Wednesday, 3 December 2008

the remedy for arrogance

When we were in Mali's Dogon country, one of the structures that really stood out for me was the Toguna.

Every village, no matter how small, has one. Its a place of meeting. It a place where the village elders pass down their pronouncements and decide on disputes. Its the place where the men congregate in the evenings.

It's not a place where you'll see a woman... Dogon people live according to very strict sexual norms. Maybe the women are humble enough already and don't need it?

Our amazing guide Guiré explained that the Toguna is always built with a very low roof so that in order to enter, one must stoop to a position of humility. An added advantage is that if an argument gets too heated, anyone jumping up to fight will bash himself on the head.

If I was world dictator, I'd build Togunas in every place where people (men and women) meet. And I can think of a long list of South African politicians who could do with a little more humility.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Celebration in Mali

Dancers celebrate as the President of Mali, Amadou Toumani Toure opens proceedings on the first day of the Global Ministerial Forum on Research for Health. For more information, go to

This gorgeous picture of one of the President's guards was taken by Elizabeth Kemf

The good news is that there is coffee available in Mali, but somehow it all tastes like the coffee they used to serve on South African Railways in the 1960s.

This is the view from our hotel window. The hotel is very basic but spotlessly clean, the food is good and the people are very friendly. Our room was upgraded to the "presidential suite" after the manager saw me on TV chairing a press conference and decided that we were "the boss of the conference".

We saw this goat when we were on our way to change money. It was one of those Monty Python moments, where Greg insisted that the goat was just resting. Having a little snooze.

I still believe it was dead.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Food, glorious food

We're in Mali managing the media room for the Global Ministerial Forum on Research for Health, and I'm too busy to blog, so today's posting is by Christina Scott, a member of my team but also the Africa Editor of

BAMAKO, Mali: Delegates attending the Global Ministerial Forum on Research for Health, underway until Thursday in Mali, were reminded today (Monday) that amidst the focus on faster,cheaper medical drugs and more active government policies, there was a risk of overlooking a rather important component of good health.
It's called food.
At a session on 'food for health' chaired by Ruth Oniang'o, founder of Kenya's Rural Outreach programme and co-author of 'The CompleteKenyan Cookbook', renowned researchers and high-level politicians were brought back to the basics: hungry people are never healthy people.
''Food is the most cost-effective intervention,'' declared Menno Mulder-Sibanda, a senior nutritionist specialist at the World Bank. Mulder-Sibanda said he hasn't seen such ''renewed attention'' paid to local foods such as sorghum and millet since the era of African independence. Only this time, the interest isn't triggered by pride or patriotism, but by the food crisis. Nonetheless, Mulder-Sibanda is delighted with the focus on quality local produce.
Much of the discussion about food sounded more military than nutritional. Mulder-Sibanda spoke about the need for food fortification. Marie Ruel, a director at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in the US spoke in praise of a slightly different tack, called biofortification, in which plant breeders design more nutritious crops.
''The idea is to reach the poorest of the poor,'' said Ruel, who has worked in Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti and Panama..
Robert Ochai, executive director of The AIDS Support Organisation (TASO) in Uganda, revealed that the country will be bringing in the 'Food by Prescription' programme for malnourished residents, many of whom are infected with HIV.'The programme, already underway in Kenya, allows malnourished poverty-stricken people access to bags of powdered blends of powdered sorghum and millet enriched with vitamin, whey protein and other ingredients, in the same way that their drugs are subsidised.''The food is basically a drug,'' Ochai said.
''So far in Uganda, we don't have this on the shelves. But we expect to have it by midway next year,'' he said.
The Food By Prescription programme forms part of the American government's US$ 15 billion President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and has been very successful in Kenya and Ethiopia. So clearly the meeting of agriculture and health is a good one, whether in the field or at the global gathering of health and science ministers which has been held every four years since 2000, in Thailand, Mexico and now Mali.
Tuesday's focus at the Global Ministerial Forum on Research for Health kicks off with a focus on the public reaction to largescale health research efforts, and includes Farhat Moazam, chairperson of Pakistan's Centre of Biomedical Ethics and Culture and Hannah Akuffoof the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).
Conference organisers said Ariel Pablos-Mendez, the Mexican-born, USA-based managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation, is expected to make a major announcement on Tuesday morning at the Forum, followed by a video message from South African human rights activist and Anglican archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu.
For more information on PEPFAR's work on HIV and food security, see

For more information on the Global Ministerial Forum on Research for Health at

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Socialism and self sufficiency

Regular readers of Wheatlands News would have seen my posting on the Peninsula School Feeding Association here.

