Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Barack Obama Speaks Out + Diasporic Journeys + Mahfouz RIP

Obama causes furor with criticism of Kenyan government "graft"
It was all going so well for Democratic Senator Barack Obama. He was visiting Kenya, his father's native country, and from the moment he stepped off the plane, he received rock-star treatment, which only increased when he dropped by his father's village. Then, two days ago in a nationally televised address, he sharply criticized the Kenyan state's well-documented corruption. Specifically he said,

"The freedom that you fought so hard to win ... is in jeopardy....It is being threatened by corruption."

"Here in Kenya, it is a crisis, a crisis that is robbing an honest people of the opportunities that they have fought for, the opportunity they deserve."

Obama urged the citizenry to demand accountability. As a result, the administration of Kenya's president and former "reformer" Mwai Kibaki slammed Obama's comments as immature, Kibaki spokesperson Alfred Mutua stating that "It is now clear that he was speaking out of ignorance and does not understand Kenyan politics, we earlier thought he was mature in his assessment of Kenyan and African politics." He went on to suggest that Obama had been duped by the opposition, which championed the remarks, though critics both inside and outside Kenya have called attention to the situation that Obama was decrying. His visit aimed to call attention to democracy, human and economic development, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the links between the US and Kenya, and he didn't stint on speaking forthrightly. Now that he has shown courage over there, I wish he would show more courage and be more outspoken over here, on the ongoing threats to democracy (cf. the failure to ensure fair voting and full access to the ballot), the failures in human and economic development in the world's richest country, and the HIV/AIDS crisis, particularly among African Americans. He could also take a more forceful stand against any potential war against Iran. His stature and political capital would only grow as a result of doing so.

On the African Diaspora: Part 2
Ekow EshunIn the current issue of the Nation, Hazel Rowley looks at several recent books--James Campbell's Middle Passages, Kevin Gaines's American Africans in Ghana, and Ekow Eshun's (at left, BBC) Black Gold of the Sun--each of which explores through differing means the dynamic relationships within the larger historical, socioeconomic and cultural field that constitutes the African Diaspora. Rowley notes that Campbell's book consists of several historically diverse narratives about journeys to and from Africa that deromanticize the idea, which is still widely held, of an uncomplicated return to the Motherland. She cites in particular Richard Wright's journey there and the resulting alienation that he captured in his record of the trip, Black Power. Gaines's study, which Rowley lauds, with a line of criticism for its sometimes knotty academic prose, looks at the specific, increasingly sour history of African Americans in late colonial and post-colonial Ghana. Eshun, former editor of Arena artistic director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts and the brother of critic Kodwo Eshun (author of More Brilliant of the Sun and one of the smartest people I've ever met), charts a course that, Rowley suggests, is a lot closer to Wright's than he (or she) seems to have imagined, especially given that Eshun's parents were Ghanaian natives, they maintained most aspects of their native culture and practices, he'd spent three years there as a child, and he was, in a literal sense, going "home." (He avers that he expected it, at the very least, to "feel like home," and without that, he'd have "nothing left to hold on to.") Instead, he finds not the Ghana of his imagination or dreams, but transformed versions of Williams's "pure products of America," the globalized economy and its estranging effects, in social and economic form, deeply ingrained in contemporary Ghana. Rowley's concludes her piece with the following comments, with which I strongly agree:

When Wright found himself disgusted by African behavior, he resorted to somewhat racist generalizations about the "African personality." Eshun asks himself an important question that Wright does not ask: "Europe looked down on Africa. Maybe I'd been doing the same thing?... Does living in a white country make you, in some way, white?"

What does it mean to be white? It's time that white people asked themselves the sorts of questions with which people of African descent have wrestled for centuries. Eshun seems to be referring to that righteous complacency and sense of superiority one witnesses every day in the modern world--from the conduct of foreign policy to daily interactions between nonwhites and whites. I can't help thinking that if we all tormented ourselves with these sorts of questions, the world might be less ignorant, less polarized, less hateful, less bellicose.

