Friday, January 30, 2009

Reflections on Africa - tribalism and colonialism

Years ago (1994) we travelled to Zimbabwe by train from Makambako (between Iringa and Mbeya, our nearest TanZam station) for an overland holiday with our three boys. We only got to Victoria Falls and had a wonderful week there, staying in a hotel with a pool for 3 days and in a town council holiday cottage in the middle of town for the remaining days, as the hotel was a bit outside our then frugal budget.

What I remember vividly about the train journey was the book I read to while away some of the 36 hours trip, Thomas Pakenham's "Scramble for Africa" , which looks at the vast, then virtually unknown continent at the time of the colonial scramble between the 4 colonial powers of England, Germany, France and Belgium. From an Irish person's perspective what fascinated was the realisation that if Gladstone wasn't so preoccupied with "the Irish question" he would have backed Stanley's quest for the navigability of the Congo river, and not left it to King Leopold for Belgium.

Indeed the course of history would have been very different in the area as if Belgium hadn't already a foot in the door with Congo, they wouldn't have been "given" Ruanda-Urindi (present-day Rwanda and Burundi) as part of the carve-up of the former German colonies after the Treaty of Versailles in the wake of World War 1.

Just goes to show what the consequences of one action or inaction can be. In the case of Rwanda these have been devastating, and the complexity of the situation there that culminated in the genocide of 1994 is impossible to condense in a few lines of a blog post. Suffice to say that the colonial masters have a lot to answer for in this instance, which is not to exonerate the Interehamwe perpetrators of the genocide.

The Belgian policy of divide and rule perpetrated the existing gulf between the Bantu Hutu and the Nilotic Tutsi who were seen as more "European" looking by the Belgians, who favoured them in education and employment opportunities. This festering resentment boiled over as soon as independence arrived and the first of many genocidal massacres took place around 1959.

The account of the events of that awful year are told in many books, from many angles, and a film has been made - Hotel Rwanda - which gives an accurate portrayal of one aspect of the bravery of individuals. The refusal of the Western world in general and the US in particular to use the genocide term was one of the damning indictments of Clinton's administration, as that would have meant an international intervention, other than the ineffectual UN response, which was miniscule compared to that in former Yugoslavia around the same time. General Romeo Dallaire was one brave man heading up the UN forces who was thwarted every time he attempted to raise the issue of complicity of some Western governments, and the need to empower the UN to be peace enforcers not just peacekeepers.

Other books that recount the events for posterity are Philip Gourevitch's chillingly factual "We wish to inform you tomorrow we will be killed with our families"; Dervla Murphy's account of visiting her daughter and family in Goma in the wake of the genocide in "Visiting Rwanda", and Fergal Keane's (former BBC World Service African correspondent) "Seaon of Blood - a Rwandan Journey" . I have read these and can recommend them, they are compulsive reading for anyone interested in trying to understand African tribalism and the devastation of colonial fallout. I have not read Dallaire's book "Shake hands with the Devil" but it sounds compelling; he left Africa a broken man after what he had witnessed, and it might put into perspective the constraints the beleaguered UN peacekeepers work under, their mandate of non-intervention made them targets for internaional opprobrium, and probably led to changes in their approach to crises in Chad and other global conflict zones.

A more recent book that I read and loved was "Blood River", by Tim Butcher. This is an account of his journey along the Congo River in the footsteps of Stanley, and we were lucky to meet Tim last year when he spoke at Lismore's Immrama Festival of Travel Writing. He recounts the destruction of that country under the despotic Mobutu regime and, sadly, history seems to be repeating itself in Mugabe's reign of terror in today's beleaguered Zimbabwe.

We lived in Tanzania during the Rwandan genocide and worked closely with the volunteers on the ground in the refugee camps in the border Kagera region, which were largely filled with the fleeing perpetrators - a moral and ethical dilemma that challenged the humanitarian ideals of everyone involved. Do we assist the perptrators or do we treat them as they treated their fellow-countrymen and women and children? I don't have the answers to this question, I don't know if there is one.


