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1. ‘Storytelling’ in oral history: an exchange, part 2

On 25 April, we shared an excerpt from the conversation between OHR 41.1 contributor Alexander Freund and OHR board member Erin Jessee regarding Freund’s article, “Confessing Animals: Towards a Longue Durée History of the Oral History Interview.” Below, Freund and Jessee continue their exchange, tackling storytelling in non-Western arenas.

Alexander Freund: I fully agree that conducting interviews with open ended questions that create lots of space for people to tell their stories is an excellent methodology. That way, we develop rapport and get rich and “true” (rather than simply publicly sanctioned) stories. The underlying assumption is grounded in hermeneutics: we will receive a rich text that is as “pure” as possible and can then be interpreted.

I think we can go also beneath these methodological and ethical questions toward fundamental epistemological questions about how the knowledge that we create in an interview is shaped by longue durée processes, and how each interview is another step in learning how to be “right” in the world.

Thus, thinking about the long history of the interview and its connection to confessional practices, the questions about interviewing I have are these: how did we get to the point where, as scientists, we believe it is epistemologically, methodologically, and ethically sound to approach a person (often a stranger) and ask her to “tell me about yourself”? And how have the people we approach come to be more comfortable with one or another kind of responding? Indeed, how, in the first place, have they come to be comfortable with being approached and then giving an account of themselves? And how have we come to a place where, whenever we ask someone, “tell me about your life,” there are basic structural similarities (e.g. narrativity, an account about the self, basic chronology, or frustration about a lack of or expectation of chronology, and personal experiences) in their accounts (at least within specific cultures)?

* * * * *

Erin Jessee: Here again I can appreciate the links you’ve drawn between the practice of oral history and the confessional culture that has developed in many Western nations, especially with regards to the perceived cathartic value of the interview. While I’d like to think that the interviews I’ve conducted in different settings haven’t harmed the people I’ve interviewed, I find our tendency to approach the oral history interview as having similar benefits to narrative therapy troubling. The emotional benefits of the interview, if any, would be incredibly difficult to document, and to my knowledge (and please correct me if I’m wrong), oral historians haven’t taken the time to analyse this in any meaningful way.

And indeed, it fits into more troubling observations about the growing prevalence of storytelling methodologies in the post-conflict nations like Rwanda, Bosnia, and Uganda. While I find storytelling methods are often received as more culturally appropriate in places like Rwanda and Uganda, over the years, I’ve noticed a growing interest in disseminating the outcomes of storytelling-based fieldwork online as a means of educating the public. The recent controversy surrounding Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 mini-documentary — admittedly a poor film that smacks of the white savior industrial complex at its worst — demonstrates that once these materials are made public, there is no way to control how it will be received, replicated, and disseminated by that public going forward. So again, this leaves me wondering whether oral historians can deliver a positive cathartic experience surrounding the interview and its dissemination via digital storytelling platforms. It seems to me that oral historians, and particularly those who work on sensitive subjects, should proceed with caution. And yet simultaneously, it seems everything about current academic and funding climates is pushing us to explore the relevance of digital storytelling and online dissemination for our work.

* * * * *

Alexander Freund: I am interested to hear that there is a “growing prevalence of storytelling methodologies in the post-conflict nations like Rwanda, Bosnia, and Uganda.” Where does this come from? Is that homegrown or a Western import? You say that “storytelling methods are often received as more culturally appropriate in places like Rwanda and Uganda,” but I am always wondering about such claims. Are these backed up by evidence that shows a connection between traditional and current storytelling practices? Is storytelling always just storytelling? Or was there a differentiation of how different kinds of stories got traditionally told? Whenever I hear that something is “culturally appropriate,” I am wondering to what degree this is a colonial fantasy?

Rwandan Children at Volcans National Park by Philip Kromer. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Rwandan Children at Volcans National Park by Philip Kromer. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

* * * * *

Erin Jessee: I think what we’re seeing at present is an attempted blending by foreign researchers, professionals, and civil society organizations, of homegrown and Western methodologies, and by labeling them “storytelling” the expectation is that they will simultaneously appeal to international audiences, local participants, and to be blunt, funding agencies. But you’re right to question whether they are culturally appropriate.

What might have been described as “storytelling” in the past in Rwanda, for example, is actually a complex array of practices that included everything from official histories and stories that were carefully preserved and disseminated by ritual specialists to select members of the royal court, to unofficial histories and stories that could be performed for and by the public. From what I’ve observed, these acts of storytelling are vastly different from the storytelling methodologies (including life history and thematic interviews, focus groups, etc.) commonly used by academics and related practitioners working in Rwanda today. But it’s also important to note that one of the many outcomes of colonialism and later, the 1994 Genocide, is that Rwandans have become quite well-versed in narrative therapy, interviews, and so on, even if they aren’t always comfortable participating in them. Just because current storytelling methodologies aren’t “traditional” for Rwanda, strictly speaking, doesn’t mean they can’t be adapted to make them more culturally appropriate by developing methodological framework in collaboration with Rwandan experts and one’s participants.

