Thursday, September 14, 2006

Africa: The Perfect Photo-Op

I am sitting in my dentist’s waiting room, flipping through really old magazines, and doing my best to dodge the anorexic receptionist’s icy half smiles. (And by the way, my dentist charges $200 to look your way without disdain. You’d think we’d get current issues of Vanity Fair for that price.)

Anyway, there on the cover of a dated People Magazine is Jessica Simpson—pre divorce, while she was in the middle of the most blatant lie in this town (“My husband and I are happy! Really!”) since Jeffrey Katzenberg swore his allegiance to Michael Eisner.

And guess where Ms. Simpson is during a pre “we decided to go our separate ways but remain good friends” publicity tour? Where can American starlets possibly go to blunt an upcoming publicity onslaught? Yep. They go to Africa. They go to Africa and they make sure they are photographed feeding emaciated kids.

Ah. Africa. It’s not just for messianic rock stars anymore.

It reminds me of a snarky article about Ashley Judd in South Africa by Josh Trevino which was originally published on Tactitus, but removed because… well, goddamn lawyers. You can read it here, however.

Among the notable parts:

And every place we went, Ashley Judd swooped down like a good Southern matron and hugged the small children. She cried with destitute mothers. She stroked the heads of poor black people. The photographers from Glamour and Conde Nast loved it. And then, she's back in the car, and Ashley is tired, and Ashley is sick, and Ashley needs acupuncture. I asked the YouthAIDS senior person whether maybe Ashley was a bit spoiled, and she told me the story of how Ashley refused to do their first promotional tour to Cambodia unless she was allowed to fly British Airways first class all the way. “That's quite an expense for us as a humanitarian organization....but we ended up having to do it.”

A profound love for humanity, but no time for humans: the very picture of the narcissist celebrity leftist.

Never gets old.

Eventually, eventually I will blackmail/wear down a Mr. AK to write the back story of when Geldof first visited Ethiopia… before he became a Bushie. ("Clinton was a good guy, but he did fuck all.")

Another thing. Can we do this? Can we put a moratorium (pronounced “moratori’UM” as in South Park’s “Planetari-UM”) on Africans performing native songs and dances for visitors? It’s always awkward trying to keep up with the beat and all… and having to keep a smile plastered on your face in the merciless heat while all you want to do is hand a check to someone and find a Chinese acupuncturist… really, ship the starving kids to a Hollywood studio and save everybody humiliating exercises in humility.

And seriously, this is a crime against humanity.

As Africans, how did we let Africa get to this point?


Anonymous waka said...


Didn't know where you were going with this until the very last sentence. As Africans, how did we let africa get to this point, indeed!

we've taken so little responsibility.

thanks again.

12:22 PM, September 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stuff like this makes you nostalgic about the good old colonial days, aydell. No one has to pretend anything then about their true feelings towards the poor Africans.

1:43 PM, September 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

answer: when we started paying too much for things like dentist visits! And sat there and judged those who only did something slightly worse (or better)!

2:49 PM, September 14, 2006  
Anonymous Osa said...

nahhh. when we stopped believing in our selves. if we feel disrespected it is because we didn't have the guts to believe is us.

3:18 PM, September 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't hate when celebrtes like Jessica visit Africa for half an hour and come with pictures of themselves and poor Afirca kids.

3:58 PM, September 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good question!
I think it started when we began imitating others and forgot who we were. The irony is it's still that way all over the place. You ever noticed and wonder why African leaders,with a few exception, do not even show up with their African outfit? It is even worse with the you know who.

4:57 PM, September 14, 2006  
Anonymous lilimimikiki said...

ah... when we gave jessica an entry visa.

LOL- plan-an-taree-UHM. i just *saw* that episode too!

5:34 PM, September 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny how we are always asking ourselves a variation of the same question;

How did we let Ethiopia come to this?
How can we let our people suffer like this?
How can we Africans let this happen?

and in the 'we' we include ourselves when really it is 'them'. We left. The people who stayed ended up in two camps (or three depending on your political leanings) The psychos who lead (backwards) and the chiqun hizb who let it happen to themselves. (three being you know who)

In conclusion, 'we' didn't let this or anything happen to Africa/Ethiopia etc...

We left. Remember?

We work hard to build up our new countries and pay for overpriced dentists.

Those who stayed behind f***ed it up.

6:46 PM, September 14, 2006  
Anonymous tsega said...

I don't know, last anonymous. There seems to be a gap in that logic. We left, which contributed to Faradise. And if we say that those who stayed fucked it up (can you say 'fucked' on this blog?), then can we have a stake in the solution, or should we curl up and look the other way? Reducing this to its bones, do we, as members of the Diaspora, have a role in Ethiopian politics and her well being, or because we left we've forfeited all our say?

