 — and I must stress the supposedly part here, given the disappointing pace of recent Kenyan infrastructure improvements — it seemed like a good opportunity to resurrect a few photos of my trip.

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Fort Jesus cannon, Mombasa.

Laborer, Mombasa train station.

Laborer, Mombasa train station.

Mombasa station.

Mombasa station.

Troubadour, Mombasa train station.

Troubadour, Mombasa train station.

Deseerted station houses in the middle of Kenya, dawn.

Deserted station houses, dawn.

Morning breaks on the savanna.

Morning breaks west of Tsavo National Park.

Dining car detail.

Dining car detail.

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Lonely house.

Lonely house.

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Shambas on the way.

Near Nairobi.

Near Nairobi.

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Nairobi shantytown.

Nairobi shantytown.

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My friend’s family survived the Westgate attacks. He shares his personal and political reactions.

Since Saturday, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to my good friend Sachin Gathani about the tragedy at Westgate Mall in Nairobi. This was not only because he is a good friend, a Kenyan citizen, and an insightful analyst of Kenyan affairs. He was also personally affected: his family members escaped from the mall after spending harrowing hours hiding in the parking lot, where they had gone to see a children’s cooking competition. (Sachin currently lives in Kigali, Rwanda, but flew home to Nairobi almost immediately when the attack began.) In light of that, I found particular value in his carefully considered perspectives on the violence, which struck so close to home. We decided to to collaborate on this Q&A so that I could air some of his views.

Q: Your brother, sister-in-law, and 3 year-old nephew escaped Westgate Mall after being trapped for hours during the attack. Can you tell me a little about what happened, and how they got out?

My brother and his family were actually leaving Westgate Mall having taken my nephew to the play area and also to observe a children’s cooking competition. They were in the car park on the top floor when they heard gunshots and instinctively ran with a group of people to a corner where they huddled behind a few cars. They were stuck in this position for a number of hours and witnessed several people who were killed as they tried to escape the indiscriminate hail of bullets and the two grenades that were hurled at others who attempted escape. After about 3 hours, the military personnel managed to fight back the terrorists and formed a protective cordon to enable them to escape through a back entrance of the mall. While I am very thankful that they were unhurt, I know that the searing images of innocent bystanders getting killed in front of them will have left an indelible mark on them. No three year-old should have to witness that.

Q: It is obviously a huge relief that your family escaped, though I am sure they are very shaken up. Four of your acquaintances who were at Westgate on Saturday did not make it out, though. Can you tell me anything about that?

I have a very bittersweet feeling right now. While I am very relieved that my family made it out alive, I know a few friends that did not and were killed immediately during the attacks. I don’t think the details are necessary but as you can imagine it was quite emotional as the news of their deaths slowly trickled in through the course of Saturday and Sunday.

Q: Those of us glued to our computers through this entire episode are seeing a lot of amazing pictures of Kenyans coming together to volunteer, donate blood. I know you’ve been involved in that too. My sense is that you’ve channeled some of the emotional reaction to this tragedy into community action. Do you think the same is true for others?

It has been really humbling to see how the community has come together to volunteer, donate blood, feed the military personnel and medical volunteers, raise money for victims, etc. I can’t recall a similar moment in Kenya’s history whereby I have seen such solidarity except immediately after 1998 US Embassy bombings (which killed at least 212 people), which really shook Kenyans and brought them together as one people. And there are several communities I can refer to here: the Asian community that has mobilized their community volunteer service groups, the Muslim community that has condemned the violence which was purportedly committed in the name of Islam, the broader Nairobian community that responded and waited hours in line to donate blood and our brothers and sisters in cities like Nyeri and Kisumu who also donated blood and money for their fellow Kenyans in the capital. So, yes — and I think it’s an accurate way to frame it – I do think that the Kenyan community has channeled their emotional reaction into community action. My concern is with the aftermath. Once some semblance of normalcy returns to Nairobi after a few harrowing days, how are we then going to channel the lingering emotional reaction of this tragedy? There is a danger of a reactionary response by our government and by our communities.