But it’s still important to consider expectations — both the researcher’s and the participants’ — when engaging interview and storytelling-based methodologies. Adding to the challenge, many conflicted and post-conflict nations are steeped in transitional justice discourses that, like the interview, are embedded in Western political philosophy and human rights. Bronwyn Leebaw has written an interesting article, “The Irreconcilable Goals of Transitional Justice,” in which she suggests that many of the stated benefits of applying transitional justice mechanisms (such as memorials, trials, and truth and reconciliation commissions) in post-conflict settings are “articles of faith” that claim to facilitate social repair, reconciliation, and so forth, but have never been proven — and indeed often turn out to be false due to the irreconcilable nature of transitional justice’s stated goals. I suspect we’re dealing with a similar phenomenon with regards to the oral history interview, and indeed storytelling more generally. That people should experience catharsis and healing as a result of sharing their experiences during an interview seems to be taken for granted in many parts of the world, and as I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not sure that oral historians have enough solid evidence to support the claim that in the context of an oral history interview, this is indeed the case.

But to return to your paper, it seems the time is ripe for an oral history project that interrogates the foundations of oral history as a (sub-)discipline and its development over time, perhaps by turning the oral history interview on founding scholars and practitioners, as well as analyzing relevant archival materials. And certainly it would be relevant to expand the project to consider the use of interviews in other fields and in cross-cultural settings.

So before we conclude our email exchange, is there anything else you’d like to add?

* * * * *

Alexander Freund: No, I will just say thanks again for your thoughtful response. I agree with all of your points and I am looking forward to a continued online discussion that will hopefully include others interested in this topic.

Alexander Freund is a professor of history and holds the Chair in German-Canadian Studies at the University of Winnipeg, where he is also co-director of the Oral History Centre. He is co-president of the Canadian Oral History Association and co-editor of Oral History Forum d’histoire orale. With Alistair Thomson, he edited Oral History and Photography (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). He is the author of “Confessing Animals”: Toward a Longue Durée History of the Oral History Interview” (available to read for free for a limited time) in the latest issue of the Oral History Review.

Erin Jessee, in addition to serving on the OHR Editorial Board, is an assistant professor affiliated with the Scottish Oral History Centre (Department of History) at the University of Strathclyde. Her research interests include mass atrocities, nationalized commemoration, spiritual violence, transitional justice, mass grave exhumations, and the ethical and methodological challenges surrounding qualitative fieldwork amid highly politicized research settings. Erin is in the final stages of writing a book manuscript (under consideration with Palgrave MacMillan’s Studies in Oral History series) tentatively titled Negotiating Genocide: The Politics of History in Post-Genocide Rwanda.

The Oral History Review, published by the Oral History Association, is the U.S. journal of record for the theory and practice of oral history. Its primary mission is to explore the nature and significance of oral history and advance understanding of the field among scholars, educators, practitioners, and the general public. Follow them on Twitter at @oralhistreview, like them on Facebook, add them to your circles on Google Plus, follow them on Tumblr, listen to them on Soundcloud, or follow their latest OUPblog posts via email or RSS to preview, learn, connect, discover, and study oral history.

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The post ‘Storytelling’ in oral history: an exchange, part 2 appeared first on OUPblog.

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2. Week-end Book Review: The Magic Formula by Ibrahima Ndiaye and Capucine Mazille

Ibrahima Ndiaye, illustrated by Capucine Mazille, translated by Rebecca Page,
The Magic Formula
Bakame Editions (Rwanda), 2011.

The Magic Formula is a retelling of an African folktale about a magic marula tree that won’t release its fruit until a certain long, complicated phrase is recited.  Set during a drought in the land of “Farafinaland” in the year “nobody-knows”, the animals have all come together in their suffering.  Nevertheless, their individual traits emerge in the course of the lively narrative: the lion is fierce; the hyena is sneering and excitable; and the elephant is wise.

One day, the elephant calls on the animals to journey together in search of food (also offering scope for the eye-catching illustration both within the story and spread across the book’s covers).  The insects provide an “aerial escort”, and the chameleon with his “special eyes” takes on the role of scout perched on the giraffe’s head.  Sure enough, he is the first to see the magic marula tree laden with fruit – and he also spots the old woman Mama Tenga under another distant tree.  She gives the magic words to first the elephant and then the hyena – but each is distracted on the way back to the marula tree and forgets them.  It is only when, at the elephant’s suggestion, they all work together in “solidarity” that they are able to remember the words and access the fruit.

