the strange…

For some time now I have been following the absurd story of witchdoctors and ‘traditional’ healers in Tanzania who apparently kill people with albinism with the belief that their body parts can be used for medicinal purposes. No, this is not something that used to happen in the 18th century. It is happening now, in 2009. France 24 ran a story on this a few weeks ago. The BBC is reporting that the Tanzanian government has finally decided to do something about the killings – perhaps because of the increased international attention. But their solution is almost as strange as the killings themselves.

They are asking villagers to have a referendum-like affair in which they will ‘vote’ indicating who they suspect to be linked to the murder of albinos. Now I am no anthropologist or sociologist but what kind of law enforcement is this? First of all, the government should be ashamed that it did not sniff this out early enough. This is also a sign of a total failure of social education in Tanzania. These witchdoctors and ‘traditional’ healers, anthropologists and socialists will love this, ought to be required to get licenses and should be constantly monitored by the government to guarantee best practice – if that is ever possible (In my world they should be completely outlawed). No country in the 21st century should be tolerating such crazy things. And about the killers, they are common criminals who should be arrested and treated as such by law enforcement.

This story also raises the question of culture and tradition in Africa. As I have stated here before, I am no fan of blind traditionalism – a la Negritude. I think that for far too long we have continued to conflate culture and tradition with poverty and ignorance. Having witchdoctors is not traditional. Witchdoctors do the things they do because they do not have laboratories or the knowledge to package their herbs in more efficiently delivered capsules. They are not necessarily alternatives to hospitals as some apologists would have us believe.

And there is absolutely nothing fun about living a ‘traditional life’ as is often described by anthropologists. The “original affluent society”, as they call it, had a life-spun of 30 years and had a reciprocity-based economy that could only support a few dozen people. This will not work in a 40 million man society. Let us stop pretending, there are a lot of traditional practices all across the continent that belong in the dustbin of history. If we continue to bury our heads in the sand, occasionally the volcano will boil over and embarrassing stories like the Tanzania albino story will make it to the headlines of major news sources.

Guinea-Bissau president killed

Joao Bernado Vieira, President of Guinea-Bissau, was shot dead today as he tried to flee his house. Earlier in the day the army chief of staff, Gen. Tagme na Waie, was killed by in explosion in his office at the army HQ. It is suspected that it is Tagme loyalists that killed the president. The two – the president and his chief of staff – had recently seen a deterioration in their relations. The Guinean (Bissau) army however claims that this is not a coup. It remains unclear whether the civilian government or the army is in charge right now.
The African Union has condemned both killings, stating that the latest turn of events is a setback to the peace building initiative in the poverty-stricken West African country (per capita nominal GDP is at a mere $213). Vieira himself came to power in a coup in 1980. He won the country’s first multiparty elections in 1994 before being ousted in a coup in 1999 and then being re-elected in 2005. In 1986 he executed his own vice president after a coup attempt.
This is the third coup in West Africa in the last one year. Mauritania and Guinea witnessed coups in August and December of last year respectively. It is a shame that in 2009 West African Generals still see coups as acceptable means of power transfer. The region has seen the most coups on the continent of Africa. Since 1955 there have been 49 successful military led coups among the 16 West African States. Unsuccessful plots approach 100. A lot of blame also goes to authoritarian governments in this region that have denied their citizens of any means of loyal opposition. To paraphrase that old saying, those that live by the gun eventually do die by the gun.

who is funding this war?

The BBC is reporting that the FDLR, a group suspected to include genocidaires from Rwanda’s 1994 disaster, has retaken positions it ceded a month ago to Rwandan troops. Earlier this year Rwandan troops had moved into Eastern DRC with a mission to take out FDLR positions. However, it is now emerging that as soon as Rwanda left, the FDLR moved back and retook their old bases.

congo-mine1These new developments just serve to illustrate how intractable the mess in Eastern Congo is. For years now Uganda, Rwanda and the weak Kinshasa governments of Kabila I and II have tried to restore order in this part of the vast central African country without success. It seems like the more the government tries to end the war the more rebel movements emerge. Which begs the question, exactly who is funding this war?

That foreign companies are accomplices in the Congo war is not a secret. The control of mines and trading centres (for tax purposes) seem to be the main motivations for the emergence of the numerous rebel groups. Someone is buying the minerals that come from these mines and someone is supplying the rag tag bandits with guns and ammunition. I am sure it is within the means of the UN and the many involved parties – if they mean well in their involvement – to expose the companies that are involved in this messy war, either as arms dealers or purchasers of minerals.

Just like it was in Sierra Leone with blood diamonds, the international community can shame the companies involved in this war to come clean and end the economic incentives for the proliferation of rebel groups and gangs in eastern Congo.

The following are some American-owned companies that were implicated in a 2002 UN report on the Congo war profiteers: Cabot Corporation, Eagle Wings Resources International, Trinitech International, Kemet Electronics Corporation, OM Group and Visgay Sprague …… and there are others.

The Congo war is a resource war and the sooner those trying to stop it acknowledge this fact and deal with it, the easier it is going to be to come up with modalities of how to end it.

is it really that bad?

I just read a piece by Jeffrey Gettleman, the sensationalist East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times. From reading the piece one gets the impression that Kenya is nothing but a dystopia: There is corruption everywhere, ten million people face starvation and everyone seems to be a victim of the violence that rocked the country last year. To some extent Mr. Gettleman’s assessment is accurate and it would do us some good if our politicians read some of his work – the sensationalism might just embarass them enough to have them change their ways and start acting in the interest of Kenyans.

But are things really that bad? Are we really on the verge of total collapse as a nation state? I don’t think so. Yes, ours is probably one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Crime may be high in Nairobi and other urban centres. And it is true that millions of Kenya are currently dependent on government food aid. But these phenomena are not unique to Kenya. Other countries have or have had similar problems in their history without necessarily becoming failed states.

I say we stop all the negativity. Yes we can and should criticize the government and our politicians when they do things against our interests. But we should never buy into the idea that we are a society on the brink of collapse, as some journalists out there would want us to believe. Even in the midst of our woes Kenya is seeing some important progress – not just economically but also politically. No one can dispute the fact that the Kenyan parliament has become a stronger institution (and a better check to the executive) than it used to be. The private sector continues to grow and the Kenyan civil society remains strong and committed to its duty to point out the government’s failings whenever necessary.

I am not saying that things are not bad. They are, big time. What I am saying is that they are not too bad to be fixed.