CHAPTER 2. FINDING WHO I AM
In 1958 I was called by God to work in Liberia. Of that I am sure. I didn’t want to be an upwardly mobile academic enjoying middle-class American comfort. I remember thinking “how boring”, when a classmate at Union Seminary was hired by the University of Arkansas. What I did not know, and still don’t fully know, is: why Africa, why Liberia? Some answers: witness to Christ, teach what I had learned, take a job that no one else wanted to do, serve the poor, work across cultural and racial barriers, run away from a sick American culture, find a very little pond where I would be a big fish, satisfy an urge for adventure, escape from having to prove myself as an engineer or a mathematician or an historian. But why Africa? Only God knew, and still knows. One task for this book is to find out why.
Lying behind my choice was an unspoken assumption: that I could help Africans become like me. Now that I confront that assumption I realize immediately that my Tanganyikan student Shabani Kisenge was right when he announced to Judy’s freshman English class in early 1959: “missionaries are imperialists in disguise:”. To him an imperialist is a person who imposes his culture, his political system, his beliefs, his knowledge on others. Political conquest is only a superficial aspect of imperialism. Total conquest is more than political rule, only complete when the conquered no longer resent being conquered. The imperialism that particularly concerned Kisenge is what Jean Paul Sartre called “colonization of the mind” in his introduction to Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. (Grove Press, 1963)
Kisenge’s indictment of me and all missionaries as imperialists in disguise deserved and still deserves a response. I tried then and often since then to respond, but still don’t know how an imperialist like me should respond when caught in the act. I might have given up and gone home in the face of Kisenge’s critique, crossing back over the boundary between civilizations. I didn’t quit. I stayed in Africa, and I am glad I did.
My first defensive response to Kisenge missed the deep point at issue. In effect I claimed: “Maybe all those other people are imperialists, but not me; I’m different because I too hate imperialism”. I didn’t understand just how simple an answer that was. I didn’t understand how I took on the role of “imperialist” by trying to make Africans become like me. I thought my job as a teacher required me to help my students understand and identify with the whole package of ideas and traditions, the western Euro-American world view and history, that I brought to Africa.
I had been invited by the Episcopal Church to teach African students, students from Liberia as well as students from several other about-to-be independent African countries. I would teach in a small American liberal arts college designed by an earlier generation of American missionaries and plopped in the midst of the African bush.
The only things African about Cuttington College were the landscape and where the students came from. About 1500 acres of prime village land were given by the late President Tubman to the Episcopal Church in 1948 as a site for the college which opened to a student body of four. It has grown from that small beginning to a university in 2012 with about 2000 students. Village people have complained over the years that Cuttington was a foreign institution which did nothing for them except take away their farm land, replacing traditional subsistence farming with low-paid employment as laborers. In itself this was economic imperialism, designed to use expendable human and material resources to train recruits into American culture.
I had nothing to offer then except what I was and knew, and the only model I could imagine for myself was the that of an overeducated American polymath. I pride myself for being a “Renaissance man”, knowledgeable in physics, mathematics and western intellectual history, with a side offering of music. As a PhD-carrying believing Christian missionary, I could only offer myself. For students of mine to succeed in my classes they had to pass tests that I would devise, tests that measure conformity with the western Euro-American Christian society and culture that I carried with me.
I might say in my defense that students were not forced to enter Cuttington College or the National University of Lesotho. Another defense might be that governments and institutions in the countries where I worked were to blame because they asked me to do a job for which they believed I have skills. I could say it was their choice, the choice of the students and institutions, to invite me to bring ideas and skills from outside their local culture, and thus inevitably change that culture. In short it was not my fault!
Of course, that is a specious defense. Such students know that a western-type higher education is necessary if they are to take their place as leaders in the new Africa. They accepted me, but resented the fact that they had no alternative.
I could have refused to impose my western ideas, but at that point in my career it would have meant packing up and going home to America to impose my ideas on Americans whose culture was my own. I am very glad I stayed in Africa and didn’t quit. That choice was to be the beginning of my education, an education which I hope helps me to be more than just an American polymath.
What remained for me as I persisted in being an “imperialist” was to affirm and strengthen the students who asked my help, not just brainwash them. That did not initially resolve the paradox of being a hated but desired imperialist, but it was a step on an alternative and better path. People wanted what I supposedly could offer, even though the brighter ones among them knew they should resist being trapped by the cultural baggage I brought. For the time being, I could only offer the Euro-American culture that shaped me.
My first assignment was to be Dean of Instruction, to redesign and update the basic undergraduate curriculum. I thought then that I did an excellent job, but there was hardly anything African about the result. It was only after a few years that I pushed for introductory courses in African history to complement the western history course which was required for all students. Even so we reported African history through the lens of European and American scholarship. Some of the best scholars such as Basil Davidson did their best to see the rapidly changing continent through African eyes, but it took years before Africans themselves, scholars like Cheikh Anta Diop, could be recognized as authorities.
The battle for Africans to speak out about their continent, as opposed to Europeans and Americans speaking for them, was fought often in my career. Dr. Harry Ododa, a Kenyan who had graduated from Cuttington in the 1960s, returned to teach at Cuttington in 1971, and very soon showed his strong displeasure at having to share an African history course with me. He was in many ways right in his anger to find me speaking for Africa, even though I still think his complaints about my pro-western bias in grading the course were petty and vindictive.
Another case involved Dr. Paulus Mohome at the National University of Lesotho, where I was teaching African studies in 1979. Mohome was a combative and prickly Mosotho, with a doctorate in anthropology from the United States. He strongly disliked white people speaking about African history and anthropology, and had a serious argument with his student Fr. Michael Lapsley, a radical white Anglican priest deeply committed to the non-racial African National Congress. Mohome, who was equally committed to the PanAfricanist philosophy, gave Michael’s MA thesis a failing grade on the basis of his political persuasion. Michael was able to reverse the decision eventually, but it was another case of an Africanist scholar pushing aside a scholar from the white west. I learned recently that Mohome praised Negritude as “simply a reaffirmation of Negro Africa’s presence and the authenticity of his civilization” (Sertima, Ivan van, 1986: Great African Thinkers: Cheikh Anta Diop. Journal of African Civilizations, p. 93). Lapsley and I were doubtless in some way inauthentic.
I was not sufficiently aware either in 1971 or in 1979 of the emotions which ran deep in these two scholars. As I look back I now can recognize the powerful anti-white, anti-European animus that Ododa and Mohome carried with them. The extent to which they were justified in their anger was something I could only much later begin to comprehend. They were speaking out of the same 1970s black nationalism that surfaced in the United States in the Black Power movement, and that was expressed in a more measured way by such scholars as Walter Rodney and Issa Shivji. I have used works by both authors in my classes, but I was not at that point ready to see how their work applied to me.
Another example. When I was working in agricultural development in Lesotho I was challenged by the radical left-wing author John Saul for writing what I thought was a fair-minded critique of a development project in Lesotho. He is not an African, but instead a Canadian social scientist, very much on the wavelength of the radical African-focused left wing. I heard indirectly that he found my comments on the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization to be weak and cowardly, avoiding the deep criticism implicit in my findings. I had compromised so that what I was telling the FAO might be more palatable. I did indeed temper my remarks, which were nowhere near as radical as they should have been. I failed to identify the deep issue, the imperialism that is colonization of the mind. I was still a white liberal, and did not dare look deeply into the radical demands of black Africa.
Underneath my liberal desire to break away from being an “imperialist” was still my desire to understand Africa in terms of my western intellectual and moral heritage. At the same time as I was struggling toward a reasonable and rational, but very western-centered, approach to development, I did not hear the voices which strongly denied what I stood for. For example, I attended a conference in Maseru in May 1976 organized by Lesotho’s King Moshoeshoe II, a conference which succeeded in bringing radical voices to the table. The Lesotho government, under the illegal and unconstitutional government of Leabua Jonathan, did not support the conference nor did the international agencies. In retrospect I am amazed that it was allowed to happen.
At the conference I heard an exciting speech by Albert Tevoedjre, a Beninois who spoke eloquently about the need for Africans to accept their poverty if they are ever to achieve real independence from the west. The radical educator Ivan Illich gave an impassioned speech advocating deschooling. School is a block to education in his view. He moved even farther to the left than Paole Freire. Illich was true to the radical spirit of the day in denouncing a young friend of mine for being what he called a “white nigger”. She was trying to live with Basotho at their level and understand how they survive. He accused her of simply being a do-good liberal, a stance which was anathema to him. She was deeply upset by the criticism and found it difficult to continue her work. I tried to comfort her and assure her she was doing a good thing in living the way she did.
I did not understand what Illich was saying, any more than I understood Ododa or Mohome or John Saul or Albert Tevoedjre. I remained a white liberal, trying to control a world which was moving beyond me. All five of these men saw me and people like me as a worse enemy than the hard-core conservative defenders of western social and economic power. I am still what I am, a non-controversial liberal. I should have been someone different, someone more radical, but I don’t know how.
In what follows I will try to unfold the progress of my still incomplete education. In Liberia I had been only dimly aware of the social injustices that I had lived with on a day-to-day basis. I largely ignored that reality when my ostensible focus was to teach a mixed bag of subjects, on more or less any topic I thought I knew something about. Social conscience did help invigorate my work, but it was a secondary factor in helping students learn as much as possible of what I as an American could give them. The principal goal for many of these students was to enter graduate school in the USA or, if that failed, to get a good job in their own country. What made it possible for me to move beyond such mental colonization was my research which over time interested me more than preparing and giving lectures.
It is hard to assess in retrospect one’s motivation at a point in the past. I thought at first that my work in Liberia would be to teach a sophisticated and thoughtful Euro-centric version of Christian theology and history. Over the years in Liberia I was pushed to discover that my task instead was to help Africans discover for themselves what was true and false, important and unimportant. Kisenge pushed me to see that my real job was to help students find out from their own heritage what they needed to know and then move to a Christian affirmation of who they are and how they want to live. That led me to want to know more about their world, so that the education I helped them achieve would be more relevant to their lives.
My motivation at first had almost nothing to do with helping the poor, except to the extent that I hated the thought that an intelligent, hard-working but poor student could be prevented from achieving the best education possible. I was in the position of Dom Helder Camara in Brazil before he began to ask why the hungry have no food.
I did not worry early in my career why so few students actually were able to attend Cuttington to get the education I was hired to give them. I didn’t then understand why Marxism was attractive to many people, including some of our students, even though I required all students to read The Communist Manifesto. Communism was for me an abstraction, a battle against western capitalism, but the enemy was still an abstraction, not the on-the-ground reality of poverty. As I offered my students an escape from personal poverty neither they nor I confronted the misery of the vast majority who could never dream of a college education. I fear, moreover, that neither Ododa nor Mohome understood why they objected to white liberals like me. Neither they nor I foresaw that the dispossessed in Liberia would rise up under a charismatic but deeply flawed Samuel Doe. The closest I came to that insight was when I lectured in the late 1960s on the ancien regime in France, reminding students that President Tubman enjoyed Louis Quinze furniture in his private apartment.
My enthusiasm for African liberation was thus largely political and theoretical. I announced my opposition to imperialism of any kind, including American economic and military domination, even though it took me a long time to find out in what ways I really was an imperialist.
What I did not realize was the extent to which the liberation heroes, who were soon to become leaders of nations themselves, would all too often impose unjust governments on the very people who supported their quest for power. I didn’t realize that these leaders and their narrow group of associates would become the “citizens” who ruled over unwilling “subjects”, leaving them poor and without hope. Only a few, like Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela, seemed truly committed to economic as well as political democracy. A larger number of independence “heroes”, such as Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure, made the correct noises, but proved to be tyrants. I don’t know what happened in the end to Shabani Kisenge, but do know that one of his fellow Tanganyikan students at Cuttington became a corrupt district commissioner in independent Tanzania.
I hoped that the students we trained in Liberia, Liberians as well as students that came to study in Liberia from as far away as Sudan and Swaziland, would take positions of leadership and bring honesty and good government to their countries. I did not have a clear picture of what they might do, or of the obstacles they might meet in their nations as well as in their own lives. I had a naive faith in the power of education, supported by commitment to Jesus and his church, to bring into being the “wholesome functioning society” that President William R. Tolbert, Jr., envisaged before he succumbed to greed.
I began to be aware of the inadequacy of my faith in enlightened self-interest when I read the book Growth without Development by Clower and colleagues (Northwestern University Press, 1966). I began to understand how the system which made it possible for us to teach in a reasonably free way also entrenched the economic and social stratification of Liberia that so clearly limited access to the education we offered. I did not fully realize the extent to which we promoted a system that created the elite and at the same time restricted access to it. We promoted political democracy, but did little to reduce the gap between rich and poor, in other words, very little to build economic democracy.
At the time I read Clower’s book I became increasingly aware of the inadequacies of the American presence overseas. Not only were we Americans fighting an unjust imperialist war in Vietnam, but our aid to Liberia was designed primarily to give the United States economic and political advantage. In the late 1960s I gave a talk to the wives of American embassy and USAID officials in which I pointed out just how small American assistance to Liberia was compared to what Liberia contributed financially and politically to the United States and to those who worked for it overseas. My speech enraged these good, patriotic women, and later their husbands, since it punctured the myth that we Americans were in Liberia only to do good for Liberia. They wanted to feel generous, while living very comfortable lives in Monrovia and putting away substantial salaries in the US.
The benefits from the training we gave did not accrue solely or even mainly to Liberia or later to Lesotho. The cost of training a university student in Africa is much lower than the cost of giving a comparable education in the United States. In fact a large part of such education is paid for by missionary organizations, USAID or other foreign bodies, and in many ways the American or other host government in the long run benefits by accepting these skilled migrants into their work force. What appears to be a generous donation to Liberia or some other African country by the United States in training university graduates has a long-term benefit for the USA, in short amounts to reverse aid.
Trained Africans who move to the US provides foreign aid given by their home countries to the American economy, to the extent that they are trained abroad at very little cost. Even the most bare bones nursing education program in the United States costs three times as much as training a nurse in Liberia. Much of that cost is borne by Liberia. In the end the net economic benefit of a poor country which trains nurses that move abroad accrues to the rich country.
Despite this pessimism I did leave some real benefits behind in Liberia. One benefit of the training we provided is an increased sensitivity and awareness of political and economic realities by our graduates. I imparted useful analytic skills to my students. I avoided giving answers, and avoided offering packaged content that students should memorize. It is not that I was against learning facts and figures. Rather I wanted the students to find the facts for themselves. Possibly the best course that I taught in Liberia was called “Man in the Modern World”, in which the students set the agenda and presented topics to each other They were expected to identify the issues and problems and opportunities they would face in the years to come. I have their reports, and someday I will read these African visions of their future.
I also have on file the comments made by high school students at Bolahun in the far interior of Liberia in 1967, stating in detail how they understood their lives. I think that the task of analyzing their own lives, rather than having someone else do the analysis, helped the students think clearly who they are. One problem with these student-driven analyses is that they like me did not probe deeply into the economic injustice of society. They wanted to get ahead, not change the world. I am not sure I could have done more to give them a sense of the injustice in society. I was at that time too well integrated into the Liberian and the worldwide American-dominated society to understand what lay ahead for Liberia.
The underlying issue as I think over my career in Africa is this. To what extent did my work over40 years in Africa contribute more to my well-being and the well-being of the United States as a neo-colonial power than to Africa?
What would have to be entered in the balance sheet? There would be some positive entries, notably that students were equipped for graduate studies and good jobs. Their extended families could count on support. Every employed African sends remittances back to her or his family. It is generally acknowledged that migrant remittances to developing countries exceed foreign aid. Most students I taught at Cuttington have contributed to their families and their country. I was told that three-quarters of my students eventually studied, lived and worked in the United States. I know that most of these send money back home.
The minority who remained in Liberia to work have often become leaders in the nation and serious providers for their families. Of course a few became corrupt, earning large sums as they drained the country dry. But others were like my student Dr. Walter Gwenigale who served as a surgeon in rural Liberia during the worst of the civil war and is now Minister of Health in the Liberian government.
Despite the contributions of many of our graduates to Liberia and its people, the college never did pay the debt it owes to the rural community within which it lives. One of the earliest degree programs was in agriculture, but by the time I had come to Cuttington students no longer enrolled in the course. Students continued to train as teachers, but the numbers went down year by year. The program that did most for the rural area was the nursing program, a joint degree with Phebe Hospital located just a mile from the campus.
What never did take root was an emphasis on rural development as such. It is true we insisted that all students in the social sciences do a senior research project, and the great majority of these projects related to rural development. However, very few of the students other than teachers or nurses chose to work in the rural area after graduation. In particular, those who studied economics sought graduate degrees, and either remained abroad or returned to work in Monrovia.
Cuttington started a Rural Development Institute in 1980, but the Institute did not sink deep roots into the rural community. The course offered a certificate, not a degree, but most students tried to use the certificate as a way into the regular degree program. Many failed even to get a certificate. The Institute was a good idea but it did not mesh with the ambitions of students who wanted salaried office jobs, not practical skills which would help them be better farmers.
To the best of my knowledge no program in Africa has been seriously committed over the long to run hands-on betterment of rural life. The closest I know was the Botswana Brigades, designed by the South African radical Patrick van Rensburg to train skilled artisans. Even his program was forced to emphasize certificates and government-recognized qualifications. Vocational schools of a more academic nature than the Brigades have sprung up all over the continent, but most shifted quickly to the official status-driven conformity that killed the Brigades. It is unfair of me to sit at my computer in 2011 and rail against what I and so many other people did. We simply and sadly succumbed to the spirit of the age.
CHAPTER 3. CASSANDRA IN LIBERIA
My forty years in Africa benefitted me, my family and my country, while providing some skills and knowledge to my students and research colleagues. I recognize my deep failure to eschew the imperialism Kisenge complained about. My work did little to overcome hunger, provide jobs and create harmonious communities, or to prevent a slide into corruption and dependence on foreign ideas and largesse. I am sure I insisted on doing things my way instead of the “African way” (whatever that might be).
However, as I look back at the books, articles and reports I wrote during that time I find some hope. I foresaw some important problems with missionary and development work, and I gave recommendations that would suggest a way forward. In a way I was being Cassandra, because few people took my ideas seriously. It may be foolish for me to identify with that sad heroine, but the temptation is strong.
Who was Cassandra? She was a beautiful Greek woman who spent a night in the temple of the god Apollo. As a reward for her beauty, and perhaps expecting a night of love, Apollo gave her the gift of foreseeing the future. It seems she refused his love, and so he added to the gift of foresight the curse that no one would believe her. In this instance, she correctly predicted the disaster that would befall everyone during the Trojan War, but no one listened.
I would be arrogant and wrong if I say “I told you so” about the failure of the dream of a new Africa. This was a dream I excitedly hoped for when Judy and I and our children arrived in Liberia in December 1958. However, I soon saw ways in which imperialist missionaries (like me) in league with power-hungry African leaders (like our students) would derail the development process.
I described the excitement of those first years at Cuttington College in my books A Letter to My Children (Morija Press Lesotho, 1999) and Africa: a Dream Deferred (New World Africa Press, 2004. I spoke of the dream in my Matriculation Address on African science to the student body at Cuttington at the opening of the academic year in February 1960. Hinting at the ideas expressed by Martin Bernal in his 1987 book Black Athena (Rutgers University Press, 1987) and Cheikh Anta Diop in his 1989 book The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, (Lawrence Hill Books, 1989) I urged the students to see their African heritage, indeed their very African-ness, as a guide to their future as they shaped the new Africa. I showed how abstract science had first been invented in Egypt, and suggested that our students could be fully African intellectuals without having to yield place to Europe and America. I was urging the very stance that Kisenge and Ododa, among others, said my teaching and research stifled.
I continued to urge independent creativity in my 1963 article “Higher Education in Tropical Africa” for the journal African Affairs. I argued that African universities should free themselves from the heavy legacy of colonialism. State-run universities across newly independent Africa were firmly restricted by being replicas of European institutions. In 1960 the leading tropical African universities were the University of Dakar, the University of Lovanium in Congo, Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone, the University College of the Gold Coast, Ibadan University in Nigeria and Makerere University in Uganda. In my article I urged that independence and creativity can better be realized in small lightly encumbered colleges, taking advantage of church-based non-governmental freedom to teach and innovate, free from the heavy hand of European academia.
Cuttington College was founded in 1948 as a small American type college set in the remote interior of Liberia. It was not burdened by cohorts of civil servants and administrators. Instead it relied on a small band of young, admittedly American-trained, teachers who wanted to respond directly to the need for higher education in a rural population. I joined the college ten years after it was founded, attracted by the hope that we might help shape the new Africa that was still to be born. We did not need to satisfy the dons at Cambridge or the Sorbonne. We were ahead of the curve in gradually adding courses on African literature and African history, even though only as additions to a basic American liberal arts college curriculum.
I fear that my enthusiasm for African innovation in higher education was not accepted elsewhere in Africa until the new millennium. Only then did a few small private colleges and universities begin to spring up, for example in Kenya and Zimbabwe. However, their model, as also the model of Cuttington College, was the American liberal arts college. What Kisenge and Ododa wanted was something more radical, namely a truly African institution of higher learning. I suppose such radicalism was not then politically or socially possible. I didn’t understand the full implications of my matriculation address, nor do I think that either Kisenge or Ododa realized the implications of their critique. I and they kept to the American model, not realizing that imposing the American pattern of higher education is also “colonization of the mind”.
My teaching and research at Cuttington were not constrained by the rigid standards of American or European universities. This helped free me to think creatively. Over the years I designed courses in history, philosophy, religion and government which moved out of the conventional molds, although still very American in underlying ethos. It may be, however, that by thinking and working totally “out of the box”, I lost the chance to establish myself as a person to be listened to. Of course, what I did may simply not have been good enough or well enough packaged to make a major impact. Perhaps I am simply mistaken in thinking of myself as Cassandra, whereas in fact I was merely a misguided academic trying to do the impossible.
My first major venture was designing a radical alternative in the teaching of mathematics from kindergarten up to university. I taught a first year course in basic mathematics at Cuttington, using the then fashionable set theory to develop mathematical concepts. The idea was good, but I fear that the execution was poor. These proposals for a radical revolution in the teaching of mathematics did not have the effects I wished. Very few of my students understood what I was talking about and most simply wrote it off as an exercise in intellectual juggling. One or two understood the inner meaning of mathematics but the rest were simply baffled. I am still convinced that teaching in Africa must get away from repetition and rote memory, but this effort was not a success.
In a further experiment I moved to the other extreme, namely, the education of the child. I reacted strongly against educators writing textbooks for African teachers using Western concepts. Instead I wanted to the curriculum and teaching methods to be centered squarely within local culture.
Theologians call this inculturation, by which they mean translating the contents of theology firmly into the local culture. The contents are universal, but the cultural setting is not. I had a clear vision of mathematics in a new incarnation, locally relevant. It would be fully African while keeping the central content of a mathematics curriculum that has no cultural identity of its own. As a would-be Cassandra, I looked ahead and saw a future in mathematics education closely tied to African realities on the ground. My vision of mathematics in Africa still has not become a reality.
I still honestly believe I was right, even in the first year university math course which almost no one in my student body understood or appreciated. I believe I was right in encouraging the use of intellectually solid instruction materials for first grade children and for future teachers. The problem was that my efforts were largely a failure.
I have on my bookshelf the two-volume textbook I helped write for teachers in training during summer workshops in Uganda in 1963 and 1964 working with the African Education Programme of Educational Services Incorporated, supported by the Ford Foundation and other groups. I like what I wrote, but I also know that the book was never actually used in teacher training colleges and is never likely to be used. Textbooks for African schools, just like textbooks in the United States, are part of a major industry that is controlled by the big publishing houses.
I did hope that the mathematics textbooks I helped write those two summers in Uganda would help children go farther in school, no longer held back by poor instructional materials. Yet the project did not work out as I had hoped. Teachers found the “new mathematics” difficult, and students reacted instinctively against it. Part of the problem was that we were too extreme, too austere, in our desire to bring “pure” mathematics into the classroom and dress it in African clothing. Bad as it was, the “old mathematics” had served its purpose over the years of giving the majority mechanical skills needed for ordinary life and the minority a door through which they could pass if they wanted at some point to do real mathematics. We tried to help all students but the system rejected us.
More deeply, the Liberians with whom we worked and who were responsible for curriculum revision didn’t accept the idea of rooting mathematics in an alternative cultural setting. Two Liberians, earnest math teachers, joined me in Uganda. I did not work closely with either of them, another example of my inability at this stage in my career to build my ideas in collaboration with Africans. I worked largely on my own, and marched to my own tune and drumbeat. These two colleagues never really understood or accepted the need for change.
What they really wanted was for graduates of Liberian schools to be thoroughly weaned from their village culture. Probably the majority of the students wanted the same thing. They saw the bright lights of the city and the material rewards of western civilization, and compared them with what they saw at home. They did not see village life in the same way as I began to see it, as still fresh and alive, an alternative to the dreary slums of Monrovia and back-breaking labor of tapping rubber. I believed, and somehow I still believe, that people can learn better when the cultural context of what they study is familiar. And yet the pull of the bright lights of the city and the push away from the dark nights of the village were then and now irresistible.
The conventional texts simply do not face the serious difficulties African children and African teachers have in mathematics. Unfortunately what we did to change the system was largely a failure. Perhaps our failure was anticipated by Kisenge and Ododa. They would point out that such an approach was my vision, not the vision of Africans, and so was unacceptable.
I wonder in retrospect if admiring the mathematical roots of traditional culture is also a type of romanticism. Whether we were right or wrong in trying to root mathematics education in African village soil is somehow irrelevant. It didn’t work. All we proved was that African peoples are as capable of learning as Europeans and Americans, each in their own settings. What we did not take into account was the demise of the African traditional setting.
If our efforts would not succeed in improving mathematics education in the schools, then perhaps they could help bring mathematical literacy to people who still did live in the old way. I was asked by a wonderful woman, Ma Miller to prepare an adult literacy course for Kpelle adults, using what we learned in our research. She printed the books and then helped village teachers use the books. The project sank like a stone, and I believe I have on my bookshelf the only remaining copies of those pamphlets. The failure might have resulted from poor implementation of the project, but I think it more likely failed because it did not meet anyone’s real needs or desires.
I wrote articles on both university and elementary mathematics which were printed in the West African Journal of Education. I am sure that neither of these articles found an audience. The ideas were too far out, too different from the conventional wisdom of the day. As I see these ideas today, the major drawback was that, like the new mathematics curriculum, they were my ideas, not ideas developed in cooperation with African scholars. In effect I was telling Africans “This is how to be African”, and for that very reason they did not buy my ideas.
I was more successful as a university teacher. In particular I developed a course in which African and European histories were set side by side. The course was a largely interdisciplinary course, with readings drawn from as many primary sources as I could identify. First and second year students at Cuttington read works by such classic European authors as Plato, Aeschylus, Augustine, Chaucer, Hobbes, Voltaire and Marx. They also read African authors, including Blyden, Kenyatta, Achebe and Nkrumah. Where possible we used books written by Africans. The course was largely successful, and many of my students continue to thank me for what we learned together.
I tried hard to understand more about Africa and Africans as I worked in Liberia. It was tempting to do that, as I had done in the history courses, mainly by reading books and discussing them with the students. Fortunately another way in which I moved forward was to engage the students in real dialogue about the world, and in particular about their own cultures. It was hard to persuade some of the less mature students to think for themselves. It may be that making them speak their own thoughts rather than just repeat my words was more important than the content of what I taught them.
I remember one student, a small rather meek girl, who asked me at the end of a class “When will you tell us the answers?” I told her “Never”, which was a bit harsh. I meant it, because I wanted my students to figure out for themselves what kind of world they live in and what kind of world they want to make. I suppose that was one of the positive aspects of my set-based introduction to mathematics. I did not reward repetition and memorization. I wanted thinking, but unfortunately on my terms, not their terms.
In my history classes I required the students to make presentations on class topics, and I sat in the back monitoring them. I intervened at the end of student presentations to add substance to what they said, but I’m sure that they learned more by having to say it themselves than by listening to me. I organized student debates on issues, so that students could share views that were contrary both to each other’s views and to my view. I know that some faculty members would have preferred me simply to stand up and state the truth as I saw it, and then let students regurgitate what they learned on the exams.
I did require, of course, some objective knowledge. I made sure that students could read maps and could locate important geographic features and settings. I also required them to know when the events I considered important happened in history, by giving tests in which students had to give rough dates but also state which events took place before or after other events. When I tested knowledge of the map and the history time line, I allowed the students several chances to pass the test. Those who failed once or twice could come back and try again. Students were required eventually pass the objective test. This allowed me to assess student performance on the basis of overall understanding and clarity of participation. Their grade was not simply based on the extent to which they could reproduce what I told them in class. Some students objected, preferring the old method of listen and repeat, probably because that is easier than having to think for themselves.
One class in which I really did have a vision of what education could and should be was a class in African philosophy. The students read articles and books on African religion and philosophy, but what I really wanted was for them to state what they believed to be African belief. I pushed them hard to develop generalizations on African thought. Over the course of teaching the course three times, the students, from several different African countries, prepared a formidable list of African generalizations, using the books they read and their own experience. I think this is the way philosophy should be formulated, but it is rarely done that way.
A required senior course entitled “Man in the Modern World” drew on the students’ experiences about the problems they would face when they graduate. Parenthetically, neither I nor the women in the class realized we should refine the word “man” to include all human beings. Each student produced a notebook expressing her or his views on the nature of life, the world, morality and God. I tried not to impose ideas on them, and to some extent I succeeded.
The overall outline of the course was designed by the students in cooperation with me. The students were divided into groups of about four each, and these groups stayed together throughout the semester. Each group prepared a list of topics, and then presented their lists to the whole class, which then decided the actual course outline.
The issues that most concerned the students as they prepared for graduation were choosing what kind of work to do, how to get a job, whether to go to graduate school, their economic prospects for the future, their hopes for marriage and family life, and their relation to the larger society including their own extended family. For many students the extended family is a serious issue, particularly because they may well be the first in their family to get a higher education. I remember one student saying that he hoped to live and work far away from his home, so that he would not be forced to share his house with many poor relatives.
One student prepared a short radio drama which made the problem very clear. Two graduates were looking for the same job. One was an Americo-Liberian named Jeremy Future-Bright. The other was an up-country boy named Flumo. Jeremy was given the job through connections, and the up-country boy was told to go back to school to learn more.
Some students expressed an interest in religion, morality, politics and public life, but not at the same level as an interest in their own personal expectations for the future. Very few if any indicated a strong interest in “saving the world”. There was little idealism, little apparent hope that they might make a major impact on an unjust, poverty-stricken society. Most students were Christian, although a small minority was Muslim, but going out to preach the gospel or spread the good news of Jesus Christ was simply not their issue. That paralleled my experience on the campus, where chapel attendance was generally very low.
Students spoke freely about sexuality. I did not try to impose my views, although I was not ashamed to admit what I believe. There was a strong undercurrent among the men that polygamy, whether formal or informal, is a sensible option. Many of them wanted the freedom to enjoy sexual experience both within and outside marriage. The question of homosexuality did arise, with little overt objection on the part of students.
What I liked most about the course was the interaction of students with each other and with me, as they wrestled with personal issues they would face in the future. The small groups were responsible for bringing back ideas to the whole group, and were subject to criticism and debate from the members of the other groups. To that extent the course was an exercise in democracy, although I did keep overall control by trying to bring their ideas together into a consistent framework. At the end of each semester we shared dinner together in a nearby village, away from the main campus, where students could relax a bit but also talk openly about the course and about the big issues.
I have kept copies of my lectures, which I distributed to the students. These lectures did not just represent my views, but incorporated many of the discussions we held in class. I didn’t just report what the students said in class, but I mixed their views with my own ideas. I would strongly recommend this approach to anyone teaching a course in ethics or politics or religion, namely, speak out boldly but do so only in response to felt needs of the students. As I look back I think this course may well have been one of my most productive activities as a teacher in Africa. I was able to learn who the students are, what they know and what they believe, and what difference that would make in the lives they were about to live after graduation.
I was heartened by comments from students, some saying the real value of the course lay in their chance to talk seriously with each other about major issues. Some reactions were:
“For the first time we looked at each other straight in the eye and made contact…I saw, through the individual masks, the true persons.”
“It is only when one interacts closely with others, that he becomes known to them.”
“I felt somewhat ill when I learned you were teaching Religion 491. I really had given up. Now, through dialogue, etc., you have revealed part of your personage to me. I really learned a lot about others also in this course.”
“Here was a course which, instead of being theoretical and full of highly improbable concepts as most, if not all, of my other courses, was practical and dealt with the living realities of man and the societies he creates.”
“I have been thinking seriously about starting an organization called Man in the Modern World where youths of our generation can come to discuss some of the problems that face them in the world in which they live.”
My hope for that course is that the openness and frank speech which we shared in the class would find its place in the lives the students lived after they graduated. They were forced to confront each other as real human beings, all facing the same problems, although with very different resources and prospects. The society they were to enter was in many ways sick. I hope that this course helped them to understand both the sickness and the actions they might take to make the country more honest and fair for all.
I know that this course never became a model after I left Cuttington. It was my idea, my plan and my procedure. The course design did not emerge from shared conversation with the Liberian administration of the college. What I did went against the grain. I don’t apologize for my being who I am, always against the grain. My mistake was that I was not patient enough to plan with others and bring them along with me to adopt a new way of teaching. I saw the future, and I knew that what I was doing was the right way to proceed. In the end, because they were a captive audience, my students listened and even enjoyed the course. But none of them have gone and done likewise. They did not own the idea. In short, I was Cassandra.
My research outside the classroom was equally designed to learn who Africans are for themselves, rather than just impose outside ideas on them. My focus in Liberia was the Kpelle people, who had been discussed and talked about for much of the 20th century by scholars, and even to some extent by Benjamin Anderson in the mid-19th century, when he went to visit them on his trip to Musardu. I wanted to listen as carefully as I could to the Kpelle themselves, and let them speak for themselves. In most of my research, however, in contrast with my teaching at Cuttington, I tried to avoid mixing my ideas with what I learned about the people, even though I continued to hope for constructive change in rural Liberia.
Yakpalo Dong, a Kpelle man of about my age, worked with me as a translator and teacher, and told me his life story. I am grateful to him for helping me sense the insecurity in the rural Kpelle village when threatened by competing hostile powers. For Yakpalo, survival under such conditions requires reliance on what one can see for oneself, and on a social system headed by a hopefully trustworthy family head, village elder – or God.
I was never able to build a narrative out of Yakpalo’s writings. I wish I had been able to do so. For the time being, the original Kpelle stories are in the library at the University of Indiana. I hope someone else, ideally a Kpelle person who understands both worlds, can explore more deeply the world Yakpalo inhabited. The important point is that the story of rural Liberia has to be told by rural Liberians, as nearly free from American input as possible.
One of my greatest failings in Liberia, and later in Lesotho, was my inability to learn the local language. Yakpalo did his best to teach me Kpelle, but I fear I was never able to think in Kpelle or later in Sesotho. I am sure that Kisenge and Ododa understood that point, understood that I could only think in ways shaped by my American culture, language and determination to think and act in those terms.
I wrote my first novel, and subsequent novels, to tell in my own weak way who are the Kpelle and how they have entered the new and changing world of Liberia. I would like to believe that my admittedly inadequate response to Yakpalo’s personal failure to reconcile tradition and the new modern world was to tell the story of a family buffeted by both worlds. I have to admit that my audience was initially American. But soon I came to realize that my real audience is Liberians and ultimately Kpelle. Specifically, I hope my Kpelle friends may use my books to learn who they once were.
I immersed myself in my memory and notes, expanded and enlarged by documents I collected over my time both in Liberia and afterwards. The reviewer of my first novel Red Dust on the Green Leaves (InterCulture Associates, 1973) caught me in the act by guessing that I laid my notes out on the table and wrote the book from the notes. Well done, Rich Fulton! By reinforcing my memory with documents and on-the-spot written records I made a serious effort to escape my own skin and inhabit the hearts and minds of many gracious and helpful Kpelle people.
I wanted the words my characters used and the scenes they saw to be theirs and not mine. I did not include the local color that an American would notice about climate or rainfall or forest. Rather I tried to see the forest, the bush, the towns, the road, the shops, the schools and even the city as Kpelle fresh from their rural home would see them. I have been very pleased to hear Liberians tell me “This is my story”. I was even more pleased that my colleague John Kellemu absolved me of the possible crime of revealing too much about the secret society. In the end I am glad to assess this and the following three novels, The Brightening Shadow(InterCultural Press, 1980), Long Day’s Anger (New World African Press, 2004), and The Return (hopefully in press), probably my most useful contributions to the African Renaissance.
An essential first step toward my understanding the Kpelle was a long and detailed account of the uses of mathematics and logic in the Kpelle language. I was helped by UCLA linguist Bill Welmers to show how the differences between the logic implied by Kpelle and English are reflected in the teaching of mathematics and language. We tried to show how the deep structure of language, along the lines that Noam Chomsky explained, is realized in the Kpelle language in its own ways. I am pleased with the book we wrote, and am even more pleased that scholars, themselves of Kpelle origin, have found the book useful.
Much later I wrote a proposal for a radical revision of the Cuttington curriculum and program, to be implemented after the civil war. I wanted the focus to be on rural development and on the total community around the college. I gave examples of how the curriculum should build from the needs of the community, with economics as a case study. I wanted the college to abandon the top-down approach to teaching that was so common. I knew the right way to proceed, but I was not able to work with Liberians to implement the idea. Once again I was Cassandra, in that I could see what was needed and what would happen if it were not implemented, but to no avail.
I wrote a proposal for a general survey of what survived the war. Byron Tarr and the late Canon Burgess Carr shared in writing the first draft, but I fear the ideas were driven by me, and never fully owned by my Liberian colleagues. In it I proposed building a new Liberia in which Monrovia was no longer the center of development. Monrovia is an economic sink, and the country would do much better to develop the rural areas and forget Monrovia.
My most recent effort to bring change to Liberian education and research was in 2009 when I was invited to Liberia to give the keynote address to the Liberian Studies Association meeting. I spoke from the heart about going where the people are to do research. The title “Wikipedia, Google and the ‘safe, soft grassy streets of Monrovia’ do not equal research” was drawn from Benjamin Anderson’s 1868 book Journey to Musardu (Frank Cass,1971), in which he complained that no young men from Monrovia were willing to join him in his expedition. They preferred to stay home and not risk the dangers of the interior of Liberia. I urged today’s Liberian scholars to go where the people and the problems are real and urgent, no matter whether urban or rural. I am afraid that my talk fell on deaf ears. Once again I was Cassandra, warning of the consequences of ignoring the reality on the ground.
Few Liberian scholars have done serious field research. Fortunately, I have recently joined forces with five Liberians who do care and have gone to the people. Perhaps I am finally coming to my senses and collaborating with Africans at a deep level. I have been welcomed into a group projecting where the country could be in 2030. I am grateful to Alfred Kulah, Elwood Dunn, Konia Kollenlon, Byron Tarr and Amos Sawyer, for letting me work with them. Finally perhaps Kisenge and Ododa will accept me.
CHAPTER 4. INDIGENOUS LIFE IN RURAL LIBERIA
My studies of cognition among the Kpelle ethnic group in Liberia grew from my conviction that Liberian schoolchildren are ordinary, normal, energetic, bright-eyed youngsters, and thus should be able to learn mathematics as well as any child anywhere. Since this was obviously not the case, I tried to find out why. My first guess was that school textbooks were written from an alien perspective. This idea was consistent with my belief that our job as foreign teachers was not to dump a lot of western knowledge of people, but to let them learn from within their own cultures and lives. I found a rich strain of mathematical knowledge, logic and behavior, all of which grew out of children’s village and community lives. But I did not yet identify failure to use the cultural context with material deprivation growing out of an unjust social system.
Why was I so unaware? My initial encounter with village life was with a social and economic system that made a great deal of sense. I was reacting against my own culture, which was partly why I moved to Africa after finishing my doctorate. I found village life in the nearby villages of Sinyee and Balama attractive and interesting. I probably fell into the trap of romanticizing village life and culture, setting it over against the artificial over-civilized life I had left behind in America. I knew that the Kpelle lacked the comforts of American life, lacked good medical care, lacked “book”, as Liberians would say. Nonetheless, I found what I saw both intriguing and impressive. Early on I began to appreciate African sculpture and music, and I knew it was different from and in some ways richer than our western art.
The upshot was that I ignored the suffering, the hunger, the disease, and other patent inequalities between village life and the life I and my student helpers lived. I did not yet tap into the resentment that people felt, although I should have begun to experience it when I saw children from Sinyee waiting for the rice and “soup” left over from student meals to be thrown out from the college dining hall at noon and evening. I should have understood more deeply why these same children eagerly gnawed on bones tossed into the grass when Cuttington students partied away their Saturday nights at the college auditorium. I was not yet able to make the connection between the Marxist and other liberation literature that proclaimed decolonization and the lives of people in my own backyard.
In the cases of mathematics learning, as I have discussed above, I was dazzled by the cognitive, mathematical and scientific skills I found when Mike Cole and others helped me do research, both in Sinyee and Balama and in Gbansu. I did not realize that these skills were not being put to work to help rural Liberians make fuller use of the resources, environmental and cognitive, they possessed. I didn’t ask the reason, but instead accepted it as a given. Our books The New Mathematics and an Old Culture (Holt, Rkinehart and Winston, 1967) and The Cultural Context of Learning and Thinking (Basic Books, 1971) were successes for us, but did not move people in a new direction in Liberia.
My next venture was research into subsistence farming as practiced in Liberia. A few years later I would do a similar study in Lesotho. If I finally began to ask why the hungry have no food, then perhaps the way to begin would be to understand life in a village which was part of the “old Africa”. I had studied mathematics in Gbansu and knew just how smart village people are. I thus believed that traditional farmers were also smart and that the effort to improve farm production in African countries would benefit from understanding the social context of the traditional farming methods that preceded the new commercial agriculture.
It turned out in the end that I was right in thinking the old farming methods made sense. The village of Gbansu with its 25 satellite hamlets was viable, and could continue to feed its people. People in the village were not hungry and children seemed generally well-fed, although I realized quite quickly that poor health was endemic, with malaria and intestinal parasites the main problems
I didn’t realize, however, that community-level self-sufficiency in food depended on finding ways for surplus population to leave the village, to insure that farmland would be sufficient for the population who stayed behind. Land can only be ample if the population growing food on that land is small enough to prevent overuse. The obvious question is: how can the population be kept in line with the resources to provide a livelihood to those who remain?
How do villages like Gbansu control population? It is mostly through disease and death. Medical care for the diseases which were so common in the village was minimal. Most people knew basic remedies for routine ailments, depending on traditional healers who had very limited skills. The nearest western clinic was eight hours walk from Gbansu on a rough forest path, or four hours and an expensive bus ride on the nearest motor road. That clinic gave only basic western medical care, and even then the cost for the simplest treatment was beyond the means of village people. The result was a simple but effective population control. People died who might have lived if they had modern medical care.
Another form of population control is for people to find jobs outside the village. About 10% of the population at the time we lived there was working away from Gbansu. Most were tapping rubber at Firestone, but some found better-paying jobs in Monrovia or in the towns along the main roads. One or two who succeeded outside bought land in the village to plant coffee, rubber and cocoa, but this had the effect of reducing overall food production in the village
Third, children and young adults want to attend school. Gbansu had a very poor elementary school, with minimally trained teachers and almost no facilities, and so young people who could do so went to stay with relatives outside the village. Inevitably a child who hoped to receive more than two or three grades of basic literacy would have to leave Gbansu, and many did. More than 90% of the young adults in Gbansu said they wished to live outside the village, but without a good education the only work they could find was tapping rubber trees. Thus education was clearly recognized as the way to escape the hard work of subsistence agriculture. Unfortunately, economic analysis has shown that a minimum of a good high school diploma is necessary if the expenditure in time and money on schooling is to pay off with a good job.
The result was clear. Subsistence rice farming in such a remote inaccessible village could continue to be productive because people died or young people moved away, leaving a controlled population in balance with natural resources. The village farming system in Gbansu was impressive and life-enhancing, but it depended on a stable population. I wrote an enthusiastic report on agriculture in Gbansu, and urged experts from the Liberian government and foreign aid agencies to learn from what worked there. In the report I failed to stress that the system could only work if population matched resources.
I clearly saw the problem when I flew from Cuttington to Gbansu during the rice-growing season, and saw how farms along the road were a sickly yellow color, while the farms several hours walk away from the road were a rich dark healthy green. Crops grew well in Gbansu because the land was not overworked. Yields were poor along the main road where those who failed to find work or get a good education struggled to grow rice in the traditional slash-and-burn way, without letting the land rest for the customary 7-10 years between crops. To recommend taking the Gbansu approach to farming seriously was in effect to recommend serious birth control.
The way forward for young people who left the land was hard. During the 1990s, after the murder of President Tolbert by Samuel Doe, Liberia went downhill in almost every way. There were fewer jobs and fewer places in school while the population grew. Liberia achieved the dismal record during Doe’s presidency of fewer children in school every year. A social disaster that followed was the 1989 to 2003 civil war. I don’t like to say it, but it almost seems that mutual blood-letting was the third major way Liberians could bring down their surplus population. Roughly a quarter million people, out of a population of three million, may have died in the war. Peoples who lived in a precarious balance with nature for centuries now died from a form of population control of their own making. Some say that the world may find that permanent war, often over resources, will be a basic future means of keeping population down.
What was the value of all the work I did in Gbansu? I tried to understand the customary farming system, as it fit into what remained of a centuries-old way of life. I felt that understanding the system would help agricultural development in Liberia. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations asked me to look at traditional farming methods, so that experts might suggest new ways forward. I did my job, and wrote an extensive report on village agriculture as a way of life. I collected samples of more than 100 varieties of rice which village women knew were appropriate to soil, weather and time of year.
My efforts went nowhere. No one then or since has been interested in what I found as a way to do what I had hoped. Only those with a similar possibly antiquarian interest found the paper to be worth reading. My feelings were naturally hurt, and I wanted to attribute the lack of interest to western imperialistic bull-headed insensitivity. That is clearly not the whole story. I would have done something better if I had joined radical Liberian economists like Dr. Tokpa Nah Tipoteh whose organization Susukuu was formed in 1971, in order to help rural farmers and workers. I did not think of working with them, and I am sure I could have produced a more useful report with their cooperation. Again, my problem was one of being a lone voice, and lone voices are rarely heard. Being a Cassandra may be a self-inflicted wound.
CHAPTER 5. DISCOVERING A NEW COUNTRY LESOTHO
After my year at Cambridge University, during which I wrote up my Liberian results and also taught a course in social psychology advocating culturally sensitive ways of people-centered development, I was asked by FAO to do a similar job in Lesotho. I was to join the Senqu River rural development project to help villagers improve their farm production in cooperation with foreign experts. I was hired to explain the project to the people, but in fact I spent much of my time trying to explain the skills and attitudes of local people to the foreign experts. There was a huge cognitive, technical and cultural gap between villagers and the FAO development workers.
Just as rural Liberia, Lesotho suffered from population growth. 19th century Lesotho was like Gbansu in the sense that land was plentiful and fertile, and the population was small. In the 1870s and 1880s Lesotho exported grain to South Africa, and farmers made a reasonable living, until white South Africans began to import grain from abroad. After the British took over Lesotho as a protectorate, Basotho were forced to pay hut taxes to pay for the Pax Britannica. Men had to find work in the newly opened gold mines in order to pay the tax. Moreover, in the 20th century population growth, due in large part to good church-based medical facilities, led to a reduction in land available for farming, as villages and towns expanded to eat up good farm land.
Up to independence in 1966, land use and population in Lesotho remained in precarious balance. Men brought home wages from the mines, while their wives and children who stayed behind tried to feed themselves. After independence, however, the balance began to shift. Population growth meant that fewer families every year had access to the traditional allotment of three fields for their maize, sorghum and bean crops. By the 1970s grain production in Lesotho in fact dropped below the FAO standard of 180 kg per person, requiring increased imports of food, whether by purchase from South Africa or by food aid from international donors. Population in Lesotho, as in Liberia, had outstripped local capacity for food self-sufficiency.
The Senqu project tried to bring people together into group farms or livestock management associations. The technical ideas of the experts behind this cooperative consolidation made good sense, but the people were not persuaded. Perhaps they should have been persuaded, given the deteriorating quality of the land, the increasing population and the consequent growth in numbers of livestock.
The problem is that the people who lived in the villages did not believe in the new methods, and so even when they were implemented, in most cases by top-down decree, the efforts failed. A careful audit found that 14 of the 15 consolidated groups of farmers and their fields lost money the first year. It is probable that they did so because the local people didn’t understand the systems imposed upon them, didn’t like losing their autonomy, and thus dragged their feet in implementing project goals.
Similarly the village people did not want to accept group management of sheep, goats and cattle. Their own customary methods of managing livestock left much to be desired, but were an integral part of a way of life that sent young boys into the mountains and foothills to manage flocks and herds, before sending them to the South African gold mines to enter the next stage of manhood. It is true that the Basotho system of managing grazing land was inefficient and destructive, but it was their system. A few range management associations were started in the course of my time in Lesotho, but they were mainly created by wealthy educated livestock owners for whom the new system made economic, even though perhaps not social, sense
I wrote an extensive report which satisfied nobody, not even me. I tried to show what was wrong with the existing FAO system and tried to make suggestions for ways in which FAO could meet the villagers halfway. It did not satisfy the FAO. It did not satisfy the villagers. And, it did not satisfy the left wing Marxist critics of agricultural development in Africa who saw that in fact what FAO was doing was creating a captive labor force that would produce crops and livestock for the international capitalist market. Dom Helder Camara asked why people are hungry. I had not answered that question to anyone’s satisfaction and I had not helped the project move forward.
Almost all my recommendations in the report were contingent on a fundamental finding, namely, that only a small minority of people in the area actually liked farming and wanted to do it well. Most of the people we interviewed saw farming as an unpleasant but necessary chore. They saw a much bigger world outside the village, the world of consumer goods, jobs and money. A large proportion of male household heads worked in the South African mines and brought home money and consumer goods, as well as cattle, important not only for plowing but also for social reasons. Bride wealth required the gift of cattle, at least 10 before marrying a woman from the commoner class, and up to 22 cattle for royalty.
When I started work in Lesotho in1976 the majority of men worked in South Africa, leaving the women to maintain the farm after it was plowed and planted. These women were also responsible for the children and for the household, and thus had little time to be serious farmers, except for the few whose household work was not so demanding. Households generally did not possess many farm tools and were all too often forced to plow, plant, weed and harvest the fields in a very rudimentary way. The project understood this problem, which is why the project wanted to consolidate blocks of fields. Only one of the consolidated blocks actually was a success, and that only because of continual top-down pressure.
The 5 to 10% of ordinary village families who actually enjoy farming and work hard inevitably do not have adjacent fields. Instead there would be one or two enthusiastic farmers in each village and it would be hard to bring their fields together into a unit. The end result was a conflict between the project which wanted to consolidate fields to make a successful farming enterprise, and those few successful farmers who knew better than project “experts” how to farm under Lesotho’s harsh conditions. The project thus failed to achieve any of its goals. I’m afraid I have to accept the fact that my report was the epitaph for the project.
Nonetheless, I believe that what I recommended makes sense, if not for the Senqu project then for future projects. I believed in helping key people who care about farming to improve their own methods. This means sharecropping between progressive farmers and others who simply want to turn over their fields to others. The project then should concentrate its energies on working with these progressive farmers. This does not mean the project should be in charge. Rather it should cooperate and work with village leaders and be only a support structure. That would have required training expatriate experts in rural sociology so they could find a natural place within the village hierarchy. Further we recommended that the technology be kept simple, not using high tech tractors and combine threshers, but instead improve local equipment and local facilities. The village literacy in Lesotho is much higher than in many African countries and so the ability of people, particularly of women who by and large have a higher level of schooling than men, to read and write is available to be used creatively.
My Ethiopian colleague Tesfa Guma was the only expatriate professional on the FAO staff I worked well with. He and I wrote a report about the differences between ordinary farmers and better farmers. We located better farmers by asking villagers to identify farmers who work hard, make money from farming, and give good advice to others. We then asked these farmers many social and economic questions about their farming methods and their lives, and then asked the same questions of a comparable group of randomly selected farmers.
Not surprisingly the differences were dramatic. That was an inevitable consequence of the method of choosing them. Almost the biggest finding was just how poor most ordinary people were as farmers. They knew little, did little work and produced very little. In our report we strongly recommended that the better farmers be given the opportunity with project assistance to help others do the job that they themselves clearly knew how to do.
I fear that the project staff was simply not willing to let go of their power. To admit that some villagers would be competent and receptive to new ideas implies that there already exist people who can do the work that outside development agents are supposed to do. This is not an assumption that the worldwide expert community likes to hear.
In the end I lost my job and neither the people nor the project benefitted from my work. As with my work in Liberia at first I felt hurt and betrayed. I was sure that rural people in Lesotho understood their situation, and did not want culturally inappropriate foreign farming ideas to destroy what for a few good village farmers had been a good system in the near past. I was not able to communicate to project staff or to anyone in the Ministry of Agriculture my deep concern to save rural agriculture in Lesotho in the only way I thought it could be saved.
The failure was not just the fault of unthinking, insensitive foreign experts and a centralized Basotho civil service. As happened in Liberia, I did not find in Lesotho local African colleagues with whom I could work. Tesfa Guma and I were able to share ideas and feelings, perhaps because we were both fish out of water in the United Nations and Lesotho government bureaucracies. I did not know how to play either game. Even worse, I apparently did not want to learn. I now wish I had made a serious effort to relate on a personal level with radical activist scholars and development agents such as some I met and worked with later. For the time being I have to say I enjoyed being the lonely voice in the wilderness. Being right, as I think I was, is hardly a virtue if no one listens or cares.
I made one more effort. After leaving FAO and the Senqu River project, I has hired by USAID to assist in preparing for a major Farming Systems Research Project, to be mounted in each of the ecological areas of Lesotho: lowlands, foothills and mountains. My first assignment was to assess the successes and failures of Lesotho’s Ministry of Agriculture, to find which aspects of agriculture could set a model for the new project and which suggested areas needing improvement.
I found the highest level of popular satisfaction with the efforts to assist livestock management. People were happy with the shearing, dipping and vaccinating programs, and only wanted more of the same so that they could have healthier animals and better access to markets. People were also generally happy with the conservation works carried out by the Ministry, mostly because this was a good source of income for the really poor.
The big failure was with the crops programs. Village people were glad if supplies were available in shops or government cooperative centers, but felt that too few supplies were available at prices people could afford. They were not happy with the extension agents, whom they felt gave poor or very limited advice, even when they made their rare visits to villages. People had far too few tools, equipment, seeds, fertilizer and markets. In summary they knew that crop farming is a very risky enterprise not sufficiently supported by the government assistance they wanted and needed.
A special concern that arose was the need for sharecropping with the poorest families. Many fields were left fallow because families, with males absent in the mines or simply absent altogether, wanted to cultivate their fields with the help of others, whether through direct government assistance or through government mediation.
I was asked to explore ways in which the new farming systems project could assist village farmers. In response I studied farming in two villages in a relatively fertile lowlands area only about half hour’s drive north of Maseru. I was joined by a Peace Corps volunteer and selected a local citizen to assist us in a detailed study of everything we could find out about the farming system in those villages.
For complicated political reasons, these villages were not in the end selected for inclusion in the new project. I was never fully informed as to why their participation in the project was cancelled, but my guess is that there were some disputes within the Ministry of Agriculture and the local chiefs about where to locate a new project. In the end my work in the villages was also terminated prematurely. The Peace Corps volunteer may have had a clue that something was happening, since he quit in mid-stream and went home to America to be with his girlfriend. I was also told in no uncertain terms that I must not continue working there, and could not even visit the villages.
