I just got back from Bookstop in the Yaya Centre shopping mall in Nairobi, one of my favorite bookstores in the world. It’s an Africanist’s paradise. My bank account is always a bit lighter and my suitcase a bit heavier after I visit.
Today, a customer was coming in to pick up Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a 700 page economics tome which has been topping the best seller lists everywhere and probably one the best economics books to appear in the past 50 years. The gentleman looked a bit intimidated by its size.
A bit later, a younger Kenyan woman came in with a bag full of books that she was hoping to trade for her copy. The book costs the equivalent of about $70 in Kenya.
The owner apparently ordered 100 copies, but was only able to get 25. He says he has orders for all 100 copies, many from Kenyan college students which he sees as an encouraging sign. I have to agree.
Actually, I was an infant, but as an adult, I wrote a blog post and made a cool video of the locations and magnitude of bomb drops in Laos from 1965-1973.
Now, Jerry Redfern & Karen Coates have written a great (I assume) book “Eternal Harvest”on the United States’ unbelievably devastating bombing campaign of neighboring Laos during the Vietnam War. I suggest that everyone go out and read this book immediately.
However, they created an accompanying video, which is eerily similar to a video I created, though theirs is embellished with narration and bookend explanations. I want to think that I helped inspire such a cool video. Or maybe this is wishful thinking. I don’t know. But it’s reassuring to know that this blog might have contributing something to the world.
And here’s mine:
While I was in Kenya, I picked up a number of books from Kwani?, a Nairobi based publisher which (mostly) specializes in Kenyan writers.
Established in 2003, Kwani Trust is a Kenyan based literary network dedicated to developing quality creative writing and committed to the growth of the creative industry through the publishing and distribution of contemporary African writing, offering training opportunities, producing literary events and establishing and maintaining global literary networks. Our vision is to create a society that uses its stories to see itself more coherently.
At the very least, reading these books allows one to see Kenya somewhat more coherently.
One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir Binyavanga Wanaina is now famous for bravely having come out as gay in an area famous for conservative and often violent attitudes toward homosexuality. He should be more famous for his books or at least for taking the prize money from one of his literary accolades and starting Kwani Press.
“One Day I Will Write About This Place” is a memoir of growing up in a middle class household in central Kenya, following some of the country’s most tumultuous social and political upheavals. Wanaina experiences Kenya on the periphery, looking in at Kenya through the lens of reruns of the Six Million Dollar Man, formerly colonial schools, local libraries and the staggering complexity of Kenya itself. Wanaina even makes several attempts to leave Kenya for good, jetting off to South Africa for law school during apartheid and after, even coming back to Kenya for the disastrous and bloody 2007 elections. His descriptions of the latter and of supermarkets sold out of pangas are no less than chilling.
Kenya has long been a mystery to me. While the country was set to become on of the world’s economic success stories, it’s progress was rapidly squandered due to a combination of demographics and bad politics. Wanaina might be even more perplexed.
If anything, the book needs to be read for Wanaina’s excellent prose. It doesn’t matter whether one understands or knows anything about Kenya (though it helps). His writing is engaging enough to keep ones attention even without understanding the details. This is one of the best books I’ve read in years.
Kwani? 4 Kwani? is a series of collections of Kenyan writing from both writers within and without Kenya. This volume focuses on subjects of travel, emigration, immigration and the lives of the Kenyan diaspora. Discussions of Africa must recognize that Africans are some of the most mobile people on the planet.
The experience of the diaspora is essential to understanding the state of present day African people, who often lay on the front lines fighting for survival in a world which mostly doesn’t want them, while providing support for all the people who depend on them back home. Immigration nightmares, the loss of connection with home, and the shaping of new identities make up this great collection of stories, poems and artwork.
(Note that the link is for Kwani 4.)
