Category Archives: african miscellany

So long, and thanks for the conjunctivitis.

For a country that’s given me so many good friends and fond memories these past few years, Rwanda has offered one last parting gift before next week’s flight to South Africa: conjunctivitis.

Kigali has been abuzz with rumors surrounding my pink eye. Rogue RPF elements? Nkunda sympathizers? Former Interahamwe, hatching some dastardly plot against the eyes of journalists? The foreign press corps? The French? Ingabire?

Ingabire!

Medium-rare.

Whatever the cause – most likely my holding hands with some shit-fingered Congolese kid last week – I’ve spent the past few days squinting mole-eyed into the sunlight. It has not been a pleasant valedictory week – though, in fairness to pink eyes past, it could have been worse. There was Zanzibar ’08, the unforgettable Beirut ’07 (right), and a handful of episodes from my grubby, eye-rubbing youth. This is, by comparison, small potatoes – nothing a few drops of Fluorometholone can’t clear up in the next 5-7 days.

It is heartening, in a way, to get this farewell fuck-off. Lest I begin to wax nostalgic on those first, lonely nights in Jo’burg, I can think instead: “Rwanda? You mean the place where I got the pink eye? No, THANKS!” And then I’ll go back to playing solitaire.

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Ugandan minister: ‘Someone keeps touching my thigh.’

KAMPALA, UGANDA — As parliamentary leaders this week debated a contentious bill toughening the laws against homosexuality in this East African nation, Minister of Sexual Affairs Martin Ssenyonga accused government officials of repeatedly touching his thigh.

“It is our duty to the Ugandan people to outlaw the heinous crime of homosexuality, which threatens the very fabric of our nation,” Ssenyonga told members of the local press after the closed-door session in the Ugandan capital.

“But seriously: who keeps touching my thigh?” the minister asked.

Ssenyonga, who has urged his colleagues to 'keep their hands where (he) can see them' during parliamentary meetings

Government officials report that Ssenyonga first felt a hand casually brushing against his thigh during a parliamentary roll call earlier this week. The minister told reporters he was “pretty sure it was an accident,” adding that in the crowded chambers of the Ugandan parliament, “these things, like, just happen sometimes.”

But Ssenyonga’s suspicions were raised Wednesday morning, as the debate over Uganda’s “anti-gay bill” took to the floor of the senate. According to Ssenyonga, the “passing glance of a mysterious hand” soon turned into a “warm, sustained embrace.” The motives behind the prolonged contact remain unclear.

Ssenyonga told reporters he was unsure who keeps touching his thigh.

“Maybe it was [Minister of Health Stephen] Mallinga?” asked Ssenyonga. “I don’t know. Was it [Minister of Education & Sports Namirembe] Bitamazire? I think I supported him on a condom initiative in secondary schools, didn’t I? Maybe he took it the wrong way.”

Health experts fear that the contagion of homosexuality will spread unchecked among Ugandan youths without tougher legislation.

A visibly flustered Ssenyonga called a press conference this morning, at which he sought to assure his countrymen that the rampant criminality of Ugandan homosexuals would not go unchecked, and to ask his colleagues just who keeps touching his thigh.

“Homosexuality goes against the morals of the traditional African society,” said Ssenyonga. “It is a Western import, and it is an abomination, contrary to the natural human instincts of the African male.

“Was it you, [Crispus] Kiyonga?” Ssenyonga asked the Minister of Defense.

Many Ugandans have opposed the new legislation.

Since Ugandan MP David Bahati proposed a bill last October toughening existing laws against homosexuality in this East African nation, rights groups have assailed Ugandan leaders, urging more tolerance toward the country’s estimated 500,000 gays. US President Barack Obama denounced as “odious” the proposed legislation, which would make the offense of “aggravated homosexuality” punishable by death.

In December, celebrity gay activist and pop icon Adam Lambert launched a “No They Di’n’t!” campaign against the Ugandan government, hoping to raise awareness of the “desperate plight faced by Uganda’s fabulous, oppressed queers.”

Ssenyonga said the protests of Western governments only furthered his resolve to push through the new legislation, adding that such protests failed to explain why a “firm, not unloving hand” continued to slide up his thigh during parliamentary meetings.

“Ugandans will continue to oppose the imposition of Western vices on our proud African way of life,” said Ssenyonga, as he warily eyed a crowd of reporters approaching him from behind.