I suspect that the reasons were similar to those lying behind my failure to influence the United Nations and the Ministry of Agriculture in the Senqu River project. I spent almost no time building contacts with the officials in Maseru, whether USAID or the Government of Lesotho. I also did not make the effort to relate with traditional leaders in the area. I concentrated on my work in the village, collecting data and relating to village farmers. Not only was I not interested in “playing politics”, but also I admit to a deep-seated dislike and distrust of government officials. I am sure I simply did not know the political dynamic of the village, of USAID as it allocated aid funds, and of the Ministry of Agriculture, nor, to be honest, did I care. I fear I was in the position of an American educator in Liberia who was fired from USAID because he devoted all his time to working up-country and never went to meetings in Monrovia. I remember him as being one of the most committed and effective aid workers in Liberia – but he lost his job. I was not at his level of high competence and concern, while I certainly was at his level of political naivete – and I too lost my job.
Despite all this, I did get a clear picture of a farming system, far clearer than I had been able to find in my work with the Senqu River project. I wrote a full report on the inequalities in what was an ordinary average community. What seems to be a clear division of villagers into rich and poor reduces not so much to injustices perpetrated by people on each other as to the natural consequences of different family sizes, willingness to work, access to jobs, soil quality, time of plowing and planting and weeding and harvesting, schooling, possession of tools, and level of cooperation with neighbors. In short within-village class formation is a gradual process, not only because poor people are oppressed by the wealthy family next door.
The larger story is how the system of slow gradual separation of haves from have-nots fits perfectly into the South African capitalist apartheid structures Lesotho was forced to accept until change began in the 1990s. Just about the only way to move out and up in Lesotho for people in the 70s and 80s was to send a man to the mines, where he would work to bring what is, in retrospect, minimal income back to the family. That money would be spent on South African consumer goods and supplies, ensuring that the village economy would remain stuck in carefully managed poverty relative to the exploitative South African system which did the managing.
Even the best-off, the best-educated, the hardest-working mine laborers and farmers among the citizens of the two villages where I so unsuccessfully worked would thus never come close to escape from overall poverty. From a village perspective, a way out of poverty seems to be to work hard in the mines and in the fields. But from a larger perspective such village families can only look forward to living and dying poor compared with the white-owned system that dominates them. In the end this imbalance encourages the hopeful few to be satisfied with being at the upper end of what to the outside world will nevertheless look like poverty. After the formal end of apartheid, it does not appear that there have been serious changes in this system of inequality. An Oreo Cookie South Africa, with black on top, white in the middle, and black at the bottom, is not that different from the apartheid South Africa which preceded it.
Regardless of my personal feelings of failure, it is likely I was correct that the old methods of subsistence family farming could not long continue in Lesotho. The population was too great, the land was too limited, and the fertility of the land was too compromised by years of abuse. Even turning over the land to the good farmers would very likely only delay the collapse of subsistence farming.
I know I should not generalize on such a small sample, but I think the evidence from my experiences in Liberia and Lesotho suggests a second error, namely, my heavy emphasis on traditional knowledge and the old way of doing things. Perhaps in my contrarian way I fought too hard against western innovation in African affairs. The old ways in which Africans thought mathematical thoughts have not proved of value in western schools. The old farming methods, although more resistant to change than African mathematical reasoning, also fall short. Both traditional mathematics and traditional farming once thrived in a fragile and fast-disappearing environment. The loss of the former may be sad but it is inevitable and unlamented by all except a few like me. The loss of the latter is far more serious, since millions of Africans are still trying to make a living as subsistence farmers.
Is it right to argue forcefully for the preservation of village and community based farming at a time when people are hungry? To me this reinforces the Dom Helder Camara question: why are the people hungry? The question is not just a matter of political economy. The implication this raises for most of us who know our liberation theology and Marxist economics is more than simply a matter of economic exploitation of the hapless subsistence farmer by rich agro-industries like Montsanto. Were there enough good land and fewer people, and were the seductions of cash and Coca-Cola weaker, then regularizing and supporting home-based farm production would make sense. But I fear those conditions are over and gone.
The big question in my mind by that time and still today is thus simple and clear to state. Are the days over for technologically simple rural farming, where hard-working village people, whether ordinary farmers or better farmers, can produce enough rice or maize or whatever to feed themselves? I have seen excellent, highly productive subsistence farms in both Liberia and Lesotho, but their success depended on very hard work, uncontested access to land, and good luck. The Mosotho farmer who reaped 120 bags of maize while his neighbor, on an equivalent field, reaped 6 bags, is not replicable. The Liberian farmer who harvested a stack of rice bigger than a normal village hut by very hard work and isolation is not replicable. What does appear to be replicable is the commercial farmer using skills and materials sufficient to feed Africa. I remember a signboard on a South African highway saying precisely that. The sign may be right.
Why then do the hungry have no food? So far my studies of village farmers in Liberia and Lesotho have not revealed the reasons. I once hoped that the answer would lie in learning from the past and making use of the age-old skills that kept Africa alive before the coming of the west. I knew that some rural farmers were successful, but their number grew smaller, and their skills depended on the vanishing circumstances of limited population and plentiful good soil.
How then can the hungry be fed? Working within an unjust racist capitalist system in southern Africa, while forgetting that Lesotho is only a pawn, a minor player in the dominant economy, does not solve the problem. Farming systems research in such a setting, even at its best, plays into the hands of the rich. I am sure this is why the foreign experts I met while working with the Ministry of Agriculture in Lesotho simply did not think in terms of the large-scale politics of the region. They were happy with the perquisites of access to white first-world South Africa, and did not think about what that meant for Basotho. Perhaps I did see the big political picture, but I failed to realize that “playing politics” is only really effective when it is done at the local level. The former American Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill had it right when he famously said “All politics is local”. At that point in my work in Lesotho, I did not act on the truth of that statement.
A personal story illustrates the blindness of the experts. While I was completing my work in these two lowlands villages two close friends, John Osmers and Phyllis Naidoo, received a parcel bomb in the mail, blowing off John’s hand and damaging Phyllis’s hearing. Judy and I, with the help of our youngest son David, helped clean the blood off the walls of Phyllis’s apartment, and went to the local hospital to visit John. We told colleagues in the Farming Systems Research Project what had happened, and invited them to join us visiting John. They refused, saying it was too political, while at the same time continuing to enjoy their weekend holidays in South Africa. Inevitably, Judy and I were then forbidden to enter South Africa, a fate which the experts were not willing to risk.
I thus realized that simply describing the existing farming system was not enough. Instead people had to be helped to find their own way out of political and economic exploitation. My development research efforts turned away from agriculture to various forms of community self-help projects. I had previously hoped that development aid could be turned into viable livelihoods. I now realize that such aid can only succeed if it is built on a solid understanding of the situation into which the aid would come, including the political and economic setting.
CHAPTER 6. AFRICA IS MORE THAN LIBERIA AND LESOTHO
I left my work with the Ministry of Agriculture, first with the Senqu Project and second with the Farming Systems Research Project, to teach at the National University of Lesotho for three years. I was happy there, but I felt that I was spinning my wheels, not seriously engaged with the issue of African development. NUL, as it was called, was a backwater, a low-quality university, not up to what we had tried to do at Cuttington in Liberia. I might have tried to get a long-term job in the sociology and social anthropology department, but my heart was not in it.
I realized through my work for foreign-led agricultural development projects, first in Liberia and later in Lesotho, that experienced rural farmers are more likely to understand how to survive under the difficult conditions of farming in rural Africa than experts from abroad. I knew, as I have said, that subsistence agriculture was declining across the continent, and I began to surmise that the subsistence way of life was going the same way as the gathering and hunting way of life – decline and death. But in the interim I believed that I might be able to help foreign experts improve matters. Local expertise is not always located and respected, and when it exists it may be interpreted only as advice to work hard and follow the tradition. I wanted to help development projects find and use local people who can lead and provide creative ways forward.
I would soon be discouraged by the failure of the top down co-operatives that I saw in Tanzania in 1981. I had hoped that the top-down managed system of communal farming created by Julius Nyerere and his socialist effort to transform society from the bottom up would change the face of Africa. In 1960 when African independence was coming thick and fast, country by country, many of us looked to Tanzania under Nyerere as a bright hope for a just, egalitarian society, where all would work together for the benefit of all. Nyerere said all the right things and said them eloquently.
Unfortunately history, and not just my three months of in-depth examination of seven ujamaa villages in Mbeya District in southwest Tanzania for the FAO, showed that the African socialism of the Arusha declaration could not keep the promise of economic democracy. In all seven villages the government had set up what appeared to be a very sensible program. Under the national government than there were district administrations with committed party members leading the way. In Mbeya district the leader was a former student of mine, Kayetan Ngombale-Mwiru. He had been a very bright and active student, a thoroughgoing Marxist and a political leader. Now he was having the chance to put his theory into practice. Unfortunately it became evident that he was corrupt and not in control of what was happening in his district, except to the extent that it benefitted him.
Success of the political system that Nyerere introduced depended on the quality of the leadership at the village level. The only one of the seven villages that kept its promise was the result of the energy and hard work of a remarkable village head man. He was charismatic, honed by years of labor organizing in the South African gold mines, skilled at growing maize and coffee, and committed to evangelical zeal as a Baptist preacher. He was not replicable, any more than my exemplary Liberian and Basotho farmers.
The other six villages where I tried to find true socialism in action were all trapped by a combination of unsavory local politics and an oppressive top-down government system. The villagers sullenly went through the motions of cultivating communal farms that ranged from poor to hopeless. They tried to grow food for their households and crops for sale, but only when some entrepreneurial people found ways to beat the system and sell goods in the illegal open market were they able to make a living. In short, true African socialism as envisaged by Nyerere simply did not work. The Tanzanian government tried to do what I was recommending in the Hololo Valley, and their efforts failed.
What may have made all the difference in the case of the first village and the one or two others that were modestly successful was the presence of a free enterprise structure for people to work and succeed. From what I saw the exact opposite of free enterprise was the rule. People were discouraged from growing surplus food crops and cash crops, apparently because they were forced to sell to government agencies which had a monopoly. The agencies were slow, efficient, un-motivated and in most cases mildly corrupt. If a farmer or a group of farmers wanted to make money and get a prompt return for their production, they had to break the law and sell their goods on an illegal parallel market. In short there were no incentives for sticking with a system that in theory makes good sense.
In a rapid survey of 563 villages across the entire region, several factors emerged as leading communities toward wealth or poverty. The mere presence of government structures was not sufficient. What made it possible for a village to have the highest scores on the various criteria we selected was a combination of people working away from the village, local people earning money, individual business activities and the number of teachers in the community. The government-imposed structures were of no help, and even were a hindrance to development.
What people really wanted was an opportunity to improve themselves and their families. If they could have done that within the legal system, as was the case in the village with the remarkable leader, I think they would have done so. Since that was not possible, they took matters into their own hands and sought the best way, within or outside the system, they could to make a decent living. There was no way in which they could go over the head of the local village leader and appeal, for example, to an ombudsman who could carry the message higher in the government. The chain of command from the top down to the individual group of 10 households, called the 10-cell, was rigid and could not be bypassed. What was missing was a genuine two-way relationship between the government that was trying to develop the area and the people who were being developed.
I recommended that there be a system of contracts and bargaining between higher-level government bodies, village authorities and even groups of farmers. I felt that some of the wealthier and more productive villages, often those with rich natural resources, could have negotiated to produce a given amount of maize or coffee or tea, in the same way as an agricultural business would negotiate. They were willing to follow the mantra, “you do your part and I will do mine”, in which both sides agree, with rewards and penalties, to meet mutually agreed goals. Of course this is a dangerous and difficult process. I thus made a second suggestion, that a village which wishes to develop engage experts, perhaps extension agents or production specialists, who would then assist to achieve the negotiated goal.
Neither the FAO nor the Tanzanian government seemed interested in my suggestion, which in effect was private enterprise transferred to the village level. Just as had been the case with my work in the Senqu River project in Lesotho, experts from the outside were simply not willing to deal with local people on a one-to-one equal basis. Ultimately I believe village people will have to be given a chance to negotiate the future on their own terms. It is very difficult.
At the end of 1982 I observed top-down development in Ethiopia, and was once again impressed with the importance of people working and learning for themselves. The focus of the FAO project with which I was working was to overcome erosion, deforestation and land degradation. Throughout Ethiopia population was growing, crop production was going down, trees were being cut, and farmers are working harder and harder to produce less and less.
We were impressed with the ability of rural farmers to understand their own problems and suggest solutions. Unfortunately, many people had been brainwashed by the authoritarian Ethiopian government to wait for orders from on high as to how to cultivate and improve their land. Yet there was enough independence of mind and heart for some people to want to care for their own land and their own future. However, at that time the government under Mengistu Haile Mariam did not allow people to make decisions for themselves. I saw much resistance to government control, but for the time being there was little people could do to work out their own salvation. I remember visiting the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Addis Ababa and hearing an old man denounce the government. However, outside the church nobody spoke so forcefully.
I did hope that the people themselves could solve their problems when I visited a resettlement scheme south of the capital city. The scheme was organized in two parts. The first was formed by the government, and people were given tractors and seeds and other supplies to grow crops for commercial production. The project was a clear failure. All of the tractors that I saw were out of order, and the people we met were sitting around doing almost nothing while they asked for more government handouts..
On the other hand the second half of the resettlement scheme was composed of people who chose voluntarily to occupy new land. Here people were working hard and producing enough food to feed themselves and sell the surplus. The people I spoke to were poor, but they were happy to have a chance to make their own future. I almost would say that their poverty was a great blessing, because they were forced to do things on their own and create their own future.
Foreign aid agencies in Ethiopia had to go along with what the government told them to do. International organizations inevitably must work with the government of the day. This is the cause of the downfall of so many projects in so many countries, just as I saw in Lesotho. I wish it were possible for those of us who are tasked to bring development to Africa to allow village people to develop and work out their own plans, and then provide them needed support. Of course there would inevitably be corruption in the use of the funds and materials provided from the outside, but for now the waste of money by international experts like me is much greater than the amount of waste if local people administered funds in the way they wish.
Perhaps independent small-scale private enterprise might be the way forward. I realized in my studies in Lesotho and Tanzania the importance of jobs to support oneself and one’s family. The real source of income for poor people in both countries was employment. However, unfortunately that employment mostly came from international corporations or government ministries. Little of it came from the ordinary people themselves. I was given the opportunity fortuitously to see if ordinary people could make a living out of small businesses without being dominated by big capitalist organizations. The Ministry of Local Government and Lands in Botswana asked me in 1983 to join a study of small-scale informal sector businesses. If such businesses were viable they could make a huge difference in the lives of people who did not want to be subsistence farmers.
I worked with three local members of Stephen Turner’s group and the Ministry, including Nomtuse Mbere who became a close friend and an important part of my life in Botswana. She was helped me make the project as successful as it could be, given very difficult economic and social conditions in the country. Eight young people worked with us as data collectors. Of that group three turned out to be hopeless alcoholic males, and thus the work we got out of them was much poorer than we might have gotten from better colleagues. The two whom we thought were the most experienced we sent to work in the most distant location, the rural village of Maun at the edge of the Okavango delta. They did a miserable job and had to be fired. Another worked in Francistown, and also proved to be a hopeless drunk. I found in my time in Botswana a serious tendency toward alcoholism on the part of young men, and learned that working with women is generally much more productive. The main data collectors in the other two towns, Mochudi and Selebi-Phikwe, were women and they did quite a good job.
I’m sure I could not have succeeded to the extent I did without the help of my colleague Nomtuse, with whom I established a very close working and personal relation. That relation was necessary because otherwise I’m sure I could not have understood the informal business people in the countryside. I think that USAID, which has sponsored the work, was hoping to find a ready-made entrepreneurial skill base in the country that could help with development. We found nothing of the kind.
We tried to identify a stable sample of 80 small businesses in each of the four locations. We hoped to find a wide variety of businesses, but in the end had to struggle to find a very few small businesses outside the two most common categories: retail sales and alcoholic beverages. We planned four rounds of interviews, in order to get a complete picture of the businesses. In the end well over half the original businesses ceased to exist in the course of the survey, and so we had to bring in replacements at almost every stage. In the end our sample consisted of service industries, knitting and sewing, transport, repair, manufacture, construction and handicrafts. Very few of the businesses made more than a marginal living, and it was clear that even many of the ones who survived for that year of interviews would soon fail.
We recorded business expenses as well as sales with an effort to find how profitable businesses could be. The results were very disappointing. The only industries that were marginally profitable were retail sales, transport, handicrafts and construction, and even their profits were well below the mean income in the formal sector. It was the rare business that was able to hire employees, often only members of the extended family of the owner.
The most stable group of business people belonged to a fringe religious sect, the Gospel of God Church, informally called the Mazezuru. This group had been formed in the 1930s in the then Southern Rhodesia by a prophet who claimed to have died, gone to heaven, and then returned to create what was in effect an in-marrying tribe of tinsmiths, carpenters, basket makers and fruit and vegetable sellers. They refused to go to hospital or send their children to school, and lived in polygynous households on the margins of the villages where they worked. The intensity of their beliefs, the total authority of the household patriarchs, and the isolation from the rest of society meant individual business enterprises of the group were able to succeed, albeit in a limited and exclusive way.
There were serious constraints hindering the other non-Mazezuru business people. They had little access to capital, they found it very hard obtaining government registration, they had limited skills, they did not reinvest earnings, their goods were of variable and often poor quality, they did not have adequate premises, and most important of all they simply could not compete with the quality, price and availability of South African goods which flooded every market in Botswana.
I had been hoping that the informal sector might help poor people find a way out of poverty. I was disappointed. Moreover, when a colleague did a similar study in Lesotho, he found that the informal sector was unable to fulfill its promise. Neither in Botswana nor in Lesotho was the official enterprise development corporation, owned and operated by the government, able to create self-sufficient and self-generating income-generating projects. In Lesotho the privately-run Lesotho Opportunities Industrialization Corporation proved unable to do more than kick-start a few small businesses. Overall the competition from organized business in South Africa was simply too great for the struggling young local business to succeed.
My brief stay in Uganda in early 1987 evaluating the International Labour Organization’s rehabilitation of the war-stricken Luwero area helped me understand more of the issues in achieving successful development. I found that the experts brought into the country to help mainly operated out of the capital city Kampala, and rarely visited the communities to which the aid was being brought. Three junior-level UN volunteers were staying in a trailer in the village, and were the main presence of the project to the people. My strong recommendation, supported by my Ugandan colleague Tarsis Kabwigyere, was that assistance in forestry, construction, water supplies, road maintenance and farming could not be done by remote control.
Where the project seemed lacking was its inability or unwillingness, as in Lesotho’s Hololo Valley Project or Tanzania’s ujamaa project, to bring the local residents fully into the management of the project. Instead local residents behaved as if they were employees of an international organization rather than owners of their own future. I feared that little would remain once the UN input stopped other than that schools would be rehabilitated, roads repaired, brick-making technology set up, blankets given to the people, trees planted, and water supplies improved. These of course are good things and I could not argue with their necessity.
What we wanted was something more fundamental. We recommended that there be Ugandan community organizers hired by the project living in the project area, to motivate people to develop themselves. It seems the UN prefers a quick in-and-out project that will leave visible changes in the landscape rather than organizing functioning self-help community organizations. The problem with my vision is that it goes against government expectations, which are imposed on the minds of middle level managers and village leaders. Ordinary people expect something different, don’t know how to achieve it, and give up in passive obedience.
The result of conventional development plans is that outsiders are expected to do their work and get out, leaving the community to go on as it has in the past. That may be all that can be expected, given the almost universal mind-set of development agencies, but it goes against the Saul Alinsky vision of real change in community life. I like to think that the real message for development should be Barack Obama’s slogan “Yes we can”.
I still have the can-do American philosophy built into my psyche, and it has been my own lifestyle all m time in Africa. I have set my course in life and have believed that if I set a goal there is a reasonable chance I might get close to achieving it. I’m sure that influences my overall attitude to development projects. I want to believe that people will use their own resources, personal or social, to find a way forward in their own lives and in their community lives.
CHAPTER 7. RETURNING THE FAVOR IN LESOTHO
I looked for ways to make more creative use of the knowledge of ordinary people in the development process in Lesotho. It was not a new idea to me. I had realized it much earlier, beginning with my realization that my job as a missionary teacher in Liberia would be to help Africans learn who they are and how they live in a complex changing world. I developed this idea in my exploration of traditional mathematics among the Kpelle people in Liberia, and rural agriculture in Gbansu. My work in the 1970s and 1980s was motivated by the same sense of urgency to listen to people at the receiving end of development and help them navigate the troubled waters of modernization and foreign aid.
Let me jump to a specific case which typifies the work I want to cover in this book. I tried to apply my ideas and insights to an Irish Aid project in the northern part of Lesotho in 1982 in the first of my many consultancies in Lesotho. The Hololo Valley Project, as it was called, was intended to develop rural agriculture and community cooperation over a wide area. The project asked me to assess their work in eight of the villages within the project area, from Botha-Bothe up to the northern-most border of Lesotho with South Africa. The project wanted me to assess how well they were managing to improve the lives of people in the area. I was optimistic that this project would go a step beyond the top-down imposition of foreign ideas represented by the Senqu project and the Farming Systems Research Project.
My research assistants and I interviewed 96 people, and came to two basic conclusions. First, the people liked the project, warmly welcomed its interventions, and looked forward to more assistance in the future. Second, the very people who were so enthusiastic about the project were in fact being spoon-fed and gradually absorbed into a culture of dependency.
My report damned the project with faint praise. What I said in the first half of my report pleased the project staff, because the villagers had given such glowing reports of their activities, ranging from resource conservation, to the yearly business of land preparation, planting, weeding, harvesting and storing crops, and to community cooperation.
My report was, however, critical in stating that the project had succeeded in making itself indispensable. It had become an agency for dispensing charity. Charity is, of course, welcome to those who receive it; receiving charity is easier than working hard. I stated in my report that the project had made it increasingly difficult for ordinary farmers to be instruments of change in a society which was suffering under Lesotho’s domestic military dictatorship and apartheid in neighboring South Africa. The project staff felt generally good about themselves and their work, since they were in fact helping increase farm production and promoting strong community cooperation. What they failed to see was that the subsidies they provided reduced the ability of recipient farmers to be self-reliant. Villagers were only able to achieve the goals the project set if the project continued giving massive subsidies, leading to a vicious circle of dependence on aid. In particular, the project had no clear plan for farmers to engage in farming of the type the project advocated once the aid program was concluded.
A specific result was that better farmers, who were able to produce good harvests on their own, gradually yielded control over their work under management procedures that were useful to less skilled or less committed farmers. I remember a case when project extension agents were preaching farming practices to an audience just before plowing time. The good farmers were bored, but felt constrained to take advice that they instinctively realized was contrary to their own personal and location-driven experience. The poorer farmers listened with care, but didn’t understand enough to change their ways, and thus let the project dictate their farming methods without their feeling constrained to adopt the new methods. I urged that hands-on training be limited to people who wanted specific help on specific in-progress activities. I recommended community cooperation, but not top-down project-led cooperative groups which existed only because of project leadership.
When I talked with villagers in the Hololo Valley they told me of one Mr. Masoka who moved to their area in the late 1920s to help improve production. He had grown up in a comparable rural area in South Africa, learning how to farm the hard way. People, even in 1982, remembered his work in the 1920s and 1930s with gratitude, since he helped them improve traditional tools and methods. His methods were similar to those promoted by J. J. Machobane, a Mosotho who advocated mixed farming as early as 1966, only to be discredited by the British experts who controlled the Ministry of Agriculture at the time Lesotho gained independence. His methods were finally recognized in the late 1990s as more sensible than those of the official experts, and are now being accepted widely.
In the Hololo valley I thus found a project which was both quite successful and seriously unsuccessful, depending on the perspective I took. People’s fields were being ploughed, fertilizer was available, advice was given, and yields did seem to be improving. The failure was because the community did not achieve self-reliance. The cooperatives that the project started were simply top-down systems run by the project, with minimal participation by the people. The village people were very happy with that arrangement, since it meant they could get supplies and could expect assistance at every point in the farming process. It was more successful than the Senqu project because it meshed its activities with the lives of the people in a way that the other project had never done. It was clear, however, that as soon as the project ended, none of these activities would continue. Instead people regularly asked for free gifts, and made no efforts to manage or build up the cooperatives on their own.
Project officials, following the official line of the Ministry of Agriculture, claimed that their goal was to achieve self reliance and self sufficiency in the Hololo area. They may in fact have come close to something like temporary self-sufficiency in agricultural production for the project area, but they did so at the expense of self-reliance. In my view it is better to err on the side of less production and more independence on the part of farmers than it is to create a system that artificially feeds people at the expense of their own ability to care for themselves. On the other hand I might be wrong. There has been so much hunger across Africa that perhaps a system like that introduced by the Hololo Valley Project could help feed at least a limited set of people in a limited area.
I made a series of recommendations concerning self-reliance. I urged reducing subsidies and giving extension advice to those who actually could make good use of the advice. I suggested that people in project villages who wanted to improve their farm production should hire extension agents of their own choice. In this way they would have made personal commitments to following the advice of the experts. What I saw instead was extension agents giving boring lectures to farmers who didn’t listen.
Just as I learned in my work with the Senqu project, every village has some skilled farmers, people who knew how to make a good living on the land. Many of these good farmers did not have enough land of their own to produce to the level of their ability. I urged that village people make use of these locally available skills either by hiring these “better farmers” as extension agents or by sharecropping family fields with them.
Obviously a shortage of jobs was a major problem in the area. Few people really like to do farming. Instead what most people want is a job, to be employed in a productive way. I noted a great shortage of household supplies, school uniforms, farm tools and other goods that could be produced locally. I recommended that people be trained to produce such things.
As I today read my Hololo project report I feel that what I said 30 years earlier is being said over and again by such contemporary writers as Dambsa Moyo in her book Dead Aid (Farrar Straus and Giroux 2009), and Bill McKibben in his recent book Eaarth (Henry Holt, 2010). I urged that the Hololo project develop self-reliant community-based organizations that would deliver needed goods and services. I was then still hopeful that cooperatives, as opposed to the consolidated blocks of the Senqu project, would be a useful way to move forward. For the moment it seemed like the right thing to do. Much about the Hololo Valley Project was good and my suggestion was that with a bit of tweaking the cooperatives could provide the way forward.
I didn’t appreciate then what I learned later, mainly that top-down cooperatives are not really cooperatives, but rather are associations created by and for outsiders, associations that fail when the outsiders leave. As so often in my work in Africa, I did not try to understand the politics of the project and of the community the project worked with. Good suggestions without good strategies for implementation are of little value. I should have learned that lesson when I helped Jim Ferguson do the research which led to his very insightful book The Anti-Politics Machine. He showed how the Canadian Thaba-Tseka project failed because it did not understand the power of the bureaucracy in Lesotho to stifle decentralization.
So many projects like these are unlikely to change local strategies, because project leadership comes from outside the country, and from outside the day-to-day lives of ordinary farmers. They are planned and executed by experts who have a package of skills and schemes that they know how to apply wherever they may work. I remember vividly meeting foreign experts who, like Jeffrey Sachs in the 21st century, have the skills, money and chutzpah to direct the foreign aid game in directions they set. I wrote a critique of Sachs wrong-headed and misleading book The End of Poverty (Penguin Press, 2005), but it was published in 2005 in an obscure European UNESCO journal Higher Education and I fear no one will ever read it.
I was appalled by Sachs’ book, but unfortunately not surprised. I had already experienced too many similar events and persons. A few examples make the point clear. In one case an American agronomist was unable to plow his experimental field in October, because his tractor broke down. I urged him to do it the Basotho way, by yoking up oxen which were available at the agricultural experiment station. He not only refused, but in fact seemed insulted by my suggestion. He knew how to plow, and did not need to be taught that skill by Basotho, particularly since they did not have the equivalent of his PhD from the University of Iowa. Never mind the fact that tractor plowing on the small individual Basotho-owned fields has never been shown to break even financially.
I worked with a British livestock expert who knew very well how to raise sheep for wool and goats for mohair under the conditions present in Lesotho’s mountains. He could not persuade the local herders to adopt his ideas, mainly because they were incompatible with local social customs. His comment to me was that Lesotho would be an ideal place for profitable management of sheep and goats, if only the Basotho did not occupy all the land.
