Remembering Adwa

The defeat of a European invasion force by Africans 120 years ago presents challenges for how we remember. How are historical memories kept alive? And what meanings should we assign to them?

Jed Stevenson

This week in 1896, an army under the command of Emperor Menelik defeated an Italian invasion force at Adwa, in Ethiopia. In the previous decades most of Africa had been conquered by a handful of European states: French, British, German, Belgian, and Portuguese. Ethiopia stood out, unique within Africa as country ruled by an indigenous monarch. If we want to understand how Ethiopia retained her independence, we must consider the decisive events surrounding this battle. How can we understand what happened on that day in Ethiopia? What lessons can we derive from it?

Africa 1932

Africa circa 1930. Ethiopia (labeled Abyssinia) was at the time the only country in sub-Saharan Africa ruled by an indigenous government. [1]

Understanding and remembering are linked concerns — Knowing that something happened in the past is a precondition for understanding it. But what does it mean to remember something that happened 120 years ago? The way most of us remember such things is in that special sense of the term reserved for events that we haven’t actually lived through, but learned about from others: collective memory. This kind of memory depends greatly on the way events are represented in history books, of course, but also in art, in monuments, and in conversation.

Personal and collective memories

As it happens, 120 years is about the maximum length of time that any human being has ever lived. Jeanne Calment, a Frenchwoman, died in 1997 at the age of 122 — she had been born in 1875, and her birth was recorded in the 1876 census. [2] Nobody now living is verifiably older than 117, but it’s worth considering the possibility that there may be people still alive who were born before the battle of Adwa took place.

Jeanne Calment, at approximately 20 and 120 years of age (circa 1896 and 1996)

Jeanne Calment would have had memories from 1896 (she would have been 21 years old). Many of the men and women at Adwa would have been her peers, or her juniors. Though she wasn’t in Africa, she would have heard about the battle; it was big news at the time. But it would have been, for her, one memory among many — something she might easily have forgotten; like some distant conflict we could read about in today’s paper; something that might have been less important than the memory of, say, her first cigarette, or her first kiss.

For those who actually fought in the battle, or who served as porters; or who saw the armies passing through their homelands; or who lost sons or brothers in the fray, the events would have been etched deep into their memories. [3] For Menelik’s subjects and for Italians it would have had a special relevance, even if they were far away. And for Africans in general, and for the diaspora — including slaves and descendants of slaves — it would be a source of inspiration. It came to symbolise the possibility of victory over forces of racism and colonialism that sometimes appeared invincible.

But to the extent that Adwa becomes a symbol, its meaning is also changeable. What we see in it depends in part on the events that have occurred in between then and now, and the meaning we assign to them. I’d like to draw a comparison between the way we remember Adwa and the way we remember what at the time was called the Great War — what we now refer to as the First World War, which began 100 years ago, in 1914.

Comparisons with the First World War

The parallel with the First World War points up many contrasts: Adwa was a battle, lasting just one day, in one location; the First World War dragged on for years, was fought in multiple theatres, and incurred not thousands but millions of casualties. Other contrasts are more subtle. The aims of the conflict at Adwa, for example, were clear: for the Italians, to subdue and colonize Ethiopia; for the Ethiopians, to expel the invader. The aims of the First World War, by contrast, were not at all clear; indeed, they were not publicly articulated by the British government or her allies until almost four years into the war, after millions had died. [4]

There also commonalities between the two conflicts. The most relevant of them for our purposes is that both the First World War and Adwa present us with challenges in how to remember, how to commemorate.

The First World War is remembered in many ways: In the work of soldier-poets like Wilfred Owen; in novels; in paintings. [5] The most prominent, however, are the monuments. Before the centenary of the war last year, I barely noticed them, but since then I’ve come to see plaques and statues in almost every public place I visit in England. Sometimes these consist of no more than a list of names, and the words Lest we forget; other times a crucifix, or martial imagery such as a soldier standing to attention or poised for attack. The imagery is meaningful: Christian symbols suggest sacrifice, martial ones courage or chivalry. Depending on the imagery, different aspects of the war are privileged — the sacrifice of those who lost their lives, or the heroism of the fighters. [6]

The profusion of statues and plaques commemorating the First World War in England contrasts with a paucity of memorials to Adwa in Ethiopia. In Addis Ababa there are monuments recalling Magdala and Emperor Teodros’ honourable death there; statues of Menelik (near St George’s Cathedral in Piassa); and a stela at Sidist Kilo honouring those who resisted the Italian occupation of 1936-194. But to my knowledge there are no memorials devoted to Adwa.