Today, in response to that post, guest writer Skoorby offers his perspective:

You may have noticed that in the recent U.S. election campaign, John McCain cast about wildly for something, anything, that would frame Barack Obama in a poor light, and would resonate with the American electorate. In the last week or two of the campaign, he finally came up with what became his final campaign theme: “Obama is a Socialist!” And it seemed to work. At least, Obama’s rise in the polls stopped and even pulled back from that point on. Why it was effective has something to say about the Peninsula School Feeding Association’s work.

A few days after the “Socialist!” meme emerged, I was sitting in a restaurant in suburban Philadelphia having lunch when I overheard a conversation between two fairly well-to-do middle aged white men – obviously Republicans and conservatives. They expressed disgust at the new fact of Obama’s socialism, and one of the two concluded as they got up to leave: “Everybody’s looking for a handout!”

On the face of it, this is just another instance of conservative mean-spiritedness. Wealthy Republicans objecting once more to the outrage of a progressive tax system. But there is a serious idea behind it. It’s that programmes designed to benefit the less-fortunate in society, whether government-run or privately run, tend to create a condition of moral hazard, and to become self-perpetuating. If you know somebody’s going to provide for your needs (or your child’s), you have less incentive to provide for them yourself. Aggregated to the level of Society, less work gets done, fewer goods are produced, and those that that do work end up providing for those that don’t. This is the root idea behind the very old and still very strong strain of American Conservatism. This is the idea that induced President Clinton, a no-so-liberal Democrat, to sign in 1996 a welfare reform bill that was aimed at reducing welfare (i.e., dependency) by restructuring and reducing welfare benefits in ways designed to address the problem of moral hazard. (See for Clinton’s review of the initiative with 10 years of hindsight.)

It may be that these ideas have no relevance in an environment such as that faced by Zimbabweans, where physical survival is a daily struggle, and opportunities for personal upliftment are non-existent, whatever the incentives. But they may be worth considering in South Africa.

The thing about the PFSA that gives cause for concern here is, as Lynne indicated, its longevity. Its continued existence is inarguably “a sad indictment on our society”. I would add that it may also be an indictment of the PFSA. Its mission statement reads as follows: “Our Mission: To combat the prevalence of hunger in children attending schools or other educational institutions in the Western Cape, through school feeding and development initiatives, that will promote self-sufficiency and household food security.” Complete success in promoting self-sufficiency and household food security would eliminate the need for the PFSA.

Clearly the mission statement sets an impossible goal. Universal self-sufficiency and household food security is a condition that may exist in only a handful of small countries in the world, if it exists at all. The PFSA will not achieve this in the Western Cape. So what should it be doing to avoid having an elderly Lynne point out in 2058 that it has the dubious honour of being 100 years old?

Adopting a child for R235 per year may be the best we can do in the short run, but a 50-year old feeding programme needs urgently to consider the long run in new ways.

Friday, 7 November 2008

of being outspoken

I'm trying to catch up with my work and all the other things I need to do before we leave for Mali on Tuesday.

One of the things on my list was to buy Christmas presents for my brother and his family, so I went to Heather Moore's studio. I can't tell you what exactly I bought because my brother reads my blog!

But do yourself a favour and visit her Etsy shop (not you, Geoff. Or Maria). An extra incentive is that she is donating a portion of the profit from her Borrowed Spoons design to Peninsula School Feeding.

Last night was the last Isandla Development Dialogue of the year, with the title "Speaking truth to power". (I'll post Adrian's report that reflects all four of the speakers on Monday.) One of the speakers was the wonderfully forthright and outspoken Rhoda Kadalie (see pic). I'll leave you with some sound-bites:

"I am irritated by people who do not serve their country well because of political patronage. South Africa has become a haven for poor affirmative action appointments, where people boldly put themselves forward for jobs they are not qualified to do."

"So many people who fought for freedom now keep quiet in the face of political correctness, out of fear of blocking their access to patronage. It's stifling critical, independent thought. It contributes to the deluge of self censorship in all levels of society. Look at HIV - no one in cabinet was prepared to question the president on his idiotic approach to Aids. They all suspended their intelligence."

"As NGOs we shut up for too long because we were so happy to have our democracy. Now is the time for us to speak out, or we will become like the country on our border."