Ibrahima Ndiaye’s retelling is slightly different from another recent version of the story from Tanzania, The Amazing Tree (North-South Books, 2009) by John Kilaka, whose work has also been published by Bakame Editions.  These two versions compliment each other with their different sets of characters and the chant in Kinyarwanda in The Magic Formula and in Kiswahili in The Amazing Tree, as well as the contrasting styles of the illustrations.  Here, Capucine Mazille’s watercolours add depth to the story with a wonderful mix of charaterful facial expressions.  As well as the key characters, the line-up includes an exciting array of  different African animals, including an aardvark and a pangolin – plenty to absorb young readers. The lively dialogue also makes this a great readaloud, and young listeners will probably soon pick up the magic formula quicker than the animals themselves, adding to their enjoyment of the story

The Magic Formula, under its Rwandan title Imvugo idasanzwe, is included in IBBY’s Honor List 2012, which highlights outstanding books from around the world.  This translation into English offers us the opportunity to share this wonderful story too.

Marjorie Coughlan
October 2012


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3. Happy Haul-idays from Chronicle Books!

For the second year in a row, I'm taking part in a fantastic "haul-iday" giveaway from Chronicle Books. This eclectic independent publisher is giving away up to $500 worth of books to one lucky blogger, one reader of that blog, and the winning blogger's favorite charity. The winning reader will get the same haul of books as the winning blogger, and the winning charity will get to pick its own books. What a generous giveaway!

My charity of choice is the American Friends of the Kigali Public Library (AFKPL). The AFKPL is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, that has been working with local and international partners to raise money, collect books, and offer additional support for the construction and long-term sustainability of the first public library in Rwanda.

Located in the capital of Rwanda, the Kigali Public Library will help introduce a culture of reading into this small African country, which has a complex history of violence and isolation that it is working hard to overcome. The library will also have a special focus on children's literacy, including many books in English, which is now the official language of Rwanda.

Please consider leaving a comment on this post to show your support for the AFKPL and to enter to win the picture books listed below (if my blog is chosen as the winner of the giveaway). In the spirit of my blog and of the AFKPL, all of the books on my list have artistic or multicultural themes.

If you want to read more about the giveaway or enter it as a blogger yourself, you can find the full instructions here. You can also find a list of participating blogs here.

The giveaway closes on December 2, 2011. Good luck to all!

Dance, Art & Music 
A Magical Day with Matisse
A Nutty Nutcracker Christmas
A Picnic with Monet
Dancing with Degas
Dreaming with Rousseau
Frank Was a Monster Who Wanted to Dance
In the Garden with Van Gogh
Matisse: Dance for Joy
Monet's Impressions
On an Islan

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4. A Few Questions for Gérard Prunier

Eve Donegan, Sales and Marketing Assistant

Yesterday we posted an essay by Gérard Prunier, the author of Africa’s World War, on the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the effect it has had on the people of Central Africa. Below Prunier answers a few questions that we had regarding the current situation in Africa.

OUP: How has the involvement of the world increased or decreased in Africa since the initial conflict?

Gerard Prunier: I don’t think international involvement of a non-commercial nature in Africa has increased or diminished since the 14 nation war. Basically what you see towards Africa is humanitarian goodwill (of a slightly weepy nature) backed up by celebrity photo ops, journalistic disaster reporting (unfortunately justified), “Out of Africa” type of exotic reporting and diplomatic shuttle diplomacy on Darfur and assorted crisis spots. None of this results in very much action. Meanwhile the United States drinks up crude oil from the gulf of Guinea, India and China export cheap trinkets to the continent and in exchange (particularly China) chew up vast amount of natural resources and build cheap roads and sports stadiums. The Africans at first loved it. Non-imperialistic aid, they said. As the Chinese shoddily-built roads already show signs of wear and tear and as their stadiums and presidential palaces (another Beijing specialty) begin to look slightly out of place, they are beginning to have second thoughts.

OUP: How has the 2006 election in Congo affected the country?

Prunier: It has stabilized it internationally and tranquilized it internally. But an election is only an election. Phase Two of the Congolese recovery program has so far failed to get off the ground. Security Sector Reform never started (the Congolese Army is still basically a gaggle of thugs who are more dangerous for their own citizens than for the enemy they are supposed to fight), mining taxation is still touchingly obsolete, enabling foreign mining companies to work in the country for a song and a little developmental dance, the political class mostly talks but does not act very much, foreign donors have forgotten the country as it made less and less noise, the Eastern question is a continuation of the endless Rwandese civil war which has been going on with ups and downs for the last fifty years and the sleeping giant of Africa still basically sleeps.

OUP: What sort of future do you see for Central Africa?

Prunier: Only God knows. It will depend a lot on the capacity of the Congolese government to move from a secularized form of religious incantations to real action. Mobutu is dead but his ghost is still with us. One typical feature of Mobutism was the replacement of action by discourse. Once something had been said (preferably forcefully and with a lot of verbal emphasis) everybody was satisfied and had the impression that a serious action had been undertaken. This allowed everybody to relax with a feeling of accomplishment. In a way the last Congolese election was a typical post-Mobutist phenomenon. A very important and valid point was made. This led to a great feeling of satisfaction and a series of practical compromises and lucrative arrangements. The Congolese elite sat back, relaxed and enjoyed its new-found tranquility. Meanwhile the ordinary population saw very little result of this new blessed state of affairs. Beginning to rejoin reality might be a good idea.

