Posts Tagged ‘africa’

Are you familiar with the journal Aeon? It’s a nonprofit website that has long, thoughtful articles from the world of ideas. Recently, I saw an article on a brilliant Ethiopian thinker — from the 17th century.

Dag Herbjørnsrud, founder of SGOKI (the Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas) in Oslo, writes, “The ideals of the Enlightenment are the basis of our democracies and universities in the 21st century: belief in reason, science, skepticism, secularism, and equality. …

“As the story usually goes, the Enlightenment began with René Descartes’s Discourse on the Method (1637), continuing on through John Locke, Isaac Newton, David Hume, Voltaire and Kant for around one and a half centuries, and ending with the French Revolution of 1789, or perhaps with the Reign of Terror in 1793. By the time that Thomas Paine published The Age of Reason in 1794, that era had reached its twilight. Napoleon was on the rise.

“But what if this story is wrong? What if the Enlightenment can be found in places and thinkers that we often overlook? Such questions have haunted me since I stumbled upon the work of the 17th-century Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob (1599-1692), also spelled Zära Yaqob.

“Yacob was born on 28 August 1599 into a rather poor family on a farm outside Axum, the legendary former capital in northern Ethiopia. At school he impressed his teachers, and was sent to a new school to learn rhetoric (siwasiw in Geéz, the local language), poetry and critical thinking (qiné) for four years. Then he went to another school to study the Bible for 10 years, learning the teachings of the Catholics and the Copts, as well as the country’s mainstream Orthodox tradition. (Ethiopia has been Christian since the early 4th century, rivalling Armenia as the world’s oldest Christian nation.)

“In the 1620s, a Portuguese Jesuit convinced King Susenyos to convert to Catholicism, which soon became Ethiopia’s official religion. Persecution of free thinkers followed suit, intensifying from 1630. Yacob, who was teaching in the Axum region, had declared that no religion was more right than any other, and his enemies brought charges against him to the king.

“Yacob fled at night, taking with him only some gold and the Psalms of David. He headed south to the region of Shewa, where he came upon the Tekezé River. There he found an uninhabited area with a ‘beautiful cave’ at the foot of a valley. Yacob built a fence of stones, and lived in the wilderness to ‘front only the essential facts of life’, as Henry David Thoreau was to describe a similar solitary life a couple of centuries later in Walden (1854).

“For two years, until the death of the king in September 1632, Yacob remained in the cave as a hermit, visiting only the nearby market to get food. In the cave, he developed his new, rationalist philosophy. He believed in the supremacy of reason, and that all humans – male and female – are created equal. He argued against slavery, critiqued all established religions and doctrines, and combined these views with a personal belief in a theistic Creator, reasoning that the world’s order makes that the most rational option.

“In short: many of the highest ideals of the later European Enlightenment had been conceived and summarised by one man, working in an Ethiopian cave from 1630 to 1632.”

Read more about the remarkable 17th century Ethiopian at Aeon, here.


Read Full Post »

An African writer’s gratitude to a generous book lover in his childhood city has inspired an online bookstore geared toward African authors.

Daniel A. Gross writes at the New Yorker, “Magunga Williams grew up in Kisumu, a Kenyan city that’s home to more than three hundred thousand people but to only two major bookstores. There, Williams told me recently, ‘people depend on books that they find in supermarkets.’ Most of these books come from the United States and Europe. ‘These supermarkets do not have a rich African collection,’ Williams said.

“But there was one place where he could always find a wider range of books. It was the personal collection of a local man, whose house became a neighborhood meeting place and an unofficial sort of public library. …

“Williams moved to Nairobi and began an undergraduate program in law, but he never forgot the way that a house full of books, in a city with too few, became an escape. …

“So Williams, while he was in school, started a literary blog, Magunga.com, and … he made it his mission to create a space like that library—not in a house but on the Internet. The result is a fledgling online pan-African bookshop: the Magunga Bookstore.

“In becoming a bookseller, Williams was, in part, following in the footsteps of his girlfriend, Abigail Arunga. A few years ago, Arunga, a Nairobi-based freelance writer in her late twenties, stopped by a few local bookstores and asked if they would stock ‘Akello,’ her self-published collection of poems.

“At one shop, she was told that Kenyans don’t read poetry. At another, an employee claimed that her ninety-three-page book was too short. ‘They told me that my book had to be at least a hundred pages,’ she said. So she decided to sell the book herself — at poetry readings, literary festivals, even family gatherings. …

“An epiphany came last winter, when Williams was reading an article in the Guardian and noticed that the newspaper operates its own online bookstore. He told Arunga that they were going to open a bookstore, too. …

“Williams earns his living by writing sponsored posts on his blog, which attracts around five thousand readers each day. He asked his Webmaster, David Mabiria, to add a new tab to the Web site, which would offer books for sale. … He and Arunga requested book donations from writer friends, who provided copies of their own work. They launched the feature with ten titles in stock, under a simple slogan: ‘Spreading the Word.’

