Archive for Africa

12 Years A Slave: an emotional reaction.

12 Years A Slave, wow. My goodness. Sitting on the bus home, feeling like I have been thumped in the guts. I went to see this film alone, as for some reason I didn’t trust myself to react calmly in the company of other similarly emotional friends. I didn’t feel much for most of it. Maybe that’s because I’ve become desensitised to such numbing horrors. Maybe I’ve just read too much about slavery or seen too many movies or heard too many songs. Maybe. Or maybe that’s because I was steeling myself at the beginning of each new scene, fearing the arrival of a uniquely horrific image that would stay with me for years.

Hey, who knows, perhaps it was all of those things. The film would have been far more terrifying had the racists been unknown actors. With so many famous faces, it was easier for me to cling to some semblance of reality, to step beyond the evil. Whenever things became too unsettling, I could tell myself: “these are not racists. Look, that’s Paul Giamatti. That’s Paul Dano. That’s Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve seen them do interviews. They’re nice people.” I found myself, at some point in the film, counting down the time towards the end. It didn’t feel like going to the cinema so much as making a visit to the surgeon’s table: you knew it was going to hurt, you just didn’t know how much.

Slavery has shaped so much of our modern world, at terrible, terrible cost. And the wounds of what it did and what it is still doing may still be raw, or at the very least still resonant. Looking at those people hacking away at undergrowth, born into ownership, I asked myself the most obvious and the most important question: Why? What possessed people to think themselves superior to the extent that they would stack human beings ceiling high and ship them across seas? What was it? Beyond the rhetoric and the prayer books and the cheque books – why was that moment, that tipping point when members of an entire society, either tacitly or explicitly, gave a collective nod and said, “yes, this is ok?” Why? As simple as that – why? It takes a certain level of hatred to subject one person, or even a few dozen, to consistent hardship; but the enslavement of tens, hundreds of millions, for not decades but entire centuries? What measure of poison must have been in people’s souls?

Off the bus now, walking home, I remember that there was a time when this was all considered absolutely fine: and then I thought that there are, of course, places in this world where human beings are similarly shackled even now, being freely traded so they can provide labour, sex or anything else their owners demand. And I think of how I felt as I watched the closing credits, not moving, partly out of respect for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s outstanding performance, partly out of relief that this film, though harrowing, had not harrowed me as much as I had worried if might. The tears almost ran at one point – I won’t spoil the plot by revealing which – but not quite. As I wandered out into the foyer, I stopped to speak with an elderly black steward, who saw me out with a smile and a slow shake of the head. “Ha”, he said, offering perhaps the most fitting review that 12 Years A Slave will receive, “I don’t like to watch such things.”

Dear Mr. Gove, we need to talk about the Empire in our schools

I read with interest Michael Gove’s article in the Daily Mail, where he defended the changes that his Government has made to the UK’s history curriculum. He writes that these changes “have been welcomed by top academics as a way to give all children a proper rounded understanding of our country’s past and its place in the world.” Mr. Gove is particularly concerned by what he sees as left-wing revisionism about World War I, which by many has “been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.”

It is understandable that Mr. Gove, at a time when public trust in institutions is crumbling, would want to mount a vigorous defence of those in positions of power. After all, he might argue, it is all too easy to snipe at those in charge. Gove contends further that “our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country…There is, of course, no unchallenged consensus. That is why it matters that we encourage an open debate on the war and its significance.”

I hope, in time, that this open debate extends to a thorough discussion of the British Empire in the curriculum. I wish that I had learned more about, for example, the Scramble for Africa during my GCSEs, yet despite the crucial role of imperialism in shaping our modern world it was largely absent from our syllabus. At school we had a good look at the Indian Mutiny, and the end of slavery, and that was about it. It always seemed odd to me how I could have gone through my adolescence without studying a period so pivotal in this country’s fortunes: particularly since the Scramble occurred in the thirty year period immediately prior to the World War I (and provided the Allies with many of the resources it would need to fight it).

Mr. Gove is rightly concerned that certain narratives may find themselves erased from the versions of history that we see in schools, and welcomes the fact that “the numbers of young people showing an appetite for learning about the past, and a curiosity about our nation’s story, is growing once more. ” Of course, there are elements of that past which many people may find an uncomfortable read. As the Guardian noted in April 2012,

“Thousands of documents detailing some of the most shameful acts and crimes committed during the final years of the British empire were systematically destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments, an official review has concluded…Those papers that survived the purge were flown discreetly to Britain where they were hidden for 50 years in a secret Foreign Office archive, beyond the reach of historians and members of the public, and in breach of legal obligations for them to be transferred into the public domain.”