Naguib Mahfouz RIP
MahfouzAnd more Africa! As the media have been reporting since this morning, Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), Egypt's and the Arabic language's only Nobel Laureate, died today at the age of 94. Internationally, readers and critics esteemed Mahfouz most highly for his fictional works of the late 1950s and 1960s, in particular The Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street), as well as several other works like Midaq Alley. In these texts he deftly and richly draws the lifeworld of the middle, working and poorest classes of urban Egyptians, infusing the conventional European novel and short-story forms with his poetic style, which exploits the stylistic resources of elevated, literary Arabic. In Egypt and other Arabic-speaking world, Mahfouz was a popular success, and readers knew his texts inside-out. More broadly, he played a key role in the development of the contemporary Arabic novel, and in contemporary Egyptian letters. His importance extends beyond the realm of literature, however; as a supporter of the assassinated president Anwar Sadat (about whom he penned his 1985 novel, The Day the Leader Was Killed) and Egypt's 1978 peace accords with Egypt and a critic of religious fundamentalism, Mahfouz provoked considerable controversy, which only increased when he supported Salman Rushdie after the fatwa was launched against him. (Mahfouz had even experienced an early version of the condemnation that attended Rushdie's Satanic Verses with his 1959 novel, The Children of Gebelawi, which Muslim fundamentalists claimed depicted sacred figures from the Bible and Qu'ran as heroes in a story set in an alley.) In 1994, an Islamic fanatic stabbed him in the throat, nearly killing him and almost completely curtailing his writing. My introduction to Mahfouz's work came shortly after I learned of his winning the Nobel Prize. I was curious to read his work, having read only the Egyptian novevlist Nadal el-Sadawi, and found Miramar (1967) at Avenue Victor Hugo, the great used bookstore on Boston's Boylston Street. I devoured that haunting little text and mistook its experimental technique for all of Mahfouz's work, which led to mild disappointment when I came across some of the earlier works, though I've come to appreciate the breadth on display in the works I've read of his 40+ text oeuvre. Bracketing his troubling role for some years as Director of Censorship for the Egyptian state (I know he had to eat, but still), I have long taken his general outspokenness and courage in the face of extremism and authoritarianism (which underlined his entire career), his prodigiousness, his humor and discipline, his insistence on transforming the world of his country and people into art, and his deep humanism as inspirations, and treasure his contributions to the art of literature.


  1. Senator Barack Obama indicated that he was visiting Africa to help nurture relations between the continent and the United States. His mission, therefore, was warmly welcomed by the Government and the people of Kenya. The fact that he has roots in Kenya endeared him to the people of this country.

    However, during his public address at the University of Nairobi, Senator Obama made extremely disturbing statements on issues which it is clear, he was very poorly informed, and on which he chose to lecture the Government and the people of Kenya on how to manage our country.

    We would like to make the following facts clear:

    a) Kenya is no less vulnerable to terrorism than the United States or any other country. Kenya has in the past suffered incidents of terrorism because of our friendship with the United States and not because as a people, we are less efficient in the management of our security. Indeed, his own country and other countries with higher levels of development, have had more incidences of terrorism despite their sophisticated security systems. Therefore, blaming terrorist attacks in Kenya on possible corruption is highly misplaced and insincere. Using his logic, then, it follows that the terrorist attacks in the United States and other countries are as a result of corrupt border and customs police in his own country and other countries which have experienced incidents of terrorism.

    b) The allegation that wanted Rwandese genocide fugitive Felicen Kabuga may have purchased safe haven in Kenya is an insult to the people of this country and negates the fact that Kenya, Rwanda and the United Nations have an excellent track record in collaboration in the search and apprehending of Rwandese suspects. This country has turned over to the United Nations Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda the highest number of genocidal suspects for trial. For that reason also, this country cannot be a safe haven for any genocide suspect and especially Kabuga. If it was an issue of corruption money, as Senator Obama states, then the bounty of US$5 million (Kshs 365 million) being offered by the United States for the apprehension of Kabuga, would be irresistible to the alleged corrupt police. If anybody knows where Kabuga is, this Government would like to know so that we can apprehend him immediately and hand him over to the tribunal.

    c) Senator Obama enjoyed the vibrant freedom of expression and wide democratic space existing in this country, during his tour. Instead of acknowledging this big leap in this country, he chose to dwell on none issues as far as the governance of this country is concerned. He ignored the fact that strengthening of democracy and institutions of Governance has been the strongest thrust of this Government. Today, every Kenyan can openly talk about and address issues of corruption without fear and associate himself or herself to any political party he or she chooses. Bold decisions have made to bring down the rate of corruption with great success. For example, the success in our fighting corruption is evidenced by the fact that Kenya is one of the best performing countries in Africa in the collection of public revenue and the economy has had a turn-around from near zero percent (0%), three years ago, to about six percent (6%) economic growth today. This cannot be achieved in a country, which Senator Obama says, is experiencing a “corruption crisis.”

    d) Senator Obama also trivialized the harmony and peaceful co-existence that exists between different ethnic groups and races that live in this country, and chose to magnify tribalism as a major problem in this country.

    During Senator Obama’s visit, the Government spared no effort in making his stay and travel all over the country enjoyable and fulfilling. Senator Barack Obama is welcome to come again to learn more about the country, the Government and the people of this country.

  2. Fascinating post! Enlightening too.

    Good points about the need for more of a focus on the issues at home by the esteemed black politician.

    Still, it begs the would Mr. Obama's career fare if he were to speak out on the cited issue sat home? I'd be interested to see.