Q: Kenya has been through so many divisive events in the last few years, among them communal violence linked to the elections in 2007. Do you have a sense of what this moment means for Kenyan national unity? Might the community reaction we’re seeing with volunteers and the like translate into a refreshed sense of purpose for the political class — even a squashing of some differences?

I think it is too early to define this as a watershed moment in terms of Kenyan unity – we have been here before with the 1998 bombings. But let us also recall that less than 5 years ago, our post-election violence pitted neighbors against each other and resulted in over 1,100 deaths. Having said that, there is no doubt that the Westgate tragedy has reawakened Kenya, as one commentator I read put it. The words of President Kenyatta were refreshing when he expressed how humbled he was by the generosity and selfless sacrifice displayed by Kenyans that he felt even more committed to ensure that his government delivers because that is what its citizens deserve. But it is important – and maybe controversial – that we put Westgate into context and examine why this tragedy has had such resonance across the country and the world and what it may mean about a refreshed sense of purpose by the political elites. I am cognizant of the problem of framing this as a tragedy that primarily affected middle-upper income Kenyans and wealthy expats, given the number of Kenyans of various working class backgrounds that also lost their lives. But it is also accurate to say that this tragedy has affected the elite of the Kenyan polity in ways that previous Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya did not. In 2011, the first known Al-Shabaab attack, was a bombing at a blue-collar bar in downtown Nairobi and at a bus terminal. Other similar attacks occurred through 2012 in the Ngara neighbourhood of Nairobi, a nightclub and sports bar in Mombasa and several other smaller attacks in the predominantly Somali neigbourhood of Eastleigh (Nairobi),  Garissa and Wajir (in the north near the Somali border). While Westgate was much larger and more prolonged in terms of the terror inflicted than previous Al-Shabaab attacks, the reality is that the number and profile of casualties inflicted in the past few days (the list includes President Uruhu Kenyatta’s nephew, Ghana’s most famous poet and intellectual leader, a prominent Australian architect and his Harvard-educated wife, a Peruvian UNICEF doctor, Kenyan businessmen, young Nairobi professionals and several diplomats) will definitely result in a decisive action by the political class. How this reaction manifests itself, I am not too sure but it is something we should be wary of.

Q: You also told me you are hearing a lot of “scary, reactionary” comments from people. It reminds me of some of the things that we heard in the United States after 9/11. Can you explain that more and give some examples? As someone who was directly affected by this tragedy — lost friends in it, had a near miss with your own family — can you empathize with such reactions? What do you have to say to people are advocating retaliation?

I understand where these reactions are coming from. I may have been guilty of it too when I first heard of my family’s ordeals and later about my friends. I’ve heard reactionary comments denouncing the Islamic faith for such barbarism, calls for ‘smoking out the Somalis’ from Eastleigh, demanding a final military solution to the Somalia problem, building walls along the border, etc. And this brings me back to my earlier point. I hope that we do not quickly forget the solidarity we have demonstrated and revert to nationalistic jingoism or religious persecution that targets and vilifies people of Somali origins or Muslims. Similarly, I also hope our political class use this as a moment of reflection as they consider a sober and strategic response.

Q: After 9/11, grief-stricken Americans reacted with anger and many supported military actions which later seemed to have questionable effectiveness, or turned out to be huge mistakes, as in the case of Iraq. At the same time, it caused many Americans to become a bit more engaged and aware of their country’s role in global politics, and the way they were perceived in many parts of the world. Do you think there are any analogies to be made with Kenyans — especially as regards to their country’s role in Somalia?

With all due respect, I think Kenyans were already a very politically-engaged people and I don’t think the Westgate episode will have the same effect of political engagement that 9/11 did for Americans. Kenyans, and many other people from the developing world, cannot afford the luxury of ignoring our country’s role in geopolitics because we are probably affected more directly by geopolitical machinations than other Western countries. With regards to 9/11, there is a danger of using history by analogy but the comparison – and lessons learned from the reaction – to 9/11 is fair. Firstly, I do hope there is a better and more nuanced understanding of our role in Somalia and the history of radical movements like Al-Shabaab, starting with the removal of the Islamic Courts of Union in Somalia by Ethiopia/US and the subsequent radicalization of the extremist elements that sought to defeat the intervening foreigners through any means necessary. Understanding the history and context of these problems will allow us to chart a political solution, and not only a military solution. Secondly, what we can learn from 9/11 is that Kenyans need to be more vigilant about the over-reach of the executive on security-related matters, which is understandable and likely given what has just taken place.