Representing Adwa

The most common medium in which Adwa is commemorated is painting. Conventionally these paintings show the Ethiopian and Italian armies facing each other on the battlefield, with the flags of each country flying above them. Between the two armies lie the dead; and in the sky above, St George, patron saint of Ethiopia, presides over the battle. The faces of the Italians are usually depicted in profile and the Ethiopians in full face. (In Ethiopian church art, full-face depictions are used of saints and other figures of virtue, while profile views are reserved for the devil or sinners.)

adwapaintinglarge

The Battle of Adwa. Painting by an unknown artist. The British Museum.

Just as First World War monuments highlight one side of the reality of that war and hide others, we may ask: what do these conventional paintings of Adwa privilege? What do they omit?

At least four things:

  1. The forces are conventionally represented as equal in number; but in fact the disparity was at least 4:1 — approximately one-hundred thousand Ethiopian soldiers versus twenty-thousand Italians.
  1. Soldiers and generals are shown, but not the camp-followers, those who provided victuals, the villagers upon whose production the army depended, or the women who supported the army.
  1. The good versus evil framing renders the soldiers on each side into stereotypes. This obscures the motivations of individual participants, which were almost certainly mixed — some were doubtless motivated by patriotism, and others by fear, or desire for personal glory, or profit; or some complex combination of these.
  1. St George’s rôle suggests that destiny was on the side of Ethiopia.

My aim in analyzing the painting this way is not to show that it’s wrong (No single image can show all sides of a story, not least a complex event like a battle.), but to get you to consider it afresh.

Interpreting and understanding

Adwa is glossed over in many Western history books in part because it doesn’t fit a dominant narrative of European dominance, or because it’s seen as a temporary setback (Italy would later succeed in colonizing Ethiopia, in 1936). This is unfortunate: The battle deserves to be remembered. But in celebrating it we should be careful not to set up a simplistic counter-narrative of Ethiopia’s manifest destiny. [7] The battle might better be interpreted as an example of the power of multitudes to prevail even when their opponents have access to superior weaponry; or of the capacity of groups with diverse motivations to come together to achieve common goals.

But perhaps the greatest lesson we could derive from Adwa is that history is contingent — that no Master Narrative may apply at all. That might be an unwelcome message; we like to see clear morals in history. But it can also be interpreted optimistically, as a sign that, if we try, we might break free from the chains history seems to forge for us. One of the most powerful ways in which the past affects the present is by influencing our sense of what is possible in the future. In how we choose collectively to remember historical events, we make possible new understandings of our history. And in doing so we lay foundations for the building of new worlds — one book, one monument, and one conversation at a time.

This is an adapted version of a talk given at the Victory of Adwa Memorial Celebration in London, at St George and All Saints Church, Tufnell Park, on February 28, 2015.

References

[1] George Philip, ed. (1932). Philip’s Handy-Volume Atlas of the World. London: Philip & Son.

[2] Craig Whitney (1997, August 5). Jeanne Calment, World’s Elder, Dies at 122. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/1997/08/05/world/jeanne-calment-world-s-elder-dies-at-122.html

[3] Raymond Jonas (The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2011) provides an engaging and readable overview of the Adwa campaign, and the cast of thousands who contributed to the victory.

[4] Timothy Mitchell (2010). Carbon democracy: Political power in the age of oil. London: Verso (p. 79).

[5] “Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War” brings together many of the paintings (showing at the Imperial War Museum, London, until March 8, 2015). See also Sacha Llewellyn and Paul Liss, eds. (2014), The Great War as recorded through the fine and popular arts. London: Liss Fine Art.

[6] Jay Winter (1998). Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge University Press. As Winter relates, one of the best known monuments, the Cenotaph (literally, “empty tomb” — a monument to the dead whose bodies were never identified) is vaguely Classical in style, but contains no explicit imagery; in a sense it’s a blank canvas on which you can project your own feelings about the war, whether or not you feel it was justified.

[7] On ‘manifest destiny’ in writing on American history, see for example David Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen, and Thomas Bailey (2010). The American Pageant (14th edition). Wadsworth / Cengage Learning.