OUP: Why do you think the Rwandan genocide and the following occurrences were typically ignored or belittled in comparison to other world catastrophes?

Prunier: I might beg to disagree on that point. For a catastrophe which had no impact on the international community, contrary to 9/11 for example, there was quite a bit of follow-up. The follow-up was in a way easy because it was painless for the international community. Just a little money (very little when one sees the costs of the war in Iraq or of the present financial crisis) and an embarrassed way of looking the other way when President Kagame rode roughshod over the Eastern Congo. Rwanda became a second little Israel, for the same reasons as the first one. Where were we when the people were getting killed? Since we simply had left the question hanging on the answering service, there was a slight feeling of unease when we saw the heaps of dead bodies. As a way of atoning for our sins, we asked somebody else to pay the price of our neglect. The Arabs made a lot of noise about this. But the Congolese had neither oil nor an aggressive universal religious creed. As a result they are still trying to deal with the consequences of our absent-mindedness.

OUP: As someone who resides in Ethiopia part-time, what is the attitude of the country towards the conflict-filled history of Central Africa?

Prunier: Basically the Ethiopians do not care. They have never felt “African” and the only reason Haile Selassie had been able to create the OAU in 1963 is that his country had been the only one in Africa NOT to be colonized. Ethiopia is IN Africa but not OF Africa. Let us forget skin color. Skin color is irrelevant (and many Abyssinians are very light-skinned if one wants to get into that futile line of argument). But let us consider culture. Abyssinia, the old historical core of Ethiopia (i.e. pre 1890), pre-Menelik) is basically an offshoot of the Byzantine Empire, complete with Christian icons, a Monophysite Church, imperial intrigues and forms of writing, worshipping, cultivating, behaving and warring which have almost nothing to do with Africa. Between 1890 and 1900 Emperor Menelik conquered a slice of “real” Africa as a buffer zone against British and Italian imperial ambitions, that’s all. It did not “Africanize” Ethiopia. The average Ethiopian person is much more preoccupied with what goes on in Europe or the US than with what goes on in Angola, the Congo or Nigeria. The only African countries Ethiopia feels vitally implicated with are those of the Horn, of the “neighborhood” so to speak: Eritrea, Djibouti, the Sudan and Somalia. Perhaps a little bit Kenya and Uganda. Seen from Addis Ababa, Rwanda is as far as the moon.

OUP: How do you think the world’s understanding of Africa has changed since the genocide in Rwanda?

Prunier: I don’t think it has changed at all.

OUP: What other books should we read on this topic?

Prunier: In English there are only three: Jean-Pierre Chretien: The Great Lakes of Africa, Danielle de Lame: “A hill among one thousand” and that old classic by Rene Lemarchand:”Rwanda and Burundi” which was published by Praeger in 1970 but which is now out of print. There is a lot of other stuff but it’s all in French.

OUP: What do you read for fun?

Prunier: Milan Kundera, Tony Judt, David Lodge, Edmund Wilson, Nietzsche, Panait Istrati, Chateaubriand, Samuel Pepys, Nicolas Bouvier, Guy Debord, Valeri Grossman, Montaigne, Elmore Leonard, the Duke of Saint Simon, Karl Marx, Dostoievski, Tintin, Jared Diamond, Max Weber, Lord Chesterfield, Balzac, Andre Malraux, Philip Larkin, Witold Gombrowicz, V.S. Naipaul, Bakunin, Orlando Figes, Guillaume Apollinaire, Czeslaw Milocz, the list is endless, I am a very eclectic reader.

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5. In Defense of Pirates

Eve Donegan, Sales and Marketing Assistant

Gérard Prunier is a widely acclaimed journalist as well as the Director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. He has published over 120 articles and five books, including The Rwanda Crisis and Darfur. His most recent book, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe focuses on Congo, the Rwandan genocide, and events that led to the death of some four million people. Below is a brief look at the current movements of the Somalia pirates and a proposed alternate way of understanding these so-called “terrorists.”

This piece could be taken as being tongue-in cheek. In fact it should be thoughtfully considered, beyond its apparently provocative aspect.

Since the spectacular seajacking of a Ukrainian transport carrying thirty-three battle tanks heading for Southern Sudan last September 25th followed by the capture of a Saudi tanker carrying $100m of crude oil, the international community has been in a big huff about the notorious Somali pirates operating off the coast of Puntland. They have been called “terrorists” and are now chased by naval units from Germany, France, the United States, China, Australia, India, Russia, Japan, Great Britain, and even Iran. The highly respectable American Enterprise Institute, which in this case seems not to see the original quality of their business initiatives, has declared that “even if ridding Somalia of pirates would by no means solve the country’s problems, it is an absolute first step.” Seven Private Military Companies (PMCs) are on the ranks for the privilege of shooting them with the most advanced technology, including Blackwater of Iraq renown. An energetic blogger is calling for “shooting them on sight.” Their sin? Capturing about 110 ships in 2008 and making $150m in ransom money. The main loss was for the shipping companies, forced to pay higher insurance premiums. If we look more closely at the phenomenon, what do we see?

