A Hungry World
One of the best parts of teaching a course on African history is being able to introduce students to Binyavanga Wainaina’s amazing essay ‘How to Write about Africa’. In my first lecture, I wanted to emphasise the disconnect between the (powerful) narratives which have been developed about the continent – by travellers, politicians, journalists – and its history, societies, politics, and economics. Wainaina’s achievement is that he draws attention to a range of usually unchallenged assumptions about Africa, and shows them to be ridiculous:
Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.
In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. …
Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.
Recently, there has been a lot of discussion, particularly in the United States, about how the western media covers Africa. Laura Seay writes in an excellent article for Foreign Policy:
Western reporting on Africa is often fraught with factual errors, incomplete analysis, and stereotyping that would not pass editorial muster in coverage of China, Pakistan, France, or Mexico. A journalist who printed blatantly offensive stereotypes about German politicians or violated ethical norms regarding protection of child-abuse victims in Ohio would at the least be sanctioned and might even lose his or her job. When it comes to Africa, however, these problems are tolerated and, in some cases, celebrated. A quick search of the Google News archives for ‘Congo’ and ‘heart of darkness’ yields nearly 4,000 hits, the vast majority of which are not works of literary criticism, but are instead used to exoticise the Democratic Republic of the Congo while conjuring up stereotypes of race and savagery. Could we imagine a serious publication ever using similar terminology to describe the south side of Chicago, Baltimore, or another predominately African-American city?
Similarly, Jina Moore makes the point in the Boston Review that believing that journalists should only report incidents of violence or suffering, instead of other aspects of life on the continent, is
a false choice. We can write about suffering and we can write about the many other things there are to say about Congo. With a little faith in our readers, we can even write about both things – extraordinary violence and ordinary life – in the same story.
These narratives – these stories, these reports and articles about Africa – have a measurable impact on the ways in which the rest of the world interacts with the continent. Tracing a shift in American attitudes towards Africa from around 2000, when concern about the AIDS epidemic was at its height, Kathryn Mathers writes:
Suddenly there were no conversations about new democracies in Africa, or investment opportunities; the potential consumers were represented as too sick to labour, let alone to shop. This became the burden of caring Americans whose consumption practices can give a sick child in Africa ARVs or provide mosquito nets against the ravages of malaria.
To coincide with the final day of the 2012 Olympics, David Cameron and the Brazilian vice-president Michel Temer will host a summit on hunger and malnutrition in the developing world. It will be attended by officials from the US Department of Agriculture and the UK Department of International Development, as well as a clutch of celebrities. As an editorial in the Guardian puts it, ‘when tackling malnutrition involves photo-opportunities with icons such as Mo Farah and David Beckham, it’s hard not to be sceptical’ about the impact that this summit will have.
Although the summit was planned months ago, its timing is particularly apt: the world is facing another food crisis. Since the end of July, it’s become clear that the bumper harvest predicted, globally, for 2012 was not to be – in fact, maize and wheat yields are down. This year’s soybean crop is the third worst since 1964. Reading about this crisis, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is exclusively the problem of poor nations: we know that Zimbabwe, the Sahel region, the Horn of Africa, and Yemen all face severe food shortages, and that the price of food is increasing in Egypt, Mexico, South Africa, and other middle-income nations.
However, the immediate cause of this food crisis lies far away from the regions worst affected by malnutrition and high food prices: in the United States, which is currently experiencing its worst drought in almost a century. More than half the country’s counties – 1,584 in 32 states, including Iowa, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Wyoming – have been declared disaster areas.
It’s difficult to underestimate just how devastating this drought has been (and is):
Wherever you look, the heat, the drought, and the fires stagger the imagination. Now, it’s Oklahoma at the heart of the American firestorm, with ‘18 straight days of 100-plus degree temperatures and persistent drought’ and so many fires in neighbouring states that extra help is unavailable. It’s the summer of heat across the U.S., where the first six months of the year have been the hottest on record…. More than 52% of the country is now experiencing some level of drought, and drought conditions are actually intensifying in the Midwest; 66% of the Illinois corn crop is in ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ shape, with similarly devastating percentages across the rest of the Midwest. The average is 48% across the corn belt, and for soybeans 37% – and it looks as if next year’s corn crop may be endangered as well. …according to the Department of Agriculture, ‘three-quarters of the nation’s cattle acreage is now inside a drought-stricken area, as is about two-thirds of the country’s hay acreage.’