“Word spread slowly. The Magunga Bookstore made its first sale in December, 2015, when Williams was out of town — he had to ask a friend to deliver the book. ‘He was telling me he was in traffic,’ Williams recalled. ‘And I was, like, “I don’t care. Just go get a boda-boda ride.“ ‘ (Boda-boda is East African slang for a motorcycle taxi.) He remembers telling the friend, “I’ll pay you even if it costs me double the price. Just to make sure the client is happy.” ‘ ”

More at the New Yorker. And while you’re clicking, take a look at the Magunga Bookstore site, here.

Photo: Facebook/Babishai Niwe Poetry
Abigail Arunga and Magunga Williams at the 2016 Babishai Poetry Festival, in Ntinda, Uganda.

Read Full Post »

Photo: ABC News: Kristine Taylor
The arrival of six primary school-aged children allowed Mingoola’s (New South Wales, Australia) school to reopen.

Cousin Claire put another good link on Facebook–this one about the small Australian community of Mingoola, which was losing population and decided to welcome refugees just as its only primary school was about to close.

Greg Hassall writes at ABC Australia, “In the tiny township of Mingoola, on the border of New South Wales and Queensland, local woman Julia Harpham was grappling with a common problem in rural communities.

“The population was in decline, enrolments at the local primary school were down and farmers could not find labourers to help with manual work. Her town was dying before her eyes.

” ‘Many of us have children who work in the city and aren’t going to come back to the farm because things have been so tough on the land,’ Ms Harpham said.

” ‘You don’t like to see a community die. And there’s not much joy in a place with no children.’

“Three years ago the local progress association decided to take a leaf from the region’s migrant past and looked for refugees willing to move to the area.

“But when they began contacting refugee agencies they were told there would not be adequate support for refugees in the bush. …

“Meanwhile in Sydney, refugee advocate Emmanuel Musoni was grappling with problems in his community from central Africa. They had been displaced from Rwanda and neighbouring countries during years of bitter civil war.

“The majority had rural backgrounds before having to flee their homes for refugee camps. …

“They were resettled in cities where employment prospects were few, the environment was intimidating and many became depressed and isolated. …

“Mr Musoni led a small delegation from his community to Mingoola early this year to meet locals and see whether resettlement was viable.

“On his return he put out a call for families willing to make the move; within a week he had a waiting list of 50.

“He chose two families [with] 16 children between them. Six of the children were of primary school age, which would allow Mingoola Primary School to remain open.

“Meanwhile, the community began renovating several abandoned houses in the area to accommodate the families, who moved to Mingoola in April. …

“For those involved in this social experiment, the hope is that its success can be replicated elsewhere to help other struggling rural communities.

“Mr Musoni now has 205 families on his database wanting to move out of the cities and politicians have been watching the Mingoola project with interest.”

Read more here. And for a past post on African refugees in rural Maine, click here.

Read Full Post »

Here’s a new one. Certain rats, with their renowned sense of smell, are being used in the fight against traffickers of endangered species.

The unusual rats had previously been tapped for tasks such as identifying who has tuberculosis and needs treatment. And as I noted a year ago, they have also been successful at sniffing out land mines.

Now, according to Oliver Milman the Guardian, “An elite group of African giant pouched rats will be used at ports, initially in Tanzania, to detect illegal shipments of pangolins – the world’s most trafficked animal, which has been pushed towards extinction due to the trade in its scales and skins …

“The US Fish & Wildlife Service is spending $100,000 on a pilot project that will train rats to detect the illegal items and learn to communicate this to their human handlers. The rats, which can grow up to 3ft long, have poor eyesight but an excellent sense of smell. …

“The Fish & Wildlife Service said it hoped that the foray into the investigation of wildlife smuggling would be the first stage of a ‘much larger project to mainstream rats as an innovative tool in combating illegal wildlife trade.’ …

“The money for rat training is part of a larger $1.2m package that will provide funding for law enforcement in Cambodia, forest patrols to reduce tiger poaching in Indonesia and sniffer dogs to unearth illegal shipments of saiga antelope horn.”

More here.

Photo: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images
African giant pouched rats like the one seen here are being trained to investigate illegal wildlife trafficking.

Read Full Post »

In Tanzania, women farmers appearing on a TV show called in English “Female Food Heroes” are bringing attention to the importance of their work and the barriers to expansion.