The article continues:

“Among the documents are a handful which show that many of the most sensitive papers from Britain’s late colonial era were not hidden away, but simply destroyed. These papers give the instructions for systematic destruction issued in 1961 after Iain Macleod, secretary of state for the colonies, directed that post-independence governments should not get any material that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government”, that could “embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers”, that might compromise intelligence sources, or that might “be used unethically by ministers in the successor government”.

Regrettably, this country’s Government has erased some inconvenient truths from history. Boris Johnson, as concerned as his colleague Mr. Gove that the tale of World War One is being cynically rewritten, wrote in the Telegraph that “one of the reasons I am a Conservative is that, in the end, I just can’t stand the intellectual dishonesty of the Left. In my late teens I found I had come to hate the way Lefties always seemed to be trying to cover up embarrassing facts about human nature, or to refuse to express simple truths – and I disliked the pious way in which they took offence, and tried to shoosh you into silence, if you blurted such a truth.”

Mr. Johnson continues:

“We all want to think of the Germans as they are today – a wonderful, peaceful, democratic country…The Germans are as they are today because they have been frank with themselves, and because over the past 60 years they have been agonisingly thorough in acknowledging the horror of what they did.” (My italics)

I hope, in that vein, that Britain begins to interrogate its imperial past with the same rigour that Mr. Gove and Mr. Johnson have demanded of World War One’s historians. If we are indeed to look back into the past with a fearless spirit of inquiry, then our gaze should rest there too.

For Nelson Mandela: “The privilege was ours.”

Yesterday afternoon, I was walking to Oxford Circus to meet a friend when the grief finally hit me. I had been kidding myself that Nelson Mandela’s death wasn’t sad, really – he’d been ill for ages, and what’s more most people don’t make it to 95; especially those who fight for the freedom of their people. And then I thought: who was I kidding. It was absolutely heartbreaking. All that love and honour and glory and beauty just floating up, away and beyond. And, just on my way past the National Portrait Gallery on a bright December afternoon, my eyes were overrun with tears and I was grateful for the shadow of my woollen winter hat. Everyone who loved anything about Mandela will have their own fond thoughts about him. I tried to put some of mine into words, and these, below, are the only ones that came.

Your name is the best answer yet
To the question:
“How can you weep
For a man you never met?”
With your bare hands,
You carved freedom from stone:
You became a king
Long before they gave you a throne.
You gave self-respect to millions of fatherless men,
Made countless Africans find joy in their skin.
Rest in progress out there among the stars
And please remember
That the privilege was ours.

 

Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel.

Dear revisionists, Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X. You will try to hide his anger from view. Right now, you are anxiously pacing the corridors of your condos and country estates, looking for the right words, the right tributes, the right-wing tributes. You will say that Mandela was not about race. You will say that Mandela was not about politics. You will say that Mandela was about nothing but one love, you will try to reduce him to a lilting reggae tune. “Let’s get together, and feel alright.” Yes, you will do that.

You will make out that apartheid was just some sort of evil mystical space disease that suddenly fell from the heavens and settled on all of us, had us all, black or white, in its thrall, until Mandela appeared from the ether to redeem us. You will try to make Mandela a Magic Negro and you will fail. You will say that Mandela stood above all for forgiveness whilst scuttling swiftly over the details of the perversity that he had the grace to forgive.
You will try to make out that apartheid was some horrid spontaneous historical aberration, and not the logical culmination of centuries of imperial arrogance. Yes, you will try that too. You will imply or audaciously state that its evils ended the day Mandela stepped out of jail. You will fold your hands and say the blacks have no-one to blame now but themselves.
Well, try hard as you like, and you’ll fail. Because Mandela was about politics and he was about race and he was about freedom and he was even about force, and he did what he felt he had to do and given the current economic inequality in South Africa he might even have died thinking he didn’t do nearly enough of it. And perhaps the greatest tragedy of Mandela’s life isn’t that he spent almost thirty years jailed by well-heeled racists who tried to shatter millions of spirits through breaking his soul, but that there weren’t or aren’t nearly enough people like him.
Because that’s South Africa now, a country long ago plunged headfirst so deep into the sewage of racial hatred that, for all Mandela’s efforts, it is still retching by the side of the swamp. Just imagine if Cape Town were London.  Imagine seeing two million white people living in shacks and mud huts along the M25 as you make your way into the city, where most of the biggest houses and biggest jobs are occupied by a small, affluent to wealthy group of black people.  There are no words for the resentment that would still simmer there.
Nelson Mandela was not a god, floating elegantly above us and saving us. He was utterly, thoroughly human, and he did all he did in spite of people like you. There is no need to name you because you know who you are, we know who you are, and you know we know that too. You didn’t break him in life, and you won’t shape him in death. You will try, wherever you are, and you will fail.