There are suggestions that the Midwest is in danger of experiencing a second Dust Bowl. But the drought is not limited to the US: unusually dry summers have reduced harvests in Russia, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. And the effects of these poor yields will be felt around the world. Even if, as the Financial Times reports, the drought will push up prices of beef, pork, and chicken in the United States and Europe, the countries most at risk of food shortages, and, indeed, of social unrest, are those which rely on food imports to feed their populations.
If rates of malnutrition are to be reduced and food shortages, addressed, then politicians will have to consider them in global context. They will have to rethink America’s energy policies, which have allowed for almost forty per cent of the country’s corn crop to be devoted to ethanol production. They will have to address the impact that financial speculation has on the price of food commodities. A report published by the New England Complex Systems Institute suggests that food price increases are likely to be exacerbated by the unregulated trade in staples like maize and wheat.
Even these measures will not be enough to ensure adequate access to food for all people: we need to find strategies to slow down and mitigate the effects of climate change; social and economic inequality in the developing world must be addressed; land grabs need to be halted; and agricultural policies in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere need to favour small farmers.
In the same month in which the tofu industry in Indonesia has threatened to down tools over rising soybean prices, the cost of maize meal is increasing in Mexico, and there were protests in Iran over price of chicken, the grain trader Cargill announced revenues of $134 billion. This state of affairs is not sustainable.
While it’s certainly the case that famine and malnutrition in parts of sub-Saharan Africa are the products of dysfunctional and corrupt governments, it’s also true that as part of a globalised food system, food insecurity in Africa – and the rest of the developing world – is connected to a set of problems which can only be solved on an international scale.
This is, then, a global crisis. But reporting has tended to disassociate its cause and effects: hunger in Africa is reported separately from the drought in the northern hemisphere and the spike in food prices. Cameron’s summit on malnutrition focuses exclusively on the developing world. I think that this is partly as a result of the narratives which inform reporting on these regions: America is an agricultural superpower, while Africa is a site of terminal decline and disaster. It’s worth noting that America’s poor harvest tends to be reported on in the environmental or financial sections of newspapers and websites, while hunger and malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia are relegated to the sections dealing with aid or development. Linking malnutrition in South Sudan to the maize harvest in Indiana would upset these ways of thinking about Africa and the United States.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Publish or Perish
The latest edition of the New Statesman includes an article by David Priestland on the state of popular history in Britain. He argues that, increasingly, television series presented by the likes of Andrew Marr as well as popular science, economics, and history books – particularly those written by right-wing historians, most notably Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson – are grounded in a Whiggish belief in the inevitably of the triumph of liberalism. (We take the term ‘Whiggish’ from Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) which argues against writing history as a glorification of the present, and as a slow, progressive evolution towards parliamentary democracy.) Priestland writes:
There are several problems with understanding history as a relentless march towards liberal perfection, not least because it’s wrong. Historians are interested in accounting for change over time and we recognise that change itself simply happens: it’s neither objectively good, nor bad. This Whiggery attaches a moral value to change, and simplifies its causes:
Priestland lays the blame for the ‘complacent liberalism’ of popular history firmly at historians’ feet. He suggests that because academic historians have largely abandoned the writing of history on a grand scale – the best example of which is Eric Hobsbawm’s series on the history of the modern world – choosing, rather, to specialise in fairly narrow areas of expertise, they ‘have ceded the political high ground.’ Right-wing historians and journalists have stepped into the space left by the guild.
I do have a few reservations about Priestland’s argument (although I do urge you to read the full article, as I’ve oversimplified it a little here). He fails to take into account academic historians’ growing interest in global history, as well as the motivations and aims of the BBC and other organisations which commission public history. (Do they really want academic historians to present television series, when Andrew Marr is guaranteed to draw a crowd?) But I agree with his point that historians should do more to engage with the public.
While historians and academics in the UK, US, and elsewhere are – increasingly – working harder to make those outside of academia aware of their research, this impulse has not really been felt to any great extent in South Africa. It’s certainly true that a few history departments and historians have worked with communities to write local histories – like the University of Johannesburg’s Sophiatown Project – but these are not enough. The School of Advanced Study at the University of London has put all of the papers presented at the Societies of Southern Africa in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century seminar series, online. But this, also, isn’t enough.