Peggy said...

Hi, visitng from Lynda's blog in east Africa but I am actually 'up the road' in Cork!I thought at first this is another political blog but on reading down it is well padded out with lots of interesting reading material even the political bits are readable and very interesting. My blog is about gardening on an organic allotment and family and crafts.

Catherine said...

Hi Peggy, nice to meet you in the blogosphere - I love Lynda's blog as I can identify with much of her writing from my years living in Tanzania. I am glad you liked this piece, my blog is very general and was verging on being overly "girly", but I don't want a political blog either, with polemic on every other post!
I will be writing about what interests me, like this topic, and hope to include book reviews and other stuff readers might like.
Please join as a follower of my blog if you wish, and I look forward to visiting yours - I wondered if I had any local readers and there you are, a neighbour.

FoodFunFarmLife said...

Catherine, thanks for this really interesting & insightful post. So much of Africa's history is such a tragedy, isn't it ? And so much of it just a complete & utter waste of human life. It must have been an incredible (heartbreaking) position to work in the refugee camps - encountering the refugee children would have been the hardest for me, I think. It is shocking how the rest of the world just stood by during the genocide - many countries did not even know it was happening and there was no press coverage ! Like Zimbabwe today, the world is just standing by. Why ? Because what, really, does Zimbabwe have to offer ? (No oil, for starters !) My husband collects books on African politics, we have a large collection although I cannot bring myself to read some of them (heartbreaking stuff). Thanks for some great links in the above post, too :)

Catherine said...

Thanks Lynda, yes there was inaction globally with this awful genocide - no oil, just like Zimbabwe today, makes one very cynical about the whole international community's response to conflict, Africa becomes a heart of darkness which many governments choose to ignore, and focus instead on the Middle East and oil-rich nations like Iraq and Afghanistan whose natural resources are there to be exploited.
We often said of the Rwanda genocide that it would have been completely missed by the international media had it not coincided with the South African elections when Mandela became President - there was a lull between the election and the count results in May when the mass exodus of refugees flooded into Tanzania and a large flock of journalists and tv crews came up to Tanzania and reported on it, and then the floodgates opened when they realised just how bad it was, bodies floating down the river to L. Victoria couldn't be ignored any longer. Soon after Kagame's Tutsi rebels were victorious and the killing ended - some say a million died in 100 days.
Mugabe's destruction of your beloved country is far more insidious and slowly bleeding it to death. There was a report on BBC the other night on the cholera deaths, they are usually associated with refugee camp conditions or floods like Bangladesh sustained, neither of which Zimbabwe should have. His oppression of the media is a travesty and how he clings to power is beyond my comprehension. Will it change now that Tsangvirai is PM? Won't hold my breath.
Glad you found the links here good, all worth reading if harrowing.

Jeannette StG said...

Africa, it seems there is no end to the genocides, and I sigh eversince I saw the movie about Rhwanda (which really was pushed by George Clooney, the actor) - so much injustice in that part of the world - selling of children, forcing them to bear arms and killing their own relatives in the Sudan - maybe the West ignores because it is too much - too much to carry emotionally (since many here, were survivors of the Holocaust). it's bad when there are no anwers, only question marks...

Catherine said...

Thanks Jeannette for the comment, it is so true that the West ignores many of the difficulties in Africa because it seems overwhelming but of course there is a cynic within that says it is only where there are no natural resources like oil that the West shows no interest in intervention. I watched a programme tonight with Jared Diamond - Guns Germs and Steel - and his premise that the troubles of Africa could be traced to the inability to deal with manageable germs like those causing Malaria have led to many countries becoming stuck in a rut of fatalism, and he compared them to the economic wonders of Malaysia and Singapore, who were equally underdeveloped 60 years ago before independence. He asserts that with good disease control stemming from good governance and national unity many countries could progress to economic independence and overcome their issues. This of course presumes no tribal conflicts and a willingness of the population to pull together in the national interests.