Q: What can people do to help at this point, both inside and outside of Kenya?

For people outside Kenya, I would say continue supporting people you know who are dealing the loss of loved ones or are dealing with trauma that they may have faced. I personally have been touched and overwhelmed by the support of so many friends and acquaintances around the world who have reached out to check in on how my family and I are doing. For people inside Kenya, I know that the hospitals and Kenya Red Cross blood banks are at full capacity given the remarkable display of generosity over the past few days. We have also raised more than Ksh 57million [around US$ 700,000 and counting] via M-pesa donations for the victims. Going forward, I just hope that we can remember this moment of what makes Kenyans Kenyan as we enter into this critical period of reacting to Westgate and demonstrate our ability to move beyond reactionary responses.

Q: Any links you want to share to things you’re reading/watching/paying attention to as you follow this crisis?

There are plenty of articles and blogs on the internet and newspapers recounting blow by blow accounts of survivors’ ordeal that demonstrate the horror inflicted at Westgate. But these are a selection of the items that I think are some of the best reflections of what happened and implications for the future:

Kenya Reawakened by Gathara — one of the best pieces I’ve read on our response and patriotism

What Next for Kenyan Policy on Somalia by Ken Opalo — one of Kenya’s best political analysts summarizing future Kenyan policy on Somalia

Senseless [and Sensible] Violence: Mourning the Dead at Westgate Mall by Mahmood Mamdani

Nairobi Westgate Mall Terror Attack, and the Folly of “Otherness” — What Al-Shabaab Revealed about Us by Charles Onyango-Obbo — Ugandan writer on framing the Westgate tragedy

Making Sense of the Chaos in Kenya by Nanjala Nyabola — Kenyan grad student’s initial reflections on the crisis

Sachin, thank you so much for taking time to answer these questions, not all of which can be easy to ponder with the situation so fresh. 

Hope and many obstacles in Mali

On Tuesday, I had the chance to listen in on historian Gregory Mann and French researcher Roland Marchal discuss the situation in Mali, in a panel on the Columbia campus. Some of the big questions about Mali’s future and the road to stability there remained unanswered, but the discussion, which extended long past its scheduled hour, underlined the fact that the situation in Mali is exceedingly complicated, and far from resolved.

That may not seem like a revelation worth reporting. But for those trying to fit the Malian tumult and French military campaign into the convenient narrative of a preexisting framework — whether as an obvious case of the benevolent deployment of European force to stop a state from failing, or just another instance of neocolonial intervention disguised in humanitarian garments — this statement has to be the starting point of the discussion. The disintegration of Malian internal affairs is begging for fresh ideas, and challenging some of the best-equipped thinkers on Africa. One surprising result is that some voices hardly known for being pro-intervention have taken less rigid positions — or even endorsed the French campaign, albeit with major caveats.

Whatever one’s reaction, one comment Gregory Mann made on the panel seemed especially important to me. “Intervention is not a solution,” he said. “It changes the problem — hopefully in a way that makes it easier to deal with.” He’s written more on that here.

This is another statement that might seem pretty obvious. As self-apparent as it should be though, the thinking of drone-happy US strategists ignores this. Too often, the American approach is to smash a problem with missiles and hope that’s the end of it — or to invest an infinitesimally smaller amount of resources in feeble diplomatic efforts after the fire stops raining.