He added that while the contact from the mystery hand was “not unpleasant,” it would be up to Ugandans to determine how best to deal with the lustful overtures of their neighbors.

“We will not allow Western governments to force us to our knees,” said Ssenyonga.

“On this issue we will stand together. But slightly apart. At a reasonable and respectful distance.”

Robbery, power cuts, and all the things I’ve read about the places I’ve never been.

Congratulations to the Independent – typically possessed of one of the smarter travel pages in the UK – for this week’s contribution to forehead-slapping inanity. The gloom and foreboding that pervade “Zanzibar: Trouble on Paradise Island” are no doubt enough to leave most casual tourists shaking in their knickers. “Robbery and power cuts – two of the problems awaiting visitors to the isle of Zanzibar,” reads the deck. Among the other problems we learn of are verbal harassment, predatory touts, and the illegality of same-sex relations.

This is fairly stupid and lazy in its own right. But it’s further tempered by the fact that the story is entirely based on an interview with Chris McIntyre, author of the Bradt Guide to Zanzibar, and a perusal of the latest travel advisories from the U.S. State Department and the British Foreign Office (which conveniently lists piracy and terrorism as potential threats to tourists). Yes, our intrepid travelers wrote their brutal exposé of The Other Side of Paradise from the comforts of their desks in Kensington.

Paradise...lost!

Now, I can understand why you might want to use your newsroom reporters to scribble travel shorts on great airfare deals, or to pen some frivolous round-up of the Ten Sexiest Retirement Communities on the Costa del Sol. Also, as a freelance hack, I appreciate the shrinking of budgets across the trans-Atlantic newspaper industries. (Never mind the fact that most UK newspapers pack their travel scribes onto gratis flights, courtesy of the tour companies they mention quid pro quo at the ends of their stories.) But wouldn’t this sort of story – something that purports to go “behind the scenes” to puncture the postcard myth of a popular holiday getaway – warrant a bit of actual, on-the-ground reporting?

I spent two months in Zanzibar in 2008; in fact, I wrote a punchy little story about it for The Washington Post. Crime, drug use, political instability, power shortages…yes, these are all part of the landscape in Zanzibar. And that’s simply because Zanzibar isn’t a postcard, but A PLACE WHERE ACTUAL PEOPLE LIVE. You have to wonder why the Independent didn’t warn against upset tummies, too. Or getting woken up at 5am by the blasting call to prayer of a nearby minaret. (Too culturally insensitive, that one.)

WARNING: Zanzibar is full of Muslims. Like many Muslims, they are known to erupt into anti-Western riots at the slightest provocation. Also, they are black.

You can’t help but conclude that lazy, stupid travel writing just perpetuates itself. For every glossy fellation of Zanzibar as an exotic honeymoon paradise of cheerfully grinning black people, you need to get this sort of insipid rebuttal. Makes you wonder why UK travel hacks aren’t digging up dirt this ski season on the “real” Cortina or Chamonix.

These are my readers.

Like any self-serious blogger and dedicated egotist, I spend a good deal of time Googling myself – sort of the writerly equivalent of admiring one’s abs in the mirror. I also study my blog stats like a Talmudic scholar, to determine, for example, how many of a given day’s 72 visitors might have originated from the U.S. American zip code 11204, which 100% of my closest relations call home.

The modest WordPress tracker – sort of the Li’l Stat Counter That Could – also offers a breakdown of the most recent web searches that led readers to my blog. This is both revealing and frightening. While even a casual visitor can appreciate why “burundi,” “february 2010 burundi coup plot,” and “burundi civil war” might appear in a recent list of top searches, one struggles to say the same for such popular searches as “black african [sic] women shitting outside” and “saddam hussain [sic] girls tree stump.”

For the record, not once in the brief and modest history of this blog has there been so much as a passing reference to “black african [sic] women shitting outside” – or inside, for that matter. Likewise, while I might have some very strong opinions about “saddam hussain [sic],” “girls” and “tree stump[s],” I have yet to compose a Unified Theory that might lead concerned readers to this blog in search of answers to their abstract but no doubt worthy queries.

I do also realize that, by blogging about “black african [sic] women shitting outside” and “saddam hussain [sic] girls tree stump,” I am virtually guaranteeing that future seekers of “black african [sic] women shitting outside” and “saddam hussain [sic] girls tree stump” will be directed to what, from their perspective, will be a very disappointing blog indeed.

To those future readers, I apologize in advance. And to the rest, thank you for your patience.

The Real World: African Autocrats edition.

