The Last King of Scotland

In the past week I read for the first time and watched for the second time Giles Foden’s novel (and Hollywood’s depiction thereof) of the fictitious Scottish personal physician to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.  The book is set in south-western Uganda and Kampala – the two parts of this country where I’ve spent the majority of my time.  In a neat twist I happen to read his description of a matatu while sitting in a matatu (not by choice) and a visit to a certain lake near Kabale while I was sitting with a view of that exact lake  (Lake Bunyonyi).  However it’s very clear the author has never really sat in a matatu:

At one point on a ride from Kampala to Mbarara (5 hours today, probably longer in 1971) Dr. Garrigan’s matatu is stopped by a police checkpoint and “one of the soldiers had climbed in… I was intrigued to see, as he walked down the aisle…”  Ok, that’s enough.  Anyone who’s ever been in a full matatu would have to laugh at the idea of someone walking down the aisle.  What a matatu has for aisle is really just a narrow four foot crawl space that allows passengers to cram into the rear bench and it’s quickly swallowed up by the foldout seats.  There is no aisle in a full matatu, sorry Foden.

That aside, the book is a great read, and the movie wasn’t bad either, but both left me with some serious reservations.  Let me preface: I’ve never really taken a literature class.

I tend to really enjoy historical fiction.  A large part of the appeal is that the reader gets fed a historical account of major events and the undercurrents of that time and place through the story of a family or set of fictitious characters.  Reading the typical (in my mind)  historical fiction I know that anything that happens to this family is not historically accurate but very much a feasible or likely reality for families of that era.  And then anything that happens to the president of that country, or any true character from that country’s history, those are facts.  Now Foden doesn’t package his story as a piece of historical fiction but neither does he clearly state what’s what. It is written as a first hand account of the Dr. Nicholas Garrigan and the real author brings us completely into the world of the fictitious author as he sits in Scotland penning his account of what he saw in Uganda.  I frequently had the urge to get out of my hammock (which I hate doing) and go online to fact-check to discern history from fiction.  The truth is that Dr. Garrigan is a product of the author’s imagination but at the same time he writes dialogues between Idi Amin, a very real historical figure, and the Scottish doctor which are accurate in the sense that Amin did say some of these things, but not all of them, and he obviously expressed them to someone else.

What bothered me most by the book’s end is essentially that anyone who reads this book is likely to walk away believing they now know more about Uganda and her history than they did prior.  But few of these readers (myself included) will really take the time to figure out exactly what they’ve learned and they’ll likely swallow fiction with truth.  It is a good account of Kampala and western Uganda and it is a good quick read, but I am very glad that I didn’t read it until now.  I would recommend anyone coming to Uganda to read this before you come, and then maybe read The Last King of Scotland after having experienced this place first hand.

“The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World”

Dear Glen,

Per your inscription: “Here’s to figuring all this stuff out.  If you get into the book be sure to give me a review / typed outline of all salient info, 3 – 5 pg. minimum.” Well, here’s my attempt to summarize what is an incredible and overreaching history of the last hundred years from the perspective of the world’s poorest hundred countries.

Historian Vijay Prashad (of NESCAC rival Trinity College) takes us from the 1927 birth of the “Third World”, in Brussels of all places, through the anticolonial and national liberation movements of the 40s, 50s & 60s across Asia, Africa and Latin America, and ends with the death of the Third World dream, date unknown.  The best summary comes from Tanzania’s president Julius Nyerere, “growth and hope – then disillusionment;” this could just as well summarize the voice of the author as he narrates the journey.

Each of the eighteen chapters has its own unique setting, theme and timestamp and are as diverse as the countries which play host to the storyline.  A strong use of historical anecdotes and exhaustive citations introduces the Third World movement through a series of conferences: the League Against Imperialism (Brussels, 1927), the Afro-Asian Conference (Indonesia, 1955), the Afro-Asian Womens Conference (Cairo, 1961), the Non-Aligned Movement Conference (Belgrade, 1961), among others.  The author describes an authentic attempt at national and international solidarity among the people and states of the Third World as they sought, and often fought, to free themselves from colonial rule.  There’s much talk of the Bandung Spirit – the feeling shared between the movement’s leaders that their fates were intertwined; that if they could stick together and stay true to their beliefs they could build progressive states and raise the standard of living for their people.

