December 26, 2009

Rights, the law and religion: Islamic courts in East Africa

In Tanzania too there has been a raging debate over the introduction of the Kadhi’s courts in the legal and judicial system. Like in Kenya, the most vocal and visible opposition against Kadhi’s courts assumes a religious character, with the church being at the forefront of those most hostile to its introduction. But the motion to reinstate Kadhi’s Courts in Tanzania was first introduced by an opposition leader, the Honourable Lyatonga Mrema of the Tanzania Labour Party (TLP), undoubtedly as a political strategy to win Muslim support in the 2005 General Elections. The ruling party is said to have appropriated the motion, turning it into a campaign pledge to make the same a reality in exchange for the Muslim vote. Not surprisingly, as the 2010 elections loom, the issue is gaining renewed vigour.

Religious forces have kept the matter very much alive in various spaces, including pulpits, newspapers and blogs, intensifying the pressure on the government to concede on the issue. Using a variety of advocacy channels, some Islamic bodies institutions have embarked on a media advocacy strategy aimed at consolidating Muslim opinion over the introduction of the Kadhi’s court. Dismissive remarks by the Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda during the 2009 budget session on the issue of the Kadhi elicited a harsh reaction from Muslim quarters. To appease the situation, the chief mufti, Sheikh Shaaban Simba, formed a committee to advise and negotiate with the government over the matter. In response, the prime minister also formed a committee to engage with the Muslim Council.

Concrete proposals to introduce Kadhi’s courts failed to come up during the recently concluded parliamentary session in November. In the meantime, the government has directed the Law Reform Commission to collect views and make recommendations on the matter. Women’s voices are noticeably absent from the discussions. From available reports, there is no female representation on this crucial body, advising on the most intimate aspect of family and social relationships.

This absence of women’s interest in the ongoing discussion is not only a physical absence but also an absence of gender considerations in the overall content of the proposals in substance. Largely, the voices of women have been sidelined or muffled by political forces informing the debate. Yet, it is they who stand to loose the most from what is being proposed. Indeed, the overwhelming interest in Kadhi’s courts does not seem to be a preoccupation of Muslim women, but of sections of the Muslim community who seek political advantage both from political parties and in the larger community. Otherwise, it consumes most those sections of the community who stand to benefit the most from the existence of Kadhi’s courts.

Pambazuka - Rights, the law and religion: Islamic courts in East Africa


December 23, 2009

Pambazuka - The failed promise of aid in Africa

Great book review that captures some of the uneasiness I feel with Dambisa Moyo's critique of aid. I have not read the Tandon book but I will be picking up both of these books to read in full very soon. They represent an important and ongoing debate about the merits and demerits of "helping" as it were, including the strategic political motivations behind the billions of dollars given to often corrupt and reactionary African governments.
Pambazuka - The failed promise of aid in Africa


Sudan approves referendum law on Southern autonomy

Sudan's parliament has approved a controversial bill paving the way for a referendum on possible independence for the country's oil-producing south.

MPs passed the bill on Tuesday, despite opposition from southern Sudanese legislators over a clause that would allow southerners living outside South Sudan to cast absentee ballots.

Al Jazeera English - Africa - Sudan approves referendum law


December 22, 2009

Search and Translate to Kiswahili in Firefox

The latest update to the ever-handy (though not always 100% reliable) Kamusi Project, the Online Kiswahili Dictionary. This Tool enables you to search Kamusi from your Google Search Toolbar. Enjoy!


December 15, 2009

Back in Oman

I'm here in Oman working with my colleague and friend Mike Henderson on the Dream Film Project. This film project, in addition to being the product of a lot of vision and hard work on the part of the co-directors, Mike and Sultan, will be (we hope) a window into some aspects of hip hop as a global youth culture. Specifically we will be exploring the ways in which Omani youth use hip hop a a medium of exchange, social bonding and self-representation. We also hope to raise some issues about the tension between "deen" and culture, about how to live Islamically as a young person in an Islamic society and at the same time nurture a love for artistic expression through hip hop and b-boying.

It rained the first two days we were here. The wadis filled up, the streets overflowed, and several people died from doing driving stunts in the flooded wadis. But this week the weather has settled down, highs in the mid-90s and a cool, balmy and beautiful 80-85 degrees at night. We start shooting today with our cinematographer and new cameras courtesy of Innovation Group LLC.


December 4, 2009

Zanzibar Pictures from the 1950s and 60s

I would like to thank Ms. Chappel and Ms. Abdullah for uploading these photos to the Facebook group: "Zanzibar and Oman." Subhanallah they have a very nice collection of old photos, references, and links. I think you may have to request to join the group here:


December 1, 2009

Hussein Machozi - Kwa Ajili Yako (For Your Sake)

got kinda a Wayne Wonder feel to it....


November 30, 2009

Dubai hit hard by financial crisis

you can run, but you can't hide....
Check the headlines


November 29, 2009 Mutharika seeks legislation to beef up his powers

BLANTYRE, Nov 23, 2009 (MalawiPolitics)-- Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika, whose party enjoys a parliamentray majority, is seeking to beef up his powers before he exits the political stage in 2014.

A bill is in the works to give the President, whose DPP has 114 legislators of the 193 MPs in the House, the power to set a date for the local government elections, which were last held in 2000.

"Local government elections shall take place five years on a date to be determined by the President in consultation with the Electoral Commission provided that local government authorities shall stand dissolved at the end of five years following an election," the proposed bill says.

The proposal wants to remove reference to specific timing as to when local government elections are to be held.

The DPP could easily amend the constitution and secure two-thirds majority (128) with the support of 30 independent MPs to pass the law.

Mutharika has openly said his government does not have the money to pay 700 councillors their allowances. The next elections were set for May 2010, a year after the general elections held in May this year.

Meanwhile, parliament has started debating a police bill which wants to give powers to the law enforcers to undertake searches without a warrant.

Internal security minister Aaron Sangala was qouted by local media as saying senior police officers would be responsible for police searches, accompnaied by other officers to make the process transparent and accountable.

This, Sangala argued, would prevent "abuse of the process."

Opposition MPs are trying to block the bill, saying this was in conflict with Malawi's democratic dispensation.

"Malawi is now in democracy. It would be wrong to subject people to searches of their houses without a warrant," Peter Chalera, a legislator of the opposition Malawi congress Party, was qouted as telling parliament.

Atupele Muluzi, United Democratic Front leader in parliament, accused the government of rushing to pass bills, saying contributions from the opposition should also be considered.

"Let us not pass legislations for the sake of it...the laws we pass here will affect generations so they need serious deliberations," Atupele, son of ex-president Bakili Muluzi (1994-2004), said.

The 7,000 strong police force in Malawi is undergoing reform to give it a human face. During the tyranical rule of former president-for-life Kamuzu Banda, the police abused human rights.


