Monthly Archives: May 2011

Kapuscinski on the rise of Habyarimana

From The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, trans. by Klara Glowczewska (Vintage, 2002), Kindle Loc. 2339-66, 2373-92:

In 1972, the Hutus from Burundi, emboldened by the example of their brothers in Rwanda, attempted to stage an insurrection, slaughtering, for starters, several thousand Tutsis, who, in response, killed more than a hundred thousand Hutus. It was not the fact of the massacre alone, for these occurred regularly in both countries, but its staggering proportions that created an uproar among the Hutus of Rwanda, who decided to react. They were further inspired by the fact that during the pogrom, several hundred thousand (a million, they sometimes say) Hutus from Burundi sought shelter in Rwanda, creating an enormous problem for this poor country already periodically beset by food shortages.

Taking advantage of this crisis (they are murdering our kinsmen in Burundi; we do not have the wherewithal to support a million immigrants), the commander in chief of the Rwandan military, General Juvénal Habyarimana, staged a coup d’état in 1973 and declared himself president. The coup exposed the profound rifts and conflicts within the Hutu community. The defeated president Grégoire Kayibana (who would later be starved to death) represented a moderately liberal Hutu clan from the country’s central region. The new ruler, on the other hand, hailed from a radical, chauvinistic branch inhabiting Rwanda’s northwest. (Habyarimana, one can say, is the Radovan Karadžić of the Rwandan Hutus.)

Habyarimana will rule for twenty-one years, until his death in 1994. Massively built, powerful, energetic, he focuses all his attention on erecting an iron-clad dictatorship. He institutes a one-party system. He names himself party leader. All the country’s citizens must be party members from the time of birth. The general now improves upon the all-too-simple scheme of enmity: Hutu versus Tutsi. He will enrich this formula by adding another dimension, a further division—those in power versus those in the opposition. If you are a loyal Tutsi, you can become the head of a hamlet or a village (although not a minister); if you criticize the authorities, however, you will end up behind bars or on the scaffold, even if you are 100 percent Hutu. The general was absolutely correct to proceed this way: Tutsis were not the only ones hostile to his dictatorship; there were also large numbers of Hutus who genuinely hated him and resisted him in every way they could. Finally, the conflict in Rwanda was not only a quarrel between castes, but also a violent clash between tyranny and democracy. In this sense the language of ethnic categories, and the mind-set it stems from, is terribly deceptive and misleading. It blurs and neglects the more profound truths—good versus evil, truth versus lies, democracy versus dictatorship—limiting one to a single, and indeed superficial and secondary dichotomy, a single contrast, a single set of oppositions: He is of infinite worth because he is Hutu; or he is worthless because he is Tutsi.

While strengthening the dictatorship was the first task to which Habyarimana devoted himself, gradual advances were also being made on a parallel front: the privatization of the state. With each passing year, Rwanda was increasingly becoming the private property of the clan from Gisenyi (the general’s small hometown), or, more strictly speaking, the property of the president’s wife, Agathe, and of her three brothers, Sagatawa, Seraphin, and Zed, as well as of a bevy of their cousins. Agathe and her brothers belonged to the clan called Akazu, and this name became the password that could open many doors within Rwanda’s mysterious labyrinths. Sagatawa, Seraphin, and Zed had luxurious palaces around Gisenyi, from which, together with their sister and her husband, the general, they ruled over the army, the police, the banks, and the bureaucracy of Rwanda. So, a little nation somewhere in the mountains of a distant continent, ruled by a greedy family of voracious, despotic petty chieftains. How did it come to acquire such tragic worldwide renown?

In the eighties, the young activist Yoweri Museveni starts a guerrilla war against the horrific regime of the psychopath and butcher Milton Obote. Museveni needs fighters. And he quickly finds them, because in addition to his Ugandan brethren, the young men from Rwandan refugee camps are volunteering: militant, battle-hungry Tutsis. Museveni gladly accepts them. They undergo military training in Uganda’s forests, under the direction of professional instructors, and many of them go on to finish officer-training schools abroad. In January 1986, Museveni enters Kampala at the head of his divisions and seizes power. Many of these divisions are commanded by, or include in their ranks, Tutsis born in the refugee camps—sons of the fathers who had been driven out of Rwanda.

