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Noah and the cursed Africa

noah-posterI was just watching Russel Crowe’s version of the Noah story at some friends’ house. Setting all of the other absurdities of the story aside, like the impossibility of successfully saving all the animals on the earth from only a pair of each (the lions alone would decimate any chances for herbivore reproduction in days, let alone the massive problems of an extremely limited gene pool), I remembered the crux of the story.

Noah discovers grapes, learns to make wine and then proceeds to become a raging alcoholic. The movie implies that he’s drowning his sorrows over failing to kill his two female grandchildren, thus preventing God’s plan to eliminate humanity from coming to fruition.

His son Ham finds Noah drunk and sees Noah’s genitals. The 950 year old Noah then curses Ham. Noah’s three sons then move out to establish the three races of humanity, the Europeans, the Asiatics and the Africans.

Ham moves to the African continent. All Africans, then, are descended from Ham.

To racists, this would provide a great explanation for Africa’s developmental problems. Africans are suffering under an ancient curse, because a guy saw his drunk Dad’s penis.

People in the United States believe this shit. What’s scarier is that they vote.

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Mfangano (and missionaries in Kenya)

White lady comes to save African children from themselves by having her photo taken with them.

White lady comes to save African children from themselves by having her photo taken with them.

I went and checked out Mfangano, an island close to here that’s home to about 25,000 people (or 16,000 depending on who you ask). It is famous for some 2,000 year old rock paintings done by the Twa people, a group of hunter gatherers whose range historically extends all the way over to Western Africa.

Unfortunately, the Twa are long gone from the island, which is now occupied by Suba and Luo people, though the Suba are quickly being assimilated into the Luo through marriage.

It’s an odd place. They’ve got a small tourism industry, are currently installing new power lines and have recently gotten true ferry service from the mainland, but the roads are still terrible.

We ran into a group of missionaries on the way back. I always feel somewhat violated after talking with missionaries in Africa. What are they doing here? This looked like some polygamous group of Mormons but it turned out they were from Alberta and Kansas.

One of them asked us what we were “lonesome for.” I didn’t know how to respond so we asked them what they were lonesome for, to which they said “Wal Mart.”

While I hate to judge, it was telling that they all introduced themselves to us, but not Victor, an employee of the Kenyan Medical Research Institute who was standing right next to us. I’m convinced that they don’t see the locals as people.

What developmental role do missionaries play? They make no demands on politicians to solve pressing problems of political dysfunction, infrastructural weakness, employment, a lack of access to capital, crippling bureaucracy, corruption, graft, nepotism and terrorism. None of these problems can be solved through missionary activities which emphasize odd moral codes more fitting to white, rural Kansas than complicated and chaotic Kenya.

Central African Republic Gets a New President: Is there now hope for the CAR?

It has been announced that Bangui mayor Catherine Samba-Panza has been appointed the Interim President of the near anarchic Central African Republic.

Her ascension couldn’t come at a better time. The Central African Republic, fragile even in the best of times, has been slowly sinking into chaos. No one really knows how many people have been killed in the fighting between Christian and Muslim militias (though this shouldn’t be read as a religious conflict), but reports last year pegged more than 1000 civilian deaths within a two day span. Experts have started using the g-word.

From the NYT:

The interim president selected on Monday at a raucous, five-hour session of a “national transition council” of rebels, rivals and politicians was Catherine Samba-Panza, a French-educated lawyer with a reputation for integrity and no ties either to the Muslim rebels or the Christian militia. Her selection was greeted with cheers in the assembly hall and dancing outside. That she is a woman — the third female head of state in post-colonial Africa — was especially welcomed by many people who felt that men had done nothing but lead the country on its vicious downward spiral.

Though encouraging, it’s too early to tell if Ms. Samba-Panza will be able to contain the bloodshed in the CAR. Certainly, Liberia gained much under the leadership of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but it’s hard to say whether there’s been a great transformation in Malawi under Joyce Banda. Rwanda’s female majority Parliament is vastly preferable to Kenya’s (or the United States’) overpaid and corrupt boy’s club, however.

The conflagration in the CAR has been troubling for a number of reasons. First, it represents a general pattern of instability just below the Sahara. Neighboring South Sudan, which just recently obtained independence, is now facing a conflict ridden humanitarian crisis.