November 28, 2009

Mzungu Kichaa ft. Profesa Jay - "Jitolee" (translation)

A very special thanks to Ari B. and Sis. S. Yasin who did most of the work on translating this song.

"JITOLEE" – Volunteer

Uchumi unashangaza / The economy is amazing/astonishing/ strange.

Wengine wanao wengine hawana / Some have it, some don’t

Wewe tajiri sikiliza mara moja / You rich man listen immediately

Usingekuwepo bila mama yako/ You wouldn’t exist without your mama

Nani aliamua awe mama yako / Who decided she should be your mama?

Hu ndiyo uamuzi wa dunia / Yeah that’s a decision the world made

Kwahiyo lazima uyaheshimu / Because of that you must respect it

Pamoja na akina mama wote / Together with all mothers


Mikono juu / Hands up!

Jitolee na usaidie / volunteer and help somebody

Ombi kwa binadamu / Ask humanity (so that they)

Upendo usipotee / Don't lose love


Heshima kwa baba heshima kwa mama / Respect to father, respect to mother

Heshimu kitu cha bure kila mtu anastaili / Respect is free, every person deserves it

Ila dunia sasa imejaa kitendawili / Yet the world now is filled with riddles/puzzles.

Unyama na ufedhuli sasa umeshika hatamu / Brutality and insolence have now taken over

Viliyo vya kinamama imekuwa kama salaam / The cries of the mothers have become like greetings

Jiulize ungekuwa nani kama asingekuwepo mzazi / Ask yourself who you would have been without someone to a parent (to you)

Ubinadaamu kazi, dunia inapata radhi / being humane/citizenship is demanding, the world is getting cursed.

Kila ninapopita matajiri hawana utu / Everywhere I pass rich people have no humanity

Roho za umasikini zimetawaliwa na kutu / Their impoverished souls are ruled by rust

Wanataka maisha bora wavivu wakuthubutu / They want a better life, lazy to attempt it

Waliyokatatama sasa wanashika mtutu / Those who have given up now reach for the barrel of a gun

Bajana ananiambia twenzetu ado ado / Bajana tells me to go/ move slowly .

Rusha mikono juu kama uko kamalikado / Throw your arms up ???[ANYONE KNOW PORTUGUESE?]

Espen obrigado / Thanks, Espen! (this is Mzungu Kichaa's "government" name)


Kuna watu tofauti katika dunia yetu / There are different people in our world

Mmoja anajaribu kusaidia jamii / One person tries to help the community

Wakati mwengine hajali kitu kuliko dola na senti / while another doesn’t care about anything more than cents and dollars.

Maendeleo hayana muelekeo / Progress doesn’t have direction

Kama tama inadumu kwenye kichwa chako / if greed remains in your head

Hautakuwa na umoja na dunia / then you won’t be in unison (unity) with the world

Binadamu baado wanalia / Human beings are still crying!

Umaskini unawabania / Poverty is limiting them


Kwanini hautaki kuwasaidia? / Why don't you want to help them?

Kwenye kaburi hautatumia / In the grave you wont be spending it.

Sababu ya kuletwa kwenye hii dunia / The reason you been brought into this world

Bado haitafanyikiwa / Still wont be reached.

Wewe ndiyo maskini / You are indeed the poor

Na hakuna mwengine /And there is no other.


Swahili Proverb of the Day #10

"Mwenye pupa hadiriki kula tamu."

A hasty person misses the sweet things (because he cannot wait for the fruit to ripen)


Edd el-Hajj (Eid el-Adha celebration pics from East Africa)

The top picture shows the President of Zanzibar, Amani Abeid Karume
Pictures courtest of Faustina's Baraza. For more information, visit Faustina's Baraza


November 13, 2009

River of Desire, Ocean of Love

Not to toot my own horn, but I just published a book of poems. A few of the poems were featured earlier on the site. I don't claim to be much of a poet, but I hope you will check me out and buy the book online here. The book is 50 pages for $15, so you will get your money's worth of reading at least.
peace, Nati


November 10, 2009

Silences in African History (book review)

Silences in African History: Between the Syndromes of Discovery and Abolition is a series of related essays on the phenomenon of silence in history. The book is an extended critique of--among others--Ferdinand Braudel, western intellectuals, the World Bank, the IMF, Africanist historians and neo-colonialism. The author Jacques Depelchin is the executive director of the Ota Benga International Alliance for Peace, based in Kinshasa, Congo and Berkeley, CA.

There are a lot of theoretical issues I could explore in relation to the book. I will sum it up by saying it is provocative, dense and deeply committed. Depelchin roundly condemns the moral irrelevance of academia and the limitations, silences and omissions of its theoretical concerns and ontological assumptions. He shows how the "post-colonial" order has largely marginalized African scholars from the mainstream institutions of academic power. As Ibrahim Abdullah writes in the introduction: "is studying Africa the same as writing for Africa?"

Depelchin shows how history needs a new paradigm: just as physics moved beyond a Newtonian model, so history needs a model which will re-theorize the relationship between observer and observed object. Actually this "new" paradigm is far from new, but it was lost or abandoned in the search to make history into an academic science. History is NOT a science. At some point the rules of evidence are not relevant to the choices one makes in a narrative. Moral considerations are. There is no going around this, no finagling it; to avoid it would be cowardly. An ethics of history demands a radical witness to the problems of our day and time. As I have said before on this blog, scholars, especially Western white scholars working on Africa, need to be more concerned to serve as a historical witness against totalizing projects, even if we ourselves are implicated in them! By doing so, we provide the "possibility of the consciousness to resist rather than simply serve the dominant powers of the age."
P.S. Big up to my man Dave B for suggesting this book.


November 9, 2009

Pambazuka - Mwalimu Nyerere’s non-alignment still needed today

Pambazuka - Mwalimu Nyerere’s non-alignment still needed today


Pambazuka - Power cuts and powerlessness: Tanzanians' plight during energy crises

Pambazuka - Power cuts and powerlessness: Tanzanians' plight during energy crises


Al Jazeera English - Middle East - Yemen rebels show 'seized' Saudi

Al Jazeera English - Middle East - Yemen rebels show 'seized' Saudi


Al Jazeera English - Africa - China pledges $10bn in Africa loans

Al Jazeera English - Africa - China pledges $10bn in Africa loans


November 4, 2009

K'naan talks with Davey D about Somalia


November 2, 2009

Mwambao Website

Check out on the web: It definitely has a Kenyan flavor (check the political jokes) and a nice collection of poetry, proverbs and interesting stories by the author.


Them Mushrooms- Kazi ni Kazi

If you don't know about Them Mushrooms, you better find out. Actually if you ever visited Kenya or Tanzania, or took Kiswahili courses, then you DO know them, you just don't know you do. They wrote the song, "Jambo Bwana", which we sang in Swahili class enough times for me to memorize the lyrics. The song was later covered by Safari Sound Band, whose CD is EVERYWHERE throughout the tourist spots in Dar and Zanzibar especially. Anyway, check this joint: Kazi ni Kazi. Enjoy!