Oxfam America reporter Coco McCabe writes about contestant Edna Kiogwe, “She grew up in a farming family and knows well the hurdles they face, especially women farmers who, in her country, own only a small fraction of the land. …

“It’s that inequality — and the lost opportunities buried beneath it — to which Kiogwe and 14 other women farmers helped to bring attention this year as contestants in the fifth season of a highly popular reality TV show shot in Tanzania and aired across East Africa. Called Mama ‘Shujaa wa Chakula ,’ or ‘Female Food Heroes,’ the Oxfam-sponsored show celebrates the vital contributions women farmers make in feeding the planet, and highlights the challenges many encounter on a daily basis, including limited access to land, credit, and training opportunities. …

“In the village of Kisanga, where ‘Mama Shujaa wa Chakula’ was filmed [in 2015], the 15 contestants learned a great deal about the struggles local farmers face in feeding their families. Each of the women stayed with a village family for the duration of the three-week shoot, and daily contests included designing tools that could be useful to Kisanga farmers, interviewing them about their agricultural challenges, and putting together skits to help bring attention to those hurdles. …

“Kiogwe [now] spends most of her time in Dar es Salaam, a coastal city about a two-and-a-half hour drive away, where she lives and works as a civil servant. But her city life belies her village roots — and her keen interest in farming. Unlike most women in Tanzania, Kiogwe owns her own land, given to her by her forward-thinking father on her wedding day. She harvests corn, cassava, rice, and sugar cane, carefully aligning her 28 days of annual leave from her city job with peak work times on her small farm in the Morogoro region. …

“ ‘I want to make agriculture like a business,’ says Kiogwe. … With a little effort, greater value can be added to the fruits farmers grow, for instance.

“ ‘Change it from fruit to juice, we can sell it … We can add value to maize — maize flour for porridge — and you can have a good label and good packaging and compete with international businesses. That is my dream.’ ” More here.

According to OXFAMCloseup, the nonprofit’s quarterly magazine, the episodes shot in Kisanga, Tanzania, aired in five countries and had 14 million people tune in. The magazine adds, “Versions of the program are now being produced in Ethiopia and Nigeria, and some finalists have become involved in local, national, and even global farmer advocacy.”

Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America
Edna Kiogwe helps her host family with the morning chores in Kisanga, where the TV show “Female Food Heroes” was filmed in 2015.

Read Full Post »

Photo: The Economist

Reversing desertification in Africa has to be one of the biggest challenges ever attempted. But if we believe that the longest journey starts with a single step, then the continent’s long journey is off to a good start.

According to the Economist, “Building a wall of trees across the width of Africa is a tall order. Solving the twin problems of land degradation and desertification poses a greater challenge still. But more than 60 years after it was first proposed, just such a project is underway at the edge of the Sahara. …

“In 1952 Richard St Barbe Baker, a British environmental scientist, proposed planting a swathe of trees across the southern reaches of the Sahara. The trees would block the wind and sand that move southward from the desert and improve the quality of the soil by binding sediment together and adding nutrients to the mix.

“Although Mr Baker was unable to convince others of his plan during his lifetime, the idea has since taken root. In 2005, Olusegun Obasanjo, then president of Nigeria, revisited Mr Baker’s proposition, seeing in it an answer to some of the social, economic and environmental problems afflicting the Sahel-Sahara region.

“An estimated 83% of rural sub-Saharan Africans are dependent on the region’s land for their livelihoods, but 40% of it is degraded—worn away by soil erosion, human activity and scorching temperatures—leaving much of it unfit for use.

“In 2007, Mr Obasanjo gained the support of the African Union. The Great Green Wall Initiative was launched the same year. Today some 21 African countries are involved in the project, which has grown in scope. Trees have been planted, but building a wall of them is no longer the priority.

“Instead, the wall of trees has become a vehicle for a wider goal: countries in the region working together to tackle climate change, food security and economic growth. Recent projects include abating soil erosion and improving water management in Nigeria, agri-business development in Senegal and forestry management in Mali.”

More at the Economist.

Read Full Post »

Photo: BBC
Africa’s Sophie Ikenye visits a fish farm in Kenya.

The BBC recently called my attention to a surprising new trend in Africa: Young people, who used to flock to urban office jobs and spurn farming, are beginning to see the attractive side of a return to the land.

Sophie Ikenye writes, “Six years ago Emmanuel Koranteng, 33, gave up his job as an accountant in the US and bought a one-way ticket to Ghana. He now has a successful business growing pineapples in a village one-and-a-half hours away from the capital, Accra. He says that even when he was far away from the farm, it was always in his thoughts.

“Across the continent, Dimakatso Nono, 34, also left her job in finance … and moved from Johannesburg to manage her father’s 2,000 acre farm three hours away in Free State Province. She says she wanted to make an impact. …

” ‘At the beginning, we were not sure about what the animals were doing and where they were in the fields, so for me it was important to ensure that every single day, every activity that we do is recorded.’

“Life on the farm has not been easy. … Both young farmers have found it difficult to get funding for equipment. For this reason, Mr Koranteng has decided to stay small.

” ‘If you are small and you don’t have funding, don’t try to do anything big. It’s all about being able to manage and produce quality because if you produce quality, it sells itself,’ he says.

“But there is to be made money in farming. A World Bank report from 2013 estimates that Africa’s farmers and agribusinesses could create a trillion-dollar food market by 2030 if they were able to access to more capital, electricity and better technology.

” ‘Agriculture has a bright future in Africa,’ says Harvard University technology expert Calestous Juma. And it also means making the finished product, rather than just growing crops and selling them. ‘The focus should be … from farm to fork, not just production,’ he says.”

Check out one farming entrepreneur’s approach here.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »