The danger of a single story

This is a superb presentation by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie. Also see Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to write about Africa“, and Uzodinma Iweala’s “Stop Trying to ‘Save’ Africa“. (thanks Rabee’ah)

Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

Continue reading “The danger of a single story”

Somalia: When is a pirate not a pirate?

Pirates or Coast Guard?
Pirates or Coast Guard?

From our friend Agustín Velloso Santisteban in Madrid.

Oh, the pirates! What a nice word. It brings us sweet memories from our childhood. Unscrupulous, merciless, astute characters, and today armed with automatic guns. We are longing to see before the High Court in Madrid, Spain, the two Somali pirates captured by our brave Atalanta operatives in the Indian Ocean on 4 October.[1]

We have had enough of the corrupt CEOs who sail towards offshore banks. We do not want to hear anymore about the prime ministers who attack and invade faraway countries. What we really want is to see real pirates. While those corsair and freebooter businessmen and politicians are well-known and still at large, you can confidently expect that the two detainees will spend a long time behind Spanish bars. Everyone knows that they are poor, black, Muslim and dared to attack a Spanish fishing boat.

Continue reading “Somalia: When is a pirate not a pirate?”

How to Write about Africa

Kenyan literary critic Binyavanga Wainaina offers some handy tips for all would-be saviours of Africa.

UNICEF does more good

Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

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The Darfur Diversion

Editor’s note: In 2009 when I read Mahmood Mamdani’s book, I accepted many of its arguments uncritically. Since then I’ve had occasion to reappraise my position and regret many of the things I wrote. Darfur was not my specialisation and I should not have passed confident judgments on it. I should not have doubted the good faith of the many people trying to bring attention to Darfur’s tragedy. Nor should I have been so eager to accept the geopolitical arguments to downplay the real atrocities being committed on the ground. The Bashir regime’s actions in Darfur were unjustifiable, tantamount to genocide, and I should have rejected any argument that downplayed the crimes. The years since 2011 have been an education and I am glad to be rid of the infantile contrarianism that defined my past politics. I am immensely grateful to the influence of the late Tony Judt who guided me towards what is hopefully a more humane and reflective politics. I hereby repudiate this piece and offer my unreserved apologies to the people of Darfur.

Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror by Mahmood Mamdani, Verso, 2009.

The Electronic Intifada, 8 June 2009

Saviors and Survivors
“Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror” by Mahmood Mamdani

In Errol Morris’s 2004 film The Fog of War, former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recalls General Curtis LeMay, the architect of the fire-bombings of Japan during WWII, saying that “if we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” LeMay was merely articulating an unacknowledged truism of international relations: power bestows, among other things, the right to label. So it is that mass slaughter perpetrated by the big powers, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, is normalized as “counterinsurgency,” “pacification” and “war on terror,” while similar acts carried out by states out of favor elicit the severest of charges. It is this politics of naming that is the subject of Mahmood Mamdani’s explosive new book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror.

Like the Middle East, parts of Africa have been engulfed in conflict for much of the post-colonial period. While the media coverage in both cases is perfunctory, in the case of Africa it is also sporadic. To the extent that there is coverage, the emphasis is on the dramatic or the grotesque. When the subject is not war, it is usually famine, disease or poverty—sometimes all together, always free of context. The wars are between “tribes” led by “warlords,” that take place in “failed states” ruled by “corrupt dictators.” Driven by primal motives, they rarely involve discernible issues. The gallery of rogues gives way only to a tableau of victims, inevitably in need of White saviors. A headline like “Can Bono save Africa?” is as illustrative of Western attitudes towards the continent as the comments of Richard Littlejohn, Britain’s highest-paid columnist, who wrote at the peak of the Rwandan genocide “Does anyone really give a monkey’s about what happens in Rwanda? If the Mbongo tribe wants to wipe out the Mbingo tribe then as far as I am concerned that is entirely a matter for them.”

Continue reading “The Darfur Diversion”

You (and I) got Darfur Wrong

 Mahmood Mamdani
Mahmood Mamdani

From Open Source with Chris Lydon:

Who can imagine that a Save Darfur coalition vocally including Al Sharpton (”we know when America comes together, we can stop anything in the world”), Mia Farrow, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Elie Wiesel (”Darfur today is the world’s capital of human suffering”), Nat Hentoff, Bob Geldof, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Harold Pinter, Oprah Winfrey, the gold-medal speed skater Joey Cheek, Tony Blair and Dario Fo might be profoundly shallow in its reading of the brutal warfare in Sudan five years ago… and just as wrong-headed in its drum beat for an American intervention?

Mahmood Mamdani can. We are talking here about his book Saviors and Survivors and his argument that the Darfur rescue campaign, which became a sacred cause of our civil religion, was not so much the moral alternative to Iraq, the Bush “war on terror,” and Cheney-think as it was a variation and extension of the same toolkit. I begin with a sort of confession that I may be a sample of Mamdani’s problem — having drenched myself in Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times columns and largely absorbed the common framework that Darfur was about Arabs slaughtering Africans, and that somebody had to something about it.

Continue reading “You (and I) got Darfur Wrong”

Kenyan victims of British brutality

Johann Hari writes that We owe it to do right by the Kenyan victims of British brutality.

In a few weeks, a group of quiet, dignified elderly men and women will arrive in London to explain how the forces of the British state crushed their testicles or breasts with pliers. It was part of a deliberate policy of breaking a civilian population who we regarded as “baboons”, “barbarians” and “terrorists”.

They will come bearing the story of how Britain invaded a country, stole its land, and imprisoned an entire civilian population in detention camps – and they ask only for justice, after all this time.

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The Darfur Debate


This debate between Mahmood Mamdani and John Prendergast took place on April 14, 2009 at the School of International and Public Affairs and the Institute for African Studies, Columbia University. I recently finished Mamdani’s new book Saviors and Survivors, which I will be reviewing for The Electronic Intifada shortly. The book is a tour de force brimming with political, historical, and anthropological insights. I would highly recommend it to anyone with interest in the subject.

(Also see James North’s review of the debate, and this follow up post.)

The Politics of Genocide

Mahmood Mamdani is a renowned African scholar (of Indian origin) who was last year ranked by Time as one of the world’s 100 leading intellectuals. He has previously authored the timely and influential book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim where he looks at the history of political Islam in the context of the so-called War on Terror. Here Mamdani appears on GRITtv with Laura Flanders to present the central thesis of his latest book Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror. (via Firedoglake)Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “The Politics of Genocide“, posted with vodpod

In his new book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, Columbia University Professor Mahmood Mamdani contends that the use of the word genocide is as political as ever and strategic ignorance about the history and current day politics of post-colonial Africa is just as great. Mamdani discusses the crisis in Darfur, the nature of Save Darfur advocacy, and what he sees as a dangerous collusion of colonialism and Anti-Terror rhetoric.

Darfur: A War of Definitions

Professor Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University believes that defining the conflict as Arab against African is inaccurate and says much more about the potency of race in the West rather than the relevance of the notion in Darfur. He believes that estimates of 400,000 dead in Darfur are inflated, irresponsible and unrealistic.

Mamdani, who was named as one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world by the US magazine Foreign Affairs in 2008, is from Uganda, and is the current chair of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), Dakar, Senegal.

He is the author of numerous books and articles, including the book Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. His upcoming book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, politics and the War on Terror will be published in English by Pantheon (Random House, New York) on March 17, 2009 and by Verso (London) a month later.

Following is the full interview conducted by IOL correspondent in Khartoum, Sudan, Isma’il Kushkush. Continue reading “Darfur: A War of Definitions”