October 23, 2009

Divine Intervention in Muscat (

Great find from


October 22, 2009

Omani Proverb(s) of the Day

As a new feature of the site, I will post some Omani proverbs in Arabic culled from the web as well a book in the Sultan Qaboos Library's Omani Room. Hope you enjoy them:

For these two I owe Ayna from the Sabla Forums

ماعندها جدر تطبخ وثوبها من الزّري يرطخ

Translation: She doesn't have a pot to cook with, but her dress sparkles with crystals.

ثيابه مصقولة وجيوبه منخولة

Translation: His clothes are fresh and ironed. His pockets are empty.

The connotations of both Proverbs are the same.


Jangbarias: Shi'a Communities in Zanzibar (Website)

Its truly a pleasure to bring to your attention this award-winning website about Indian communities, specifically Shi'a Indian communities in Zanzibar. check it here


Swahili Online (Website)

Another interesting and well-designed resource for Swahili culture. The layout is clean and easy to navigate. Their section also include a good section on Swahili language. Check it here


October 15, 2009

Pambazuka : a tribute to Mwalimu Nyerere

Check it OUT! A whole issue from Pambazuka devoted to the life and thought of Mwalimu Nyerere. Great stuff here.
Pambazuka - How we wish you were here: a tribute to Mwalimu Nyerere

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October 13, 2009

Happy Nyerere Day

Hongera sana kwa Baba wa Taifa, Julius Nyerere. Kwenye siku kuu Watanzania wansherehekea maisha ya Rais ya Kwanza Tanzania. Amefariki tarehe October 14, 1999.

Inna Lillahi wa inna ilayhi Rajiun.

Here you can read Mwalimu Nyerere's "Arusha Declaration," a very inspiring statement of the principles Nyerere believed an independent Tanzania should move forward with in order to develop.


October 12, 2009

Books for African Universities (email from Martin Klein)

Good suggestions. I definitely concur with supporting by donating to the Zanzibar Indian Ocean Research Institute, run by Dr. Sheriff (see below)

From: Martin Klein

On the subject of books for Africa, I am responding to the list instead
of just to the author of the original query. Any university in Africa
needs books. Most have no budget for book purchases. They especially
need books that do not deal with Africa. I have for over ten years been
shipping books to Africa. The biggest problem is the cost of shipping.
Even with the resources of the internet available, it is important that
African universities and the broader intellectual communities of which
they are part have access to books. Unfortunately, in Canada, there is
no institution that will to help with shipping costs. I have simply seen
the cost of shipping as payback for the warmth and hospitality with
which I have been received in various African countries. There is in
some cases a question of the postal system. In one case, I had no
evidence that a shipment to Mali actually arrived. In another case, a
friend suggested that security at a small university library was
inadequate. Still, there are many recipients who inspire great
confidence. There are many conscientious librarians all over Africa, and
most post offices seem reliable.

My suggestion to anyone is that they check either check a library out
with a friend, former student or one-time colleague or that they write
the library. My current favorite is a research institute run by Abdul
Sheriff in Zanzibar (
. (He established the The Zanzibar Indian Ocean Research Institute
(ZIORI - a couple of years ago, to which he
donated his own quite substantial library, and which promises to
become a focal point for researchers in East Africa.) If the books are not
appropriate to his library, he forwards them to the University of
Zanzibar Library. I have also given books to the University of Western
Cape, the University of Zambia and the University of the Zambia, but in
some cases, the greatest need is in newer or smaller libraries.

I started giving when I retired and had to move my library home. I gave
away about 16 to 18 boxes of books. Then shortly before I arrived in
Australia, the chair of the history department died. Neither his wife,
nor the Australian National University library were interested in his
library, the majority of which consisted of general works on American
history. I wrote friends and after confirming that they taught American
history, arranged shipments to four African universities. Though I was
willing to pay, the ANU history programme generously took on the costs
of shipment.

The heart of a university humanities is books and teachers. Most African
universities have teachers. They are often hungry for books.


October 7, 2009

Old Picture of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, Sultan of Oman


Untitled Artwork

Monk brings us a dope piece of history through art. I told him he ought to call this one "They Came Before Columbus." You can also check out more of Monk's work.


October 6, 2009

Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Paradise is a little book about a boy named Yusuf who grows into manhood in East Africa. As a coming of age story it is remarkably simple and straightforward, but the way in which Abdulrazak Gurnah illuminates the tremendous historical changes sweeping around Yusuf, and does so while still maintaining the narrative integrity of his man-child protagonist, is simply breathtaking.

Yusuf starts out in a provincial town in the East African interior, the son of a poor hotel owner. He is mortgaged by his father to pay his deepening debt to a man Yusuf knows only as Uncle Aziz. Yusuf travels in the care of Uncle Aziz to the coast, where he befriends Khalil, another debt-slave whose has secrets Yusuf will eventually discover.

Yusuf is an exceptionally beautiful boy and a very sensitive observer who cries at visions he sees in his dreams. His journeys in Paradise mirror two processes which bound the interiors of Eastern Africa to the Western Indian Ocean--one a process of the migration (often via slavery) and subsequent Islamization of upcountry Africans, and the other a venturing into the interior as far as Eastern Congo by armed bands of Swahili-Arab traders.

Gurnah's description of life on the caravan road is illuminative and he vividly portrays the 'utani' relationship of sly joking and storytelling by which the porters structured the monotony of the march. He also gives one of the richest explorations (through dialogue) of the fantastic dimensions of East African Islamic mythology, in which the 'washenzi' lurk in the lands of Gog and Magog waiting to destroy the believers and dragons, birds, jinns, and ghosts all inhabit a universe in intimate interaction with humans. Finally in the background are the Germans, a brooding silent foreboding force who everyone around Yusuf speaks of with trepidation, and who intervene at a key point in the novel. Gurnah accurately captures the ambigous status of Yusuf as grows up on the eve of European colonial rule, and searches for a way out of his dependency. His unexpected decision ends the book abruptly, almost breathlessly, but somehow completely appropriately. In this single last sentence, Gurnah has somehow captured what Jonathan Glassman calls "the contradictory dimensions of slave resistance," the moral dilemma through which Yusuf will shape an independent destiny for himself. Paradise more than lives up to his name and will offer students of East African history and literature a beautiful and compelling read.


October 3, 2009

Fresh ya Shamba to Arusha

Fresh ya Shamba to Arusha

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X plastaz ft FidQ - Furaha

New X-Plastaz.


Mzungu Kichaa ( its not what you think by the title!)

This is my new JAM!


X-Plastaz Msimu Kwa Msimu (2004)


October 1, 2009

African Islam in Tanzania (excerpt)

More materials towards a historical understanding of Islam in Tanzania. Please click the title to be taken to the full article. The latest book from Felicitas Becker called Being Muslim In Mainland Tanzania is the latest scholarly entry I know of to take up the topic of Islam and Muslims in Tanzania. We hope to review that book here in the future.

African Islam in Tanzania
By Abdulaziz Y. Lodhi and David Westerlund (March 1997)

Islam in society
Mainly on account of the leading role of the Catholic president Julius Nyerere several Western researchers have underestimated the importance of the Moslems in shaping the Tanzanian socialism in the 1960's. Because of the Christians having better access to higher education they became overrepresented in the administration. But Moslems constituted a majority in TANU, called CCM (Chama cha Mapinduzi = The Revolutionary Party) after the 1977 merger with its sister party ASP (Afro-Shirazi Party) on Zanzibar. After the introduction of the one-party system, CCM was the major political factor in societal change. The socialism of Tanzania has many similarities with Islamic Socialism, and especially Nasserism influenced many Moslems in Tanzania.

The few Moslems who turned against the socialist politics were mostly of Asian origin. Some of the Moslem resistance was in the beginning channeled through the East African Muslim Welfare Society (EAMWS). It was founded in Mombasa in 1945 by the then Aga Khan with the aim of promoting Islam and raising the standard of living for the East African Moslems. Asian Shiites, especially Ismaili, dominated and financed the organisation, but Aga Khan recommended that all Moslems regard EAMWS as an organization with pan-Islamic ambitions. When its headquarters were moved from Mombasa to Daressalaam in 1961, the Nyamwezi chief and TANU opponent Abdallah Fundikira, regarded as Nyerere's principal political rival in the 60's, became the president of the organization. EAMWS concentrated on building schools and mosques, providing scholarships and spreading literature. There were also plans for founding an Islamic university in Zanzibar or Mombasa, but they were never realized. However, the Muslim Academy founded in Zanzibar in early 50s continued to exist as a training college for teachers of Arabic and Islamic education until it was closed down by the autonomous Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar in 1966. In regard to this it is interesting to note that Zanzibar has several times since January 1993 announced plans for a separate Islamic university and high schools connected to the University of Daressalaam; and since the middle of the 70s the Muslim Academy has been reopened, a new Muslim Secondary School has been built and Arabic has been adopted as the third official language of Zanzibar.

Because of the pan-Islamic tendencies and the capitalist oriented leadership of EAMWS, pro-TANU Moslems opposed it. The organization, it was claimed, constituted a threat to the ruling party. The antagonism culminated in 1968, when the organization was declared illegal in Tanzania. Other Moslem organizations were dissolved as well. Instead the pro-TANU Moslems, with several leading Qadiriyya sheikhs playing important roles, formed with the support of TANU the new national organization Baraza Kuu la Waislam wa Tanzania (Tanzania Muslim Council), BAKWATA, whose constitution was in large parts a copy of the TANU constitution. Because of the close connection to the ruling party and many leading Moslem politicians' interference in BAKWATA's activities, the role of the organization has been controversial. Its achievements have been limited due to poor finances. Criticism against BAKWATA increased during the 1980's, when the opposition to the socialist politics of Tanzania grew and liberalization started.

Under internal Moslem pressure and international Islamic tendencies BAKWATA has lately become somewhat more profiled. The organization has arranged lectures on Islam in different parts of the country and in 1987 it called on the government to reinstall the system of Moslem courts that existed in colonial and post-colonial times. With the increased profile international Islamic contacts are on the rise. Some Arab countries have financed new mosques, schools, scholarships, dispensaries and provided teachers to the newly established schools.

The question of schools and Islamic education has for a long time been Tanzanian Moslems' main issue. They had few equivalents to the mission schools whose activities not only spread Christianity but also led to a higher educational level among Christians. The decision by the TANU government to nationalize the schools in 1969 was therefore warmly welcomed by the Moslems. The Islamic schools which have been founded lately in a political climate more favorable to private initiatives, for example Kunduchi Islamic High School, seem to have an uneven standard but constitute an interesting development for the Moslems of Tanzania.

The proposal to reinstate separate Moslem courts is very controversial. Under the slogan "Don't mix religion with politics!" the governments of Tanzania have endeavored to "privatize" Islam or marginalize the effects of Islamic law. An example of religious conflicts involving legal matters is the discussions about a government proposal to a new marriage law which was presented in 1967. The implementation of the law in 1971 was preceded by two years of intense discussions particularly regarding the position of sharia in the judicial system of the country were debated.

Before 1971 Moslems, as well as Christians and Hindus, followed their own marriage and divorce laws. Traditional judiciary systems of the different ethnic groups practising customary law were also in force. In addition, one could marry monogamously in a civil marriage. To counteract religious and ethnic exclusivism in favour of increased national consciousness, the government presented its aim in its 1969 White Book to create more uniformity in the sphere of family laws. The other important aim was to improve the position of the woman. One of the tangible proposals was that the minimum marital age for boys was to be eighteen and for girls fifteen. The fifteen-year limit for girls was presented with reference to UN recommendations. According to sharia puberty decides when a girl is marriageable.

The proposal that caused the most serious debate was the idea that a man who wanted to marry a second wife had to get permission from his first wife. The proposal that would forbid men to punish their wives corporally was also met with some resistance as well as the installation of an obligatory reconciliation agency for couples on the verge of divorce. If the agency failed to reconcile the parties concerned the husband in a Moslem marriage would legally be able to pronounce the divorce formula talaka (Ar. talaq).

Many Moslems who were taking part in the discussions opposed the idea of creating a more unified marriage law, especially where the proposed marriage law was in conflict with sharia. Since family laws are a central part of the Islamic law, any change which does not conform to them is particularly sensitive and controversial. Despite the criticism from the Moslems the government's proposed law was passed in 1971 with only minor changes.

The proposals of BAKWATA in 1987 to reinstate separate Islamic courts is only one example which demonstrates that the question of the position of sharia in Tanzania is still a burning issue. In 1988 Sofia Kawawa, leader of the Tanzania Women's Union, UWT, (Umoja wa Wanawake wa Tanzania, closely affiliated to CCM), came under fire after having publicly criticized Islamic rules that she felt were oppressive to women. According to Sofia Kawawa polygyny should be forbidden and women should have the same right of inheritance as men. Her statements caused protest and some riots. A group of young Moslems wrote an open letter which demanded that the secular regime refrain from interfering with religious matters. In Zanzibar two men died in the riots against the leader of the UWT. The Moslem president Ali Hassan Mwinyi, who a few years earlier had succeeded the Catholic Nyerere, hurried to explain that Kawawa had expressed her personal views and not the views of CCM or the government. Mwinyi saw no need to change the law, while Kawawa and other Moslem women continued to argue against certain Islamic laws. In some of her statements in 1990 Kawawa provocatively claimed that polygyny helped to spread AIDS.

