The generalizations about African thought and ways of thinking grow out of the courses I taught and the projects I participate in, as discussed in the previous chapters. They end with a rather negative assessment on my impact on the larger African society. In what follows, I try to glean as much as I can from my life and work in Africa, to help those who follow understand their friends and co-workers in Africa.
CHAPTER 18: EVERY STORY CAN BE TOLD FROM MANY PERSPECTIVES.
Doing so was not easy, because there were no real sources that contained the “truth”. So I had to explore the issue in whatever sources I could find. The sources included Voice of America, British Broadcasting Corporation, Time Magazine, and a local African source. I collected these sources together and tried to make sense of the total picture. Taken together they made almost no sense. The battles that had taken place in Congo that previous week were described in all four sources, but they might as well have been entirely different battles.
Even what people say about themselves and their world is subject to their mental and emotional perspective. I explored the difference it made for rural Liberians to preface a statement in various ways. I called these “truth-functional connectives”, by which I meant the cognitive framework for their assertions. “I know” is not the same as “I believe” and certainly not the same as “I am afraid that”. I found 20 different ways in the Kpelle language (a member of the Mande language group in West Africa where I lived and taught) to introduce an assertion. Not only did individuals complete sentences differently for the different introducers, but the contents of assertions varied greatly according to age, gender and educational level. These statements are motivated only by the topic we assigned (e.g., farming, God, money, disease, work and witchcraft, to name only a few of the topics) and by the prefacing clause.
A different use of the procedure did not require a topic to be specified. The responses covered a very wide range, and allowed a view into the minds of those who completed the sentences. Because there were twenty different sentence introducers, people were allowed complete freedom to choose a variety of different answers. We used cluster analysis, which has proved useful in many of my studies, to map the responses.
The resulting tree diagram lists basic issues, facts, beliefs and values for a representative body of rural Kpelle people, dividing the responses into two main groups: the impact of modernization on Kpelle society, and the old ways of life which in the l970s were still very much alive. Each sub-section then splits into harmful and helpful features of, respectively, modern and traditional life. Modern life includes, on the one hand, problems of alcohol, crime and lack of mutual trust, and on the other, health, jobs and schooling. Traditional life divides into the benefits of farming, hard work and the goodness of God, and the harmful effects of disease, hard work, exploitation by government, and the new modern world.
An alternative technique applied to the same data is multi-dimensional scaling, a procedure which I have used in several different projects. Not surprisingly, a two-dimensional representation of these data shows a clear division from left to right on the computer print-out of sentence completions reflecting the bad features of Kpelle life, and an equally clear division from top to bottom reflecting the contrast between the modern and traditional worlds.
I later used the same technique in Lesotho. A colleague studied rural farming, to understand people’s beliefs about soil erosion, plowing with cattle as opposed to tractors, and competition with South African commercial agriculture. The technique proved helpful to him, as it had to me, and enabled him to support and in some cases modify his subjective impressions. The benefit here, as in Liberia, arose from allowing people to express themselves freely rather than having to respond to the initiative of the interviewer.
Reasons for successful farming in Lesotho
The obvious big question for me and the project was: what leads to successful farming in Lesotho? Lesotho is a country which is less and less able to feed itself. The last year when the country produced enough cereal crops to feed itself was 1973, but after that the trend was steadily down. The question of why the failure and what can be done to succeed was one to which I devoted observation and survey time. Four different answers emerged from my work, answers that were each in some way correct, but answers that were mutually incompatible. My task in that first project and in subsequent projects supported by USAID, the Lesotho government and private non-governmental organizations was to help Lesotho feed itself. I failed, like all the other experts, because my best plan, like any other plan, depended on a synergy of mutually reinforcing rather than mutually undercutting activities.
What did I find? Plan A was that of the rural farmers, namely, to continue mining the soil to remove the last shreds of fertility and go on planting maize, a crop that a friend called “a noxious weed”, introduced in the early 19th century and producing well until the fertility of the shallow and friable soil was gone. Even today more than half Lesotho’s households practice this kind of farming, and the result is less and less yield and more and more dependence.
Plan B was what one economist called “hard labor for life”. This meant recognizing the impossibility of making a living at subsistence farming, and becoming migrant laborers, mostly in South Africa’s gold mines. Their wives and they themselves, when they finally retired from the mines, would use Plan A at home. The advantage of Plan B was the income which was enough to keep the family alive, build houses, buy cattle, and perhaps send children to school. It did not, of course, bring anything like sustainable development to Lesotho. Migrant labor made South African white
business people rich, and simply squeezed life out of Basotho people.
Plan C was to turn over the land to foreign experts, like those in the Senqu River project. Such experts could probably have kept the land from ongoing degradation and decreasing production. One colleague, an expert in sheep farming, told me that Lesotho was an ideal place for high quality wool and mohair production. The only problem was the Basotho, who occupied the land and had flocks and herds of low-quality animals, managed in such a way as to hasten land erosion. If only Basotho and their animals could be moved off the land, all would be well. That, of course, is not an answer to the problem. A very few Basotho land owners, educated entrepreneurs, did in fact turn over land to foreign, mostly South African, commercial farmers. They succeeded on a small scale, but there was no way in which the vast majority of Basotho would accept that idea.
Plan D was the kind of intensive farming a few hard-working educated farmers did on their own land. I remember two adjacent fields in a village where I did research. They had identical soil structure, were of the same size, and were owned by men who lived side by side. One field produced 120 bags of maize that year, the other 5 bags. I asked both for the reason.
The first man said he and his wife and sons got up early every day, made sure to use cattle manure as fertilizer, weeded the field several times during the season, planted different crops, and ensured that rain water would run off safely. The second said that farming was too hard, and even though he knew what his neighbor did he said he could not work that hard.
A sophisticated modified version of the good farmer’s methods was the Machobane method developed by a tough old farmer. Unfortunately, the method did not spread. Foreign experts were skeptical of anything local. Almost all Basotho farmers knew that the amount of work it entailed was beyond their capacity. Why was that the case? Basotho fields were tiny, at most a hectare. The hourly wage for the amount of work required to do that much work on a small field was simply too low to pay off. Very roughly the excellent farmer, along with his wife and his very hard-working children, would have earned $1400 for a year of hard labor, less than they could have earned by migrant labor.
So Plan A remains the norm. Farmers continue the dying tradition of inefficient subsistence farming. Fewer migrant jobs are available in South Africa or Lesotho (in the textile industry), and so Plan B is a diminishing hope Experts regularly try to implement Plan C, and just as regularly fail. Idealists like me (who don’t have to work the land themselves) advocate Plan D, but most farmers ignore us. Plan E dies before it is born.
The use of foreign aid, as seen by aid agencies and recipients
The split has been clear when assessing agricultural development programs. Foreign aid workers generally assess their work as good or bad, depending on the response of the local farmers to their proposals. Success for them means that rural “peasants” (a term that is inappropriate for rural Basotho) have come to their senses and adopted the new methods. Failure means stubborn adherence to tradition.
Rural farmers, on the other hand, in most cases see foreigners as interfering with their work. Foreigners’ efforts are only appreciated if they give financial and technical assistance without imposing strange ways of doing what farmers have always done. Foreigners who would do for the farmers what the farmers have previously done for themselves are acceptable, but not foreigners, for example, who insist on culling sick or scrawny animals from a herd of cattle.
The situation was more complicated in Tanzania, because there were three forces involved in the development process. The first consisted of the people themselves. Second was the Tanzanian government, at that time committed to the ujamaa socialist system. Third were the foreign aid agencies, some of which went along with the ujamaa approach, while others were committed to a free enterprise way of life. Ordinary people were caught in the middle. It was clear that only the village leaders who know that their salaries depended on government approval believed in the official Tanzanian ujamaa process.
I was working for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which tried to take a neutral position. However, I was also associated with experts from the Scandinavian countries, who took a strongly socialist stance to development. The Americans and the British were inclined toward free-market capitalism.
My basic impression was that ordinary farmers simply wanted to be left alone, an impression based on attitude surveys we conducted in seven supposedly ujamaa villages and in a superficial way in another 50 or so villages. What did they see as the best way to use foreign assistance? In fact assistance from the far-away federal government of Tanzania was just about as foreign to these rural village people as assistance from the Swedes or the Americans or the United Nations. What from the villagers’ perspective is the best approach? Do what works for you, as in the case of a corrupt village headman who had arranged for the donation of a diesel driven mill for grinding grain. I interviewed him in his home compound, where I found his wife pounding her grain with a mortar and pestle. I asked him why. He responded, “I have a grain mill”, and pointed to his wife.
CHAPTER 19. TRUTHS ARE ALWAYS PARTIAL AND ALWAYS PARTLY WRONG
Differences in understanding by Kpelle farmers and Israeli experts
So the Israeli experts did the obvious thing. They were allocated a piece of forest land not far from Cuttington College where I was teaching. They clear-cut the land and set up a cocoa nursery with plans to spread the trees everywhere they could. They were not even hard core capitalists as was the case with French planters in Ivory Coast. Instead they were concerned to help Liberia find a commercially valuable crop, and knew that if they could succeed they would made friends at a time when Israel needed all the friends it could get.
They were correct in what they did, but the Liberians, who never did adopt the Israeli/Ivory Coast model, were also correct. Somehow the Liberians understood that their forest was too valuable a possession to be destroyed in favor of a cash crop. They may have realized that Liberia made a similar mistake decades earlier when they allowed Firestone to alienate forest and farm land in favor of rubber plantations. It is true that the national economy benefited, but as economists have pointed out, farmers who lost their land were harmed because they had no place to grow their traditional crops. Instead they were hired to tap the rubber trees, earning only a fraction of what they could have made in their traditional ways.
I saw the consequence in 2004 when I was a hostage to civil war in Ivory Coast, having tried to fly from Liberia to South Africa, but then forced to hide as war engulfed the airport. I learned while in hiding that the civil war had forced many people to live off the land. Moreover, those living in areas blanketed by cocoa no longer could do subsistence farming. They had been forced to work on the cocoa plantations in order to survive, but when that income was cut off due to war there was no land left on which to plant rice, cassava and greens.
Resistance to clear cutting of forest land for what would be a profitable agro-business was just as correct as wanting to make money from tree crops. The Israeli experts were right, just as the cocoa producers in Ivory Coast were right, if the bottom line was a gain to the national economy. The ordinary farmers in Liberia were right to resist, because they saw what had happened when Firestone took away their patrimony to plant rubber. Even though the central government might gain from the commercialization of agriculture, ordinary people lost the chance to live off the land, and were forced to become a rural proletariat.
The same false choice may now be made in Liberia, as President Sirleaf prepares to sign contracts with the Malaysian company Sime Darby for huge oil palm plantations. The rain forest is gone in Ivory Coast, and if Liberia chooses the cash crop route it will soon be gone in Liberia. Not only will ordinary people no longer be able to feed themselves, but the great engine of world climate control provided by the tropical rain forest will be another step closer to death.
Crop yield in Lesotho improved by fertilizer application
As I have previously discussed, Lesotho’s grain production went steadily down in the 20th century, at the same time that new lands were opened in the foothills and mountains. As of now in the early 21st century, there is no new land to open, and the old fields are exhausted, to the point that many are being left fallow.
Thus fertilizer is surely the commercial answer of professional agriculturalists, proven over and over by field trials and by actual farm experience. This fact is well known and almost certainly true. What is not true is whether small-scale farmers should take the advice. I did a careful regression analysis of costs and benefits for small-scale maize farming in Lesotho in 1994 and 1999. The answer was as clear as the competing fact that fertilizer improves production. Use of chemical fertilizer on these fields had a negative rate of return for small farmers, considered strictly from the perspective of money spent and money earned.
In short the nation may benefit from farmers spending beyond their personal resources to grow cereal crops and at least postpone the depletion of the soil. But the farmers have to pay for this victory, and increasingly they are unwilling to do so, basically because they don’t have enough money to pay for the fertilizer. The only way to solve the problem may be to take the approach that Malawi’s president introduced in 2005, namely, to subsidize fertilizer so that farmers would grow the needed grain. What is not clear is whether this approach is sustainable. Certainly the United States applies a similar policy toward farmers, by giving substantial subsidies for many important crops. Many Americans have challenged this policy, and I tend to agree that it is a bad policy.
My point is simple. It is true that heavy doses of fertilizer are needed if rural subsistence farmers are to make a living or even are willing to plant crops on their fields. More and more farmers are leaving their land fallow, as productivity goes down. Small-scale rural farming has become a negative-sum game in many parts of Africa, especially where it is necessary to use fertilizer. How to solve that problem is not clear.
Value of ujamaa as a development strategy in Tanzania
When Tanzania became independent, Nyerere in a burst of African patriotism and enthusiasm declared ujamaa as the official policy of the new country. That choice was to have far-reaching implications for economy, politics, education and society. Specifically, it meant that people could no longer live in isolated homesteads but would be brought together in relatively large villages. It meant also that everyone in the nation should learn the common language of Swahili. It meant furthermore that the political structure of every consolidated village would reflect the national political independence party, the Tanganyikan African National Union. Finally it meant that Tanzania would be culturally, politically and economically independent of European and American colonial powers. It was not to form alliances with the former masters, but would be driven by its own internal needs and ambitions. If that meant poverty, then so be it. Poverty is better than slavery.
The idea of ujamaa resonates with the parallel idea of ubuntu, a word in the Xhosa language of South Africa that can be translated roughly as humanity. That word made very good sense to me while I was working in southern Africa, because it represented the aspiration of black and colored people to achieve equality with the white ruling class in South Africa. The concept of ubuntu also found an important place in the thought of black theology as it emerged in the reaction against European and American missionaries. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is an articulate advocate of ubuntu, and has used this concept to promote freedom, equality and shared humanity in South Africa.
Ubuntu has its roots in the Bantu idea of person, and most Bantu languages have a comparable term representing people in the values they share. The term was used philosophically by the Roman Catholic priest Placide Tempels and also by the secular German Africanist Janheinz Jahn to speak of a common African heritage. The Senegalese poet Leopold Senghor and two Martinique intellectuals, the poet Aime Cesaire and the psychiatrist Franz Fanon, helped set the stage for the political effort to create a truly African society.
Everything fit together for Nyerere to create a genuinely new way of governance and social organization. He resisted the collectivism of communism and also resisted the individualism of Western capitalism. That third way was to be the future or Tanzania.
I was teaching social sciences in Liberia at the time that the Urusha declaration was issued. I and my students alike were excited and thought this was the way ahead for humanity in Africa. It would solve the terrible cold war dispute that had left radicals like Ghana’s president Kwame Nkrumah on one side and conservatives like Liberia’s president William Tubman on the other. I and my students believed neither position to be genuinely African, and so we welcomed the new approach taken by Tanzania.
The trouble lay in trying to implement the policy. The philosophy could not and did not succeed in a community of multiple ethnicities. I do honestly believe that the ubuntu philosophy was what kept the village of Gbansu alive and well. Those who did not like what they found could leave, and many did actually migrate out of the village. Those who stayed respected the communal workgroups and the communal leadership. But that village represented a single dominant ethnic group, an ethnic group which did welcome strangers from other ethnic groups provided they accepted the basic philosophical and political stance of the leaders. It worked, and I remain to this day impressed with the community I lived with in Gbansu.
I was asked by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 1981 to look closely at agricultural and related community development in southwest Tanzania. I was asked to see the way the ujamaa system was working in seven quite different villages, each with a different ethnicity. The national philosophy of ujamaa in fact only worked successfully in one of the seven villages.
The reason why it succeeded there was in my view quite simple. The village leader was a man of tremendous dynamism, politically clever, a very good farmer, and an inspired Christian evangelist. He had the entire village eating out of his hands, and when he told them to jump they would jump. I even saw villagers at one point running, not just walking, to carry cement blocks for the construction of a new community center. The philosophy of ujamaa was not what made the difference in that village, but rather the personal charisma of the leader. That surely was not what Nyerere, Tutu, Tempels, Jahn, Senghor, Cesaire and Fanon had in mind. They wanted the system rather than the individual to prevail.
As I see it, the failure in Tanzania, and the success in Gbansu and the one dynamic village in Tanzania illustrate what I am saying. There are truths which are true under some circumstances and false under other circumstances. The hard part, of course is to know the difference, to know which is which. That knowledge can only be found through careful examination of the assumptions which underlie the truth and which are rendered false when the assumptions are not met.
The value and use of alternative energy devices in Lesotho
The new technologies represented truths, important truths. So did the old practices of village people represent truths – real truths, but unpleasant truths. All of us who participated in these projects wanted desperately to help village people adopt new ideas, but villagers did not respond with the enthusiasm we hoped for. The problem was not lack of interest. Rather the problem lay with the costs associated with change.
The costs varied according to the economic level of the potential users. Those at the bottom economically were only able to spend time, not money, and for cultural reasons these people were least willing or able to spend their time on innovations. At the next level up, those with minimal cash income saw the value of the improved devices, but they had to reserve their money to buy food and clothing. At each stage, as I pointed out in an earlier chapter, we found only a very small niche where the new idea could take root. Lesotho is a small country, less than two million at the time we did our work, and then economy of scale would not assist in introducing new models, forcing prices to remain high so that their introduction depended on unsustainable government subsidies. The Lesotho government was willing to subsidize a limited amount of research, but not at all the long-term maintenance of these new technologies. Thus private business would be needed to keep them going in the open market.
Only in one case did we find a niche which would allow commercialization of a new idea, something absolutely necessary if an idea were to move out of the circle of well-intentioned generous donors. The exception was photovoltaic cells to be used in households off the main electric grid, households that were wealthy enough to afford a few lights, a television set and a small refrigerator. Indeed there are many people off the main road in Lesotho, and for them a small industry did spring up, and to this day the photovoltaic business is flourishing.
Enthusiasts continue to promote the truth of alternate energy use. New and better model stoves are brought to countries across Africa. Solar cookers of ever more clever design are given to villagers who love the fact that cooking with them costs only time and effort, not money or fuel. However, each new plan runs into the bitter conflict between truths – the truth of technical wizardry, and the truth of the constraints of poverty and resistance to change.
CHAPTER 20. CORRELATION MAY NOT IMPLY CAUSATION
On the other hand, correlation is a very useful tool. It allows me to examine relationships between statements where I think there should be some connection. Whopping big correlations of .5 or over must mean something. They may mean that the first statement speaks of an underlying reality is that influences what I find in the second statement. They may mean, however, only the presence of a third (or fourth or fifth) factor that provides the glue between the two statements. In this section I want to give examples where correlation does suggest a reality and examples where correlation is highly unlikely to suggest a reality.
Ethnicity and political party membership in Liberia
Before the overthrow of William R. Tolbert Jr in 1980, political party membership in Liberia simply meant membership in the single elite True Whig Party. The only ethnicity that really mattered at that time was the Americo-Liberian ethnicity, enlarged over the years to include people whose ancestors were taken off ships carrying slaves from West Africa to the New World. These people, commonly called Congoes, were in effect the poor relations of those who had been brought from the United States. Access to this rather poorly defined ethnicity, Congo or Americo-Liberian as it was variously called, was possible for indigenous people through education, wealth, acceptance as wards by wealthy families, marriage into Americo-Liberian families or adoption. But until the overthrow of Tolbert this group, enlarged decade by decade in the ways I’ve just mentioned, held sway over the whole country.
This pattern of power and privilege appeared to have been broken when Samuel Doe, of the southeastern ethnic Krahn ethnicity, disemboweled the Americo-Liberian patriarch William R. Tolbert Jr in his executive mansion bedroom. Two days later Doe’s elite guard of thugs executed a dozen of the leading Americo-Liberians on the Monrovia beach. For a brief period it appeared that the old internal colonialist light-skinned aristocracy was finished. People of mixed ancestry soon rediscovered their parents and grandparents with names like Tokpa and Sambolah, and traditional dress began to reappear on the streets of Monrovia.
The change did not last long. Leaders of the indigenous group that had taken power in the coup discovered that they did not know how to manage the economy or the bureaucracy. Quickly Samuel Doe found allies among members of the former elite, either giving them high positions in the government or simply using them as tools. In both cases they maintained their wealth and effective power, even though the nominal power lay with the Krahn soldiers and their relatives. The ruling Krahn stopped taking revenge against the Americo-Liberians, and turned instead to other indigenous ethnicities, thus laying the groundwork for serious interethnic quarrels at a later date. Before that time I had never noticed real enmity between different ethnic groups, with the possible exception of the Mandingo whom many Liberians considered to be foreigners.
The situation became worse after Charles Taylor invaded the country on Christmas Eve 1989, and proceeded to set brother against brother, community against community, tribe against tribe, in order to grab and keep power. The 14 year long civil war that ensued saw a temporary lull in Charles Taylor took the presidency in 1997 through an election which was technically free and fair, but really anything but fair since people said they voted for him even though, and perhaps because, he had killed their parents.
Now I come back to my question of the possible correlation between ethnic group and political party loyalty. There is strong evidence that, in both of the recent free elections which brought Ellen Johnson Sirleaf into power, the opposition votes came from the southern ethnic groups. Their opposition was not so much because of their ethnicity but because their region was least troubled by the war. Some residual support for the opposition arose because Ellen represented educated people with foreign links. The Southeast parts of Liberia are the least well educated and thus resented Sirleaf’s Harvard and World Bank affiliation. The opposition candidates for president in the most recent 2011 election were an ill educated football hero and a member of the Tubman clan that was based in the South.
When I analyzed the data provided by the Afrobarometer survey of 2008 I found a clear and significant correlation between voting for Sirleaf and belonging to one or more of the Northern ethnicities. While there had been real ethnic reasons why the Krahn voted for their own man Samuel Doe, in 2005 and 2011 I could find no suggestion of ethnicity causing people to vote for or against Sirleaf, even though the data appeared to support that hypothesis.
The underlying hypothesis is denied, even though it may appear to be supported. Ethnicity does not determine political loyalty in Liberia in the post Civil War election, even though in 1985 tribal loyalty strongly determined who would with the greatest enthusiasm vote for Samuel Doe as president.
Food aid and nutritional improvement in Lesotho
What is not obvious is the satellite system of negative effects that surround the central fact of food brought to people. An illustration of the problem is a man in Lesotho who went against the grain, literally and figuratively. He grew his own grain on the land he’d been allocated by the village chief, complaining to us about his neighbors who refused to work hard and instead expected food aid to support them. Admittedly this is an extreme case, but the underlying principle is not uncommon. Growing corn and wheat and sorghum in Lesotho is difficult, as was the case with the two men I mentioned earlier who produced very different amounts of grain on two adjacent fields of roughly the same quality. One worked hard and the other did not.
The underlying issue of food aid is as much political as it is humanitarian. Ideally food is distributed to those in greatest need, but in practice what I saw is that food was far too often distributed according to political loyalty. I am not recommending suspending all food aid because of such distribution problems. Rather I am urging greater care, so as to ensure the best use of the food.
I had a serious quarrel with Catholic Relief Services in Lesotho over food distribution. The management did not trust local people to determine who should receive food. Those who were loyal to the illegitimate ruling party were given preference for food, giving rise in opposition areas to resentment against the foreigners who gave the food that was being accepted with enthusiasm in loyalist areas.
It seemed clear to me and certainly clear to the villagers that they, the village residents, could have distributed the food more fairly and more equally than we foreigners. Local people recognized who were most in need, who would have been the main recipients of food, if given out under local management. Instead of using local judgment, the donors gave out the food to those who arrived first, with their own initiative and under their own steam, at the clinics for assistance.
In one way this was not a bad approach, because we outsiders are in most cases probably unbiased and certainly not involved with village politics. However, what was wrong was that the procedure was expensive, since it involved paying salaries to outsiders to distribute food rather than spending most of the money on food. Moreover, the procedure did not seek out the neediest, since it responded mainly to those who knew how to play the donor-client game. Aid may be correlated with need, but only through the intermediate step of political and social connections which judge who is needy.
Reliability of factor analysis in Afrobarometer study in Lesotho
For example six different questions in the first three rounds of the survey measured household poverty, which is often closely related to political attitudes and political choices of action. For simplicity’s sake we found it necessary to reduce these perceptions of poverty to one or two factors to represent the whole group. We asked each respondent how often has that person or anyone in the family gone without enough food, clean water, medicines or medical treatment, fuel to cook food, cash income, or money to pay for school expenses.
Factor analysis showed that these six measures of poverty or wealth all correlate closely with each other at a highly significant level. However, the last item, namely money to pay for school expenses, correlated less well with the others than did any of the others. We looked then at the reliability of the factor analysis, and discovered that it increased significantly by omitting that item. Just by taking the correlations alone we would like have chosen a mistaken single poverty factor which included all six items.
That choice, however, would hide a factor we discovered later, something we probably should have realized when we started, that ability to pay for school is a political issue almost as much as it is a family issue. In some of the countries we studied, free primary education is guaranteed by the state, while in other countries families are expected to pay for their children’s schooling. The other five elements of the poverty scale correlated more closely with each other than with the availability of school fees.
One result of this finding was that in the fourth round of the Afrobarometer survey the presence or absence of school fees was omitted from the definition of poverty. In other studies across African nations, in particular a study of migration and poverty, only the other five items were included in the definition.
We can conclude from this analysis that correlation is not an either/or. It is a matter of degree rather than an absolute yes or no. We chose to define poverty in terms of the five qualities rather than the six, because it gave a clearer picture with higher levels of correlation and significance than if we had used an additional factor in the definition.
If I return to my original question, namely the relationship between correlation and causation, I can see clearly that speaking of cause and effect in discussing poverty is overly simplistic. Poverty is a second order condition, admittedly closely related to such issues as lack of food, water, medicine, fuel and cash, but it neither causes nor is caused by any of the individual factors. It is a condition or state of the family that ties closely to the presence or absence of basic needs. It is not caused by nor does it cause what may be used to describe it. A large part of my work in Lesotho was devoted to the study of poverty. However, I was never able to state the specific causes of poverty. The closest I could come was to state what the people we interviewed believed were the causes of poverty. To identify correlation with causation in the study of poverty is a big, unfortunately common mistake.
Distance from a motor road and HIV-positive status
The Lesotho Highlands Water Project built its first dam in the late 1980s on the Senqu River, a dam that was already supplying water to the main industrial region of South Africa around Johannesburg. Johannesburg is one of the few big cities in the world which is not on a major river. Moreover it is located on a high dry plateau in what should be farming country, a status forever changed by the discovery in the late 19th century of diamonds and gold. South Africa’s position as the economic giant of Africa depends entirely upon mineral exploitation, although more recently it has diversified into other forms of industry.
A dry land without significant local supplies of water comes up against a natural barrier to growth and development. Thus the South Africans did everything they could to provide the water needed for the gold industry and for all the secondary industries required by a large population that settled in and around the gold fields. Once they had tapped all the local springs and streams then they reached out to the water rich areas between the central mountains and the Indian Ocean. Those supplies soon proved insufficient, thus requiring South Africa to tap the one big remaining source of water in the region, namely the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.
Why had South Africa not access this resource earlier? There are two basic reasons. First, the Highlands of Lesotho where the Senqu River rises are high, rocky and remote. The first motor road into the area was only built in the mid-20th century, and even then it was only a dirt track rising out of the foothills along treacherous passes. One of the roads into the mountains had the wonderfully evocative name “The Devil’s Staircase”. I am one of those people who do not like heights, and so I remember the first time I had to drive up to the Highlands along that road. I was very glad that I had a United Nations driver, because I fear I would not have made it up to the top by myself.