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The year in 9 books

Some people send around a poem, a verse of scripture, or a pithy quotation at the end of the year. Not one to do things by halves, I hereby give you nine books.

books of 2014

1. Carbon democracy: Political power in the age of oil; by Timothy Mitchell (2011)

In 2002, when I was working on an archaeological dig in Kuwait, I met a young man who in the course of conversation let slip that Kuwait, his home, was the centre of the world. If you look at a standard projection you’ll see that he had a point: the Persian Gulf lies close to the hinge between Europe, Asia and Africa; and Kuwait is at its apex. The birthplaces of Abraham and Jesus and the site of Mohammed’s inspiration are all nearby.

That conversation stuck with me because it spurred me for the first time to think about my own, unexamined assumption that a small island off the shore of northwest Europe was the world’s centre. Since then, my studies in anthropology have reinforced this lesson: Our world has many centres.

This year I began working in Durham, in the northeast of England. Imagine my surprise to discover that this place was the true centre of the world! The revelation came from reading Timothy Mitchell’s book, Carbon Democracy, a sweeping overview of the political economy of energy.

carbon democracy

The claim rests on two things: the north of England provided the coal that powered the industrial revolution, and it was the birthplace of the labour movements that extracted from recalcitrant elites such concessions as universal suffrage and nationalized health services.

Mitchell argues that these two things — the nature of the stuff being mined and the politics that evolved around it — are closely linked. Coal, being labour-intensive to extract and transport, provides opportunities for blockage and sabotage, and invites certain kinds of solidarity and organizing. Oil and gas, by contrast, require engineering expertise to locate and pump to the surface, but much less manpower; and so they have quite different political implications — ones we’re still saddled with.

2. The sixth extinction: An unnatural history; by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)

Did you know that 66 million years ago an asteroid slammed into our planet and wiped out most of Earth’s living creatures? And that we’re working towards repeating the trick, this time without any extraterrestrial intervention?

Elizabeth Kolbert, the New Yorker’s science correspondent, reports from some of the locations where biodiversity decline is most visible, including the Great Barrier Reef (projected to be killed by ocean acidification by mid-century) and the rainforest of Central America, where frogs whose calls filled the air as recently as a few years ago will never be heard again.

The stories Kolbert carries from these places make arresting reading, but she acknowledges that the same narrative could have been told from almost anywhere. More than half of monitored species of animals have been killed off in the last 40 years. If we are called to be stewards of this planet, we’re doing a terrible job.

3. The road; by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

This is an artist’s impression of where we might end up, if business continues as usual. A man and his son walk across a burnt, deserted landscape, devoid of life. They scavenge tinned food from wrecked homes and ruined cities, and try to evade marauding cannibals. The book is an extended thought experiment. Some of the undervalued resources that it draws attention to are clean water and human kindness.

mccarthy road

4. The burning question: We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit? By Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark (2013)

How do we avoid squandering what we’ve inherited? Can we restrain ourselves from burning the earth’s existing reserves of fossil fuels — a guaranteed ticket for catastrophe? On the current market the stuff is worth a great deal of money, so part of the problem is how best to regulate the market. Humanity has already used up most of its all-time carbon budget — the amount we can safely burn. Right now we are, as Berners-Lee and Clark write, deep in a “great global slumber,” ignoring the immensity of the problem and the urgency of restructuring our societies to account for the new reality. There is no discipline or profession whose contributions are not needed to meet this challenge.

5. The energy glut: Climate change and the politics of fatness; by Ian Roberts with Phil Edwards (2010)

Ian Roberts provides a public health doctor’s perspective on the problem. Healthy societies respond better in the face of disasters, because they can get out of the way of hazards. Unfortunately, we’re rapidly turning into lard-balls. Cheap energy has so saturated our lives that we move less and less under our own steam, and the sources of what sustains us are further and further removed from the places where we live. Dependence on motorized vehicles is disabling us.

energy glut

Roberts trained as an emergency physician, and turned his gaze upstream only after repeated exposure to the damage that high-speed impacts have on bodies — damage that (because of their irrepressible desire to move, to play) is borne disproportionately by children. The solution he proposes is to reclaim the streets: to take back the public spaces that were stolen from us during the middle 20th century, and to bring work, services, and food production closer to our homes.

6. Don’t think of an elephant! Know your values and frame the debate; by George Lakoff (2004, 2014)

Much of the work involved in this revolution will be practical: throwing up barricades of bollards and planting trees amidst the rubble. But equally important is the symbolic work. Repeated exposure to advertising and political propaganda establishes distinctive ‘frames’ in our heads, which then determine much of what we choose to recognize as true or false. Confronted with troubling facts — for instance, that the excess energy accumulating every day via the heating of the earth is equivalent to the detonation of four-hundred thousand Hiroshima atomic bombs — we just ignore them. To process and communicate information that doesn’t fit in the standard frames, we need to reframe the conversation. That’s not easy, because much of the time people aren’t conscious of the frames they’re using. Since the Reagan administration, conservatives have been far more canny and proficient in this than progressives.