And from Judge Dennis Davis:

"We need to get to a place where transformation is not equated to race. The struggle is really about getting to the point where we can transcend our history and see each other, not as different races, but as humans."

If you want an opinion on the new kid on the SA political scene - now totally bizarrely to be known as COP - take a look at Afrodissident

Congress of the People sounds very noble. But COP? Don't people consider acronyms? Especially in a country where police brutality was the norm for so long?

And what about cop-outs? (Not that I'm suggesting that they are.... just that the choice of names opens a door for people to use that phrase against them).

Very strange.

The name does have a proud history. The original Congress of the People was the meeting in the 1950s where the Freedom Charter was adopted. Look on this ANC page (!) for more info.

The ANC is planning to challenge this choice too, but according to Lekota, the party has already taken legal advice and has no plans to come up with anything else.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

feeding the hungry

I found this video on Alex Matthews' Afrodissident blog.

Its well worth watching as a reminder of what happens when a government is headed by a madman with no regard for the people he is supposed to serve. What a contrast with Obama's speech this morning with its emphasis on working together for a new future and a government that is for, by and with the people.

And it is not just in Zimbabwe that children are starving. In Cape Town, the Peninsula School Feeding Association (PSFA) has the dubious honour of celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. I say dubious, because the fact that it exists at all is a sad indictment on our society. As a country we are still failing the most needy among us.

The PSFA feeds 160 000 children daily. That's a lot of children who are relying on the single meal they get at school to stay alive. That's a lot of children trying to learn on an empty stomach.

And the economic crisis isn't helping. The facts speak for themselves. In the space of just two months the price of rice has risen by over 100%; bread has crept above R10 a loaf, maize has seen an increase of 12% and legumes a hefty 25%. - all increases which directly affect the PFSA menu of soy, rice, bread, samp, beans and peanut butter and jam.

The rising costs of fuel put even more pressure on the organisation. "We are in negotiations with the delivery companies to freeze their prices too,” PSFA director Andy du Plessis said when I spoke to him recently. “But price freezing can only do so much. Next financial year we'll be facing increases of at least 10 – 15%.”

Currently the PFSA can provide a meal for R1.20 per child a day. Says Du Plessis: “It is the poorest of the poor who suffer the most. For many children the food we provide is their only meal of the day. Feeding fewer children is just not an option”.

One thing about the PSFA is that it offers us the opportunity to do far more than just wring our hands in horror.

You can adopt a child for just R235 (about $25) a year. That's the full cost of feeding a child for 198 school days.

Du Plessis was quick to point out to me that “100% of the money you donate goes to feeding the children. Our administration costs are paid from our investment reserve.”

If you want to help, go to the PSFA website here

I think its the least we can do.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

If I could vote in the US today...

Whenever I had a break yesterday, I watched a snippet of Barack Obama's campaign advert. It's 30 minutes long and I just didn't have a 30 minute chunk of time in my day. But I did have time for five minute snippets.
And I'm so glad I did.

What really impressed me was that he appeared to have a real understanding about what ordinary people are experiencing, and he seems to be coming up with measured, logical solutions to the problems rather that a whole lot of mud slinging and rhetoric.

If I were dictator of this country, I'd make all our politicians watch this just so they could see what a real statesman sounds like.

Time will tell if he lives up to his promise and his promises, and after today we'll know if he'll be given the chance.

One thing I did pick up on was that he only spent time with his Kenyan father once, for a month. I wonder if that will make him as inclined to be pro-African as so many people on this continent are hoping. When I was in Uganda a couple of months ago, people were coming in off the street at 4 in the morning to watch the first presidential debate. (I know because I was waiting for a shuttle to the airport for an early flight). Obama's candidacy is bringing new hope and new pride to Africans. Lets hope he'll continue to set a great example.

Here's the video. Do yourself a favour and watch it (for those like me who don't have great bandwidth, click pause instead of play and let it load in the background before you try to watch it. Otherwise the "buffering buffering" could drive you to drink).

thanks to Julochka for posting it on her great blog where I found it.

Monday, 3 November 2008

raising the bar

On the same weekend that the ANC breakaway group held its convention in Sandton in front of about 5000 people, Jacob Zuma had a rally in Soweto's Jabulani Stadium. About 20 000 people turned up to sing his praises.

I love the fact that our democracy is reflecting more voices. I love the fact that (on the whole) South Africans are free to voice their dissatisfaction with the government.