The South Africans realized the serious difficulty that would be involved in sending the water of the Senqu River north of Johannesburg. First there would be the difficulty of getting construction equipment up to the Highlands of Lesotho over very bad road conditions. In other words that are roads would have to be built even before starting. There would be, of course, an initial advantage gained by the height of Lesotho’s mountains. The second major construction problem was that water would have to be sent under two ranges of mountains and hills before it could come out into the plateau south of Johannesburg. Thus the project stayed in the discussion phase long before the decision was finally made in the mid-1980s to proceed with building the first dam.
There was a second major problem to building this dam. Lesotho had been a literal thorn in the flesh of South Africa from the time when the Afrikaners moved from Cape Town into what would be called the Orange Free State in the mid-19th century. Basotho occupied much of the eastern area that the Afrikaners wish to take over. A series of wars between the invaders and the heavily out-gunned Basotho, led by the great King Moshoeshoe I, ended in a loss of Lesotho’s land on the west side of the Caledon River to the Afrikaners. However the Basotho were able to keep the high mountainous area between that river and the Zulu Kingdom created by Moshoeshoe’s rival Chaka. Lesotho had defeated the Afrikaners both in open battle east of the river and diplomatically in getting protectorate status from Britain.
Building a dam in order to provide Johannesburg with much-needed water required not only overcoming technical and geographic problems, but also involved negotiations with an independent country, a country which from South Africa’s perspective should not exist. It was only at the very end of the unfortunate rule of Lesotho’s first Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan that South Africa negotiated a one-sided treaty guaranteeing access to the water.
The first victim in Lesotho was a man from Tanzania who had moved into the mountain village of Mokhotlong in eastern Lesotho. The disease spread across Lesotho as workers entered the country, mostly from South Africa. This brings me back to the place where I began, namely working with the South African Medical Research Council to consider health and disease in the mountainous part of Lesotho where the dam would be built. Included in the survey was a blood test which would measure the presence of a number of pathogens including the HIV virus. What did we find? We found no respondent in villages far from the main newly constructed motor road, but found a significant percent of respondents in the villages on the road who were HIV-positive.
Clearly there is a connection between being HIV-positive and living near a motor road along which other HIV-positive people may travel. The highly significant correlation between HIV status and distance to a motor road reflects a reality in the world. It does not, however, imply a cause and effect relationship. Vehicle access does not cause the virus. Vehicle access, however, facilitates access to the virus. In the southern African situation the HIV virus is primarily transmitted through sexual relations, and apparently much less through needle exchange in drug usage. Finding the strong correlation indicates the direction in which we must look in order to find the cause for transmission. The road is a vector for transmission, not the cause of transmission.
CHAPTER 21. INTELLIGENCE DOES WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES DEMAND
I did find good students. I was very impressed with the people that I would eventually come to love deeply I taught and lived with. However, I did not expect to find the practical intelligence honed by local experience that over the course of time I did discover. Perhaps the most important thing I was taught by Mike Cole and colleagues was that not only is intelligence everywhere, real and shaped by local experience and activity, but also that it is possible to look for it, find it and describe it. In this section I explore four areas where I found intellect at work in people’s lives. Perhaps I should paraphrase Tip O’Neill’s famous comment to say “all intelligence is local”.
Estimation in rural Liberia
On the other hand, estimation of calendar time was not of much interest to rural Liberians. Of greater interest were the signs of seasonal change. People looked for critical events, such as the arrival of the white cattle egrets that marked the coming of the dry season, the dry dust in the air as the desert air made its annual appearance from the north, the flight of mating ants after the second big rain as the dry season ended, the severity of lightning and thunder as seasons shifted first from wet to dry and then again from dry to wet. On a time scale I could not understand, people watched carefully for the right day to start the new secret society bush school or the right day to end it and bring out the new graduates into the village.
Some time estimates are totally without quantitative value. When I would leave a person’s home I would be told by the host that he or she would “carry me half-way”. This did not mean much about distance or time, but rather meant that the person cared enough about me as a visitor to walk part of the way back to my home. It might mean just going to the path near my house to say goodbye or it might mean walking for an hour on the trail to make sure I had chosen the right direction home.
Some estimates made by local people were quite good, but often done by eye. I would ask a local tailor to make a shirt for me. He would look at me carefully but not measure me. I would buy a length of cloth, and he would make a shirt that in general – but not always – was a good fit. The important thing here was that the Liberian men’s shirt did not have to be of an exact size, since it was allowed to hang freely, not tucked in, to allow the air to flow and keep me cool. Only occasionally did I buy a shirt that was too tight over my chest and thus uncomfortable.
Estimation is a skill that underlies almost all human activities. Each culture estimates as precisely as necessary in order to achieve desired goals. Outsiders trying to live in rural Liberia may complain about estimates that were badly wrong. The cook made too much food, but the outsider forgets that other people besides the host, his wife and guests would eat the food later. Those other people might be me and my wife, but they also might be the cook and his family or even children that he sees hanging around the house. Someone may complain that the person they had hired to do a task did not bring the finished product on the day expected, but the worker would point out that he had other tasks to do, and besides he wanted to do the work right. A person invited for dinner might show up an hour, or even, a day later, but would still expect to be given a hearty welcome, because, after all, he did in fact arrive and I should be glad to see him.
Management of time and resources is culture-specific and situation-specific. My friends in rural Liberia succeeded in living comfortable and sane lives under often tough circumstances. Intelligent living means just that, but not necessarily keeping to a rigid framework in time, space or energy. I learned a great deal about the value of “live and let live” in rural Liberia. Tempering my expectations to local realities is a skill to be cherished.
Upland rice farming methods in Liberia
Historical accounts tell us that Europeans encountered swamp rice along the coast from the 16th century on, but nothing about upland production because the traders were not explorers. They saw what was visible from their ships and from their probably short expeditions inland.
Furthermore, I think that what my Kpelle friends tell me about swamp rice production may reflect a general attitude about forests, that the occasional scattered swamps are hard places in which to work. They are dirty, filled with pests and lonely, not allowing easy use of cooperative work groups. I have had to walk through such swamps, and I know I would not want to work in them.
I believe that what I saw in Gbansu and neighboring villages reflects a tradition which predates the coming of the settlers to Liberia. That tradition is sensible response to the conditions under which rural Kpelle people live. There is regular alternation of seasons, so that a single crop canbe grown when the rains begin to fall and then harvested when the fields are once again dry. I wrote a monograph (never published, probably because it says more than people want to know about farming in a remote place) on the topic called Intelligence in Action. I chose the title deliberately, trying to show how sensible were that society’s response to its circumstances.
Farming for the Kpelle I lived with and studied was not just an add-on to a political or religious culture that needed a way to stay alive. Instead the rice cycle is the basis around which the rest of life is built. If the German philosopher Feuerbach was right in saying “der mensch is was er isst” (a man is what he eats), then growing rice in rural Liberia is a good case in point. Responses to the sentence completions made it clear that rice is life. When a person is asked “Have you eaten?” the question in Kpelle literally is “Have you eaten rice?”
Cultivating dry land rice among the Kpelle requires choosing an area of forest that has not been cut for ten years or more, looking for soil types that suit rice seeds saved from the previous season. The wisest farmers are those who know intimately the meaning of different trees and shrubs. Some indicate fertile soil, while others mean poor soil. Some are hard to cut, meaning that families with less strength will choose other types of trees.
The soil itself must be assessed. Often the women are the best judges of soil types, and they will assist the men as the area is surveyed. The choice of the next farm site is critical, in order to ensure a good crop. But doing so also is a balance between an area which would be very productive although hard to cut and manage, and an area which would be easy to farm but would produce less. And when the area is chosen, it is necessary to decide just how much bush to cut, so that the cooperative work group can finish the job in one day of hard work.
It is then necessary to organize men that work well together to cut the bush, including young boys just learning, strong young men to do the heavy cutting, mature men to keep the process moving in a timely way, older men to supervise and keep the peace, specialists to sing work songs, and women to encourage the men to work harder by providing food and drink.
The owner of each field then watches the weather for the time when the branches and shrubs and weeds he has cut and left on his field seem dry enough to burn. This choice depends on weather, the time when his field was brushed, an assessment of how dry his field has become, and how soon his wife would like to plant the rice, depending in that case on how hungry the family expects to be. That in turn depends on how much rice is left from the previous season. Burning early helps avoid early rains making the field too wet to burn, while burning late helps ensure that the wood burns thoroughly. With so many factors in play, choosing the right time to burn the field is a personal gamble.
Bird chasing and fence building also require intelligent planning. Good fences keep animals out and allow bush animals to be caught and eaten. The timing of both must be correct, which means keeping a careful eye on the forest and on flocks of birds. Intimate knowledge of the forest is gained over the years by older men whose advice is respected.
Weeding is next. Harmful weeds that steal nutrition from the rice must be dug or pulled out, but gently lest young rice plants be uprooted. Waiting too long before weeding is also a mistake, even though a delay is necessary in order to allow the rice plants to develop full roots.
As the rice ripens, children must be mobilized again to chase birds, and the fences must be strengthened to keep out larger animals that can wipe out an entire crop. When I was in Gbansu one family lost almost all their crop to a pygmy hippopotamus. Elephants in the more remote forest areas have been known to do similar damage.
Harvesting the rice must be done carefully. If it is done too early, the rice will not have ripened fully. If done too late, then the grains may fall off the stalks, and be lost until they may perhaps sprout another year. Rice is stored in dry granaries, usually above a thatch structure near the farm. A fire is often built under the rice to complete the drying process, and also to prevent animals from climbing into the loft to eat the rice. A small portion of the rice, moreover, is set aside by the women in the household to be used in the next season, when the cycle will start over. The seed rice is selected according to well-known criteria of yield, taste, color and suitability to the area for the next farm.
All this takes intelligence and experience. I greatly admire the skill and thoughtfulness of what I saw in Gbansu. It is important to realize that putting these traits to work depends on stable population size. Too much success at farming, too much good health, too many healthy children and too many wives mean having to put more land under production. For good or for ill, Liberian villages deep in the forest have historically kept their population low and thus have always had enough land to maintain the necessary fallow cycle. What has kept the population low? Mostly it has been malaria, parasites, civil conflicts and failure of rains.
The new way of life brought in by the outside world, whether through the Liberian government or through outside developers, has meant that areas along the main roads no longer allow sufficient land for the old fallow farming cycle to continue. The old way of life, intelligent and productive though it may have been, will probably not continue, even though some people have begun to return to the land in the wake of a civil war which left the country exhausted. This has allowed the old ways of life a pause in the inevitable march of development, but I fear it is only a pause.
I walked in the hills above a village in the mountains behind Mbeya. This incidentally is the village I mentioned earlier as best at implementing the ujamaa philosophy. I asked a man what he was doing, as he moved stones and plastered them with mud in a narrow stream bed. I was amazed at seeing a grown man diverting a very small stream. Was it child’s play? He was equally amazed at my question, amazed that I did not understand an obvious, and generations old, practice. The fields below the hill needed water in order to grow maize and irrigate the coffee. How otherwise could they distribute the water without a regular way to divert the flow into neighboring fields? The farmer was simply doing what his neighbor would do later in the day when it was his turn to water his fields.
I should not have been amazed to find such a system in a village which embodied for me the “family-hood” culture that President Nyerere introduced to Tanzania. That village was so well advanced in sharing resources that it later pooled resources to buy a large lorry for transporting coffee and maize to market. An irony underlay that triumph of village socialism, because it enabled the village to rent out its lorry in a good capitalist way to neighboring villages that had not implemented the socialist vision. I assumed therefore that the sharing of water was a byproduct of the community-building zeal of the energetic village leader.
Not so, I found out. Diverting streams into individual irrigation canals was a time-honored practice in that village. For many years the small streams which flowed out of the hills and around privately-owned fields have been diverted on a regular basis into tiny watersheds around each stream. In addition, the village was preparing to install a small hydro-electric plant at the bottom of these streams, where a river collected the water from that village and upstream neighbors. I could not help but think that perhaps the ujamaa spirit existed in that village before Nyerere made national a way of which was alive and well long before even the Germans and the British took control of the country.
Successful adaptation to refugee status in Lesotho and Liberia
Our work at the Transformation Resource Center benefited greatly from the refugees who joined us in implementing the vision of the founders Joan and Jimmy Stewart, themselves refugees. I also taught refugees at the National University of Lesotho, and was impressed with their ability to adapt to new conditions. Refugee lawyers, including our good friend Phyllis Naidoo, as well as A. P. Mda and his son Zwelakhe Mda (brother of the novelist Zakes Mda) made important contributions to legal justice in Lesotho.
Civil wars in Liberia were harsher than the war of liberation in South Africa, and led to the deaths of many thousands. Estimates are that there might have been 250,000 who died in the Liberian war. These estimates probably include many who inevitably would have died from disease and hunger in the economic disaster that Samuel Doe left behind. But there were others who escaped the war and then built new and productive lives elsewhere. I am not defending war as a good way of life. Whatever the case, many came out of the war standing on their feet. They improvised and innovated, not content to give up and accept food aid from abroad. Of course, food aid did help many survive who would otherwise have died.
Almost all Liberians were refugees at some point during the civil war, and most found a way to survive. According to the Afrobarometer survey, only 7% remained at home during the civil war. The wealthiest families were significantly more likely to remain at home or stay with relatives during the war than poorer families. Regardless of what they did during the war and regardless of their wealth or poverty, respondents were optimistic that their living conditions would improve in the near future. The war was bad. There is no question about that. But the Liberians who were interviewed held positive hope for the future.
In the final novel in my series about the boys Koli and Sumo born in 1931 in a then-isolated and remote corner of Liberia’s interior, I emphasized the resilience of Liberians. The boys’ family survived in Ivory Coast and made a successful return to Liberia, even in the face of continued war. Liberians are amazing and will emerge from their years of conflict standing on their feet.
CHAPTER 22. PEOPLE SEE WHAT THEY ARE CONDITIONED TO SEE
As I look out the window I see that I missed a dry brown leaf which is caught in the branches of a forsythia bush. I had not noticed that leaf as I cleaned the garden. Presumably it has been there all fall and all winter. As I look across the street I see pieces of broken pottery I had never seen before. Perhaps I should have noticed the brown leaf, but the pottery did not interest me and so I did not see it. I was not ready to see the leaf because it was in the branches of a shrub, not on the ground. I saw what I was conditioned to see.
In this section I will examine several cases in my research where the social setting has determined what people see and use. The two cases I mentioned in my own life are typical. In one case the leaf was not where I expected to see it and so I did not see it. In the second case the pottery was of no interest to me and so I did not notice it.
Rice identification by men and women in Liberia
Liberian rice is primarily planted on dry ground, level or gently sloping, and only occasionally in swamps which have been reclaimed for paddies. People generally don’t like to work in swamps because they are dirty, unhealthy and lonely places to work. Traditionally cooperative work groups of Liberians plant rice by partially clearing a piece of old forest land, where roots and small trees are left to grow again after the rice farm has been planted and harvested. The shrubs, weeds, leaves, and branches are allowed to dry, and are then burned to provide nutrients to the soil.
After burning is complete women scratch the surface of the soil with short handled hoes, scatter rice seed saved from the previous harvest, and gently smooth the surface to ensure that the seeds are protected from birds or other scavengers that would eat them. The rice grains sprout after the first rains, and the seedlings grow along with weeds that must be pulled out carefully and systematically. In due course birds and other predators discover the tender young shoots, and eat what they can. Children are sent to the rice fields to chase birds, and men build fences around the fields in order to keep out small animals. When the rice ripens, children are again sent to chase birds, this time to prevent them eating the ripening grains. Harvest takes place at the end of the rainy season, and the rice is stored in overhead sheds at the edge of the field or in the village.
What is the role of men in this operation? They are expected to choose the area to be brushed and to cut the trees and shrubs which have grown in the area since the previous rice farm, ideally been planted at the time when the cut leaves and branches have dried sufficiently to burn but not so late that rain would make burning difficult. Men then build fences to keep animals out of the fields, and finally build sheds to store the newly harvested rice.
What is it that men don’t do? Men don’t choose the seeds, don’t plant them, and in particular don’t select the seeds for the next season’s farm. Those tasks are left for women, who have learned over a lifetime of farming to know what rice is suitable for each terrain and season.
I designed and supervised a study of indigenous knowledge of farming in the rural village of Gbansu where my wife and I and our six-year old youngest son spent eight months in 1974. My research assistants had collected 120 different named varieties of rice in that small village of 50 households and another 25 tiny hamlets nestled deep in the forest. That these varieties were different was clear, because each had its own name. Each had its own taste as well as place and time of planting.
Because of the care in selecting seed rice, Gbansu would be an ideal place to introduce new rice varieties. Peer-to-peer discussion of taste, length of growing season, soil preference, ease of harvesting, security against pests and difficulty of processing should have allowed foreign experts to bring seeds fresh from the Philippines research center and discuss their merits and demerits with the local village experts.
The theory is excellent, but there were serious gaps in implementing the theory. First, the foreign experts didn’t understand local rice growing practices. In particular, foreigners wanted rural farmers to shift from upland to swamp rice farming. The problem is that village people for a variety of reasons (some good and some not so good) do not like to work in the swamps.
Unfortunately foreign experts do not realize that they have to work with local experts. Instead, they think of rural rice farmers as ground to be cultivated, people who are unscientific and ready to be rescued from centuries of ignorance. This is simply not the case. People have survived for centuries in the forest, and have inherited a way of life that makes sense. Certainly that way of life can be improved, but it ought to be real improvement of a functioning system.
Moreover, even if the experts were to work with real farmers, it is likely they would approach men rather than women, since most foreign experts are men. Men are precisely not the persons to whom to introduce new varieties of rice. Stories are told of men receiving new seeds, taking them to their wives and not being able to explain their values and limitations. The wives may either plant them in the wrong soils, or in their frustration at not knowing anything about the characteristics of the new seeds simply throw them in the pot for supper. It would be more sensible to give the new varieties to the women who choose and plant the rice, allowing them to experiment with them for a season so they could see if the new varieties are really suitable.
We underlined this point by selecting stalks of 50 of the rice varieties familiar to the people of the village. We asked two experienced rice-farming women (identified for us as the best rice farmers in the village) to sat back-to-back on a mat. The 50 rice varieties were set out in two lines, one line before each woman, who could not see the other but only talk. Our interviewer pointed to a strand in front of the first woman, and asked her to name it and describe it to the second woman, whose task it was to pick out the equivalent strand in front of her. Overall 51% of the rice varieties were picked out correctly when one woman gave the information to another woman. A dismal 10% of the rice varieties were successfully communicated when men attempted the task. Most of the men who tried simply told us that is not their job. The customary division of labor leaves rice selection to women.
The men see rice as a crop to be grown by the family. They know how to choose the area in the forest to cut for the farm, they know how to burn the bush, and they know how to build fences. Otherwise for them rice food is a thing to be eaten when they are hungry, but they don’t have the knowledge to choose rice varieties. Their culture and their masculine role in that culture prepare them to see what they are supposed to see when they look at rice. Women in turn see what they are supposed to see, and they use that knowledge well.
Mental and visual maps in rural forest areas in Liberia
I was walking the trails with a savvy village resident, a mature male farmer who more or less understood why I was living in the village. He pointed out to me what every half-way intelligent rural Kpelle farmer already knew, namely, that the best way to map an area is by landmarks rather than by degrees latitude and longitude and height above sea level. Mapping should proceed as follows: “Take the path out of the village that goes past the blind man’s house, cross the first stream, beyond which is a fork in the path. Go left and walk to a small cocoa farm. You won’t see the trail right away, but go through the cocoa and you will see the trail again. Not far from there is my farm. You will see a rice shed. My second wife ought to be there today.”
I was able to make a remarkably good map of all the fields planted in 1974, and the previous two years, by using such instructions. Of course, for my western mind, I then had to translate those instructions to a topographic map of the area made from an aerial photograph. Western science and African intelligence came together to help me make the map, so that I could relate every resident’s current and former farms to the main village and the hamlets.
What struck me forcibly was the topological similarity between my map of fields and trails, and a map of households in the village. Gbansu residents belonged to what they called “quarters”. In fact in Gbansu there were four quarters, but other villages have three or five or other numbers of quarters, which comprise people related by family ancestry and perhaps by ethnicity. Gbansu’s main quarters were for the chief, the leading elder, the Muslim Mandingo traders, and the newcomers. I laid out the map of the houses and households in the village, and then compared that map with the map of the roughly 60 square kilometers belonging to the village, and found that each reflected the other.
Further evidence of the relation appears in the personal and family ties between individuals, village quarters, hamlets, farm areas and community leaders. These relations were scaled from 0 to 5, where 0 means no relation and 5 an intimate relation. The relations between the 120 individuals, 4 quarters, 4 main trails out of the village, and 28 farming areas allow cluster analysis to show an underlying pattern which almost exactly matches two maps: the village distribution of houses, and the area distribution of trails and fields.
I did not go the next step, to see if what I found supports the fascinating fractal analysis of African villages by Ron Eglash. He looked at house construction, showing a fractal relation between spatial relations within houses, within compounds, within villages and within farming communities. I feel confident that if I had extended my work to include household architecture and compound patterns, I would find something like what Eglash reports. That, of course, is purely conjectural. However, the macro-micro parallel between field locations and village layout shows that village life makes good intellectual and geometric sense. People live and work in the spatial world in such ways as to reflect their interactions as individuals and as families.
Quality of erosion control structures in Lesotho
What you see is not what you get when you prepare to plow a field for new crops. The farmer who finds a tiny crack in the family field is likely just to plow it under and not worry. However, the soil in that place is looser than elsewhere, and the soil there remains slightly lower than the surrounding soil. If the farmer is fortunate, the maize, sorghum or wheat the farmer planted takes root and long-term damage is avoided. However, all too often an early rain falls before the seeds have fully germinated and their roots stabilize the soil. Water seeks the lowest place, and so flows from the side and from above, soon widening the crack. The race toward creating a serious donga has begun.
One of the tactics is to plow the field following the contours of the land. In that way each row of crops preserves its own soil. However sensible as the idea is, it merely postpones the problem for a season or two, until the gully widens to include more and still more of the field.
Another is to plow in such a way as to move and compact the soil in the very early stages to fill an incipient gully. This is not necessarily a good choice, because a crack in that field is likely part of a larger system of faults going all the way to the top of the hill above the field. Moreover, concentrating good top soil near a gully may lead to more loss of fertility than simply letting the gully form.
A third strategy is to create a barrier ridge above the field, so that rainfall is shunted away from any potential rivulets that might form. The problem here is that water may stand in a trough above the ridge, and slowly tunnel under the structure, opening the way for more and newer rills in the field below it.
Some experts have suggested, and even some farmers have taken, a radical alternative to crop farming. Let the land go back to grass or plant a cover crop such as alfalfa, so that animals may then graze the field while it stabilizes itself. However, Lesotho has a serious problem with over-population of cattle, horses, donkeys, sheep and goats. Wherever they can find a spare blade of green vegetation, they quickly eat to the roots what seemed to be a grassy pasture. Lesotho has been called “a ruined paradise”, because in the early 19th century it was covered with grass which provided a home to large herds of antelope and other animals. As soon as the most dangerous animal, namely human beings, crossed the river to escape the invading Afrikaners, wild animals (as well as the hunting-gathering Bushmen who lived in ecological balance with the other animals) were wiped out, the land was cultivated and the livestock that Basotho brought with them began immediately to eat their way through the natural grasslands.
Indeed both the Basotho, who took over the erstwhile paradise, and the foreign experts, who wanted to restore the paradise, behaved as they were socially and culturally conditioned to behave. In my case I can see (in my narrow blindness) that all the solutions made sense, including even the initial invasion of the land. What I and all these others see in our mind’s eye has not been not what we would get, because we had such a limited vision of what to do and what might happen if we did it.
Good friends of mine struggled seriously and sincerely to protect Lesotho, and I was called on to take sides. At this point I can only say “I don’t know”, a response which would only anger some who strongly think they know what to do and whose answers I think are clearly limited and even wrong. I have to conclude to say that WYSYWG is true, but only to the extent that the ruined paradise will continue to be ruined, and there is very little people can do about it except to go away and leave the land to do what it must do, before there is no land left at all.
Opportunities for success in informal sector business in Botswana
Informal business is also a case where the obvious is not obvious. Idealistic foreigners, as well as economists seeking to enhance southern African governments’ independence from South Africa, have hoped over the years to use small business as a way to escape the dependency trap. We could all see that citizens of Botswana were buying South African goods at a high rate, thus depleting resources that might have been available for local economic growth.
I organized a group of young men and women to inquire about small businesses in several major towns and villages across Botswana. I should have realized from the beginning that what I was doing was itself an example of a small informal business, namely, earning a bit of extra money by conducting a survey. These workers discovered about the economy what they in fact displayed about themselves. My workers were partly educated, largely unskilled young people who were trying to make a living without really knowing what they were doing. They varied widely in their commitment and ability. Two men were out-and-out drunks whose data had to be processed and interpreted with great care. One was a young man who had taken on a job too big for him. Two were young women who sought this assignment as a way to avoid getting involved with men who might abuse them. One was a highly intelligent woman who collected data thoughtfully and carefully, and went on to work for me as a data entry clerk who used that chance to learn computer skills and thus advance her career.
The informal sector that we studied was just the same as these six young people. It was a place for someone with no skills and no experience to try to advance herself or himself. The problem was that the enterprises we studied were competing with organized formal businesses, almost all from South Africa. A few businesses found a niche where they could make a living, but most started and then quit after a few months or years. We had hoped to interview each informal business person quarterly for a year, so that we could get a complete picture that took seasonal problems into account. So many businesses dropped out in the course of the year, and so many others appeared to take their places that the overall scheme could not be maintained
USAID and the Botswana government’s intention to give loans and teach skills to small businesses saw what they wanted to see in the informal sector. The Steve Jobs (the Apple Macintosh computer was just catching fire at that time) stereotype of an eager, energetic young person carving out a new business in a context that greatly needed energy, hard work and innovative skills simply did not work. I did not find a single informal business which had a chance to achieve success in competition with South African corporations.
I did identify one group that had found a niche, albeit a niche without real prospects. These were followers of a Zimbabwean prophet who taught the importance of polygyny, and denied the value of western education. They were carpenters and basket-makers, who sold wood and fruits and vegetables, and lived in tightly-knit communities in countries from Kenya to South Africa. They succeeded because they did not want to succeed outside their tight-knit sect. The closest I came to finding a genuinely competitive businessman was a photographer who hustled to find wedding, graduation, baptism and passport business, but he was having a hard time.
Notable among the failures were two people. One was a woman who sewed dresses in the northwest town of Maun. She had some customers, but her eventual fate was sealed by comments like that of her daughter: “Yes, she makes dresses. But I would never buy one myself. They look tacky, not like the South African dresses from Durban.” The other was a carpenter, who told me that he has no problem selling his chairs, but never seems to get ahead financially. I found that it cost him more to make a chair than he earned in selling it. He had no idea of cash management, let alone business expenses.
We, the outsiders, saw small businesses as a way to get ahead. Until I did this survey, I had no idea just how difficult it would be to create a successful small business, given the quality and the level of training of the workers and small business owners themselves. We started the study hoping to see what we wanted to see, in the same way as the people who gave great effort and spent the little money they had to start businesses that could not succeed.
Marriage as a useful option in Botswana
They and men like them were in theory potential mates for the two young women I mentioned who did not want to settle down in disastrous marriages. The third woman knew where she was going, and knew she did not want to marry. Her stories confirmed what I was told (admittedly purely anecdotally) about marriage and men in Botswana. She said males in Botswana are useless. She wanted to have a child, but she did not want the burden of a useless, abusive, drunken male eating her food and preventing her child from going to school. My principal professional colleague, herself out of a failed marriage, was very sympathetic with the girls we hired, and was dismissive of the three male data collectors, whom, incidentally, she had chosen as the best of a bad lot of candidates.
I had not been hired to survey marriage and family, an important subject which should be studied because of the alarming spread of HIV/AIDS in Botswana. The topic is important because marriage and the family are critical issues across sub-Saharan Africa. Marriage appears on the surface to those of us who have experienced successful and happy marriages to be an important and useful option. The jury is out on its value in Botswana.
A theologian from the Gambia named Lamin Sanneh converted from Islam to Roman Catholicism, and now teaches religion at Yale University. One of his most important books is Translating the Message (Orbis Books, 1989), in which he advances the thesis that the Christian Bible is inherently translatable, thus making it available to all languages and all cultures. The Koran cannot be translated, and thus a believing Muslim must learn Arabic in order to understand the holy book.
In this section I will discuss how translation has been critical for the work I have done. Without it I could have done little. With it, of course, there is lots of room for error and confusion. As a result I and my research associates were forced to be as careful as we could be in making sense out of what we learned. In this section I give examples of how I have used and perhaps also abused translation in my work.
Bible and other translations in Liberia and Lesotho
CHAPTER 24. WORDS HAVE MEANING ONLY IN HOW THEY ARE USED
It appears that one of the first achievements of this curious species called homo sapiens was to discover meaning where in pre-human days our ancestors struggled simply to survive. Scholars and dreamers have tried to understand the meaning of this quest for meaning. I recently read a remarkable book called The Singing Neanderthals (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005), with the thesis that music was the first way proto-humans managed to communicate with each other. According to the author Steven Mithen, music preceded spoken language, and was used to communicate feelings and moods and sensibilities, as social groups grew larger and more complex.
This is a radical change in the concept, not at all surprising given the rapid shifts in the lives of ordinary rural Liberians during the rule of President William V. S. Tubman. I am sure that if I did a similar study today, most people would say the meaning of work is to make money. I suppose I could use these findings to sing a romantic African socialist song about the breakdown of culture, about the alienation of work, about the loss of grounding in the earth. That would be an over-simplification, since in all cases the word work really means what the society intends it to mean. That conclusion is borne out by the significantly more common mention by schooled respondents and young adults on work as providing money, while unschooled and pre-adolescent children significantly more often emphasize work as farming. I came to Liberia in 1958, and most recently visited Liberia in 2009. I saw two different Liberias, two different worlds, shown by two radically different concepts of work.
The word kwii is very important in Liberia, and yet it is very hard to define it. The best explanations of the word that I have found lie in the way the word is used. The sentence completions illuminate what the word means to people in the rural area. The principal meaning, given in 12.7% of the responses, is that school makes it possible for a person to be kwii, contrasting with the 4.6% of respondents who say that non-kwii don’t attend school. 8.6% of respondents say that kwii is good, 5.1% say they will be kwii and 3.5% say that kwii people have become numerous.
What then is it to be kwii? It means having many possessions, building roads, helping relatives, using modern technology, having good jobs, and, in short, living well. 4.1% of respondents say that kwii people help develop the country, 2.9% say they help their families, and 1.9% say that the kwii bring schools and education.
In short, the term kwii is a clear marker for Liberia of the difference between the rich and the poor, between the powerful and the powerless. It is not identical with the old distinction between Americo-Liberians and rural country people who belong to indigenous ethnic groups. Rather it may better be considered to be a democratization of what was formerly an ethnic divide. What the word kwii means is the way it is used in ordinary speech to divide the old from the new.
Role of ethnicity in Liberia and Tanzania
A person’s name is a key to her or his identity in Liberia. We had the experience at Cuttington college when I was teaching there of students wanting to change their names on a regular basis. We finally had to set a rule, that the name under which a student entered college would be the same name under which he would graduate. It made life simpler, even though perhaps it did not allow the students the degree of political correctness they wished to display at a particular time.
An even deeper issue in Liberia was the question of the ethnic group to which a person belongs. It is not at all clear that the terms which have been applied to the 16 different language groups in Liberia have any real historical validity. Across Africa “tribes” were identified by missionaries, colonial officials and government administrators. Why two groups in Liberia, now called Kpelle and Loma, are really different “tribes”, is not obvious. Speakers of these two languages who live in the adjacent villages can understand each other perfectly well. There is as much difference between speakers of Kpelle near Monrovia and speakers of Kpelle on the Guinea border as there is between speakers of different subgroups of the Grebo language group in the southeast of Liberia. Yet some linguists want to differentiate the Grebo group into independent languages because they are mutually unintelligible. The underlying issue is one of naming a group and defining it therefore as different from another group. The reason is often arbitrary.
As I said earlier, in Tanzania the problem was solved by cutting the Gordian knot, and insisting that everybody learn a national language, namely, Swahili. Liberia has not done this; perhaps they should. The result is that in Tanzania distinctions that don’t really make a difference tend to be neglected and forgotten. Only the international border between Burundi and Tanzania has ensured that the two languages Kirundi in Burundi and Ha in Tanzania keep different names. They are mutually intelligible, and really should be called one language. It seems that people in Tanzania do not worry too much about distinguishing different dialects of Ha because of the overarching importance of Swahili.
The same problem of mutual intelligibility exists between Liberia and Guinea. The language called Kpelle in Liberia is called Guerze in Guinea. However, after independence for Guinea in 1958, Guerze is changing into a language sufficiently different from Kpelle that the two may now be genuinely different languages. Moreover, the fact that they are called by different terms in the two countries leads to further differentiation.
Restrictions on land use in Lesotho
What do the words mean? The laws have been codified, under the influence of the British colonialists, in “The Laws of Lerotholi”, in 1903. These laws include strict regulations, called leboella, controlling who manages the land and who may raise animals on what pieces of land. These laws worked just fine as long as the country’s population was quite small. By the end of the 19th century Lesotho only had about a quarter of a million people, quite a reasonable number, given the land area, to allow each family three fields to cultivate and a mountain pasture lands where they could keep their cattle, sheep, goats, horses and donkeys.
In the 20th century, however, Lesotho’s population grew very rapidly, so that the population in the year 2000 was approximately 8 times the population in the year 1900. This means an annual growth rate of roughly 2.1%. The land available for villages, fields and pastures did not grow during that century. In fact it shrank bit by bit, as land was eroded away through urbanization, over-cropping and through the simple process of heavy rains eroding a mountainous landscape.
The laws of Lerotholi have become, for many cultural and historical reasons, almost sacred to the people of Lesotho. Basotho respect their monarch and their chiefs, and they know that the chiefs were a principal barrier to eventual incorporation into a predatory South Africa. However, the conditions under which the laws were made were no longer operative after independence. The laws assumed a population small enough to make it easy to administer them.
Secondly, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries people moved from the low lands into the foothills and then into mountain valleys where they might be able to claim land for fields. This meant that less and less land was available for pastures. As a result the livestock had to be pushed onto overused grazing land, which meant further deterioration of the country’s environment. The laws of Lerotholi were designed to prevent overgrazing through the procedure I mentioned above called leboella. The land was to be reserved for future grazing until the chiefs or head men of the village declared it available for use. The result is that these laws are accepted in word only and not in deed. Thus Basotho see their land disappearing before their eyes but they are unable to do anything about it, since they are bound to respect laws that cannot be administered. What is the result? I’m afraid the answer is simple: respecting the laws in theory destroys their value in practice.
A similar phenomenon is present in the towns and villages of Lesotho. A settlement, according to the laws of Lerotholi, is a place where every household can have a place to keep their animals at night or in the winter, and also to grow garden crops. This means that the tradition in Lesotho is for urban sites to be substantial in size, so that people do not live on top of each other. Basotho resist living in apartment blocks, and only reluctantly have accepted living in one- or two-room houses linked together under a single roof. The ideal for people who moved to the cities is to have a plot of their own, probably at least 800 square feet.
This is not possible under the regulations imposed by the Lesotho government and consistent with the laws of Lerotholi, requiring that household sites be allocated under the traditional authority of the chief or headman. Urban Basotho have found a convenient way out, which is to find a compliant local chief or headman who was willing to state on paper that a new household in the town or village had in fact been given a right to that site before the regulations were imposed in 1979. It is the same pattern as with pastures: keep the letter of the law and ignore the substance.
Cooperation and cooperatives in Liberia and Lesotho
The kuu is also used for many other community purposes. I organized one to help build the house I would occupy in the village of Gbansu. Provided that I was willing to work with the group and offer a good meal at the end of the workday, I had no difficulty in finding people to work with me to get the house built. I did not have to be a permanent member of that group. I only had to respect the customary regulations which underlay the concept. Similarly people in the village could organize a kuu for pounding palm kernels, for fishing, for clearing a trail, or one of many other purposes.
Similarly in Lesotho the cooperative workgroup was a common way to harvest crops or prevent erosion or build a road. I saw them in action at several times during my work in Lesotho. I encountered, but did not work with, similar groups in other African countries.
A big difficulty with this idea is how to translate it to a modern money-based economy. Few cooperative groups have really succeeded in this new, modern, radically changed world. Individualism has a powerful hold on the minds and hearts of people who are accustomed to using money rather than community cooperation to achieve their goals. I mentioned earlier in this section how work means one thing for traditional Liberians and quite a different thing for modern Liberians. It is a transition from working together in order to survive, to working separately in order to make a living for one’s family. That transition has plagued people in Africa for as long as I have been working in the continent.
At the root of his problem and the problem in so many African communities is the word cooperation. Does the word means working together just for the benefit of a few? If so, those who are not served will do their best to break down what the cooperation achieved. As populations grow and resources diminish, this will remain a political and economic problem that Africa has to solve. I don’t know the answer.
Riddles and games and law cases in Liberia
The words actually used in such an exchange are never what they seem. The best way to describe them is as metaphors, poetic images that allow the speaker never to be explicit. I took advantage of the little knowledge I have of Kpelle ways when I wrote my series of novels on twins born in a remote Kpelle village in about 1930. I tell how they survive the difficult circumstances of a social system torn apart by global forces that crush marginal people without their even noticing the destruction. Much of the dialogue in the novels is indirect and couched in familiar metaphors. A proverb I have heard often expresses the underlying reality of social, political and legal discourse: “You put a rock in a clump of mud to hit me.” The mud is the exterior which may look harmless. The rock is the real message, and can cause harm. An exchange of harsh words may speak only about owls or scaly anteaters or spiders or cane rats. Each image has an implicit meaning under the circumstances and the respondent must know how to reply without mixing the metaphors.
Law cases must be decided in such a way that the community remains intact. Only under the most difficult circumstances must a guilty party be shamed to the point where everyone in the village court knows exactly what has happened. Maintaining community solidarity is of greater importance than stating matters so clearly that there is no appeal, no controversy about the matter. Words can hurt deeply, and people thus save their harshest judgments for private reflection in the evening after a meeting has ended.
Underlying this indirect and carefully guarded way of speech is a deep concern for secrecy. Every person has right to keep his or her own secrets private, even though these so-called secrets may be known by every village member. Not only is it rude to speak certain facts out loud, but it also brings disgrace on the speaker. The Kpelle phrase ifa mo refers precisely to this social rule. It means “Do not say it”. It has the greatest importance in secret society matters, but it is also important in other social matters. The typical Kpelle village is small, and everyone generally knows everyone else. Gossip is not condoned, and so the best way to avoid spreading gossip is to use metaphors, inserting them into proverbs and folk tales and riddles. The point is to speak one’s mind without actually violating social taboos.
CHAPTER 25. AFFECT ADDS MEANING AND DEPTH TO WORDS
Songs promoting work group efficiency in Liberia
Who was the musician, and why was he important? His small drum punctuated his commentary on the action of the day. He would praise one worker who opened up a thicket so that younger boys could clear the vines, saw grass and hornets’ nests, so common in the secondary forest. He would single out another who incompetently failed to bring down a tree like the one I leaned against: “Are you a man? Is your cutlass made of pig fat? Go call your sister to help you.” He would sing encouragement to a boy fighting to keep up with his older friends as they found themselves trapped in a network of vines. And he led the rest of the group as they laughed at me brushing myself off from falling.
The musician in a work group provides the affect, the charisma, the motivating energy that is clearly necessary in what is clearly a nasty, dirty, physically demanding task. What he said did not matter so much as how he said it, keeping the group spirit alive while he maintained the rhythm that made cutting the bush into a socially necessary ballet. He had a skill others did not have, and he was honored and valued for that skill.
No such energy inspires the lone individual who slogs away in the lonely muck of a swamp as he or she prepares the swamp for planting. One friend of mine attended a course in agricultural development at the Cuttington Rural Development Institute. He learned how to grow rice more quickly by using the swamp on his family land. I visited him at work in his swamp. As I mentally compared his struggle with the work of the group inspired by the singer who had cheered my fall when the tree was cut out from under me, I realized that swamp rice could not be a real option for subsistence farmers. Only if large flat swampy areas (rare in rural Liberia) were either cultivated Chinese style or cultivated with heavy machinery could this work.
A Kpelle friend and student John Kellemu wrote a careful paper stating why swamp rice could not feed rural Lesotho. The work was too hard, too lonely, too dirty – but, almost more important, no way had been found to infuse spirit into it, no way to bring the charisma of affect into the process. Rice production in swamps may make ergodynamic and economic sense but it does not make social sense.
Proverbs and folk stories in Liberia
The appropriate traditional procedure is to discuss a problem in metaphor, but only rarely in direct accusation. The situation has gone far beyond civil discourse if people turn to open accusations until poison and murder take the place of speech. My friend and former student Wilton Sankawulo, now dead, wrote several novels about rural life among his Kpelle people.
In one story a village boy was told about the dangers of crocodiles in the river, and he himself dreamed about the threats to his life. When he was at the river near his village one day a crocodile threatened him. He realized that his decision to kill the crocodile meant he must leave the village. The crocodile, feared in real life and even more feared in legend and story, would kill him one day. His own death would be averted only temporarily by his killing the crocodile in the river. He realized soon thereafter who that crocodile actually was, a rival in the village who did die on that same day. The line between legend, folk story, expectation and reality is very thin. The stories are more real than mere reality, and must be respected.
The clarity and elegance of proverbs depends on the imagery they invoke. They are in effect Kpelle poetry, and are subject to the same esthetic judgment of poetry in any language. To use a proverb in a lame and inappropriate manner is to lose the competition which underlies the exchange.
In the story just discussed an appropriate Kpelle proverb can be translated: “Sitting quietly reveals crocodile’s tricks”. The beauty of this proverb is that it combines vital aspects of traditional Kpelle culture, and does so with a simple image that any rural Liberian can appreciate. Resisting the temptation to take action prematurely is suggested by the word “sitting”. The word “quietly” reflects the importance of silence, whether hunting for an animal at night in the forest or listening in the blacksmith shop on the edge of the village for hints of actions by a rival. The word “reveals” implies the acquisition of knowledge through passive waiting rather than active digging. “Crocodile”, as I have already said, suggests both good and evil. For example, a crocodile’s bile must be disposed of by 12 village men acting together when a crocodile has been killed and is being prepared for cooking. “Tricks” rather than open fighting is the way to win a contest, as in the sad case of a young friend of ours who was poisoned when he was too active in promoting modernization and change in a village. He was offered food, and shortly thereafter died – with disastrous consequences no one was able or willing to explain.
This proverb is an excellent example of clever and smooth language use. It is what is expected of a good speaker. Another proverb makes the point: “If you say you are pineapple, show your juice”. If you say you are a clever and powerful speaker, demonstrate it with the excellence and elegance of your speech. The pineapple is a popular and delicious Lesotho fruit. However, a pineapple in a rural village is often not allowed to grow fully ripe, because someone would pick it in order to prevent other people from beating them to it. Pineapples thus do not get naturally ripe, but are always just short of ripeness. So the challenge to show the juice is to test and see if the person who is pineapple is fully ripe and supports his claim by demonstrating he has lots of juice.
Each of the proverbs and folk tales that I have heard and others that have been recorded can be analyzed to display their meaning. They must be used, however, in the right setting. People know very well the main stories and proverbs, and so they know quickly when the context is wrong. Communicating the right affect in a situation is done by choosing the right proverb or story and telling it in the right way. That is surely performance art.
Validation of social order by feasts and praise songs in Liberia, Lesotho and Ethiopia
Eating is, of course, how we all stay alive. But there is more to eating than food. Just as salt and pepper (plenty of it in Liberia) spice the food, so does food spice our lives as human beings. The people of Gbansu bought a large cow, trucked it into the village on a dirt track, slaughtered it, and had a grand feast. Mike Cole and I contributed money to buy the cow and liquor to enhance the occasion. The words which were spoken at the occasion were probably both perfunctory and conventional, but the affect was made real and alive by the meat and drink.
It says something deep about humanity that the Jewish Passover and the Christian Holy Communion are based on food: the flesh of a sacrificed sheep, the bread of the matzoh and the communion wafer, and the wine to remember the blood of Christ. The words are incomplete without the tangible representation through physical bread and wine. Christians have argued over the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but the practice of sharing the deeply symbolic meal continues despite the debates. No citizen of Gbansu would have been satisfied to have come together to talk – and only talk – about the life and times of Oldman Ben.
I attended a lecture this year, given by a University of London scholar Rebekah Lee, on what she called “the moral imaginary” of death in South Africa. She spoke of the dreams that afflict the living until they honor the dead with a proper burial, with a feast to celebrate the occasion. I have spoken with bereaved people in Lesotho about their dead loved ones.
They know that the dead are never truly dead, are never truly admitted to the new life of the “living dead” until an animal is killed and eaten. I remember a poor family in a Lesotho village who had never been able to honor a son who died in the South African mines. They were too poor to buy a sheep. In the end they explained to me and their fellow villagers that the little scrawny chicken they killed and shared with their neighbors was equivalent in their minds to the sheep they wished to offer but could not.
The aesthetically richest feast I attended while in Africa was in the village of Ankober, high in the mountains of Ethiopia. Ankober was the original home and capital city of Menelik who became emperor of Ethiopia in the late 19th century. On a hill in the center of Ankober is a typical round Coptic church, with a covered walkway surrounding the inner holy site where the Eucharist is celebrated. The occasion was one of the many days when Coptic Christians celebrate the Virgin Mary. The local priest with two assistants came out of the inner holy place bearing a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, the original of which is supposedly kept safe in Axum, where only one person, a specially sanctified priest, is allowed to see, over which a Eucharist is celebrated four times annually.
In this feast, the priest and his assistants, magnificently robed, marched around the covered walkway and then came out to join the congregation. All the while men kept up solemn drumming, slow and deep, as the whole crowd sang Coptic liturgical hymns. At the end of the procession, the priest returned with the replica of the Ark into the church, and the congregation began to celebrate the feast with a grand spread of food and drink, lavish beyond the deep poverty of the villagers who shared the feast. I felt the deep reality of their faith in the Ark of the Covenant, connecting them back to whoever and whatever Moses means in our common faith.
What is the reality underlying these very human activities? Words are spoken and written about the events that are remembered in the ceremonies. In most cases, however, the believers (including myself in all these occasions) are moved by symbols more powerful than words. The affect of song, dance, drum, bread, meat, wine, rich robes, communal movements are what bring the event and the words alive.
Alcohol brewing and sale as social stimulus in Liberia, Lesotho and Tanzania
Sugar cane has been grown in Liberia for generations, and the early settlers brewed rum from the extracted juice. What made a real difference for rural people was the imported still, which the Firestone Rubber Company sold across the country. The kit included a mechanism for grinding the sugar cane, needing a long handle so that two men could reduce the cane to a pot of juice. The next step was a fire to boil the liquid and a series of pipes and chimneys to bring the condensed alcohol vapor into a second pot where it could ferment.
I have tasted the liquor, and I have to admit it was probably the worst-taking stuff I have ever tried to drink. I also have to admit it has a powerful kick, and it probably makes the hard work of clearing the bush more acceptable. The musician sings the praises of the workers, who are plied with liquor. The excellence of the family hiring the group is measured by the quality of the food provided for the mid-day meal, and the quantity of hard liquor. The workers know and accept the customary way to clear the bush, since they know it brings another season’s supply of rice. Those rational facts are not enough to bring the workers home at night satisfied with the day’s hard work. To paraphrase, a cup full of liquor makes the hard work go down.
In Lesotho and Tanzania, where maize and sorghum are basic staples, beer is brewed from the sprouted grain. A few days in the pot after sugar and spices are added are enough to make a quite edible drink. It is not normally taken to the fields, but is held at home for people to return from the field or from caring for animals before a common pot is shared with those willing to pay the small amount of cash the brewing woman requires. Meeting together over a pot of sorghum or maize beer allows village people to renew their life together as a community. As people drink more, they become more voluble. With this lubrication, secrets are shared, decisions made, news spread and complaints articulated.
Especially in times of trouble or disturbance villagers will crowd into the home where the beer of the day is sold. Matters kept quiet are openly mentioned, at times to the benefit of the whole community, but at other times to the detriment of those outside the beer-drinking circle.
At its best, in the ideal rural situation, the afternoon beer-sharing and beer-drinking party is not just a party. The affect of these times of communal sharing is a sense of communal well-being. A person who never appears at such occasions is likely to be under suspicion, perhaps a witch, perhaps someone with a life story she is not willing to share with other. What is told – or not told – at these events acquires authenticity and verisimilitude from the ambience within which it is told. Community coherence is the result of sharing, provided that the community is in its core a healthy place for its residents.
Where this goes wrong is in the urban areas, where unemployment is rife and where people are divided by class, ethnic group, economic status or religion. To add to the dangerous social mix are the ingredients that enhance the brew. Women who brew urban beer get a reputation through the power of their beer, adding commercial spirits or, far worse and more dangerous to health and life, commercial alcohol and even (so the report has it) shoe polish. A good friend of mine did her doctorate in Lesotho on urban beer halls, serving for a time as a bar maid. The shift from a wholesome community institution to a drunken center for crime and violence was, in her view, deceptively gradual.
I found in my research both in Liberia and in Tanzania that one of the best ways to learn about the village or the town was to sit in the beer hall, and enjoy a bit of beer while listening to the village stories. Admittedly, I did not learn as much as I could have, had I known the local language, but my interpreters kept me well informed, while I was able to observe the interactions within the group of drinkers Not only did I learn who brews the best beer, but I learned how different houses served different purposes and different clienteles. I can only repeat what Gilbert and Sullivan gave one of the characters in the operetta The Mikado to say when he was challenged about the doubtful truth of his statements. He defended his words as “adding verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.” That verisimilitude is precisely what I mean by affect. It is not inherent in the words, but it enables them to be accepted.
One night while we were living in the village of Gbansu we were told that a very senior person, a leader in the secret society, had died, not in Gbansu itself, but in a nearby village. We were warned that the real village leaders would show themselves that night when the body was brought back for burial. However, we were told clearly and strongly that we should stay in our house and close the windows so we could see nothing. Uninitiated children and all women were likewise warned to remain indoors, because the Big Thing was coming.
We could hear the whole event as the elders arrived with the body at about 1:00 a.m. Drums accompanied the body, as we expected, but along with the drums came the most eerily beautiful singing, accompanied by a light and delicate flute-like song. I never in my time in Liberia saw such a musical instrument, and I heard it only on that occasion. I was dazzled by its beauty, and was quickly tempted, not to open the windows that shut us in, but to record the singing on my tape recorder. I felt at the time I should not record the music, but I did so against my better judgment. What continues to astound me is that the tape which I filled with music that night is the only tape I cannot find in my collection. I like to think, in my perhaps superstitious, perhaps respectful, perhaps guilty mind, that the Big Thing made sure that tape would be lost.
Before we went to Gbansu, the District Commissioner in charge of the area, actually a good friend and the father of one of my Cuttington students, warned me that if I ever revealed any Poro secrets he would have me immediately expelled from Liberia. I took him seriously, and whereas I am sure I was able by intuition and careful listening to learn many of the secrets, I was very careful to respect his stern warning.
My first novel Red Dust on the Green Leaves skirted the edge of revealing information about the Poro and Sande secret societies. To be sure of my position, I asked one of my leading research assistants, a Lutheran pastor who had been a student of mine at Cuttington, to monitor what I said in the book. He assured me that he was a fully initiated member of the Poro, and had in fact achieved advanced levels in the society. He saw no conflict between Christianity and Poro membership, and deeply respected both traditions. He read my book very carefully, asked me to modify some statements, and then allowed me to put his name at the front of the book. It was like a Catholic Church imprimatur or nihil obstat. That affirmation came in handy often during my visits to Liberia, because people came to me quietly to warn me that I could be punished for my supposed breach of secrecy. I was able to point to Kellemu’s approval, and I was found acceptable.
I do not think there are deep profound secrets in the Poro society. A white American friend of mine found that when he was walking in the deep forest. He heard drums and horns coming down the path. He knew enough about the society to realize that a group from the Poro was coming in his direction. There was nowhere he could go. He could not turn back. The forest was too thick to duck into. So he pulled out his pocket handkerchief, tied a blind around his eyes, and turned to look in the direction of the forest. The group passed him, horns and drums still playing. The last man to pass turned and whispered “Thank you”. Both sides knew what was happening. Both sides knew the secrets. Both sides respected that knowledge.
A more dangerous form of secrecy may be connected with the Masonic order, which has had a lodge in Liberia for almost the entirety of that country’s history. It is strongly believed among country people that the Masons take human lives, just as deviant rural societies. These groups – both western as in the Masonic craft, and traditional, as in Snake and Water societies – are reputed, possibly correctly, to use secrecy to hide evil. To the best of my knowledge, the Poro does not do so, even though probably I might not approve some of its practices.
In short, secrecy is another way in which people sustain and support their words and action. They may or may not have something substantial to hide, but their words and their actions acquire the patina of power by being hidden. The affect resulting from rules of secrecy provides the salt and pepper with which to season what might very well be quite ordinary group membership.
Two false perspectives on beauty can both be captured by the statement: “Things are not the way they used to be.” A person who says that may be nostalgically looking back to some perfection which has been lost, the golden age which yielded to silver, then bronze, and finally wood. The person may also be rejoicing at the final surrender of outdated ideas and images. “The times they are a-changing” can thus reflect both sadness at the loss of the past, and joy that the slate is now clean.
I have to admit that what I saw and personally felt during my time in Liberia inclined me more to the nostalgic attitude. Selfishness and greed seemed to dominate the rapidly changing pragmatic world, in many ways a world of escape from old dead customs. These old ways often seemed beautiful to me, yet they were rejected by a young generation who wanted money, power and freedom from the restraints the past imposed on them. In this section I will explore what people in the countries where I lived and worked thought about beauty, and how they chose to make their own new form of beauty in a difficult, often harshly pragmatic world.
I bought a similar mask from a trader in Liberia, probably the best piece in my collection of about 40 artifacts from West Africa. I often display it on my living room wall, and in so doing remember the beauty we saw in Liberia. I share that experience when I hold in my hand a small “passport mask” I was given by Oldman Ben, the Gbansu village elder who was honored in a ceremony to which I contributed last month. Harvard University’s Peabody Museum has several shelves of Liberian masks collected in the 1930s and 1940s by Dr. George Harley in eastern Liberia. All are beautiful, not entertainingly beautiful, but mind-and-heart-challenging beautiful.
I sometimes wear a shirt, sewn with home-spun from strips of home-grown, home-woven, home-dyed cotton cloth, when I want to honor my Liberian past. It was made by Tamba Tailor, a paramount chief in northern Liberia who played a significant role in seeking peace after the Liberian civil war. I also own a chief’s gown and two bolts of country cloth not yet sewed into garments. The cloth has an austere beauty like that of early American Shaker crafts.
The art growing out of the liberation struggle in South Africa, however, is of a wholly different quality and power. Hanging on my wall are paintings and wood carvings from the 1970s and 1980s in South Africa, crying out in powerfully modern ways about the pain of the struggle for freedom and justice. Liberation art from Zimbabwe has the same intensity as people sought to replace white domination, and still shows that intensity in the fight against Robert Mugabe who has betrayed the revolution that he once do bravely led.
But not Liberia! I find it hard to understand, as I think about the artistic poverty of today’s Liberia as compared with the rich heritage of the past. I can still see much that lies within my own humanity when I admire the wood carving and country cloth from Liberia’s past. I fear for Liberia today, when I fail to see a renewal of that creative spirit of the past.
Traditional house styles in Liberia and Lesotho
Two housing styles caught my eye when I first moved to Liberia. I was struck by the good sense of the 19th century Americo-Liberian house, set on pillars, with windows to catch a breeze to relieve the heat of the day and in that way welcome what little cool weather the night could bring. I similarly admired the traditional thatch hut in rural villages, with a tall roof that allows smoke to escape, keeping the house cool during the day. Both house styles had external beauty and simplicity, and were sensible in terms of the wet tropical environment.
I have yet to see a new style emerge in the modern Liberia. The corrugated iron (called zinc) roof keeps heat and smoke in the house, and is generally unpleasant to occupy. And yet it is the preferred alternative to the old-style houses, both in Monrovia and in the rural towns and villages. Wealthier people build larger houses, but the natural air-conditioning provided by being built on pillars and by the open windows with overhanging eaves has been replaced by modern air-conditioning, which in today’s Liberia requires a generator to roar and produce fumes whenever it operates. I find neither beauty nor efficiency in what I have seen. Perhaps I am a throwback, but I appreciate what came before and am not happy with the replacement.
It is true that the old style of village housing requires regular replacement of the thatch, and also opens the house to infestation of insects and rodents. It is also true that the old settler mansions of the coastal towns did not have such amenities as water, sewage and electricity. My feeling is that surely it would be possible to design houses that are functional and beautiful.
Traditional Basotho houses make social and economic sense, and are often quite beautiful. They are built of stone, strong and sturdy to withstand the winter cold, coated with strong and permanent clay on the outside often painted with geometric designs, and roofed with thatch. These houses are being phased out and replaced by ugly zinc-roofed concrete block houses. The traditional houses are relatively cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The exact opposite is the case with new flat-roofed concrete block houses, now considered by the Basotho to be modern and desirable, even though very hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
One feature of traditional housing in Lesotho that has caught the eye of many observers is the regular patterned surfaces of lines rubbed into the floor and wall. The patterns are called ditema, and reflect the lines of furrows in a ploughed field. At best these markings are emphasized with warm earth colors, and have a beauty that observers respond to immediately. They are good examples of the shock of recognition, but they are less and less used today.
Why is this? I don’t know, and I am saddened by the fact.
Two expatriates in Lesotho built houses that are beautiful and also fit the Lesotho environment. Both men married locally, and tried hard to be part of local culture, while at the same time expressing their own creativity. To me it is sad that Basotho have not made the same efforts on their own behalf. Even new houses of the wealthy are ostentatious, inefficient and ugly. Where, my Basotho friends, is your seemingly lost sense of beauty?
The lecture I mentioned earlier on death and dying in South Africa included a clip from a video of women taking the body of their friend and relative from Cape Town to the Eastern Cape, a thousand kilometers away. The women sang with vigor, accurate pitch and rhythmic intensity as they loaded the body, and then accompanied it to its final resting place.
Our knowledge of singing in South Africa goes back to the early 19th century musician Tsikana Gaba, who wrote what is sung today as his Great Hymn. I sang it with friends at the College of the Transfiguration in Grahamstown South Africa. A great Xhosa hymn remains today the national anthem of South Africa “Ntsikelele Afrika”, written by Enoch Sontonga in 1897. We sang that hymn in 1960 at Cuttington College in Liberia when so many African countries gained their independence. We sang it in Lesotho with ANC refugees who came across the border in order to get training for the struggle. We were excited to hear it on 10 May 1994 when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president. The song continues to thrill me, as the beauty and power of that song resonate in my mind and heart.
Good singing by black South Africans kept the community spirit alive during the apartheid era, but it was more than simply a desperate search for solidarity. There is a choir in every church, school, and social organization. These choirs compete to show their skill and fervor. Nor do these choirs simply stand on the stage and sing. They dance,with the choir director their principal dancer, setting the pace and exciting the audience and choir alike.
I was caught up in the zeal and excitement of choirs when I was in Lesotho. When I was in Liberia, I had conducted operas and operettas, notably Die Fledermaus and The Mikado. I have always taken special joy in music, and I enjoyed involving students. We had fun singing together, and produced something more or less satisfactory. When I came to Lesotho, the pace quickened, and I was called on to help a group of Basotho and expatriates make music together. It was a chance to combine western and African singing skills in a joint venture, which was in many ways the high point of my life in southern Africa.
I didn’t know when I agreed to help conduct a small group in Maseru that it would lead us eventually to a performance in 1989 of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. By that time we had joined forces with the Soweto Symphony Orchestra, a group of passionate musicians who were unable to realize their potential because of the apartheid restrictions. We invited them to join us for performances of Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Creation, Mozart’s Requiem and other pieces.
Music continues to flourish in South Africa. When Judy and I finally were able to enter South Africa, after years during which the apartheid government refused us a visa (as was the case also when we sang Bach in Maseru), we went annually to the Grahamstown Arts Festival in which the best of old and new music, art, drama and dance showed the creative heart of that now liberated nation. The shock of recognition lay in our finding our common humanity in music.
The environment as a work of art
I remain a seriously divided person. One side of me when I finished my doctorate was steeped in the western cultural and intellectual tradition. The other had no desire to enter the conventional academic race of publish-or-perish. Judy and I went to Africa almost by accident, since our initial approach to the Episcopal Church was to find work as teachers in Alaska. We were told that they had no jobs in our special areas, and were asked “What about Liberia?” Our first question was, in effect, “where is Liberia?’ Many influences quickly followed, including both natural spirit and Holy Spirit, making Liberia the natural and obvious choice.
I was quickly struck by the beauty of Liberia. Even post-colonial, pre-industrial Monrovia had its own bizarre attraction. More to my liking was the rural setting of Cuttington College, set in what really was a very large clearing in the tropical rain forest. The college campus was not beautiful, but it became home for me and my family. It took little time for me to fall in love with the remnants of a culture that seemed a natural extension of that forest. Some romantic chord resounded in my heart and mind on my first walk away from the fragile alien outpost of western civilization I had signed onto as a missionary teacher.
In my divided consciousness I realized that the leper colony I visited very soon after our arrival was also a reality. I knew that the death of one-year-old Paul Cason, the son of our fellow teachers at Cuttington, from cerebral malaria was a visible sign of the power of the forest. The poor and hungry children that hovered like insects outside the bright lights of the college dining hall and dance hall to pick up scraps could not be ignored. The sullen anger of an old man standing near a thatch fence barring my way sullied my pleasure at taking his photograph.
It is not at all surprising that the forest and its village residents wanted nothing better than to escape what I found so beautiful. I learned slowly over the years how those same village people had worked painfully to bring the forest under control – and here we were with the power to do instantly what they failed to do over centuries. Much of the remaining rain forest was still alive and fresh when we arrived in Liberia, and we responded to it with enthusiasm and love – but it was a beauty that we were helping to destroy by our very enthusiastic presence.
I have to speak the same way about our life in Lesotho. Maseru still resembled a frontier village when we arrived in 1975. Men in blankets, fresh from villages and pastures in the mountains, could still tie their horses to hitching posts in front of the South African-owned Frazier’s Store. I could sit on the ground in the stone hut of chief Thaha Letsie in the mountains, while he told about his wives, his maize and wheat fields, and his favorite horse, which was tethered outside the hut, impatient before being fed as snow began to fall around him.
I realized what Thaha did not have – and presumably resented not having – when I visited the modern house of his brother Leshoboro just two miles away. I was offered Scotch whisky as I listened to his record player in a living room I might have found in Massachusetts. The contrast was all the more striking when I realized how uncomfortable I had really been when sitting on Thaha’s dirt floor, and how my eyes stung with the smoke from a dung fire.
I have learned to accept the uneasy passing of the world our first ancestors first changed when they acquired fire, domesticated animals, planted crops, built towns and cities, learned to write and read, and made sure they did not have to suffer the discomforts of their fathers. I selfishly want the beauty of the environment to remain, while I live comfortably. This section, of all the sections in this account of mine of what I have learned about cognition in Africa, ends for the present on a sad note. Neither the people of African nations where I worked nor we who lived with them and tried to help them, have been able to do more than fence off and thus in a weak way preserve some of the awesome
beauties we do our best to destroy.
Local, national, regional, continental and world history has always interested me, even before I worked on my PhD at Columbia. Much of the social and economic research I have done depends on understanding what caused the situation that development agencies are trying to modify and improve. I’ve always resisted the kind of thinking displayed by an economist in Lesotho who told me he had no interest in previous agricultural development projects, because he was now going to do the job right. The lchcautobio attributed to Henry Ford, that history is (the actual lchcautobio included the qualifier “more or less”) bunk, must yield to the statement by Santayana, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
In the following paragraphs I will look more closely at historical consciousness among the peoples with whom I worked. The perception of past history pervades all areas of life, because human thought does not conform to narrow specialties. We humans are simultaneously economic, social, political, religious, ethical, and technological beings.
No such entity as Lesotho existed before King Moshoeshoe I consolidated his rule across the river in lands largely peripheral to the main Sotho settlements west and north of the Caledon. The 200 years of Lesotho as a kingdom to the east of the river have been marked by social and political development and ecological collapse. A book by Leslie Brown with a distinctively colonial perspective, Africa: A Natural History (Random House, 1965), speaks of the highlands of Lesotho as a “A Ruined Paradise”. The book asserts that prior to increased population of both Africans and Europeans there would have been large numbers of grazing animals. The San who finally disappeared from the mountains of Lesotho in the early 20th century survived up to the end of the 19th century by hunting these animals. I saw a few of the last of these antelopes in the eastern mountains of Lesotho in 1976. I doubt if any remain today.
What is to me most important about the six or eight antelope I saw that winter afternoon in 1976 was the statement by Thaha Letsie, the chief of the area, that he protected their right to live with people. He ordered his people to leave them free to graze and share the land with cattle and people. Thaha was the man in whose stone hut I suffered from eye-stinging smoke before I walked two miles to enjoy Scotch whiskey at his brother’s very modern house. Thaha cared deeply about his high and remote corner of the ruined paradise. The brother did not concern himself about such things. The contrast between the two brothers’ reactions reflects attitudes toward preserving the environment.
In this context, I stress that he was the only Mosotho I ever spoke with who showed an active and vigorous concern for the mountain environment which was by that time already ancient history. Had he been able to read – which he was not – he would have appreciated the reference to a ruined paradise. For him that paradise was his several wives, his stone hut, his very beautiful prize horse – and the antelope he forbade his people from killing.
Thaha’s story is reflected in a survey I did in 1976. I asked about problems in crop farming and livestock management. Only 3% mentioned erosion in the lowlands and another 3% mentioned shortage of good pasture. The Food and Agriculture Organization simply could not accept these findings, since – for very good objective reasons – these two issues were high on their agenda. Their erosion control measures received cooperation from village people only if the people were paid with money or food, but not because the people believed in what was being done. The history of rapid and radical decline in the natural resources of grasses, trees, soil and wild animals simply did not figure in the thinking of the vast majority of people. I personally think it should be an issue of prime importance, but it is the rare Mosotho who would agree.
I did meet three farmers in the lowlands who took an ecologically different perspective from the vast majority of their neighbors. One was the man who managed his field so well that he got twenty times the production as his neighbor with an identical field. The second was a man who had no field of his own and thus made a field in a deep gully by hauling run-off soil and planting shrubs while the neighbors looked on his efforts and laughed. The third was another man who brought enough soil up from a gully to build a garden by his house. People also laughed at him until he was able to sell vegetables to feed his hungry neighbors.
I was asked in 1999 to write a paper for a major environmental review. I did my best to portray the attitudes I found, and was frightened by the fact that the editorial board simply did not want to publicize the broad lack of interest in environmental decline that I found. The gap between academics and ordinary people was too great for the other scholars to accept. I can understand their attitude, but I also know that it shows up a serious failure of academics to listen to ordinary people.
I sum up with another story. I visited a mountain village with a group of senior Basotho officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and their counterpart foreign experts. The visitors were announcing a plan to close access to a mountain pasture area for restoration of a natural environment already nearly destroyed. The people listened quietly and politely and said all the right things to the visitors, who left satisfied they had made helped save a vital area of natural grassland. I stayed behind in order to administer my questionnaire. The people were simply too angry to answer my questions. Instead they told me what they thought about outside experts telling them what to do. It did not matter whether the experts were Basotho or not. They wanted to manage their own land, and would continue to do so whether or not outsiders tried to keep them off the land. They had listened politely at the meeting, because one treats visitors with courtesy, but they had no intention of doing what was demanded.
I later shared ideas with a friend who studied traditional ways of managing field erosion. She was able to demonstrate, at least to her own satisfaction, that foreigners’ methods actually led to more erosion than to saving the fields from destruction. She implied that the Basotho have their ways to deal with erosion, some of which she said are the best that could be done under the very difficult conditions that prevail in Lesotho. I don’t know enough to agree or disagree. All I know is that the dominant academic and foreign solution to the problem addresses a problem that the Basotho don’t acknowledge.
This elderly man, incidentally the uncle of one of my students at Cuttington College, had arrived in Liberia for the first time before World War I. He told me his version of the opening up of the interior of Liberia. Before the Mandingo arrived, he claimed, the Kpelle people knew nothing about civilization. He and his colleagues brought clothing and money and the comforts of an advanced society to people who were to him just simple naked savages. He was proud of the advances in Liberia that his people had brought.
My research colleagues and I had met similar attitudes in conversations with foreigners in Monrovia, people who had no idea of a long lineage of history in the interior. Even some of the Americo-Liberians had no idea that technology persisted among indigenous peoples over long centuries before the first settlers arrived in 1822.
I learned how the Kpelle had smelted iron for centuries before western traders brought metal tools. An old man explained to me what he remembered from his childhood when his elders took him to see iron being smelted. A termite hill was hollowed out, with a space at the bottom for wood and high iron content ore added from the top. The fire was lit, and kept burning for at least two days until molten iron flowed out an opening in a space above the fire. The old man was not able to explain how they kept the chemical purity in balance. A colleague of mine explored that question in detail, and showed how the resulting product was metal of better quality than the steel in implements imported by the Germans and sold in shops in rural Liberia.
Iron smelted in this way has been long present in rural Liberia. Historians believe that the Mande-speaking peoples who entered Liberia by roughly the year 1500 brought skills in iron smelting, blacksmithing, rice cultivation and cotton cloth production. These traditions were all alive when I first entered Liberia. I remember, for example, seeing a blacksmith repair the firing mechanism of a shotgun by heating and shaping a piece of iron to make and insert the needed parts.
My Mandingo informant who remembered Liberians having no clothing before he and his colleagues arrived in the early 20th century did not realize that the skill of growing cotton, spinning thread, weaving and dying cloth was an ancient skill, recognized as such by the settlers who arrived from the New World in the 1820s.
1200 respondents – and thus trends are merely suggestive.
Looking at all the respondents, there is a clear division by education. The more highly educated the English-speaking respondents are, the more likely they are to identify themselves by their ethnic group, commonly thought of as Americo-Liberian. The opposite is true for those who speak an indigenous language. For them receiving more education inclines them to think of themselves as Liberian, not as members of their ethnic group. This is the great problem that Liberia has faced over the years, and continues to face, namely, the divide between an educated aristocracy which identifies with the settler class and a poorly educated majority which resent the settlers. As education spreads more widely in the country, the gap declines. There is also a significant tie between ethnicity and wealth, but my guess is that education is the stronger force. The numbers of cases are far too few to speak of ethnicity in relation to specific ethnic groups.
I turn to my experiences in Liberia to confirm the pattern. When I first came to Liberia the Americo-Liberian ethnicity was not only dominant, but was also the goal for most upwardly-mobile Liberians. The first dance I attended at Cuttington College in 1959 was deeply part of Americo-Liberian culture, with the big dance of the evening being a quadrille. The leader, the late Burgess Carr, an Episcopal priest of impeccable but somewhat mixed Americo-Liberian ancestry, called out “sixteen hands around”, and everyone in the hall joined in a large circle. The dance was a cross between a square dance and a New Orleans ring dance. Everyone joined in with pleasure, including the few who had an indigenous origin. I never again witnessed or shared in a party that danced the quadrille, which was in 1959 already old-fashioned, thereafter quickly replaced by West African Highlife.
During the 1960s the mood shifted. At first, cultural entertainments at the College, including many I helped organize, were very western. But gradually students began to recover traditions known to them from their childhood. At first the students who organized the events were somewhat embarrassed, trying in an awkward way to imitate medicine men or magicians that they more or less recalled. Not long after that a Liberian cultural troupe was organized in Monrovia, and became internationally popular.
At the end of the 1960s I began teaching a course in African traditional philosophy. I taught the course three or four times, and each time there was a bit more interest in finding out what it meant to be African. Students took books out of the library or out of my own collection, but they were also encouraged to hunt into their own cultures and backgrounds to find what it meant to think as an African.
Rediscovery of the past is an ongoing process, but it nonetheless must compete with serious modernization. I have not seen in Liberia the kind of strong recovery of tradition that is so evident in Nigeria. People wear “native dress” only on special occasions, but not as a day by day normal custom. It is true that fewer people change their names to a Western name than in the past, while more rediscover a traditional ethnic name that they use. However, there seems to be no problem continuing to use Western names and addressing others in a Western way.
In short, what the Afrobarometer survey found reflects actualities on the ground. Liberia is moving away from emphasis on traditional ethnicities, while at the same time it tries to find a genuinely African identity. Admittedly, the United States is still the role model in education, business and culture, but the middle ground, as reflected in the Afrobarometer survey, is where most Liberians find themselves. They have dual identity straddling the gap between the old, as defined by their ethnic traditions, and another version of the “old”, as defined by the American connection.
The Afrobarometer project asked the same sorts of questions of people in Lesotho as they asked in the other countries around Africa. However, the answers that the Lesotho respondents gave differ widely from those which the Liberian respondents gave. The issue in this case was not a matter of westernization versus tradition. An overwhelming 98% of the Basotho respondents could identify a clan (or equivalent ethnic body from another country) to which they belong. The clans have a long history in Lesotho, having been united under the royal Bakoena clan when King Moshoeshoe I brought the people together into one country in the early 19th century. There is still a very slight, but not statistically significant, tendency for the Bakoena to feel they are better off and more influential politically than the other clans.
Cultural ties to the past are also not as strong now as they were when I first came to Lesotho in 1975. I remember a graduation ceremony from initiation school and thinking that Lesotho is a country with a living and vital tradition. Initiation schools continue in Lesotho, but my impression is that they are by now more nearly a fallback position for those who fail to succeed in the national economy than they are honoring a culture that respects and nourishes its heritage. The Sesotho language survives and the chieftainship system is still active and respected, but these are accepted and used within a culture that looks outward rather than inward, just as in Liberia where ethnicity does not impose an isolated and separate way of life.
I was very surprised to find that the Afrobarometer study for Lesotho does not include questions about land ownership. My surprise is not only about some supposed others who wrote the questions, but also about myself. I helped to write the initial Sesotho questionnaire, and have played a role in subsequent revisions. Why did we not take up this issue? Either we simply did not think of it, or it was not an issue that the relatively conservative political scientists and political economists on the management team thought we should bring up. Certainly land ownership and land alienation has been of primary importance in African countries as they fought free of control by Europe and America.
The questionnaire for Liberia does include questions on land ownership and conflict. The problem which causes most conflict and violence in Liberia, according to the Afrobarometer study, is land, noted by 63% of the respondents. The other problems likely to cause violence are economic issues (46%), ethnic differences (40%), political disputes (26%), interpersonal or family quarrels (25%), social problems such as alcohol abuse (22%), and religion (21%).
The land ownership responses were to me somewhat surprising, from the perspective of an earlier period in Liberia. I lived in the remote rural village of Gbansu in 1974, admittedly a long time ago, more than a generation before the Afrobarometer study was conducted in 2008. At that time the people of Gbansu felt that each family had traditional rights to areas of the forest, rights which I think were allocated by the village chief and elders. Before I came to Gbansu, a Liberian from outside the community bought a piece of land through a dubious transfer sealed by several bottles of whisky and a small amount of money. I remember at least one informant speaking with anger about that loss of communally managed village land.
It is also well-known that the then-president William R Tolbert bought many parcels of land along the trail connecting Gbansu with the main motor road. Tolbert’s exploitation of rural people was one of the reasons why he was eventually assassinated. He raised the price of rice nationally, partly in order to increase his own income through sale of rice on land along the trail leading to Gbansu.
I think that the general feeling of the residents of the village at that time was that land belongs to the community, although an exception would be made in the case of a successful citizen of the village. I saw land marked as owned by a Gbansu citizen named Galawulo on the main trail into the village. He is a successful businessman and an important politician, which is probably why he was able to lay permanent claim to land. It is also true that the village elder Oldman Benjamin took a substantial piece of land for himself. I believe he never took legal title, but rather used his site and the surrounding forest as his own sub-village within the traditional village framework.
The larger issue which is not taken up by the Afrobarometer study is the very real question of ownership of the forest. At the time I lived and worked in Liberia the question of ownership and use of the country’s substantial forests was, to the best of my knowledge, never addressed publicly. For example, no one that I know of queried the decision by two of the Gbansu families to make their farms on the north bank of the St. Paul River, away from the customarily accepted village land. The north bank land lies in the Gola Forest, which at the time I lived in Gbansu was dense high forest. In the 1960s and 1970s the forest throughout Liberia was largely left intact. Liberia then owned the majority of what was left of the upper Guinea rain forest, most of the rest having been destroyed by “development” in West African countries from Nigeria to Ivory Coast.
The forest became very attractive to predatory rulers in the 1980s and thereafter. Samuel Doe, who had killed President Tolbert and shortly thereafter killed the economy of the nation, began to take advantage of his power by exploiting timber resources. What he did, however, was a mere amateur prelude to what Charles Taylor would do when he exploited the forest to enrich himself and also buy weapons to enforce and extend his power.
A courageous forester named Alex Peal struggled hard during Taylor’s rule to create at least one national park in the southeast of the country. The Sapo National Park caught the attention of the international community as at least one place where the fauna and flora of the Liberian forest would be protected. However, Peal’s effort was a lonely struggle and despite his work roads were built throughout the southeastern part of Liberia to allow Taylor’s people to devastate the forest. I remember two airplane trips between Monrovia and Abidjan, one in 1997 and the other in 2004. I could see many more roads cut into the forest on the latter trip than I could see on the earlier trip. Charles Taylor’s greed was evident from the air.
A creative and courageous book was written in 2007 by Liz Alden Wiley for the Sustainable Development Institute in Monrovia, funded by the international environmental organization FERN. The book, entitled ‘So Who Owns the Forest’, strongly advocates enacting customary land rights for ownership and management of the forest within the domain of a traditional village or clan, to prevent the eventual destruction of the last remaining segment of the Upper Guinea rain forest.
I fear this may be a losing battle. At the end of 2011 and now in 2012, large tracts of forest land have been cleared for oil palm plantations in the northern part of Liberia, extensive land has been alienated in the center of the country for more rubber plantations, and an agreement has been signed for further iron ore extraction in southeastern Liberia.
In Liberia there is still surplus land, and people are jockeying to make the most profitable use of the land that is available. The capital city Monrovia is growing rapidly, as neighboring empty land is filled with houses and sites. It still is in theory possible for people to return to the rural areas and make their farms, but few are willing to take that risk. Most urban dwellers prefer the security and social services to be found in the towns.
Lesotho, however, is very different. There is little reason why people would want to return to ancestral villages. There is almost no profit to be gained by buying and owning rural land. In Liberia that land can be very profitable. In Lesotho making a profit on the land is an option only in very small areas in the remote mountains where diamonds can be found. The idea of Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian economist, that land can be opened up to development by legalizing freehold titles, might, against my better judgment, apply to Liberia, but makes no sense in Lesotho. It would be better for Basotho to keep their system of land allocation through the chiefs.
Liberia is different. The land has value, and the citizens of Liberia are seeking a way to bring economic and social development to a country recovering from war. It is clear from the Afrobarometer survey that freehold buying and selling of land where houses are built is what the great majority desire. That, however, does not solve the problem of the forest. In Lesotho no one has any desire to buy barren mountain pastures, since they are not a fungible asset. For Liberia, however, the big question of the second term of office for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is how to use the very valuable land within Liberia’s borders in such a way that the country’s economy grows at the same time that Liberia’s indigenous majority are helped and the valuable natural heritage of the Upper Guinea rain forest is preserved.
I start by exploring experiences in my life and work in Africa that relate to the quest for freedom for oneself and for others, often at the expense of immediate well-being. I have lived my whole adult life with the presupposition that I can legitimately find my own satisfaction and comfort only as part of a life committed to the well-being of others. My wife and I went to Africa in the first place and then stayed until retirement, because we felt that was where we were most needed. I know, of course, that not all aid is good aid, and I recognize from reading Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009) that my own choices were often misguided. To the extent that any of the work I did succeeded, it would be because those I worked with found development as freedom.
In the following paragraphs I look at several activities with which I was associated in Africa, where the object of my work was to promote free choice of a way of life better than the alternatives could provide. I conclude with an analysis of Afrobarometer data which support Sen’s thesis based on responses of Africans to political, social and economic questions.
Student activism in Liberia
The next two presidents were also authoritarian, but they took off the white gloves and treated their opposition brutally. Samuel Doe started his rule by killing principal Americo-Liberian politicians and businessmen, continued by ensuring the murder of key opposition people, forced through a fraudulent election (praised for its “noteworthy, positive aspects” by American diplomat Chester Crocker), and ended with his own murder by a rival thug named Prince Johnson. Charles Taylor was more subtle and sophisticated but also more efficiently brutal than Samuel Doe by means of the killing machines of his army His “Small Boys Unit” was composed of child soldiers recruited by force and false promises during the civil war, and was responsible for thousands of brutal killings.
Authoritarian benevolence has returned with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She won two free-and-fair elections, and is willing to listen to ordinary people. However, her regime is still highly centralized in the capital city Monrovia, and depends on efficient but moderately corrupt politicians and civil servants who work within her western, capitalist framework to support the “Washington Consensus”. The political economy she helped formulate when she worked with the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program, the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, CITICORP and the Equator Bank, still dominate Liberia.
This history of presidents of Liberia illustrates the context within which our students and subsequent university students in Liberia have formulated their ideas. In my teaching I tried to stimulate discussion on campus through my courses and through posting world and local news daily. I invited comment and reactions, and often got vigorous comments from students, both in class and on the bulletin board. Student rhetoric in class and in campus politics was vigorous and, following the richly charismatic language of President Tubman, competed to use the most vigorously polysyllabic words possible.
I think that after graduation the great majority of my students simply accepted the status quo and, after completing graduate studies in America, went on to seek government or private sector jobs. Many remained in America, and one estimate during the worst of the civil war was that two-thirds of those I had taught at Cuttington were working and living in the United States.