The Stone Hills of Maragoli – Stanley Gazemba I have not finished this one yet (“reading now”), but I was excited to pick up something from Gazemba, who bills himself as a humble gardener living in a slum outside of Nairobi. He is clearly much more than that. He is a prolific writer and journalist, whose works have appeared in many of the major Kenyan newspapers, New African and the New York Times (where I first became aware of him).
“The Stone Hills of Maragoli” follows Ombima as he overcomes his morals to find that stealing food from a garden is delightfully empowering. Mostly, the book is about life in a rural area of Western Kenya, filled with the complexities of daily life and a tightly knit, though deeply divided society.
The book won the Jomo Kenyatta literary prize in 2003. Gazemba apparently has frou other novels waiting to see the light of day.
Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day People (even experts) commonly accept that the ultra-poverty can be defined as living on “a dollar a day,” but rarely question what that means exactly. This book attempts to expose the financial lives of the world’s poor, which are vastly more complex than one would assume. For one, life on a dollar a day does not imply that households receive a dollar on a daily basis. According to this book, if they did receive regular and reliable payments, their household finances and strategies to preserve them would be vastly different.
Like the poor everywhere, families in the slums of Bangladesh South Africa pull money from a variety of sources which pay irregularly and with varying amounts. Often lacking access to formal banking services, they cleverly participate in strategies to lend money to friends, consider investment in a number of service based businesses and will participate in local finance cooperatives protect their meager earnings. Small finance cooperatives will even act as lenders to extract profit from their savings, acting as small, functioning banks. Poor people will paradoxically borrow rather than save, preferring to pay a premium for access to lump sum payments and prefer being compelled to pay back a loan, rather than risk having to discipline themselves to not spend savings on daily needs. and will even take loans in lieu of saving, paying a premium for lump sum payments which relieve them from having to save.
Local moneylenders charge absurdly high interest rates when calculating them on an annualized basis, but the authors find that people rarely hold the loan more than a month, so that the “interest rate” can actually be viewed more correctly as a fee for service. Micro-lending (which really amounts to unsustainable charity) is seen as less preferable than micro-finance, as poor people need not only access to capital, but also safe places to park their savings and the possibility of earning interest on them. The people in the surveys were often found to have assets which exceeded liabilities and nearly all households were found to be saving and investing wherever possible.
The authors point out three major problems with the finances of the poor the first of which is that incomes and payments are small. Second, they note that it is important to recognize that cash flows are unpredictable and the timing of payments uncertain. If people can’t plan, if they don’t know when the money will come. The most important factor hobbling the finances of the impoverished, is that the financial insturments available to them are insufficient to address either of the first two problems. Better financial tools would go a long way to improving the lives of the poor, who are often proactive with their finances.
In short, the financial lives of the poor are vastly more complex than one would assume, and the savvy and rationale of impoverished households far deeper. A great read if you are interested in issues of poverty or finance. There are, of course, lessons here for how we view poverty domestically. BUY HERE
The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics I like Easterly because he doesn’t coddle developing countries. Though he’s quick to criticize Western aid efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa without recognizing aid’s successes (and deep complexity), he has interesting insights into why developing countries often fail, the reasons for which are sometimes rooted in domestic problems. Too much of the development literature infantilizes developing countries and excuses stupid behavior in favor of blaming the “Evil Empire,” rather than taking a hard look at why some countries continue to fail and why others succeed. The worst disservice we can do to poor countries is to assume they are like the starving, helpless children presented in advertisements to raise money for charitable causes.
I also like Easterly because he recognizes that private sector development is absolutely essential to growth in developing countries and that the current model of development, which often relies on an assumption that the poor are happily poor and should remain as such, spare the occasional handout of antiquated technologies and inefficient top-down ideas. While I like Easterly’s perspective, I can’t say that I agree with much of the anti-aid literature that’s spring up around him, which is often myopic to the other extreme, and follows a typically tired narrative which paradoxically again denies developing countries of their own agency. BUY HERE
Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic I’m digging back into my past. For some odd reason, I have a German Literature degree, which means that I have a stack of famous works from the great Germanic writers and a few books on German theater. Brecht was always a favorite.