• Starving young men in small fiberglass boats powered by outboard motors going hundreds of miles from shore on dangerous seas.
• They shoot but try not to kill. So far only one hostage has been shot out of hundreds of seamen taken.
• Many die, like the five man crew who drowned after getting the ransom for the Sirius Star tanker. They lost their lives and their money. One body was washed ashore with $153,000 in his pocket. His relatives put the money to dry. A hard way to keep your family alive.
• Yes, they build big houses, buy shiny cars and sweep beautiful girls off their feet. PMCs operatives who hope to shoot them have fairly similar career plans.
• Those who are captured go to jail, contrary to their militia fellow countrymen on land who murder, loot and rape civilians without any international interference.

Let’s be frank, those boys are no angels. But why focus so much on them? The reason is simple. They cost international business a lot of money, which is absolutely scandalous: Somalis are supposed to kill each other and not come out and tamper with shipping lanes and insurance rates. The Suez Canal Authority is losing millions because of these fellows. Why can’t they get themselves some Toyotas with rocket launchers and join the ranks of the Islamists? If they did, nobody would bother them. But then no more booze, beautiful girls or shiny cars. All they could do would be to pray to Allah and highjack a Red Cross truck, like true Somalis.

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6. Seven Years Later: The Rwandese Army Reenters the Congo

Eve Donegan, Sales and Marketing Assistant

Gérard Prunier is a widely acclaimed journalist as well as the Director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. He has published over 120 articles and five books, including The Rwanda Crisis and Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide. His most recent book, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe focuses on Congo, the Rwandan genocide, and events that led to the death of some four million people. Living in Ethiopia allows Prunier a unique view of the politics and current events of Central and Eastern Africa. Below Prunier discusses the involvement of the Rwandan Patriotic Army in Congo.

On the morning of Tuesday January 20th, at the invitation of the Kinshasa government, a column of at least 2,000 soldiers from the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) crossed the border into the Congo towards Goma. This was the first time Rwandese forces had walked on Congolese soil since their evacuation at the end of the war in 2002. Why had they come?

The official purpose was to eliminate the continuing threat posed by the genocidaires remnants of the former Hutu Rwandese regime, the forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), which the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) had consistently failed to dislodge. A less visible purpose was to eliminate Congolese Tutsi rebel General Laurent Nkunda who had gotten too big for his breeches and was beginning to embarrass his (un)official sponsors in Kigali. The third – and unacknowledged – purpose was to redistribute the local wildcat mining interests.

Nkundahad fought with the anti-Kinshasa rebels during the 1998-2003 war. But then he had refused to integrate the new national army and claimed to lead a movement to “save the Congolese Tutsi from genocide.” Later, he created his own political movement, the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) with the avowed ambition to “liberate” the whole Congo. This began to place him in a rather ambiguous position vis-à-vis his sponsors in Rwanda who did not mind using him to keep a piece of the mining action in Kivu but who certainly did not want to upset the whole international game by attempting to overthrow a legally elected government.

Aware of the fact that Nkunda had only limited support in Kigali, the Kinshasa government attacked him in October of last year but got miserably trounced, given the sorry state of the FARDC. In fact, the whole military-political confrontation was being played out on a background of complex – and contradictory – mining operations. During the war the main source of illegal mining wealth was Columbium-Tantalite(“Coltan”) which had reached very high prices. After 2002-2003 Coltan prices plummeted down due to the massive development of Australian mines. Other minerals (Niobium, Tungsten, Nickel, and Gold) took the place of Coltan. The mines were fairly special: small, illegal, located in hard-to-access places, exploited with very low-tech means, and produced at a very low cost. Kigali agents and FDLR former genocidaires often worked together since FDLR was beyond the pale and the politically correct Tutsi were better able to commercialize the minerals. But this was not a very satisfying solution for the Rwandese regime which ended up sponsoring its enemies. Once it became obvious that the FDLR’s role as a pretext for intervention was getting obsolete, a direct deal between Rwanda’s President, Kagame and Congo’s President,Kabila seemed like a good idea. It would squeeze out both Nkunda (now arrested and replaced by his number two, Bosco Ntaganda) and the FDLR, which would lead to a more beneficial sharing of the mining interests and please the international community. But there was only one problem with this sweet scenario: the Rwandese Army is still hated in the Eastern Congo for the atrocities it committed there during the war. Inviting it in was a very delicate matter.

President Kabila thought he could go over the head of the public opinion, but this is not working very well: the public is incensed at seeing the Rwandese back in the Congo, especially since they were called in by the President they have elected (Kabila’s majority vote came mainly from the East). Extirpating the FDLR might not be as easy as the two Presidents thought. The Rwandese Army is not welcome locally and neither are the violent and undisciplined FARDC. The Rwandese intervention is likely to become another episode of the “post-war war,” not the end of it.