A small minority struggled to find their place as left-wing radicals, following the lead of the Tanzanian students I mentioned above. They were few in number, or at least those who spoke out were few. Moreover, those who tentatively embraced socialist or populist positions received the white cotton glove treatment. Three cases stand out in my memory.
Samuel Guluma was an excellent student who majored in biology. After graduation he worked in a local rural hospital and published a small news sheet in order to expose the corruption of politicians, both local and national. He was called to the President’s Mansion in Monrovia. He entered with fear and trembling, according to the story I was told. President Tubman, who really did make an effort to know everyone in Liberia of any political or economic importance, asked him “What do you want to do in life?” Guluma said he wanted to go to medical school. Tubman on the spot gave him a ticket to take up a scholarship to study medicine in Israel. Dr. Guluma returned some years later and served as a doctor helping the people of his home region, thereafter keeping his head down and his politics to himself.
Another excellent student was Harry Greaves Jr., son of the superintendant in Bong County who had warned me against revealing secrets from the Poro society. The son articulated a strong anti-Americo-Liberian position in a student drama. He was later quietly absorbed into the Tolbert establishment, and at present is a leading business man and politician, who has been accused of corruption and connivance with the Sirleaf government.
The most significant of these students was Kenneth Best, who very soon proved himself to be a gifted writer and journalist. He is a nephew of the famous and even infamous teacher and gadfly Albert Porte. Porte was one of the few Liberians who stood up to Tubman and Tolbert, and was severely harassed, fined heavily and jailed for his efforts. Kenneth Best worked hard to create the first issues of the Cuttington Review, a student-written journal of fiction, poetry and commentary.
After graduation he worked with the Liberian Ministry of Information, then did graduate study in journalism at Columbia University, and came back to Liberia to start a courageous and honest newspaper, The Inquirer. Samuel Doe was angered by the forthright comments Best made about the violence, corruption and tribalism of the regime Doe created and managed. The newspaper was burned down twice, and Best was forced to live by his wits. Carrying on the tradition of his uncle Albert Porte, Best sold bread on the street when he was unable to print his paper. During the heat of the civil war, Best left Liberia to start a paper in The Gambia, a paper also closed down due to his vigorous opposition to the coup leader Yahya Jammeh. Best continues to be publisher in Liberia, although a bit more moderate.
I can’t test the freedom to speak one’s mind in Liberia prior to the presidency of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The 2008 Afrobarometer survey shows that 65% of present-day respondents affirm their freedom to say what they think, 70% to join political organizations and 80% to vote without feeling pressured. I am sure these figures represent a radical change from what would have been true under Tubman, to some extent under Tolbert, and strongly under Doe and Taylor.
Basotho and South Africans working together at Transformation Center
The Transformation Resource Center, as I said earlier, was founded in 1979 by a courageous couple, Joan and Jimmy Stewart. They were South African radicals who had left South Africa in the 1970s as committed Trotskyites, who later turned to radical left-wing Catholic liberation theology. Jimmy first earned a law degree in South Africa, did a doctorate in English literature at Cambridge University, and then taught in Kenya and Malawi, in lieu of returning to South Africa where they would surely have been arrested. Malawi was too narrow and too conservative for Jimmy, and in due course the government of Hastings Banda chose to expel him. He then came to Lesotho to work for liberation of the region.
Judy and I were members of the board at the Transformation Resource Center, which by the year 1985 had joined forces with the Mennonite Central Committee, a peace and justice church-related American group. The Center established close links with all three liberation movements in South Africa – the African National Congress, the Pan-Africanist Congress, and the Black Consciousness Movement. In so doing TRC (for that is what they called the organization, perhaps unconsciously anticipating South Africa’s later Truth and Reconciliation Commission) was one of the few organizations cooperating with all three of the rival and often feuding liberation groups.
Tragically Joan and Jimmy were killed in an auto accident in 1984. TRC depended in so many ways on the Stewarts, and so those of us who cared about their heritage talked and prayed together as to our next step. For Judy and me, it meant listening to our former bishop of Lesotho Desmond Tutu who suggested that we offer ourselves to that ministry. The American Episcopal Church agreed to restore the missionary status we had given up when we moved to Lesotho, and we began our six years of association with people from all shades of the liberation struggle in southern Africa.
An important example of the commitment to justice was the National Union of Mineworkers strike in 1987. The NUM (as it was called), under the umbrella of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), knew that white South Africa badly needed income from the sale of its principal export commodity, namely, gold. Salaries and working conditions for the black majority among the mine workers were dismal, although from one point of view they made employment and salary possible for workers who otherwise had nothing.
It was with great courage and willingness to suffer gold miners within the NUM went out on strike. We at Transformation Resource Center supported the strike, and produced pamphlets to be distributed widely in Lesotho, where so many of the mine laborers had their original homes. We ran a personal risk of being raided by the South Africans, particularly since many of our friends and potential colleagues had been killed in two South African raids in December 1982 and 1985. The sad outcome of the strike in Lesotho was that many Basotho laborers were dismissed, and were replaced by scab workers who wanted the jobs of the radicals, even though the radicals were their brothers and fellow countrymen.
We were raided by the Lesotho police shortly after the strike, in connection with a strike by teachers. It may be that their courage rose when they saw the courage of the Basotho mine workers in standing up to injustice. Many teachers were willing to lose their jobs and risk losing their lives in that strike. The son of a Transformation staff member was killed by police gunfire during that strike, but she has been willing to continue the struggle and went on to become Chairwoman of Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission.
For those of us associated with the Transformation Resource Center freedom meant more than a sustained and comfortable livelihood. We knew the importance of achieving personal well-being, but we also knew that human beings need more than material comfort. Judy and I are very glad that we were able to spend six good years at TRC. We feel that our lives in Africa would not have been complete without that commitment. We knew the risk when we helped wash blood off the walls at the apartment of ANC activist and lawyer Phyllis Naidoo and her colleague John Osmers who received a parcel bomb which blew off John’s hand and damaged Phyllis’ hearing. We knew the risk when we supported our friend Michael Lapsley when he too received a parcel bomb that took both of his hands and his right eye. We knew the risk when we hosted ANC leaders, and we knew the risk when we worked with TRC. We came out without a scratch, for which we are grateful. Others did not, and to them we offer thanks and prayers.
Nyerere was convinced that the people of Tanzania would live best if they recovered the great African traditional togetherness that he called ujamaa. People should live as families, not just isolated nuclear families on homesteads which occupied the land where they made their farms, but families in settled villages. All the people near natural hubs would move away from their farm sites to a central place where they could share their resources and take advantage of savings achieved by consolidating health, education, administrative and economic services.
Nyerere was immensely popular during the 1960s when Tanzania achieved independence from Britain. His popularity, however, did not translate into acceptance of the implications of socialist theories that sounded so wonderful. Persuading intellectuals and labor union activists to reorganize a nation made poor by a century of top-down colonial management, economic exploitation, tourist voyeurism and racial snobbery was made easier by Nyerere’s personal integrity, populist image, active Catholic faith, commitment to liberation theology, charisma, and verbal skill.
As I discussed in an earlier chapter, I was asked by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN to study agriculture in the Mbeya District of southwestern Tanzania. This gave me a great opportunity to see how theories worked in practice which I had admired when I first read about them in Liberia. As a teacher, I compared what I had seen of exploitation in Liberia with the dreams of a better world. I required my history students at Cuttington College to read Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. I realized that the Soviet Union had used the words but eviscerated the content of socialism. I had great hope that Africa might lead the way toward true socialism.
I saw most African nations fall into the double trap of top-down authoritarian leadership and Western economic exploitation. I was disillusioned by the megalomania of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, the cruelty of Guinea’s Sekou Toure, and the corruption of Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta. I nonetheless still believed firmly that socialism at the community level would enable African nations – and in particular the village subsistence farmers that the left-wing intellectuals called “peasants” – to jump over the slow and painful capitalist mode of production. It had to be done by honest, socially responsible, unselfish leaders – and I believed Nyerere was such a leader whose people-oriented policies would fulfill my dream of a peaceful society committed to the well-being of a free people.
What I met in seven representative villages in southwestern Tanzania made me seriously rethink my position. Admittedly these seven villages were not chosen by a rigorously random process, but I honestly believe they display the diversity of geographic and climatic zones in the Mbeya district: wet tropical lake-shore forest, cool rainy mountain temperate zone, dry savannah pasture land, dry shrub forest, river bank trading hub, temperate commercial farming lowland, and politically active foothills area.
I saw and lived in six villages where the ujamaa experiment failed, not because it was a faulty vision but because it did not meet the needs of ordinary people. They wanted to work on their own fields, not the village communal farm required by the law, which were neglected by villagers who had their own agendas. They wanted easy access to their fields, in some cases a few kilometers away from the newly-decreed centralized village. They were not happy to have single-party bosses sent by central government manage local affairs. They preferred to sell their surplus crops to neighbors or at a local market rather than to wait for official buyers collect the surplus and pay the farmers back, often several months later. They would rather spend their free time drinking locally-brewed beer than buying government-licensed drinks at an official shop. And they were distinctly unenthusiastic participants in village work projects.
Well-being without all the other aspects of freedom may bring some benefits to those who experience it, but in the long run ordinary people do not sacrifice their own personal interests to political leaders whose personal lifestyle contradicts their theories. This was certainly true in the seven villages are studied in Tanzania. I wish it were otherwise.
Destitute farm families in the mountain village of Ankober openly expressed their desire to move to better lands. I saw hard-working men trying to farm stony hard soil in order to grow barley which was the only crop that would grow in that high altitude area. It almost seemed to me that these men were simply pushing stones aside in order to plant a few seeds in the furrows they made. What they were trying to do as subsistence farmers was pathetic in comparison even with the inadequate farming that I saw in a similar mountain area in Lesotho. When I entered the house of one farmer, I found his wife sitting on one side of a wall that separated their tiny living space from a corral where they kept a few pathetically thin animals. I felt totally ashamed to accept a bit of barley bread from the woman, but I did so out of natural courtesy. I could understand why Ethiopia falls into regular famines when I saw that household, their farming practice and their living space. That family would like to be able to move to a better place, but so far they have not succeeded in finding an opportunity.
Shortly after visiting that village I was taken to a village in the south western lowlands of Ethiopia. Two groups of families had been moved to that new village from barren unproductive farming villages like the one I saw in Ankober. The way they were living in the new area was to me highly instructive. At the time the Ethiopian government was trying to implement a socialist vision for which they drew inspiration from the Tanzanian experiment started by Nyerere. Unfortunately Mengistu Haile-Mariam, the soldier who overthrew the government of Emperor Haile Selassie, was simply another selfish, ideologically driven tyrant. He too was eventually overthrown, and he is now living in exile in the company of a fellow tyrant, Robert Mugabe.
The first group of families in the new resettlement area had been brought forcibly by the Ethiopian government to farm on land that had been confiscated for that purpose. They were given tractors and equipment for farming, and were organized in a top down system under the command of party officials. When I visited the center, I found the people sitting around playing games and talking and complaining. Several of the tractors had broken and no spare parts were available. The farmers we met tried to persuade us to take grain that had been produced on their own fields to the capital city Addis Ababa to sell for them. They knew that if the government took their grain, not only would they get a low price but also they would not get the money until long after they sold it. Some even told us that the government had not yet paid for grain they had given for sale during the last season.
The second group of families had come voluntarily to resettle on a piece of empty land a few kilometers away from where the first group worked. They had built their own houses, unlike those in the first area who were provided houses, and had planted their own fields using largely hand-labor. I think I remember one of them having bought a tractor which he rented out to other families. These people were poor, poorer than those in the official resettlement area, but they were beginning to succeed in the way the others probably never will. In the earlier resettlement area all I heard was complaints and requests for us to help them sell their crops. In the second area there where not so many complaints and I was even offered a cup of tea.
As in the case of the ujamaa villages in Tanzania, the underlying theory was probably sound. The idea was that a piece of land would be ready for new occupancy, people would be brought by truck with all their possessions to settle in pre-built houses, tractors and tools and fertilizer would be provided, farmers would be told how to do their work, and in the end everybody would be better off because they had found a good way to live.
It didn’t work that way. Why? I think there were several reasons. First, the new settlers had been brought forcibly, some even from urban areas where they had been unemployed or engaged in criminal activities. Second, everything they did they did under orders from on top. When the tractors broke, for example, they would send to Addis Ababa for someone to repair them. Such repair men were very rare, and so the tractors simply sat and rusted. Third, the people were given a regular stipend rather than having to earn their own living from what they produced. The stipend was small. For a farmer to receive the stipend all he had to do was wait until it came. So it was no wonder that the residents wanted to make some extra income by selling communally-produced rain on the open market.
The other group of farmers could only survive if they made maximum use of what they have available. The land was good and their motivation was high. I’m sure that some of them failed in the long run, because that is always the case with humanity. However I am sure that if I went back to the to resettlement communities today I would find people in the official forced resettlement community to be as poor as they were when I saw them in 1981. The other voluntary resettlement community would very possibly be flourishing. At least I want to think so. In short, for the voluntary group well-being and freedom go together.
Afrobarometer study in Lesotho supporting Amartya Sen
I mentioned earlier his five characteristics of a free society. To summarize, they are political participation, economic well-being, social integration, information access, and personal security. I realized at the time that our work with the Afrobarometer project lent itself naturally to a verification of Sen’s ideas through empirical data. The Afrobarometer questionnaire had included specific questions covering all of the five characteristics of a free society. I selected 15 of the questions on the survey which had been asked in the 12 countries for which survey data were available in 2001. The questions asked if the persons:
- actively work for candidates, attend rallies and join groups
- have enough food, water, health and schooling
- identify positively as citizens with the social groups to which they belong
- are interested in and discuss politics, and listen to radio news
- feel personally secure and are protected from crime
- preference for democracy
- low rating for undemocratic governments
- disapproval of military rule
- disapproval of one-party rule
- disapproval of a strongman president
- rating of the country as democratic
- satisfaction with democracy
- willingness to defend democracy
- positive assessment of democracy in their government
- positive assessment of leaders for performance
- trust in national institutions
- dissatisfaction with corruption
- support of the national Constitution
In short, freedom is not just provision of comfort and security. It is a far more complex process. If I look back at the examples presented in this section of my report, I see that students in Liberia, although satisfied in the short run under a repressive government, eventually left the country for greater freedom or else came back only when the government would promise them both freedom and jobs. The Transformation Resource Center in Lesotho brought people together from many different backgrounds who wished jointly to work for the kinds of freedom that meant more than just comfort and employment. The ujamaa experiment in Tanzania could only succeed where people were persuaded politically that their well-being was truly served by a radical approach to politics and economics. Finally in Ethiopia people who were involuntarily moved to a new location were not willing to perform as well as those who understood the move as a way of ensuring their freedom. Freedom, in summary, cannot be defined by objective conditions only, but must include individual moral, political, intellectual and personal commitment to a system which enhances the lives of people.
CHAPTER 29. POVERTY IS ALMOST ALWAYS RELATIVE
In the following paragraphs I draw on my work in Liberia, Lesotho, South Africa and Tanzania to help me understand poverty. First, where and how did poverty begin in Liberia, as the outside world shook the foundations of rural life? Second, drawing on evidence in Lesotho, in what ways is wealth an ongoing dynamic process rather than a static saleable commodity? Third, how are poverty and wealth in Tanzania and Lesotho dependent on where one lives? Finally, how do poverty and wealth drive internal and cross-border migration in Lesotho and South Africa?
Flumo and Yanga, the fictional parents of the equally fictional Koli and Sumo, were not poor in any absolute sense. Flumo may have been a loser in comparison with his rival Yakpalo, and may have had fewer wives, less possessions to store under his thatch roof, less influence with fellow villagers and fewer lucky breaks, but he was not poor. He didn’t lie awake at night worrying that he couldn’t pay his tax or that his wife could not buy expensive household furnishings. He did worry about the accidental shooting of his rival’s son in the forest and his chances at becoming the new village chief. These were not, however, issues related to poverty. They were simply part of the rivalry and social interaction that were a natural part of his life.
The closest Flumo and his family may have come to poverty would be for the rains to fail and for everyone in the village to starve for lack of food. People in rural Liberia remember occasions like that in the distant past when the harvest failed. In such a case people who had no alternative but to beg food from each other, and when no one could provide food, deaths and migration from the village were the only alternatives.
Poverty first struck the little family when Koli took the risk to leave home and go to high school in Monrovia, as told in my second novel The Brightening Shadow. At that point Koli realized for the first time what it means to be poor. It was not possible for him to continue in school for the simple reason that he had no money. The missionary who had promised him full tuition in high school had left Liberia, for personal reasons not related to Koli’s future, personal reasons that allowed him to put Koli and his problems out of his mind. Koli had two options: go back home in defeat, or enter the money economy of larger Liberia, in other words, be part of globalization. In reality the first option was not a real option, because he had no money with which to go back to his village. His only hope was to turn to a relative who lived in Monrovia, one who had earlier taken a tentative first step toward globalization. The relative did not give him money to go back to the village, but encouraged him to find work, in other words, to enter the money economy.
Slave trading was stopped within a decade or two of the coming of the Liberian settlers, but globalization never stopped. The freed American slaves did not, and in fact could not, live in the same way as the indigenous people in what was to become Liberia. For them to survive they had three options: exploitation of the indigenous people, sale of local products to foreign traders, or foreign assistance.
All three options impacted the Kpelle community within which Koli was born. Already Koli’s village began to experience exploitation. Government soldiers on an annual basis took “hut taxes”, which meant that Koli’s father Flumo had to sell local products such as palm kernels in the closest Liberian up river settlement in order to get money to pay the tax. Foreign assistance in the form of a mission school led Koli to seek western education in the village at the end of the first motor road into the interior.
Koli’s family was sure that his entry into the money economy, the Liberian way of life, and the global world was a mistake. They hoped he would return, marry, join the cooperative work group, raise children, and live out the rest of his life as a member of an age-old, functioning community. It did not happen, even though Koli’s brother Sumo, soon to be a leading member of the village life, tried hard to persuade him to come home. Koli made the choice, then and for the rest of his life, to be part of the world that almost guaranteed to make him poor, and he realized there was no going back.
Furthermore, there was really no way for the rest of his family in the village to escape the new world. They began to experience poverty, as strangers came into the village to build roads, establish schools, and buy and sell produce. Koli’s father Flumo died of shock when the motor road, a visible symbol of modernization and globalization, arrived at the village, making a terrible roar and cutting down everything in its path.
I hope I am not being overly romantic in saying that poverty did not exist in rural Liberia prior to the coming of the global world. I agree that there was occasional starvation. I admit that disease was rampant and only curable with Western medicine. I know that Western education creates appetites that cannot be satisfied, ensuring that many students fail in order that only a few will be trained to fill the technologically advanced jobs of modern government and business. Today we want to believe that global modern technological society will eventually enable everyone to have enough to eat, live healthy lives, get a good education and find a productive and satisfying job. Before that goal is reached, however, the great masses of people around the world, whose parents live in villages like that of Koli and Sumo, will experience a grinding poverty that the twin boys’ parents could never comprehend.
My colleagues and I at Sechaba consultants in Lesotho developed a five-level analysis of poverty, in terms of the assets in the household might possess, namely, natural, human, financial, physical and social assets. As I said earlier, these can be compared with the five dimensions of human freedom as identified by Amartya Sen: political participation, economic well-being, social integration, information access, and personal security. The natural assets of soil, water, air, land and other physical necessities, together with the financial assets of cash, credit, and savings provide economic well-being. Human assets such as skills, knowledge, education and physical ability to work also contribute to economic well-being but also make possible political participation as well as access to information and social integration. The physical assets of roads, schools, police and clinics enhance personal security. Political participation is made possible through possession of all of the above, because without our natural, human, financial, physical and social assets a functioning political system is not possible.
For most people, wealth means a well functioning, harmonious combination of these assets, allowing us to build on the underlying physical base and respond quickly and effectively to situations as they arise. Just having money or things is not enough for a family to cope with difficulties in life. King Midas needed a living, breathing daughter to be able to continue his line in the future. Simply owning a large gold replica of his daughter held out no hope.
It is, of course, important to have fungible assets. In our study we included them under financial and physical assets. Most Kpelle physical assets, however, are not really fungible. Specifically, land is not traditionally a commodity that can be bought and sold. Land, particularly as it is understood by the people I knew in rural Liberia and rural Lesotho, is a living part of a family as family members interact with each other and with the world around them.
Our analysis of poverty in Lesotho began by defining a measure of wealth. That measure included the monetary worth of all the household possessions; a summation of capabilities of household members including their employment status, the schooling of their children, their ability to hire workers and the number of members of working age; the physical accessibility of the household, including roads, communication systems and personal contacts with the outside world; a measure of the environmental quality, including soil, rain and fuel; and finally, the resilience of the household as measured by absence of serious deaths, robberies, crop failures and other forms of violence. We assigned quantitative measures to all of these aspects of wealth in order to identify households most able to live healthy and productive lives in the future.
I admit that defining wealth in this way is not analytically simple. It is much easier to define poor households as those living on less than a dollar a day, and to define wealthy households as those with plenty of income and financial resources. The World Bank and other similar organizations are probably forced to define poverty and wealth in this overly simple way, if only for publicity and planning purposes.
The problem is that this conventional definition of wealth in terms of available cash fails to acknowledge the richness of lives of people not totally trapped by money. I have known many families in Liberia and in Lesotho who live rich and full lives but without the financial resources that define wealth. I am not saying, of course, that people who live without the safety net of food, housing, clothing and personal security can be happy in their deprivation. I’m also not denying the importance of physical, social, intellectual, political and protective assets. The development process should help people enhance their lives in all ways, not just in terms of fungible assets, even though the results may include social and personal inequalities..
This analysis became clearer to me when we asked Basotho from all walks of life to state their survival strategies. We imposed no conditions on the people we interviewed, but simply asked them to state what they needed to live. The most commonly mentioned strategies were agricultural, including fields, gardens, cattle and such crops as maize and wheat. However, very near the top, just below gardens and just above capital they named the social systems within which people found support. These included burial societies, cooperative work groups and mutual savings groups. Immediately after cattle they identified the family as a survival strategy. Only farther down the list came employment-based strategies such as migrant labor or other forms of wage work. It is striking that at no point was money or any other form of financial assets included in the list.
My colleagues and I then analyzed the strategies that people use to live a secure and happy life. These strategies fell into five major categories. By far the most important, in terms of numbers of responses and numbers of interactions between strategies, was agriculture, with fields, cattle, cereal crops and cooperative sharecropping the dominant responses, all connected closely. The next most important group of strategies was based on good family relations, cooperative social groups, and gifts. The third group consisted of migrant work, other forms of wage work, handicrafts and education, a group of less importance than agriculture or family. Fourth were activities many people would consider morally dubious. At the head of these shady activities was brewing beer, followed by other forms of business, including prostitution, drug use and sales, street trading, renting properties, theft, starting businesses and entering politics. It is striking that business enterprises, which we in the West might consider the central focus of an advanced society, were grouped with illegal activities. The final and for our informants seemingly the least important group of strategies focused on government and democracy. This group included transport, medical care, international aid programs and donations.
This research suggests to me that ordinary people in Lesotho understand survival in a way very different from what we in the Western world want to impose upon them. Subsistence agriculture, which provides very little national or personal income to Lesotho’s economy, remains dominant in people’s minds. Family is next, then followed by wage labor, which together with brewing and other commercial activities provides the basis for adding financial assets to the family resource base. Governmental activities are at the bottom of the list, the least important of all survival strategies.
Comparing causes for poverty with strategies to prevent poverty reveals much about Basotho attitudes to poverty. Crop farming and livestock may be the most important strategy, but poor farming methods are never mentioned. Instead drought is considered the main cause for hunger, followed at a distance by unemployment. Close family ties and good social relations are the second most important strategy, while alcoholism and witchcraft undercut and weaken family ties. Migrant labor and domestic employment are the third way to achieve well-being, while lack of jobs leads to poverty, destitution, homelessness, lack of clothing and begging. The minor role of government in overcoming poverty is paralleled by the lack of mention of injustice, oppression and fear.
The strategies to overcome poverty and the related causes of poverty strengthen my conviction that poverty and wealth are not best understood in terms of money and other fungible commodities. They are important, but not mainly as instruments of trade and finance. More important are the ways to grow food, followed by family mutual help, employment whether legal or otherwise, and least of all government intervention and aid.
I feel forced to conclude that most of the do-good agencies for which I worked had their priorities all wrong. The ones that made the most sense were Sechaba Consultants, which tried to analyze the social process, and the Transformation Resource Center, which committed itself to healing social pathologies. We were not very successful in either organization, but at least we were on the side of the people.
Geographic distribution of poverty in Lesotho and Tanzania
The “poorest of the poor” strategy may help an old lady in the mountains of Lesotho with no assets as she raises an HIV-positive grandchild following the death of her HIV-positive daughter and the disappearance of the child’s irresponsible father. A comparable strategy born out of desperation may help an alcoholic Masai herder in the Usangu plains of Tanzania whose cattle have all died, and who has never tried his hand at farming. While humanitarian instincts urge helping such people, overall development of the economy is not advanced.
The big question then is: where do development efforts and money go the farthest and do the most good? The relation between poverty and accessibility of the poor is a critical question. Of course, accessibility is not just measured by physical distance. It is also a question of the people who are ready to be helped emotionally, intellectually and physically. For this reason in both countries we attempted to map out where are the poor whom we identified by objective criteria and by their own subjective self perception.
I was surprised to find that in Tanzania the principle criterion for apparent openness to development was the political activity of the single party Chama cha Mapinduzi, the party that replaced the independence movement’s Tanganyika African National Union. We collected data on village organization, public services, businesses, family members and household possessions for all of the 563 villages recognized by the government within the six districts that made up Mbeya region. We found wide variation among these villages, but the biggest single factor predicting social and economic development was the strength and quality of the political party leaders within the village. In theory each village had a secretary, chairman, manager and bookkeeper, in addition to political party leaders, women’s group leaders, youth group leaders, and parents’ organization leaders. All family members were supposed to belong to the party.
The villages differed in almost every way. Some were very productive, with plentiful cash crops, food crops, small businesses and wealthy families. Others were very poor, with very few educated people and very few modern facilities. What seems to have driven success is political activity on the part of family members. The number of party members per family is strongly correlated, at the .001 level, with village businesses, family income earners, vehicles, teachers, children in school, production on the communal farm, consumer goods and adult learners, all per family member.
The geography of Lesotho ensures that the western lowlands and foothills are the most prosperous part of the country. The central and eastern mountains are cold and barren, properly suitable only for limited livestock grazing. All the indicators of wealth favor the lowlands and foothills. However, mountain residents take pride in their reputation for toughness and strength. Moreover, they know that land and jobs are scarce in the better-endowed western area, and so they realize that moving there may be a dead-end choice. Furthermore South Africans need the water that is plentiful in the highlands, and so there are chances for employment near the dams that have been built and are planned to be built in the future.
Unfortunately decentralization has never been a serious government policy in Lesotho, unlike in Tanzania, where decentralization has been an active part of development planning since the country became independent in 1961. The Canadian aid agency tried to create a center for highlands development in the newly created district of Thaba-Tseka in the late 1970s. The effort to decentralize government administration and services is well described in the book by James Ferguson The Anti-Politics Machine (Cambridge 1990). The farsighted planning of Tanzania to include every area in the country in development plans was not tried in Lesotho. Instead power and money were concentrated in the capital city Maseru, as in so many other developing nations.