For Mali’s sake especially, I hope the French are a little smarter. There’s no real reason to think they are. At least for now, though, we can acknowledge one positive outcome: the march of an unpopular and tragically destructive takeover of Mali’s north has been reversed. A Malian friend spells out the hope and obstacles the country now faces (things in brackets are my additions):

I share [the] principle that Africa (or any other region) should be policed by neighbors helping each other out.
That being said…. I think the French were extremely courageous to come help the Malian forces. For one thing, the African Union and the regional organization (ECOWAS) have been doing little to help Mali out… The country was under embargo and was being pushed to negotiate with Al Qaeda affiliated groups. It has received so little help that the army doesn’t even use blank or real bullets during training exercises (you have to see it to believe it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkFBjBqWzAc). The Malian state is still very unstable with the former coup leaders holding on to power.
Over the past year or so, this only allowed militant groups to recruit/train to subdue the rest of the country. They have millions of dollars in ransom money. When they started their new offensive, the (still!) ill equipped and trained Malian army was losing the war, and if not for the French, the Jihadists probably would have been in the suburbs of Bamako by now. This would have been an even bigger humanitarian disaster and probably turned Mali into another Somalia and Al Shabab. Right now +500,000 Malians are refugees or internally displaced people. [See UNHCR figures here.] Bamako has close to 2,000,000 people.
Another thing is that most of the West African countries are as troubled as Mali was a year ago. To this day, the African forces have not made it to Mali. In my opinion, it took a lot of courage for the French to jump into this mess. Mali is not much of a geo-strategic country and not an oil/uranium producing one either.
The French clearly didn’t want to be involved and waited until the very last moment. People see them as liberators, not a colonizing force. [….] This is a country where +95% of the people are already Muslims but they are still having their cultural heritage destroyed by Islamist movements. [….]
Now that there is a clear air superiority, I think the long term solution should reside with the Malian and African forces. It should be relatively easy to liberate the cities. [….]
There is so much left to do… We still don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Nonetheless, this past week was a good week for Malians (the post D-day equivalent for one of the poorest countries on earth).
EDIT: Some technical snafu resulted in a draft version of this post being published yesterday. I’ve made some changes, based on conversations I’d earlier had with the emailer quoted above, and the realization that I had probably severely overstated the connection between the Libyan intervention and Mali’s crisis. For more on that, take a look at this post on Sahel Blog and especially the comments below it.

Thomas Friedman teaches us history

Imagine trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube that actually has three too many red pieces and not enough blue and green. Tedious, time-consuming, enraging when you realize there is no solution. Increasingly, this is what I feel like trying to mount an organized rebuttal to — or analysis of — Thomas Friedman’s columns on the Middle East.

His latest gem, “Iron Empires, Iron Fists, Iron Domes,” takes us on a lurching tour of the Levant, from Antakya to Syria to Tel Aviv. There are sentences to agree with and to disagree with here, but in general I’ll bet its Rubik’s Cube of metaphors is a tile or two short, and I’m not going to fiddle with it for too long.

But the part where he talks about the history of ethnic and religious coexistence in the Middle East does warrant a closer look.

At first glance, his account looks like a step up from his classic Beirut to Jerusalem, in which he mostly ascribes modern Middle East conflict to the cultural vestiges of primal desert society. Ultimately though, the step is not a big one. After explaining how the “iron empire” of the Ottomans, with their “live-and-let-live mentality” made minorities comfortable enough not to rock the boat back in those days, Friedman describes the post-Sykes-Picot scene:

When Britain and France carved up the Ottoman Empire in the Arab East, they forged the various Ottoman provinces into states — with names like Iraq, Jordan and Syria — that did not correspond to the ethnographic map. So Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Druze, Turkmen, Kurds and Jews found themselves trapped together inside national boundaries that were drawn to suit the interests of the British and French. Those colonial powers kept everyone in check. But once they withdrew, and these countries became independent, the contests for power began, and minorities were exposed. Finally, in the late 1960s and 1970s, we saw the emergence of a class of Arab dictators and monarchs who perfected Iron Fists (and multiple intelligence agencies) to decisively seize power for their sect or tribe — and they ruled over all the other communities by force.

