Noir

NoirComing week two bands will give live performances in the Netherlands, during which Africa takes more or less centre stage. No, these are not new versions of Band Aid, asking Africans if “they know it is Christmas”. It is not another effort to stop hunger in Africa (well, in Ethiopia at least) but these bands stress the strength and beauty of the “dark” continent.

The American band Toto will play on 30 May at the Ziggo Dome. Known for the song “Africa” in which they “wish the rains down”, they recently released a new album on which the song “Orphan” centres on their admiration for the strength of many African children surviving in extremely challenging circumstances.

Even more pronounced is the attention paid by Fernando Lameirinhas to Africa in his new show “Noir”. This 70 years old Portuguese Dutchman is a fabulous composer and guitar player. When he was only fifteen, his family fled the brutal Salazar regime and found refuge in Charleroi (Belgium) in the late 1950s. With his brother Antonio, Fernando had a few hit songs, but his most interesting work followed when they embraced other cultures and musical traditions adding to their Portuguese roots: jazzy fado.

In the mid 1970s the brothers moved to Amsterdam to join Sail Joia, a fabulous swinging collective. I saw this group as a first year student playing in Nijmegen for a very enthusiastic crowd of fellow students at the opening of the academic year. Since then I have attended several of Fernando’s solo career performances. He has released a whole range of interesting albums featuring many beautiful songs. For these projects he linked up with musicians from the Netherlands and the wider world (Asia, Latin America and Africa). As he explains on his website, he does so because he dislikes boundaries, which act as cages.

His latest project “Noir” focuses on the African continent and brings on board two African musicians, Zoumana Diarra from Mali and Mola Sylla from Senegal, who both have stayed in the Netherlands for a long time, enriching Dutch culture and showing the musical strength of Africa. And this is what the show is all about: the beauty of the African landscape, its music, its poetry, its people. This strikes a welcome chord amidst the cacophony of negative reports on terrorism, boat refugees, political riots and ebola.

Last performance before summer: Bergeijk, 6 June, see: http://www.lameirinhas.net/.

Joris Luyendijk & Garrett Hardin: Can’t be true – Africa misunderstood once again

Mount Kilimanjaro. (Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey).

Mount Kilimanjaro. (Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey)

On 1 March, Joris Luyendijk, an investigative journalist from the Netherlands, appeared on Dutch television (NPO 2, VPRO Tegenlicht) in a 45 minutes tv documentary explaining the way bankers in The City of London conduct business. His interest for the financial sector arose after the financial crisis of 2008 which plunged the world economy in turmoil.

As a columnist for The Guardian, Joris Luyendijk embarked on a project for which he interviewed many City-based bankers in order to grasp the world of banking. The interviews he collected over a two year period appeared in a “banking blog”, anonymized, in the British quality newspaper. Subsequently, he published a book “Dit kan niet waar zijn” (English: “This cannot be true”) sharing his findings with a wider audience.

In the tv documentary, Luyendijk explains that he initially did not understand globalization, in which the financial world is a key player. He postulates that bankers are much more powerful players than politicians, the former easily crossing borders where the latter are more restricted, putting limitations to their ability to control. So far so good, as indeed understanding financial flows and morale will help putting issues of wealth creation and poverty into perspective.

The City of London. Photo: Marcel Rutten.

The City of London. (Photo: Marcel Rutten)

Luyendijk should be applauded for practising investigative journalism, which unfortunately seems to be an expertise less available nowadays. However, despite his enthusiasm for explaining the ins and outs of global capital in the documentary, he loses his way somewhat by making a comparison that can be called ‘bad science’.

And this is unfortunate because, as Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (1471-1530) explained a very, very long time ago: “Be very, very careful what you put into that head, because you will never, ever get it out.”

Apparently, that happens to Luyendijk when he brings up an analogy explaining the behaviour of an evil banker: “The Tragedy of the Commons” theory of American ecologist Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) as published in Science in 1968 is presented, without Luyendijk realizing he does so.