BTW, ET-Wonq, a dentist in B.A. who only charges 200 to megelameT you gently....? on the cheap, hun.

7:44 PM, September 14, 2006  
Blogger Dina said...

Jimmy C in an Ethiopian get up-- that was stomach turing for this early an hour. We're just a great playground for idiiot do-gooders who wanna dress up "ethnic".

BTW Happy New Year

12:01 AM, September 15, 2006  
Anonymous Gooch said...

Well, I think Africa was always behind.

Africa has always been, over the past few centuries at least, the least socially developed continent.

Few institutions, little continuity, little technological progress and on and on.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that we are where we are today. In fact, I think it's the false idea that Africa's problems were mostly to do with colonization, inhospitable environment, or some such peripheral factor that lead to false high expectations for Africa.

The basic issues of social development were ignored, which I think explains the lack of progress, or even regression, over the last few decades.

That's why we campaign for democracy. Democracy and social development go hand in hand. Dictatorship just perpetuates the old, backward 'big-chief' system, keeping Africa from progressing.

12:33 PM, September 15, 2006  
Anonymous m.k. said...


Abataye yimoot! You da man.

2:34 PM, September 15, 2006  
Anonymous zegabi said...

Way to go Gooch...blame the victim! :)

But seriously first, Africa was not always behind.

Second, it is by far not the least socially developed. It is perhaps the least industrially developed. Only to the extent that social development doesnot reflect western values can that critique hold. It ignores social structures that though not marketed as in the west still strive in Africa starting from the extended family and the support structures it provides.

Of course Africa is not the west, and it is exactly those prescriptions [that the west be mimicked and only against that standard can we be measured] that leads to dead ends - primarily because what ever checks on power that existed under traditional systems can not be recreated once it is abolished. Think of Haile Sellassie before and after the Italo-Ethiopian war. Why did the abolishment of the traditional system lead to the birth of an autocrat even though by all western standards, Haile Selassie's government was "modern" as compared to any that came before it.

8:14 PM, September 15, 2006  
Anonymous Gooch said...

Actually, Zegabi, 'Western values' have nothing to do with it.

Let's ignore the West and look at Asia (Latin America you may claim to be 'Westernized'). By any objective criteria, before colonization, Asia as a whole was far more socially advanced than Africa.

Enduring institutions are a mark of development in any society. Asia had far more advanced, stable, and functioning institutions. A small example - monarchies. In Africa, for the most part, succession was ad hoc. When the chief dies, the strongest stakes over. Even where there were rules, such as heredity or appointment, they were violated more often than followed. Not the case in Asia.

Asia was far more technologically advanced than Africa, and technology does not just mean engineering, but knowledge and art. Technological advancement is not just an accident - it requires social development to create the institutions and environment for growth.

By any standard, Africa was behind.

As to the checks and balances in the old Ethiopian aristocracy, I would strongly argue these checks and balances were actually hindrances.

Royal succession was rarely followed; instead, when a monarch died, it was full out warfar among the nobles, especially during the zemene mesafint.

I have heard some say that this was a way of introducing merit into the system of heredity! Just the opposite. For development, stability and continuity and institutions are a must. A war every ten or twenty years means regression to the starting point all the time. Might is right is the law of the jungle, where a society's focus is on survival and perpetual warfare.

You can extend this to our family structures. Knowledge is passed from generation to generation if there is strong, formalized and efficient interaction among the generations.

In most Asian societies, you would rarely find children growing up outside their father's household. Whereas in Ethiopia, for example, most fathers have children with a few mothers, and many children are lent out to relatives.

There is no family name. Relatively little is passed from generation to generation - the building blocks of development are small.

Rambled, didn't I. Just a few observations.

10:10 PM, September 15, 2006  
Anonymous zegabi said...

Chief Gooch,

Okay let’s look at Asia…perhaps none other than the shining example that is Japan which modernized on the heels of a revolution (otherwise known as the restoration). Japan was ruled by feudal lords [the Shoguns] for centuries before the 1868 Meiji restoration. The Mikado (Emperor) did exist and was ceremonial. A “Zemene Mesafint” of sorts reigned for over 650 years where these powerful men, the shoguns, vied for power over each other. Yet, within a short time after the restoration, Japan was able to industrialize (by all accounts after a revolution that destroyed the age old system before it). Coming on the heels of a revolution, the question is, is this modernization the result of “enduring institutions” as you claim?

I would argue not. An economy that had been declining, the arrival of American fleet, and the countless masterless Samurai gave the perfect impetus for the elite to change course. It forced a consensus among them that unless quick modernization was to happen, they were going to end up a colony of some sort. Add this to an extremely obedient society, and you have modernization. Japanese society absorbed the changes that came with industrialization while at all times holding dear what was uniquely its own. Outside threat, consensus, and discipline were the ingredients for modernization. Similar changes could have happened in Ethiopia under Tewodros, but the consensus and discipline were lacking. It was not for lack of institutions [the church was there, the imperial institution was there] but the consensus was lacking.