In questions concerning for example polygyny, Moslem critics like Kawawa have gained some support from the Christian quarter. Christian criticism is, to some degree however, part of a wider propaganda campaign against Islam. It may be noted that many Christian men, especially outside the circles of leadership, actually have defended polygyny, albeit with reference to traditional African culture rather than to Christian belief. This was especially obvious during the parliamentary debates preceding the law changes in 1971. Many Christian men and women also support female circumcision which is practised rather widely, even by fourth or fifth generation Christians, and which is forbidden in law; but nobody talks about it. Female circumcision does not exist among Tanzanian Moslems other than those of Somali origin, and a mild form of it is secretly practised among the few Asian Shia Bohra.

The relationship between Moslems and Christians has by and large been harmonious in Tanzania. A certain tension has certainly existed under the surface, but it has seldom led to open conflict. In his valedictory address in 1985, Nyerere stressed the fact that the risk of religious conflict in Tanzania has been greater than ethnic strife. According to him large religious conflicts have been avoided not least because most Moslems have set national interests ahead of religious concerns. Lately however a tendency toward increasing conflict between Moslems and Christians has been discerned in Tanzania. One of the reasons for this is growing Christian fundamentalism. To many fundamentalist Christians Islam is considered the archenemy, particularly since Communism is no longer perceived as a threat.

New organizations and tendencies
New Islamic organizations have also added to the increased polarization between Christians and Moslems. Few of these organizations are officially registered. More rigid Islamic groups spreading propaganda for the surrection of an Islamic government in Tanzania are few and small, but less far-reaching signs of revitalization of Islam are evident. Zanzibar constitutes a special problem with its deeply rooted Islam and some Moslems who emphasize the importance of Islam want to see the Union dissolved. This is also desired by the Christian fundamentalists, particularly the unregistered Democratic Party led by the Rev. Mtikila.

One of the Islamic congregations which more or less openly has criticized the "official" BAKWATA is Warsha ya Waandishi wa Kiislam (Islamic Writers' Workshop). Warsha was founded in 1975 as a unit within BAKWATA, its main concern being educational issues. The unit had many young and well-educated members, some of whom were Shiites. This radical group was supported by the BAKWATA secreterary general sheikh Muhammed Ali and demanded Islamic education alongside secular subjects in the Islamic secondary schools run by the organization. Moslems faithful to the regime argued that this went against the secular foundation of the state and after some conflict the Warsha group was excluded from BAKWATA in 1982 and its members were forbidden to work at BAKWATA institutions.

The young Warsha members have however continued striving for their goal. In their simple headquarters at Daressalaam's Quba mosque, courses are arranged and literature is published. One of the Swahili publications, Uchumi Katika Uislamu (Economy In Islam), which deals with Islamic economy, has drawn attention due to its severe criticism of the Tanzanian socialist system Ujamaa, which they consider Communist. Most of the publications however deal with the so called Pillars of Islam, for example Sala with the horary prayer and Falsafa ya Funga ya Ramdhani with fasting during Ramadan. Warsha also tries to reform the old and mosque based Quranic schools where education is still largely based on memorizing parts of the Quran.

Another organization is Baraza la Uendelazaji Koran Tanzania (Tanzania Quranic Council), BALUKTA, whose 1987 constitution states that its main aim is promoting the reading of the Quran and spreading of Islam through financial and material support to Moslem schools. The organization is also making an effort to establish and run Islamic centers and institutes for Islamic higher education. Other constitutional aims within the educational field are among others publishing and conferences. Business projects like hotels and restaurants have also been announced. Holders of positions of trust are expected to have a sound knowledge of Islam. Compared to Warsha, characterized by its young members, BALUKTA seems somewhat old-fashioned. In April 1993 some BALUKTA members under the leadership of its president, sheikh Yahya Hussein, were involved in attacks against butcheries selling pork in Daressalaam. Three slaughterhouses were destroyed and some thirty people, including sheikh Hussein, were arrested. The background to this is that rearing and slaughtering of pigs have become common in religiously mixed areas and some Moslems have reacted vehemently.

The Daressalaam University Muslim Trusteeship is another organization striving to protect Moslem interests in higher education; it has produced statistics which point to the much publicised under-representation of Moslems at the universities and in the administration. (A parliamentary commission of inquiery has also come to a similar conclusion, followed by a report of the Roman Catholic Church of Tanzania in 1992 which confirms the political and educational imbalance between Christians and Moslems. A book in 1994 by Aboud Jumbe, a former president of Zanzibar, further describes the dominance of the Christians and the underprivileged position of the Moslems in the country.) The members of the Trusteeship try to promote a better understanding of Islam as a way of life. Another organization, Baraza Kuu la Jumuia na Taasisi za Kiislam (The Supreme Council of Islamic Organizations), founded in 1992, has a strikingly large number of university employees among its membership. This new council tries to take over the leading role of BAKWATA as a unified organization for all the Moslems of the country, and its activities are closely monitored by the government.

Islamic renewal in Tanzania has been supported by organizations abroad. The World Council of Mosques, with its headquarters in Jeddah, has opened an office in Daressalaam to facilitate its work in Tanzania. Some foreign organizations have supported minor domestic Islamic movements which aim to change the country into an Islamic state. The Iranian Revolution has inspired some Tanzanian Moslems, among others Khamis Muhammed, who is the editor of the new Islamic magazine Mizani. In a 1990 interview he said that the Islamic Revolution should be followed by all Moslems in the world. Khamis Muhammed has also been influenced by, and has written about, Wahhabism.

Embassies of some Islamic countries have in different ways tried to support the radicalization of the Moslem forces in Tanzania. Some Moslem heads of state have also supported the Moslem aspirations. Through the embassies, means have been provided for the building or renovation of several mosques, Moslem secondary schools, hospitals and clinics. Favorable loans have been given through these channels to Moslems engaged in commercial activities. But the activities of the embassies has caused divisions among Moslem groupings in the country.

In connection with a visit by the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury in 1993, president Mwinyi, adhering to the secular stance towards religious issues of his predecessor Nyerere, complained about some extremely religious individuals abusing freedom of speech to create chaos in the country. Archbishop Carey talked about the fundamentalist threat. Zanzibar's becoming a member of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) was heavily criticized by Christian leaders, who argued that this contravened the secular constitution of Tanzania. The sharp criticism and the risk of a dissolution of the Union resulted in the Zanzibari government decision to leave OIC.