For a long time no one notices that there has arisen in Uganda a well-trained and battle-tested army of Tutsi avengers, who think of one thing only: how to revenge themselves for the disgrace and injury inflicted upon their families. They hold secret meetings, create an organization called the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and make preparations to attack. During the night of September 30, 1990, they disappear from the Ugandan army barracks and from the border camps, and at dawn enter Rwandan territory. The authorities in Kigali are completely surprised. Surprised and terrified. Habyarimana has a weak and demoralized army, and the distance from the Ugandan border to Kigali is not much more than 150 kilometers: the guerrillas could march into Kigali in a day or two. That is what would certainly have happened, for Habyarimana’s troops offered no resistance, and maybe it would never have come to that hecatomb and carnage—the genocide of 1994—were it not for one telephone call. This was the call for help General Habyarimana made to the French president, François Mitterrand.

Mitterrand was under strong pressure from the French pro-African lobby. Whereas the majority of European capitals had radically broken with their colonial past, Paris had not. French society still includes a large, active, and well-organized army of people who made their careers in the colonial administration, spent their lives (quite well!) in the colonies, and now, as foreigners in Europe, feel useless and unwanted. At the same time, they believe deeply that France is not only a European country but also the community of all people partaking of French culture and language; that France, in other words, is also a global cultural and linguistic entity: Francophonie. This philosophy, translated into the simplistic language of geopolitics, holds that if someone, somewhere in the world, is attacking a French-speaking country, it is almost as if he were striking at France itself.


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Filed under economics, France, migration, military, nationalism, Rwanda, Uganda

Kapuscinski on the rise of Idi Amin

From The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, trans. by Klara Glowczewska (Vintage, 2002), Kindle Loc. 1882-1918:

Amin is a typical bayaye [rootless, urban drifter].

He grows up in the streets of Jinja. The town housed a battalion of the British colonial army, the King’s African Rifles. The model for this army was devised toward the end of the nineteenth century by General Lugard, one of the architects of the British Empire. It called for divisions composed of mercenaries recruited from tribes hostile toward the population on whose territory they were to be garrisoned: an occupying force, holding the locals on a tight rein. Lugard’s ideal soldiers were young, well-built men from the Nilotic (Sudanese) populations, which distinguished themselves by their enthusiasm for warfare, their stamina, and their cruelty. They were called Nubians, a designation that in Uganda evoked a combination of distaste and fear. The officers and noncommissioned officers of this army, however, were for many years exclusively Englishmen. One day, one of them noticed a young African with a Herculean physique hanging around the barracks. It was Amin. He was quickly enlisted. For people like him—without a job, without possibilities—military service was like winning the lottery. He had barely four years of elementary schooling, but because he was deemed obedient and eager to anticipate the wishes of his commanders, he began advancing rapidly through the ranks. He also gained renown as a boxer, becoming the Ugandan heavyweight champion. During colonial times, the army was dispatched on countless expeditions of oppression: against the Mau Mau insurgents, against the warriors of the Turkana tribe, or against the independent people of the Karimojong. Amin distinguished himself in these campaigns: he organized ambushes and attacks, and was merciless toward his adversaries.

It is the fifties, and the era of independence is fast approaching. Africanization has arrived, even in the military. But the British and French officers want to remain in control for as long as possible. To prove that they are irreplaceable, they promote the third-rate from among their African subordinates, those not too quick, but obedient, transforming them in a single day from corporals and sergeants into colonels and generals. Bokassa in the Central African Republic, for example, Soglo in Dahomey, Amin in Uganda.