It is true that the mountain areas in Lesotho are under-resourced, in the same way at the Chunya district in Mbeya in Tanzania. I am saddened that Lesotho did not make a serious effort to bring the less developed areas of the country up to standards which are expected by people in the lowlands. I saw Tanzanian teachers in a very poor village in Chunya district working hard to provide an education comparable to that in the better-off parts of Mbeya region. I did not see comparable government efforts in Lesotho. Only the churches seemed willing to devote their scarce resources in nearly equal measure to all parts of the country.
Poverty and migration in Lesotho and South Africa
The border between Lesotho and South Africa thus arbitrarily and inconveniently divides families and friends. For that reason speaking of international migration between Lesotho and South Africa makes little sense. Border controls are a relic of colonial and apartheid days, valuable during the bad times when the white government of South Africa used black people as farm laborers, factory workers, domestic servants and gold miners. Blacks were allowed to enter white areas when they were needed, but were otherwise expected to return to their own “homelands”. Some of those homelands were artificial dumping grounds for blacks, established in the dying days of apartheid to give spurious independence to blacks, supposedly in tandem with the independence movements across the rest of black Africa. Lesotho served as a convenient, ready-made homeland, as did Swaziland and Botswana, and to some extent Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
When first diamonds and then gold were discovered in the high plains between Kimberly, Bloemfontein and Johannesburg in the late 19th century, laborers were sought from Lesotho as well as other areas. After the collapse of the mid-19th century sale of wheat by Basotho to Afrikaners in the nascent Orange Free State, mine work was the only way for Basotho to earn money, not only to buy consumer goods, but also to pay the official annual “hut tax”. Thus was established a pattern of initiation to manhood for young men in Lesotho from the 1890s until very recently. In the 1970s more than half the adult males in Lesotho had worked at some point in their lives on the gold mines, making annual treks to the mines and back home. In those days men brought not only money, but consumer goods and cattle with them. The image of Basotho miners trudging home from the mines through the Orange Free State with cattle to use as bride-wealth for an upcoming marriage remains fixed in my mind.
The migration pattern changed gradually after freedom came to South Africa. The only jobs for unschooled young men for more than a century were either herding animals in Lesotho’s increasingly overgrazed mountains or digging rock at the mine faces in South Africa. The growing poverty of Lesotho demanded that men find jobs, no longer just to pay hut tax but now to buy food and other consumer goods. At the end of apartheid, the mines saw an opportunity to modernize and professionalize the labor force. The demand and with it the opportunity for mine work declined, and by the start of the new millennium Basotho miners were reduced to about 50,000 annually from a high of about 250,000. Mine workers were expected to learn skills beyond work with shovel and pickaxe.
In my work for the Southern African Migration Project in the late 1990s I found that migration remains central to Basotho life. Every Mosotho has a relative in the mountains, foothills and lowlands of Lesotho. If I ask Basotho about their homes, they may tell me names of sections of Maseru and at the same time about ancestral homes in the rural area. Basotho do not lose ties to these sites, even if they move across the border to South Africa. Certainly it is true in Liberia and Botswana that the traditional home remains important even though the person may visit there only rarely.
Lesotho is an extreme example of the international confusion caused in many African countries of colonial borders dividing peoples who should live together. The Kpelle-speaking people of Liberia have close cultural, linguistic and family ties with people across the border in Guinea, although the links are thinning over time. On the contrary, the links between Basotho in Lesotho and in South Africa grow stronger year by year.
I know that the supposed ideal of national self-determination promulgated by President Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War I was supposed to guarantee a basic human right. In most countries nationalism and ethnicity have become a cause for war, conflict and inhumanity. As long as Lesotho remains a separate country I hope that the strong ties that link it with South Africa continue. In a survey we conducted in the late 1990s more than 40% of Basotho said they wish Lesotho to go the rest of the way and join South Africa. This has not taken place, nor are the politicians on both sides of the border willing to dilute their influence in that way. Rather, what must happen is for the border to be treated like the internal borders within the European Community. Hard core nationalism is not good for Lesotho, or in my view for any country.
Migration has always been a part of life for Africans everywhere. Liberia’s national motto is “the love of liberty brought us here”. It brought ex-slaves from the new world to West Africa, and it brought indigenous Africans from the savannah kingdoms to seek refuge in the high forest. Basotho came from central Africa over the centuries, and only occupied the mountains of Lesotho within the last 200 years. Migration in the future is to be expected. My hope is that it can be done in such a way that our common humanity is respected.
CHAPTER 30. WHAT WORKS IN ONE SETTING MAY NOT WORK IN ANOTHER
Why belabor what is obvious? No one in his or her senses would try to nail a sign to a metal post. My point in this section is that development workers regularly do precisely that. They apply an old solution to a new problem, and wonder why it fails. In so many cases, the old approach succeeded in another country or another environment and was imported as a quick fix to a problem similar to the old problem. In this section I will explore development strategies that may or may not work under conditions very different from those where they first proved successful
Uses of traditional rice varieties in Liberia
The women explained where they would plant each type of rice. The largest group, 38% of the rice varieties, were said to be suitable for flat bottom land, the type of land preferable for farming. It is relatively easy to clear, plant, weed, prevent birds and pests, and finally harvest. Other varieties were good for other locations: 18% for hillside farms, 17% for swamps, 16% for river and swamp bank, 7% for old farms, 2% for early ripening, and 2% for very good soil.
Rice varieties are chosen not only for maximum yield on particular soil and vegetation types, but also to ensure safety from drought or excessive rain. Certain varieties are resistant to drought, while others can tolerate wet soil.
In short, the woman we worked with in Gbansu proved to be careful farmers as well as careful plant scientists. It is no wonder that they resisted untested new varieties, especially when they were introduced by male scientists who do not speak their language. There may be real benefit for Liberians to use the new types of rice produced in the Philippines, but local people will not adopt them until they have a chance to test the rice and judge for themselves in their own fields. It would not be difficult for international advisors, preferably themselves female, to set up rice trials in rural Liberia. The only difficulty would be for foreigners to have the courage and the humility to allow local women to be the judge.
Mechanized plowing in Lesotho
Furthermore, tractor repair is a specialized skill, and I met only a few qualified mechanics who could fix a broken tractor. In fact, plowing with a tractor in the irregular landscape of Lesotho is not a simple operation. It requires the tractor driver to watch out for rocks, tree roots or other impediments to plowing. The combination of unskilled tractor drivers and unskilled tractor repair men led to a surplus of broken and rusted tractors around Lesotho at the time I was working with the agricultural development project. I even went so far as to recommend to a friend that he make a business out of collecting, repairing and then selling refurbished tractors, or, if worst came to worst, selling them for spare parts and scrap iron.
It may be that a tractor plowing with on a large level field in Lesotho’s low lands can be a wise choice. I’m sure that the American expert would probably have done a very professional job farming some of the very few level Iowa-like fields in the western low lands of the country. In fact, his skills were not needed because most such fields were already owned and managed by skilled local farmers.
Some entrepreneurs did in fact buy a tractor to rent out to households within the vicinity of the tractor owner. However, few rural farmers had the capital or the skill to undertake that plan. One or two farmers in the low lands with large fields owned their own tractor. They successfully managed to use the machine and make a profit, but the example they set persuaded others to try to buy and use tractors under conditions which were much less propitious. Such farmers tended to lose both the money they invested and in the end the tractor itself.
My point in this section, as I said earlier, is “what works in one setting may not work in the next setting”. The key word here is “may”. There are many ways in which Basotho can use their fields.
The wealthy may adopt high tech modern farming which depends upon machinery. Poorer farmers may choose low-tech traditional farming which guarantees a nonzero profit, because the expenses are minimal. They may simply decide to allow the field to go fallow, a choice which many Basotho farmers have taken, for the simple reason that they know that the effort and the money they would put into plowing a field would not be matched by the output.
Use of standardized tests for school graduation in Botswana and Lesotho
Underlying my caution are assumptions about the overall economy of the society. When my wife’s grandparents took their eight children in a covered wagon in the year 1900 to Eastern Oregon to occupy a property granted them under US homesteading rules, they risked entering a largely unknown and difficult territory. They had to be self-sufficient and not depend on non-existgent covered wagon repair shops. In their case, the axle broke and Judy’s grandfather had to ride his horse to the nearest town where he could buy a piece of timber to use for an axle. I doubt if he could have taken a course to prepare him for covered wagon repair. However, I am also certain that he had already thought seriously about skills he would need in the Eastern Oregon desert in order to keep his family alive. He didn’t pass an exam in “homesteading”.
I personally might still be stuck in the open and flat spaces of rural Mali if the driver of the taxi taking me to the capital city Bamako in 1971 had given up in despair when the axle on his taxi broke. All 10 or 12 people who had crowded into that taxi took our selves and our luggage out to wait in the dry savanna land along the road as sunset approached. I admit to being concerned as to what might happen. The driver rummaged under the floorboards of the taxi to see what he might find to help. We were all encouraged at first when he said “I’ve found a spare axle.” Our courage began to fail when he next said “it’s for the wrong car; too small for this car.” It was at that point innovation took over. He found in oil tin, opened and emptied it, sliced it lengthwise, straightened it out, and finally packed it around the axle. He forced the newly enlarged axle into the space required, called us all back into the taxi, and we drove off.
I had almost exactly the opposite experience in the mountains of Lesotho. The bench I was sitting on broke beneath my weight. I could find no one in the village willing to try to repair the bench. They said there are no carpenters in the village. The spirit of improvisation somehow had been lost, and the seemingly helpless people in that house said that they hoped someday a trained carpenter and furniture maker could come live in their area.
These stories are preludes to a great project in Botswana that was finally killed by the urge to get proper paper qualifications. The Botswana Brigades was started by a South African named Patrick van Rensberg. He helped young men learn simple skills of carpentry, metal work, electrical wiring, house construction and basic plumbing. The organization flourished and young men were able to find employment at the same time that they assisted villagers with simple construction and maintenance tasks.
Where the project went sour is that the government of Botswana decided to formalize it. They established a relationship with a British technical skills qualification group in London. This group agreed to monitor the training program offered by Botswana Brigades, and give certificates to those who passed their examinations. The result was to kill the organization by professionalizing it prematurely. What Botswana needed at that time were ordinary people able to do simple village tasks, not city dwellers with “London City and Guilds” certificates.
There are two sides to this problem, of course. Standardized qualifications are very useful, but only in a society which is well entrenched and well-established, and where ordinary people have the opportunity to use available services. An issue which has arisen in Liberia and in Lesotho is that of unregistered schools. Some of these schools are designed to cheat people of the little money that they think will help them get an education. Yet some of them are desperately trying to fill the empty place left by an insufficiency of fully recognized schools. I remember having great sympathy with partly educated people in rural areas who wanted to share their knowledge with children of their neighbors. This left an opening for unscrupulous people to exploit the innocent and the naïve.
The further question concerns international as opposed to local standards. When I taught university level classes in Liberia I was the only judge of the education I gave. I could easily have been a complete fraud, earning my living teaching useless and even false information to unsuspecting students. We set our own standards at Cuttington College, although we were held to account by Episcopal Church officials and our Board of Trustees. When I came to Lesotho at the university level, the courses I taught required external supervision from university officials elsewhere in southern Africa. I felt it was a nuisance at the time to submit to these external examiners, but as I look back perhaps the system was necessary in order to prevent fraud and corruption.
At a lower academic level, schools across Africa have gradually been forced to accept international standards before passing students on from primary to secondary school, or from secondary school to university. The unfortunate part about that plan in the early years after independence in Africa was that students were expected to take the Cambridge Overseas Schools Certificate exams, which required them and their teachers to be much more English than they wanted to be in independent, self-governing nations. It was only later in Africa that local exam councils were set up, letting Africans set the standards for themselves.
What I wish to point out here is that the situation determines the standards that are used. Rigid adherence to external authorities can produce the nonsense that I saw in Botswana, but it can also ensure good quality results in a case where the whole society has advanced to the point that it needs external monitoring.
Traditional methods of environmental protection in modern Liberia and Lesotho
The big problem is: what can replace the customary practices which kept the environment intact in those early days? I have not found the answer in Liberia. Moreover, Liberia’s neighbors Ivory Coast, Guinea and Sierra Leone have gone much farther than Liberia in destroying the forest, replacing it by cash crops, towns and roads. It is up to the next generation of Liberians to find a solution. A few, like Alex Peal who founded the Sapo National Park, have made a small effort, but much more needs to be done.
Similarly, when Lesotho’s population was small, the king and the chiefs were able to impose stringent regulations under the 1903 Laws of Lerotholi. These laws refer back to ways the Basotho managed their pasture land and forests before coming under the British protectorate. Chiefs were allowed to state when pasture land would be open for grazing and when it would be closed. Animals were supposed to be moved our of a pasture area when the chief decided that it was time to close it to allow it to regenerate.
Forest patches also were placed under restrictions so that they could only be cut when the chiefs gave permission. Normally trees were protected unless there was a special funeral or other event that required a substantial quantity of wood for a feast.
Beginning when the first foreigners arrived in the country forests were regularly chopped down, particularly for the houses that the missionaries built in the mid-19th century. There were in fact few pre-Basotho settlement patches of forest, mostly along the banks of the rivers. The most valuable trees were very slow growing, including one called cheche in the Sesotho language. Very few tall trees of that species remain in the country. Instead non-indigenous tree species have been planted and tended to do well, although they demand much of the moisture in the soil. Eucalyptus, pine, acacia and wattles are more common than the traditional indigenous species. The South African Anglo-American mining company did a good job of planting trees in special woodlot areas, but these trees were in almost all cases of alien species.
Fruit trees have also proved successful, including peaches which were introduced in the mid-19th century. They have gone wild and can be found almost everywhere in the country. One of the most beautiful sights in Lesotho is the blossoming of the peach and other fruit trees at the end of August and in early September.
Unfortunately pastureland preservation has been much less successful than tree planting and woodlot preservation. Population has grown greatly, both human and animal, and as a result too many animals occupy too much land and eat too much of the grass. I have seen areas in the mountains which were once covered with lush grasses but now are bare rock. Little can be done to restore these to health.
It is pure romanticism to think that Liberia’s forests and Lesotho’s grasslands can be restored to what they were before the settlers arrived. What worked in the past can work no longer. Instead new ways of dealing with old problems are essential. This is surely a case where careful study of resource preservation in other developing countries could provide a good lesson for Liberia and Lesotho.
CHAPTER 31. HUMAN BEINGS ARE ONLY HUMAN ONLY IN COMMUNITY
African traditional life is normally communal. I certainly do remember quarrels, disputes and factions as part of life in the villages where I lived in Liberia and Lesotho. The citizens of the villages, however, saw them as “our” quarrels, disputes and factions. Solidarity is not a romantic ideal achieved in a primitive ideal golden age that was destroyed as soon as alien influences disturbed a mythical harmony and tranquility. The concept of ubuntu, which I have mentioned several times, is inclusive of the failures and successes, quarrels and reconciliations of ordinary African village human life.
In this section I will look at aspects of successful community life in countries where I worked. There were also failures, but for this section I look at the bright side of what I experienced. The successes reflect an earlier generation of African society, prior to the rapid growth of population and the increasing mobility and resulting disintegration of traditional social groups.
Successful cooperative work groups in Liberia and Lesotho
Soon thereafter, clouds blew up from the east, beyond the edge of the escarpment dividing Lesotho from South Africa’s Eastern Cape. We knew snow was coming, snow which two days later would force me and my colleagues to return to the lowlands. The alternative was to be isolated in that mountain village, and forced to remain until a thaw days or weeks later.
The work group realized it was time to thresh their wheat. They piled the now dried grains into a cart which was pulled by oxen to a flat open space near the village. The grain was poured bucket by bucket onto the open place. The oxen were then unyoked and urged to walk in a circle on the heap of grain, disciplined by men to stay in line. As the oxen walked, the husks were loosened from the seed grain. Women then swept up the cracked grain, husks and seeds together, and poured the mixture into a flat woven basket.
While the oxen walked around the next pile of grain, the women winnowed the mixture by tossing it up and down in the wind. Residual dirt from the area where the cattle threshed the grain tended to sink to the bottom of the basket. The husks that had been loosened from the seeds were lighter than the seeds or the dirt and blew away in the wind. The women scooped the precious wheat grains and stored them in a bag so that later they could be ground into flour, using a grinding stone on a hollowed out base stone.
Obviously this process comes directly out of the Stone Age. I did not see it very often, and in fact I doubt if it is still maintained anywhere in Lesotho. I felt like a witness to humanity’s beginnings in the Middle East. I did take some photographs of the process, but I now realize I should have asked to keep the grinding stone and grinding pad to put in the museum which was at that time being established in the low lands mission village of Morija.
The only remnant of that form of cooperation that I saw in my later years at the village level in Lesotho was the burial society. People contribute a fixed amount of money each month to a local treasurer who then manages the money for the group. When a member of the society died, the group funds would pay for the funeral expenses. In 2008 25% of all respondents in the Afrobarometer survey reported belonging to some kind of village group. Twice as many in rural areas were members than in urban areas. Unfortunately the survey did not ask the kind of group, but in my experience most would have been burial societies.
In Liberia a third of all those interviewed in the Afrobarometer study reported belonging to a group of some kind, equally divided between rural and urban respondents. Once again I have no knowledge of the kind of group, but there seems to be more evidence of group cooperation in Liberia than in Lesotho.
I do know that in rural Liberia at the time I lived in Gbansu, cooperative work groups were vital for agricultural production. Certainly during the civil war membership dropped significantly, but after the war it is likely that membership picked up once again. I talked on the telephone in March 2012 with a citizen of Gbansu, who told me that the village farming practices are alive again. I will have to check to see if the cooperative work groups, called by the Americo-Liberian term “kuu” are active as before.
The reason why I believe they are still active is that they were a very efficient way of farming in an interior village. I’ve already described the farming procedures. What I need to point out here is that farming was done by well organized work groups. These kuu had officers, rules and regular times when they were to meet. The family which organizes the group for the day is required to bring food and drink, which must be sufficient to satisfy all the members who work. The work is supervised by the owner of the work for the day as well as by the leaders of the group. Those who do not work properly can be fined.
An effort was made to modernize the idea of the kuu in an organization called “Susukuu” by its founder the economist and politician Tokpa-Nah Tipoteh. It was created in 1971 to help people in the rural areas promote well-being, both economically and politically. It was intended to help people work cooperatively along the lines of the indigenous kuu, but it has tended to be more of a political organization than to promote village workgroups.
The second word in its title, namely, susu refers to a common practice in Liberia whereby every member puts in a given amount of money on a regular basis, usually monthly. The money is kept with a treasurer, who then distributes the entire amount to one member at a time on a rotating basis. No profit is made on the money deposited with the treasurer. The advantage of the system is that, because the members are forced to give the money over to the treasurer, they are not tempted to spend it on some small luxury. They can wait until it is their turn to have the whole amount, at which point the recipient has a large amount of money that she or he can spend on a big purchase without having to pay exorbitant interest rates. A similar scheme in other African countries sometimes uses the money to loan out and thus gain interest, but this has often been a risky proposition. It is tempting for the proprietor to turn it into a Ponzi scheme.
The important thing about any such work or savings group is that it depends on mutual trust. In today’s Liberia and Lesotho, mutual trust is often hard to find. Within a traditional village, people do tend to trust each other mostly because they need to. The farm family which is last on the list of members would experience a cruel disappointment if nobody showed up on its day for the cooperative work. It does not happen, because people realize that they might be the next to suffer. In this case, trust survives because it must.
Values of polygynous marriage in Liberia
Having more than one wife had several advantages in traditional society. Wealth was in most cases measured by numbers of children, who were valuable also because they help to make the family rich. A man with several wives could build up substantial social capital in a village through having children that could bring in husbands and wives. Such a person could also consolidate his ties with an incoming stranger by offering the newcomer one of his wives.
Political power also came through multiple marriages. These marriages were often undertaken outside of the village where the politically ambitious person lived. He would make alliances with wealthy or politically important man in other villages. Such alliances would help him secure votes for such offices as clan chief or paramount chief. These offices existed in only a rudimentary way before the Liberian government brought the interior under its total control. After that time, however, the central government used these higher-level chiefs to help them dominate rural politics. One natural, but generally unspoken, consequence was that the president of the nation also was expected to have outside wives throughout the country. It is generally rumored that church leaders also had their outside wives in rural towns and villages in order to keep control of church politics.
Responses to the Liberian Demographic and Health Survey of 2004 show that polygamy is still alive in Liberia. 80% of the women surveyed reported that they were their husband’s only wife. Another 14% said their husband had one other wife, 3% said that he had at least two other wives, and 2% did not know. Husbands of 22% of the rural women had more than one wife as opposed to 14% of urban women. Polygyny, not surprisingly, is significantly less common the higher the educational level. The percentages with one wife rise from 76% to 83%, 89% and finally 92% for households where the highest school level is no schooling, primary only, some secondary, and some tertiary education.
Polygamy works both ways, of course. 29% of the women surveyed said that they had sex with someone other than their husband in the last 12 months. The only story I know about polyandry relates to a famous woman chief who lived in the area eventually taken over by Cuttington College. Madame Suakoko used her personal power and charisma in the 1920s and 1930s to end a series of interior wars in what became Bong County and establish a working relationship with the Liberian government. Stories are told that she never had children, but instead “married” other women who then had children for her by husbands she assigned to them. Several important chiefs in the Cuttington college area during my time were her “children”. The history of rural Bong County has never been fully written, but I’m sure it would include the story of this woman and her power over her people. In her case polygamy both polygyny and polyandry. She managed to combine the best of both worlds, if looked at from her perspective. She took power and she had descendents. What more could she ask?
Business success of religiously organized communities in Botswana
There was one group, however, that found a niche in which to succeed. This group consisted of followers of Johannes Masowe who in the 1930s had a vision which brought him a group of apostles that followed the way of life revealed to him through his vision. His story was that he died and went to heaven. There he met the Lord who gave him a Bible and a set of rules for the apostles he would make when he returned to earth. The group was to be patriarchal and polygynous. He was the first leader, but then he authorized other leaders to spread the message all the way from Nairobi in Kenya to Port Elizabeth in South Africa. Each leader would bring others into the fellowship and would marry as many wives as he could.
The followers became known as the Masowe apostles, or more informally as the Korsten basket makers. Korsten is a suburb of Port Elizabeth where the South African apostles settled. The followers of Johannes Masowe were to obey the rules that he brought down from heaven, namely, not to go to Western school or use Western medicine. Men were to let their beards grow, and their wives were to wear long white dresses and white head ties. They were not to use alcohol or tobacco. They were all to live together in a compound on the edge of whatever village or town they choose to work in. They were to limit their occupations to a specific set of skills, including basket making, carpentry, tinsmithing, and sales of fruit and vegetables.
I visited several of their compounds in Botswana, even including their headquarters near the Zimbabwe border. The patriarch that I met there was an impressive strong person, obviously a real leader. On another occasion I worshiped with the group in order to understand their claim to be Christians. They said they believe in Jesus, and they used the same Christian Bible I use. However, I think I would be forced to put them outside what I would call normative Christianity, because of their belief in the charismatic prophet Johannes Masowe. Of course, that sounds like arrogance on my part. Who am I to judge what is in another person’s heart? I admit I could not understand what they said or sang in the long, interminable worship service I attended outside of Francistown in Botswana. Songs, Scripture readings, prayers, testimonials and sermons made up the whole of the service.
What most impressed me about the Masowe Apostles was their success. They were the only business people I met during my survey who achieved what the American donors wanted to see. They were entrepreneurs who served the community by providing services that others did not provide. Their baskets and tin boxes were well made. They sold good quality fruit and vegetables. Their furniture was inexpensive and fit the modest requirements of their customers.
The Masowe Apostles model of a successful cooperative work depended on a pre-modern communal life style. I proved this by tracking a few men who left the Apostles to work on their own. They had fallen into the same sorts of failures as the rest of the small business people I met in Botswana. The successful members of the fellowship depended on rigorous discipline and leadership, as well as social separation from the unbelieving outside world. Traditional cooperative work groups, customary polygynous marriage and self-segregated religious communities were able to keep the traits that made pre-modern, pre-industrial Africa work.
Willingness of wealthier people to share with poorer people in Lesotho
On the other hand, most African societies keep a remnant of the old social bonding, despite the disasters of structural poverty, underdevelopment, peripheral status, corruption, civil strife, colonialism, neocolonialism, exploitation, coups and tyranny. Only in a few parts of Africa have social and economic problems yielded to total inhumanity. An early book describing such a situation was The Mountain People by Colin Turnbull (Simon and Schuster, 1972), about the descent of the Ik of northern Uganda into self-inflicted mutual destruction. More current examples would be the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi, and even more currently the seemingly mindless disorder which has brought several million deaths and rapes in eastern Congo.
In these cases of disaster there was a tipping point beyond which normally peaceful people lost their humanity and turned to mutual destruction. In the study of poverty in Lesotho in the late 1990s that I discussed earlier I calculated that the overall system would not collapse into Hobbes’ state of man against man, woman against woman, all against all. My interviews and survey results showed that even the bottom tier of society was able to survive through help from those at a slightly higher level. Subsistence never failed totally. I did not see anyone who was actually starving, although I did find families very close to the edge, with children that were severely malnourished. In every case there was some help given by a family member, a neighbor, an aid organization or, in desperation, the Lesotho government to provide that bit of help to prevent total deprivation and death.
In my analysis of poverty in Lesotho in 1999, I divided households into groups based on the fungible assets available to them. These assets included houses, trees, fields, private water supplies, stoves, lighting systems, toilets, household possessions, farm assets, annual income and savings, all of which I valued according to current market prices.
How could I justify such assumptions? Surveys showed that each woman working in the garment industry claimed to be supporting several others, and each man working as a miner up to 10 or 12 people. Rough calculations of household assets, as derived in the previous paragraph, including the salaries of people who reported employment in the textile factories and the gold mines, allowed me to make estimates of how many persons in fact are supported by those with jobs. Our research project confirmed these estimates by asking the every respondent, including the destitute, what income they received and from what sources. The very poorest in our sample reported that survival depended on gifts from friends and relatives.
Using these assumptions, we estimated that the 610,000 Basotho at the bottom of the economic ladder could find help from a potential pool of 190,000 person equivalents, a ratio of 1.79 potential helpers for each destitute person. Lesotho at that time was thus shown to be capable of survival on the basis of its own resources. Foreign aid for the very poor, mostly in the form of food aid through food-for-work programs, was a helpful, but relatively less important, supplement to what could be and was provided locally. Without this form of local assistance, poverty in Lesotho would have reached serious levels of famine and disaster, with the consequent social chaos the world sees in countries like Somalia. These two cases – Lesotho and Somalia – confirm in opposite ways the analysis of Amartya Sen in his book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford University Press 1981) that famines need not happen in countries that are socially coherent and avoid coups and civil wars.
CHAPTER 32. MORALITY ALLOWS ALL TO BE MORAL ACTORS
As part of the privilege of raising three boys to adulthood, I have seen them grow from being crying babies who legitimately demanded food and security to mature thoughtful adults who have a deep sense of what is right and wrong. None of them is selfish beyond what is needed for survival, and each recognizes the rights of others to be human in their own way. They may disagree as to the right way, yes, but to impose the One Right Way, no. They may not agree with me, or with each other, but we know the right way to disagree.
I have found a similar basic willingness to agree to disagree among the African peoples with whom I lived and worked, although the societies and nations within which they lived often did not display the same level of shared humanity. In this section of my report I look at four case studies: legal disputes in rural Liberia, mutual accommodation within an inter-ethnic society in Tanzania, the use and abuse of corruption in Lesotho, and the rainbow nation fight against apartheid in South Africa. I was involved in various ways with all these issues, and was forced to take sides in a different way in each case.