7. Two cheers for anarchism: Six easy pieces on autonomy, dignity, and meaningful work and play; by James C Scott (2012)

Another great obstacle we face is that while our political institutions are participatory and democratic in principle, many aspects of our schools and workplaces are, in practice, authoritarian. Living by our own lights requires more than courage; like a muscle, it requires practice. Anthropologist James C. Scott recommends some exercises to help develop autonomy. A simple example is jay-walking: When there’s no traffic, why not cross the road?

Scott has a nice name for these exercises in deliberate, considered rule-breaking: ‘anarchist calisthenics.’ As the subtitle of his book (‘Six easy pieces’) implies, Two Cheers is short, lucidly written and fun to read. But there are serious implications. The exercises he recommends may be vital preparation for heavier work to come. Major social changes almost always happen outside of formal politics. The abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights in the USA, all required campaigns of civil disobedience. Only when enough people refuse to go with the flow does the tide turn.

8. What future for Lake Turkana? The impact of hydropower and irrigation on the world’s largest desert lake; by Sean Avery (2013)

In any contest over where the true centre of the world is, Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley deserves a mention. Marketed to tourists as an out-of-the-way place (wilderness is a word that’s often used of it), it is in fact not only home to many farmers and cattle-herders, but also the site of the oldest known remains of our species, Homo sapiens. It’s where we’re all from.

Ethiopia’s government is building a dam on the middle reaches of the Omo River, and it’s due to be completed in 2015. Avery’s report on the social and environmental implications of the dam, published by Oxford University’s African Studies Centre, warns that the dam and associated plantations could spell impoverishment for the tens of thousands of people who rely upon the annual rise of the river for their subsistence. It also threatens people who live on the shores of Kenya’s Lake Turkana, into which the Omo drains — the so-called ‘jade sea’ and the world’s largest desert lake.

avery turkana

This past year, with support from the National Science Foundation, my colleagues in Ethiopia and I carried out a survey of food and water security in the Lower Omo, establishing a baseline against which future developments may be compared.

9. The rattle bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes (1982)

I started reading this book almost 30 years ago, and in truth I still haven’t finished it. An anthology of verse organized alphabetically by title of poem, it invites browsing rather than linear reading. This year, as my son nears four years old and his grasp of language improves, I’ve rediscovered the book, and some of the poems in it have burst upon me like bombs. There are things you can express in poetry that can’t be expressed in any other medium. Take this poem by priest-poet Andrew Young, a meditation on strength and weakness:

“The Dead Crab”

A rosy shield upon its back,
That not the hardest storm could crack,
From whose sharp edge projected out
Black pinpoint eyes staring about;
Beneath, the well-knit cote-armure
That gave to its weak belly power;
The clustered legs with plated joints
That ended in stiletto points;
The claws like mouths it held outside:
I cannot think this creature died
By storm or fish or sea-fowl marked
Walking the sea so heavily armed;
Or does it make for death to be
Oneself a living armoury?

May we all, in this New Year, be spurred to review our relationships with strangers as well as friends; to reappraise our responsibilities to the as-yet-unborn as well as the living and the dead; and to reconsider where our world’s centre is.

See also: Top ten books of 2013

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Fighting for life and sight in Ethiopia

ABEL WAS BORN with one eye larger than the other.

The difference wasn’t striking, but it caught the attention of the doctor who delivered him, and Abel’s father Getahun sought advice on what might have caused it.

“There’s nothing wrong with the baby,” doctors told him.

Many parents would have given up at this point, but Getahun persisted. He tracked down experts on eye diseases, and asked their opinions.

Eventually, at 3 months old, Abel was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eyes that occurs almost exclusively in children.

The lucky ones

In Britain, 40 or 50 children are diagnosed with retinoblastoma each year, of whom one may die [1]. In Ethiopia, it’s the other way around: Perhaps a hundred children are born with it, and only one or two may survive. [2]

Abel is one of the lucky ones. The doctor who diagnosed him connected the family to colleagues in Nairobi, Kenya, where the affected eye was removed before the cancer had a chance to spread.