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7. Somalia, Give Sheikh Sharif a Chance!

By Gérard Prunier

The January 30th election that named the moderate Islamist leader, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed to the presidency of the Somalia Transitional Federal Government (TFG), was an opportunity that should not be overlooked. Why? Because Somalia has been without a functioning government since the fall of Mohamed Siad Barre eighteen years ago.

Since then, the international community has organized no less than fourteen “conferences of national reconciliation,” each supposed to give birth to a new government. Meanwhile, the radical Islamist movement has kept growing and in 2006 the CIA sponsored a gruesome alliance of warlords to eliminate them from the picture. Not only did the CIA fail, but they caused the public to support the Islamists (who had only a limited following so far), leading to the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) taking power in Mogadiscio. The UIC was a mixture of good (law, order, fighting piracy and contraband) and bad (religious intolerance and Puritanism). But for the first time in years, it enabled the population to breathe a bit more freely and violence diminished drastically. There were various trends within the UIC, including one of ultra-nationalism, which was of course very anti-Ethiopian.

This mixture of aggressive nationalism and radical Islamic tendencies acted like the proverbial red flag waved under the nose of the bull. In December 2006, the Ethiopian Army made a dash for Mogadiscio and occupied the capital. Sheikh Sharif, who had been the leader of the moderate wing of the UIC joined his colleagues in their common exile in Asmara, Eritrea (Eritrea, as usual, was happy to accommodate anything inimical to the enemy Ethiopian regime) and became one of the activists of the anti-Ethiopian resistance.

Sheikh Sharif quickly parted ways with the radicals led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. Like Sheikh Aweys, Sheikh Sharif belonged to the Hawiye clan which was spearheading the war against the Ethiopians. Sheikh Sharif believed that a workable authority had to include a broader political and clanic spectrum. He left Eritrea and started negotiating with the Ethiopia-backed TFG president, Yusuf Abdullahi. Yusuf, a cranky veteran of opposition politics in Somalia (he had led a coup against Siad Barre back in 1978) had a questionable and violent past. Regardless, he had been picked by both the international community and Addis-Ababa to head the TFG back in 2004. Yusuf refused to deal honestly with the opening he was being offered and his refusal to see beyond the narrow clanic circle of his Majerteen supporters led to his eventual downfall. He quarreled with his own Prime Minister and even his Ethiopian sponsors finally got tired of him.

There were sixteen candidates for Yusuf’s succession at the Djibouti meeting on January 30th and the fact that Sheikh Sharif was picked is symptomatic. For starters, he is the man who had been kicked out of Mogadiscio by the Ethiopian Army and described by the Americans as an “extremist.” To be honest, some of his associates are extremists, but many others are simply nationalists who are tired of disorder, warlordism, and foreign intervention. He represents the average Somali population, even if some of his views are not very palatable for Westerners. In the present circumstances Sheikh Sharif is capable of federating many different trends and can stand up to the al-Qaida linked real radicals (of the al-Shebab movement); it is something a pro-western leader could not do.

Now the international community is sponsoring a force of about 3,000 foreign soldiers (Ugandans and Burundians) sent by the African Union under the name of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The soldiers are supposed to “stabilize” the situation. Yet, on February 2nd these soldiers acted panicked, under-trained, isolated, and lost. They opened fire on a crowd of civilians after being targeted by an al-Shebab terrorist attack. AMISOM killed thirty-nine people and wounded twice that number. The UN representative, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, quickly denied the massacre and even compared the Somali journalists who had reported it to the Rwandese genocidaire Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines. It was an atrociously unfair comparison, as the Somali journalists have paid an inordinately high price for keeping the freedom of information alive in such terrible circumstances. Many have died in the line of duty.

AMISOM soldiers have to go. They serve no military purpose, they antagonize the public by their violence, they are incapable of keeping any kind of order, and they gravely compromise the chances of success of the new president. After the massacre, the al-Shebab radicals denounced Sheikh Sharif as an ally of the Americans and the Ethiopians. Declaring him not fit to rule the country. The danger is that, once more, like in 2006, those Islamists with whom it would be possible to work with will find themselves marginalized and eliminated while Somalia would lose still another chance and sink again into a new maelstrom of violence.

Gérard Prunier is a widely acclaimed journalist as well as the Director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. He has published over 120 articles and five books, including The Rwanda Crisis and Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide. His most recent book, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe focuses on Congo, the Rwandan genocide, and events that led to the death of some four million people. Living in Ethiopia allows Prunier a unique view of the politics and current events of Central and Eastern Africa. Be sure to check back on Tuesdays to read more Notes From Africa.