When in the fall of 1962 Uganda becomes an independent state, Amin is already, because of promotions by the British, a general, and deputy commander of the army. He takes a look around him. Although he has high rank and position, he comes from the Kakwa, a small community and one, moreover, that is not regarded as native Ugandan. Meantime, the preponderance of the army comes from the Langi tribe, to which Prime Minister Milton Obote belongs, and from the related Acholi. The Langi and the Acholi treat the Kakwa superciliously, seeing them as benighted and backward. We are navigating here in the paranoid, obsessive realm of ethnic prejudice, hatred, and antipathy—albeit an intra-African one: racism and chauvinism emerge not only along the most obvious divides, e.g., white versus black, but are equally stark, stubborn, and implacable, perhaps even more so, among peoples of the same skin color. Indeed, most whites who have died in the world have died at the hands not of blacks, but of other whites, and likewise the majority of black lives taken in the past century were taken by other blacks, not by whites. And so it follows, for example, that on account of ethnic bigotry, no one in Uganda will care whether Mr. XY is wise, kind, and friendly, or the reverse, evil and loathsome; they will care only whether he is of the tribe of Bari, Toro, Busoga, or Nandi. This is the sole criterion by which he will be classified and evaluated.

For its first eight years of independence, Uganda is ruled by Milton Obote, an extraordinarily conceited man, boastful and sure of himself. When it is exposed in the press that Amin has misappropriated the cash, gold, and ivory given him for safekeeping by anti-Mobutu guerrillas from Zaire, Obote summons Amin, orders him to pen an explanation, and, confident that he himself is in no danger, flies off to Singapore for a conference of prime ministers of the British Commonwealth. Amin, realizing that the prime minster will arrest him as soon as he returns, decides on a preemptive strike: he stages an army coup and seizes power. Theoretically at least, Obote in fact had little to worry about: Amin did not represent an obvious threat, and his influence in the army was ultimately limited. But beginning on the night of January 25, 1971, when they took over the barracks in Kampala, Amin and his supporters employed a brutally efficient surprise tactic: they fired without warning. And at a precisely defined target: soldiers from the Langi and Achole tribes. The surprise had a paralyzing effect: no one had time to mount a resistance. On the very first day, hundreds died in the barracks. And the carnage continued. Henceforth, Amin always used this method: he would shoot first. And not just at his enemies; that was self-evident, obvious. He went further: he liquidated without hesitation those he judged might one day develop into enemies. Over time, terror in Amin’s state also came to depend on universal torture. Before they died, people were routinely tormented.

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Cameroon Tales: Two Cooks

For most of his recent sabbatical in Cameroon, my brother stayed in a big hilltop white-elephant of a house overlooking a small village on the busy main highway between Yaoundé, the capital, and Douala, the main port city. The house was the ostensible headquarters of a personal NGO owned by an international businessman from that village, whom my brother had once helped get started in the business of importing cars from Europe into Cameroon. As village benefactor, he had later acquired overseas aid to build and maintain a village well, build a nursery school, and build his own seldom-used mansion.

My brother’s housemates there were three men from neighboring Central African Republic, speakers of a Gbaya language called Suma who were working on documenting their language, on a project funded almost entirely out of my brother’s own pocket. He has known the elder two men (now in their 50s) since the late 1970s, when he was working for the Peace Corps and then USAID in the then Central African Empire.

To feed himself and his team, my brother asked to hire a cook from the local village. The sleazy caretaker of the mansion, a childhood friend of the benefactor now in his 40s, recommended the 16-year-old girl living with him, who soon proved that she neither knew how to cook nor cared to learn, even when an older woman was hired to help teach her.

One day the young cook got a call from her elder sister telling her that the latter’s baby was very sick, and asking for help. My brother offered to give her an advance on her salary, since it was so near the end of the month anyway, so that she could send some money to her sister. But her man (the caretaker) took that money, beat her, and forbade her to visit her sister. The cook then came to my brother and asked for more help, but the caretaker swore that he never beat her (even claiming she had attacked him), and that he never took her money, only “put it aside” in order to prevent her leaving to go take of the sick baby.