A particularly bad case was the claim that the Lesotho Highlands Water Project would bring rural electrification to the communities whose land would be taken away by the huge dams designed to channel much needed water to the South African industrial heartland around Johannesburg. Asea Brown Boveri, the giant Swiss electricity corporation, published an ad in Scientific American in about 1990 showing step-down transformers from huge overhead power lines powering lights in thatch huts along the road. Nothing of the kind has ever been tried, nor would such a scheme make sense for the national power grid or the local people, who at best might be able to benefit from small-scale solar power units
What then might help the poor in Lesotho, or any other African country? There are ways forward, some of them tried and tested, some of them still in the development stage. I remember talking to Paul Devitt, a wise and experienced British agricultural developer. I asked him what he would recommend to people like the American economist or the American agronomist. He thought for a few minutes, and then suggested gently the expert should rent a field in a rural village, borrow two oxen to plough with, plant, weed, cultivate and harvest maize, and then assess his experiences before suggesting ways to change the system. If only Paul’s advice could be heard! I fear experts can never learn, which may be why they are called experts.
CHAPTER 8. GOOD INTENTIONS, POOR RESULTS
I undertook a very detailed study for Catholic Relief Services of their food aid program for mothers and young children. We looked at seven clinics scattered across Lesotho, representative of all the major ecological zones in the country. CRS brought this program to Lesotho to fight malnutrition and disease among young children. Mothers were encouraged to come to the clinics for instruction and for food. Children were weighed and measured on a regular basis to find whether in fact the food was assisting them to grow better.
The survey was administered to almost 600 households, three quarters of which received CRS food and a quarter of which did not. We asked questions about household economic characteristics and about the ways in which mothers cared for the children. We asked what the children were fed and what they thought were the best foods. We found a significant shortfall of proteins and fresh fruits and vegetables. Mothers generally knew how to care for the children, but clearly many were unable to do what they knew they should. The main constraints were lack of rain, no jobs, poor schools, too many children, few animals, poor water, laziness, and absent males. People were generally happy with CRS, because they received food for much less than the cost on the open market, while only paying a small amount for the service.
We found almost no difference between households that brought their children to the clinics and those that did not. What really seemed to make a difference in the weight of the child was the overall health of the child rather than the food from CRS. CRS children did not have higher weights and those outside the program. Those who were in the program were in fact less healthy than those outside the program. There was little relation between use of the growth charts at the clinics and the weights and heights of the children. However there was a slight improvement in child nutrition among those parents who could prove they learned something from the CRS nutrition program. The one thing that seemed to make a real difference in child health was wide spacing between children, which was clearly not what the Catholic Church, with its anti-birth control policy, would advocate.
In short the program was not a great success. I’m sure the food was put to good use by those families in feeding their children, but the control group of those who did not use the CRS clinics did not appear significantly worse off than those who did use the clinics. This was not a time of serious starvation in Lesotho. Admittedly crop production continued to decline over the period of the study, but families still received income from migrant workers. I did not see serious poverty, in the form of starvation and deep malnutrition.
In the end I recommended that people pay for the food they received unless they are genuinely destitute. I asccepted Lesotho’s Food and Nutrition Coordinating Office definition of destitution as a household with a minimal harvest, low income, few animals in the household, and a disabled member or widowed head of household. My suggestion was that households meeting three out of four of these criteria should get free food, but otherwise households should pay for the food at slightly less than market value and put the money they paid for the food into a community development fund. This fund should be used at the village level to encourage better agricultural production. I found that people had enough knowledge of how they and their village could make good use of the money for their own improvement.
The Catholic Relief Services management did not like this approach. They like so many other organizations insisted on top down management of charitable donations. They resisted the idea of monetizing food aid and using the money to help local people do local development. I dislike simple charity, unless the situation is truly desperate. I saw almost no destitution or deep poverty during my stay in Lesotho, based on my personal observation of villages in every ecological and social corner of the country.
The worst poverty I saw was not in the remote mountains far off the motor road or in the drought-stricken southern villages on the border with Transkei. It was in the capital city of Maseru, where I met one household living in a shack with leaking roof, a dying man lying on a bedspring, and three sick children sent out to beg on the street. This is the one case I can remember that seemed truly desperate. Of course, I saw hunger, and households with little food and fuel. But there were neighbors taking care and providing assistance. Later on in my work I calculated that the overall wealth in Lesotho is sufficient that no one need starve, and found that in fact the poorest households all reported receiving gifts from family and neighbors.
The great majority of households I visited and interviewed in Lesotho were able to manage affairs for themselves, “with a little help from their friends”, to paraphrase the Beatles song. Unfortunately, government officials and foreign aid experts prefer their opinions to the realities of villagers on the ground.
A consequence is that foreign aid has so often had a negative effect on the recipients, mostly because the recipients are expected to take orders and are not expected to think for themselves. Foreign donors fear corruption at a local level, and I’m sure such corruption exists. They forget the deeper level of corruption which is involved in paying foreign aid workers to manage projects and send the money back home. That is an issue which became more important than my work as years went along.
A good test of this philosophy came in the work of two projects organized by CARE in Lesotho. The first attempted to give women in rural villages and opportunity to make money by spinning mohair for sale either overseas or to local mohair weaving cooperatives. Lesotho has many high quality Angora goats which graze in the mountains and have been a good source of income to rural families since they were introduced in the late 19th century. The original plan for these spinning groups was to buy mohair from local producers, clean it, wash it, and then spin it for sale. This plan did not work out as expected, mainly because these rural women were not able to produce high quality yarn Raw mohair as it is clipped from the goats is full of dirt, seeds, grass and dung, and it requires professional machine processing to bring it to the stage that it can be spun for sale. So in the end the coops had to buy their mohair from South African producers, introducing a costly middleman into the process. Lesotho never developed a full mohair industry, despite having some of the best land for raising goats. From the start, therefore, these women were at a disadvantage.
The problem continued with the inefficient and cumbersome system for providing the mohair to the spinners and then collecting the resulting product. The village cooperatives never really became self-sufficient and self managing cooperatives. Instead, the parent organization in the capital city Maseru took it upon itself to manage the whole process. They drove a project truck to each of the centers, which were scattered across the country, both to deliver the raw mohair and to pick up the finished product. It would have saved a great deal of money had the co-ops been responsible to go by public transportation to the national headquarters, deliver finished spun mohair and pick up new raw mohair. Instead much of the profit went into these irregular trips by Lesotho Handspun Mohair which did all the administration.
As a result the women began to look on themselves simply as employees of an organization based in Maseru. They took no real responsibility for managing the project. Thus they had no idea whether they were getting a fair reward for their work. In fact I later learned that the management at the main office for Lesotho Handspun Mohair was quite corrupt and skimmed off much of the profit for personal enrichment. There was no way in which the women themselves could know about this. Furthermore, CARE was too busy with other projects to check on the reliability of Lesotho Handspun Mohair.
There was no incentive for CARE to give the women training in bookkeeping, timekeeping, management of funds, and training of new members. In effect these co-ops had all the disadvantages of decentralization with none of the advantages.
My task was to try to find a way in which the co-ops would be more efficient and would help the women find productive ways to use their time in activities that could be conducted at home. I visited seven of the 13 centers and interviewed the women both to learn their attitudes to the work and find other ways to develop the co-ops. The quality of the management committees varied widely, some of them trying very hard to be well-organized and others only spinning mohair for the occasional pickup from Maseru. They had very little real training and were more or less expected to sink or swim on their own.
One explanation for their general lack of interest in management is that for the women spinning was only a supplementary activity for families busy with small children and perhaps a garden or field to manage for crops. In other words spinning was a bonus activity, not worth serious attention. Women spent their days fetching water, cooking, gardening, caring for children and managing daily life. Spinning took only about a quarter of their time and gave them a small income, only slightly more than they would get as domestic servants. In short there was little incentive for them to try to improve the management of the project. Of course, they would have received more if they had been able or willing to go to Maseru by public transportation, carrying finished products and bringing back the new mohair. That did not happen
I asked the women what alternatives there might be to spinning. They thought of knitting, sewing, weaving, gardening, and production of chickens, eggs and milk. Ideas which seemed attractive to many of them included communal gardening, fruit trees and handicrafts. They knew the problems that faced them, including poor organization, the lack of tools and equipment, and their own laziness. The biggest problem, however, was getting them to work together in an efficient and cooperative way. They were not a natural group built around kinship or some special commitment to a church. The women who spun mohair together were each engaged in their own spinning projects, and only happened to work in the same building.
We made several recommendations for improving the spinning cooperatives, but none of them really appealed either to the management of CARE or to the women. One idea that I still think is a good idea would be for them to bring their goats together in a cooperative flock in a piece of land set aside for communal management. That simply did not appeal to anyone, mostly because it assumed a natural community of interest that did not socially exist. It is very hard to bring people together when there is no inherent social cohesion.
CARE did decide, however, to try again to bring these community-based cooperatives into another hopefully more productive venture. They picked up the women’s idea to do communal gardening and sell the products. Improved gardening including fruit tree production might be a way for the women in a given cooperative to work together to provide a service for the community and earn some money in the process.
It was evident to me and many of my friends that Lesotho needed more trees, not only to provide land cover and stability of the soil but also to provide firewood and fruit for people in the villages. It is possible to get seedlings in Maseru or some of the district headquarters, but they are not available locally. If a village could produce tree seedlings, both for fruit and for firewood, this could provide further income to existing co-ops. It would also help them to organize themselves better and teach them management skills. In many villages I found trees that had been planted and were being managed by local people for sale. We hoped this might be a way forward for the co-ops.
We also thought that at the same time as selling tree seedlings co-ops could sell vegetable seedlings to villagers. As production of field crops, mainly maize, wheat, sorghum and beans, decreased across the country, we saw an increase in household gardening. A study carried on in the 1990s showed that garden production had a value nationally about half as great as field crop production. We did not know that at the time, but we could see the trend as we visited villages and saw more and more garden crops. Another reason was the increase in households without their own fields in rural areas. This happened as population grew and land was taken out of production due to urbanization and erosion. We felt that there would be a market for vegetable seedlings in rural villages, and we hoped that the village co-ops could tap into that market.
We visited five of the spinning cooperatives to explore the possibility of diversifying their activities into production of tree and garden seedlings. We found a low level of interest in planting trees for fuel, but quite a bit more interest in planting fruit trees. We knew from our experience that peach trees grow everywhere in the low lands and foothills of Lesotho, though we also knew that their quality was generally poor.
We also found that even though many households had village gardens, they had difficulty getting seedlings. They would have to travel by bus to a large town in order to buy seedlings for tomatoes, cabbages, carrots, pumpkins, beets, onions or other familiar garden crops. We felt that selling seedlings would be a good source of additional income. We also foresaw difficulties in watering the seedlings. Other problems included insects, hail, lack of fencing against animals, and lack of money to go elsewhere to buy seedlings.
We also realized that villagers really knew little about gardening or management of fruit tree seedlings. They would have to be trained if this project were to succeed. They would need to be taught about land preparation, fertilizer use, spacing of plants, and seasonal requirements.
Nevertheless we recommended that CARE extend the spinning cooperatives to include tree and vegetable seedlings for sale. Each village would need an area set aside for tree and garden seedlings, and would have to provide supervision to prevent damage by other villagers and by animals. We recommended that seedlings be sold on a membership basis, so that more people would join the project than just the co-op members. We recommended also that there be proper training of the cooperative members in order to start and manage this project.
The project was started shortly after we completed our survey, but with mixed results. The main reason why village co-ops failed was that CARE tried to incorporate all co-op members into the activity. It simply did not work. The project was successful only in a village where a few members managed the project as a private business, and worked hard enough to make money. For such a project to succeed meant close management by one or two people who need the work as their source of livelihood. The alternative was for a group of many women to share tasks that would give each one only a small sum. Where that was tried the project failed.
What I think I learned from both of these CARE projects was that a co-op is different from a job. For a co-op to succeed the members must see the advantage of working together and must get enough benefit out of it to make the effort worthwhile. The spinning co-ops were only places for women to have a job in the same building. Because they did not have effective local management the co-ops were cheated at every turn and only made a pittance out of their efforts.
Furthermore the seedling nursery needed only a few energetic people who would cooperate not so much because they formed a co-op but because production of seedlings requires constant attention and careful management of finances. This small business gave income to two or three people and provided a good service to the village.
In short, I had to rethink my idealism about co-ops managing a village-based enterprise. Some successful cooperatives in Lesotho were village saving clubs. People who knew and trusted each other would agree to contribute on a monthly basis to a group fund that would then loan at interest money to members in turn. The reason for cooperation was obvious. If one member needs a large sum of money to make a purchase, he can get it from the group at low interest, whereas commercial loans demand a huge interest payment. Basotho are familiar with the huge markup when they buy furniture or some other large commodity with time payments.
Another successful cooperative is the burial society. Members contribute on a monthly basis to a fund which is kept in the village. When a person dies the burial society helps pay funeral expenses. This works because people continue to die.
Certainly the cooperatives started by CARE were not successful. So much for the next answer I thought I had to the question how the hungry can be fed. The only successful agricultural cooperatives that I ever saw were the traditional village work groups, built around the culture and customs of the past. These work groups are largely dying out, and are not a model for the future, Julius Nyerere to the contrary.
These projects marked the end of my direct personal involvement with development projects. It is quite possible that my problem was me and not the methodologies I was pursuing. I was not an effective rural developer, even though I knew the big issues, just as I had not been effective in mathematics education or in promoting agricultural improvement in Liberia.
CHAPTER 9. WHY ARE THE HUNGRY STILL HUNGRY?
In retrospect, my work with agricultural development in Lesotho amounted to little, and did not really help the people with whom I was working. My study of small-scale grassroots business enterprises in Botswana didn’t help those who wanted to promote small business. Likewise very little came from my analysis of energy use in Botswana. I’m not sure what use the FAO made of my analysis of rural development in Tanzania and Ethiopia. I don’t think the reports I wrote helped people’s lives.
In Lesotho I made strong recommendations for improvement of the food aid system but they were largely ignored by Catholic Relief Services for political and theological reasons. The spinning cooperatives that I studied were near collapse by the time I worked with them, and I didn’t help prevent that happening. Perhaps my recommendations for the vegetable and tree seedling project were helpful, but that was only for two or three women in one location.
In short, I did not even come close to a proper answer of the question: why are they hungry? The best part of my work was analysis of the problems faced by development projects in trying to carry out what may well have been and still are impossible tasks. What are the tasks? They are to understand why the poor have no food and to find how they can feed themselves.
The closest I came to understanding the problem was in my realization that national politics precluded helping the poor achieve some degree of equality with the rich. Governments are managed basically by the rich, and the poor are simply the tools with which the government secures its comfortable position. During the time that I was working with these development projects I was also reading the extensive literature on what is wrong with development. I was not applying the lessons of these books to my own work.
Books that have influenced me included Chabal and Daloz Africa Works (International African Institute, 1999), Mamdani Citizen and Subject (Princeton Unviersity 1996), Palmer and Parsons The Roots of Rural Poverty (Heinemann, 1977), Rene Dumont False Start in Africa (Frederick Praeger, 1966), Clower et al Growth without Development (Northwestern University Press, 1966), Wilson and Ramphele Uprooting Poverty (W. W. Norton, 1989), Lappe et al, Aid as Obstacle (Food First Books, 1980), Davidson The Black Man’s Burden (Random House, 1992), Iliffe The African Poor (Cambridge University Press, 1987), and most recently Moyo Dead Aid(Farrar Straus and Giroux 2009). I encountered some of these books at the same time as I was doing the research and writing reports. Of course, some of them I read only later on. I began to make the connection between their vigorous attack and what I was doing to ameliorate a fatally flawed social, political and economic system.
I did make some small efforts to repair systems in countries where I worked that seemed egregiously in error. I wanted more use of vernacular language and culture in Liberia’s school system. I told agricultural developers in Liberia about the indigenous knowledge in a village farming system that sustained life for people who understood it. I urged foreign farming systems experts to adapt their new ideas to the values and habits of rural Basotho villagers rather than forcing them to accept modern, supposedly more productive farming methods. I hoped that top-down government experts in Tanzania would realize that every community is different, and needs special treatment as it enters the national culture. I praised families who voluntarily resettled in new virgin territory in Ethiopia rather than falling into step with government-designed cooperatives. I tried hard to persuade foreign experts to live closer to the real life of people in post-civil war Uganda. I was impressed with the ability of against-the-main-stream Botswana religious separatists to succeed in small business when the conventional alternatives failed. I urged Catholic Relief Services in Lesotho to move away from top-down methods of distributing food aid toward greater trust of local people in using the foreign gifts in their own way. I saw that the cooperatives created by CARE in Lesotho were nothing more than employees trying to earn a small pittance from artificially created income-generating projects.
All this, unfortunately, amounts to failed patch-work solutions to a fundamentally flawed system. I was unable to relate to or influence experts who have money, power, big cars, or government backing. I could not relate to those with the charisma and the largesse to achieve short-term local success. I do not have the gift of persuasion. I am not able to smooth-talk a community, either of local people or of foreign experts, to see what I see, to accept what I think would help them achieve a better life. In short I think that top-down development exercise only seems able to achieve short-term results through charm, charisma and cash.
I have seen many examples of what can be called a success that fails. I call the underlying pattern the “Ma Miller syndrome”. Ma Miller was the woman who persuaded me to write an adult literacy textbook for newly literate speakers and readers of the Kpelle language. She would not take no as an answer, either from me or from any group of people for whom she had a good project. She always succeeded in what she wanted to do, and she would then move on to the next project. Unfortunately, when another person tried to duplicate or even carry on the work she had started, the project at best would be a faint replica of what she had started.
Ma Miller-type people have the charisma, the charm, the stick-to-it-iveness to make even the most unlikely project give results while they are present. I think of another friend Ivan Yaholnitsky in Lesotho who created a small-scale project for renewable energy in a remote village. My wife Judy was involved in a renewable energy project herself, but had not been able to persuade people of the advantages of solar cookers. We know that such solar ovens do work, and ordinary people can see that they work. However, they could not be persuaded, at least not by us, to buy and use them. Ivan was a typical Ma Miller, in that he had the charm, the charisma and the determination to make the project succeed. And behold, after three or four years many people in his village were using the solar cookers that he had made and sold to them. I worry what will happen when he leaves.
I could give other examples. I’m sure that whoever is reading this can provide examples out of his or her experience. I don’t have the charisma to persuade people to do things that in my view would help them. I don’t think I could persuade a thirsty person in the desert to accept a drink of water. He would look at me in a suspicious way and wonder what I was trying to sell him. I have been a good teacher, but that is not because I can persuade people to accept what I teach. My success, if any, has been because I want people to learn for themselves. Some wonderful teachers in the past have so dazzled me that I could believe almost anything they said. They are not, however, the teachers I look back to with the greatest respect. Those, instead, are the teachers who taught me to think for myself.
So perhaps it is a good thing that I have never been good at persuading people to accept plans I thought would solve their problems. Despite that, in my work I have too often been part of projects to persuade “underdeveloped” people to accept a shortcut to development. That is not my way. It is bad I took so long to learn that fact. On the other hand, I did try to do good, and for the sake of my retirement and my family I did very well indeed, and have a good retirement package. The world is full of ironies, and perhaps my failure to be an effective developer while at the same time developing me and my family is one of those ironies.
I do realize that I have a considerable skill as a researcher. I can understand and explain a situation, and I can describe it in such a way that the reader will get my point. I can describe but not prescribe. I said earlier that I am like Cassandra who was given the ability to predict but not the ability to persuade. The price she had to pay for seeing into the future was that no one would believe her. Probably I am giving myself too much credit to think that I am a good Cassandra.
I did not continue my career as a development expert after this series of personally profitable but socially unsuccessful development projects. I think I had begun to realize finally that ordinary development projects as conceived by the international agencies and supported by governments simply do not work. I realized furthermore that one of the main reasons they did not work in Southern Africa was the giant counter-development force, the Republic of South Africa. I had been awakened by the evident impossibility of Lesotho achieving economic growth and parity as long as South Africa dominated the entire social, political and economic scene.
CHAPTER 10. POLITICAL AND SOCIAL ACTION
My failure as an agent of development was not the overt reason why Judy and I joined the Transformation Resource Center. The immediate cause was the death of our good friends Joan and Jimmy Stewart. This left the center without the brilliance and central leadership that Stewarts provided. I admit that Joan and Jimmy had some of the Ma Miller quality about them. Nevertheless they did start an organization which was committed to finding and sharing with others the resources which would lead to social and economic justice in Southern Africa. Ideally success in achieving social and economic justice would also bring development, but only as a long-term goal. The Transformation Center was designed as a resource center for concerned people to talk together and learn and read about the struggle.
We decided that this was a better way forward for long-term development in the region than working for short term projects that were unlikely to bring susteasinable help to people in need. Because of the death of Joan and Jimmy, Judy and I chose to leave development efforts and work with the resource center. We only gradually began to understand that such activity might bring closer the goals that we have failed to achieve through development projects.
Perhaps it was only fortuitous that I stopped working with specific projects. I could have continued accepting assignments with various international and local agencies to study their development activities and make proposals for improvement. The death of the Stewarts was the trigger, and I think Judy and I were right in responding to the real need of the Transformation Center. Desmond Tutu played an important part in guiding our choices for our remaining time in Lesotho. He has always had an intuition for the right thing to do, and in our case I know he was right. He supported our application to the Episcopal Church, and we were glad once again to be full-time missionaries.
The underlying philosophy of Transformation was not to do development, but to provide resources for people struggling to develop themselves and their communities. The center was set up to work for peace, justice and participatory development; to help people in the region understand the causes and possible solutions to their problems in a spirit of Christian love; to acquire and maintain and distribute a collection of audiovisual and written resources for this sort of development; and to help build up sharing communities where decisions would be made by consensus. All this made a big task, nor do we claim we did very much to achieve those goals.
The important point was that we were helping those who wanted to help themselves, not just helping outsiders impose solutions. We realized the importance of production of goods and services, economic security, a well ordered society, justice and the rule of law, respect for local culture and tradition, the pursuit of peace in which variety and competition can be used for the betterment of all, and finally worship of God without imposing our beliefs on others. We saw that these goals work together, and that in trying to achieve one of these goals we must respect the remaining goals. For example, efficient industrial production by itself can be a mindless and cruel imposition of technology without respect for human beings. We hoped to bring all of the goals together, so that every person can share in the process of creating a healthy community.
I was particularly concerned that we seek an alternative model for development different from the model underlying the projects where I had previously worked. One of the first and most important activities of Transformation was holding a conference on the theme of successful development projects. We brought together people from a variety of small and medium organizations throughout Lesotho for four days of discussion of projects that did seem to be helping people improve their lives. Some of these were secular, some were church-based, some emerged simply from people’s ordinary lives and activities. The participants were almost all Basotho, with a few expatriates, including members of Transformation.
Participants from 17 different development projects presented brief reports on the successes and failures of their activities. Based on these reports, the group made a series of recommendations for effective community work. Leadership must come from the local community, and national policies should only be developed on the basis of ideas generated locally. There should be coordination between government, foreign aid and local organizations. Training should be provided only for activities which are desired and promoted locally, and the training should be done in a participatory way. This means that there should be continuous evaluation of project training and activities by locally based committees.
Transformation published a report based on this four-day seminar, entitled Lesotho Can Develop Herself. I wish I could say that our report had a major effect on development projects in the country. Even to hope so would be naïve, because I knew in my own work that development projects based on foreign aid are a big business. Learning from what works, as well as learning from what fails, is very difficult for people who already know what is right and what is wrong. Far too many foreign experts come into Lesotho already knowing what they should do, and go to work immediately to carry out their preconceived plans.
One development economist stands out clearly in my memory. He was sent to Lesotho to put together a big agricultural development project. I had a chance to chat with him before he started his work. I told him that there is a long history of such projects, and I recommended that at least he read their reports and find out what they had done. We had copies of many of these reports at the Transformation Center, and I also had many in my library. Furthermore USAID, which had hired him to do the job, also was supposed to keep records of previous projects. Unfortunately it turned out that they did not keep these records, but just assumed that people would continue to reinvent the wheel as time went on. This agricultural expert told me very bluntly that he did not have time to waste on reading about past projects, and by implication past mistakes, because he had only a short time in which to prepare a new document.
Once again I failed to bring change due to my own incompetence and lack of charisma. I was not able to sell the idea of self generated development to anyone in positions of power. Maybe I was making the same mistake that I had urged developers to avoid, namely, imposing my ideas on others. In this case I really don’t think so, because our report on successful projects was based on local people thinking about local issues and using local examples. We published the pamphlet and occasionally people came to the Transformation Center to get a copy. As I write this today I am reading from my copy of the pamphlet. I have scanned it so that I can make it once again available to anyone who might wish to read it and learn from it.
I should not be totally discouraged, because people all over the world, as well as in Lesotho, are trying to resist outside developers. What really will make it possible to change a country is when local people pick up new ideas, new techniques, and assess old mistakes, then combine all this to move forward. This can happen, despite the efforts of foreign experts.
A very important part of our work at Transformation Resource Center was the publication of a newsletter called Work for Justice. In it we commented on issues relevant to Lesotho, as well as to the larger region. One article analyzed 20 years of economic assistance to Lesotho. I was able to demonstrate that if the same amount of money, mostly used to pay outside experts and buy foreign materials, had been put in the bank and allowed to accumulate interest, then enough money would have been available to buy all the land which had been taken away from Lesotho in the 19th century to create the Orange Free State. The main benefits of the aid money have gone to foreign experts and to a few Basotho employees. Judy and I were certainly among the company of those who benefitted. I wish I could say that the ordinary people in the villages who were the objects of our development efforts have also benefitted. I fear not.
Transformation was also committed to creating a more just society in the southern African region. It became increasingly clear to me that many of our development ideas in Lesotho were undercut from the start by the dominant South African political and economic system. As soon as it became clear to the South African government that I was not their friend, Judy and I lost our visas to enter that country. We had been relatively quiet during the late 1970s, but by the 1980s our friendship with South African radicals was becoming well known. Probably our efforts to clean the blood from the wall of the apartment where the parcel bomb had gone off severely damaging two of our friends were well known by the authorities.
In one of our last legal visits to South Africa Judy fell asleep at the wheel and drove into a field. She was helped by a friendly man who then began to chat with her about who she is and what she was doing. Once she told him that her husband was John Gay he knew immediately who she was talking about. He mentioned that he knew her husband was a sociologist, working for the National University of Lesotho, and added that he too was a sociologist of sorts. He worked for the Bureau of State Security, and his job was to track people like us.
By the next year our visa applications were refused, and we had to remain within Lesotho except for medical emergencies. We did occasionally violate the South African restriction by traveling through the supposedly independent country of Transkei in order to go to the beach. We only got our proper visas back after Nelson Mandela was released from prison and South Africa was on its way toward becoming a democratic society.
During our time with the Transformation Resource Center we committed as much energy as we could to the South African liberation struggle. Whereas we were concerned about bottom-up grass-roots development in Lesotho we realized that such development efforts would fail unless there was a just and free society across the border. We don’t claim that Transformation played a major role in the liberation struggle, but we certainly were among the foot soldiers who eventually brought down the system.
What did we do to help the cause? We held workshops and conferences for South African exiles, as well as a few brave South Africans who are willing to come across the border and share their lives with us. These were times of solidarity, certainly important for us and hopefully also for those planning for the new country. Our special emphasis was on how Christian churches can bring liberation. We strongly believed in liberation theology, as leading to a free and just Christian society.
One important workshop featured Walter Wink as a principal speaker. He had been invited to South Africa by the South African Council of Churches, but his visa had been denied. As a result Transformation decided to offer him a place to present his ideas to a selected audience of South African activist Christians. We explored peaceful alternatives to the armed struggle, and were inspired by Wink’s meditations on such Bible passages as “go the second mile” or “give your shirt to the one who asks” or “turn the other cheek”.
It may seem contradictory, but we supported both the non-violent approach and the militant liberation struggle, although we did keep the latter at a safe distance. I say “a safe distance” because we were constantly observed by the South African security forces. On one occasion, we were sufficiently afraid of being attacked that we hid our most important documents in the home of an Anglican priest in Maseru. We knew that our mail was being read, and our phone tapped. E-mail was just coming into vogue, and our team members were at first unwilling to use it because of the fear that our messages would be intercepted.