You argued that the “checks and balances” on imperial power are backward. This is an interesting observation. But I would argue that centralized Monarchies (or any central authority) with out a local elite that has local interests at heart to keep it in check is extremely susceptible. While on the one hand these centralized institutions trump over all interests locally, they effectively lead to loss of power to outsiders that are much more powerful than you. Look at Meles today, there is no one that he has to answer to locally, no one that threatens his hold on power if he “sells out” national interests to outside powers. This lack of a check on his power is what led to the current tragedy. You can think of the checks as courts an effective parliament etc… and argue that given what is currently there today, this is what is needed. But one must also recognize that it is the move to a highly centralized structure that led to where we are.

By weakening the power of local elites, what Haile Selassie achieved was a central state that was admittedly strong internally but highly susceptible to outside influences that were even more powerful than him. Hence after returning from Bath, though he was supported by the British to consolidate power over those around him, he was also never able to exercise effective control over the British. In fact it took a turn toward the US for him to get out of the shadows of these new princes. Had the traditional autonomy of local chiefs been present and dissent allowed, the British would have packed up and left long ago. Their own purpose there was to ensure that the emperor was the only ruler because they believed he, as a singular power could be managed. Of course, recognizing his situation, he played the British and ended up in the axis of another powerful power [to some extent]. Similar events are playing out in Somalia now, would it be better to have a “government” and be manipulated by outside powers, or have nothing at all and preclude entry of any foreign power until such time a local leadership arises?

Contrary to what you argued, the traditional institutions we had in Ethiopia were very advanced. Nothing was left to chance – no one trusted chance to ensure next first born was going to be the best there is – a natural selection of sorts ensured the best ruler that can come next. These extended to other nobility as well. That titles were non-hereditary meant that the power structure was inclusive and mobile. Take Ras Alula for example, son of a peasant, he was able to rise to become one of the most powerful men in the country. There were many others like him. These are all things that we should appreciate about our social system, it wasn’t at all backward. It was decidedly non-western. Adopting the western model superficially eventually led to where we are now.

I think your argument about fathers is just out there, I wish there was a statistic to support your case but, if as you argue, Asian families were an exception and if this phenomenon led to modernization, then they should have modernized long ago. But it wasn’t until after 1868 for Japan, after 1949 for China, and late 20th century for many other Asian countries.

I don’t think the absence of a family name is also a bad thing. It implies that you rather than your lineage is important in where you go in life.

1:54 AM, September 16, 2006  
Anonymous Gooch said...


This is interesting - well I hope it is for others! Thanks.

Japan vs. Ethiopia is a good illustration of the impact of differences in social development. Even into the 20th century, people were dreamily creating parallels between Ethiopia with Japan, though Japan was infinitely more advanced. No need to spell it out here, but Japan in 1868 vs Ethiopia in 1868 is no comparison. An obedient and disciplined society is not just an accident. The Japanese feudal lords rallied around the Emperor, while Ethiopian feudal lords sought foreign allies to strengthen their fights amongst themselves to decide who was going to be the next Emperor. Hmm.

Centuries of tradition resulted in a society where people knew how to work collectively for a common goal, whereas in Ethiopia, relatively speaking, there was no such thing. You've probably seen Levine's Greater Ethiopia and Messay Kebede's book on Ethiopian modernization on this.

By the way, clearly, when I talk about enduring institutions, social development, technological development, or other such sweeping concepts, I don't mean there were no revolutions at all, or that there are no institutions in Africa, etc. We are making relative comparisons.

After all, there was a mother of all revolutions in China!! But what happened - the revolution passed, China suffered and murdered tens of millions of its own, and it is now back on the road of development.

Why is this? I say it is because Chinese society was so advanced to begin with that in the long run, things like the weak emperorship of the last century and the Communist revolution are hiccups on the long road of progress.

About what Haile Selassie did... Again, Ethiopia's nobility were more threats than they were checks and balances. Hence the zemene mesafint, our belated dark ages. It is very unlikely that any progress would have occured had the nobility not been checked because, again, rather than working with each other, they were interesting in fighting each other and gaining the crown.

I don't say it was the 'right' approach - I don't think it was every going to work for the reasons you say. Killing of upward mobility in our individualist and rebellious society meant trouble. On the other hand, I don't think zemene mesafint would have worked, either.

Anyway, again broadly speaking, we can see huge differences in Asia and Africa today. Are we going to explain them simply as historical accident? For how long?