But in equal part it is a very real history of liberation movements corrupted by, among other local issues: the legacy of colonialism, imperialistic interventions (militaristic and otherwise), poor and untrained leadership, and a growing divergence between the best interests of the nation vs. the local elite.  It’s a running dialogue of the struggles between the right and left, localized in Afghanistan, Chile, Egypt, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Tanzania and many more, and at large, between the Atlantic powers and the USSR.  It illustrates Marxist and communist parties with early promises of progressive policies and the disruption and corruption of these ideals in all the aforementioned forms and more (including more coups than you can shake a stick at!).  And throughout there is the persistent attempts and failures of the Third World to gain a voice in, and guide the policies of, the emerging international organizations.  Nasser, Nehru, Nkrumah and the rest all put their hope in the UN General Assembly as the democratic equalizer but to no avail.  It’s an unapologetic history of first colonial, then imperial and finally hegemonic interventions in Third World countries to protect the economic and state interests of western powers, chiefly the US.

Prashad brings us theories of economic development proposed by Argentine contrarian Raul Prebisch that outline, in simple terms, the divisive power of mercantilism leveled against the poor nations and his proscription of first agrarian and then industrialization development with the help of tariffs to support import substitution policies.  In the following chapter we’re on to the CIA’s efficient removal of Iran’s newly elected and left leaning government of Muhammed Mosaddeq to return the Shah to power (1953).  During the waning days of the Third World movement we read about the devolution of nationalism which was “initially a positive and constructive force in the Third World countries… [but how] The solidarity which transcended racial, religious and cultural differences has weakened or totally collapsed.” (Singapore’s Rajaratnam, 1983)

Beyond the political economy and mess of international conferences and negotiations we get to read poetry from the once emergent Iranian intelligentsia prior to their brutal repression and Chile’s Pablo Neruda while on the run from the Pinochet regime, Bob Marley lyrics sung on the eve of IMF structural adjustment loans forced on Jamaica, and a plea by Venezuela’s Perez Alfonzo, one of the chief architects of OPEC, that the members of that new organization use wisely “their only possibility to pass without delay from poverty to well-being, from ignorance to culture, from instability and fear to security and confidence;” he was, after all, an ecologist.

My biggest takeaway is perhaps a renewed respect for the people who wake up every day in these countries with only the smallest idea of how heavily the deck is stacked against them.  It’s harvest season in Uganda right now and so money is flowing and life is good.  But most local folks have, if any, only the slightest idea of how hard the western powers have worked to ensure that countries like Uganda do not form effective protective cartels to stabilize and ensure fair prices for commodities like corn or coffee or even tin and copper, even while we subsidize and enact tariffs of our own.  There is a broad acknowledgment of legacy of colonialism, as the author puts it “The darker world contributed greatly to the development of Europe, and based on this evidence, it is clear that the invisible hand is white.”  But I think many, Ugandans and Americans and probably myself included, prefer to believe that we have transitioned to an era in which most people believe that, although once condoned, the West should no longer profit at the expense of the poor.  This is one of those books that will make you question that comfy belief.

For citizens of the Third World it would be a rough history to wake up to every morning.  Perhaps that explains the emergence of what Prashad calls the “transnational turbo elite,” those influential people in every country who share more with influential people in faraway places than the common folks in their own backyard.

I can honestly say I’ve never before read a book that made me want to read 100% of the source material – and it’s provided, in 70+ pages of notes and citations.  The only critique is that he often presents arguments without a lot of care for the chronological order of events which occasionally made my head spin and is used in some places to massage an argument here or there.  You wouldn’t want it to be your only history book but it’s a great supplement and a wonderful collection of thought-inspiring anecdotes and biographies.