Although the cook threatened to leave the caretaker—just as she had earlier infuriated her family by running away from home to be with him—she soon relented, made up with him, and returned to work as if nothing had happened. Nevertheless, her enthusiasm for cooking never improved, and my brother finally fired her a few weeks before we arrived for our visit.

The replacement cook was far from a spoiled brat. She was the devoutly religious, 30-something mother of four young children whose husband had abandoned her in Kribi, on the south coast, whereupon she tried to find her sister, who had married into the village where we stayed. She ran out of cash in the market and crossroads town nearest her sister’s village, but a taxi driver from the latter village was kind enough to give her and her brood a free ride to her sister’s house, which had only one room to spare for her and her four kids.

Lacking land and a husband, she resorted to gathering forest herbs for sale by the roadside to earn a little cash. The village chief’s unmarried son dallied with her for a while, but he was very likely scared off by the prospect of raising her four kids (although she blamed it on his inability to abide by her strict religious scruples). The chance to cook for a household of foreigners was a godsend—except for the jealousy it aroused among the other villagers.

She proved a diligent and capable cook who used her new supply of cash to rent some land and pay a crew to clear a field for planting—all just in time for the start of the rainy season. And she was finally able to pay the village medic to treat her two-year-old boy for worms.

When it came time for my brother and his team to leave the village, he promised her whatever food supplies remained in the kitchen. She didn’t show up for the good-bye party, however. Instead, she waited out behind the kitchen until after darkness fell and all the guests had left—so that no one would see her carry the extra food to her sister’s house, and then spread gossip about the passing good fortune of one of the most destitute women in the village.

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Filed under Cameroon, economics, labor, language, migration, religion

Wordcatcher Tales: Mourning Fabrics, 1860s

From This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust (Knopf, 2008), Kindle Loc. 2332-2384:

By convention, a mother mourned for a child for a year, a child mourned for a parent the same, a sister six months for a brother. A widow mourned for two and a half years, moving through prescribed stages and accoutrements of heavy, full, and half mourning, with gradually loosening requirements of dress and deportment. A widower, by contrast, was expected to mourn only for three months, simply by displaying black crape on his hat or armband. The work of mourning was largely allocated to women….

In the South, where 18 percent of white males of military age perished in the war, death was omnipresent, and fabrics and fashions were scarce…. In the North, where the death rate of men of military age was one-third that in the Confederacy, mourning was less universal, and the goods that made it possible proved more readily available….

At Besson & Son, Mourning Store, at 918 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, one could find in July 1863—just in time for Gettysburg—a veritable taxonomy of mourning fabrics all but unrecognizable by twenty-first-century Americans:

  • Black Crape Grenadines [A thin gauzelike fabric of silk or wool, for women’s wear]
  • Black Balzerines [A light mixed fabric of cotton and wool for women’s dresses, commonly used for summer gowns before the introduction of barege]
  • Black Baryadere Bareges
  • Black Bareges [A sheer fabric woven of silk or cotton and wool, used for women’s apparel]
  • Black Barege Hernani [A grenadine dress fabric woven in small meshes of coarse threads of silk, cotton, or wool, and their intermixtures]
  • Silk Grenadines
  • Challies [a soft fabric of plain weave in wool, cotton, or other staple fiber]
  • Summer Bombazines [A fine twilled fabric of silk and worsted or cotton, often dyed black and used for mourning clothes]
  • Mousseline de Laines [wool] [A fine sheer fabric resembling muslin, originally made in Mosul, Iraq]
  • Tamises [A cloth made for straining liquids]
  • Mourning Silks, Lawns, Chintzes, Alpacas
  • Barege Shawls, Grenadine Veils, English Crapes

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Filed under economics, language, religion, U.S., war

Railroads and Other Baffling Innovations

From A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862, by Craig Miner (U. Press of Kansas, 2010), pp. 253-254:

Why do our clothes not fit so well? It results from a chain of circumstances the origins of which are obscure to most and the direction of which was partially accidental. Early in the nineteenth century, inventors came up with an automated loom, and businesspeople put these to work in England and in such American industrial cities as Lowell, Massachusetts, turning out cheap cotton cloth. This, along with the application of the cotton gin to cotton production, revitalized slavery as well as creating an incentive for inexpensive ready-made and therefore not specifically tailored clothing.