Traditional legal decision procedures in Liberia
The procedure was right out of Europe’s Middle Ages and right out of Liberia’s own immediate past. She brought an official “ordeal doctor” from the nearby market town of Gbarnga to test the guilt or innocence of the manager. He agreed to the procedure in lieu of being taken to court, with all the legal expense and delay of an official trial and investigation. The ordeal doctor heated a cutlass red hot, applied a liquid from a small bottle to the bare legs of three parties: my friend, the accused and himself.
He then asked each person if he or she was guilty of lying. Both denied the charge. He then applied the hot iron to his own leg. I could see the flesh indented by the cutlass. Nothing happened. He reheated the iron and applied it to my friend’s leg. Again, nothing happened. He then applied the hot iron to the leg of the accused. Just as before, I could see the leg muscles and skin indented by the knife. He really was applying pressure. In this case, however, the flesh sizzled and acrid smoke caught my nostrils. As far as accuser, accused and judge were concerned, the case was over, and the farm manager was proven guilty.
What did I make of it? I could see no difference between the methods used by the ordeal doctor in its three uses: on himself, on my friend and on the farm manager. The cutlass was red hot in each case, and the flesh was each time indented by the stroke. Either the ordeal doctor used trickery as he manipulated the cutlass, because he had already decided who was guilty, or the psychological fear of the guilty party led his physiological reaction to be different from those of the other two who presumably did not feel guilty. Whatever the case, justice (or was it “:justice”) was done quickly. All parties accepted the verdict, and the case was over after the “guilty” man paid something to my friend and to the ordeal doctor to compensate for his crime.
In retrospect, I think that the case was quickly and even humanely settled by this clearly “barbaric” and “superstitious” practice. The alternative might have been months of legal wrangling, substantial legal fees, months or years in jail, and possibly an appeal up to the level of President Tubman. The farm manager probably did steal the money. He did not make a big fuss after his leg was burned. He may have even gone back to his job, for all I know. A customary procedure that made no sense to me or my culture brought a quick solution, even if not “justice”, in the case of a small crime.
In both these cases all parties were given the chance to be moral actors, to state their cases in front of people who knew them. Judgment was passed, and the community was restored to balance. The wounds were presumably not allowed to fester, as accusation and counter-accusation continued.
That, of course, raises the question of what it means to be moral in these cases of theft and adultery. Neither case led to a conclusion that went to the heart of the matter. What is stealing? Is it right for an office manager who carried the heat of the day while the owner enjoyed a comfortable life elsewhere to share some of the wealth? Are there circumstances when a hot love affair between young people is justified by the fact that the woman in question was married to a dried-up old man who had married her by force or by paying money? Such issues were not raised in these cases, nor did I see much point in asking those questions.
Instead the cases were resolved in such a way as to keep the social order intact. The accusers and the accused were allowed to be moral actors, and not treated as isolated individuals. All actors were parts of a larger social system that needed to keep communal peace. I think I learned in these and other similar situations in Africa that community harmony is a more basic part of morality than individual self-righteousness. Of course, such judgments lead to tragedies. Shakespeare and Chinua Achebe knew about them, and so presumably did my friends who accepted the two court judgments I have discussed, preferring community harmony to exciting and destructive tragedy.
Political party insistence on new communal life in Tanzania
In fact many of the languages are mutually intelligible, and so the number of really different languages is probably smaller. At independence the government wisely decided to choose the most widely-spoken as the national language, namely Swahili. All young people in Tanzania learn Swahili in school, although most of them also know two or three other languages. The situation struck home to me when we were doing research in a village near the Zambian border. My research assistants spoke several languages present in the area, but in this case they could find no one who spoke one rather remote language. It was important that we interview that person, and so the translation had to go from me to my main research assistant, from him to a citizen of the village, and from that citizen to the person whom we needed to interview. I have no idea whether we got the truth out of that interview, but at least we tried.
I had similar problems in two other villages. In both cases they involved interviewing transhumant cattle keepers. In one case I found a village resident who spoke the Sukuma language which none of our research assistants could speak. In another similar situation I had to get a villager to speak the Maasai language that none of my research assistants could speak.
The point of this digression is that every group in Tanzania brings its own understanding of morality and group behavior. The problem was slightly less serious among young people than older citizens, because the young had already been socialized into a national Swahili culture by the time we did our research. Our research assistants all spoke their home languages and also Swahili and English. They were barely aware in some cases of their own original cultural backgrounds.
One young man, one of the best of my assistants Antule Mwaipopo, was Nyakyusa by birth, and still spoke the language. However, when I asked him to tell me about the customs and traditions of his people, he took me to his home in the southwestern city of Mbeya. He went into his house to find a book by the South African anthropologist Monica Wilson entitled Good Company: A Study of Nyakyusa Age-Villages (Oxford, International African Institute, 1951). His grandfather had been Monica Wilson’s informant in the 1930s and 1940s. He and the rest of my research assistants by the early 1980s were far removed from their ancestral cultures. Unlike my other assistants, who were quite happy to make up stories about their culture, Antule went to the source, namely, his grandfather who told a South African white woman what he believed to be a faithful record of life in the old days.
I was in Tanzania, a country with more than 130 different ethnic groups with their own cultures and traditions, a country trying to create a unified nation, with a common ethos and morality. The language chosen for this purpose was Swahili. Both for good and for ill, the Swahili culture by no means fit the customs and cultures of the great majority of citizens of the new country. Swahili was a coastal culture, tied intimately to Arabic and Islam and the sea-going trade routes with Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Swahili slave traders, moreover, were not remembered with any affection by the interior peoples who knew that their ancestors had been roped together in slave convoys to be sold on the coast to emirates in the Middle East.
Thus, in order to create a common culture, Tanzanians could not use the underlying Swahili culture, even though they could use the language. This was in my view a brilliant choice, since it allowed the political party to create a culture almost from scratch.
Nyerere’s vision of a united socialist nation was never realized as such. He left office convinced he had failed to achieve his social and economic vision. What is more important to me was his success in uniting nation under a culture invented and nurtured by the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) later called Chama cha Mapinduzi, a Swahili phrase meaning “Party of the Revolution”. As I described above, the party was sent out to every village in the country to bring about the new society, using party leaders to administer what was called the “ten-cell” system. Every village where we worked organized the households ten in a group, to plan and work together.
To the best of my knowledge, this system was effective, even though the socialism which theoretically grounded the system in a national ideology that I saw working effectively only in one village. There was a strong correlation between numbers of party members per family and other aspects of development. In short, the party provided the glue that brought Tanzania from being a hopelessly disparate collection of diverse peoples to a unified nation, even though it did not provide a theoretical political economy as a template for further development.
The proof of the real unity is that the country has never had a coup since independence, if one does not count the internal disputes in Zanzibar, an island which never really fit in with the mainland society. The result is a country which has brought unity out of diversity, with a common political and social structure. It may not have been the dream nation that Nyerere and his ideologues had in mind in the 1960s and 1970s, but it has stuck together.
Community evaluation of corrupt development in Liberia and Lesotho
I found it helpful to look closely at the situations in Liberia and Lesotho. There is a disturbing trend in Liberia for corruption to impact most on the poor. The poorer the person, the more likely he or she will have trouble getting an official document signed or avoiding problems with the police. Overall in the countries surveyed by the Afrobarometer, perception of corruption by traditional leaders increases with the wealth of the respondent. In the case of Liberia, on the contrary, it is the poor who more often perceive traditional leaders to be corrupt. The belief that Liberia discriminates against “country people” while it favors Americo-Liberians, the educated and the employed, groups that collectively comprise the so-called kwii, remains widespread. Furthermore, it is generally accepted that upper level traditional leaders, the clan chiefs and paramount chiefs, have over the years been complicit with centralized exploitation since they owe their positions and their power to the national government.
There is a real split in Liberia between those who speak only English, those who speak both English and an indigenous language, and those who speak only an indigenous language (and in most cases also some informal Liberian English). Many, but importantly not all, Liberians whose only language is English are descendants of the Americo-Liberian settlers or those rescued from slave ships, and thus have an automatic claim to higher social status. The Afrobarometer survey shows that those who speak only English are better off economically than those who also speak an indigenous language. They are more likely to have regular cash income, medical treatment, clean water and enough food to eat, than those who grew up speaking a local language even those who also have become fluent in English.
Lesotho is different. Egalitarianism has prevailed since King Moshoeshoe I built Lesotho into a single nation in the early 19th century out of various clans and marginalized ethnic groups. All Basotho belong to clans through their father’s lineage, but the leading clans do not assert economic or political dominance over other clans. The king must come from the Koena clan, as do many principal chiefs, but that does not give rise to national discrimination. When Basotho were asked by Afrobarometer whether they felt conditions of their clans were worse or better than those of other clans, no clan was thought to have special advantages.
My conclusion is that corruption is greater and reflects more social discrimination in Liberia than in Lesotho. Evidence from other African countries, as reported in the same survey, supports this pattern. I certainly saw that ethnicity automatically dictates social status in Uganda and Ethiopia. The Tanzanian mainland, on the other hand, has achieved a remarkable degree of ethnic harmony and lack of inherited class or social status.
Corruption and social inequity go together. Most Africans I have spoken with agree they must both be removed so that citizens can live and let live in a morally healthy society. Lesotho made a good start in the 19th century, and still depends on its original egalitarianism for citizens to share access to and concern for social morality. Liberia is on its way toward a newer and better social system, but is not there yet. Hopefully, the program Liberia 2030 which seeks an egalitarian and just society will bear fruits. If morality in fact does mean giving other people an equal chance to be moral actors, then countries with built-in social, economic, political and class inequalities have a greater hurdle to overcome before that goal can be achieved.
South African struggle against apartheid
The underlying principle, as I understood it from friends and colleagues in Lesotho during the tense and troubled 1980s, was to find a way for everyone to be the person she or he had the potential to be. My friends Jackie and Joe loved each other deeply, she a South African white and he a “Coloured”, but were not allowed to be fully human under the exclusionary rules in force in their own country. They chose to escape across the border into Lesotho, where they could be themselves. They bore a beautiful little girl, hopefully named Phoenix to reflect the hope of a reborn and renewed society. One-year-old Phoenix was found lying on the floor of their apartment the night before Christmas in 1985, too young to understand that Jackie and Joe were lying along side her, dead after being shot and killed by South African undercover police.
One result of this murder was to force Judy and me to take seriously the quest for every person in South Africa to give and receive the right to be human. We now understood in action, more than before, Jesus’ command to love neighbor as oneself and Kant’s doctrine that every act should enable its expression as a universal maxim. In retrospect we now see that all our choices, first to teach in rural Liberia and then to work for equal economic opportunity in southern Africa rather than succeed in American academia, were rooted in seeking fair and equal access for all.
The South African political struggle meant to us, and we think also to most of our friends and co-workers in that struggle, a commitment that each moral actor should allow every other person to be a free moral actor. Leveling the playing field is a good metaphor for our concern. In Liberia that metaphor meant allowing rural people equal access to higher education. In Lesotho it meant giving the poor, rural farmers and urban laborers, a way out of poverty. Now the racial inequities brought home to us by such horrors as the murders of Joe and Jackie led us to understand the importance of political barriers to justice and fair play. Our joining the Transformation Resource Center was born out of our newly deepening understanding of Africa.
I realize that I idealized the motivation of the African National Congress, the Pan-Africanist Congress, the Black Consciousness Movement, the Communist Party and the National Union of Mineworkers in fighting for a new South Africa. We did in fact see and deplore the infighting between various groups seeking to dominate the post-apartheid nation. We were not happy when our car was borrowed by refugee friends in 1985 to transport limpet mines across the border from Lesotho. We were angered by the blatant lies of a PAC activist in support of a woman, also a friend of ours, who stole funds given by idealistic American students in order to support her gambling habit. Making it possible for each person to be a moral actor is not easy in view of the very human desire to shortcut the process for personal gain.
Despite these caveats, I look back at the South African quest for the freedom and dignity of all people, and our small participation in that quest, as an event of world-historical value and importance. I believe it truly was a concrete expression of the need for us all to enable not only others but also ourselves to be full moral actors. I knew that, at the root of their concerns, the Africans I knew and cared about felt the same way, and I was privileged to share their burden.
CHAPTER 33. LOVE MEANS SUFFERING WHEN OTHER PEOPLE SUFFER
I look at four cases. The HIV/AIDS pandemic devastated lives and whole nations across Africa. Some turned their backs on victims, but many more shared the pain. Basotho struggled to create institutional ways to care for orphans. Citizens across southern Africa opened their houses and their resources to South African refugees before the end of apartheid. During the civil wars that swept Liberia from 1989 to 2003 hundreds of thousands were killed, but far more found shelter with family and friends and even strangers across the West African region.
Generous response to HIV/AIDS victims in Lesotho
increase. By the year 2003 the population had fallen to 1.85 million from a maximum of just over 2 million.
Basotho required several years of bad news before they began to internalize the severity of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The first round of the Afrobarometer survey conducted in 1999 showed that 11.5% of respondents knew a close friend or relative who had died of AIDS. By the third round in 2005 the figure was 19.4% and by the fourth in 2008 the figure became 23.0%. Adult prevalence rose from 4% in 1993 to a current 24%. The result has been devastating to families. Even before we left Lesotho in the year 2000 funerals were being held not just on Saturday, the normal day for funerals, but also on other days in the week.
Although their response was slow at first, Basotho soon showed generosity and love, mainly at a personal rather than institutional level. Grandmothers took orphaned children into their homes. In those earlier days, however, children returned to their parents in due course. Now life is different. Instead, parents die and are no longer just absent as migrant workers. Thus grandparents are forced to accept permanent responsibility for their grandchildren.
The first organization that I knew about to work with AIDS victims is Positive Action, which was started by a German entrepreneur Ingo Seifert in 1999. According to the ZoomInfo Directory, “Due to a close encounter with HIV/AIDS in 1999 he founded the POSITIVE ACTION Society Lesotho, an HIV/AIDS self help group.”
I knew Ingo when he was selling and servicing television sets. I had brought our set to him for repair that year, and was then surprised to learn he had gone to Bloemfontein for medical reasons. He returned a few months later. I am sure it was an encounter with AIDS that frightened him. There is no way to say now, or even then, that he was HIV-positive. All I know is that he married a Mosotho woman, and has continued in Lesotho, having now entered the restaurant business. It seems that such a combination of personal involvement and business skill is needed to inspire public action. Basotho have joined Positive Action and the organization continues to provide support and encouragement to HIV-positive people.
A similar organization is the Paballong Trust, which has established a center on the plateau behind Maseru. The force behind the center is a Dutch expatriate who now lives permanently in Lesotho. He is committed to Lesotho in the same way as Seifert, since his partner is a Mosotho.
The government antiretroviral program depended from its beginning in 2001 on outside help. The William J. Clinton foundation provided drugs to HIV-positive people through the Clinton Health Access Initiative. Partners in Health joined the fight in 2006 and set up eight centers in remote mountain villages accessible only by feeder roads or small plane.
Other programs have started in Lesotho, almost all initiated by foreigners. The Christian Health Association of Lesotho was formed in the 1970s, and includes the various churches who operate clinics and hospitals. In general their AIDS work is funded from outside Lesotho. The Lesotho churches by themselves are simply not able to support expanded medical work. Boston University has a health program in Lesotho, assisted by an organization in Brookline
Massachusetts called SHARED. Once again, its funding comes from outside Lesotho.
What I find significant, and depressing, is that so much of the assistance to families living with AIDS depends on outside initiative. Both Positive Action and the Paballong Trust were started by expatriates who took deep root in Lesotho and have contacts outside the country that help them raise funds. Why is it that comparable indigenous Lesotho-based groups do not exist? I don’t have an answer. The love and concern are there, but they are not translated into action.
Homeless children in Lesotho
Fr. Maekane received financial aid from the Save the Children Fund, which was administered by a remarkable South African woman Winifred Coaker. Her husband had made a fortune selling soap and cosmetics throughout South Africa before dying in 1983. Mrs. Coaker lived in Lesotho after her husband’s death, and was generous in her support for poor Basotho. The children’s home would most likely have survived without her help, but with that help it became an example of alternative approaches to development, emphasizing self-support and environmental protection.
Both children’s homes are presently alive and well, and set an example for others to follow. Prince Harry, grandson of Queen Elizabeth of Britain, visits them regularly, and encourages his friends and colleagues to donate. I am sure that even without such high profile support Fr. Maekane’s work would continue, since it was done out of love for poor boys and girls throughout Lesotho, and done in a relatively uncomplicated rural corner of the country..
I had a serious altercation with her in early 1989 when she commandeered a government bulldozer and began clearing land for her orphanage. That effort included wrecking houses and work places of poor men who made bricks for sale around the city. She justified the destruction as necessary to build a home for the children she was sheltering. By so doing she made many hard working men, along with their own children, homeless and destitute. I was working at the nearby Transformation Resource Center late one afternoon when a neighbor told me what was happening just down the hill. I rushed there, and stood in front of the bulldozer to stop it. Mavis told me she had authorization from the government to build on the site, but I found very soon that no such permit had been given, even though she had applied for it. I was able to get an interdict late that day from the city government to stop the destruction.
This incident was only a temporary setback for Mavis. She continued to collect children for her home over the years enlarged to become an orphanage. It is said that she sends the children out into the city to beg for food, since otherwise she has no means to support them, doing so because the Holy Spirit has commanded her. Even today she is still controversial as she goes about what she considers to be God’s business, regardless of the consequences to herself or the children.
There have been other Basotho, including some accused of child trafficking, who have tried to help poor children. It is traditional that Basotho often take children into their homes when their parents are sick or have died. Some entrepreneurs see orphan care as a way to make a living. The problem with such well-intentioned people is that they have not been able to meet international or even local legal standards for child care. The ones who do meet these standards are unfortunately almost always foreign-based. Fr. Patrick Maekane achieved his goal. Mavis Mochochoko was unable to achieve her goal in an acceptable and sustainable way.
Here is the paradox of development in a nutshell. Fr. Maekane started his mission at a time and place where life was simpler. He successfully created two rural institutions with support from the church and from charitable members of the business community. Mavis Mochochoko was not able to integrate her efforts into the network of international agencies and the legal framework of a complex and interwoven world. Simply having the energy and love to commit one’s life to the poor is no longer enough. In an earlier era a loose cannon like Patrick Maekane could find and hit a target. Today a loose cannon like Mavis Mochochoko runs he risk of hitting and destroying more unintended than intended targets.
I worked in Botswana with a woman who had taken refuge there because she did not want to live under the apartheid restrictions. She worked as a sociologist and I was closely associated with her in the study of small businesses in Botswana. However, I knew that her heart was across the border in South Africa to which she would surely return once freedom came to that country. Throughout Botswana the people I met and worked with and interviewed knew that their own freedom depended on the success of refugees eventually to rebuild their country. But it was more than just self-interest that motivated their desire for freedom in South Africa. The Setswana language is one of the official languages in South Africa today, and most of the people whom I met in that country had relatives across the border.
Because they knew well the struggle for independence, the people of Zimbabwe welcomed refugees in their midst, offering them hospitality and a place to work. Our friend Phyllis Naidoo, the ANC lawyer we knew so well in Lesotho and in whose apartment a parcel bomb damaged her hearing and took off John Osmer’s hand, found work teaching at the University of Zimbabwe. I think even felt more fulfilled there than when she worked as a lawyer in Lesotho. She was able to continue her contacts with ANC friends in South Africa and abroad, and helped to keep the flame of freedom alive in a Zimbabwe which would soon lose its own freedom under the tyrannical rule of liberation leader Robert Mugabe.
Zimbabwe’s hospitality to freedom fighters extended also to our priest friend Michael Lapsley. Michael had been forced to leave Lesotho in 1983 because of his strong ANC sympathies. At that time I was very angry with bishop Donald Nestor for having succumbed to outside pressure. However, I can also understand his reasons because he did not want the South African government to mount another raid like that which they made in December of 1982.
In Tanzania also people welcomed ANC liberation fighters. During my stay there my research team and I passed through the rural town of Chunya, which hosted a major training base for those who would return to South Africa to bring freedom. It was as clear in Tanzania as it had been in the other front-line states that they saw South African struggle as their struggle.
In short, I found a genuine sense of pan-African solidarity in the countries where I did research. The idea of ubuntu was strong, and ordinary people gave their own time and resources to benefit Africans in other countries. It must not be forgotten that these neighboring states themselves suffered for supporting liberation in South Africa. They stretched their economic resources to provide homes, jobs, education and medical care for South African refugees. I knew how Lesotho extended all that it had to help refugees, even when it caused great economic damage to the country.
These countries and their people suffered physical damage, even deaths of their citizens, by publicly supporting the liberation struggle. The South African Defense force and the South African police mounted raids in all four neighboring countries during that time. The worst of these raids was when 42 people were killed in Lesotho in 1982, but there was comparable loss of life in all the other countries.
What is particularly sad today, however, is that the South Africans who were so strongly supported by their neighbors during the fight for freedom are turning their back on refugees from those same front-line states that had been so helpful before independence. I look forward to the day when freedom for one is really also freedom for all.
Acceptance of refugees during civil war in Liberia
It is, unfortunately, true that Liberians were also partly at fault in the Ivory Coast civil war. Bands of unemployed armed youth are known still to roam the forests of eastern Liberia. It is believed that there are caches of weapons hidden in the interior of Liberia. Those who know where they are hidden also know how to put them to work as an income generating activity. I want to believe, however, that such marauding bands do not represent the real spirit of the people I knew in rural Liberia.
What is my evidence? In the first place, I have never been in a village in rural Liberia that was not welcoming to strangers, not just me as a stranger but all Liberians. Unfortunately, the interlude of bad and xenophobic government under Samuel Doe was a hopefully temporary counter example. Nevertheless, I believe that most Liberians see the ethnic enmity engendered during Doe’s rule is not the Liberian way to live.
In the second place, all the stories I have heard from Liberia’s civil war stress the ability of people to find refuge almost anywhere in the country. For example, in the civil war one former student and good friend was driven out of his home into a village in a remote area that did not speak his own language. That village was severely raided during the war and had little food of its own. Nonetheless, my friend found a place to stay and was welcomed to share what little food they had been able to keep after boy soldiers left them to go on to another village.
In the third place, there would have been far more deaths in those terrible years of war if people had not welcomed each other at times of desperation. That Liberia has survived at all must in larger measure be due to mutual care and support. Certainly this mutual care came at a serious cost, but Liberians have been willing to pay the cost.
CHAPTER 34. GOD IS SUBTLE AND ONLY KNOWN IN OTHER PEOPLE
The moratorium on mission never really took hold, mostly because the evangelical and Pentecostal churches, at one extreme, and the Roman Catholic Church, at the other, simply ignored the idea. Mainstream churches, including our own Episcopal Church, scaled back the numbers of missionaries as well as the time they were to spend “in the field”. When Judy and I signed on as missionaries to Liberia in 1957, the then bishop of Liberia Bravid W. Harris said he expected us to work in Liberia for a minimum of six years. We in fact continued to work in Liberia until 1974 when I had a visiting fellowship and Judy began her doctoral studies at Cambridge University in England,
After I completed my wonderful year in England, I took a job with the United Nations in Lesotho. Burgess Carr’s dictum was partly in my mind as I chose not to work as a formally appointed missionary. I had served in Liberia, and it was time for me, the Liberian church and Cuttington College, to move on. It was the right choice. For me, at that time in my life, Burgess and the AACC were correct.
The Christian church grew from strength to strength during the post-moratorium period, despite some missionaries on the left and the right who continued their work. In this chapter I describe four situations where ordinary people, deeply rooted in their Christian faith, worked for social and economic justice. Their faith enabled them to resist apartheid, heal the terrible wounds left by apartheid in South Africa, end the Liberian civil war, and look for God’s guidance in ordinary life.
The first major break in the Afrikaner domination came with the defection of the Dutch reformed pastor Beyers Naude. H was a member of the Afrikaner Broederbond, an organization more than just a brotherhood, which was built on loyalty to the Dutch Reformed Church and to the culture and language of whites whose history went back to the mid-17th century. Naude was rising rapidly in the hierarchy of Afrikaner clergymen, and could have been expected to enter national politics. Then he had a change of heart and left the Broederbond and his church in order to join the black Dutch Reformed Church. He was declared a “banned person”, and not allowed to leave his house or speak to more than one person at a time.
Before his banning, however, he was influential on my colleague at the Transformation Resource Center Baba Jordaan. Naude arranged for Baba to travel around South Africa to collect information on black Africans who lost their land to whites who implemented the apartheid policy that no blacks own farmland in white areas. Baba was imprisoned for his work with the Surplus Peoples Project at about the same time that Naude was put under house arrest.
The document spoke of three forms of theology: state theology, church theology and prophetic theology. State theology seeks to defend the right of the state to rule society, quoting chapter 13 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Church theology stays out of the fray, and seeks justice and reconciliation through a non-violent approach while it isolates the church from the battle of politics. Prophetic theology is highly political, enters the public fight to overcome suffering and oppression, and uses social analysis to take sides with the oppressed.
We who lived in Lesotho at the time and saw friends killed by apartheid thugs sympathized strongly with the Kairos Document. We were disappointed when our friend and former bishop of Lesotho Desmond Tutu did not sign it, although I think I understand his reasons. As Archbishop of Cape Town he wanted to honor all who were working to defeat apartheid. It is true that we were institutionally freer than Tutu to speak out, as was Albert Nolan who was then teaching in Lesotho with the Dominican order.
The Kairos Document remains for me a powerful statement of the kind of Christianity I hold dear. I am not happy with the way both state theology and church theology can bypass the evils of a corrupt world. I understand the criticism of prophetic theology, more widely known as liberation theology, that liberators, when successful, can be oppressors themselves. Liberation is an ongoing process, and those of us who are Christian must continue in the spirit of the Kairos Document to challenge the status quo, perhaps most especially when the church becomes too comfortable with those who hold power.
Right from the start there were forces seeking to remake South Africa into a state where new forms of injustice replaced the old. The far left of the liberation movement, the Pan-African Congress, would have been glad to eliminate all white presence. They murdered white worshippers in St. James Church and Amy Biel in Guguletu in Cape Town in 1993, as what I see now as a last-ditch effort to derail the peace process.
A year later the far right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) killed black people in Bophuthatswana, northwest of Johannesburg, in their effort to stop progress. Eugene TerreBlanche as leader of the AWB sought throughout the 1990s to undermine reintegration of the white Afrikaner community into the mainstream of the new political dispensation.
In Kwazulu-Natal the Inkhata Freedom Party under the leadership of Mangosuthu Buthelezi sought to impose its vision on the new South Africa. One woman who sought reconciliation in that restive Zulu-dominated province was Clare Stewart, daughter of our friends Joan and Jimmy Stewart. She was brutally murdered in late 1993.
South Africa was rescued, at least temporarily, from a disastrous slide into revenge killings and economic collapse by a combination of forces. Nelson Mandela, of course, played a critical role in bringing sanity and unity to the country. A political leader of that stature and moral authority is given to the world only rarely, and it is up to the world to respond in kind. One person who did respond in the name of humanity and in loyalty to Jesus Christ was Desmond Tutu. Judy and I had met him first when he visited Cuttington College in 1971 on behalf of the Theological Education Fund that had previously sponsored a trip by car from Cuttington across Africa to South Africa.