When not suggesting that criticism of President Zuma be made illegal, Blade Nzimande, the Minister of Higher Education, turns his mind to historians and the writing of history. Speaking at the announcement of the SA History Online student internship programme last month, the Minister commented:
I agree that much of South Africa’s past remains to be researched, but the Minister ignores the vast and really brilliant scholarship produced by historians of South Africa since, at least, the 1970s, which focuses precisely on histories of colonisation, segregation, apartheid, shifting attitudes towards race and gender, labour, industrialisation, nationalisms, and anti-government protest.
Later on in the speech, Nzimande does mention the revisionist historians – people like Shula Marks, Stanley Trapido, Belinda Bozzoli, Martin Legassick, and Charles van Onselen – who helped to transform the profession in the 1970s and 1980s. I don’t understand, then, why he seems to believe that historians are producing a kind of conservative interpretation of the past which ignores the experience of the majority of South Africans. They really, really are not.
He does, though, make one important point:
South Africans are astonishingly ignorant about their country’s history – and this includes well educated South Africans too. Earlier this year, Peter Bruce, then editor of Business Day, wrote an unbelievably ill-informed column in which he complained that South African historians had entirely ignored ‘black history’. A couple of weeks ago, the Mail and Guardian published an opinion piece that alleged that South Africa’s ‘past has until recently, been the subject of very few and dominant narratives told from the perspective of the proverbial victors even if theirs was a guise of colonialism and apartheid.’ This just isn’t true. (I’m also not entirely sure what it means.)
This lack of knowledge is partly the fault of our failing education system. Books in South Africa are ruinously expensive. The first volume of the new Cambridge history of South Africa costs £84 – more than R1,000. South Africa also lacks the platforms to allow historians and academics to communicate with the public. There is no South African History & Policy. We have no version of the Guardian – which has created blogs for historians to write about histories of science of technology, for instance. Our disastrous public broadcaster has no equivalent of In Our Time, the incredibly popular Radio 4 series which focusses on the history of ideas.
And academics here – as abroad – are unbelievably busy, over-worked, and very badly paid. But historians should take some of the blame for the fact that even fairly well educated South Africans have such little understanding of the vast scholarship on South African history. I didn’t spot a single angry op-ed by any senior historian attacking Nzimande’s speech in October. (But please tell me if I’m being unfair – who knows what I may have missed.) I – a very junior academic – took Peter Bruce to task, but no one else did.
So why should we care? Firstly, governments construct versions of the past to justify their policies in the present. In order for South Africans to function effectively as citizens, they need to be able to evaluate and criticise the government’s use of the past. As Priestland make the point, if we don’t talk to the public, others – less qualified and with potentially damaging agendas – will.
Secondly, the narratives we create to understand the past influence how we respond to crises in the present. Writing about the unexamined liberal politics of British popular history, Priestland explains:
By far the best analysis of the current crisis in South Africa’s mining industry which I read was the brilliant Keith Breckenridge’s post on History Workshop Online. But where are the articles which unpack Mac Maharaj’s bizarre views on the term ‘compound’? Where are the histories of farm work in the Cape, in the light of the strike now occurring in the fruit and wine industries? Indeed, I’m not the only one who’s calling for this. As my friend and colleague Stephen Sparks notes, Breckenridge has called on policymakers to speak to historians – and a recent workshop at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research floated the idea of a South African version of History & Policy.
Finally, as Nzimande admitted in his speech, the South African state does not view the funding of the humanities as a priority. We know that humanities departments are often the first to go when academic funding is cut. As the crisis in our national archives – the memory of the nation – demonstrates, the current government’s interest in history is pretty minimal.
So if you’re wondering when I’m going to mention cupcakes in this post, I’m writing this to point out to my fellow historians that unless we make the case for having a thorough, nuanced understanding of South Africa’s past, no one else will. Writing a blog really isn’t difficult, people. It doesn’t solve anything, but it’s a beginning.
Postscript: Andrew MacDonald’s astonishingly wonderful review of the new Cambridge History of South Africa appeared in this week’s Mail and Guardian. As an overview of the development of the discipline in South Africa, it is unparalleled.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.