I'm not sure that any of the voices are entirely free of corruption and self interest, but that's beside the point.

What I don't love is that Jacob Zuma saw fit to include a whole posse of preachers on his platform. If all he was doing was signalling his broad based support it would be ok. But, according to the Star, what actually happened is:

Later, one of the many preachers stood up for devotions to signal the start of the rally, which was aimed at encouraging voter registration for the 2009 elections.

"(Zuma) has not been selected by the people only," the man told the huge crowd.

"Anyone who fights him is fighting Nkulunkulu (the Supreme Being) personally," he said to murmurs of assent in the crowd.

What??? Zuma has been appointed by God? Must be a god that's singing a whole new tune to the one I thought I knew.

What's the next step? Droit de seignuer? Or do we just take that as read?

If there is any comfort, its in the fact that the preacher's pronouncement was met with no more than "murmers of assent from the crowd".

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Time to say NO

Today is Okhi day, a public holiday in Greece to commemorate Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas's rejection of the ultimatum made by Italian dictator Mussolini on October 28, 1940. The ultimatum was presented to him at dawn after a party in the German embassy (Fascists are nothing if not theatrical) demanding that Axis troops be allowed to enter Greek territory.

The answer, allegedly, was the single word "no".

In response to the Greek's not agreeing to their plans, Italian troops attacked the Greek border at 5.30am. See what happens when you don't invite all the dictators to your party.

On the morning of October 28th the Greek population took to the streets shouting 'okhi'. The day was officially named Okhi Day in 1942.

I like the idea of a day to say no for two reasons. There's so much happening that we should be standing up and shouting NO about. And saying no is not always very easy. My totally unrealistic work schedule is proof of that.

But there are some things that we should be prepared to stand up and refuse, regardless of the consequences. And one of those things is the current preoccupation with death threats in South Africa.

It may have been sparked by ANC youth league leader Malema and his asinine calls to Kill for Zuma, but more likely its something that has been simmering under the surface for a while now. What happens when ANC dissidents have a meeting? People toyi toyi outside, chanting "Kill Terror". (To an outsider it sounds like something Bush would chant, but actually it refers to Terror Lekota, hero of the struggle, champion of the people until he stopped toeing the party line).

The Khayelitsha Festival, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Cape Town's biggest suburb, was held last week. Some felt that too many whities were on the organising committee, so what's the response? Death threats!

And its not just a black thing. An Afrikaans journalist I know regularly receives death threats whenever she mentions evolution in her stories.

Why not just say no?
No, I don't agree with you.
No, I think the committee was not representative.
No, I am not going to forget the hurt of the past and I don't want you to live in my country.
or even, NO I am not going to follow the herd. I'm going to think for myself.

Talking about herds, my son Ben has a theory that cows don't moo. They stand in the fields shouting Nooooo! No, because they know they are going to end up as steak and shoes, nooo because their babies are taken from them at birth, nooo because they have no say over what happens in their lives and noooo because the only time there is any flavour variation in their diet is when they happen to eat a bug.

We could follow the example of the Greeks and the cows and run out into the streets, shouting our NOs for all the world to hear. But surely we don't need to kill those who don't share our sentiments?

Monday, 20 October 2008

rewarding the winners

So, is it a better idea to reward winners rather than censuring or giving encouragement to the losers?

Two things have got me pondering.

The first is the news today that Botswana's ex-president Festus Mogae has been awarded a US$5-million prize, designed to encourage good governance, because he stepped down after two terms in office. (Ag shame, Thabo... if the JZ-erites had just left you alone for a few more months, you could have been in line for the prize next year). He also gets $200 000 a year for the rest of his life.

You can read about it here

The second was a meeting I attended on Friday where Clem Sunter was teaching a group of health executives about scenario planning. Fascinating stuff, and I'll write about it here later, but more pertinant to this discussion was his recounting of how the Anglo American Chairman's fund rewards pockets of excellence in our education system.

"We give money to the winners," he said. "Those schools that are achieving good results get funding. That creates and incentive for the losers to improve."

"Does that mean that the poor get poorer?" he was asked.

"No, its often the poorest schools that get the money because they have a good principal," he said. "I've seen schools that have no proper classrooms leading the way academically because of the dedication of a good principal."

Maybe that's the problem with aid to Africa. The cash tends to keep pouring in, even if its not being properly managed or distributed. So the idea of rewarding the winners seems like a good one.