What was absolutely essential at that critical point in the late 1980s was for brave and loving people to rescue the rapidly deteriorating situation in South Africa. Atrocities had been committed on all sides, as the examples lchcautobiod above demonstrate. Reconciliation could not happen as long as every side pointed fingers at the other side, while those who might have formed a stable middle ground sought refuge outside the country.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission allowed good people to seek the middle ground by calling to account everyone, of whatever political persuasion, who had committed atrocities during what was in effect an undeclared civil war. Desmond Tutu, who retired in 1996 as Archbishop of Cape Town, was called on to lead the TRC during a time of national accounting. He did not use his Christianity as a weapon to condemn any faction, nor did he use it to persuade the many Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Communists and differently-believing Christians to join his variety of main-stream high church Anglicanism.
The task, as Tutu and his colleagues came to define it, was to allow truth to be told. Any person willing to face the truth about herself or himself was given the space and time to state what she or he did during the struggle to violate the rights, property and lives of others. The Commission did so in a spirit of love and forgiveness that brought out the best in many people, or at least took the sting out of the worst of those who would not acknowledge their role.
Women’s intervention in resolving Liberian civil war
The Christian Women’s Peace Initiative joined forces with Muslim women’s groups to form the Liberian Mass Action for Peace. The coalition pressured Charles Taylor in 2003 to join peace talks in Ghana. What temporarily suspended the talks was when Taylor was indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and the news was released during the Ghana conference in June 2003. Taylor returned immediately to Monrovia, and the conference lost direction.
Two more months of fighting were needed before Taylor finally agreed to go into exile. The women’s initiative was unfortunately not enough by itself. Instead two horrible months ensued. We watched TV reports as the LURD and MODEL forces closed in on Monrovia, and saw shelling of refugees sheltering in the American Embassy as the final tragedy of the war.
Even as Taylor departed for exile in Nigeria, various factions grouped together to take the spoils left by the fighting. I spent a month at Cuttington in 2001 teaching students how to do rural development, and returned again in late 2004 to give further assistance in that process. Unfortunately my second visit was abortive, as fighting flared up and I had to leave prematurely to go to a conference in South Africa on AIDS. That trip itself was upset by a surge in fighting in Ivory Coast, which forced me to spend four days in hiding in Abidjan before I could proceed on my journey,
The movie Pray the Devil Back to Hell tells the story beautifully. The meetings among women during the war, confrontation with Charles Taylor, refusal to allow the men to waste time in Ghana before reaching agreement, resulting exile of Taylor, and election of Sirleaf are made alive and clear. The journalist Janet Johnson Bryant played a key role in making the film possible, after doing so much to expose the actions of Charles Taylor during the war.
Finding God by induction in a Liberian university
The book is a thoughtful, in-depth reflection on what it means to be human. The book grows out of Christian evangelical medical thought and practice in the west, but is nonetheless useful for Africans entering the modern world. If I were to teach such a course for Africans again, I would surely find texts or articles written by Africans, but at that time not much was available, with the possible exception of John Mbiti’s African Religions and Philosophy (Frederick Praeger, 1969). The latter book is more theoretical and less concerned about the individual encountering God than the book by Tournier.
I designed the course to allow students to think through their own issues, and to discuss them on their own terms. Each of the seven times I taught the course, the syllabus was subtly different, since in fact the syllabus was shaped by students, with my help. Each class included about 25 students, who worked in teams to choose the topics for discussion, and then lead the classes. I gave introductory lectures on the topics that the students chose, and then allowed – in fact, strongly encouraged – the students to develop the issues in ways they felt important.
The point I need to stress here, in keeping with the general theme of this section of my report, is that these students stressed the issues they know they must face and did to in a moral and thoughtful way. Most of them were active Christians, while a few were Muslims. They did not, however, in their class comments or their papers comment on explicit theological concerns. Instead they dealt in mature, often deeply Christian, ways with the issues that they must face in society. I was reassured by their seriousness. I did encourage the students to read substantial portions of the Bible, in addition to the Tournier book. I feel that these readings provided support for their necessarily practical responses to the real issues they would face as graduates.
Once again, I realized that for my African friends, “God is subtle and good, but only as known in other people.” To the best of my knowledge, these Cuttington graduates did not contribute to the horrible evils that nearly destroyed the Liberian nation. Instead, many that I know have made genuine contributions to healing now that the war is over. I hope and pray I am right, and that those who shared the course in Man and the Modern World with me in the early 1970s will be the peacemakers and peacekeepers of the future.
In this section I look at five issues. First I consider the role of women leaders in church and society, as African nations move away from the colonial emphasis on male leadership. I then consider rural sanitation, where local initiatives are more effective in the long run than foreign construction of latrines. Third is the story of a road building project in Lesotho where I refused to submit to the local desire for outside help. Next is a highly successful project in a remote part of Lesotho where a community worked together with an expatriate who chose to live with them as they developed alternative energy uses. Finally I consider a highly political case where people grow their own protein through building fish ponds, feeding the fish, and harvesting for local consumption.
Liberia did not historically have a problem with female leadership. Even while we were there, a Liberian woman Angie Brooks was serving as President of the UN General Assembly. Before we arrived, a woman Madame Suakoko was the dominant figure in our area of central Liberia, serving as paramount chief, negotiator to end intra-ethnic warfare, and as mediator between her Kpelle people and the central government. Furthermore, when the chief of our neighboring village of Sinyea died, the women asserted their right to bury him, since they were in control of the Poro and Sande secret societies at the time of his death.
Broadly speaking there was an overall inequality between the genders in Liberia. The number of women in mainstream politics was small, even though women played an important role behind the scenes. A woman, Ma Dukuly, was a powerful and charismatic evangelist in Monrovia, but she was a lonely figure who felt called to leave the Episcopal Church to form her own faith healing church in a Monrovia suburb. Market women across West Africa have always played a powerful role in the informal economy, and Liberia was been no exception, but they did not have national level financial power.
Despite the overall inequality, there were no obvious blocks to women taking a more active role in Liberian affairs during our time in the country. A powerful woman Doris Banks-Henries chose textbooks for schools. Mary Antoinette Brown-Sherman, fresh with a doctorate from Cornell University, became president of the University of Liberia, setting the pace for other African universities. Bertha Azango, assistant minister of education, was a driving force behind the newly-formed Liberian Research Association.
The church lagged behind at first, until Bishop George Browne, whom Judy had taught 20 years earlier, invited an American Episcopal priest to be the chaplain at Cuttington College. There was some grumbling at first, but Suzanne Fageole persisted and was eventually well accepted by staff and students.
Other Liberian women then sought the priesthood, now that the example had been set. There was no real problem in their seeking ordination and in their becoming rectors of important parishes in Liberia. A close friend of ours and former student, Abeoseh Flemister, was in effect the bishop’s administrator during the civil war, and played a vital role in keeping the church alive during that terrible time.
This history laid the groundwork for Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to enter politics. After receiving her master’s degree in economics, she became assistant minister of finance in 1972 under President Tolbert, and eventually minister of finance in 1979. She left the country, to save her life, when Samuel Doe overthrew the Tolbert government, and spent much of the next 25 years as an international banker and civil servant, working with the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank. She did try her hand at politics, running for vice-president, and again running for president against Charles Taylor in 1997. In both cases she lost because of electoral fraud, but not because she was a woman. She succeeded in her third try, and was elected president of Liberia in November 2005.
Her successful election campaign was greatly assisted by a powerful group of women under Nobel-prize winning Leymah Gbowee, as I discussed in an earlier section of this report. Without the pressure exerted by these women, the civil war would not have ended as soon as it did, nor would a civilian government have come into being as quickly.
Latrine building in Liberia and Lesotho
A few days later I visited the town of Palala farther east along the main highway to Guinea. There I saw two latrines, one in good condition although a bit crude in its construction, and the other more ambitious but already falling apart. I talked with the owners of the houses the two latrines served. The man who owned the still-functioning latrine had built it himself, while the owner of the other house told me that the foreigners who built his latrine had never come back to fix it. As a result he let it deteriorate. It was not his.
I had a similar experience in Lesotho in the early 1990s. I was asked to evaluate a Peace Corps village development project that included latrine-building. He despaired that the local people did not maintain the structures he helped them build. It was thus no surprise to me when I met latrines in Liberia that fit both categories – some self-built and self-maintained, and others donor-built and not maintained. I can give examples of other technical developments from many other areas of development, and the lesson is the same. That which an individual or a community does for itself is used and cared for. That which others do for them falls into ruin.
Two more examples make the point – in Lesotho I met a farmer whose small field was protected by an erosion-control structure above the field. I noticed that there was a small break in the ridge that kept the water from rushing into his field. I commented that he and I could take a shovel and repair the break. His response was to say that the people who made the ridge should come fix it. In the other Lesotho case a farmer’s wheat was ready for harvest. He told me he would wait for the government to harvest it, even though I could see plainly that he would lose the harvest to impending rain if he waited. It wasn’t his wheat.
Community-based road building in Lesotho
It was also clear to me, however, that the village had fallen deeply into dependence on outsiders to do almost everything. The about-to-break water control ridge and the about-to-lodge wheat harvest were merely symptoms of a larger problem. It was in this village the two farmers lived who I mentioned earlier in the report, one having a rich harvest because he worked hard, and the other getting very little because, as he put it “the work is too hard”.
We together started the work on this road which could not have been longer than about 500-600 meters. It was hard work, and even I, with soft and aging muscles, did my share to use a pick-axe and dig drainage ditches along the side of the road. The village people, admittedly with a bit of somewhat ineffectual help from me, did manage to straighten and grade the road – with one major exception, namely, the drift across the small stream. There sheer muscle power was not enough to make a way across that would survive heavy rains.
At that point, I agreed to persuade the Ministry of Agriculture to bring a tractor with grader attached to finish the one section of the road that the villagers could not do by themselves. In the end a quite adequate feeder road allowed easy vehicle access to the village. I was happy because my car could enter easily. The villagers were happy, since larger trucks and taxis could bring people and supplies. I was satisfied that I broke the system of dependence in that one case. My satisfaction was confirmed by the fact that the road stayed useable over the next few years, mostly because the people knew it was their road, a road they had sweated over. They continued to do small-scale maintenance as needed, and did not feel it necessary with every heavy storm to call on government to repair the damage. The road was theirs.
What is also important about this small triumph is that it helped people recover their traditional African cultural patterns. Before the coming of motor roads, maintenance of paths between villages, both in Liberia and in Lesotho, was the responsibility of villages at the nodes along the paths.
This custom required the village where I was living to help maintain a ford across the river between it and the next village. I was told by residents of the second village that people in my village neglected their responsibility to keep up the ford, leaving it entirely to the second village to place and replace stones to allow easy crossing on foot. To cross that river by motor road was impossible, and thus villages on both ends of the ford were expected to cooperate to keep it open for foot travel. Because people in my village failed to keep their end of the bargain, the villagers across the ford grumbled at helping re-align and repair the motor road that served them as well. I think that in the end tradition prevailed, with both villages working on the ford.
I remember a children’s song that we enjoyed playing for our three sons. One line in the song went, “When there’s housework to do, we must do it together.” The lyrics are perhaps sentimental and preachy, but they have always been a rule in our family. Similarly, this African tradition is violated when aid agencies do for other people what they could do for themselves.
Success of Bethel energy project in Lesotho
There was a long tradition in Bethel of a Catholic church committed to the dignity of labor. Catholic priests organized and managed a cooperative system in the 1930s that owed much to the rugged independent spirit of rural Canada, a system that unfortunately was broken by the British who favored top-down colonial administration and capitalist business enterprise. There was a remnant of the old do-it-together spirit at the Bethel Mission, and Ivan fitted into the community very well.
He has worked in Bethel since 1993, and now administers and teaches in a school to help young people learn marketable skills. It is clear that book learning is not enough to bring Lesotho into prosperity and development, even though it is obviously also necessary. I lchcautobio his website about what the school offers:
“[The Bethel Business and Community Development Center] maintains a well-equipped work-shop that includes: 4 welders, a 1.7 Kw solar mini grid, and a 15 Kw standby generator, and power tools for metal-work, wood-work, and construction. Several different water systems and sources are used on the campus for application and demonstration. Solar energy is used extensively and includes systems for: lighting, cooking, radiative cooling, space heating, water pumping, day-lighting, drying, and plant propagation. Heavy equipment includes 2 tractors, agricultural implements, 2 concrete mixers, tipper trailer, and feed milling machine. The agriculture program includes shade tunnels, drip irrigation systems, sprinkler irrigation, orchards, greenhouse, and a designed landscape.” (http://www.bbcdc.org.ls/)
In short, this center is to me an example of what is best done by the people themselves, and not done for them. It fills the requirements a group of us set out in a pamphlet published by the Transformation Resource Center in 1987. We called it Lesotho Can Develop Herself. The Bethel center is the sort of place we had in mind. I repeat: what is done with other people is always better than what is done for them.
The politics of fish ponds in Liberia
There were two ways in which the Cuttington project went wrong. First, it was not big enough or commercial enough to succeed. Successful fish farming around the world has depended upon scale and commercial management. The Cuttington fish pond was simply too small and too inefficiently managed to produce steady income and steady fish production.
The second way in which it could have succeeded would have been with zero financial input, so that any fish produced would be a positive benefit. This is the sort of fish pond which development theorists would like to see in rural communities that have a shortage of protein.
It was just such a fish pond that people in the nearby village of Sinyea were encouraged to build. Unfortunately, the project went wrong from the very beginning. In the first place, the project was initiated by outsiders from the college rather than by the people of the village itself. A low-lying swampy area adjacent to the main road into the village was chosen by the college with what the college authorities thought was approval by the village leaders. These leaders, however, had long been on record in opposition to almost anything that Cuttington College wanted to do for or with them. As so often happened, their disapproval was not overtly stated but was left unspoken.
As I have indicated earlier in this report, the majority of people in Sinyea saw Cuttington as an exploitative institution that took land from them and then gave low paid jobs as day laborers. Villagers thus treated any Cuttington initiative with suspicion, fearing quite sensibly that there was a hidden reason for anything the college did. What they really wanted from the college was power from the college generator located on the edge of their own land and fresh water purified by the college from the stream that passed through their land. The college always claimed these improvements were too expensive, which was probably true. Why then, the people asked, is Cuttington building a fishpond? There must be some ulterior motive.
It seriously blocked this potentially valuable scheme for rural development when a man was found dead on the edge of the fishpond. No one could explain who he was or why he had been killed. There was a general feeling that behind the murder lay witchcraft which would be used to gain power within the village or by the college against the village. The consequence was that the fishpond was never used for the purpose that ostensibly lay behind its construction.
Osim wanted to go to the United States for graduate studies, but we in perhaps mistaken idealism encouraged him to remain and do community development for a few years. He married a Cuttington student and chose to remain in the rural area to help his people. When Charles Taylor took control of the interior of Liberia, Osim was hired as a rural development expert.
Osim believed firmly in rural development, and wanted his own village of Sinyea to be a model for modernization in the area. Sadly he chose the fishpond and the village water supply system as his first targets. He met great resistance from the people in Sinyea for a wide variety of reasons. Even though born in the village, he was a university educated young man intruding directly in local politics of a village that was very suspicious of what the outside world had already done and might do in the future. In the end, no one would use the first well that he dug with government support, because they saw it as an intrusion in their political life. Even worse was his enthusiastic effort to rebuild the fishpond, an effort supported by only a few young educated modernizers in the village.
What happened thereafter is still not clear to me. Osim walked to a nearby village to discuss development with the village people. He was offered food, certainly not in itself an unusual or dangerous action. Within a few minutes he became violently ill and died, almost certainly the victim of poison. His death was a great tragedy to those of us who loved him and also to those who hoped to see Liberia’s rural areas move away from ignorance, disease and hunger into a new way of life.
My heading for this section is “what is done with other people is always better than what is done for them”. The real question is whether young educated activists like Osim are working with people or only for them. The conservative elders in Sinyea and neighboring villages saw him, as well as those like him, as the enemy to be resisted. Clearly this question also refers to institutions like Cuttington College.
It is unclear to me, as one who committed so much of my life to bringing education to disadvantaged rural people in Liberia, whether our work was helpful or not. Did I and my fellow teachers at Cuttington work with people or for them? The answer to both halves of the question is yes and no. History is what it is, and development of the type we introduced at Cuttington is part of history now. Were we on the side of the right? I want to think so, but I don’t know.
I hope that at least some of my students in the course on African traditional religion and philosophy will look at themselves and their families and ask who – and why – they are. For the 25 students who wrestled with generalizations on traditional African thought to slip quietly and effortlessly into the homogenized modern world of money and technology and comfort would be to me a great disappointment. I hope I have taught them how to learn.
I turn now to what I think is in the minds of Africans who look at all of us foreigners who have done so much to distort the ways in which outsiders think of Africa. I have honestly tried to avoid contributing to that distortion during the 54 years (1958 to 2012) of my association with Africa and African people. I know I have often failed. The first 16 chapters of this book are an analysis of the failures that I have participated in. I admit in that analysis to being an outsider whose career and self-image has consisted of “doing good”, while at the same time “doing very well indeed”.
I am still stressing what I have learned about how Africans perceive the world, but thnis time asking how they perceive us, the outside “do-gooders”. The biggest complaint Africans have against us is that we always want to do things our way. The second complaint is that outsiders prefer to work in westernized urban areas where they can stay in constant touch with what they imagine to be the real world. Related to that is the need for comfortable living quarters and living arrangements, thus segregating the experts who live there from the rest of the nation which brought the experts to their country in the first place. Finally, I emphasize the deep underlying fact that we outsiders may at a superficial level accept the 19 generalizations I have made in this report, but we do not apply them in our lives.
Outside experts who insist on using standard western methods
It is sadly true that such people may be more useful to Africa than the genuine missionaries I have in mind. They are straightforward and honest in their efforts to get what they want, whether for government or business or universities or churches. They are exactly what they appear to be, and Africans mostly learn how to deal with them. They come to Africa with a serious, but in the end selfish, purpose. They are always as strangers, “the other”, and are best dealt with as people whose different and alien ways can eventually be understood and managed by watching closely. As a Liberian proverb puts it, “Sitting quietly reveals crocodile’s tricks.”
A second group consists of those who have selfish motives, but exercise them in such a way as to give the appearance of sympathy for African hopes and fears. Such people are hard to understand, hard to negotiate with, particularly when they give a superficial appearance of friendship and openness to African ways.
The people I identify with most closely are those who really do hope to help Africa and Africans find an equal place in the modern world. I may be naïve about my inner motivation, but I want to count myself in this group. Such people often go wrong, from the perspective of the Africans with whom they live and work, at the level of the meta-message underlying their overt attempts to help. The explicit public message, as distinct from the underlying meta-message, includes their intention to help Africans be healthy, grow food, administer businesses, teach children, protect the environment or whatever task they feel that Africa and Africans have set for them. It is hard for Africans on the receiving end to disagree with that message.
The meta-message is different and potentially very dangerous, and underlies the concern for medicine, farming, trade, education and the natural world. Under the overt message are the following hidden assumptions. Run your clinics the way Americans do. Farm your fields using the latest technology from western agricultural colleges. Set up and run businesses, whether small or large, using the model set by American MBA programs. Teach students the needed skills and facts, but look to Europe or America for methods and text materials. Manage the environment so that the carbon footprint is small but yet use energy in the same way as profligate western societies do.
This meta-message assumes that they in the developed world have a system that will bring prosperity and peace to the rest of the world. Is that really true? Have those in the west honed their tools sufficiently that they can set a model for others to follow? Some Africans have challenged these assumptions. Almost always their voices are weak and their efforts to guide their people in another way falter. Pioneers like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania or Albert Tevoedjre of Benin or Patrick van Rensburg of Botswana have faiiled to shift the weight of the system accumulated under colonialism and post-colonialism.
It is very tempting, and in fact is the American way, to step into a dysfunctional situation and fix it. The American foreign aid agency which has done the most to resist this temptation is the Peace Corps, for which I have much admiration. Many Peace Corps volunteers enter a new community, in Liberia or Lesotho or wherever, and choose to live within that community as friends and colleagues, not to remake it in their own image.
The Christian church would do well to look at Islamic penetration of Africa south of the Sahara. Muslims have come to Africa as traders, farmers, transhumant livestock keepers, imams and soldiers. Islam spread rapidly when Muslim believers settled down to live as friends and neighbors, not as agents of change. Underlying that Islamic way of life is their willingness to commit their lives to a new world, living as the local people do and interacting with them on matters that seem to be of mutual importance – all as part the local reality on the ground, and not as dictated by a foreign environment.
The choice for that way can be hard. It means cutting oneself off from one’s old way of life, even one’s primary community. It means living as local people live, and sharing their lives. But history seems to show that only thus can change happen in the new community. The important point, of course, is that the new larger community changes because it now consists of of outsiders as well as those whom the newcomers met. The choice to help the local society find a new way of life is a mutual choice, not a choice imposed by outsiders who never lose their outsider status.
The underlying reason is that he did not do what the bureaucracy specified in his contract, including sending reports to the Monrovia office and ultimately to Washington. He simply looked on these requirements as unimportant side tasks that could be sloughed off if he had important issues in the rural villages where schools were being planted.
In our final report, strongly supported by Kabwigere and the majority of the team, we recommended that the mission staff be based in Luwero where they could respond to needs of a people that experienced serious difficulties in the war. A minority, mostly members associated with the United Nations bureaucracy, objected and wanted that recommendation removed. Their argument was that UN civil servants should not be asked to work under such conditions, and moreover should have direct access to the national power structure. My view, and the view of the majority, was that important consideration should be given to the local people, the residents of Luwero, and that the real issue was to make sure the project was tailored to their needs.
I was paid handsomely for my efforts, so handsomely that I sent back a portion of my honorarium to be used for rebuilding schools in Luwero, schools that I fear the UN officials in Kampala never knew existed. I was never asked again to do a UN mission. Their reason was, I am sure, my rejection of the bureaucratic club, with its desire to remain safe and secure in the capital city and its out-of-proportion perquisites including high salaries.
The deep issue is the desire of the official bureaucracy of aid organizations to stay close to the centers of power. The bureaucracy loses touch with the realities on the ground, and thus promotes still further centralization of government and economy in developing countries. I have argued for years that decentralization is necessary for African nations to escape poverty and dependency. A former student at Cuttington College, Byron Tarr who completed his PhD in economics at the University of Illinois, has steadfastly argued for shifting the emphasis from Monrovia as the center of everything to rural diversification and distribution of power.
When Liberia first showed signs of returning to civilian life after the civil war, Byron and I strongly urged that redevelopment should begin in rural areas. Monrovia has been for almost the entirety of Liberian history an economic sink into which national resources were poured with little return on the investment. We urged that when the war ended, all efforts to rebuild the destroyed infrastructure should begin in rural areas. The economic return on investment in government offices and elite suburbs would in our view be negative since it would not make a place for productive industry and agriculture. Rather we believed that money should be put into rebuilding the rural economy, with roads, hospitals, schools, small businesses and farms as the focus.
We were fighting a losing battle. Not only did the old established order, consisting of Americo-Liberians and their recruits from indigenous people into the cultured and wealthy classes, want to rebuild their centers of comfort and power, but also they did not want to see viable opposition centers built up far from the capital city. The few resources existing for reconstruction after the war were mostly spent on rebuilding Monrovia. The result was not a rebirth of the rural farming areas, where a national economy could grow, but the continued flooding of rural people into the rapidly expanding suburbs of Monrovia. It is true that many refugees found Monrovia a safe haven during the worst of the war, but after the war ended there was little or no effort to help them go home by building infrastructure where they could live and work productively.
The choice to benefit the capital city and the centers of political power is perhaps inevitable. A friend of mine Jim Ferguson wrote a brilliant account of how a decentralization project in Lesotho went astray. His book The Anti-Politics Machine (Cambridge University Press, 1990) shows how a Canadian effort to build up a rural political and economic structure in the mountains of Lesotho failed because it did not deal with the self-preservation instincts of the political elite in Maseru. Similarly in Liberia the decentralization efforts advocated by Byron Tarr and others have failed to change local politics, leaving Monrovia as always the permanent focus for Liberian politics and economy.
What has been the result of this capital city focus in Africa? African nations have come to depend on links to the western world (or more recently, to China), not on their own internal viability. Foreign powers take advantage of these links to ensure that the dependent African nations are permanent sources of raw materials and labor rather than centers for economic competition. Keeping African capital cities as economic sinks rather than sources is very useful to international power centers, because it ensures that the African masses represented by these cities will remain strong markets for foreign consumer goods as well as infrastructure, and will continue to provide cheap raw materials.
Liberia is not immune to another coup and another civil war. The anger that made possible the rise of Doe and Taylor is still present in rural areas, and some politicians are aware of it. It is time to listen to rural people, poor people and people without power, who are the very people who can and almost certainly will take power in another revolutionary change. If such a change happens peacefully, very good, but if not…
Cuttington and NUL were half-way houses, allowing expatriates real contact with Liberians and Basotho. We could visit our Liberian or Basotho neighbors (although to be honest we did not do so enough) and we could also relate to people in nearby villages (again not as much as possible). We were thus better off than official bureaucrats in capital cities.
I remember talking with an employee at the American embassy in Maseru. She asked where she could buy something that she needed for her household. I gave her a simple answer which involved going to the main traffic circle by the Catholic cathedral, turning left on the TY road and proceeding for two blocks before turning left again. She was clearly dumbfounded by my directions. I found that she had never during her roughly two years in Maseru been that far into the center of Maseru. She lived in the embassy compound and did not need to go any farther than the nearby OK Bazaar supermarket.
Access to the American embassy has been made difficult in recent years because of the threats of terrorism. Thus Basotho, and even Americans, who want to visit the embassy have to go through a series of checkpoints to get inside the compound. Those going to the embassy have to park their cars about a hundred yards from the entrance, then proceed on foot to a gate where their bags are checked. They must leave potentially dangerous items like computers or cell phones with the guard and then walk to the lobby. There once again they must report at a secure window and state their business to a locally-hired Mosotho employee.
If the employee cannot handle the business directly, then the employee calls an official to come out from inside the secure entrance. In most cases that official will come out through a security gate and talk to the visitor in a reception area. Only in serious matters will the visitor be invited into the inner rooms of the embassy. It is obvious that relations between American officials and Basotho (and even ordinary Americans) will remain very limited and very formal, unless it happens at a high level.
The result is isolation which further builds distrust and enmity. I was not surprised in September 2001 when the twin towers in New York were attacked. There is massive resentment among ordinary people in Africa against the United States, even at the same time as there is immense envy. There was a sense among Africans with whom I spoke that, whereas the destruction on that terrible day could never be justified, the attack was inevitable.
In short, Africans ask why Americans cut themselves off from the rest of the world in such unpleasant ways. Thank God for the Peace Corps! But we must go farther, if we in the United States are ever to live in a world which is not divided into the rich and the poor, into the in group and the out group, into the West and the rest. To be a real missionary is to live with and be part of the world to which the missionary is called.
A first step is to recognize the reality of the 19 points present in the minds of the African with whom I have worked and lived: multiple perspectives, partial truths, doubtful causation, response to immediate circumstances, accepting cultural conditioning, translating between languages and cultures, meaning what we say, paying attention to affect, recognizing beauty, seeing the inner reality of history, moving beyond wealth to freedom, understanding poverty as relative, refusing to over-generalize from narrow experience, sharing our lives with others, allowing others full moral agency, suffering when others suffer, seeking God in other people, working with rather than for others, and teaching by helping others learn for themselves. Then, perhaps, we can be more than just imperialists in disguise.