My family has straddled this epidemiological divide. When my son was diagnosed with retinoblastoma in 2012, we were living in Ethiopia. The diagnosis sent us hurrying back to the UK. Now 3 years old, Isaac has received many rounds of treatment; the journey hasn’t been easy for us. But he’s retained some useful vision, and he’s flourishing in spite of the disease.

Each time I go back to Ethiopia I think about how much greater the challenges would have been if that door to the UK hadn’t been open for us.

A new path

This Spring, I brought together a diverse group of people to talk about eye cancer in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. The participants included doctors, representatives from the Ministry of Health, and members of charities working on cancer in Ethiopia and Kenya. Families affected by retinoblastoma took part as well. The stories they shared — and the presence of their children, who variously sat with us and played around the sides of the meeting — helped bring home the reality of the subject matter. One of those children was Abel.

addis Rb meeting

Participants, from left to right: Getahun Tsegaye (with Abel), Girma Mekonnen, Ermias Kibreab (with Bisrat), Yemesrach Tadesse, Faith Barasa, Jed Stevenson, Molla Ayele, Brian Ouma, Wondu Bekele, Dr Abu Beyene, Dr Jakob Schneider, and Sister Atsede

The goal was to identify a way forward:

  • What are the most important priorities?
  • If £10k or £100k were available to improve retinoblastoma care in Ethiopia, where should it be invested?

The consensus of the meeting was that Ethiopia needs an organization devoted to eye cancer. An organization with active participation from parents in defining its mission and overseeing its work. Getahun is on board, and so are several other families. Veteran campaigners are providing advice, and the Ministry of Health has given its blessings. [3]

Ethiopia’s not out of the woods yet as far as this disease is concerned, but hopefully this may be the right path.

Jed is taking part in a ‘bush trek’ in Africa in September 2014, to raise funds for eye cancer in Ethiopia. For more information, or to donate, visit Life and Sight for Ethiopia.

Jed with Getahun and Ermias, and their sons Abel and Bisrat

Jed with Getahun and Ermias, and their sons Abel and Bisrat

https://africanbushtrek2014.everydayhero.com/uk/life-and-sight-for-ethiopia

Notes

[1] Cancer mortality statistics from Cancer Research UK.

[2] In Kenya, survival is estimated at 27% (Dimaras et al. 2012, The Lancet.) In Ethiopia, Dr Emebet Girma reports that only 10% of the children she sees at Hawassa University Hospital (the major referral centre for the south of the country) arrive early enough to have much chance of cure.

[3] The minutes of the Addis Ababa meeting are available here. I reported on a prior meeting in 2013 here.

 

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Eye cancer in Ethiopia, revisited

My son suffers from a cancer of the eyes that is fatal if untreated. Now three years old, he’s leading about as close to a normal life as a child can with such a disease — thanks in large part to Britain’s excellent medical system. Seeing him through cancer treatment is quite a project, and I’ve written a lot about it here. But my wife and I also have bigger project in mind — in Ethiopia.

In 2012 our pleasant life in Addis Ababa was turned upside down. Selam was working for the UN refugee agency and I was doing research in public health. Our baby boy, doted on by his nanny and neighbours alike, was almost one year old.

It was Selam who first noticed the odd glow in Asa’s eyes and, out of curiosity, Googled it. A few days later we were on a plane to England, and Asa began chemotherapy the following week.

Like cleft lip and extra digits, retinoblastoma is one of those things that can go wrong in the process of building a body. And like some other genetic conditions, it crops up with a regularity — about 1 in 20,000 births — that holds across world regions, without respect to the capacity of communities to respond.

If the signs — glowing pupils and crossed eyes — aren’t noticed and treatment initiated quickly, tumours originating in the retina can migrate into the eye sockets, brain, or bone marrow. After that, cure is very difficult.

In Ethiopia, poor systems of monitoring and referral mean that the great majority of children affected aren’t taken to hospital until the disease is far advanced. In Hawassa, the capital of the Southern region of the country, Dr Emebet Girma estimates that only 10% of children arrive at the university hospital with “early” signs; 90% have tumours so big that their eyes are bulging out of their sockets.

A matter of priorities

But in a country burdened by so many health problems, why should anyone bother about this cancer?

One reason is that, if treated promptly, patients can go on to lead full lives — sometimes without even a memory of the disease. Untreated, the suffering is unspeakable.

Another is that improving systems of diagnosis and referral for retinoblastoma would almost certainly have positive side-effects for other diseases: Spotting the tell-tale signs requires a high level of vigilance; readier recourse to medical advice; and closer communication between rural clinics and urban hospitals.