So thanks, Glen.

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Three Tales of “Africa”

Just finished three very different books with a general theme of relating to Africa.

The first, The Shadow of the Sun, is a beautiful compilations of short pieces by Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski written over the course of forty years spent chasing stories and meeting people in every corner of this vast continent.  There are 27 chapters, each from a different country and a different time.  Told in chronological order the various pieces illustrate the changing face of Africa and the maturation of the author over time.  Upon arrival in Ghana in 1958 he makes light of the African bus system (I can attest to this): get in, sit down, shut up, and wait.  And wait.  And wait.  Until the bus is full.  Then go.  He writes of trying to live amongst the locals in Lagos, Nigeria – in an air-conditioned apartment where he must bribe the men on the street to keep the power turned on.  He writes from Zanzibar during what turned out to be an anticlimactic coup, joins a caravan of camels in their search for water in Somalia, writes of his fascination with Idi Amin, crossed Mali to reach Timbuktu, etc.  Throughout, he combines countless great observations with snippets of history to create a book that is completely fascinating and yet comprehensively worthless.  And I kind of think that’s the point.  To be honest the only bit I did not love was the epilogue where he tries to sum it all up – “Africa” doesn’t really work that way.

Then The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears is a novel by Dinaw Mengestu, an Ethiopian who fled to America during the Red Terror at the age of two.  I went in thinking this was a book about Ethiopia, and I guess I was a little disappointed.  It’s a book about immigrants, mostly reluctant immigrants, and the author brings us into this void between two worlds that his Ethiopian character cannot, or chooses not, to leave.  Nothing really happens, and that’s the point – but I wasn’t really looking for nothing.  Set in D.C. with reminiscent memories of Addis Ababa, easy read, enjoyable enough, not stunning.

Finally, The Wonga Coup.  I just thought this was some book about Equatorial Guinea (EG), I didn’t know anything about Equatorial Guinea, and that seemed enough to warrant the read.  By Adam Roberts – writer for The Economist in Africa – it’s a story of multiple coup attempts made by outsiders to topple the government of EG, essentially for an adventure and as an investment.  The plots themselves are pretty spectacular: first, a botched and covered up attempt in 1973 that was then turned into a too-true-to-be-fiction novel and movie – The Dogs of War.  Then a 2004 attempt by some B-grade buccaneers who grew bored of the idle lives of law abiding citizens.  Neither invading force ever reached EG in full, but in both cases the ousting of the regime could only have improved the welfare of citizens of that desolate country.  EG, I have now learned, is Africa’s third largest exporter of oil with a GDP that puts it 31st in the free world, and has a joke of a government.  One corrupt and despotic family has run the country since independence in 1968, the sole transition of power coming in 1979 when in a bloody coup, Teodoro Obiang, the current autocrat, disposed of his uncle.  Back to the book – the idiocy of these characters rivals that of the rulers they sought to dethrone, and that alone makes this a interesting if slightly terrifying read.   It’s not very well written, but the author is honest enough to separate speculation from fact, and it certainly does provide an interesting, if small, window into the murky world of African arms deals and hired guns.

Equatorial Guinea is not high on my list of places to visit.  Ethiopia is.  As are the 27+ other African countries visited by Kapuscinski!

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“The Blue Sweater”

Just finished “The Blue Sweater” by Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and executive of Acumen Fund, a self-described “venture capital fund for the poor”.  The book reads in large part as an autobiography of her life in development work.  To be fair, she highlights her challenges and failings as well as her very legitimate successes but the book comes across as a little preachy.  That said, she promotes a philosophy on philanthropy that combines business oriented strategies with the best intentions of donors and entrepreneurs around the world.