I tweeted the other day about Libyan crackpot Muammar Qaddafi, whose general zaniness, I thought, made him a worthy candidate for his own reality TV show. And then I thought to myself: what if we took not just Qaddafi, but all of our favorite African tyrants-in-chief, put them up in some posh beach villa on the outskirts of Mombasa, and waited for wacky hijinx and madcap hilarity to ensue? You mean this wouldn’t be the biggest ratings bonanza in African reality TV history? Really?

You think these strongmen couldn’t outmuscle even the toughest Jersey Shore juicehead?

Mugabe: 28 years and counting.

Dos Santos: 30 years and still going strong

Wade: only 10 years...but already tinkering with plans to change Senegal's constitution to allow for a third term

Kagame: bitch-slapping the opposition since 2000

Qaddafi: 40-plus years as Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, which I couldn't even make up if I tried

Museveni: 23 years and still spry as a spring despot

Kibaki: stuffing ballot boxes since 2002

Zuma: play on, playa

Yar'Adua: ...

Wouldn’t the assembled egos be more combustible and fraught with tension than election night in Harare? Can’t you just picture Kibaki and Museveni getting into a shoving match over some underage whore at Forty Thieves?

So I got to thinking…

*************

[Cue opening credits. Papa Wemba music blares. Sun rising on African savannah, old women baring breasts, etc.]

VOICEOVER: This is the true story.

[Slow, tracking shot. Exotic wildlife prancing, loping, migrating across screen. Baobabs. ]

VO: Of eight democratically elected African strongmen.

[Ultra-extreme close-up of grinning African man, democratic foot-soldier, etc., casting his ballot in a free and fair election.]

VO: No, seriously. Democratically elected.

[Pan out. Ruling party youth league goons swinging sticks and truncheons at voters’ backs.]

VO: Who decide to take a break from governing.

VO: And move into an IMF-subsidized time-share.

[Fussy white men in suits making nervous faces as they hand over a rent check.]

VO: After evicting local tenant farmers.

[Slow, solemn procession of African peasantry heading toward bleak, distant horizon.]

VO: And receiving a generous UN per diem.

[Fussy white men w/ checks, etc.]

VO: To get real.

[Extreme close-up of baby with bloated stomach, blinking distantly at camera.]

VO: Real crooked.

[African leaders gleefully throwing piles of World Bank cash at each other.]

VO: On The Real World: African Autocrats.

****************

Enter Rwandan President Paul KAGAME, Ugandan President Yoweri MUSEVENI, and Libyan President Muammar QADDAFI. A corpulent Kenyan President Mwai KIBAKI sits on the sofa, stuffing his face with sausage rolls and scanning hot celebrity pics in The Star. Angolan President Jose Eduardo DOS SANTOS sits under a pile of cobwebs in the corner, an oil drip connected to his arm. Nigerian President Umaru Musa YAR’ADUA is nowhere to be seen.

MUSEVENI: You fat Kikuyu, always hungry!

KIBAKI: It is my turn to eat, bwana.

MUSEVENI: If you only eat a little – slowly, slowly – no one will notice. I fleeced the West for years before they realized I was no better than all the other tyrants. Some still think I am an example of the New African Leader. Haha.

KAGAME: Haha.

MUSEVENI: Haha.

YAR’ADUA: …

KIBAKI: Ndiyo, you are right. If I am not careful, Ban Ki-Moon will tell me that I should be tried at a special tribunal in the Hague. Hahaha.

MUSEVENI: Hahaha.

KAGAME: Hahaha.

ALL: Hahaha.

[Cut to Ban KI-MOON, wearing a pink tutu and blushing in the corner.]

KIBAKI: We Kikuyu have a saying: grmphluggerblursplatughrump [words drowned out by digestive noises].

KAGAME: In the bush we survived on canniness and wiles. For three years I ate nothing but Human Rights Watch reports. [lifting shirt to reveal washboard abs] Yoweri, feel my stomach.

MUSEVENI: You fat Kenyans cannot even agree on how to misrule a country.

KIBAKI: Yes, now you are handing out leadership advice. Mr. I Can’t Even Control an Unruly Kingdom Within My Own Borders.

MUSEVENI: [makes a flummoxed face]

KIBAKI: Mr. Let Me Bend Over So the Western Oil Companies Can Stick It In.

MUSEVENI: [cartoon teapot steam spouting from ears] Oh, so says the great leader of the Grand Coalition Government. So says him who can’t even manage to steal an election without maybe half the Western world noticing.