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8. The International Impact on Africa’s Past

By Eve Donegan, Sales & Marketing Assistant

I thought it would be interesting to provide a quick peek into Gérard Prunier’s thoughts on the history of Congo and the impact of the West. Below is an excerpt from Prunier’s most recent book, Africa’s World War, in which he looks at the history of Congo, the Rwandan genocide, and the events that led up to Africa’s world war.

In many ways Africa was - and remains - the bad conscience of the world, particularly of the former colonialist powers of the Western world. They entertain a nagging suspicion, played up on by the Africans themselves, that perhaps the continent wouldn’t be in such a mess if it hadn’t been colonized. So in the ten years that followed jettisoning the heavy African baggage of apartheid, the international community was only too happy to support the so-called African Renaissance, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the New Millennium Goals, and the Peer Review Mechanism of the newly revamped African Union. Within this new paradigm the continental war began as a seemingly bright illustration of the new trend, but then began to evoke an embarrassing reincarnation of some very old ghosts.

Caught in the web of its own tangled guilt - that of having long supported the gross Mobutu regime, combined with the more recent sin of not having helped the Tutsi in their hour of need - the international community tried to hang on to the image of the new Tutsi colonizers of the Congo as basically decent men devoted to making Africa safe for democracy. Of course, there was a bit of a problem factoring in the personality of the leader they had put in power as their Congolese surrogate. It was difficult to smoothly include Laurent-Désiré Kabila in the New Leader movement because the others were reformed communists whereas he was an unreformed one and his democratic credentials were hard to find. So, in a way, when the break occurred in 1998 and the Rip Van Winkle of Red African politics sided with the surviving genocidaires, it was almost a relief: the good Tutsi could go on incarnating Africa’s decent future while the fat Commie could symbolize its refusal to change. The massacre of a number of Tutsi in Kinshasa and the obliging incendiary remarks of the Yerodia Ndombasi helped the international community integrate the new war into its pro-democracy and anti-genocide ideology. But there were lots of contradictions, and it was going to be a harder and harder conjuring trick to pull off as time went on.

Gérard Prunier is a widely acclaimed journalist as well as the Director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. He has published over 120 articles and five books, including The Rwanda Crisis and Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide. His most recent book, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophefocuses on Congo, the Rwandan genocide, and events that led to the death of some four million people. Living in Ethiopia allows Prunier a unique view of the politics and current events of Central and Eastern Africa. Be sure to check back on Tuesdays to read more Notes From Africa.

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9. The Aftermath: Rwanda in 1995

By Eve Donegan, Sales & Marketing Assistant

Gérard Prunier is off exploring Southern Sudan but fear not, we have excerpted from Africa’s World War to feed your Africa fix while he is gone. Below, is a piece about the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Somehow life went on in Rwanda at the beginning of 1995. Amid the ruins. With the killings and the “disappearances.” With the government of national unity staggering on, hoping to provide a modicum of leadership in this broken society. The Rwandese had coined an expression for what so many people felt: imitima yarakomeretse, “the disease of the wounded hearts.”

The economy was in shambles; of the $598 million in bilateral aid pledged in January at the Rwanda Roundtable Conference in Geneva, only $94.5 million had been disbursed by June. Of that money, $26 million had to be used to pay arrears on the former government’s debt. The perception gap between the international community and what was happening in Rwanda was enormous. The international community talked about national reconciliation and refugee repatriation, but suspicion was pervasive. Gutunga agatoki (showing with the finger) denunciations were commonplace: survivors denouncing killers, actual killers denouncing others to escape punishment, bystanders denouncing innocents to get their land or their house. Women survivors tried to band together to help each other, but even then, some Hutu widows might be refused access to the support groups because of ethnic guilt by association, and Hutu orphans in orphanages would be roughed up by Tutsi kids as “children of interahamwe.” Some transport had restarted and the electricity supply was slowly becoming less erratic. Very few schools had reopened. The January 1995 public debate between Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu and Vice President Paul Kagame had not settled the matter of the violence, which everybody knew about but which the UN remained blind to.

This violence eventually led to the Kibeho massacre of April 1995 and to the unraveling of the national unity government. The process leading to the massacre is worth describing in detail because it offers on a small scale all the characteristics of what was eventually to take place in Zaire eighteen months later: non treatment of the consequences of the genocide, well-meaning but politically blind humanitarianism, Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) resolve to “solve the problem” by force, stunned impotence of the international community in the face of violence, and, finally, a hypocritical denial that anything much had happened.

Gérard Prunier is a widely acclaimed journalist as well as the Director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. He has published over 120 articles and five books, including The Rwanda Crisis and Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide. His most recent book, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophefocuses on Congo, the Rwandan genocide, and events that led to the death of some four million people. Living in Ethiopia allows Prunier a unique view of the politics and current events of Central and Eastern Africa. Be sure to check back on Tuesdays to read more Notes From Africa.