Second, the conflicts in South Sudan, the CAR, Northern Nigeria, Mali and Somalia rage on compromise the positive narrative of a newly prosperous and economically viable Africa. The 80’s and 90’s were a stain on the continent. Though I don’t foresee a return to the extended civil wars of Angola and Mozambique (for example), general regional instability compromises the ability to sustain development over the entire continent.

Third, even if the CAR manages to suppress the violence, there are few viable options for the long term economic future of this landlocked and historically marginalized country. Without a long term economic plan chances are high that tensions will flare up once more, setting the country back again.

Today’s Readings 1/4/2013

1. We need to fix our food production system before it kills us (NYT)
2. Four big money gangs that run the world (Sydney Morning Herald)
3. Is too much data clouding our judgement? (Michael Moritz blog)
4. Japanese trucker takes a vacation and heads to Syria, where he acts as amateur journalist (Japan Times)
5. More meaningless debt panicking. For one no one can agree on how much debt is too much, no one seems to be considering the issue of low long term interest AND the fact that countries nearly always amass debt following an economic shock. Certainly the inability for our Congress to effective debate and compromise is problematic for our image, but people are still watching. Seriously, how much do we know about the Chinese legislature? The US is still massively important on the world stage (for better or for worse) and its patently silly to claim otherwise. The fact that people are watching should be indication enough. These articles make for sensational reading, but not much else. (NYT)
6. Dying doesn’t cost as much as we like to think (NYT)
7. Urbanization in Africa. Lagos will become the largest city on the continent in 2013. Formal unemployment will still top 70% in some cities. (Economist)
8. Japan’s new right wing parliament presents the world with dangerous challenges, and Japan with a backward looking and bleak future (Economist)
9. Air conditioning, the past and the future. It’s going to get hotter than you think (Economist)
10. What exactly is “no negotiation”? I think we’re all smart enough to know better. (Washington Post)

Religious Outrage and Manufactured Crises

20120913-083747.jpgThere are a lot of things about religion I get, but still the brunt of it is a mystery to me. I had a Catholic upbringing in my early childhood, and later went to an expensive Episcopalian prep school. Religion to me, then, was more of an intellectual and historical exercise.

I respected the clergy because they could put sentences together and would graciously field my odd questions. One of the defining moments of my life was when I told a Catholic priest that I didn’t believe in God’s existence.

His response? “Neither do I.”

He proceeded to explain to me that being a good Christian had little to do with whether one believes in magical beings or not, but rather rests on living a life of kindness, charity and forgiveness. Priests were so influential to me, that I toyed with the idea of becoming one later, despite the fact that I don’t believe in Santa Claus.

As I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s Evangelical Christianity was rapidly infecting American politics. The Catholics and episcopalians (around me at least) had discussions of improving educational opportunities for every one, expansion of health care for poor people, and the protections of the rights of minorities of all kinds.

Evangelicals were worried about whether kids were forced to pray in school or not, the evils of pornography, whether it was acceptable for kids to listen to Black Sabbath or not, and whether the local theater should be legally allowed to show “Life of Brian.”

In other words, where the representatives of truly organized religion were calling for solutions to real problems which affected most Mississippians, the actors of disorganized, DIY religion were calling for solutions to problems that existed exclusively in their own minds.

It is a mistake, however, to assume that the focus on these manufactured problems are without political intent. Mississippi cornered the market on maintaining a system which controlled the populace and preserved economic opportunity through fear. Politicians capitalized upon these manufactured crises to create a culture of fear to selfishly preserve power.

It is disturbing then, to see the events unfolding in Libya, Egypt and more recently, Yemen. What we see are not calls to solve problems which average citizens face. It is doubtful that poorly made videos by brainless religious groups in the U.S. have anything to do with access to education, health care and economic opportunities in mid east countries.

Im at a loss for what my conclusion of this rant should be, but I am struck by a photo in the times today of the recent storming of the US embassy in Yemen.

The crowd is almost entirely very young men dressed that are indistinguishable from there counterparts in the States. Everyone is wearing fashionable clothes, and cell phones are everywhere. The problem, then, is not a protest against American culture, which they clearly embrace. Most of these guys, if given a choice, would probably prefer video games to daily prayers.

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