This sort-of-right passage includes a fundamental misconception about Middle Eastern (and African history) that I hear repeated all the time, everywhere from casual conversations to the mainstream media. Friedman is right that colonialism royally screwed up the region, and created problematic states. But the reason these states didn’t work well is not that they included different ethnicities and religious groups. That idea suggests that people of different backgrounds are incapable of living together in a functioning, stable polity.

The diversity of the Middle East’s nascent states in the 20th Century was a strength as much as a liability. As Friedman correctly notes, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and a mosaic of languages and cultures coexisted in relative harmony for many centuries before European colonialism. The problem with the new states was that the political model they inherited from European colonialists — winner take-all nationalism in which political power was tied to ethnic and religious identity — was contrary to the region’s longstanding diversity. (It is not surprising that Europe, in the wake of centuries of religious wars and ethnic consolidation, foisted such an inappropriate system onto the Middle East.) The subsequent failures have little to do with borders cutting across supposedly more deeply ingrained tribal or religious identities. Much more important to failure has been the inadequacy of the architecture of the state (see Lebanon), and the factors of foreign occupation, military intervention, and oil politics. 

The deficiencies in Friedman’s analysis remind me of those in much writing on African conflicts, such as Mali’s. Africa Is a Country’s criticism of that reporting earlier this year could apply here,  too:

Al Jazeera … has been the place not to go for Mali coverage … [there have been] a few weak pieces of analysis, including one that trots out some of the same clichéd thinking that we try to smother in the cradle when we teach African Studies 101 to American undergraduates (e.g., conflict is due to colonial borders that “split tribes [and] lumped incompatible ethnic groups together…”; what are “incompatible ethnic groups”?). What gives?

This misconception is fundamental because it treats ethnic and religious variety in the Middle East as inherent incompatibilities — ancient, unquenchable hatreds — rather than social differences that the politics of the last century have turned into potential fault lines.

This is important because if we accept that diverse Middle Eastern peoples can only live together under an iron fist, then the only logical future for democracy in the region is some preliminary segregation and ethnic cleansing along the lines of Friedman’s “ethnographic map.” (Maybe someone can locate that map for me in some exhibit on passé anthropological concepts?)

I don’t accept that this is the only path. Cosmopolitan societies are just as viable in the Middle East as they are in North America. Their history of diversity is the proof of this potential, and a vision that stands a chance of taking us past the impasses and killing of today must recognize this.

Music break: Your Sunday Night Oldies Show

First in a new series. I can’t promise I’ve got a voice as smooth as Big Daddy Victor Zaragosa — who shepherded many a San Francisco night to conclusion on the radio in my younger days — but I think I can select them just about as well as your standard lovesick Sunday night call-in. Here are some classics to start you off. Whether you have a nice ride to work on or just a window and a beer, turn it up!

On a Sunday Afternoon by A Lighter Shade of Brown

Night Owl by Tony Allen

NB: You gotta read Tony Allen’s bio. 

Samba Pa Ti by Carlos Santana

I’m sort of obsessed with this song by my fellow Bernal Heights original Carlos Santana. When I listen to it I see the view from Bernal Hill, the light through clouds on the Church Street steeples, pepper trees scattering their leaves all over Folsom Street, music festivals and street fairs and jam sessions, I smell herb smoke drifting through a day trying to decide whether it’s going to be foggy or not, burritos, I hear the neighbor’s Chevy Malibu engine revving, bad little kids shouting at each other on Moultrie Street,  and the rain falling through the leaves of avocado trees.

From Five Miles from Frisco

Slow Jam by Vieux Farka Toure

OK, so you probably won’t hear this song on KMEL’s dedication lines tonight, but I think it’s a logical follow-up to Santana — and conveniently named for Anglophone fans of the son of The Greatest Guitarist of All Time, Ali Farka Toure.

Intelligent boycotts

boycott usa

Photo by Karen Eliot, click for more details.