On some occasions, as in connection with the government crisis in Zanzibar in 1988 ( the year when the demonstrations against Sofia Kawawa took place ( Mwinyi and other representatives of the regime have pointed to Moslem groups in Zanzibar and in exile who, despite the great autonomy of the island state, are disputing the Union. One of the controversial groups is the Pemba based Bismillahi who want a referendum on the Union between Zanzibar and Mainland Tanzania. A visitor to Zanzibar soon realizes that Islam is not only a private matter, although the authorities nowadays are less concerned with for example public eating and drinking during Ramadan, which have become more common because of the influx of tourists and Westerners.

For many years organs critical of the regime, among others Warsha and the magazine Mizani, issued propaganda for a multi-party system. When Tanzania in 1992 introduced multi-partyism it was understood that all parties should have a national profile and that religion and ethnicity must not constitute the base for new parties. Especially Moslems were warned not to use the multi-party system for religious purposes. Besides the usually limited political demands, Moslem revival in Tanzania, as in other parts of Africa, has been noticeable in the growing number of mosque goers and that Islamic style clothing has become more popular. In the propaganda activities some Christian influences are descernible. Public Moslem sermons are being held in streets and squares. The practice of inviting foreign "revivalists", spreading tracts and pamphlets, as well as putting stickers on vehicles and distributing cassettes and videos has become more common among Moslems.


Reality in Oman (Word Press Blog)

This sister over at Reality in Oman has a great blog about religion, racism, women, and just life in general in Muscat and surrounding.

In the piece I read most recently, she took on racial classes in Oman, but she has also discussed young people meeting through the internet, Islamic tolerance, marriage and dating and a lot of other interesting topics. Check it out!


Saba Mahmood interviews Talal Asad (excerpts)

full interview here.
Asad discusses modernity, religion, what agency is, Islamic reform, the difference between dependency theory and postcolonialism, and much much more. This is one of the best 'summations' of the various nature of Asad's intellectual pursuits and it maps out a great 'space' for scholars to follow up on his work in local contexts. Although its from 1996, over ten years ago, it is still a great read.

Talal Asad
modern power and the reconfiguration of religious traditions

Saba Mahmood

Contemporary politico-religious movements, such as Islamism, are often understood by social scientists as expressions of tradition hampering the progress of modernity. But given the recent intellectual challenges posed against dualistic and static conceptions of modernity/tradition, and calls for parochializing Western European experiences of modernity, do you think the religio-political movements (such as Islamism) force us to rethink our conceptions of modernity? If so, how?

Well, I think they should force us to rethink many things. There has been a certain amount of response from people in Western universities who are interested in analyzing these movements. But many of them still make assumptions that prevent them from questioning aspects of Western modernity. For example, they call these movements "reactionary" or "invented," making the assumption that Western modernity is not only the standard by which all contemporary developments must be judged, but also the only authentic trajectory for every tradition. One of the things the existence of such movements ought to bring into question is the old opposition between modernity and tradition, which is still fashionable. For example, many writers describe the movements in Iran and Egypt as only partly modern and suggest that its their mixing of tradition and modernity that accounts for their "pathological" character. This kind of description paints Islamic movements as being somehow inauthentically traditional on the assumption that "real tradition" is unchanging, repetitive, and non-rational. In this way, these movements cannot be understood on their own terms as being at once modern and traditional, both authentic and creative at the same time. The development of politico-religious movements ought to force people to rethink the uniquely Western model of secular modernity. One may want to challenge aspects of these movements, but this ought to be done on specific grounds. It won't do to measure everything by grand conceptions of authentic modernity. But that's precisely the kind of a priori thinking that many people indulge in when analyzing contemporary religious movements.

It has often been argued that the tradition of liberalism is based upon principles of pluralism and tolerance in ways that Islamic tradition is not, and that the concept of plurality remains foreign to Islam. How would you respond to that?

Well, I would say that it is certainly not a modern, liberal invention. The plurality of individual interests is what the liberal tradition has theorized best of all. On the other hand, the attempt to get some kind of representation for ethnic groups and minorities in Western countries has been difficult for liberalism to theorize. Liberalism has theories of tolerance by which spaces can be created for individuals to do what they wish, so long as they don't obstruct the ability of others to do likewise. But these aren't theories of pluralism in the sense we are beginning to understand the term today. Liberalism has theories of multiple "interests," interests which can be equalized, aggregated, and calculated through the electoral process and then negotiated in the process of formulating and applying governmental policies. But that is a very different kind of pluralism from the different ways of life which are (a) the preconditions and not the objects of individual interests, and which are, (b) in the final analysis, incommensurable.

Now the Islamic tradition, like many other non-liberal traditions, is based on the notion of plural social groupings and plural religious traditions--especially (but not only) of the Abrahamic traditions [ahl al-kitab]. And, of course, it has always accommodated a plurality of scriptural interpretations. There is a well- known dictum in the shari`a: ikhtilaf al-umma rahma [difference within the Islamic tradition is a blessing]. This is where the notions of ijtihad and ijm`a come in. As modes of developing and sustaining the Islamic tradition, they authorize the construction of coherent differences, not the imposition of homogeneity.

Of course there are always limits to difference if coherence is to be aimed at. If tolerance is not merely another name for indifference, there comes a point in every tradition beyond which difference cannot be tolerated. That simply means that there are differences which can't be accommodated within the tradition without threatening its very coherence. But there are, of course, many moments and conditions of such intolerance. One must not, therefore, equate intolerance with violence and cruelty.

On the whole, Muslim societies in the past have been much more accommodating of pluralism in the sense I have tried to outline than have European societies. It does not follow that they are therefore necessarily better. And I certainly don't wish to imply that Muslim rulers and populations were never prejudiced, that they never persecuted non-Muslims in their midst. My point is only that "the concept of plurality," as you put it, is not foreign to Islam.


September 29, 2009

Secularism, hegemony, and fullness (Talal Asad)

I've posted some stuff from Talal Asad before, from his book Geneaologies of Religion. The link below will take you to a link where he critiques secularism in a very trenchant and incisive way.

Secularism, hegemony, and fullness

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September 26, 2009

Book Review: Muntu by Jaheinz Jahn

I can’t say enough about this book. Over 50 years old, it is still worth revisiting for the force for which it makes its defense of African thought, philosophy and religion. Janheinz Jahn, a German scholar, originally wrote Muntu in 1958, around the time of intellectual ferment of luminaries like Fanon, Cesaire, and Senghor. The American edition first appeared in 1961 and was named book of the year by at least one major publishing organization. Jahn lays out the characteristics of African thought as illuminated through New World African religions like Santeria and Voudoun.

Unlike so much of today’s timid postmodernist theorization. Jahn is unafraid of the broad comparison and the book is infused with both an urgency born of passion for the subject matter, in addition to Jahn’s considerable erudition. He is equally at home discussing the implications of nommo, or the magic of the spoken word, as he is the function and symbols within Voudoun, or the difference between New World African religion and its parent in Africa. He also devotes a section to tracing the strands of African thought in the works of the so-called Negritude poets.