But I'm still worried about the prize Festus got. (Admit it... you can't read that name without thinking of the Addams Family...)I understand it is a great incentive, but what does it say about leaders in Africa that it has to be there at all?

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Happy Birthday Noah

By all accounts Noah Webster was a crotchety old man when he started messing around with the spelling of English words and wrote his famous dictionary. If he was alive today, it may be difficult to see even the hint of a smile in all those wrinkles... he'd be 250 years old.

And talking of kissing wrinkly lips, his namesake "the' Noah (the Biblical one) begat three of his children when he was 500 years old. And while I can't be accused of ageism (mainly because I'll could be a victim of it myself before too long) can you imagine begatting anything with a 500 year old? Nasty!

Noah Webster was an enthusiastic begatter too... he and his wife Rebecca had eight chidren.

According to Wikipedia, he was determined to rescue "our native tongue" from "the clamor of pedantry" that surrounded English grammar and pronunciation. He complained that the English language had been corrupted by the British aristocracy, which set its own standard for proper spelling and pronunciation.

For someone living in Africa, his work has done little more than to add to the confusion. In countries like South Africa the British English spelling is the one taught in schools, but it is the American spellings which have had the most cultural influence. I seem to spend half my time editing Americanisms out of my journalists' copy.

Webster can't be blamed for all the confusion though. Its the colloquialisms that make English so interesting. You can always tell a South African by their use of the words "just now", as in "I'll do it just now".

To most people, that means "I'll do it right away" but in South Africa it can mean anything from "I'll do it in a minute" to "I'll do it much later". The distinction is in how many extra vowels are put into the word "just" The longer the word (jaaast), the longer it will be before whatever it is is done.

I heard today of someone who is working on a dictionary of South African signs for people coming to the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Seems like a good idea. I mean, where else do you have robots directing the traffic?

Thursday, 9 October 2008

interesting times

Lief Eriksson

I've always enjoyed the ancient Chinese curse "may you live in interesting times". I've loved the ambiguity of it... its the kind of statement that at first glance seems innocuous or even encouraging, but when you're not looking it comes back to bite you.

It seems doubtful that it actually was a Chinese curse, or if it is, it is like putting a phrase into babelfish or some other online translation site. You can translate it from Chinese to English but when you translate it back again, it looks nothing like the original.

If its not actually a Chinese curse, we have Robert F Kennedy to blame. He is credited with making the statement popular in South Africa, and possibly abroad. In a speech in Cape Town on 7 June, 1966, he said: There is a Chinese curse which says, 'May he live in interesting times'. Like it or not, we live in interesting times...

I like another story that came out of his visit: He saw the graffiti for the JFK gang and was touched by what he fondly believed were the frequent references to his brother!

When I was researching whether the curse actually exists I found this, even more sinister reference, on a site which was mainly in Chinese: "May you live in interesting times. May you get that which you prayed for. May you come to the attention of people in high places. May your friends always be at your back. And may your enemies be patient."

The same source pointed out that "interesting times" actually was the translation of the word for anarchy.

Scary stuff.

We're certainly living in interesting times in South Africa at the moment. I found an interesting take on the effects of Mbeki's ousting here and the transcript of Terror Lekota's speech about his "divorce from the ANC" is here

Who knows what the outcome will be? Anarchy and patient enemies? Hope not.

So why the picture of Lief Eriksson? Today is Lief Eriksson Day in the US (see, they don't just remember Columbus) and although he looks like a bit of a wally in this picture from Reportrait he certainly lived in interesting and often turbulent times.

Monday, 6 October 2008

leaving and cleaving

So, I'm still wondering about the whole white African thing, and a couple of things have caught my eye lately.

We were watching an episode of "Who do you think you are" recently. It's a TV show that really taps into people's obsession with their roots. The episode traced the history of Alistair McGowan, a comedian, who really thought he was Scottish. Well, he would, wouldn't he! Turns out he was Anglo-Indian, and he traced his Indian links back through about seven generations when the original (Irish) ancestor came to India.

I was fascinated to discover that the British had a presence in India from 1600 until the country regained its independence in 1947, 347 years years later. Surely there were whites who lived there who regarded themselves as Indian? And what happened to them? Are they contributing members of society, or did they all find their way back to the mother ship?

And, talking about people clinging to the past, or holding onto things way past their sell by date, how's this phenomenon? Women who buy baby-like dolls because they can't bear the fact that their children or grandchildren have grown up.

Seriously creepy.