A recent article I stumbled on today in the Financial Times describes the controversy surrounding Paul Simon’s collaboration with South African musicians on his wildly popular 1986 album Graceland. It contains this priceless quote from musical legend Hugh Masekela, who played on Simon’s tour:

“Some of the most vocal journalists [who criticised Simon] were white South Africans who were living the most privileged lives,” he said. “I had a lot of run-ins with them. I told them to shut the f*** up. You know, one of the first people Nelson Mandela invited to South Africa was Paul Simon. I purposely joined [Simon] because I knew he wasn’t a crook and he wasn’t out to rip off anybody.”

I find the quote and the article instructive as they relate to current debates about certain international boycotts that have drawn comparisons to the successful one against S.A., which helped end Apartheid. Cultural boycotts of countries should be selective to be effective. The wrong kinds of isolation can facilitate a reactionary environment. And it’s generally the privileged that can afford to take the most uncompromising positions, which isn’t always useful.

Agree? Or am I just biased because I spent my childhood summers on blacktop desert highways with the windows down bumping “people say she’s crazy she got diamonds on the soles of her shoes” … ?

Much more good stuff on this subject over at Africa Is a Country.

[Edit: fixed ridiculous typo.]

Too much to keep track of

A few of my loyal readers have asked me why I haven’t been more vocal as of late. It’s a darn good question. The events in the Arab world in the last few weeks are a culmination of all the things that I have written about most on this blog.

Below, I offer a few rather pitiful explanations for my silence, which I hope you will indulge.

  • This is a particularly bad time for half-baked long-distance punditry. The information we have — and I am, of course, expecially thinking of Libya here — is mean and unreliable. With real lives in the balance, I have been reticent to contribute to the din without having firsthand information to contribute.
  • Events are unfolding too fast for me to offer the kind of thoughtful commentary for which I try to reserve this blog. My last post was practically irrelevant, news-wise, in about a day. Should I write a blog post about how calling the Libyan government’s apparent massacres of unarmed protesters does not qualify as genocide? (Which is how a number of interviewees, including defecting Libyan officials, are describing it on TV.) Such points are important (HT @texasinafrica), but it doesn’t feel right devoting a whole post to them from afar.
  • Most of all, there’s just too much to keep track of. I admit this reluctantly. As much as the wave of revolt washing across the MENA region emanates from some common urge for freedom, the local grievances of people are dizzyingly different from place to place. Bahrain’s Shiite majority is not Egypt’s multitudinous shebaab are not Yemen’s impoverished throngs are not Libya’s dying young people are not Syria’s somewhat more restrained malcontents, etc. The uprisings are all drawing from the same font of dignity, but they are nurturing different species of trees. Analytically, this makes it very difficult to comment on them en masse. And I would need to spend all day, e’eday blogging to comment on them all individually. Regrettably (for this purpose), I have a day job.

By way of consolation for these unsatisfying explanations, let me offer a list of what I am following in a vain attempt to keep up with everything.

Got recommendations for other good resources that I should be on? Please let me know.

Finally, a ditty I was thinking about for some reason today:

My thoughts with the people of Libya tonight.

ممكن يسقط؟ - Pic taken during unfortunate 26-hour layover in Tripoli airport, 2006.

Echoes of colonialism in war strategy

Statue of General Charles Gordon, the British "martyr" of the Sudanese River Wars. Photo: Brian Herrington Spier.

I hate to beat the same old imperialism horse over and over, but come on, now. Revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book — about Obama’s military strategists’ push for a bigger war commitment in Afghanistan — are hard not to read without thinking about the West’s long colonial history in Asia and Africa. (See WaPo article.) Some of the comments could be taken out of Winston Churchill’s memoirs of his swashbuckling pre-politics days in Africa. Witness, attributed to Petraeus:

You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It’s a little bit like Iraq, actually. . . . Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.

In other words, long-term occupation of foreign lands is necessary for their — and our — advancement? Sounds a little too familiar.

Referendum Kenya

The big vote is tomorrow. (Pretty good article (I think) by Gettleman.)

In addition to the news, here’s what I’m watching: anti-apathy clips from Kuweni Serious :

(Browse through their stuff for some others featuring Makmende, like this one where dude is complaining about government efforts to encourage birth control.)

(HT to LL.)