More than the theory it is the example Luyendijk uses that is faulty. Like Hardin he presents an example from Africa. While Hardin spoke of a pastoralist putting extra animals on the common pastures at the expense of fellow pastoralists, Luyendijk takes the example of global warming and the shrinking Kilimanjaro glaciers: “If you are a farmer at the slopes of Kilimanjaro and every year you see the glaciers melt and shrink, you would also point at Westerners and tell them hey folks….! But as an individual, one will say: I know people who pollute more than I do. If I alone would stop emitting carbon dioxide, nothing will change. This has to be regulated at a higher level and for now I just continue my style of living. So for that reason and looking how incentives operate in the financial sector, one can understand why it will be business as usual.”

Mount Kilimanjaro. (Photo: Roel Slootweg)

Mount Kilimanjaro. (Photo: Roel Slootweg)

The idea that the Kilimanjaro glaciers shrink due to global warming is false, as explained by an Austrian team criticizing colleagues from the Ohio State University, US, who amazingly did and still do hold on to their own theory (see Thompson L, Brecher HH, Mosley-Thompson E, Hardy DR, Mark BG (2009) ‘Glacier loss on Kilimanjaro continues unabated’. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 106:19770–19775). The Americans predicted the glaciers would be gone between 2015 and 2020. However, the Kilimanjaro glaciers are situated, year round, in a zone that never reaches above 0ºC.

So why do the glaciers retreat? The reason according to the Austrian team is, foremost, direct sunlight radiation turning ice into vapour, and secondly, a reduced precipitation that adds less to the glacier build-up, a process which has been ongoing for over a century, long before humans began pumping large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, climate scientists like Philip Mote and George Kaser have explained (The Seattle Times, 12 June 2007). In addition, some point to the destruction of the forest at the foot slopes of the mountain, affecting wind patterns and humidity resulting in the drying of the local microclimate.

So yes, global warming is around and does affect middle range temperate zone glaciers, but not Africa’s highest stand-alone mountain. The Carbon Dioxide mistake made by Luyendijk was also made by Al Gore in his “An Inconvenient Truth” documentary.

Kilimanjaro is a grossly overused miss-example of the effects of climate change, which is risky as it might be used by Naysayers to global warming. As the motto of Bad Science states: It is better to communicate good information than to offer misinformation in the name of good communication (see http://www.ems.psu.edu/~fraser/BadScience.html).

What has the new Marriage Bill in Kenya got to do with socio-economic security?

Selling Wealth to Buy Poverty was the title of my PhD thesis, way back in 1992, and it aptly summarized the then-emerging practice of massive land sales by Maasai pastoralists living in southern Kenya, mostly to outside buyers. This started in the second half of the 1980s following the subdivision of Maasai group ranches. The process of selling off, initially at throwaway prices, their natural inheritance, i.e. land, has resulted in instances of hardship and misery, especially amongst Maasai wives and children. In British colonial times, the Maasai were seen to be the richest people in East Africa. Things have changed and this is no longer the case, although the value of all the (natural) assets in Kajiado County are considered to top the list: wildlife, soda ash, gypsum, marble and possibly soon also oil are some of the plentiful resources that Kajiado offers to interested parties and lots of horticulturalists are extracting the area’s groundwater reserves too. This non-sustainable behaviour is being copied by outsiders who are scooping sand from the dry riverbeds and filling hundreds of lorries destined for the building sites of Nairobi and beyond. And charcoal producers are cutting down alive mature trees bought from the local Maasai men in return for a few bucks, money that is too often only spend on beer, not on the Maasai household’s well-being.

A church marriage in Kenya

A church marriage in Kenya, couple accompanied by bridesmaids

Polygamous marriage arrangements
Last week I was asked to comment on Dutch television on the new Kenyan Marriage Law because the media had picked up on a walkout by women MPs after the Bill was amended. It now allows men to marry as many wives as they want without telling their first wife. This was interpreted to mean that all Kenyan men could now be polygamous but this is not true in fact. The Bill only permits polygamy in Islamic and customary marriage arrangements, and not in Christian, Hindu or civil marriages. The women MPs did not oppose the idea of multiple wives as much as the fact that a clause had been done away with that had, in an earlier version of the Bill, been accepted and stipulated that a husband has to consult his first wife about the idea of marrying a second or third wife and to seek her approval. Failure to do so could result in five years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of Ksh 300,000 (€ 2500). One clause was not removed: the age at which people can marry. It stands at 18 but this is contested by some Muslim legislators.