[Enter Zimbabwean President Robert MUGABE in combat fatigues.]

MUGABE: Who, me?

KIBAKI: Comrade Bob, Museveni thinks it is easy to manipulate an election against the democratic will of the people. He thinks the opposition will come and just, what, hand you the keys to State House. “Here, Mr. President. Karibu tena.” Oh, it is soOOOoooo easy to win an election when you have already crushed the opposition.

MUSEVENI: Hahaha. It really is. Hahaha.

KAGAME: Hahahaha.

MUSEVENI and KAGAME: Hahahahaha.

QADDAFI: Opposition? What’s an opposition? Hahaha.

KIBAKI: He thinks Kofi Annan just comes to Kenya to, I don’t know, go swimming in Mombasa.

MUGABE: The West will send its stooges whenever the business interests of the American and European imperialists are threatened by the revolutionary will of the black African majority.

KAGAME: [rolls his eyes and makes a little here-comes-another-rant-about-Western-imperialism face]

MUGABE: We have a favorite saying in Harare: If you can’t beat them…beat them.

ALL: Hahahahaha.

[Cut to KI-MOON, hastily writing a UN resolution.]

DOS SANTOS: [mumbles something in Portuguese]

MUGABE: Are you still here, Jose?

DOS SANTOS: [pointing to IV drip pumping petroleum into his veins]

KAGAME: I think he is saying that today’s despot will always find a complicit Western government to turn its back on electoral irregularities if there is a business interest at stake.

QADDAFI: And how! Hahaha.

KAGAME: Hahaha.

DOS SANTOS: [oil bubbles up in throat, making throttled laugh noises]

YAR’ADUA: …

QADDAFI: I used to be a pariah; now I free terrorists and receive lucrative oil contracts from multinationals. I can do whatever I want! Watch!

[QADDAFI drops pants and poops on original copy of the UN charter.]

ALL: Hahahaha.

YAR’ADUA: …

KAGAME: I used to worry how my strong-handed tactics would play in Western capitals. And then I realized that the West wants leaders like me. Maybe 95.1 percent of the vote in 2003 was being modest. Haha.

MUSEVENI: Haha. I am on thin ice. I only secured 59 percent. 2011 will be too close to call. Hahaha.

KAGAME: Hahaha.

QADDAFI: Election? What’s an election? Hahaha.

ALL: Hahaha.

KAGAME: Winning a free and fair election by a landslide majority with the tacit approval of the West is easy. Do you want to know the real trick?

KIBAKI: ?

MUSEVENI: ?

ALL: ?

YAR’ADUA: …

[KAGAME leaves and returns with a pint-sized marionette of Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph KABILA.]

KABILA: [in high, squeaky voice] Look at me, I’m the leader of a sovereign nation!

MUSEVENI: I can see your lips moving, Kagame!

KABILA: I control a nation as vast as Western Europe, with abundant mineral resources that would never, ever, EVER get smuggled out on my watch.

ALL: Hahahaha.

MUSEVENI: [flashing Congolese diamond-crusted wristwatch] Yes, this watch was made with diamonds from Uganda’s vast hidden, super-secret mines. Hahaha.

ALL: Hahahaha.

KABILA: What has two thumbs and calls the shots in Kinshasa? [jerks thumbs toward KAGAME, who is poorly disguising his lackluster ventriloquist’s skills in the rear] This guy!

MUSEVENI: Hahaha.

KAGAME: [dropping KABILA puppet, now that he’s finished with him] Hahaha.

ALL: Hahahaha.

[Enter Senegalese President Abdoulaye WADE, followed by 10,000 Haitian refugees.]

KAGAME: Look at Wade – generous to a fault!

WADE: That’s what the IMF said! Hahaha.

ALL: Hahaha.

WADE: What’s a bag of money between friends? Hahaha.

ALL: Hahaha.

HAITIANS: …

KAGAME: We Africans must embrace our brothers and sisters in the diaspora. Who else can be counted on to come back and run our countries? Haha.

WADE: Haha. I’ve already offered them voter registration cards. Haha.

ALL: Haha.

QADDAFI: You are so generous to invite our African brothers back to their homeland.

MUGABE: Speak for yourself, Asian.

QADDAFI: [chortles something in Arabic]

MUGABE: [brandishes fist]

[Cut to KI-MOON, effete and panicking in the corner.]

