Monday, January 13, 2014

Draw the line

Early in the last century, African traditions were formalized and documented.  By foreigners.  The colonial powers did their best to describe and preserve the history of the Africans.  They drew national boundaries and designated capital cities, gathering the varied communities and peoples into national identities they hadn't known, giving them laws and governance.

The problem, of course, is that it was externally imposed. Much of the formalized history was inaccurate, having been interpreted by outsiders. Much of the new legal system had in the past been just informal agreement; ways that were agreed to by communities with the understanding that things would continue only as long as everyone benefited. When an agreement no longer served, it was left behind. But no longer, as foreign rule imposed laws that the people couldn't change.

Thus the lament of everyone today; as soon as a law is enacted, the power players look for ways to work it to their advantage.  No longer the mutual agreement for mutual benefit, law and regulation became the constraint against change, against improvement.

The Maasai are a persistent exception.  They are nomadic herders who don't recognize the borders imposed on them.  They go where the weather gives them grazing lands for their herds, and they've little interest in the densely populated cities that have been imposed upon the lands.

To some degree, we're all from such roots.  Our predecessors settled where the land would serve them well. They spread out so there would be room between them and their neighbors, room for crops and herds, for fishing and hunting.  Fences to separate families came much, much later along with the laws to formalize the agreements that grew up among them.

The colonial powers saw Africa as a continent without civilization, ignorant, unproductive and stagnant. They presumed that they themselves were the embodiment of right thinking, of right living, and obliged to shape the continent after their own image.  In some ways, their efforts were perhaps well intended, but unfortunately, millions died as a result.  Wars over gold, trade, and slaves followed.  Racism and class distinctions rose to the forefront, and even yet today the poorest continue to be exploited.

As elsewhere in the world, poverty that persists in regions of Africa today is not from a lack of resources.  Much of the world economy comes from that region.  Oil, coal, diamonds, gold, iron, cobalt, uranium, copper, bauxite, silver, cocoa beans, and fine woods are all plentiful, but after centuries of growth, the wealth of the continent continues to benefit the few.  And the imposed law is used to squelch the outcry of the disenfranchised.

Nigeria's Bonny Peninsula is a classic case. Polluted beyond survivability, the land and waters now kill or drive out the residents, and their protests are met by government violence.  The Anglo-Dutch oil group Shell owns and operates the industry there.

Illegal over-fishing by developed nations has eroded the productivity of local fishermen.  The 90% reduction in marketable fish populations means the locals go much farther offshore at greater risk and return with less.

Interestingly, our densely populated cities are not the settled norm.  They are artificially maintained and progressively less sustainable.  They are at best 80% solutions supported by varying degrees of overburdening of people and resources. Things will change of necessity in the coming decades.

Life for about 80% of the world ...
In Africa as in the rest of the world, it's not the land that brings people to poverty.  It's the rich and influential who bring poverty. Poverty is a weapon by which the few profit from the deprivation of others.  We in the west who claim the moral high-ground of equality, of law and justice, will be required to face the reality that such a position is bent by self-interest and that what we have collectively become is in many ways extraordinarily harmful.

How often do we think we know what's best for others?  Do we presume our success and position place us somehow above and with a better perspective?  Such thinking is always inaccurate; no exceptions. As individuals, what options are available to us for a meaningful way forward?