I will let William J. Austin, who has reviewed Jahn's work here, have the word on explaining the basic philosophical principles of African thought and aesthetics, according to Jahn:

The text is neatly divided into the major categories of African culture and religion, two forces which, as Jahn points out, flow in and out of one another like a river and its tributaries. Although Jahn makes mention of the cultures formed in northern Africa via the commingling of African and Arabic/Islamic impulses, his focus here is on “Black Africa,” or that larger portion of the continent below the Sahara. This section of Africa, however various in its individual cultural expressions, was surprisingly united in an overall religious structure that informed the ritual of worship, as well as the more pedestrian day to day activities. This over-arching structure contains four major forces: Muntu, Kintu, Hantu, and Kuntu. Muntu, or “human being,” finds its earliest known expression in the culture of the Bantu tribe. As a “force” it is plural, reflecting the myriad variations of humanity. Muntu, however, is not a self-activating force, but rather ‘sleeps,” dormant, while awaiting its activation via a more active sub-force known as Nommo. Nommo, quite simply, is language. The priests and elders of a tribe are most invested with Nommo, and maintain the power to enliven natural objects, and even man-made ones, through a ritualistic process of naming. But all human beings participate in Nommo to some degree. In fact, it is not until a parent names a child, that the child may be considered human, may be said to participate in Muntu. What we have, then, in the concepts of Muntu and Nommo, is not unlike the structuralist/post-structuralist emphasis on language as the begetter of personhood, of humanity. The linkage is certainly there, but it also obtains between Nommo and the Biblical declaration that “In the beginning was the word.”

In any event, Jahn’s detailed analysis makes clear the amazing similarities that reach across seemingly isolated cultures. Like Muntu, Kintu is plural, and represents the force or “spirit” in all non-human objects, animate and inanimate, including animals. Hantu is place and time, and Kuntu, perhaps the most complex concept of the four, represents modality, i.e., quality, style, rhythm and beauty. All four forces are united linguistically by the suffix and concept of NTU, or the essential compatibility and coherence of all things, human and non-human. The many in the one, the one in the many — this is familiar philosophical ground, and more evidence that Nommo does indeed unite all cultures, races, creeds, in their differences.

The one fault with the book is its almost complete lack of discussion about the impact of Islam and the Arabs on African culture and religion. No doubt there are other books that do this admirably, but it would have been quite interesting for Jahn to extend his thesis to some of the cultures of East Africa such as Somalia, the Swahili Coast or Zanzibar. Or even Ethiopia…the point being that these cultures have a much more ancient tradition of contact with Abrahamic religions, ergo we might expect to see a different kind of integration within an overall philosophy of Muntu then that which occured in the Americas under Jahn's rubric of neo-African culture.

How does Neo-African culture apply to African Islamic cultures of the East Coast, where extensive cultural mixing also took place? No doubt a variety of practices exist today which reincarnate the ancient beliefs in new forms, for example the practice of praying to Sufi saints and venerating their burial sites as holy places.

What is perhaps most interesting about Jahn’s thesis, as Austin pointed out, is that he brings out the true monotheism at the core of most African religion, explaining that this ONE God who is RULER OVER ALL is so distant from humanity that humans needs a variety of intermediaries in order to tap into the power of GOD's Being.


SQCC's website on Indian Ocean History

The folks at Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington DC have brought the ancient social, political and economic connections of the Indian Ocean together in an interactive and dynamic way for Web 2.0 or 2.5 or whatever the heck version we're on.
Indian Ocean History
If you are an educator or a student of Indian Ocean cultures and societies, this is an indispensable online resource.


The Ottoman Empire in East Africa

The Ottoman Empire began its march to dominance as a band of Turcoman nomads from Central Asia. Several centuries later, they were the globally dominant military, political, and economic power. Analysis of the Ottomans as a world power—especially their diplomatic relations with emerging European powers such as Portugal, Venice, and France—is not new in the historiography, but sustained monographic treatments of the Ottoman relationship with their eastern neighbors, especially the Safavids and the Mughals, have been rare. Moreover, Ottoman naval power has only recently given its proper place in the historiographical analysis. Historians such as Palmira Brummett, Andrew Hess, and Salih Ozbaran detail how the Ottomans were not only a ‘gunpowder empire’ with well organized armies; they also built and provisioned trading ships in the Mediterranean, Baltic, and Red Seas. S systemic monographic treatment of their presence in the Indian Ocean is yet to be written.

The knowledge of Ottoman presence in the Indian Ocean was initially facilitated by Portuguese historians, while on the Turkish side, the pioneering works of Salih Ozbaran have been collected in The Ottoman Response to European Expansion: Studies on Ottoman Portuguese Relations in the Indian Ocean and Ottoman administration in the Arab lands during the Sixteenth Century.

Ozbaran’s work of collecting and presenting primary sources and interpretation of Ottoman diplomatic relations and naval power is particularly valuable. He details how in the late 15th century, having conquered Istanbul and established hegemony over Anatolia and several Baltic and Arab provinces, the Ottomans turned to Venetian shipbuilders to challenge the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. At the head of the Red Sea, the Ottomans completed their new fleet, and in 1507, Amir Husayn led the fleet to fight the Portuguese at Diu. Despite their defeat by the Portuguese in 1509, the Ottomans remained a viable naval power in the Red Sea, with outposts on the Horn of Africa and control over the strategic port of Aden on the Yemeni coast.

Furthermore, the hostility of the Swahili city-states to Portuguese hegemony meant that Ottoman incursions down the East coast of Africa were perceived as a real threat. In about 1585, a single Turkish ship promising support was sufficient to bring on a general revolt of Swahili towns, which the Portuguese promptly quelled. A couple of years later, Amir Ali Bey—whom some sources picture as an Ottoman official, but others as a mere buccaneer—appeared with a small force. Again, several city states immediately broke away from Portuguese control. At Pemba, the townspeople annihilated the occupying garrison, and an attack was mounted against Malindi, Portugal's staunchest ally. Again a Portuguese fleet from India restored control with appalling brutality. At Faza, they slaughtered the entire population, destroyed its vessels and plantations, and sent the head of its king as a grizzly trophy to Goa.

Ali Bey returned with a somewhat larger force two years later and took possession of Mombasa. Another Portuguese relief force was dispatched, and sailed into the harbor to find the Turks had come under siege by invaders they called Zimba, reportedly a savage people who had already destroyed Kilwa. The Portuguese fleet attacked and pillaged the city, and then, as they departed, the Zimba rushed in to complete the devastation. Advancing farther north, the Zimba finally were defeated at Malindi by a force of warlike pastoralists whom the Portuguese called Masseguejos. Portugese control would continue until the Omanis (invited by Mombasa city leaders) finally wrested control of the coast from the them in 1698.