And cancer in the developing world isn’t as rare as you might think: It claims more lives than malaria, TB, and HIV-AIDS. Partly this is a result of international mobilization to combat those infectious diseases; the time is ripe for a similar approach to cancers.

Prospects for Ethiopia

Two week ago I flew to Addis again.

Last year I’d gathered here with doctors who treat retinoblastoma, and families whose children have been affected, to discuss the state of affairs in Ethiopia. Now it’s time to move the conversation forward. Tomorrow we’ll be meeting — along with several new participants — to try to identify priorities for action.

One of the guest speakers will be Brian Ouma, executive director of Daisy’s Eye Cancer Fund Kenya, an organization that has done amazing work improving services in that country. Less than a decade ago, Kenya had a very weak system for identifying and treating Rb; it now serves as a regional hub for treatment.

For Ethiopia — and for other countries where eye cancer causes so many unnecessary deaths — these achievements should be a great cause for hope.

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A distorted lens

Before They Pass Away, a project of the Anglo-Dutch photographer Jimmy Nelson, provides a window on some of the indigenous peoples of the world. His photographs — reproduced in a coffee-table book and a lavish website — are beautiful. But like museum exhibits without labels, there’s a great risk that they may be misinterpreted.

Citing Edward Curtis as an influence, Nelson set out to document what he calls “the world’s most aesthetic peoples” — he aims to “put these people on a pedestal, make them icons.” But speaking at University College London yesterday to promote the book, he revealed a startling ignorance about the actual state of the people he photographed.

 

Not all of the world’s indigenous people are equally at risk.

Lumping all of the 17 groups in the project into the same category of endangerment is crass. The Mursi of Ethiopia, for example, face very different pressures from the Gauchos of Argentina.

The Gauchos, cowboys of the Argentine pampas, are largely farmers or city-dwellers who come together for “a weekend-long picnic” every four years. They’ve long since integrated in Argentine society — indeed they are emblems in the national mythology of the states of the region.

The Mursi, who continue to rely almost entirely on cattle herding and small-scale agriculture in the Omo Valley, are under threat from rapidly expanding commercial agriculture and from a government that views their culture with contempt. To present their demise, as Nelson’s website does, as the result of  “extreme drought” and “national parks”, does them no favours.

 

Their “passing away” isn’t always voluntary or peaceful.

Nelson seems convinced that these cultures are doomed, and that their unraveling will happen quickly and painlessly.  “The world of materialism is so attractive that they’ll choose to leave,” he said in his presentation at UCL. “Nobody’s going to die, but their culture will.”

There’s a smugness here about the allure of Western lifestyles. For many Mursi, however, exchanging their cattle and mud-hut for an office job and a city apartment doesn’t sound at all like a good deal. Modern life certainly has its attractions, but the people I’ve gotten to know in Ethiopia and the Congo desire certain parts of it (e.g., medicine and literacy), rather than the whole package.

Furthermore, the idea that nobody gets hurt in these transitions is dead wrong. This is a sanitized version of history — like an episode of the A-Team where there’s lots of action but nobody ever gets hurt.

 

Many of these groups are actively engaged in struggles to secure rights to their lands.

Both locally and internationally, many campaigns are being fought to defend the sovereignty of these people.* After his talk, I asked Nelson if he was engaging with any of them. He had been bombarded with requests, he said. But he didn’t seem to have pursued them.

There was one exception — the United Nations, he said, was interested in screening some of the images on Times Square in New York. For five minutes, perhaps, their strange and beautiful faces would replace the ads for Coke and McDonalds. And perhaps as quickly, be forgotten.

 

Beautiful portraits alone won’t help these people.

There are several precedents to what Nelson’s doing, and it’s unclear that they have helped the groups concerned. What did Leni Riefenstahl’s photographs of the Nuba of Sudan do for them? Or Angela Fisher’s photographs of the peoples of the Omo Valley?

 

Changing course?

Nelson has a chance to redeem himself, and to channel the attention that his project is receiving in positive ways. The next steps in the project, he says, will be to take the book back to the people he photographed. And to ask, “Did I represent them correctly?”

A sequel and a BBC TV series are in the works. Done sensitively, they could be an opportunity for learning on both sides.** Done in the style of the first installment, they’re likely only to mislead.

 

* Some of the many organizations that are advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples include the Forest People’s Programme, the Rights and Resources Initiative, Survival, and Friends of Lake Turkana.