I can honestly say that, while I miss my little boys, I wouldn't swap them for the men they've grown into.

But I do wonder, am I doomed one day to to wander in some other land, clinging to the remnants of my African past?

Will my gravestone, shaped like a braai grid perhaps, be sticking forlornly out of the Canadian snow?

Or is this really the rainbow nation, that belongs to all who live in it?

Thursday, 2 October 2008

where is my home?

I've been spending some time pondering, lately.

Is there such a thing as a white African? Or are those of us with only one passport destined to be rootless, stateless people?
Are we holding onto a land where we don't belong? And do the ordinary white South Africans have any real hope of understanding the revolution?

The pondering has been brought on by a number of things.
A few conversations in Uganda like this one:
Me: I'm South African. That makes me an African
Various delegates: No really, where do you come from?
Me: I'm South African
Delegates: No, I mean, where is your home country?

A snippet from an article in the St Georges Cathedral magazine this month, written by a Zimbabwean refugee:
"Economic Emancipation is the third and final stage of any liberation struggle; we still hear stories, about Kenya, and Mozambique etc. How people just left what they had and went with the clothes on their back, any where they could find refuge. In all these instances, the economy was aggressively dismantled. The underlying principle was to force out the oppressors and allow the previously disadvantaged minority access to the national wealth. Such an exercise is costly, economic decadence takes years to rebuild. The economic liberalization struggle impacts negatively on the surrounding countries, as it creates a black hole in the region. What took place in to Zimbabwe is not new to Africa. "

I'd never thought about it like that. And having read it, I got one of those lightbulb moments "Aaha! maybe that's what Julius Malema is talking about when he mentions the ongoing revolution!"

And if it is, what does it actually mean? Is there an agenda which is going to see us heading down the same road as Zimbabwe, where food production is less than 10% of what it was a decade ago, and people have to get up at 2am in the morning to get into the bank queues to draw enough money to buy a bread roll?

BBC News put out an interesting question here, asking which systems left the best legacy for Africa - an Anglophone, Francophone or Lusophone system of government. I was interested in how many of the respondents were calling for Africa to be left to the Africans.

Makes interesting reading, and gets back to my first question: Do white Africans exist?

I'd really like to know.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

moving uphill

In the weeks before I went to Uganda, I was really feeling like my life was an uphill struggle. I had lots of deadlines, lots to do and lots on my mind.

And yes, I know that no deadlines = no work = not enough money = not much else. Maybe I was just tired.

The trip to Uganda really opened my eyes to so many things:

I was reminded how much I love teaching.

I was reminded how fortunate I am.

I was reminded how much joy there is in Africa, in spite of all the issues.

This guy certainly looked like life was a bit of an uphill struggle, but he saw me photographing him as we passed him on the bus, and he flashed the biggest grin!

I was interested to see the different forms of transport, from home made wooden wheelbarrows to bikes to the Buda Buda (scooters with lots of passengers) to minibus taxis to cars. And somehow in the disorder of a city with no urban planning and mostly sand roads, everything seems to work.

But there is a caveat.

Michael Totten's latest post was a timely reminder that no matter how cheerful people may seem, unless the real problems - especially in terms of poverty, urbanisation and health - are solved, the violence and despair that lurks just below the surface could be unleashed at any time.

As he said:

"Senator Barack Obama said something at the presidential debate last week that almost perfectly encapsulates the difference between his foreign policy and his opponent’s: “Secretary of Defense Robert Gates himself acknowledges the war on terrorism started in Afghanistan and it needs to end there.” I don’t know if Obama paraphrased Gates correctly, but if so, they’re both wrong.

If Afghanistan were miraculously transformed into the Switzerland of Central Asia, every last one of the Middle East’s rogues gallery of terrorist groups would still exist. The ideology that spawned them would endure. Their grievances, such as they are, would not be salved. The political culture that produced them, and continues to produce more just like them, would hardly be scathed. Al Qaedism is the most radical wing of an extreme movement which was born in the Middle East and exists now in many parts of the world. Afghanistan is not the root or the source."

There's a link to Michael Totten on the right of my blog page, or go here

Monday, 29 September 2008

strange desires

I saw this sign on a lamp post in Uganda and it really got me wondering. Why, oh why would anyone want to gain a bum?
And what does it mean? A bigger bum? An extra bum?
There were similar signs (with different phone numbers) advertising "Gain hips quickly". Is that to accommodate the extra bum?