Such long-range deep impacts of technological and business developments have long been studied. Lynn White, in Medieval Technology and Social Change, documented the enormous impact of clocks, heavy harness and stirrups on population growth, shock warfare, and the age of exploration. Siegfried Giedion wrote in his Mechanization Takes Command of what he called “anonymous history.” Who can estimate the impact of the invention of the toilet, or the assembly line in food production, or household machinery on the status of women? Langdon Winner observed “Developments in the technical sphere continually outpace the capacity of individuals and social systems to adapt. As the rate of technological innovation quickens, it becomes increasingly important and increasingly difficult to predict the range of effects that a given innovation will have.”

A recent touring art exhibit called “The Railway: Art in the Age of Steam” reaffirmed the impact of that technology on perceptions of life and landscape. “The application of steam power to motion,” the catalog noted, “came as a startling turn of events.” Some found it wondrous, but “for others it heralded a frightening, almost demonic energy.” There was something supernatural about it, even extraterrestrial. It made middle-class people “physically and psychologically susceptible to impersonal and potentially lethal industrial machines.”…

Think of the social and psychological changes wrought by the telegraph, electricity, the phonograph, the automobile, the airplane, radio, television, the computer, the Internet, the long-playing record, video games, the cell phone, fast food, the shopping mall, and the iPod. And think of how “baffled,” in many ways, we are by them and how they should fit in with the rest of our existence. These devices have become ubiquitous parts of modern life. An age when they did not exist is nearly unimaginable to many, while an age where they do exist is unendurable to others.

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Filed under democracy, industry, science, slavery

Railroad Depot Architecture, 1830–1860

From A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862, by Craig Miner (U. Press of Kansas, 2010), p. 92:

Railroad depots came to dominate urban architecture, and their size brought much comment. The Boston & Maine depot in Boston, constructed in 1846, was 200 feet long and 80 feet wide. It had Corinthian columns, and on its upper story was the largest meeting hall in the city. Behind it was a freight depot 500 feet long and 50 feet wide. The Union depot at Troy, New York constructed in 1853, was 400 feet long and 150 feet wide. The distance from the top of the roof arch to the floor was 65 feet. The roof was made entirely of iron supported by twenty trusses.

Former B&O Camden Station

Former Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Camden Station, built in 1856, now the Babe Ruth/Sports Legends Museum next to Camden Yards

Time only increased the impressiveness of these structures. A reporter for the Chicago Daily Tribune visited the new buildings constructed by the Illinois Central Railroad along the lakeshore in 1854. The passenger depot at the foot of Water Street was all of stone. It was 500 feet long, 166 feet wide and 60 feet high to the top of its towers. Its windows were 16 feet high. The walls looked like they would “remain in all their strength when the final ‘wreck of matter and the crash of worlds’ shall come. The turntable there would hold eighteen locomotives.

The depots were the entry to a new world of travel, every aspect of which became a subject for travelogue comments. John Daggett riding the B&O in 1834, thought the beginning of his rail journey was its highlight:

One of the happiest effects of traveling on railroads is the freedom it gives you from the impertinence and impositions of porters, cartmen, et omne id genus, who infest common steamboat landings. A long and solitary row of carriages was standing on the shore awaiting our arrival; not a shout was heard, scarcely any thing was seen to move except the locomotive, and the arms of the man who caught the rope from our boat. The passengers were filed off along a planked walk to the carriages through one gangway, while their luggage, which had already been stowed safely away, was rolled on shore by another, in two light wagons; and almost without speaking a word, the seats were occupied, the wagons attached behind, the half-locomotive began to snort, and the whole retinue was on the way with as little ado and as little loss of time as I have been guilty of in telling the story.