KAGAME: Quick, someone call Zuma.

MUSEVENI: Where is Zuma?

ALL: Zuma!

Cut to South African President Jacob ZUMA in a hot tub, surrounded by buxom South African women.

ZUMA: [whispering in the ear of a giggling young girl] Really, I’m the President. I can do it. We can just say you are a Zulu secessionist queen, and just like that [snaps fingers], I give you half of KwaZulu-Natal.

[Cut to DOS SANTOS, oil burbling.]

[Cut to YAR’ADUA, missing.]

[Cut to KIBAKI, gorging.]

[Cut to KAGAME and MUSEVENI, squabbling over profits.]

[Cut to WADE, grandstanding.]

[Cut to millions of Africans, waiting.]

[Fade to black.]

****************

VO: Next week, on The Real World: African Autocrats.

[Exterior shot: Crouching Dragon nightclub, somewhere in Mombasa.]

[Close-up of ZUMA, standing at the bar.]

ZUMA: [whispering in the ear of a pretty young Kenyan] No, really. You take a shower when you are finished and you are safe.

[Cut to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles ZENAWI, outside, surrounded by 1,000 sycophants and tussling with bouncer.]

ZENAWI: What does this mean, I am not on the list? I have friends in Washington.

[Close-up of gruff, Eritrean bouncer, head shaking.]

ZENAWI: Twenty years ago in my country, we would have fed you to a lion. I am serious. We would have buried you under the prison.

[Cut to Sudanese President Omar AL-BASHIR, sequestered by ICC warrants, pulling on an argilah pipe, alone at his home in Khartoum. AL-BASHIR sighs, belches, drums his fingers on the tabletop. A wallclock ticks loudly in the background.]

[Cut to Hu JINTAO, thrusting his hips on the catwalk and showering 1,000-yuan notes onto the hungry, huddled African masses below.]

JINTAO: I make it rain, bitches! I make it rain!

[Cut to Coca Cola-sponsored commercial break.]

Memo to McCall Smith: Africa sux!

Seems not everyone is charmed and cheered by the syrupy sweetness of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, set in Botswana. Speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival last week, the best-selling author responded to criticisms of his rose-colored view of the continent.

“Sub-Saharan Africa has a lot of problems, but it is not universally bleak and I wanted to show the inherent goodness in Botswana, which is a very well run country, with very little corruption and a wonderful people,” said Smith.

This, it seems, is a controversial statement. As Reuters reports, “In Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” series, there is little corruption, disease or dictatorship.”

Bowing to the criticism, McCall Smith announced plans for a new series, The No. 1 Malnourished AIDS Orphans Agency. This will be followed by a film adaptation of his unreleased novella, The No. 1 Brutal Kleptocrats Club, starring Don Cheadle.

McCall Smith's new series focuses on The Real Africa

***********

Yesterday a hippo was wallowing in the water off the shores of Saga Plage. It attracted quite a crowd. Every now and then it would surface and spout water from its nostrils and wriggle its little hairy hippo ears. Squeals of delight all around. Little boys flashing their smooth little backsides decided to throw sticks to get its attention. Luckily, carnage was avoided.

Haiti would be better if Haitians behaved differently (or, Things to Argue About With Other White People on a Rainy Day)

The Haitian tragedy of the past week falls – as my geographically astute readers will observe – just beyond the boundaries of the continent I currently call home. I don’t want to suggest that my travels in Africa somehow make me an authority on what is happening in Haiti. I’m not. The blog is This Is Africa – not These Are Black People.

This Is Africa

This Isn't

Billy Sothern at Slate nicely sums up the problem – and danger – of foreign correspondents trying to report about a complicated country that they’ve only just managed to bone up on over a few late night sessions of Googling.

But.

On the one hand, governments across Africa are – to some degree or other – sending aid to the beleaguered island nation. (The list includes the DRC, which, as Reuters reports, “has just been told by the International Monetary Fund [that] its debt levels are fiscally unsustainable.” Picture poor Kabila forking over all those hard-earned, debt-relieved dollars!) Plus at least one African leader has proposed “the creation of a new African state to resettle Haitians left homeless by an earthquake.”