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10. Librarians at Bologna - Part 3: Putting Books into the Hands of Children

During our session with the IFLA (International Federation of Libraries Associations and Institutions) in Bologna, both speakers (Patsy Aldana and Viviana Quiñones) stressed the importance of children having access to books which both reflect their experiences and open windows onto other customs and cultures. We were urged to pay a visit to the stand shared by a number of different African publishers, and there we met three very special publishers, all producing books to meet that demand.

The first two were librarians we had met at the session the day before: Antoinette F. Correa from BLD (Bibliothèque-Lecture-Développement) Éditions in Senegal and Pili Dumea of the Children’s Book Project (CBP) for Tanzania.

Antoinette F. Correa of BLD Éditions, Senegal

Antoinette, pictured right with a selection of her books, told me that she set up BLD Éditions to meet the needs of both teachers and pupils, who were crying out for access to good books in their own language. She is a well-known figure in the IFLA, and sees the continued development of libraries as crucial work: as well as publishing books, BLD helps to set up libraries and trains librarians.

Pili Dumea, Children-s Book Project for Tanzania

Pili, pictured left, is secretary to the CBP for Tanzania, which, again, connects children with books published locally. Last year the CBP was awarded the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize for its work promoting the love of books among children and adults. One eleven-year-old, talking about her school library, following the school’s affiliation to the CBP, said

“I have read most of the books in the school library which helped me learn about different topics through interesting stories told in our own national language, Kiswahili, which is easier to understand than English.”

The third publisher was Bakamé Éditions from Rwanda, who publish children’s books in the national language, Kinyarwanda, which is understood by all Rwandans. They also run various projects to promote reading, including their “Bibliothèque en route” – a rucksack library, which takes books out to children who do not have access to an actual library. It gets a tiny mention on their English pages, but if you read French, there’s more here. Editions Bakamé was the joint recipient of this year’s IBBY-Asahi Reading Promotion Award and this article on IBBY’s website is also an interesting read.

The work these organisations are doing is truly awe-inspiring and it was a real privilege to meet Antoinette and Pili.

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11. Killers without Borders: The LRA in the Congo

Eve Donegan, Sales and Marketing Assistant

Gérard Prunier is a widely acclaimed journalist as well as the Director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. He has published over 120 articles and five books, including The Rwanda Crisis and Darfur. His most recent book, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe focuses on Congo, the Rwandan genocide, and events that led to the death of some four million people. In this original post, Prunier discusses the history of the Joseph Kony led Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the ongoing conflict that led to almost 200 deaths this Christmas.

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) had its own way of celebrating Christmas: on December 25th it hacked an estimated 189 people to pieces in the Congolese town of Faradje, 80 km from the Sudanese border.
This homicidal explosion was a direct result of the combined attack by Congolese, Southern Sudanese, and Ugandan troops on the LRA stronghold in Garamba National Park in the DRC where the political-religious sect had been holed up for the past two years.

The LRA is made up of a semi-deranged leadership manipulating abducted illiterate children who have been brainwashed into committing atrocities. Indeed, its leader Joseph Kony has time and time again reneged on promises of turning up in Juba for peace talks with the Ugandan government, but the LRA’s murderous actions put it beyond the pale of civilized society. Beyond this moral judgment it remains for the social analyst to explain – not excuse – what is going on.

• Atrocious as it is, the LRA is the expression of the 23 year old alienation of the populations of Northern Uganda who have been punished beyond reason for the atrocities that they themselves visited upon the Southerners during the period of the Obote II and Okello governments (1980-1986). In spite of being preyed upon by the LRA vultures, the Northern Ugandan Acholi tribe still half supports it because it fights the Museveni regime.

• During its long history of fighting the Kampala government, the LRA has been aided and abetted by the Sudanese regime in Khartoum; not because it is Islamic (Kony’s confused “religion” is a hazy blend of Christianity, traditional cults, and messianic inventions), but because its is both a thorn in the side of Uganda and a problem for the potentially secessionist semi-autonomous government of Southern Sudan. Khartoum’s regime loves to mess things up towards the Great Lakes which it sees as an area of Islam’s future expansion.

• If we broaden our view even more, we can say that unfortunately the International Criminal Court which has indicted Kony and his officers for crimes against humanity (of which they are fully guilty) has cut off any avenue of negotiation with the cult leader who now prefers to die fighting than to end his days in prison in Europe.

• And last but not least, the LRA has acted as an evil magnet for all the social flotsam and jetsam resulting from years of war and insurgency in the whole region, from the Congo to Northern Uganda and from Southern Sudan to the Central African Republic. The LRA traffics in prohibited game animals, exploits various mines, and it gets money and weapons from Khartoum. Worse, it gives “employment” to disenfranchised young men (and even the girls it uses as servants and sex objects) who are left to fall through the supposed “safety net” of their inefficient governments and of a bewildered and slow-moving “international community.”

The tragic dimension of the LRA saga is a direct expression of the situation in Central Africa where neither guns nor diplomatic action seem to get anywhere. Given Kony’s messianic bend the best solution might be an exorcist.

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