Prosperous households
Lawmakers, through a consultation clause, have tried to bring into statutory law what was the practice under customary law. Especially among nomadic pastoralists, the practice of the wife advising or even asking for a co-wife has been common for a long time. This was sometimes done if the first wife had fertility problems. She would then look for a co-wife and raise the children of the co-wife as her own. But it was above all an economic issue: creating wealth and securing large enough families to provide the labour and social care needed were matters of survival, especially in early 20th century Kenya. The daily tasks of fetching water, collecting firewood, preparing food and building houses simply called for more hands. Two (or more) wives were required to make a household prosperous. Husbands would ridicule ‘one vagina’ men as losers. At the other extreme are people like Akuku Danger who married 130 wives in his lifetime and passed away in 2010, much admired by many, at the age of 94.

A traditional Masaai marriage in Kenya

A traditional Masaai marriage in Kenya

Claiming part of the inheritance
But over the last two decades, women have become better educated, healthcare has improved, there is smaller per capita livestock ownership and Christianity’s appeal has spread. As a result, households with more than one wife are disappearing fast. One still comes across polygamy, particularly in more traditional communities and among wealthy people who can afford to marry more wives. These women, though, fear that they may lose their property in the case of divorce or when their husband dies. Widows have been taken by surprise at funerals when other wives have shown up claiming part of ‘their’ inheritance. Custom did allow the first wife a say in the matter but under this new Bill, this is no longer the case, unless President Uhuru Kenyatta, himself the son of a third wife but also happily married following Catholic traditions for some 35 years, refuses to sign the Bill and it goes back to Parliament for further debate. He did not do this, however, with the related Matrimonial Property Act. This Act, signed in February 2014, replaced the Married Women Property Act, an outdated colonial law dating back to 1882, that automatically transferred all property belonging to the wife to her husband. The new law recognizes equal rights to matrimonial property but the definition of matrimonial property excludes property inherited or acquired before marriage. This will most likely prevent wives and their offspring from claiming (part of) the family land unless it has been clearly specified by the husband before his death.
For now, the registration of marriages, including customary ones, may help women not to lose their access to land. It could stop the practice of hiring wives for land transfers via the Land Control Board. These wives pretend to be legally married to the sellers. However other changes will be needed to fight corruption on the Land Control Boards and the Land Register. This calls for motivated politicians and civil servants who dare to stand up to such practices.

A blog to report bad practices
The newly elected Governor of Kajiado showed his intention to clean up problems with the Land Register when he issued a moratorium on land sales for the time being. There is a way we can help these politicians as academics or as ordinary citizens. Nowadays young Maasai are using Whatsapp, Twitter and Facebook. They/we should report bad practices and provide the correct facts on these platforms. This is my main goal behind writing this blog: I want to help create a platform for all those worried about the non-sustainable mining of natural resources as well as the irresponsible reporting of such developments in the media, NGO circles and also academia. Information posted should be factual, balanced and correct.
The ideas discussed in this blog are diverse and will include conflicts over land, conflicts over water, the environmental impact of trade, eco-imperialism by nature conservation groups, political interference in nature conservation, irrigated agriculture, the small- versus large-scale farms debate, youth’s views of agriculture, pastoralism and so on. I am seeking first-hand information from anybody and everybody, but from (East) Africans in particular. I am also specifically requesting those who have been able to overcome conflicts to share their success stories. Tell me about your legal and technological tools. How can we prevent the selling of more wealth (land, water, sand, trees), which comes at the expense of the less well off? Here’s hoping to hear from you soon! Please forward your stories to Rutten@ascleiden.nl. These stories will be (if necessary anonymously) shared here.