(A brief but relevant aside: Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who made the suggestion, is rapidly gaining on Libyan Pariah-in-Chief Muammar Qaddafi for my annual “What the Fuck Was He Thinking” African Leader Award. “All we are saying is that the Haitians didn’t take themselves over there,” Wade told Reuters TV on Monday. “We have to offer them the chance to come to Africa, that is my idea. They have as much right to Africa as I have.” This from a man whose visionary plan to combat poverty in his country includes the construction of a 328-foot high bronze statue of the “African Renaissance” with a $27 million price tag attached. And built by North Koreans. From which he’ll take a 35 percent cut of future tourist revenues.)

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled Haitians.

More to the point, though: I came across a heated cyber-skirmish between a couple of conservative eggheads over at The National Review which dragged my beloved little Burundi into the picture. The argument stemmed from a column by editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg – author of the right-wing polemic Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning – in which Haitians are, in a time-honored conservative tradition, more or less blamed for being poor. “The sad truth about Haiti isn’t simply that it is poor, but that it has a poverty culture,” writes Goldberg, while sounding actually not all that sad.

The blogosphere exploded with nearly three responses. John Derbyshire criticized the author’s woeful lament that “Haiti will never get out of grinding poverty until it abandons much of its culture.” (He didn’t, in fact, disagree “that we need to transform Haiti’s ‘culture of poverty.'” He just didn’t know how to do it.) With a stunning coup de grace, Derbyshire dusted off his CIA World Factbook and boldly proclaimed that “Haiti isn’t actually that poor.”

Chin up, Haitian man: at least you're not in Togo! (courtesy of Damon Winter, The New York Times)

Goldberg got testy at being misunderstood. “My meaning was only ‘there are places way poorer,'” he wrote.

At rank 203 out of 229, Haiti is in the 11th percentile. To put it another way, one country in nine is as poor as, or poorer than, Haiti. If one person in nine is shorter than me, I’m not that short. As for “arguably slightly poorer”: with Haiti at per capita GDP $1,300, I think Eritrea at $700 and Burundi at $300 would give you an argument.

I would like to see that argument. I would like to see Eritrea and Burundi gang up on Haiti and shake their fists and say, “Hey, Haiti, we’ll show you abject poverty!”

An Eritrean woman: really fucking poor.

This whole argument is so dangerously stupid it should come with an FDA warning. Bickering over indices and World Bank rankings when it comes to a certain level of poverty is sort of like arguing about whether or not your hot dog is Kosher: at the end of the day, it’s still really, really bad for you. Besides, when you consider the obscene levels of economic disparity you find in much of the developing world, you have to take those measures of per capita GDP with a big grain of WFP-distributed salt. Does Gabon’s gaudy $14,200 per capita GDP mean anything to all but a small circle of its oilgarchs? Does the great resource wealth of Namibia (per capita GDP: $6,400) improve the lives of its rural poor? (Actually, according to some, it makes them worse.) Are Kenyans better off than Burundians, since their per capita GDP is nearly four times as great? Even if they live in the far north, where people refer to “Kenya” – i.e., Nairobi – as a distant, far-off land?

Living the high life in northern Kenya

Despite the fact that the author’s idea of a good time is betting on Human Development Indices, this piece makes a good argument against the HDI. Conclusion: “Scandinavia comes out on top according to the HDI because the HDI is basically a measure of how Scandinavian your country is.”

Burundians: not very Scandinavian

I was talking this afternoon with Pancrace Cimaye, spokesman for Burundi’s opposition FRODEBU party. Cimaye – a stout, world-weary man whose paunch suggested a very Scandinavian level of Human Development – was talking about the extreme poverty in Burundi. He said that FRODEBU officials had a certain parlor trick they played in the countryside to show how five years of ruling-party rule had done nothing for the country’s development. I will leave aside the swarminess I feel about this schtick, since it sort of makes a point.

They would tell a gathering of party members – sometimes 1,000 strong – that if any of them had a 10,000 Burundian franc note (the equivalent of about eight US bucks), FRODEBU would match it with one of their own. Not a single man would raise his hand. So they would ask if anyone had Fbu 5,000. None. Then 2,000. Then 1,000. Finally, a few farmers would raise their hands. And that was it.

Now, whether that points to the corruption and incompetence of the ruling party – as opposed to any number of very complicated factors – is debatable. But the reality of the poverty it underscores is pretty concrete. I would be happy to bet my own Fbu 10,000 note that you could use that same schtick with a bunch of Kenyan Samburu or Ugandan Karamoja or Mozambican Makonde or Botswanan San or Nigerian Ijaw – or even hypothetical-$1,300-a-year-earning Haitians – and the result would be the same. At some point, the indices are just dressing-up some ugly, naked facts.