I never saw any signs of mutant Ugandans though, so I'm not sure if the business is doing very well.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Soundbites and sacrifice

The Honourable Joseph Mugambe, head of the science and technology committee in the Ugandan Parliament is one of the first politicians I have met that I really enjoy listening to. In the past three days I have heard him speak four times and I'm quite disappointed that he won't be coming to speak again during the workshop. I'd never have believed that I could be sorry when an MP had to stop speaking!

He's a tall man, with a wry sense of humour and he makes speeches that are peppered with a host of wonderful idioms.

Every now and then as he speaks, he drops his voice to almost a whisper and leans forward across the podium so that each member of the audience feels that they - and only they - are privy to a very special secret.

"People say you can take a horse to a well but you can't make him drink," he said. "But why do you want to take him to the well? You need to make the horse thirsty and then he will go to the well for himself."

The early Christians in Uganda were certainly thirsty for the religion the missionaries had brought them, and they were prepared to pay the ultimate price for their faith. Their legacy is an overwhelmingly Christian country where even the most unlikely of shops have names that reflect the faith of their owners: God's Gift Beauty Salon, Praise God Meat Market, Holy Mother laundry...

We had a little time for sightseeing today, so we were taken to visit the Ugandan parliament and the Shrine of the Martyrs, built to commemorate the sacrifice of 22 Ugandan Christians who died horrible deaths in 1887 at the order of the Buganda king. The 22 commemorated at the shrine were the last to die in a concerted campaign which had begun three years earlier.

One of the problems was that Christianity changes people. The converts began to view many of their traditions as heathen and satanic, and their rebellious abandonment of their tribal customs was not met with much approval from the young king Mwanga who saw his power base disintegrating as his subjects transferred their allegiance to a different King.

We were shown round the basillica by a sweet faced Kenyan-born nun who told the stories of each death as if she had witnessed them herself. It was a litany of horrors as the converts were killed in disturbingly imaginative ways.

I took the coward's way out after a while and stopped listening. But I certainly won't forget the 22 men who died at Namugongo and I am intensely grateful for the religious freedom that we enjoy in many countries today.

If you want to know more about the Namugongo martyrs, the official website is here

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Of fear and laughter

I have this theory about South Africa.

I think it has actually slipped into a parallel universe which hovers above the place where South Africa should be on the map.
I'm in Uganda sharing writing skills with parliamentary researchers from 12 African countries and I feel like I have slipped into that warm-hearted, inspirational place that Africa should be.

Those of you who are South African, can you remember when any complete stranger in smiled and greeted you in the street? Have you been made to feel totally welcome and appreciated by any South African recently?

It's such a relief to be treated as an equal and welcome partner, rather than with the hostility and suspicion which has become the norm at home. It's just a pleasure to see people of all races, ages and sexes smile with genuine pleasure when they see each other.

We've had a busy two days and this afternoon we managed to grab an hour to go shopping at the curio market. And it was there that I discovered that there is actually someone miserable in the heart of Kampala. Quite a community in fact!

Marabou storks are almost as tall as me and they stride along the roads of central Kampala like a flock of undertakers in black tail coats, their huge pink wattles swinging obscenely under their arm-length beaks. They speak to each other with dry clacks of their beaks and make nests the size of king size beds in the trees.

They do bring some light relief though ... I had one of my best laughs in ages when one swooped low over the head of the delegate from Ghana. She ran, screaming with a mixture of laughter and terror, "It's going to shit on my head! Help, it's going to shit on my head!

Sunday, 21 September 2008

financial planning

I wanted to share this, emailed by a Safrea (South African Freelancers Association) member.

Financial advice from Michael Millar from The Spectator

If you had purchased £1000 of Northern Rock shares one year ago it
would now be worth £4.95. With HBOS, earlier this week your £1000 would have been worth £16.50, £1000 invested in XL Leisure would now be worth less than £5, but if you bought £1000 worth of Tennents Lager one year ago, drank it all, then took the empty cans to an aluminium re-cycling plant, you would get £214. So based on the above statistics the best current investment advice is to drink heavily and recycle.

PS... If you get this on Sunday, it's because I discovered I can post things in advance. Not because I discovered how to blog from 20 000 feet above Africa.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

heading north

So, tomorrow I fly to Uganda and already I'm awash with useless information. Like, did you know that the word Kampala comes from the fact that there were so many impalas on the plains where it was built?