After a few years flying around the world conducting credit checks for an international bank, Novogratz got her rocky start to development work in Kenya and Cote D’Ivoire before settling in Rwanda for her most formative years.  There she revives what became that country’s leading microfinance institution and worked with a women’s group to turn a fumbling charity project into a sustainable and successful business.  In one fascinating section she describes the challenges of not leading but listening to a group of women that she clearly wanted to help.  After returning to Stanford for an MBA she moved towards large scale philanthropy during a fellowship with Rockefeller Foundation and led various initiatives there before striking out on her own.  Acumen was one of the early models of “patient capital”, or investments with social entrepreneurs of debt or equity meant to replace charitable grants that so often failed to produce sustainable businesses.  At first they sought to focus strictly on technological solutions – hearing aids, for example – and then learned that new technology was not as important as understanding the client – the poor in their case.  Later success stories involve irrigation pumps in India, insecticide treated bed nets in Kenya, and some really interesting housing projects to help slum dwellers escape from debt, ridiculous rent payments, and awful living situations.  In every case the success was a result of identifying a brilliant local entrepreneur who understood the local need and could envision a sustainable business solution.

Personally, the most interesting piece of the punchline was a continued reference to the importance of “results driven development”.  Needless to say, given my current position, this is something I believe in.  Throughout her work Novogratz employs two methods of assessment – first she applies her banking skills to check the books of the organization in question, and then she collects what we at IPA would call qualitative information, or long, open-ended conversations with those whom the projects aim to benefit.  This type of assessment, which is the standard protocol in business, is not the stuff that IPA is referring to when we discuss “rigorous evaluations.”  While open-ended conversations might be more interesting, if we do our job right on a survey very few people should be answering “other,” and we can interview something like 3,200 households to determine a causal, not correlative, relationship between intervention A and outcome B.  Qualitative analysis can provide anecdotes – which make for great stories like the ones that fill the pages of this book – but anecdotes are not always replicable and are often of limited value.

Regardless I do believe Acumen is a very valuable and well structured institution – so don’t get the wrong impression there – but it is fascinating to read about different efforts with all the new biases that come with my current position.

That was the last paper book I brought over, I transitioned to the Kindle yesterday, I’ll let you know what I think.  And Happy Independence Day!  The streets are full of people, as usual, who are completely indifferent!

A Book Review

Just this morning I finished a great book on Uganda’s tumultuous history by Andrew Rice, “The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda.”  Despite the dreadfully morbid title the book uses one family’s pursuit of justice as a vehicle to explain an intricate web of stories and characters that have dominated Uganda over the last two hundred years.

As one well educated son sets out to uncover who was behind his father’s murder he discovers that every head of state since independence is somehow involved;  their histories are all connected.  This story is not unique.  The brutalities of Uganda’s modern history are very real.  However, just as interesting, and perhaps less often documented, are the connections that Rice makes with various actors and the perspectives they offer.

Throughout the book I had some great Aha! moments:  The first European to settle in present day northern Uganda was a German doctor who changed his name to Emin Pasha and governed portions of the upper Nile with the service of a group he trained as warriors.  Emin eventually escaped an advancing adversary through the assistance of who else but Henry Morton Stanley.  Upon his arrival in Uganda, the eventual British colonial administrator, Frederick Lugard, needed a fighting force to subdue the unruly south and he sought out those very “soldiers” that Emin had reported deserting.  Although not originally a distinct tribe, the Nubians of the north became Uganda’s soldiers and were the dominant force in the Kings African Rifles, which, is widely known to have had one very famous fighter – Idi Amin.  And just as there are plenty of East Africans with the name Kennedy born about 40 years ago – Amin, the story goes, came from Emin, the first governor of the upper Nile.

This and other unexpected (at least to the lay historian) twists and anecdotes make the book a great read and highly informative.  Much of the story focuses around the southern portion of the country where I will be based and the birthplace of current president Museveni.

For more on the book, click here.  I have plenty more reading to do and would welcome any suggestions on good books and articles on Uganda!

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A collection of observations, thoughts and experienced going back to 2010.