6:46 AM, September 16, 2006  
Anonymous Moi said...

I’m picking up on Gooch’s social development argument. I hope I’m on the same page as you and Zegabi regarding social development. Just to be sure and not to make an arse of myself, I admit, I did a quick definition search of social development. It “encompasses a commitment to individual well-being and volunteerism, and the opportunity for citizens to determine their own needs and to influence decisions which affect them. Social development incorporates public concerns in developing social policy and economic initiatives.” Phew, that’s what I thought. I think if it weren’t for our social development, Africa would have been an even worse place. I’m thinking genius social safety-nets as ekub, idir, mahiber, debo and whatever else is out there that ensure survival and dignity in the absence of governments’ commitment and meaningful social policy. You can argue that the ultimate goal of social development should be “developing social policies and economic initiatives…” as stated in the definition. However, I will take forging mechanisms for survival and some sort of dignity until the political space in Africa is wider for social development to… develop. I don’t see not having family names as a problem at all considering the amazing mental record keeping skills and passing down oral history to the next generation. Think of those illiterate elderly woman, who know the entire calendar by heart and who was born three days after ye’ametu Gabriel… A quick interesting point regarding family name – I did a course on how to become an advocate for battered women and one surprising fact that I got was that women adopting their husbands’ names psychologically give men the idea of owning their wives… I remember sitting in the class thinking thank God I’m from Ethiopia (I rubbed it in too as diplomatically as possible). Regarding children being ‘lent out to relatives’, if you think about it the same thing happens in the US. Look how many parents have to leave their children in day cares for 12 hours a day, in extended school days, after care, 55 extra curricular activities and at home good old e-nanny ie. TV or video games… Some social foundation, hah?

10:25 AM, September 16, 2006  
Blogger zegabi said...


Here is my take on what you wrote...another long rant, but a final one I promise.

I think what was fundamentally different about what grew out of Japan of 1868 and perhaps Ethiopia of 1850s and 60s [Tewodros’s rule] is the lack of consensus among the elite. Here was a society just like Japan, that had come out of a decentralized arrangement of governance, an Emperor that recognized his vulnerability unless he started producing his own arms which could have opened the way to industrialization [think of the technical school and foundry he opened up at Gafat], yet the consensus was lacking. Perhaps it was that the outside threat was not as apparent as in Japan. Not recognizing that outside threat crippled both China and Korea [countries that you yourself argued had far advanced social systems].

You argued “Centuries of tradition resulted in a society where people knew how to work collectively for a common goal” I would argue that People in Ethiopia were as loyal as one could expect to their local nobility, and I think to turn that system around there didn’t need to be the sort of hierarchy and obedience present in the Japanese citizenry. The problem as I see it is that the Ethiopian nobility were removed rather than pulled into the system. There weren’t enough incentives for them to remain loyal as for example an outside threat presents. When the threat did come, people did rally under Menelik, but the chance for industrialization was lost, because Melenik could afford to import the arms rather than make them locally. The idea that Japanese style obedience is required or even a good thing, goes against the type of system you yourself write about.

I am not arguing for a Zemene Mesafint; that signifies the failure of the imperial system to accommodate the nobility to the extent they rebel against it completely. But I also think the removal of the nobility is another extreme, where in the event of the leader going astray, there is no one the check it.

And finally about China, there is this tendency to credit all of Chinas good fortunes to the changes instituted by Deng Xiaoping. However, China since 1949 had managed to build up its human as well as industrial capital. 1979 did not arrive in a vacuum. China was effectively open prior to the revolution but it never modernized the way it did after the revolution. Of course, the Cultural Revolution has cost a lot of lives. But even the Chinese agree that Mao was half good and half bad. Absent the years from 1949-1979, would China be where it is today?

9:35 PM, September 16, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it is the ferTaCH in faradise, not the other way around. However, this post brought out interesting academic musings, nice readings for a social development 101 exam. Sadly, I fail to see the panacea or at least a suggestive remedy in the gooch, zegabi academic rant or throwbacks.

4:29 AM, September 17, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to bother you, but I am curious about something. Your gender.

Your readers often refer to you as "anchi", as a female. I may have missed it, but I haven't seen any indication from you whether you are a man or a woman. If you are a woman all the power to you, sister.

But for those of us who missed this important information (I am just being nosey, really) will you tell us if you are really a woman?

No, I am not proposing!!

But whoever you are, I love you. You are one of a kind.

I am sure Meles is one of your fans. God bless you.

6:37 AM, September 17, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothing new with the Eth meeting: No clear agenda.
As to the Burbs and their HOA, I like to speculate a bit:
The typical Burbs are Republican voting, Fox Chnl watching Ditto heads, war supporting bunch.
Is this somewhat correct?

4:13 PM, September 30, 2006  

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