One activity that we responded to with enthusiasm was providing support for refugees in transit. With the help of the UN High Commission for Refugees we provided food and toiletries and money to young men on their way through Lesotho to camps in Tanzania, Angola and Botswana. These refugees were members of the ANC and PAC who crossed illegally into Lesotho through a very poorly monitored border. Basotho and South Africans travel back and forth between the two countries, mostly through official border posts, but many also go across for medical care or employment or schooling without benefit of passports. When the Mohokare River was not in flood, it was easy for people to walk into Maseru just a few hundred meters away from the official bridge.
The Transformation library was used by South Africans, including even some who crossed legally into Lesotho for that purpose, to read books, periodicals and newspapers or watch videos that were not allowed in South Africa. We even on some occasions sent pamphlets across the border into South Africa through visitors or through a team member who still had a visa, a fact discovered when his luggage was inspected at the border.
Transformation was deeply involved with the 1987 strike of the National Mineworkers’ Union. We helped them publicize the strike call, printing a broadside carrying information about the strike. We were even spied on by foreign governments to see what we could tell them about the strike. I once made mistakes at a cocktail party given by the Swedish Embassy when I said some things I should not have said. I am not a good candidate for international espionage. Unfortunately, some of the miners who were most active in the strike lost their jobs and were not rehired, while scabs who took their places were retained when the strike ended.
After 1990 South Africa went from a time of overt and systematic racism to a new era of overt peace and racial harmony, unfortunately hiding long-term injustice based not on color only but also on class. South Africa soon became an Oreo country, with black on top, black at the bottom, and white in the middle. Basotho continued to suffer, as being both poor and black, but now more clearly a foreign country, from South Africa’s perspective, than before. It has become increasingly difficult for South Africa to bring even a modicum of economic equality to its black citizens, and so one obvious answer has been to exclude foreign-born blacks, including Basotho, from the benefits of the new rainbow nation.
During apartheid, South Africa had not been a destination of choice for black Africans from countries to the north, and only citizens of the former high commission territories at that time actively sought to live and work in South Africa. Now that race was, at least officially, not a barrier to economic advance, people from farther north sought sanctuary and jobs in the new South Africa. Despite the fact that their countries once actively welcomed and supported South African freedom fighters, migrants from other African countries, now including Lesotho, found little or no welcome in South Africa. The constellation of free independent African countries that we hoped for while we worked for justice in Lesotho did not become a free-trade, free-movement area. Basotho were more able to move into and out of South Africa than citizens of tropical African countries, but even that access was gradually limited over succeeding years.
On the other hand, South Africa became more and more involved in the economics and politics of Lesotho as years went on. That was nothing new, of course. South Africa manipulated Lesotho’s politics after independence, working to install and then maintain in power the dictatorial unconstitutional rule of Leabua Jonathan. When Leabua Jonathan tried to show more independence than Pretoria wanted, the apartheid regime arranged for the country to be blockaded until he was replaced by a military ruler.
South African businesses within Lesotho, and employment of men in South African mines and on South African farms, dominated the national economy of Lesotho. Even the new currency in Lesotho was only the South African rand in disguise.
An even bigger South African economic venture in Lesotho was the creation of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, planned during the last years of Leabua Jonathan, and implemented under the military government that replaced him in 1986. The economic heartland of South Africa, centered near Johannesburg, is chronically short of water, while Lesotho has always exported huge quantities, mostly uselessly, into the Orange River and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean. The new project was designed to divert much of this water and transfer it by a tunnel into rivers that supplied Johannesburg and neighboring area.
The Highlands Water Project was, superficially at least, a win-win situation. South Africa would get needed water and Lesotho would get annual royalties to help its faltering economy. What was not evident at first was the impact on the people whose homes and fields and pastures were in the catchment area of five large dams. With the help of a World Bank expert Thayer Scudder, Transformation formed the Highlands Church Action Group to find ways to ameliorate the impact of the dams on ordinary people. We did not try to block the project, as the International Rivers Network in the United States wanted us to do. Rather we felt that the project would benefit Lesotho as a whole, and we devoted our efforts to seek adequate restitution, resettlement and compensation for the people in the areas to be affected. The task is an ongoing activity, one that I was involved with from the beginning to understasnd the effect on the people who lived there.
CHAPTER 11. CAN ANYTHING HELP A SICK COUNTRY?
Despite my increasing sense that foreign-sponsored development projects simply do not help poor people escape their poverty, I worked on a few development projects while I was still with Transformation, and continued working on the occasional development project after that time. I had not yet learned that my basic skills lay elsewhere, as I will discuss in the next chapter.
One project while still with Transformation was an unsuccessful attempt to analyze housing and urban development. The World Bank asked me and a colleague Margaret Mokhothu, a woman I had taught at the National University of Lesotho, to make recommendations for a project in urban upgrading. Our work went nowhere, because it soon became clear that the World Bank wanted to minimize costs in supplying services to the house plots. They insisted on a maximum plot size much smaller than would allow owners to engage in small-scale productive activities.
I developed a long-term interest in urban gardening, which became increasingly popular across the country. As population grew and farm land was converted into housing sites, families without access to the traditional three fields used their household plots for gardens. Economists in the early 1990s estimated that back yard garden production approached half the total value of crops as the conventional field crops of maize, sorghum and wheat.
We visited many areas in and around Maseru, and found that the only thing keeping many families alive was using their space for gardening, chicken or egg production, informal business or small rental units. We believed, perhaps wrongly, that urban Basotho would rather have ample space for productive activities than water, sanitation and paved roads. We pointed out the massive unemployment rate in the city, urging that people would rather have a means to survive than have services they could not pay for. We were told by the World Bank officer, “That’s just your hang-up.” Margaret and I backed out of the project, which to the best of my knowledge never actually took place.
I also found little interest within the development community for assisting households to produce more food by using their garden space. Agricultural experts were mostly interested in farms and fields and extensive agriculture. Working with part-time gardeners to grow a few hundred more rands worth of vegetables in their spare time seemed beneath the dignity of experts accustomed to the huge farms of Iowa or even South Africa. What these experts forgot and what I was unable to persuade them to know was that these few hundred rands of vegetables could double household income and provide healthy food to growing children. As in so many cases, I once again thought of myself as a Cassandra seeing future possibilities that others were unwilling to consider.
A second project during my time at Transformation was intended to help a German development group provide assistance to the region surrounding the Qeme plateau, a remarkable protected grassy area on a mountain south of Maseru. Access to the plateau is difficult, and so it was used at that time only for grazing animals rather than cultivation or residential sites. Many people hoped that the plateau could be preserved in its natural state, with limited grazing allowed only to villages on the south, west and northeast sides.
A Transformation colleague Mamookho Lesenyeho and I undertook a detailed survey of a random sample of households in the villages abutting the slopes leading to the plateau. The survey was comprehensive, and was actively supported by the people in the villages because we assured them that their views would be respected by the potential donor. In hindsight I realize we were too naive, too trusting, because in the end the Germans did not follow up on their promises. They hoped we would give them a clear mandate to create a small German island of progress, following their preconceived ideas.
We found that village people urgently wanted help in developing their area, particularly on the historically disadvantaged southern slope. Roads were very poor, and became impassable after even moderate rain. Water for irrigation, washing and drinking depended on shallow reservoirs dug by local people, run-off from the plateau and a few permanent springs. Erosion caused by heavy rains and the same run-off from the plateau that was the source of water was damaging fields, roads and residential sites. Erosion was also exacerbated by overgrazing, because of mismanagement of fields and over-supply of poorly fed and badly managed animals. In theory the extension services provided by the Lesotho Ministry of Agriculture should help solve some of the farming and grazing problems, but unfortunately few extension workers ever visited the people.
We proposed that there be a contract between individual villages or groups of villages, the donor agency and the Lesotho government, to integrate the steps needed to reverse the problems. It would not be enough to undertake one element while ignoring other aspects. For example, better roads without management of run-off from the plateau would seriously worsen the erosion. For another example, improved water sources without control of livestock numbers and condition would also worsen erosion because it would enhance the survival rate of calves, lambs and kids, many of which die because of poor nutrition and lack of water.
A further reason we gave for a contractual relation between donor, government and villagers was to reduce the dependency that is so common in development projects. We urged that no activity be undertaken without firm agreement by local people to carry out their part of the bargain. Development would be slower than if the Germans imposed what they considered an instant solution to the obvious problems. Development agencies like such instant solutions, since they allow them to show “results” to the public back home. We felt that such “results” are spurious, since they do not solve long-term problems either of dependency or of the erosion which partial solutions make possible.
Unfortunately (and I am tempted to add, needless to say), the Germans were not at all interested in our findings. They wanted a showpiece effort, not a long-term solution which would build up local responsibility. Our program would clearly require several years of sustained effort, with donor presence limited to what was needed in a step-by-step process. We urged that a community developer live with the people and provide external help when needed. What we suggested would depend on outside support, but it had to be slow and sustained. Being “slow and sustained” was precisely what the Germans did not want. That was the end of our effort. The report was probably never read, partly because we gave too much detail about the villages but largely because what we recommended appeared only toward the end of the report and was, from the German perspective, heavily counter-cultural.
A third project while I was still with Transformation was when David Hall was asked to assess the work of Irish development experts in the Hololo Valley at the north of the country. I had studied the project 10 years earlier, and still had a good sense of what they were trying to accomplish. So when David came back from England, having just finished his MPhil at Oxford, he looked for some kind of work to do. His parents had been missionaries in South Africa. His father Lawrence worked in the Sesotho speaking area of the Orange Free State. David was born in the historic village of Morija south of the capital city Maseru. His mother Dorothy was an active church worker and musician, and worked closely with children’s ministry.
David moved back to Morija and began the process of identifying closely with his birth country. He grew up speaking Sesotho, and carried South African citizenship. When he was in University in Nova Scotia he met and married Brigitte, a woman of French ancestry. David thus also took French citizenship, so he came to southern Africa with an escape route already in place.
However, he had no intention of leaving. He felt committed to working with the Basotho, and wanted to put his training from Oxford to good use in the country. I deeply admire and congratulate David for work well done, and a life well lived but tragically cut off in late 2010. David was hit by lightning near his home in Ladybrand South Africa, having just returned from a study of the Mekong river basin in Southeast Asia.
In 1989 the Hololo Valley project, having continued to operate in much the same way as I had seen in 1982, asked David to follow up the study I had done in 1982. I was at that time still working with Transformation, but was willing to support and provide backup for David’s work. He finished an excellent report, which did not materially change my findings. This link turned out to be very beneficial for me and for David, because it gave me the idea that once I left Transformation to work with him in a new company formed by David and Thuso Green at Sechaba Consultants.
Thuso wanted to put his MSc in forestry from Edinburgh University to work among his people, but not to have internal government financial chicanery get in his way. He was with the Ministry of Agriculture in Lesotho, but was not happy working with government. He had some difficulties about use of government money, claiming that he had been falsely accused of corruption. He fought the case and was eventually exonerated, whereupon he decided to leave.
Sechaba Consultants was at first just a desk in a back office, and later a company which rented successively larger office space in Maseru to house us and our co-workers. In the Sesotho language, sechaba means “the people”, indicating our intention to serve ordinary folk who were both the recipients and the victims of development efforts. I was fed up with failing so many times to persuade government and international agencies to do what seemed so sensible to us, but not to the people who held the money. We took a different approach to the issue by submitting proposals to study examples of the bewildering and competing array of development schemes.
We looked closely at specific projects, complementing concurrent efforts to understand the grand design of poverty in a country that was struggling to get out from under a troubled past and an impoverished present. Many jobs concerned the national environment. Soil erosion and soil depletion, exacerbated by the unpredictable droughts which have always plagued Lesotho, were a priority for the Lesotho government and foreign donor agencies. I had studied these issues when I worked for the United Nations and then for USAID before moving to the National University of Lesotho in 1979. The issue had become even more serious when I returned to consulting in 1992.
I shared in drought assessment surveys, the intention of which was to find ways to distribute donated surplus food to those in real need. The question we faced was how to select households to benefit from the program. Once again the donors were reluctant to trust village people with the choice and distribution. I urged that villages be allotted fixed amounts of food which they would distribute on the basis of villager-chosen criteria. Typical criteria included the numbers of children, elderly people, widows, orphans and disabled persons. With the help of Basotho colleagues we developed a formula to measure the need of a household. Villagers would have the opportunity to assess the status of each household based on the formula.
Our ideas were rejected by the drought assessment organization. They preferred to keep the administration in their own hands, because they feared local corruption and political bias. They were partly right in fearing such problems. However, they failed to weigh that problem in the balance, where on the one side was the relatively light issue of local misguided and biased distribution, while on the other side was the heavy burden of paying international officials to manage the process at the village level.
Throughout my time in Africa, I met this distrust of local people leading to vastly greater expense on foreign watch-dogs. I saw the same problem in Liberia where foreign advisors built latrines that local people did not care for, in Tanzania where centralized management of farm production forced farmers into illegal black market trading, and in Botswana where authentication of academic credentials by foreign educators made it difficult for local people to start self-help training. The most recent example was my failure at persuading the Germans to allow Qeme plateau villagers to share in managing their reconstruction efforts. The issue seems simple to me. Risk loss of control, risk some corruption and misuse of funds, risk long delays as village people sort out their priorities, risk not having jobs for out-of-work experts, but with some degree of luck build up local management and capacity.
I found a similar problem when my Sechaba colleague Thuso Green and I were asked to study the problems faced by a foothills range management project funded and administered by German aid. We interviewed a large proportion of households in four different villages, two at the edge of the spine of mountains where summer grazing can be found, and two farther west where the only grass available to cattle, sheep and goats is on land which is not ploughed and lies fallow. The German project wanted to help people coordinate their livestock management in such a way as to reduce the stress on the environment and maintain healthier and more productive animals. This is a situation common across Lesotho, as I saw in many previous projects. The problem is unfortunately both simple and very complex: how to squeeze maximum value out of an already exhausted landscape.
Life was difficult for the residents of these villages, as in so many others across Lesotho. Less than one in ten households produced enough field crops to feed themselves, More than 90% of the households kept cattle in order to plough their fields, but less than half had enough oxen to do the plowing without help from neighbors. Cattle were in poor condition. Less than half the households could find enough land to graze their cattle and few had enough residues left over from harvesting crops to supplement natural grazing.
The question was obvious: how to keep livestock healthy and make productive use of them under such conditions. Most of the households looked to the project as the only hope, but the project simply could not provide land or pasture to satisfy an unsustainable population, both of people and of animals. We researchers from Sechaba Consultants could not be miracle workers, and we knew that the Germans could do no more than supply supplementary feed for the animals, not a sustainable option. We did not see a way forward, given the focus on field crops and livestock, which were the traditional Basotho sources of livelihood.
We felt that the only way forward would be for the Basotho living in these villages to work out their own solution, hopefully learning from other villages. One idea was to manage livestock on a community-wide basis, because individual household-by-household strategies were literally eating up available resources and yielding diminishing returns.. Unfortunately cooperation would not be possible on a single-village basis, since village lands overlapped and people depended on finding grazing areas across village boundaries.
We thus urged the project and the village leadership to look elsewhere in Lesotho for communities which have managed to work together to create a range management scheme. We did find one group of lowland villages which had found a way to bring Basotho tradition back into force by mapping out areas within their joint village lands that would be open to grazing on a regulated and shifting pattern. That required the community to set limits on numbers of animals and times of grazing, something that outside agencies could never accomplish. Ultimately the dilemma in these and so many other villages across Lesotho of too many animals and not enough grazing land could only be solved by community action. I fear that the German development agency could not accept our answer, since in effect we told the serious and eager German experts “You can’t do what you are trying to do. Only the Basotho can do it. When they come up with their own answer, then you can be available to give them help where their own efforts meet obstacles that only outside money and technology can overcome.”
Of course, this is not an easy prescription. We found much suspicion of foreign experts as well as of village and clan chiefs. People were not willing to pay a grazing fee to the Lesotho government, nor were they willing to limit livestock numbers if the government required it. Forming a community-based grazing association, not under Lesotho government control and not under distant chiefs but under the livestock owners themselves, appears a feasible option. We recommended that such people visit the one successful range management association, with the German project providing what would be needed to allow such a visit. We hope this might lead to a breakthrough, the alternative being a collapse of the present land management system, which we feared could only be a short time in the future.
These environmental analyses were not encouraging, to a large extent because foreign donors wanted to do things their way rather than the way that local people might accept. Small-scale urban gardening, sharecropping of fields by skilled local farmers, integrated management of roads and water supplies, and community-driven land use schemes did not attract the donors nor did it attract the Lesotho government. They preferred the centralized top-down structures that Jim Ferguson so ably pointed out in his book The Anti-Politics Machine as the major obstacle to what I like to think of as sensible development. I have no answer to that very legitimate criticism of the way I and other idealists want to think. Perhaps it can only happen when the centralized systems all fail – as I fear they will all fail.
I participated in other environmental studies, including a study of dairy cattle in towns and a study of a new road in the mountains. I fear that I could not come up with anything better than I have described above. One thing I did accomplish was to say some of these things in a report on the human environment in the book State of the Environment in Lesotho, published by the Lesotho government in 1997. Population growth, deterioration and actual loss of arable land, decline of quality of pasture land and increase in numbers of livestock, and increased urban access to social services such as schools, shops, clinics, roads, water and electricity, makes urbanization an inevitable and necessary trend. Even food production, long considered the principal reason for maintaining a rural base, is rising in urban and peri-urban areas as traditional field-based agriculture and pasture-based livestock management decline.
Once again I felt myself to be a Cassandra, speaking against current truths. The conventional wisdom was that Lesotho is a subsistence agricultural economy, implying that every effort should be made to improve the traditional farming and grazing systems. All the economic studies we did at Sechaba Consultants confirmed the national decline in the contribution of cereal crops and free-ranging livestock. In our study of poverty in 1999 we reported the stark fact that agricultural activities of all kinds contributed only 5.2% of national income. USAID has reported in 2011 that currently agriculture amounts to 7.1% of GDP.
A thoughtful 2006 assessment of Lesotho’s agricultural potential by the World Food Programme, is: “Lesotho provides evidence of the difficulties facing agricultural production when over-crowded and depleted communal lands are combined with chronic poverty, rapid urbanisation, a large (but declining) migrant labour force and a very high incidence of HIV/AIDS.” Life in Lesotho is indeed tough.
What was the point of all these studies? My intention was two-fold. I had learned some skills in Liberia and then in Lesotho, tested these skills in Tanzania, Botswana, Ethiopia and Uganda, and then took research assignments and in due course signed on as a consultant with Sechaba Consultants. I needed to work on such projects in order to keep myself alive. I provided employment by hiring research assistants. The ostensible reason was to help Lesotho find ways forward toward building a healthy and prosperous society. I was not prepared to take projects I could not believe in, but I was not just a benevolent observer trying to help African countries and societies achieve independence and prosperity. I made a good living working in this way, and I am now able to relax in retirement on the basis of pensions and savings.
CHAPTER 12. FROM PRESCRIPTION TO DESCRIPTION
I return to the question: what was the point of all these studies and what good did they accomplish? To be quite honest, I fear they accomplished very little. My colleagues and I did our best to understand social and economic situations and make recommendations for what could be done to improve people’s lives. As with the Senqu project and USAID in the 1970s, the Hololo Valley, Catholic Relief Services and CARE studies in the 1980s, and the urban development and environment studies of the early 1990s, I fear that little of real benefit resulted.
However, I began more and more to realize that my skills lay in analysis rather than action, description rather than prescription. What may have been of value in the work I did was two-fold. I laid bare the underlying reality of development projects and I helped colleagues learn how to do similar analyses in other situations. I should have realized from the start that on-the-ground action to improve lives is not my skill, but that I am a good analyst and teacher. The main benefit of these years of work in Lesotho is most likely the example I set of how to study a situation, not how to ameliorate its bad sides or promote participants’ well-being.
My shift from doing good to analysis of others as they tried to do good began with my abortive effort to persuade an FAO colleague in 1978 to explore old farming project data as he laid plans for agricultural development. I tried to initiate him into the mysteries of SPSS, but it was a failure. He was baffled by computers and was more at home doing pencil and paper projections of economic growth from existing statistical reports.
At that time I was beginning to collect survey results, and store them on my then-rudimentary back-up tapes. A big problem was that computers were hunting for standard programming languages and storage procedures. For example, I could not read output from the Lesotho Ministry of Finance central computer and save the data on my first Kaypro portable computer. There were numerous operating systems, and I struggled to understand how to move from one to the next, depending on a 5 1/4 inch floppy disk which purported to allow different operating systems to talk to each other. A system called CP/M was on its way to becoming a standard, at least for the time being, but it was not what main frames used. CP/M eventually gave way to MSDOS, which is an ancestor to subsequent languages.
I had a vision at that time of data libraries that would allow serious statistical analysis of results from various surveys that covered important topics such as agriculture. I called it data-mining at the time, but I could find very little enthusiasm from other social scientists. I presented a paper on the idea in 1980 at a conference on social science research at the National University of Lesotho in 1980, a paper which was met with incomprehension and even derision by the enthusiastic Marxist social scientists who attended the workshop. In fact, I believe my paper was the only one of the conference papers not included even in the proceedings of the meeting. I was far ahead of an idea, which has taken many years to be accepted.
I kept the idea in the back of my mind over the next few years, and in fact did manage to store quite a few surveys on my computer. Unfortunately I did not rewrite some of the data uploads in later computer format as years went on and I was busy in other matters. I have thus lost some potentially useful data from several of my 1970s and 1980s surveys. I have been more careful since that time, and I think I now have a quite useful set of data uploads.
I was asked by CARE in 2002, at the suggestion of David Hall and Stephen Turner, to issue a CD of these uploads with annotations so that they can be used by other researchers in following the history of development efforts in Lesotho. I am afraid that little use has been made of the data base, other than by me and my erstwhile colleagues David Hall, Stephen Turner and Thuso Green. As I write this chapter, I am learning that data management of archives is finally becoming popular. I still think of myself as an under-appreciated pioneer, a Cassandra who saw the future clearly but could not persuade co-workers to understand that future. Unlike my approach in earlier points of frustration at not being listened to, I did my best to persuade David, Stephen and Thuso to join me or at least to understand the value of the work.
After those times of frustration, I shifted my emphasis to the development efforts I have discussed in previous chapters, from the Hololo Valley Project to the Transformation Resource Center to the German livestock management project. I did what I could to meet the needs of the sponsors of those projects, even though, as I have said, I do not look back on our efforts as having been very useful.
Of greater value than these projects have been my efforts to analyze the social and economic situation in Lesotho rather than any efforts to improve the country and its people. I believe that task should be left to the citizens of the countries in question, rather than performed by foreign “experts” like me. I mentioned earlier by extreme dissatisfaction with the approach made so popular by people like Jeffrey Sachs. He, like many others, is a good-hearted and sincere economist, who thinks he can change the lives of people in other countries. This is a disease rampant among do-gooders who think they know what is good for other people.
I am not saying that all foreign aid is bad, that all foreign sharing in the lives of people in adopted countries is bad. Rather I am saying on limited experience that it is better to describe and analyze, and to leave it to local people to prescribe and act – or, and this is a very important “or”, become local and share in the consequences of actions taken. In Liberia I have great admiration for E. W. Blyden, who became a Liberian in order to help move that country forward. In Lesotho I have great admiration for Eugene Casalis and his French colleagues, who themselves became in effect Basotho and worked closely with King Moshoeshoe I. I mentioned earlier the advice of Paul Devitt, who said the best way to help Basotho farmers is to become a farmer the Basotho way and learn how it is done.
I have a slightly different opinion when it comes to emergency aid in cases of disaster. Yet even here there are important dangers to be avoided. I remember when food aid was being supplied to Liberia during the civil war, and in far too many cases it was being diverted to feed warlords and their armies. And, as I noted earlier, food aid which is distributed by foreign organizations costs more than food aid distributed locally, despite the fear by foreigners of corruption by local leaders and aid distributors.
In the following chapters I will refer first to my major effort during the 1990s, namely, the study of poverty in Lesotho. I will then discuss efforts to study other local and international activities.
CHAPTER 13. WHAT IS POVERTY?
Africa’s situation in 1992 when I left Transformation was bleak: economic decline and civil war in Liberia and increased marginalization of Lesotho. Liberia had become a basket case and Lesotho remained an economic backwater within but not part of South Africa. Were the hungry in either country any more able to feed themselves in 1992 than in 1958 when I went to Africa, full of hope for the future? The answer was clearly no.
I began to realize that none of the projects – educational, economic or political – I had thought would help people during more than thirty years in Africa did much to bring them economic equality or social justice. I enjoyed my years of teaching and research on social and economic issues, and I believe that a few students gained greatly from what I helped them learn. But I could not in 1992 look back and point to ways in which Liberians and Basotho, other than a few of my students, were better able to feed themselves, better able to overcome the systematic injustice that had oppressed them over the years.
I felt led to try to understand what blocked my efforts to enhance life and bring “development” at least to a few people in Liberia and Lesotho. Could I describe what it is to be poor, disadvantaged, or oppressed? If my efforts to help the poor over thirty years had only educated a few elite students, could I at least give an accurate description of those whom I had not been able to help, but whom I perhaps now understood better than most foreigners?
I had been well aware of the relativity of poverty from my work in rural Liberia. Money was not the focus in Gbansu, where I did so much of my research, although the modern world was already offering the “necessities” that only money can buy. My first novel about growing up in remote rural Liberia celebrates the traditional way of life, at the same time as it acknowledges the imminent end of a subsistence society. People in the 1960s and 1970s remembered when the only commodity they absolutely could not supply from their own resources was salt. Otherwise food, land, crops, livestock, water, fuel, housing, tools, clothing and weapons could all be found within walking distance.
Of course, life in rural Liberia was never easy, and the population remained small so not to overtax what the forest could provide. Food was scarce in the occasional bad year when rains failed or crops were washed away by heavy downpours. Tropical diseases were rampant, and a high proportion of each new generation died from malaria or other parasites in childhood. Land disputes and intra- and inter-tribal wars also took their toll on the surplus population.
It was only after wage labor on the rubber plantations, western medical facilities along the roads, and internal peace allowed population to grow that structural poverty came to rural Liberia. Before that family wealth was measured by the number of wives and children they had, but soon ownership of goods that only money could buy began to define wealth.
In Liberia the old distinction remained meaningful up to the civil war which began in 1989. I knew village elders, intelligent powerful men and women who cherished the old ways and were content to exercise power and authority in a rural village setting. A friend of mine, Dr. Ivan Camanor, whom I met in Lesotho when he was working for the World Health Organization, told me of his brother in remote rural Liberia, a chief who enjoyed what Ivan felt was a good life. Ivan told me he was sorry he did not choose the way taken by his brother. I think he meant it.
I fear that Liberia’s civil wars have totally ended the old way. People have flocked to the towns and cities to escape rape, pillage and starvation. A minority remained in villages, but their life was and still is today very tough. I think it unlikely that the tradition can be restored, even that part of the old Liberia which had up to 1989 made an uneasy alliance with the money economy. I began to believe that poverty must be interpreted in a way more consistent with the World Bank’s “dollar a day” definitions.
Even so, there are distinctions which go beyond the crude presence or absence of a dollar or two a day. Liberians even today live communally to a remarkable extent,, in the sense that those who have something share with those who have little or nothing. The truly poor person in Liberia today is a person who has no relative on whom she or he can depend.
I think the only person I have known in Africa with no family was a nasty old man I met in Gbansu. He had so alienated his own children that he was thrown on the mercy of the village. There people knew his character, and so he did not get the free ride an old person might expect. In order to survive, he had to work hard in a village work group, even though he was at an age that normally would merit support and security. He was truly poor, because he had broken the links established by custom and community. And yet for the people of Gbansu an old blind man in the same village was not “poor”. He did his part by weaving chicken baskets and showing love and concern for others, and in return the villagers provided all his needs.
I did not study poverty as such in Liberia, but after realizing belatedly that I had no idea why hungry people remain hungry, I realized I had to look at poverty in my newly adopted country of Lesotho. Judy and I had done what we set out to do at Transformation, and it was time for us to leave. Basotho took over the management and day-to-day tasks in the Center, and there was little reason for expatriate workers like us to remain and be in the way. We left there while we were still useful, and we have remained good friends with the increasingly large and effective Transformation Resource Center. As of now there are about 15 team members, providing resources to Basotho grassroots organizations and individuals.
The Food Management Unit of the Lesotho Government, with financial help from the European Economic Community, asked Sechaba Consultants to survey the nation to understand how people are surviving the difficulties of living next to apartheid, not having jobs, not producing enough food to eat, and suffering under a military government.
This study in 1990 set us on a quest to understand Lesotho’s ongoing shift from a subsistence to a money economy. Tension between the old way and the new is a theme common to every society, but in the case of Lesotho we found it particularly acute, as the country moved toward an increasingly monetized version of poverty. It is fair to say that almost all the work I did at Sechaba was at least indirectly a response to the misery of the population remaining poor in an increasingly polarized southern Africa.
My colleagues and I did three national surveys of poverty in Lesotho, in 1990, 1994 and in 1999. We reviewed all the research reports we could find, to discover what people meant by poverty, wishing to move beyond the World Bank idea of poverty as life on less than a dollar equivalent per day. In a limited way, as I have already indicated, this is a sensible definition, because our world is now almost everywhere monetized, and employment for cash is what almost everyone wants.
We realized, however, that poverty is not simply lacking money with which to buy things. The 15 different surveys we found from the late 1980s stressed the shortage of many things in addition to money. They included food, water, jobs, roads and transport, medical facilities, latrines, good housing, schooling, livestock and fields. Indeed some households in rural Lesotho, as in pre-civil war Liberia, have basic amenities, including food, water, good housing, livestock and fields, even though without cash income. These households only now consider themselves poor because jobs, roads and transport, medical facilities, latrines, and schools have been brought to their previously relatively independent and non-monetized villages.
I saw less of the older understanding of poverty in Lesotho than in Liberia, because the rural economy even in the 19th century was linked to South Africa, and thus to money and consumer goods. The Basotho way of life as established by King Moshoeshoe I, with the help of the missionaries whom he had “purchased” with a gift of cattle, was built around new crops, new tools, new housing styles, new clothing, and the availability or unavailability of these goods. The key inevitably became money. By the middle of the 19th century Lesotho was even becoming wealthy as an exporter of grain to the immigrant white farmers across the border.
Lesotho was in a strong position before the 1879 war. Lesotho may have won that war but she lost the peace. Markets for Lesotho grain were destroyed by foreign competition, soil began to lose its fertility, the British introduced taxes without providing compensatory services, and the whites in the Orange Free State asserted their economic and military power. As a result, Lesotho quickly became a poor country that was largely dependent on migrant labor.
The structural poverty that persisted since that time was the focus of our research. Without realizing it, I had been studying poverty in all my research since entering Lesotho in 1975. I was trying to improve farming, promote village cooperatives, establish income-generating projects, seek economic parity with South Africa, and promote self-reliance. I had little success, as I have pointed out in these pages. In part, my failure was due to bad strategies and misguided hopes, but now I realize that the impasse could not yield to any of the efforts I and others have made. Lesotho was then and is now caught in a deep form of poverty that development-oriented band-aids will not help.
Our research task was to delineate Lesotho’s structural poverty, to identify the different ways in which poverty is experienced across Lesotho. Structural poverty is present everywhere in Africa, but Lesotho’s case is different because of her unequal marriage with South Africa. Lesotho simply does not have the potential to return to the glory days of the mid-19th century.
Liberia is a different story, even though structural poverty exists there also. However, in my view Liberia is not inherently poor. There is hope for Liberia, but there seems little hope for Lesotho, other than integration with the new South Africa which hardly needs to add another two million poor people to its poverty rolls.
The evidence from the 15 surveys we consulted and from our own experience showed us that poverty comes in many forms. In our 1990, 1994 and 1999 surveys, we looked at these basic categories: agricultural possessions, food, water and sanitation, household possessions, income and employment, health and education. In the three surveys we found a split between the remote mountain areas and the western lowlands and foothills. Owning fields and livestock is what keeps rural Lesotho, and especially the most inaccessible mountain areas, from destitution. The other measures of wealth all favor the towns and adjacent lowland and foothill areas. Measures of non-agricultural wealth are positively and significantly correlated with one another and favor the lowlands, while possession of fields and livestock is negatively correlated with “modern” measures of wealth.
In short, the old Lesotho and the new Lesotho are present within the same boundaries, but their coexistence underscores the loss of an old way of life. Households which owned fields and livestock in the “good old days” were not poor, but now the new forms of wealth make fields and livestock almost more a hindrance rather than an asset. We did meet some families – progressively less during the three surveys – who appeared still to be wealthy in the old way. As time went on, however, poverty became more nearly what the World Bank prefers to think of as poverty. For the purposes of our multi-dimensional understanding of poverty, we defined the truly destitute as people who fell short on several or all of the different criteria, including the modern and the traditional.
International agencies have created formal definitions of poverty. Most current among these definitions in the first decade of the 21st century is living on less than a dollar a day. Certainly to be forced to live on that amount is a harsh punishment for anyone, since all people’s lives are inevitably linked to the international money economy. Only help from neighbors or relatives or charitable agencies or government or the international community makes it possible to survive at such a level.
We werenot satisfied to find out how many Basotho fit into that or any other externally imposed definition of poverty. We wanted to understand the idea of poverty from within the society. Only in that way could we make sense out of people’s own hopes and wishes for a better life. We knew poverty when we saw it, but we needed to make clear how people themselves understood their own suffering. In 1990 we knew that the men standing at the Maseru traffic circle opposite the Roman Catholic cathedral, hoping against hope to find a day job and then returning at night to caves on a nearby hill, were poor, desperately poor.
But what about the old granny in the mountains who eats garden vegetables grown around her house, harvests a few bags of maize from her field down the hill, and enjoys meat at the occasional village feast in honor of an ancestor? Is she poor in the same way as the out-of-work ex-miner standing at the traffic circle in Maseru? What about the grizzled herdsman with sheep and goats in the high mountains, living on meat from his flock and maize meal he buys by selling the occasional animal? Who is poorer: this man or the schoolgirl in the border town of Mohale’s Hoek who fails her Primary School Leaving Examination and can’t find a job?
We turned to the Basotho themselves for answers to our question. We asked, very simply, “What do poor people lack?” The answers in descending order were: food, clothing, money, livestock, shelter, fields and farm implements, jobs, good health, good water supply and education. This list is not surprising, but somewhat surprising is that money was listed in only a third of the responses, and employment in only a tenth. Food was listed by 85% and clothing by 76% of the respondents.
We then asked why people are poor. In this case unemployment tops the list at 71%, but problems related to agriculture take five of the next six positions. At that time Lesotho still had to be considered an agricultural economy, even though farm production had gone down steadily since (and even before) independence in 1966. Our analysis showed that Lesotho was experiencing and suffering the shift from subsistence to a money economy that traditional societies around the world and throughout history have known. So much was not new. Anyone could have said as much. What we believed important was to say where Lesotho lay on the trajectory from subsistence (which should not be confused with poverty) to a commercial economy (which should not be confused with wealth).
By the 1999 study we were able to create seven measures of wealth: the value of household assets, the potential or capabilities of the household to better itself, accessibility as opposed to remoteness of the household, the quality of the physical environment, recent losses or shocks to the household, the degree to which the household makes pro-active choices, and the physical well-being of household members. The very poorest households were those which scored lowest on all these criteria, but it is also important to realize that there were households which were high on some of these measures but still were living on what seemed a very small daily amount of cash.
How do the very poorest survive? The solution is a strong tendency for better-off households to share their wealth with those who have less. Our income and expenditure surveys as well as informal interviews demonstrated that people shared what little they had to the extent that they felt able to do so. Two examples illustrate the point.
One household in the remote mountains was headed by an old lady caring for four grandchildren. The oldest had been to school for one year, but had been forced to drop out for lack of money. Another was sick, and the other two were very young. The woman owned two fields, but had only harvested one bag of maize in a year, leaving her with no food in her rondavel. She had no animals, no farm tools, no radio, no stove. She ground maize on a grinding stone, but could not afford to buy food. She sold firewood that she collected on the hills near the house to other households in the village, but otherwise depended on gifts from neighbors. It is important to note, of course, that her poverty was not that of the isolation, loneliness and diseases of affluence that so afflict modern western society.
The second was a household supported by a neighbor family that had two donkeys and some income from agriculture and migrant labor. The donor household was clearly also poor, certainly well below any World Bank cutoff point. The household it helped was much poorer, and without any visible means of support – except that the slightly better-off neighbor hired the husband in the very poor household to take care of its donkeys, and in so doing ensured its survival. In this case also, the poor help the destitute to stay alive.
I calculated in 1999 how help can trickle down from the more to the less wealthy. I determined the minimum total value of household assets per member which would allow a household to survive. Households with more than that minimum I assumed are able to support someone outside the household, on a sliding scale depending on the monetary value of its assets. Using our data, I showed the extent to which better-off households were in fact in a position to share their wealth, no matter how little, downward. At that time Lesotho was in the fortunate position of being able to avoid the social chaos that happened to such peoples as the Ik of northern Uganda, as described in Colin Turnbull’s book The Mountain People (Simon and Schuster, 1972). Social stability in Lesotho depends on there being enough people in the low-to-middle wealth categories to provide help to the destitute.
Recently Lesotho has begun to provide social grants, like those in South Africa, which will take the burden off individuals. Without that support, as mine labor decreases, as the proportion of destitute families increases and as textile factories lose overseas markets, Lesotho could decline into social chaos. So far that has not happened, and hopefully it will not happen. However, it is clear that the situation is fragile, and a radical decline in world economy could have disastrous effects on Lesotho.
Did any of the national and international efforts to avoid poverty actually accomplish much? To provide the beginnings of an answer, we explored the causes of poverty in the 1994 study. The most frequently mentioned causes were unemployment, drought, alcoholism, witchcraft and injustice. The first step toward an answer is to see if any of our activities dealt with the underlying causes of poverty. Do they in fact address any of these causes? I fear that most development efforts simply ignored such factors as these, factors that ordinary people asserted explained their inability to develop themselves.
Unemployment stands first in the list of causes of poverty. Unemployment, according to our informants, leads to hunger, theft, famine, homelessness, lack of clothing and destitution. Were we able to provide jobs in any of the projects I worked with, and thus help avoid these consequences? The best we could do was to help women spin mohair, grow seedlings, make pots, weave tapestries, raise chickens or pigs, sell milk, sew school uniforms, sell fruits and vegetables on the street, sell firewood, make poor quality furniture, or cut sandstone blocks for sale. These are the sorts of activities that do-gooders like me have tended to advocate, for want of any serious connection to the capitalist world of production. The solutions we proposed have a very small financial payoff for those who do them, but the subsidies that are needed to keep them going outweigh the profits. With the possible exception of the Mazezuru craftsmen in Botswana, a real job with regular cash income has been a far more profitable and reliable source of income, and would certainly be preferred by those who engage in the marginal trades we encouraged.
It is clear that opening one factory in Maseru to make blue jeans for Gap provides far more chances to survive than encouraging village women to make pots and sell them for derisory sums at a crafts store. It is also clear that shifting the emphasis from selling fruits and vegetables on the street to drugs, prostitution and stealing gives a woman a far greater chance to support her family than engaging in these legitimate activities.. Neither Hololo Valley nor Catholic Relief Services nor CARE were able to help people find jobs, and the best they could do was to give a very small number of women a chance to learn skills that might in the future prove helpful.
Drought was second after unemployment in our list of causes of poverty. Its secondary importance reflects the increasing weakness of the agricultural sector in Lesotho in comparison to the long-term dependence on mine labor, and the growing importance of the textile industry.
The ways in which the development projects I was associated with tried to overcome the poverty caused by drought were weak and inadequate. They helped people build dams, control erosion, channel water, store water at the household level, try alternative crops, and build irrigation systems. Unfortunately these conservation activities rarely paid for themselves. The few water conservation projects that succeeded were very small, and depended on careful monitoring of backyard tanks and dams. Medium-size village dams are a long-standing tradition in Lesotho and Botswana, with little that outside developers could add to familiar village techniques. Erosion control structures remained controversial during my entire time in Lesotho, and did not overall seem to me to reduce the ongoing loss of arable land, top soil, trees and grass, as gullies continued to grow.
Household-level storage tanks were rarely successful, are costly, and require maintenance and supervision, something few households are willing to do. I bought one for my house in Maseru, and in the end found maintaining and cleaning the tank not worth the effort.
Alternative crops that are less thirsty and more drought-resistant, such as sorghum, have not proved a success, since most farmers plant maize for household consumption. Irrigation projects have come and gone, dependent on expensive and labor-intensive supervision and breaking down when control is relaxed. In short, none of our projects seem to have dealt effectively with the deep issue of drought.
Alcoholism was seen as a major problem, leading to family breakdown, laziness, negligence, disease, madness, conflict and disability. For some people, alcoholism was explained as a by-product of unemployment, but for most people it stands by itself as a major reason for poverty.
The governmental aid agencies with whom I worked have in general not dealt with the issue. The only exception I know of in Lesotho among the donors is Norway, whose Blue Cross, partly funded by the Norwegian government, has supported a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center near the national shrine of Thaba-Bosiu.
Other support has come from the churches through the Alcohol and Drug Education Program which the Christian Council of Lesotho started in 1987. The center has run on a small budget, and increasingly has moved to assisting young people who are addicted to drugs and sniffing glue. Lesotho’s Ministry of Health takes the problem seriously, but does not commit substantial amounts of money and personnel to the center. None of the projects I was associated with looked at alcohol and drug use as a major block to development. Only once, when I was working with Sechaba Consultants, were we asked to evaluate the work of a Lesotho Evangelical Church center at Thaba-Bosiu, but I fear they did not take the evaluation seriously.
As a Christian I am proud of the work churches did to assist people addicted to dangerous substances including alcohol. I can also somewhat understand the reluctance of governments to be involved in such projects. The United States experimented with prohibition in the 1920s and 30s, and eventually had to give up the effort. Opposition to alcohol is closely identified with the religious and quasi-religious groups, including not only the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous but also Islam as well as a number of Christian churches. Governments are hesitant to step into this matter because they try to stay out of religion.
Nonetheless it is obvious that the people who responded to our surveys knew very well that alcohol is dangerous and is blocking development. I wish it were possible for aid agencies to be involved, but so far it has proved very difficult. I wish churches had taken this question more seriously during our time in Lesotho, but there were no support structures except for voluntary work with Blue Cross or the Christian Council of Lesotho. We took the easy course, which was to work in areas of development where there was funding available, despite the fact that the Lesotho public opinion would probably have preferred us to work elsewhere than in the standard aid structures.
The fourth major cause of poverty, according to our informants, is witchcraft, which leads to madness, conflict, hatred, misfortune, widowhood and death. The fear of witchcraft is common throughout much of Africa. I often heard about it in Liberia, and I remember one case where an entire village was paralyzed because of the activities of a “witch finder”. There had been illness and death in the village, leading paranoid people to invite an “expert” to sniff out who was responsible for the deaths. A good friend of ours worked for years to bring not only the Christian faith but also sound economic development to the village. Her work was in effect nullified by what happened after the visiting traditional “witch doctor” started probing for witches.
I’ve heard similar stories in every country where I have worked, and the end is always sad. However, we in the aid industry not only have no ideas about witchcraft but also our sponsors would never allow us to attack the question. Unfortunately, for ordinary people witchcraft is all too real. People are killed, development projects come to a halt, and communities are torn apart, all because of witchcraft accusations.
As with alcoholism, witchcraft blocks human progress and makes life extremely difficult for those who wish to live a better life. In theory a solid secular education should be enough to persuade people to discount witchcraft. Witchcraft and sorcery, just like magic of any kind, are not real, and can be explained away as in effect diseases of the mind. However, rational persuasion is rarely useful where the complexities and dangers of a threatening world overwhelm the scientific mind. There comes a point for all of us that rationality breaks down and we take certain beliefs and behaviors as true and necessary. I am a Christian, and I take Christian truth as a matter of faith. I think I can justify my beliefs in many ways, moral or spiritual or charitable. I also reject other faiths because I believe them to be un-human, immoral and simply wrong. I believe belief in witchcraft to be un-human and immoral. I believe God is good and therefore I do not believe God will allow the kinds of evil that witches are supposed to be able to perform.
Thus the fight against witchcraft is similar to the fight against alcoholism. It is a matter for the churches and others with serious faith to bring an end to such dangerous and dehumanizing practices. Sadly, the aid agencies must stand aside and realize their impotence to help people escape witchcraft.
The last issue for those we interviewed was social injustice, leading to corruption, fear, oppression and theft. It may be the lowest on the people’s lists, but it remains a serious question for many Basotho. As I have said earlier, my personal view is that injustice, as practiced by Lesotho’s oppressive government and South African dominance, is the deep reason for the poverty we see in Lesotho. However, the people we interviewed do not generally trace poverty back to its structural roots. They look more to immediate economic problems, or to deficiencies in people’s character and lives. Before assigning the blame to others they look to themselves and how they respond to lack of jobs and lack of rain.
It is clear, however, that in fact from injustice arise corruption, fear and oppression, all of which undercut the purported beneficial effects of development efforts. It should have been easy for us in the aid business in Lesotho and Liberia to see the effects of injustice all around us. Sadly, we either rarely noticed it or suppressed our knowledge, realizing that we are deeply implicated in corruption and injustice through our very position as development “experts”.
I indicated earlier in this chapter my insensitivity to injustice during my early years in Africa. I did little in Liberia to oppose the unjust and tyrannical rule of the True Whig Party. I made quiet noises at my home and among my friends, but was not courageous to speak out against President William V.S. Tubman. Had I done so I would have been expelled from the country and would have been unable to continue teaching and doing research. Perhaps I should have had the courage to stand for what I believe, but in retrospect I think I did the right thing.
When I moved to Lesotho, I began to face injustice in a relatively safe way by taking part in the anti-apartheid movement. It did not cost me personally great deal to speak out against what I saw across the border in South Africa. I had a comfortable job in Lesotho, and so I could feel quite righteous, indeed virtuous, in opposing the obvious racial injustice across the border. I traveled with black friends from Lesotho and saw them verbally abused and physically forbidden to travel. It made me angry, and so I found it relatively easy to join the liberation struggle. Both before and after I was denied a visa to enter South Africa, I felt morally superior to my colleagues in the UN system who enjoyed their access to South Africa and didn’t feel the need to speak out against apartheid.
On the other hand, I was for far too long quiet about internal injustice in Lesotho, injustice that was flagrantly evident during almost the entire time I lived in the country. I had been warned in Cambridge England in 1975 that I was seriously violating what I claimed to be a Christian commitment to justice by going to Lesotho. Bishop Colin Winter, an Anglican who had been expelled from Namibia for his anti-apartheid work, told me that I was no better than the Nazi sympathizers who cooperated with Hitler in the 1930s. Going to Lesotho to work with foreign donors was tantamount to support of tyranny. I did not know much about Leabua Jonathan and the evils of his illegal government. I thought of him as just another petty dictator who ruled just another African country. Winter’s condemnation shook me for a time, but I went to Lesotho regardless of his warning.
I did not realize the extent to which Jonathan’s 1970 coup against a legitimate election would set the country on a very wrong track. I did not realize that his actions would hinder people from working for a better society. I was perhaps blinded by, and certainly more aware of, the much more visible injustice in South Africa. I now realize that Lesotho was held back not only by the wickedness of the South African apartheid regime, but also by the ruthless oppression of their own government. The aid agencies with which I worked were apparently oblivious to the paralysis induced by a heavy-handed dictatorial state. As I look back, I realize that our efforts to help people farm better were like teaching home management in a household broken by divorce proceedings, where the father beat the wife and children but pretended to show a kindly face to seemingly helpful social workers.
Admittedly we foreign agricultural developers took the wrong approach in many socially insensitive ways, as I have indicated above. However, even if we had been aware of a better path, we could not have succeeded in bringing significant improvement to rural farming. Organizations like Plenty in the south of Lesotho, which used an alternative agricultural approach, could not have succeeded in the political climate of injustice that prevailed in Lesotho. They too eventually gave up, even though their ideas made much more sense than what we in the mainstream agricultural development projects did.
CHAPTER 14. HOW TO AVOID POVERTY
The obvious question is: how can people avoid poverty. The main response people gave in our surveys was farming, reflecting Basotho tradition, even if not realities on the ground. Every year Lesotho produces less and less basic foodstuffs. The last year when Lesotho was able to feed itself by cereal crops grown on its own fields was 1973. Production of cereal crops has declined to the point that Lesotho in the year 2010 produces only a quarter of what it needs to feed itself.
Yet Basotho want to think of themselves as a rural people, tied to the land, a view reinforced by those of us who tried to bring development to Lesotho. Every family is supposed to have access to three fields, one for each major crop. Every family is also supposed to have livestock, if only because marriage requires giving cattle as bride wealth.
Despite their increasing difficulty in making farming pay, people’s most common responses to survival through agriculture were fields, cereal crops, cattle, horses and donkeys, sharecropping, pasture land, gardening, fertilizer and day labor. Basotho look back to an era that was Lesotho’s golden age, an age which is dead but an age which remains the ideal. Moving ahead to a new and different future is very difficult for people who see the future as frightening and insecure. This is no longer possible. Farming is simply not a viable way to sustain life in Lesotho, a fact that neither the donors nor the Lesotho government has recognized.
As I look back on our efforts to help Basotho feed themselves, I am sure that one real hope is household gardening. It seemed clear to me that the backyard gardens in both urban and rural areas were producing far more crops per unit area than the rural fields, which were dedicated to smaller and smaller harvests of maize, sorghum, beans and wheat. Yet the official agencies never took small scale gardens seriously. The reason may have been that the effort requires working with tiny plots of land, even though the product of “tiny” times “many” can be greater than what is produced on family fields.
Another approach to improved production which has aroused some interest is the so-called Machobane method, whereby farmers would use extensive crop rotation and increased use of agricultural by-products as fertilizer. The method requires a change in the mental set both of farmers and of extension agents, who had been trained in the old single-crop methods of the foreign donors, whose own nations were even then beginning to move away from mono-culture farming. Few farmers have actually adopted the system, despite the increased production. I think a main reason why it never became really popular is that government and foreign donor “experts” did not see it as their own approach.
I also urged a third approach to improved farming, one which was not listened to by officialdom. I urged much more extensive use of traditional sharecropping and rental of fields, in which the roughly 5% of rural farmers that actually enjoyed farming would do the work and benefit from the results. This would have left the fields still owned by the original families, but they would not have to continue farming on their own, unless they wanted to work as laborers on their fields under the supervision of good farmers. I admit there is a certain retrogressive implication here, namely, that field owners become employees of absentee managers. However, there is enough precedent for the idea in traditional Sesotho culture to make it attractive.
My view is that, in the long run, subsistence household-based agriculture in Africa is on the way to extinction. Commercial farming on larger units of land seems to me to be the way of the future, provided that farm managers learn from the mistakes of corporate farmers in the west who have over-exploited the land to gain maximum short-term profit. Certainly South Africa has been able to supply food to much of the southern African region because of its successful commercial farmers. There is much injustice in the system, of course. Land was taken away from the original owners during the apartheid period, and very little land has been returned to those from whom it was taken. Employees on commercial farms are the bottom of the bottom in the labor force, and are generally treated very badly.
However, alternatives do not seem to work. In those few cases where land has been restored, it is hard to find young people willing to be farmers. I visited a friend in the Free State town of Kroonstad. He was administering a program to put Africans back on the farms. It was simply not working. The only men willing to join his scheme were well over 50 years of age. Young men were waiting for work in the towns, and even though they could not find it, they were not willing or interested to become farmers.
The second cluster of responses on how to make a living in fact refers to the frightening and uncertain world of wage labor. This way to escape poverty for many Basotho is to find migrant labor, wage work in Lesotho, handicrafts or a course to qualify them for such work. Only a relatively small number of Basotho actually have employment as I write this in 2012, perhaps 50,000 in the mines and 40,000 in the textile industry, whereas the great majority have at least gardens, if in fact no fields, in which to grow food. The critical fact is that the few who have wage work support the many who do not. Every mine worker is said to support 10 people, and every woman in the textile industry five people.
As I said earlier, the projects I have worked with have not helped people to find jobs. People are left on their own to find work in a tough capitalist world, and nothing the projects have done makes that any easier.
A third group of survival strategies stresses family and good relations among people. Important in this group are gifts, loans, savings, social organizations and even begging. As already noted, the poorest depend on the non-quite-so-poor for survival. Thus good relations and family ties are vital for life. None of our development projects has helped people improve relations with their families. If anything development efforts promote individualistic survival strategies. Only the churches and social organizations promote community solidarity. The spinning and seedling cooperative groups were intended to create groups that work together, but the women preferred to see the cooperative projects as employers rather than ways to share.
Family-based strategies for survival contrast sharply with individual and sometimes isolated activities of doubtful legality. Brewing traditional beer is at the center of these activities. Many women earn a supplementary or even their principal living by preparing beer from sorghum or maize, and selling it in their houses or local shebeens. This is a socially acceptable traditional community practice, but in the urban areas women have stretched the limits by adding illicit and dangerous substances to the beer. People we spoke to identified beer-brewing with theft, street trading, hawking, selling in the market, prostitution, house rental, marijuana, pensions, politics and factories. These means of survival in a difficult and harsh world depend on their irregularity and often illegality. The centrality of beer brewing is clearly linked to the identification of alcoholism as a cause of poverty. Clearly no project is prepared to help people earn their living in such quasi-legal ways.
The final and, for our Basotho respondents, least important group of survival strategies includes public works such as road construction or land rehabilitation, food aid, public donations, medical care and democracy. Perhaps the mention of democracy as a way out of poverty is not so surprising after all, when I consider what I have heard about voting for a political party in Lesotho. It is for most people a way to obtain a patron, rather than a way to help govern the country. Political parties are expected to provide support in return for votes. In general, turning to government for support as a way out of poverty is a last resort, and not central for people who are able to support themselves in other ways.
Several development projects I worked with included food-for-work components. These, however, were designed to help the poorest of the poor while building roads or protecting gullies from erosion. The road-building projects were the most successful, in that they did provide communities with serviceable roads that could be maintained on a regular basis. Unfortunately, they did not help the workers find a sustainable way out of poverty. After the road was built or the gully was stabilized, there was no future for those who provided the physical labor.
Food aid was also provided even for those who do not work. Mothers came to clinics to receive nutritious food for their children, and in return only had to attend classes on child rearing. School children receive a meal in the middle of the school day, so that they could concentrate their minds on learning. In a few cases, these children also worked on school gardens. I wish these had been more successful, but only a few were able to replace the donated food with garden crops grown on the school grounds.
Overall, building and staffing clinics has been one of the most successful activities I was associated with. However, building clinics – just as building schools – was not a source of local income. Often workers were brought from outside to finish the job. We recommended that the construction be done locally, but it was rarely done.
In short, the mainstream efforts which I helped support did little to overcome poverty in Lesotho. Moreover, ideas which seemed to make sense to us were not adopted. Someday a solution may be found to the question: why are people hungry. We did not find it in our aid agency and government-supported work. Moreover even if our alternative ideas approach a solution in theory, we could not implement it.
It is important next to look at the political aspects of development and the overcoming of poverty. Amartya Sen in his book Development as Freedom (Anchor Books, 1999) provides a useful framework for understanding the political economy of poverty. He looks closely at five issues: political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees and protective security. True development requires at least the positive presence of each of these categories of freedom. To differing degrees each of Sen’s criteria for freedom is present in the set of Basotho survival strategies discussed above. The economic opportunities presented by farming, cash employment, family connections, extra-legal opportunities and public life dominate our informants. Integration in family and social life is also vital to achieve a comfortable life. Political freedom, access to information and personal safety are needed, but their presence is less overtly obvious.