His confrontational ideas on the theater as a means for inspiring leftist political change may have gotten him exiled from Germany but they still resonate today. Were he alive, Brecht would have still found Hollywood in 2014 bankrupt and empty for it’s emphasis on the “magical” the presence of “hypnotic tensions.” Brecht sought to alienate his audience rather than involve them. To do this Brecht encouraged cigar smoking in theaters as a means of keeping it real. BUY HERE
The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe It will be a great day for the world when Robert Mugabe dies. His reign over Zimbabwe has been disastrous for the country. Once known as the “breadbasket of Africa,” it is now known as a governmental basket case of seemingly inconceivable proportions.
Godwin travelled to his home country of Zimbabwe at great risk during the 2008 Presidential elections. He documents, in a literary style a pattern of voter intimidation and unfathomed violence by Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. The profiles of torture victims, some of whom are Parliament members and high profile party members of the opposition MDC party, are gut wrenching. While it’s hard to doubt the lengths that Mugabe would go to to maintain power, the zeal with which his supporters violate basic standards of morality is mind-boggling.
Most interesting is Roy Bennett, a white Zimbabwean former Parliament member who once justifiably physically assaulted another MP during session. Despite being beaten, tortured, humiliated, having his farm ripped violently from him during Mugabe’s land redistribution scheme and despite even having his wife beaten so badly that she lost the child, Bennett fights on for Zimbabwe’s freedom and maintain an amazingly high level of public support. Bennett eventually becomes pegged to be the Minister of Agriculture under a power sharing scheme, directly undercutting Mugabe’s racist narrative which helps keep him in power.
Godwin pulls no punches in “the Fear,” but at times the violence and inhumanity are so extreme as to be somewhat implausible. I don’t doubt the accounts of torture and targeted beatings he lists here. There are so many episodes and the nature of the violence so extreme, that even if the book were 90% lies, the situation would be one of the worst on the planet.
The book, however, is more saddening than revolting. How an educated and well endowed country like Zimbabwe, which was so full of potential following independence could sink to such low depths is not only perplexing, but thoroughly depressing. An excellent read. (BUY HERE)
Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade A son of a junkyard owner grows up and decides to be a journalist, then goes back to the family scrap business, then writes a fantastic book about the history and current state of the worldwide junk trade.
I remember when recycling became a part of American life, but it was sold as a new phenomenon. Americans were portrayed as living a wasteful existence before recycling campaigns, throwing otherwise useful items into landfills to be buried and forgotten. Minter digs deep into the history of scrap in the US, noting that during the Depression, many people made good livings pulling and sorting trash and selling whatever was useful to whoever was willing to buy it.
The problem, apparently, isn’t in recycling or the willingness of business to reuse goods, but the costs of sorting and resorting, a problem which requires innovation. Minter points out that many innovations in recycling come from the bottom. Those willing to brave the junk heap to find gold are the most motivated to find new and efficient methods of extracting it. Even more challenging is the volatility of commoditiy prices and the sudden changes in demand for specific substances or components. The trade requires a speedy willingness to adapt, a quick sense of what buyers want and a collection of connections to link them to supply. It’s a cutthroat, though exciting business.
Though the domestic recycling and scrapping industry is a multi-billion dollar business. Now, the economics of junk span the entire glove. China, with its large supply of cheap and efficient labor has taken on a good portion of the scrap world. Minter addresses the potential hazards of scrap, much of which is sorted by hand under minimal regulation, but notes that the work is consistent and offers a way out for a lot of rural Chinese already living under squalid conditions. His easy to read assessment of the global junk trade is as much a story of the potential hazards of globalization and first world consumption as it is a celebration of the ingenuity of the bottom to offer market based solutions to the problems of potentially increasing scarcity of certain commodities. (BUY HERE).