Of course there are other stories here too: the conflict between the Ottomans and the Ethiopian emperor Minas over the coastal imperial stronghold of Debarwa, the intermittent treaties between the two parties over the trading entrepots at Massawa and Arkiko. During the 15th century the Ottomans had used local Muslim intermediaries to wage war against the Ethiopian emperor, while the Portuguese backed the Ethiopians but tried to make them submit to Papal authority in Rome. As both Ottoman and Portuguese power declined in the 17th century, these machinations died down.

The larger point in all is that the histories of these liminal spaces on the edges of the great empires often have their own unique and compelling stories which get lost amidst the focus on a perceived 'center'. If a historian came along who knew Kiswahili, Arabic, Portuguese, Ottoman Turkish, French, German, and English, and perhaps Gujarati he or she could write a comprehensive history of the Western Indian Ocean from antiquity to the present, including some of the arcane bits of minutiae which help give life to the larger sketch. As it now stands, learning two languages is a daunting enough task, so this herculean effort is still a future endeavor for some aspiring genius.


September 25, 2009

The Role of Islam in Tanzania's Liberation Struggle

What's often left out of the Nyerere-centric narrative of Tanzanian nationalism is the contributions of Muslim townsmen.

Back during my first trip to Tanzania in 2006, I went with a friend to the Maktaba ya Taifa in Dar-es-Salaam and happenned across Mohamed Said's book on Abdulwahid Sykes. It came as a revelation to me that Sykes and other Muslim leaders in Dar had been the impetus and the organizational core of the Tanganyikan African Association, the organization which would eventually become TANU.

The book is a chronicle of that struggle, and Mohamed Said is anxious not to allow his readers to forget this 'underground' history.

Dr. John Iliffe has offered his review of Said's book. He critiques its somewhat polemical tone and addresses a personal accusation Said made against him. However I believe despite the occasional polemic, Said's work brings to light some important aspects of Tanzanian history that deserve a wider audience. We owe Bwana Mohamed Said a debt for bringing this forgotten history to light. Please visit the following links for more of his work:

Islam's Role in Tanzania's Freedom Struggle

Interview with Mohamed Said

The Question of Muslim Stagnation in Education

Islam and Politics in Tanzania


Maldives documentary on al-Jazeera English

People and Power is a GREAT show on al-Jazeera English. Here they look at the Maldives.


Dr. Amin Alhassan: Giving Is An Act of Self Interest

Yes, yes and yes. Dr Alhassan lays it DOWN in this piece about the dangers and disadvantages of state dependence on foreign aid. Best of all, it is done in a way that is accessible and direct. The good doctor has given The Azanian Sea to reproduce a portion of her article, but do yourself a favor and read the whole thing, available in PDF format here. I hope this will help those of us in the West who are tempted to overcongratulate ourselves for the work we do in Africa. The point is not so much that your project, your spring break trip, or your 'mission' to Africa is 'bad.' The point is that its rarely as altruistic as you would like it to be. What makes it possible for so many 'well meaning Westerners' to go to Africa to teach, build wells, do the Peace Corps, etc. is the continuing dependence of African states on international aid.

excerpt from "Telescopic Philanthropy, Emancipation and Development Communication Theory" by Amin Alhassan

From Charles Dickens to Present
“Telescopic philanthropy”, as a phrase, was first used by Charles Dickens in his novel Bleak House some 150 years ago to poke fun at and critique what was then an English fascination and obsession with designing development projects to save Africa and Africans from poverty, and to usher them into a modern economy of production. In the Dickensian narrative, the story is told of a Mrs. Jellyby, a friend of John Jarndyce, who neglects her house and children and is obsessed with projects designed to save African in the Congo from poverty by teaching them how to grow coffee to enable them to earn an income. In retrospect, it is clear that what Dickens was describing was the genesis of what is now a global industry of state, non-governmental charities and celebrity acts of philanthropy to save Africa from itself. Dickens was noted for his journalism and the use of the novel as a means of social critique. His discussion of telescopic philanthropy is instructive because it allows us to understand the practice of international development as pre-dating the post-World War II Truman era. It also allows us to understand how international development framed as charitable interventions that northern developed countries do to global southern countries as acts that are tied to the domestic power politics of the so-called benefactor countries.

It is against this backdrop that I am motivated to argue that the problem with Africa is as much a problem of development as it is the troubling impact of international aid on the continent’s self-initiative. Evidently what I am aiming to argue is not about a global divide of technological haves and technological have-nots. The global divide that interests me is the global divide of benefactors and beneficiaries, that between donors and beggars, between philanthropist and objects of charity. The institution that is partly responsible for this global divide is the global media. As we have seen from Dickens, the attempt to save Africa is not new. Indeed, Susan Thorne’s (1999) provocative interpretation of 19th Century middle class formation in Victorian and Edwardian Britain makes the case that saving the heathens in Africa was always preferred to saving the heathens at home, and that this particular fascination with the distant other had a definite imperial logic. It is a logic that is still with us today....

If we remind ourselves that the original idea of international development assistance that the US invented was not about development of the Global South, but about developing a global instrument of soft power and containment (Samarajiwa 1987, Escobar 1995), then the epistemic commitment of development communication theory ought to question the language of help that characterizes international development. Much of the development communication literature of the past 60 years has been on how to become an effective handmaiden of this dubious re-invention of international diplomacy called international development (See Waisbord 2000 for a comprehensive statement of various theoretical, methodological and strategic commitments in the field).

Development communication theory as an area of inquiry needs to take into account the price the so-called poor pay when they get a clinic built, pipe-borne water provided or a school built through the altruism of the philanthropist, the gift giver, or the new missionary worker of international development. I want to use a recent EU decision to illustrate this point. In July 2008, the BBC reported that the European Commission had agreed to use one billion euros of unspent European farm subsidies to aid African farmers (BBC 2008). The BBC report, which showed a picture of an African farmer labouring a rice field, went on to quote European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso as saying “The impact of high food prices is particularly severe for the world’s poorest populations” and adds that without the EU’s assistance, the UN’s goal to reduce global poverty will fail. This European act of altruism, upon a second look, is not only a phantom one, but a Trojan Horse that is meant to purchase a highly needed strategic advantage for the EU in a growing global tide against EU and North American agricultural subsidies and how they negatively impact on farmers in the Global South. The price Africa will pay for getting the “spare change” of one billion euro dropped in its begging bowl is that it will lose a strong standing in making a case against the EU for subsidizing its farmers so that they can unfairly compete with Africans in a global food market. What the EU’s charitable gesture does against the discourse of fair trade and the fundamental illogicality of preaching free trade in Africa while maintaining farm subsidies in Europe is far more significant that any apparent altruism it might suppose. Here then is the point about giving being an act of self-interest


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