Empirical data for each of these categories can be found in the Afrobarometer study of political life in African countries across the continent, including Lesotho. I found that high scores on a joint scale created from variables which represent the attitudes of roughly 18,000 Africans correlate strongly with preference for democracy, disapproval of military or one-party rule, and trust in national institutions. Positive attitudes towards these democratic and political ideas thus decline the poorer the individual who responds to the question. In other words, the “wholesome functioning society” that the late President William R. Tolbert Jr of Liberia sought requires more than money and food, even though money and food are so basic that their lack drives the aspiration for a democratic, secure, transparent national community.
This relates closely to the attitude toward democracy expressed in the 1999 poverty study. Few Basotho are in the upper economic strata and few believe that government and democracy are a way out of poverty. For the poor democracy and good government provide the best way out of poverty, while those who have money and power know that they must take political activities seriously.
The way out of poverty depends on an open society and a strong economic base. Wealth generates wealth, and poverty breeds more poverty. Apartheid South Africa knew that as it made sure that Lesotho remained dependent and unable to develop its own political and economic base. So I return to my basic question. Why do people remain hungry? The question is unfortunately answered by realizing that the strategies for survival that ordinary people fall back on differ greatly from those proposed by the development projects of projects I worked on. These strategies, foreign in origin and execution, simply did not enable people to escape the self-perpetuating trap of poverty.
CHAPTER 15. ECONOMY AND SOCIETY WITHIN LESOTHO
In this chapter I discuss analyses I did in Lesotho on health, energy, water and sanitation, and the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. In none of these areas was I given the responsibility of making or carrying out plans for development of the country or any sector within the country. Just as in the case of the poverty studies, our intention was to describe the situation as it stood when we gathered the data and wrote a report. Our intention was to provide assistance to various government ministries and departments as they carried on their work. I was not constrained to make policy, although of course policy is always just under the surface in any such study.
Sechaba Consultants was asked by Lesotho’s Ministry of Health to do an overall assessment of health in Lesotho. We were given access to all Ministry data, but were not expected to undertake any development efforts. I accepted the task, after pointing out to Dr. P. Rojas, a Peruvian working with the World Health Organization that I am not a medical doctor, just a “talking doctor’, as I had been described years ago in Liberia when I was introduced to former vice-president of Liberia.
I used the assignment to attempt a broad look at the country and the ways in which disease and health seeking affected the nation. Unfortunately record keeping was spotty and irregular. This meant that I was forced to do statistical manipulations, upgrading the numbers of reports of diseases on the assumption that the non-existent records would show the same patterns as records that had been submitted. In my work as a data analyst in Lesotho (and, of course, elsewhere in Africa, to the extent that I used official government information), I learned to be inventive. In this study, for example one Health Service Area provided 88% coverage of expected weekly records, while another managed only 27%.
The first source of information was out-patient data provided by the 182 clinics and 21 hospitals then serving Lesotho. I calculated medical conditions according to numbers of cases per thousand people, showing patterns by time and ecological zone. Skin diseases, pneumonia, diabetes and measles were strongly increasing overall, and hypertension – the disease of civilization – was far more prevalent in the lowland urban areas than elsewhere.
A second source of information was from mother and child clinics, which reported a general increase in use of birth control and planned parenthood from 1987 to 1991. Percentages of malnourished children and maternal mortality declined over the same period.
For a third source of data, I drew on in-patient records from the 21 hospitals, but unfortunately was only able to use the data from 8 of those hospitals. I reported the results I found, but had to point out to the Ministry of Health that their record keeping was so poor that interpretation of the data was doubtful. I can only hope that the statistical department of the Ministry of Health will improve its procedures over the years. For the time being, the long-suffering data analysts at Ministry headquarters apparently simply put aside their doubts and processed numbers that had little meaning. The worst case was at one regional hospital which reported 955 normal deliveries and only 14 other diagnoses for the entire year of 1988. I could not change health care practices in Lesotho, but I could make a strong appeal for careful data collection. Achieving that goal might do more for public health in Lesotho than hiring a foreign doctor who is able to save a few hundred more lives, desirable as that goal might be.
A quite different source of information on disease and health in Lesotho was a survey which I administered, using Sechaba Consultants interviewers and data processing facilities. We interviewed a total of 237 persons, drawn from health professionals, inpatients in hospitals, out-patients in clinics, traditional healers and their patients, pharmacists, professionals, and ordinary urban and rural people, both low and middle-class in background. We selected 56 common complaints from a list of diseases and conditions compiled by the Bureau of Statistics. Sesotho versions of these conditions were printed on file cards and presented individually to one respondent at a time. Each respondent was asked to sort the conditions into groups, explain why the groups belonged together, state their importance, and for each group what caused the problems, what treatment should be sought, and who would provide the treatment.
I believe that this method of analyzing disease provides an important supplement to official statistics, which mask the real meanings of sickness and health. I used a computer-based cluster analysis program to show how in Basotho minds diseases fall into six major categories: sexual relations and birth problems, psychological issues, physical handicaps, childhood diseases, adult diseases, and residual problems that don’t fit the other categories. I was particularly struck by the coupling of high blood pressure with depression, dizziness and diabetes, as well as with seizure by spirits, mental breakdown and alcoholism.
Hypertension and alcoholism were considered the most serious diseases, closely followed by sexually transmitted diseases and injuries. I have been told by medical workers that injuries certainly belong near the top, because of the high incidence of fighting, often sparked by drinking. In my discussion of the causes of poverty in an earlier chapter, I pointed out that alcoholism is third most important after unemployment and drought. It is a symptom of a sick society, not just a symptom of a sick individual.
My hope was that the results of this survey would be used in training health workers, as well as in planning strategies for public health. As I indicated earlier, little has actually been done in Lesotho to address health issues, which remain largely in the hands of the traditional healers and the churches. Perhaps that is where they must remain for the time being. In line with my newer strategy of description rather than prescription I had to leave the matter there. Unfortunately I have never been a good publicist or advocate, and so I fear that my findings at best clutter the shelves of a few health professionals and remain essentially unheard.
This study of health in Lesotho was conducted in 1993, a time when AIDS was just beginning to make its mark in the country. Out-patient and in-patient records at that time did not include a single reported case of AIDS, although the AIDS control program within the Ministry of Health said that a total of 264 cases had been reported by June 1993. The first recorded case was apparently a Tanzanian in Mokhotlong in 1986. A WHO model projected as many as 12,416 cases by 1997, but overall the disease did not get the attention it demanded.
I was asked in that year 1993 by our Anglican Bishop Philip Mokuku to help him think ahead toward Lesotho in the year 2001. I used computer projections to estimate the number of persons with HIV/AIDS over coming years. I used WHO computer programs to suggest a doubling of numbers every eight months. I estimated, very conservatively it turns out, that the population growth rate of Lesotho would drop to 2.4% by the year 2001. I estimated that there might be as many as 10,000 deaths per year until the year 2010. I did not include these projections in my report for WHO and the Lesotho Ministry of Health, since they wanted a “safe” and optimistic evaluation of the state of health in Lesotho.
In fact the country’s growth rate quickly declined, so that by the year 2000 it dropped to 1.7%, and by 2006 it had fallen to a negative .5%. It recovered to barely positive territory in the following three years, and by 2010 and 2011 it was up to.3%. The total population hit a maximum of 2.19 million in 2002, but thereafter dropped sharply to a steady 1.85 million from 2003 to 2005, rising after that to 2.12 million from 2007 to 2009, and then down again to 1.93 million in 2010 and 2011. My initial estimate of 2.4 million people in 2001 was too high, but my prediction of the disastrous effect of AIDS was correct. I am sorry in retrospect that I did not have the courage to insist that the FAO report make more responsible estimates of death by AIDS and national population. I am glad that I had a Mosotho colleague in the person of Bishop Mokuku, who encouraged me to state the truth as I saw it.
I then shared in a national survey of water and sanitation in 1995. We collected data from 2,455 households across
Lesotho. I used the household data from that survey in other studies, but otherwise my main involvement was helping an American demographer Beth DaPonte make population projections for the Lesotho over the next 30 years. I can only say that her results were not too far off for the immediate future, estimating 2.04 million in 2000 as opposed to the more current estimate of 2.14 million. I did not press her, however, to use the AIDS data which had been gathered over the years. This led her to estimate 2.17 million in 2005 and 2.40 million in 2010. I privately believed the population would drop dramatically, but the demographers felt forced to use more conservative data on population growth and death rates. I should have stuck to my guns.
Our estimates, whereas in general too high, were correct in one important way. We anticipated the steady change in Lesotho from rural to urban. I defined urbanization as a shift from one hectare of land per person to a tenth of a hectare of land per person. This is, of course, a very broad brush estimate, but it reflects the reality of life in rural villages as opposed to urban areas. I felt it important to insist, as I had done with the World Bank in the housing survey I mentioned earlier, that Basotho who live in cities want to have land for gardens, and do not want to live on top of each other in apartment blocks.
We looked forward to a dramatic increase in urbanization along the western border, and we have been proved correct. We urged Maseru to think ahead toward serving a population which would approach one million by the year 2025. Our overall estimates were too high, but we were right in anticipating a steady move away from rural subsistence agriculture to urban homesteads. The 2006 census states the total population of Lesotho as 1.87 million, and estimates that 23% or 444,000 live in urban areas. Maseru and the other district headquarters (large towns, rather than cities from a conventional world-wide perspective) has, to the best of my knowledge, continued to grow out rather than up, so that urban growth means reduction in farmland available outside the cities.
Water remains a serious and important issue for Lesotho. Our 1995 survey, and a subsequent survey of potential urban customers for clean piped water made clear the government’s genuine concern to improve the situation we exposed in our first two poverty studies. We found in 1990 that 48% of the population lacked clean water, a figure that declined to 37% in 1993. Progress was being made, but far too slowly. By 1999 still 27% of the population lacked clean water. The proportion of urban residents without clean water was much smaller, but hovered at about 5% over the 1990s.
The issue raised in the survey of urban users was whether people could or would pay commercial fees for water. This remains a contentious issue throughout the Third World. We found what can be expected. Unemployment means inability and thus unwillingness to pay for water, so that poverty remains a self-perpetuating phenomenon. The poor cannot afford to pay for water, and thus do not have it, exacerbating their exposure to disease, making it even more likely that they are unable to find work. If they do not work, then government has fewer resources with which to pay for clean water, and so the cycle continues.
The paradox, of course, is that Lesotho has plenty of water – but almost all in the wrong places. I was involved at several stages of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, from its beginning in the 1980s when we at Transformation Resource Center sought to find ways to support villagers in the mountains who would lose land and livelihoods. Our first contact with the villages impacted by the project was with Lekhetho Rakuoane, the leader of the Popular Front for Democracy, with whom we visited his father who was the chief of the closest village. The chief knew very well that life would never be the same, particularly as workers came to the area from South Africa, bringing disruption and disease.
I was then asked in 1994 to look closely at several of the villages in the neighborhood of the first dam to be built at Katse. I found diverse reactions to the project. For some it was the first chance they had ever had to work for money. For them the project was a real blessing.
However, a few of those who could now work for money were getting it for all the wrong reasons. Some found new markets for selling liquor, not just the traditional sorghum beer that we all knew and liked, but serious liquor imported from South Africa. The result was a rise in alcohol-related drunkenness and crime.
A more serious problem was prostitution. I remember visiting one household not far from the construction site where a polite man told us about his new restaurant. It was clear, however, from talking to others that his success was due to providing sex for the workers. I did not so much object to this from conventional moral arguments, but rather from the serious rise in HIV/AIDS in the mountains. We were quite sure that the disease would spread, since the men who used these ladies were mainly from South Africa, and had brought the disease with them.
Another problem was loss of farmland. The project made big promises to the people about compensation, but it was clear that little would be done to ameliorate the serious loss of a way of life. As part of my work I inspected a foothills area and an urban area where displaced people were told they could find fields and house sites. It was not my job as a researcher to make suggestions, but it was clear to me that, even if fulfilled, these promises would leave people much worse off than before. I urged the management of the project to improve conditions in their offer, but I had little authority.
Unlike me, my colleague Ted Scudder, a member of the Panel of Experts assigned to the project by the World Bank, had real power. He was able to block closure of the first dam because the project authorities had not built the new houses they promised at the times they promised. He used his World Bank clout to force the project to bring bricks and other construction materials by helicopter in order to build several houses that were scheduled for flooding. Promises had been made, but not kept. I never have had that power, and I am grateful that Ted could exercise his power in the right way.
I helped with three other LHDA projects during the late 1990s. One was an assessment of the situation in villages to be affected by the second major dam in the area. In theory another four dams would eventually be built in the Lesotho highlands, as South Africa’s need for power expanded. We surveyed 19 villages for basic information about household size, numbers of fields, crops harvested in the most recent season, livestock possessions, wage income and employment, assets, toilets, radios and stoves, and educational level of adults and children. These villages were not wealthy, and in fact we considered a quarter of the households to be destitute. On the other hand, three quarters of the households had fields and two-thirds had animals. Only slightly over half the households had wage income. In other words these were households one would expect to find in a remote mountain area with heavy dependence on traditional agriculture and livestock, and few in the market economy. One in six had toilets, half had radios, and only third of the adults had the kinds of marketable skills that could be used in building the dam and supportive infrastructure. Such a community could hardly be expected to benefit materially from a huge First-World dam project.
Nonetheless, people did hope for benefits from the project. The most important things they wanted were jobs (54% of those interviewed), clean water (32%), and roads (29%), followed farther down the list by shops, clinics, schools, a mortuary, and various services such as a mill where they could grind their grain. Unfortunately the lack of skills of those we interviewed made it very unlikely that they could find jobs in what is inbevitably technical and skilled work. The people we spoke to clearly realized that outsiders were those most likely to find the jobs that would be offered.
We transported a large group of villagers from this area to the site of the first dam at Katse, farther up in the mountains. There they saw much that frightened and discouraged them. They were given free access to speak with village people, and came away with serious fears. The LHDA management had tried unsuccessfully to discourage us from taking villagers to the first project, probably because they knew what the people would see.
We asked people from all the villages in the second dam area what they feared as the consequences of constructing the dam in their community. Roughly half said they expect murder and theft. A third of those interviewees suggested prostitution, destruction of property, and fighting. Drinking, bad behavior, overcrowding, and refusal to hire local people were also common responses. The people mentioned old problems, mainly shortage of money, unemployment, drought, poverty, hunger, and unclean water. Future problems make a very different list, including AIDS, rape, fighting, pregnancy, prostitution, abandoned children, murder, kidnapping, divorce and separation. A problem commonly mentioned needs some explanation, namely, hidden rentals. People expected outsiders to live in village houses, from which they pereform all the dangerous activities mentioned in the previous sentence.
When people’s fears were grouped together, by the cluster analysis technique I pioneered in earlier research projects, it was clear they fell into three major groups. The traditional problems we had come to expect in rural areas were there as one cluster: poor farming, hunger, poverty, unclean water, no jobs and disease. The second very tightly clustered group were problems of human relations, from theft and fighting, to the sexual problems of divorce, rape and prostitution, leading to the biggest fear of all, namely, AIDS. The third amaller group formed a coherent closely linked set of problems related to exploitation by outsiders, including corruption, distrust, poor communication, and neglect by national and local government, compounded by lack of understanding and no one to approach for help.
We concluded our study by assessing negative and positive impacts of the project. The negatives included serious loss of land and food, discrimination against residents because they lack skills, an increasing split between rich and poor, greater competition over resources, a serious rise in social and sexual pathologies, an increase in immigration by outsiders seeking jobs (and incidentally bringing disease with them), water pollution due to construction activities, and serious damage to the local environment.
We realized that the positive impacts on the local community would be minor in comparison with the gains to Lesotho as a whole. Overall the heavy losses experienced by local people would not be balanced for them by the benefits accruing to the nation.
We strongly urged measures to ameliorate the overall loss to the people of the area. Principally, we urged that the project hire locally, even though we knew it was unlikely to happen. We urged that the project build up local capacity by schooling, training and promotion of industry, again something unlikely to take place. We stressed the importance of managing the social pathologies, both by better policing and by controlling actions and activities of incoming workers and camp followers. This too was only a remote possibility. We finally urged building up the services provided to the villages, from water supply to schools to clinics to food production and processing. We could see, however, that the project management tended to leave these activities to the Lesotho government and Basotho business people, activities which outsiders were as unwilling to do in this community as in any mountain community.
In the end I was forced to agree with the critics from the International Rivers Network that this project would be a disaster for the people of Mohale and neighboring villages. And yet, I still think in the long run it is better for the southern African region, for the industrial heartland of South Africa, and for the nation of Lesotho that the project take place. I say that while metaphorically holding my nose at the stench which will be left behind in Lesotho’s mountains. The only thing that can be done is for environmental and community service organizations to make as much noise as possible to ameliorate the negative effects of the dam.
At the end of my stay in Lesotho I was involved in one more project with LHDA. They were asked to assess the downstream effects of the dams in the Senqu River, as it crosses into South Africa and becomes the Orange River. My main contribution was to insist that the study take into account the uses to which the river is put by people who live downstream.
A steady flow of water in the river would be reduced if the dam is allowed to impound more than a certain portion of the water. We found that fishing in the river depends on deep places, as well as flowing water to allow breeding. Animals need water during drought, which would be difficult if too much water is extracted for the reservoir. Villagers use the river for washing clothes and bathing, and for obtaining drinking water. Regular floods are useful, not only because they bring tree branches down stream to areas that have little natural wood, but also because they bring necessary nutrients to soil along the river bank.
The people did identify some advantages to reducing the flow of water. It would be easier to cross during times of heavy rainfall. Game and birds and fish would be easier to catch. Severe floods can, of course, cause real damage to villages which occupy land close to the water, a danger that a reduced flow would minimize.
The river was also believed to have important cultural values that could be damaged by changing the flow of the river. There are believed to be large snakes that live in the river that have religious and mystical significance. Tourists come to see the river.
Overall the impression and value of the survey was that the project should be careful not to overdo the flooding of the river, not to prevent all flooding. A balance is necessary in order to maintain the livelihood of the downstream residents. However, I fear that the demands from South Africa for water will trump the needs of the small number of people who live in villages along the Senqu River in remote mountain areas, where the population is minimal. I expect the danger to the ecosystem as serious, but I am no expert. On the strictly human side, I fear I have to support the priority of the needs of Lesotho as a nation and South Africa as the economic engine of the southern African region. I do so with a sense of distaste.
My last involvement with the LHDA was a health survey done in the mid-90s. I worked with Brian Sharp of the Medical Research Council in South Africa to do as broad a survey as possible in the LHDA catchment area. It was also far from my expertise, but I did it with interest and pleasure. I learned a lot in the process.
Sechaba Consultants was asked to study energy use in Lesotho. I had the great advantage of working with my two colleagues Thuso Green and the late David Hall, whom I have already mentioned. Too often in my work in Africa I was on my own, often through my own fault in not finding associates to work with. Thuso and David were great colleagues, and together we explored deeply into why so few Basotho adopted new energy-saving technologies. We hoped to encourage people to save energy and the environment and in the process live better lives.
In the end we were greatly disappointed by the lack of interest in new ways of cooking and heating. Perhaps I should say we were not surprised, because the people who developed the new systems did not do so in response to the social and economic conditions of potential users.
The Department of Energy wanted information on how to spread information about and adoption of several improved technologies. First was a home-build outdoor fireplace, locally called a paola. The customary outdoor fireplace was what every Boy Scout has learned to make, namely, three large stones between which a fire is laid. A grate is laid on the stones, and food is cooked in a pot placed on the grate. Clearly much energy is lost to the air and especially to wind, and the pot is lucky to get even a small share of the calories as the wood burns. A very simple improvement was to lay stones around the central fire and cover them with mud (or cement, if the family had enough money), leaving holes for air to feed the fire. Much less fuel – a serious consideration in a country like Lesotho where wood or shrubs or even dried cakes of animal dung are in scarce supply – is required to cook the same meal.
More than half the people we interviewed were aware of the device, but only about 5% ever used it. Many said they would make one, but few actually did so. Why? Many reasons were given. It is old-fashioned. Making one takes hard work. The metal grate for the top is not available or costs too much. Heavy rain can destroy it. Cement to make it properly is expensive. It is not possible to heat more than one pot at a time. Finally, making it right, so that the heat flows easily and efficiently is not obvious. Someone must teach villagers the right proportions and size, but in general government extension agents are not available to spread the method around rural areas.
The next device is one which my wife and I use to this day. The retained heat cooker was a western response to fuel shortage during World War II, and then called a hay box. It consists of a box with two insulated pillows, between which an already thoroughly heated pot can be placed to cook using the heat already present in the pot. We use it for cooking rice or beans, which must cook long and slow, and it works perfectly.
Whereas about half of those we interviewed had heard of the retained heat cooker, but less than 4% had ever used it. Almost half the people in the mountain areas, where fuel is scarcest, said they would use one, but clearly they had not done so, and would only do so if they were taken by the hand to make one. The device seemed strange to most, and many asked where to put the fuel. Some people wanted to open the pot and stir it, not realizing that would defeat the purpose of retaining the heat. Overall the best we found was a small number of people who were given one by an outsider and then only rarely used it. Using and understanding the retained heat cooker seemed to require a combination of poverty and knowledge of heat flow, unfortunately a rare combination.
We also asked about the knowledge and use of food dryers. Peaches are almost a weed in rural Lesotho, and flourish across the country wherever peach pits have been tossed. However, the peach season is short, only from late January to early March. Many households have been accustomed to slicing and drying the peaches (as well as apricots, and even some green vegetables) in the sun. The food dryer we were asked to study was a simple box with ventilation holes on the side and a plastic top that allowed the sun to heat the fruit.
About a quarter to a third of those we interviewed had heard of the device, but essentially no one had ever bought, made or used one. A workshop in Maseru was making food dryers, but the number produced was very small, and there was generally poor advertising. Once again the reason why so few people were interested seemed to be money. If a person has enough money to buy or make a food dryer, then that person probably would not need one, unless for the purpose of selling dried fruit in the village. If the person was so poor as to need to save fruit in a simple way for the winter, then the person probably would not have enough money to buy the device, and would therefore prefer to dry the fruit in the old-fashioned way of spreading it on an open surface, such as a house roof, even though that method is inefficient and dirty. In the end, however, we suspected that with good advertising and reduced cost of manufacture, the food dryer had real potential, but a potential not yet realized.
The Department of Energy had been making simple metal stoves for a number of years before our study, but the numbers produced remained small. The stove used wood, and was much cheaper than the commercial wood-burning or coal-burning stoves which were so common on the market. They were made locally and could be purchased from a government supplier.
Between a third and half of the people we interviewed had heard of these metal stoves, but only 4% had owned or used one. In this case too the ultimate difference between buying and not buying a locally-made wood stove was economic. Those who could afford to buy one were in many cases able to buy a better commercial stove, which had several major advantages. The commercial stove had place for more than one pot, had an oven, could provide heat for the house in the winter, and was designed to evacuate smoke quickly and efficiently. The government-made stove admittedly was much cheaper than the commercial stove, but the cost was still such that only families with incomes well above the poverty line could afford to buy one. It was caught in the middle, as so many of the other devices we studied, between expectations and reality.
A more experimental device was the solar cooker. Judy and I owned one and used it to bake bread and roast a chicken, using only the sunlight focused from shiny metal sides and a metal lid on the glass-enclosed space where the pot sat. We liked it and used it, but never for everyday cooking, as we do with the retained heat cooker. It always remained an exotic and clever device, but never a part of our household daily repertoire.
We found that very few people had heard of such a device, and almost no one had ever used one. A few said they might buy one, but the disadvantages were the same as with our family. They can only work in the middle of the day, they must be shifted to track the sun, they cook slowly, if the sun is covered by clouds cooking slows down drastically, they cannot provide cooked food in the morning or the evening or night. Clearly a lot of work is required in order to create a cooker that might track the sun or save heat, but then the cost would go up dramatically.
We also looked at other uses of the sun. the first was for heating water. The solar water heater, using a panel filled with water on the roof, can provide hot water for a household after a day of bright sunshine.
A few people had heard of such heaters, which were mostly used at rural clinics or schools, but only one or two people had bought and used one. About one in six of the people we interviewed was willing to try one, but in most cases they were not ready to buy the device. One big problem was that the device was tricky to use. W bought one for our house in Maseru, and it often failed to produce hot water, forcing us to fall back on the electric backup system. Why did it fail? The pipes were clogged, leaves fell on the roof and got into the system, the system might freeze up in the winter. We had to call the technician on a number of occasions, and that cost us money. On cloudy or cold days the water would only become mildly warm, meaning we had to take cold showers. The system had real potential, but few of the solar water heaters that had been installed over the years were still working at the time we did the survey. Only rural clinics seemed to have the patience and maintenance staff sufficient to keep the water heaters going.
The bio-gas digester is a technology that has been studied across the world, and has often been promoted as the way for ordinary livestock owners to have a free supply of gas. It depends on having a regular supply of animal dung, and an elaborate system allowing fermentation and storage of methane gas. Where the dung is available, where the ambient temperature stays relatively warm (and does not fluctuate wildly at night), and where people can be trained to spend the time needed to maintain the system, it works very well.
Unfortunately none of those conditions prevail in Lesotho. Dung is in short supply, being used for fertilizer and house heating. Moreover, the supply of domestic animals all in one place is very limited, most of the animals (particularly in the summer when the temperature is right) being away from the kraal most of the day. We only found one user, and that person was doing so under an assignment to see if the system would work. He finally gave up as simply too costly of time and energy to make it work.
The only truly successful system that we studied was the photovoltaic supply of electricity for a limited set of devices: two or three light bulbs, a radio, a TV and for shops a cash register. The system could be bought from commercial dealers in Maseru, or also from shops across the border in South Africa. The price was substantial, of course, far beyond what the ordinary household could afford.
Only about a quarter of the respondents had heard of the system, and we only found one household in the random sample which owned a photovoltaic system. However, a substantial number of people were referred to us as users. We asked people, including suppliers, to give us names of persons who actually had a system in place. We found that these households shared two basic characteristics. They lived off the main highway, and thus did not have access to the national electricity grid. In addition, they were relatively wealthy, and could thus afford the initial expense of buying the panels, wiring, the lights, television and radio, a good storage battery, and the voltage regulator needed to keep the system working. They also needed a minimum of technological skill in order not to allow the battery to run down or become useless.
In short, these were people well above the average household in Lesotho, people who understood the system, and could afford to maintain it. Given those conditions, a photovoltaic power system is by far the best approach we found for renewable energy and energy conservation, but not a system ordinary Basotho can use.
The final topic we studied was house construction, which could be done in such a way as to conserve energy. There are many standard practices that could be applied to keep houses warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Some of these techniques were practiced by Basotho from the time they first entered the mountains at the turn of the 19th century. The traditional houses that the Paris Evangelical missionaries found when they entered Lesotho in 1832 were made with thatch roofs and stone or wooden walls. They tended to face north to catch the morning sun in the winter. Smoke from fires within the houses escaped through the thatch roof. The stone walls kept out the winter cold, and the thatch roofs allowed heat to escape in the summer. It was an ideal house construction system.
Unfortunately the western world brought modernization, and with it corrugated metal roofs that absorbed the heat of the sun in the summer and allowed warmth to escape in the winter. Natural insulation was thus lost, and as a result energy efficiency disappeared. We found very few people who had any idea that the new methods of house construction were bad. They wanted to be modern, to appear civilized, just as the South African whites and the Europeans were civilized. Some houses have been built, almost exclusively by ecologically minded expatriates, to preserve heat in the winter and stay cool in the summer. Unfortunately these houses are treated by the Basotho we talked to as examples of foreign madness.
In short we found little real hope for energy conservation and use of renewable resources in this study. I am pleased with this research study, pleased with what we learned – and very unhappy that conditions are such as to make the excellent suggestions made by the Department of Energy unfeasible. I wish it were otherwise. At least we laid the ground work for others to build a more appropriate system for renewable energy and energy conservation. I sincerely hope it happens, and that one result of our clearing away simple but inappropriate answers will be either refining the methods we studied or developing new approaches.