** For a great example of how to do this right, see Cory Kratz’s book on the reception of images of the Okiek in Kenya and the USA: The Ones That are Wanted: Communication and the Politics of Representation in a Photographic Exhibition (California, 2002).

 

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The EPA: A victim of its own success?

William Ruckelshaus was the first director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In a recent interview he reflected on what’s changed during the 43 years since the agency was established — and in particular since the passing of landmark legislation on clean air and water in the 1970s (full interview here).

 

Interviewer: Take me back to the time of the creation of the Clean Water Act – what was the feeling at the time that made the EPA and made the Clean Water Act necessary?

Well, the sentiment was an explosion of public concern about the environment. It was caused by a number of factors. Rachel Carson’s book [Silent Spring], which was written in 1962, had a cumulative effect that was quite pronounced in the country at the time. We had flammable rivers — you already mentioned the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. We had people in Denver wanting to see the mountains and people in Los Angeles wanting to see one another….

The difference today from where we were 40 years ago is where public opinion is. If public opinion were as intolerant of what’s happening to our environment and our public health today as they were 40 years ago, you wouldn’t have a partisan split on this issue. There was almost unanimity that something be done about it.

Interviewer: So, what changed?

I think a number of things changed. Maybe the most important thing is success. The EPA may well be a victim of its own success. We don’t see the same kinds of visible pollution problems today that we did. We don’t have flammable rivers anymore and we don’t have smog that’s so awful that you can’t even see one another. That was the situation back in the ’60s when the public’s concern began to express itself.

We still have problems today; they tend to be more invisible. They tend to be things that you can’t smell, touch and feel the way you could 40 years ago. And that just doesn’t get public attention.

 

In the developing world there are still plenty of “smelly” problems. But it may be that the invisible, odorless ones are ultimately the most perilous.

How do we mobilise concern over invisible threats?

If the nudge units of the world aren’t working on this already, they ought to be.

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Top ten books of 2013

These are the books that marked the year for me.* Each resonated in one way or another with things I’ve learned as a researcher in Ethiopia and Congo, and as a dad.

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1. The landgrabbers: The new fight over who owns the Earth
, by Fred Pearce (2012).

Since the food crisis of 2008, there’s been a rush by food-importing countries to buy up land overseas on which to grow food (or fuel) for the folks back home. Pearce, an award-winning science journalist, traveled the world looking into the ramifications of this phenomenon for local people. The crops involved range from wheat to jatropha (used for biofuels), and every continent is represented — though Africa, with the cheapest land and least accountable governments, figures prominently.

 

2. Full planet, empty plates, by Lester Brown (2012).

This book provides more back-story on the food crisis, and describes how — unless we tackle it quickly — climate change will likely lead to mass starvation over the next century. Under “Business as Usual,” we face a 6-degree rise in average temperatures by the end of the century; and for each degree rise, crop yields fall by 10%. Usefully, Brown has a plan for getting out of this mess. The short version is drastic energy reforms (reducing carbon emissions by 80% in a decade) combined with measures to reduce population growth through combating poverty and spreading education.

 

 3. Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway (2010)

If we are to have any hope of pulling this off, we will have to study a little history, and there are important lessons to be learned from the battles to regulate CFCs, tobacco, and noxious pesticides. The historians of science Oreskes and Conway have studied these cases in depth, and they make two key points: (1) The marketers of the products have never submitted easily; they’ve fought tooth and nail, and in every case action by citizens has been crucial. Carbon pollution is the current front in this war, and given the wealth and influence of the corporations concerned — and the heavy dependence of the industrialized world on dirty energy — this battle dwarfs the others. (2) The “lack of scientific consensus” that has slowed down the transition to cleaner technologies can be traced to a few merchants of doubt – ideologues with scientific credentials who are on the payroll of the companies that profit from the status quo.

 

4. Raising Elijah: Protecting our children in an age of environmental crisis, by Sandra Steingraber (2011)

This book personalizes the issue of environmental risks, and highlights its special relevance to parents and children. Diagnosed with cancer as a young adult, Steingraber recounts her attempts to raise her son without the risks she faced. Well versed in biology, and with an inquisitive bent, she finds dangers lurking all around, and sets out to remodel her family’s lifestyle to minimize them. “Once you know,” she writes, “you can’t not know.” If we would see our children (and theirs) live well, we will all have to make courageous decisions like her, and push our political representatives to do likewise. As my wife Selam and I are supporting our son through his cancer treatment, this book struck a strong chord.