Others, however, were not so impressed with the stressful experience of boarding a train. A Frenchman, Michel Chevalier, thought that the pandemonium at the railroad station reflected the nervousness and disorder of American society itself. The American, he wrote, was “devoured with a passion for locomotion” and could not stay still.

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Filed under industry, travel, U.S.

Cameroon Tales: The PTA Meeting

After spending our first night in Cameroon in a hotel in Yaoundé, we changed money with a friendly Nigerian Igbo at the Hilton, went shopping for food at the central market and for baguettes at a suburban bakery, then drove the two hours back to the village where my brother was staying in time for a short rest before the parent-teacher meeting for the local preschool (maternelle) that we were invited to attend that afternoon at 4 p.m.

We had been invited in order to thank my brother for his small monetary donation, which had enabled the teacher to buy some new and much needed school supplies. The meeting was held in the salon of the chief of the village, and my brother and I stopped to buy a half-dozen large bottles of beer and soft drinks for those who attended. We purchased them from the village patriarch’s store, waking him up from his afternoon nap on his front porch.

In the chief’s salon, we found about a dozen parents seated across from the sofa that the chief had reserved for us, and an open box of school supplies on the coffee table in the center of the room. As others were allocating the drinks we had brought, the chief told me my brother had never accepted his offers of homemade oil palm wine (there called vin blanc) but he wondered whether I would like to try it. After a moment’s hesitation, I said I would be happy to, rationalizing that the alcohol in it would help neutralize the residual bacteria. The chief then called for his palm wine and filled two stemmed glasses from his cupboard. The palm wine was palatable, though poorly filtered.

The president then rose to welcome us, asking first whether he could address me in French (rather than switch to English, presumably). My brother assured him I spoke several languages, neglecting to mention my poor speaking ability. In fact, I could follow the proceedings pretty well until they later gave way to more free-flowing conversation and storytelling.

Then the president introduced the maitresse, who did a show-and-tell of the supplies she had bought, which included various (French) literacy and language materials, workbooks and educational activities, and about a dozen rolls of toilet paper to be used in the brick outhouse that had been started behind the school building. She regretted only that she had not been able to obtain materials to teach numeracy as well as literacy. As she finished, she offered to turn over her receipts to my brother, as the donor, but he suggested she turn them over to the president, who had replaced a corrupt predecessor.

The president was a successful businessman who got his start as a chauffeur for Catholic nuns, and my brother’s regular driver would usually rent the president’s car when he hired himself out as a driver. The maitresse was a trained and dedicated teacher who had recently fallen victim to pickpockets in a shared taxi on her way home from a bank in Yaoundé with a loan of 1.5 million francs CFA with which to build a house. She was very slowly paying back the loan from her very modest teacher’s salary.

After the formalities were over, the conversation drifted to other topics. One man asked us why Obama was not (yet) intervening in Libya. (This was an overwhelmingly Christian village less concerned than a largely Muslim village may have been about the delicacy of American relations with the Muslim world.) Later, after somebody else told a story about an encounter with a large snake, this same man said he had seen a show on National Geographic about people handling poisonous snakes without getting bitten. He obviously had access to satellite TV and was concerned to educate himself as well as his children. He and I (and the chief) were the only ones drinking the chief’s palm wine instead of beer.

Big pot of ndole

Ndole, a stew of bitterleaf, ground peanuts, and fish

We finally made our exit, explaining that our new cook had made a big pot of ndole, the national dish, to welcome us. This stew of bitterleaf greens, ground peanuts, and fish or meat takes a lot of time and effort, so everyone was impressed. In fact, we had hardly finished eating when the chief showed up at our door, with the village patriarch and another of his drinking buddies, saying they had come to sample our ndole, which their wives rarely made. They pronounced it very well prepared, at which my brother could not resist telling the chief that he could be eating it more often if his son had gone ahead and married the cook after romancing her. They finally left after finding out we had no more beer or wine on hand.

The tale of two cooks will be the next installment.

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Filed under Cameroon, education, food