One of the bits of information that I didn't know was that I'd need a yellow fever certificate, or else they'd inject me at the airport. I'm really scared of needles and I'm really scared of flying and now they're offering me a combination of the two??? Are they totally insane?

(Actually, I'm not scared of flying, I'm scared of dying when I'm not ready. And I'm not ready yet, even if I do end up in a better place than here. And I don't like leaving Greg)

The yellow fever thing was dropped casually into an email from one of the workshop organisers. That I got yesterday at about 8.30pm. And there's nowhere in the Swartland to get a yellow fever injection. And anyway after last year's debacle with Greg's accident I'd rather take my chances with the baggage loader at Entebbe.

(Greg's accident? Long story... he fell through the roof, local doctor said it was a miracle nothing was broken, real doctor found 14 broken bones...)

It's a really pretty virus though...

... but I think I'd rather have the flu. Isn't it beautiful?

It's probably more likely. I remembered I have a yellow fever certificate. I had the injection before I went to Kenya for the Genome conference in 2004. Was it that long ago? It's scary how time vanishes.

Maybe I should be worrying about that instead.

Friday, 19 September 2008

talk like a pirate

Who knew? Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.
There's an advert on TV at the moment for a BBC Knowledge programme where the pirate says he is prone to "unnecessary violence". For some reason I find that really comical. Logically it makes no sense, but it makes me chuckle every time.
I'm not nice. I admit it.
The pirate also wears some really strangely fitting pants... he has the widest crotch I've ever seen. Maybe there's a link between feelings of violence and strange pants?
Sometimes the most respected of men are pirates: The picture is of Francis Drake, son of a preacher, first Englishman to circumnavigate the world and long-time enemy of the Spanish. He was one of Elizabeth I's blue-eyed boys. He was also a well known slave trader and pirate. His fortune was made when he raided a Spanish fleet in Panama and made off with all their gold. He left behind the silver, because it was too heavy to carry.
He was also complicit in the massacre of 600 men, women and children in Ulster, Northern Ireland. They'd resisted the English plantation plans in their country and Drake massacred them after they surrended.
He also wore strange pants. But then, they all did in the 14th Century.
(By the way, some of you are getting this on email because I set my blog up to let you know whenever I posted anything. Feel free to opt out. Just email me and I'll take you off the list. And if you go to, you can leave me a comment. Even a rude one.)

Wise words

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Franklin D Roosevelt, 1933

Thanks Carol, at wheresmydamnanswer!

Thursday, 18 September 2008


One of the things I do is to lay out the quarterly magazine for St Georges Cathedral. The Anglican Church (maybe just in South Africa, not sure) is celebrating a season of creation, and these facts that were included in the newsletter caught my eye:

"Although South Africa covers less than 2% of the earth’s surface, it has the 3rd highest level of biodiversity in the world.
We share our homeland with almost 300 species of mammals [more than there are in Europe and Asia combined], 1000 kinds of trees [Europe has fewer than 70], 23,200 flowering plants [10% of the total in the world], 800 identified birds [8% of the total in the world], 50,000 insect species, 288 species of reptiles [almost 5% of the total in the world] and 11,000 marine species of which 25% are found nowhere else on earth.
Our beloved homeland – along with all the rest of the planet – is severely under threat. Only 25% of our water systems are intact, 54% are critically endangered and 50% of our wetlands have already been destroyed. 34% of our land eco-systems are threatened – including grasslands, fynbos, forests and succulent Karoo. Officially declared endangered are 37% of mammals, 24% of reptiles, 18% of amphibians, 15% of plants, 14% of birds."

Amazing facts!

Re: that pic

and again...

See! It was worth the wait!

that pic

Here I am, trying another way to upload a picture:
I thought uploading via email would be useful for when I'm in Uganda next week too.

Panic mode!

It's another of those unseasonably wintery days in the Swartland, and I'm in panic mode. Panic mode is when I have way more work than I can cope with. The spin-off of panic mode is that I put my head down and plough my way through all the work until it's done!

You'd think that now would not be a good time to start a new project, like finally getting this blog going. But somehow it feels like now is the time, so here I am, over a year since I set the site up, finally writing the first post.

What was the catylist? A gorgeous birds nest that I saw on, thanks to a tip off from Ms Tee, on her blog the delightful home. It reminded me how much I enjoy my daily dose of blog-reading and how much I've discovered since I started. I've tried to upload it, but I seem to be having a technodummy day.

So, let's hope I'm disciplined and keep this going. I have so much to share!