 

5. Conservation refugees: The hundred-year conflict between global conservation and native peoples, by Mark Dowie (2009).

After returning from the Congo to London this autumn I learned that the communities who’d hosted us during our research had been evicted from the forest camps they called home, on the grounds that they were engaged in unsustainable hunting. This came as a surprise, but it turns out it’s part of a widespread phenomenon of indigenous people being evicted from their ancestral lands in the name of conservation — becoming conservation refugees. Dowie pulls together many such stories and asks how conservationists became involved in injustices like this. He exposes as a fallacy the idea that people and nature are intrinsically opposed, and proposes a formula for covenants that indigenous peoples might make with governments and conservation organizations, to manage their homelands sustainably.

 

If the foregoing has depressed you, read on. The rest are more hopeful!

 

6. One illness away: Why poor people become poor and how they escape poverty, by Anirudh Krishna (2010)

Although it hardly needs saying for anyone who’s familiar with conservation refugees like the !Kung/Basarwa, the idea that poor people are “born, not made” is obsolete. Krishna is an economist who’s done a lot to promote the idea of poverty flows, and here he describes a method he devised for identifying the steps that families pass through on their way down into or up out of poverty. He and his colleagues have applied this method in communities on all four continents, and what emerges is a typology of hazards — snakes and ladders — that can tip people everywhere into poverty or help pull them out. (The book’s title is an allusion to the most common hazard of all: a catastrophic illness that ends up draining a household’s capital.) The logical next step is to put in place institutions (such as nationalised medical care) that protect people from these traps, or buffer them when they fall down.

 

 7. Literacy and mothering: How women’s schooling changes the lives of the world’s children, by Robert A. LeVine, Sarah LeVine, Beatrice Schnell-Anzola, Meredith Rowe, and Emily Dexter. (2012).

One widely recognized route out of poverty is education. Literacy and Mothering shows how women’s schooling also contributes to the health of the next generation, by equipping mothers with a set of linguistic skills that facilitate effective communication in clinics and increase their receptivity to authoritative bureaucratic advice. This is the first systematic demonstration of how “what kids learn in school” translates into improved child survival. It ought to stimulate educators to maximize the contributions that schools make to this process — and motivate clinicians to devise ways of communicating more effectively with patients who lack the skills that schooling provides. (It inspired me to carry out a similar investigation in Ethiopia for my PhD; I’ve written a longer review of the book here.)

 

8. Whose freedom? The battle over America’s most important idea, by George Lakoff (2007)

There’s a big political dimension to each of the challenges in the books reviewed here — transitioning to clean energy, eradicating poverty, and improving education systems. For that reason, this book by a Berkeley cognitive scientist and linguist is perhaps the most hopeful of the lot. What Lakoff does is break down the very sophisticated communication techniques of the American conservative movement, and demonstrate how they can be harnessed by progressives. His focus is on the radically opposing associations — and therefore, meanings — of the word freedom for conservatives and progressives; and his argument is that reaffirming a progressive meaning of freedom (which includes the freedom to live a healthy life) may be a prerequisite to progress on many other causes.

 

9. The Neighborhood Project: Using evolution to improve my city, one block at at time, by David Sloan Wilson (2011).

In social work, it’s rare to find compelling “evidence-based” policy that’s framed in terms of evolutionary biology. Wilson (the son of a novelist who grew up to be an evolutionary anthropologist) has made important contributions to the theory of multilevel selection (the idea that natural selection operates at the level of genes and groups as well as at the level of individual organisms) and the evolution of religions; and more recently he’s emerged as an evangelist for evolution as a resource for improving human communities. In this book he describes his first attempts to apply evolutionary ideas to civic life in his hometown of Binghamton, New York. Wilson was recently interviewed about this project on Krista Tippett’s radio programme, On Being.

 

 10. The Way of Life according to Lao Tzu (seventh century BC?).

I first read this work (also known as the Tao te Ching) as a teenager, and something led me back to it this past year. Rather than attempt to summarize the collection of poems, I quote here a stanza from one of my favourites, in the translation of Witter Bynner:

 

Can you hold the door of your tent
Wide to the firmament?
Can you, with the simple stature
Of a child breathing nature,
Become, notwithstanding,
A man?

 

* The list doesn’t necessarily draw on things published in 2013. No apologies for not being up to the minute. (I’m still catching up on five thousand years of literature!)

 

 

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