CHAPTER 16. REGIONAL MIGRATION AND POLITICS
My next major area of study involved migration, both within Lesotho and from Lesotho to other countries, primarily but not solely South Africa. Sechaba Consultants was asked in 1996 to partner with the Southern African Migration Project, and I remained close to the project over my remaining years in Lesotho, as well as after retirement. The project – the acronym we all used was and remains SAMP, perhaps reflecting the common South African staple of dried and boiled maize kernels – is a regional effort, bringing together researchers from South Africa and its neighboring countries Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi. Overall management of the project has been a joint effort between Queens University in Canada and an office in Cape Town in South Africa.
The first project I was part of through Sechaba Consultants was to consider whether Basotho might choose permanent residence in South Africa. The new democratic South African government in late 1995 and through much of 1996 offered Lesotho migrants (as well as migrants from other SADCC countries) the right of permanent residence if they had worked for at least five years in South Africa. I helped interview 492 miners and 127 miners’ wives, to ascertain their status and their potential interest in permanent South African residence.
We found, not surprisingly, that the great majority of mine workers want to retain their identity as citizens of Lesotho, while only about 9% would like to become permanent residents of South Africa. What pulled them toward South African residence included their desire to start a business there, their long experience in the mines, and the advantages of schooling, medical care, unemployment benefits, pensions and even the presence of a second wife and family near the mines. The push factors were obvious: few livestock, no fields, no jobs, few assets, and too many dependents at home. Compounding these factors was the feeling that Lesotho, plagued by bad government, did not care for them as people but only as miners who send remittances home.
What motivated them to retain their loyalty to Lesotho was an underlying love of the country, as well as such assets as land, livestock, family members and accumulated savings. South Africa does not have land or good living conditions, especially for immigrants, and is afflicted by crime, violence, sexual promiscuity and uncertain labor relations.
My findings were encapsulated in the statement by one mine worker, interviewed at his work place in Welkom in South Africa that becoming a permanent residence there would be to risk “riding the tiger”. There might be rewards, but the risks are too great. In short, more than four out of five mine workers would not take the offer. It is reported that by 1997 in fact over 32,000 Basotho miners had taken up the offer. I don’t have the actual statistics, but I believe that total represents on the order of one in ten men who would have met the qualifications by virtue of their long experience in the mines. If roughly 100,000 men were on the mines during each of the previous 30 years, and if on average men worked on the mines for 8 years, then for 320,000 trace these men to see if they remained in South Africa, or if some of them actually reverted to their status as Lesotho citizens and residents.
What deeply motivated me in this study was the more fundamental issue of Lesotho’s status in the region. David Hall and Debby Gill cooperated with me in 1995, a few years before the paper on permanent residence, to produce a book we called Lesotho’s Long Journey: Hard Choices at the Crossroads, published and printed by Sechaba Consultants. Two years previously I had drafted a much stronger draft called From Sanctuary to Backwater: The Stagnation of Lesotho, which I had hoped to publish. My colleagues at Sechaba felt I had gone too far in criticizing the country where I was, after all, living and working. So the later book was a more sober, perhaps emasculated, version of my analysis of the country.
At this point I want to think I should have had the courage of my convictions. On the other hand, however, perhaps in keeping with newer desire to work with African colleagues, perhaps it is better I did not publish it, but instead waited for others. It may be that my true goal as become the empowerment of others, rather than providing solutions to the problems African peoples face. Perhaps in the end the two goals are not all that different, once I begin to understand that I can’t reach that goal alone.
In Lesotho’s Long Journey I emphasized how the Basotho are a product of migration, both forced and chosen. Migration is basic to the lives of almost every population in the world, but it has been a special destiny for the Basotho. They came into the mountains across the Caledon 200 years ago, they moved into the mountains displacing the Baroa, they migrated to South Africa for work in the mines, and they now move from the rural areas to the cities. According to the World Bank, in 2010 457,000 out of Lesotho’s 2.1 million at this very time in history were living in South Africa, where they are – or at least should be – fully at home as residents in their historical homeland.
Similarly my research for the Southern African Migration Project and for the International Labor Organization has shown the continuing movement in and out of rural areas, in and out of cities, and in and out of South Africa. Such migration has been a necessity for them, because they have not been successful in farming since the good times of the 1860s and 1870s. 1973 was the last year that Basotho were able even to provide enough cereal crops to feed the country. It has been downhill ever since that time.
I was asked in 1998 to prepare an overall study of migration in Lesotho for the International Labor Organization. I did so with some reluctance, since the conditions laid down were quite restrictive. The ILO was determined to show that the real issues in Lesotho were cross-border migration to South Africa and youth unemployment.
They were quite right in focusing on those matters, but they were not greatly interested in the underlying realities within the country. For them it seems that Lesotho was a black box, with national figures that held implications for the international economy. From an international perspective, Lesotho is a basket case that provides labor and water to neighboring South Africa as a major economy on the world stage. Lesotho is of importance to the extent that it is an unfailing source of inexpensive workers for the mining industry. It is also a potential trouble spot, since young people throughout the world are the ones who have the energy and unfulfilled potential to upset the smooth course of development. It was obvious to everyone, including myself, that South Africa was at risk due to unresolved racial issues and envy by poor neighbors.
I did in the end accept the mandate of the ILO, but I did so on my own terms. I insisted on including a large component of research on internal migration within Lesotho. As implied by what I said earlier, the heart and lungs of Lesotho lie within the artificial borders set by an unequal and unjust history. The international borders, agreed upon against the better judgment of Moshoeshoe I and his followers, forced Basotho to breathe air and circulate their blood away from the natural and traditional homeland. As a result the movements of Basotho were for more than a century limited to circulation between the lowland fields (and eventually lowland towns) and the mountains. In the report I traced these movements, and showed how rural Basotho are increasingly moving away from the lands and the mountains to the cities. By the year 2030 the population would be half urban, with urban settlements blanketing the western lowlands.
I did not realize at the time the extent of AIDS-driven devastation, both at the time I wrote the paper and for the near future. In fact I had ventured an informed guess in 1993 that there might be as many as 8,000 deaths from AIDS in the year 2000, and that the population growth rate would shrink from 2.9% to 2.6%. I did not realize that in fact there would be a negative growth rate early in the coming decade, and that the population would stabilize just above 2 million. None of us carried our calculations to the bitter conclusion that would be forced on us in the new millennium, least of all those of us who tried to project the future for international organizations.
The result was that my paper for the ILO raised important issues, but did not carry them to the needed conclusion. I knew there would be problems of unemployment, and I spelled them out in some detail – but I was not sober enough, not harsh enough, in my projections for Lesotho’s future. I was right in stressing the importance of migration within the country, as a driving force to understand external migration, but I did not drive home the point that Lesotho was a country in serious danger, danger I thought about but did not stress in my report.
My report was intended to guide international civil servants as they tried to understand poverty in Lesotho. I fear that the ILO did not give enough thought to that matter, but instead thought of the country only as a source of willing workers in South Africa and potential youth violence. I tried to show how Lesotho has at least five poverty levels – destitute, seriously poor, lower middle class, well-off middle class, and the truly wealthy. Migrant labor, both internal and external, has been the driving force that allows the sharing of wealth – and the sharing of poverty – between the five classes.
I concentrated on internal migration in my report, possibly to the detriment of external migration. I feel that my report was perhaps the first really detailed study of movement of people within Lesotho, a scenario of value in thinking ahead for the nation. I looked in detail at the situation in the major lowland towns, and also analyzed the importance of rental in urban and peri-urban areas. A basic fact about Lesotho is that these towns are not shanty towns, not urban slums as in other African countries, including especially South Africa. Fields have gradually been incorporated into the towns, and entrepreneurial land owners have built houses to rent. Plots were laid out, admittedly illegally, in such a way as to give reasonable space for families to survive and even have small plots for vegetable production. The decline in rural cereal crop production accompanied an increase in urban housing, a result which helped Lesotho not become another urban disaster. Most of these people, moreover, kept a link with their rural homes, even if they did not live there.
Youth unemployment was a very serious issue, as the ILO realized. I calculated rates of unemployment, and found high rates. Only about 8% were actively seeking work, but another 9% wanted it but not hard enough to be registered as actively unemployed. There was a general decline in work for young adults, aged 16-20, over the years, from 11.5% with wage work in 1987 to only 5% in 1997. There was, however, a marked increase in school attendance over that same period, thus giving some hope for the future. The problem with that, of course, was that school is expensive, making it very difficult for the poor to break out of poverty by sending their children to school. There was a strong tendency, therefore, for schooling of young people to be more likely in families with higher income.
The way out of poverty, according to my report, was two-fold. One was migration from rural to urban areas. The other was education of children. Neither was an easy route, because the poverty that exists in the first place makes both migration and education expensive. Those who have will get more, while those who do not have are unlikely to escape their status. It should be noted that the Lesotho government began in 1999 to offer free primary schooling, a process which concluded in 2005 with totally free primary education.
I concluded my report with a number of recommendations. I urged easing cross-border movement between South Africa and Lesotho, by removing unnecessary border controls, helping move the Southern African Development Community toward real integration, and by allowing easier permanent residency in South Africa. I made recommendations for internal development, by improving conditions in rural areas, promoting rural employment, expanding rural development organizations, reducing the cost of education and health, and promoting more value-added farming and livestock production. I suggested making it easier to acquire and own land in urban areas, promoting better use of peri-urban sites and land allocation, developing new water-harvesting and management systems, using local labor for infrastructure improvement, providing more schooling in useful skills for young people, providing pre-schools for children in out-of-work families, promoting energy-efficient housing, setting standards for working conditions, building factory shells with needed services, and providing credit to small businesses.
I feel good about this report as I read it over again. I hope my suggestions were heard, particularly for those willing to understand the situation of labor in Lesotho as both an internal and an external matter. I fear I am not greatly optimistic. At least I think I was honest, and I was willing to leave implementation to others.
My work with the Southern African Migration Project until I retired in 2001 dealt with border questions. Many South Africans, black and white, feared an onslaught of immigrants from the rest of Africa. In fact people moved from the poorest countries to nations farther up the chain. Workers from Mali and Burkina Faso sought work in Ivory Coast, citizens of Niger and Chad looked to Nigeria as their refuge, Congolese saw greener pastures in Angola, southern Sudanese crossed into Uganda, Somali into Kenya, Rwandans into Tanzania, and residents of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho into South Africa. Furthermore, destination countries like Nigeria and Kenya proved to be only way stations on the route to South Africa, often by way of Botswana and Lesotho. Finally, South Africa was a jumping-off point for transit to the developed societies of the United States, Canada, the European Union, and Australia and New Zealand. South Africa was not happy with its status as intermediate transit point, did not want to receive job-less, often skill-less, peoples from Africa, and equally was not happy to see its own skilled labor force find a better life in the First World.
I began my work with SAMP by attending a planning workshop in Zimbabwe in 1996. That was the end of the good times in Zimbabwe, and even when we were there we sensed that there was mischief afoot. The conference was a very important event both for the project and for me. I saw the real value of having a small group of people work together to plan a project. I made the acquaintance of Jonathan Crush, a Canadian who was the intellectual leader and inspiration for the project. I worked with him subsequently, and even two years ago published my last paper with him based on material we took out of the surveys. At the conference we were a small group of perhaps ten or twelve people, including Canadians, Americans and Africans from the southern African region, who were able to plan for a long-term study of migration.
My next study was on the importance of the border and ways to reduce its negative impact on Lesotho. There has been a long tradition of fear by South Africans about foreigners invading their country, taking their jobs, stealing their possessions and raping their wives. Before trying to speak in detail about ways to ameliorate the situation, we chose to look at why Basotho cross into South Africa. We interviewed 692 Basotho in early 1997. Such attitudes as described above hinder normal relations between its neighbors and South Africa, and in particular cause great problems for Basotho, who are an integral part of the culture mix that makes up South Africa. There are more Basotho in South Africa than in Lesotho, and currently roughly a quarter of all citizens of Lesotho presently live in South Africa, some legally and many not legally.
In our survey we found that most Basotho had mundane and sensible reasons for entering South Africa. We hoped that South African politics might have matured to the point that its fearful citizens would no longer look on the Basotho as a swart gevaar, translated as a “black threat”, to lchcautobio the old Afrikaans expression from the days when blacks were seen as a menace to the white way of life. Basotho welcomed refugees from South Africa during the apartheid era. As I mentioned earlier, we at Transformation joined many other citizens and residents of Lesotho to give a warm welcome as well as financial and moral assistance to those who might otherwise have been imprisoned or even killed in South Africa. Our hope was that the general good will and economic good sense of Basotho would open South Africa to greater welcome for Basotho.
Our findings included the following facts. Travel to South Africa is the norm rather than the exception, in that 81% of the Basotho who were interviewed had visited South Africa at least once in their lives. Those who visited South Africa said they had done so on average 68 times, and only 12% had been there only once. Only a quarter of those interviewed would like to live there permanently, but half admitted they would like to live there for a period of up to two years, and an even higher 58% felt it was likely they would live for a short period in South Africa. Roughly a third of those interviewed said they would like to be permanent residents of South Africa, and about the same proportion would like to be South African citizens. This conclusion is not inconsistent with the slightly smaller proportion wishing to live in South Africa, mostly because many Basotho feel they should have South African citizenship and residency rights while they keep official Lesotho citizenship. The passport dues matter!
We found that a very small proportion (4%) chose to enter South Africa on foot. Most came by bus or taxi, and went through proper legal procedures to get a passport and a border pass or permit. The majority had a well-recognized failsafe, in that they also knew how to go across the border illegally, and felt that they were unlikely to be caught. Such people know safe alternatives ways to enter South Africa, and are not afraid of being caught. The important point is that they did not feel it necessary to use that knowledge. Their main reasons for entering South Africa were to visit family and friends, to go shopping, to seek work and get medical help. These are not by and large the reasons of a fragmented or angry minority. They represent exactly what we should expect when a border cuts across family and clan lines. This is also a natural response when the economic power house of the region seems to offer much to a people cut off by the border from the riches which they have helped to build in South Africa.
Opinions vary among the interviewees as to the benefits brought to South Africa by oscillating migration. A majority felt that they and Lesotho as a whole benefitted from going to work or live in South Africa. It is not what xenophobic whites in South Africa fear, namely, that opening the border gates would cause economic chaos. What our respondents want is open borders, allowing them to seek work, visit relatives and go shopping in as easy a way as possible.
The great majority of our respondents believe it is a basic human right to allow such travel and interchange. They understand that the Lesotho-South Africa border is contentious. Much anger is fed by real differences between Basotho and South Africans, but that is all the more reason for there to be an easing of border controls. Basotho are largely willing for the same privileges they seek to be extended by Lesotho to visitors, and in the end they would prefer not only that all border restrictions be limited, but a near majority of 41% said they would prefer Lesotho to lose its long-cherished sovereignty, and be integrated into South Africa.
Underlying this openness is the relative poverty of Lesotho. Basotho strongly want the same access to jobs, medical care, housing, education and democratic rights as exist for South African citizens. They equally strongly wish the right to become permanent residents of South Africa or even citizens. As they, speaking in 1997, looked to the future, however, a majority said it is unlikely they will go to South Africa to live for a period of up to two years, and even fewer felt they were likely to get permanent residence in South Africa.
Increased access to South Africa did happen, to a limited extent. I have mentioned above the grant of permanent residence to Basotho mine workers who had served for a minimum of five years in South Africa. This was an early sign of a thaw in the old system. There was no sign of an anarchic influx of jobless and angry Basotho into South Africa during the first years of democracy under the Mandela government. Basotho traveled more or less freely to South Africa, endured the nuisance of an inconvenient border system, and returned home when their job or family visit or shopping trip was over. There was, as I saw it, no reason for South Africans to fear being overrun by Basotho who were, after all, not only their neighbors but in many cases their kinfolk.
However, that thaw did not grow into a warm spring and summer. Fears arose, not only among the old line whites, but among blacks who were aroused by xenophobic utterances to fear the coming of outsiders. This fear has grown over the years, to the point that in 2009 a science fiction film entitled District 9 displayed extra-terrestrial aliens who arrived in a space ship to colonize South Africa. Sadly the aliens were aided and abetted by Nigerian criminals and business men. The film was popular, and had unfortunately the effect of exacerbating the fear of foreigners. To this day, foreigners, especially Somali refugee business people, are being victimized, and desperate Zimbabweans are being driven back home.
I think we did a good job at showing how reasonable most Basotho are. Unfortunately I fear that our report had little real impact. The result of all this period of fear and enmity has been to draw the border controls still tighter, for all except probably those who had real skills to offer, whether in the mines or in the professions.
Lesotho was a way station, as I said above. Another project was to look at the brain drain from Lesotho to South Africa and the rest of the world. I started the project at a most unfortunate time in Lesotho, namely, just before the political meltdown of September 1998. I had hoped to interview 500 skilled Basotho professionals and 300 skilled resident foreigners. I was lucky to find 306 Basotho and 67 foreigners willing to be interviewed. I was also lucky to find research assistants who were willing to risk their lives in an uncertain political climate.
We found mixed hopes and mixed motives. Basotho tended to identify with their country. If they had jobs, they wanted to keep them, while fear of the unknown kept them from setting out for the deep waters of South Africa and abroad. They did, however, yearn for better pay, better social services and professional advancement. Often the willingness of Basotho professionals to find work elsewhere was motivated by their knowledge of conditions abroad, mediated by contacts with friends or relatives. Dissatisfaction with political and social conditions at home was also a significant factor in the choice. More than half of the people we interviewed said they are considering moving out of the country, although only 18% were willing to give up their citizenship.
The foreign professionals did not see Lesotho as a permanent home. Only about 13% seek Lesotho citizenship, and only 33% even want permanent residency. Clearly Lesotho is a half-way house on the way to a better life for most foreigners who come to the country to work. Those with a positive attitude toward working in Lesotho were mostly Africans from other countries. What brought them to Lesotho in the first place was the promise of a better life, through higher income, a permanent job, a good school for their children, and better health care. Except for these very important considerations, life at home was better than life in Lesotho. But the important issue from the South African perspective was that moving on from Lesotho is the next step, and the most preferred goal is somewhere in the Americas (40%). Second is another African country (27%), and third is a European country (15%).
In short it does seem clear that South Africa can expect Basotho professionals to seek jobs in their midst. However, it is important to note that these are professionals and not ordinary unskilled citizens. It is legitimate to argue, as I have done, that the brain drain is not totally harmful, as long as it tends to shuffle Africans from country to country within the continent. In particular, South Africa and Lesotho can both benefit when Basotho professionals move to their country and take skilled jobs. Many leading South Africa academics, business people and government officials are originally from Lesotho. The possibility that Basotho professionals could live a migratory life, moving back and forth between South Africa and Lesotho, would not frighten me if the border were less of an obstacle to travel. As it is, however, for a Mosotho to cut ties and seek employment as a doctor or a teacher or a business person or a government official will hurt Lesotho. It need not be the case, and would not be if the border controls that separate the countries were drastically reduced or even eliminated altogether.
I shared in the design and analysis of three more studies on the border. The first, in the year 2000, looked closely at the future of the border between South Africa and Lesotho. Many of the findings were similar to those in previous surveys, namely, that Basotho cross the border in large numbers to find work, visit family, receive medical care, shop, go to school, buy and sell goods, and even as tourists. The proportion of Basotho who had personally visited South Africa at 81% was far higher than the nearest competitor, Botswana with 40%. Moreover, 83% of Basotho had parents who had worked in South Africa, and 72% whose grandparents had worked there. Other findings were similar to those obtained in 1997, in that only about a quarter of Basotho wanted to live in South Africa, although a third wanted citizenship or permanent residence. The findings over the years were stable, and once again should not frighten anxious South Africans.
The specific issue we raised in this survey beyond what we learned in earlier surveys concerned border controls. This has been a serious problem for Basotho, and is worse every year. Our concern was that the border posts were simply not equipped or staffed for massive movements of Basotho into and out of South Africa. One of my colleagues David Coplan spoke of the Caledon River basin as a natural setting for work, farming, business and residence. Yet, to the contrary it became every year more of a contested zone. In our survey we strongly urged that immigration and passport controls be removed entirely. If not that, a compromise might be to control customs but otherwise to allow ease of movement in both directions.
I had little to do with implementing these ideas, since I was leaving the country, but I left my strong recommendation that Lesotho and South Africa take immediate steps to eliminate all border controls. Unfortunately the opposite has happened. During the 2010 World Cup soccer matches, stringent controls were imposed, making life very difficult even for those who lives required daily crossing.
After retirement I helped with the analysis of two SAMP surveys, one on remittances sent home by Basotho migrants and the other on the impact of migrant labor remittances in helping overcome poverty. My task in both cases was to help process the data that had been collected. I worked with Sechaba Consultants at a distance, and also when I visited Lesotho in 2002 and again in 2004. I feel good about both visits, since they allowed me to assist Basotho in making sense out of data they had helped collect. I moved a long way from my earlier go-it-alone research stance to the position of advisor and counselor and consultant. I am pleased to report that two of my Basotho colleagues by that time were competent in data analysis using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS). I had helped them get started using this very important tool and was able to give advice, both in person in those two visits, and from home, where I eventually stated my slogan as “have computer…will not travel”. I also worked closely with a team from the National University of Lesotho to edit their massive report for the African Peer-Review Mechanism in 2008. I did not write anything, but instead drew on my experiences in and with the country to edit what was initially an almost incoherent draft report.
My work in Lesotho before retirement involved one other major research project. The Afrobarometer Project, with financial support from the American government and intellectual support from Michigan State University, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, and the Center for Democratic Development in Ghana, who were joined later by the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy in Benin, and the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi.
I had always been involved peripherally with southern African politics, even from my first encounter. I mentioned earlier how I had been severely criticized by Bishop Colin Winter for even considering going to Lesotho. That was a political move in its own right. Much earlier in my African career I had celebrated African independence in 1960, and had marched with protestors at the time of the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960. I was criticized at that time by Peter Doyle, a conservative Episcopal priest who was teaching with me at Cuttington. He said it was none of our business to put our noses into the politics of a country which was friendly to the United States. We did not know its problems, and were being simply hypocritical crowd-pleasers by joining our students in walking up and down with placards.
I suppose both Colin Winter and Peter Doyle realized something I was not ready for. What I was supposed to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest is that acting in political opposition must have consequences. In Liberia it was easy to say I was against apartheid and the local forms of benevolent tyranny, and go on teaching classes. In Lesotho it was easy to say I was opposed not only to apartheid but also to unjust totalitarian government, and go on doing agricultural development.
I want to believe that in both cases I learned to recognize injustice and slowly sought ways to speak out for justice. In Liberia I think I helped my students understand the meaning of justice, equality and democracy. Eventually some of them would take a stand against injustice, inequality and dictatorship. I would like to think that my requiring them to read political and ethical theory by Plato, Augustine, Hobbes, Locke, Mill and Marx helped prepare them to seek a new and more just Liberia. In Lesotho my desire for a southern Africa free of poverty and racism led me eventually to work with and help train southern Africans at the Transformation Resource Center and Sechaba Consultants. I hoped that they, like my students in Liberia, would go on to change their society.
In both countries I tried to speak for the little people. As I have indicated elsewhere, I could not do it on my own, and only succeeded when I worked with Africans in such a way that they could do the job “with a little help from [their] friends”.
My teaching and research were, of course, political. As Desmond Tutu has often pointed out, even doing nothing is political. I think I aimed in the right direction, but I needed friends and colleagues from within Africa to take the lead and guide me in the correct ways to guide them.
My first overtly political acts were at Transformation. With Judy’s strong and active support we helped refugees fleeing apartheid get a fresh start. We supported the strike of the National Union of Mineworkers by publicizing their demands. We supported the Lesotho Council of Non-Governmental Organizations as it spoke against the military government. We helped Lesotho’s teachers seek a better deal from a government which tried hard to crack down on their legitimate hopes for decent working conditions and freedom of speech. We made our house available to African National Congress activists and politicians. We spoke with BBC reporter Tim Ecott about the behavior of Lesotho’s police when Bathobakae, the son of Limakatsu Mokhothu, was killed. We stood up to harassment by the police when they searched our Transformation offices. We broke the South African laws by camping at the St. Lucia estuary with a beautiful young bikini-clad Mosotho woman. In short I feel we did our rather limited part. We were not shot by the South African special forces, for which I am very glad – although friends we cared deeply about were shot, and some killed.
However in all this we did not enter directly into political analysis. The closest we came was when Transformation sketched out its future plans. I urged my colleagues to think beyond the ineffectual politics without policies that characterized Lesotho’s self-centered and greedy political parties. We tried through our monthly forums at Transformation and our quarterly newsletters to open a space for serious issues-oriented discussion.
The year 1998 marked my first substantive entrance into political inquiry. Sechaba Consultants was invited to participate in the new Afrobarometer Project. I had the privilege of helping design the first questionnaire at a workshop in Cape Town. There I realized how happy I was not being a one man show. I was working with Africans, Europeans and Americans to think through issues of African development as it related to politics and economics. I learned in that initial meeting more about how to work with, and not just for, Africans in designing development projects. We created a questionnaire as a model for future Afrobarometer surveys, that would by the year 2011 be administered in more than 20 African countries.
My work thereafter with the Afrobarometer Project was the kind of work I had always hoped to do but failed to do in other projects. I was helping Africans carry out the survey and analyze the data, showing them how to do the field work and then enter the data. I also helped them learn how to use SPSS. I also learned a lot more tricks by working closely with Bob Mattes who was the main political analyst of the data at IDASA in Cape Town, particularly about cluster analysis and factor analysis.
I did no field work in this study. I remained in the office working out such details as the choice of villages and the methods for selection of households. These are not trivial exercises, since they guarantee the representativeness of the sample. I know that our data collectors feared our methods, since they always identified one or two villages which could only be reached by a two-day trek in the mountains and even a small plane to a nearby airstrip.
Lesotho still has many remote villages, some of which I visited during my earlier years. I still remember walking two hours from the old village of Mphaki in the eastern mountains to a village that retained much of the character of the old Lesotho. It was there that I met in 1976 an old man who remembered the coming of the rinderpest in 1896 and also remembered shooting Bushmen for whom cattle raiding was the same as killing elands. However, those days were over by the time I sent interviewers to the towns and villages of Lesotho to gather information that would reliably represent Basotho opinions and demography. My big worry was that my colleagues at Sechaba Consultants were not careful enough about checking the validity of the data reports. When I was more active in research management, I would occasionally go to a village after a researcher brought back a completed questionnaire. On at least one occasion I found that the young man in question had faked the data. My discovery and his subsequent dismissal had at least a temporary effect on the other enumerators.
Unfortunately this kind of follow-up was rarely done. Instead we analyzed the data to find patterns that reflected dishonest data collection. We were forced in some cases to reject whole villages when the data showed impossible patterns. One of my tasks at this late stage in Sechaba was to train my colleagues to notice unlikely data. I continued this vigilante task after I retired, when I assisted the Afrobarometer and Southern African Migration Projects to analyze regional data. In one case I identified malfeasance in data recording from Zimbabwe, leading me to suggest that a whole set of data be rejected. In retrospect, probably the enumerators were so afraid of the political chaos under Robert Mugabe’s rule that they preferred to make up data.
My work with Afrobarometer did not stop when I retired. I have regularly gone back to the data, now available for 20 countries. I have written several papers drawing on the data, both specifically for Lesotho and generally for the entire continent. The paper I most like was written to substantiate the theories of Amartya Sen in his book Development as Freedom (Anchor Books, 1999). I showed how his five categories of development – political participation, economic well-being, social integration, information access and personal security – arise naturally from the political opinion survey. They correspond to factors which can be derived from the data by factor analysis. I was able to show how high ratings on these factors correspond closely with high ratings on democracy. The higher the person is on what I called the Sen scale the more likely that person is to hate military, strong-man or one-party rule, and the more likely to like and defend democratic principles and practices.
I tried to interest people, including even Sen himself, in my findings, but somehow the paper never seemed to catch fire. I have to accept the fact that I have never been able to excite either other academics or development experts. It all goes back to my lack of charisma – and probably also to my simply not being as deep a thinker or activist as I would like to believe. I certainly did not succeed as a development “expert”. The best I have been able to do is provide other scholars and developers with ideas and suggestions. I hope they may somehow justify a career in Africa that otherwise produced little of benefit to the larger society, outside of the students and co-workers I have guided. Whatever the case, I am happy with the life I lived, and am happy with who I am.