UKIP’s Season In Bongo Bongo Land

Today was a day of contrasts. I began it by considering the words of Godfrey Bloom, a Member of the European Parliament for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), who stated his displeasure that so much foreign aid was going to “bongo bongo land”. I continued my day by going to watch A Season In The Congo at The Young Vic, a superb production led by the dignity and magnificence of Chiwetel Ejiotor in the lead role. (The play, should you wish to see it, is the story of Congo’s independence; and of the horrifying death of Patrice Lumumba, that nation’s first Prime Minister, at the hands of Joseph Mobutu’s troops. ) And here I am now. It’s later than I would like, and so this post may be somewhat less coherent than I would wish. But, whilst these contrasts remain fresh, I feel that a few things must be noted.

The first thing is that I think that Godfrey Bloom’s comments, for which he subsequently expressed regret, are spectacularly racist. To dismiss Africa, a continent of over fifty nations, as “bongo bongo land”, is to conjure an image of several million generic dark-skinned beggars anxiously squeezing at the benevolent British teat. It implies an image of countless people, somewhere over there, unaccountably waiting for colonial charity. That image is both wrong and offensive (of which more later).

The second thing is that UKIP’s statement on Mr. Bloom’s comments is perhaps more revealing than the original comments themselves. Steve Crowther, the party’s chairman, stated that “it doesn’t sound like anyone banging drums. It sounds like a shorthand way of saying places around the world which are in receipt of foreign aid. It’s not in itself the right word and it could seem disparaging to people who come from foreign countries and that‘s why I’ve asked him not to do it again”.

Mr. Crowther’s words read as a reluctant, tactical retraction, and not as a heartfelt apology. They read as a partial apologia for the type of attitudes that endorsed Britain’s imperial adventures from a conveniently remote distance. Mr. Crowther – like his colleague Mr. Bloom – still seems happy to cast African countries as some sort of unwitting dependant, and in doing so blithely brushes over the oppressions to which these countries were once so brutally subjected.

Reflecting upon A Season In The Congo, I think that this is why I took issue with Mr. Bloom’s words. After all, it’s not as if Congo and other African countries begged to be tied to the master’s yoke. And if those countries did end up receiving aid from Britain and other colonial powers, that’s only because their economies were so shattered by enslavement and slaughter that they ended up needing loans – not mere no-strings handouts, as UKIP would have us believe – so that they could ostensibly sustain themselves as viable trading partners (or, more accurately, as supine pastures for exploitation). In fact, there’s an argument that whatever financial aid Britain provides to these countries, it can never truly be enough to compensate for the horror wrought on these lands in the name of civilisation. All the money in the world cannot wholly replace the generations that were lost to bloodletting and bondage.

So, if we can, let’s depart from this narrative of passive African dependency: because it is as false as it is offensive. And let’s continue to ask ourselves why the UK’s leading political parties are willing to let UKIP, a party playing so fast and loose with historical facts, dictate the terms of our increasingly poisonous immigration debate.

 

East African women on FGM: “Sometimes they just call you lazy.”

“Sometimes they just call you lazy.”

On the last day of my Easter holidays, Dr. Phoebe Abe (or, as I know her, my mother) sat down in her living room with me and several women from Somalia, Egypt and Sudan.  My mother, a GP, had for some time been looking at the issue of female genital mutilation, or FGM, with Dr Comfort Momoh MBE.  However, this was the first time that I had ever met people with whom she worked.  Each of these women had undergone FGM early in their lives, and now, encouraged by her, they were talking frankly about how they felt.   One of them spoke of the agony that the procedure still caused her three decades later.  Frequently, when bent over with pain, she would receive little understanding from those in her community who did not know what she had experienced.  “Sometimes they just call you lazy”, she explained. “Most Somali women are very big,” she said, swiftly outlining the curves of her hips with her outstretched arms.  “‘You need to exercise, you need to lose weight’, they tell you.”

When going to see doctors, she had met with an attitude that was no less frustrating.  “Sometimes you feel like maybe they don’t care”, she said.  On several occasions when she went for an appointment, complaining of severe backache, she was prescribed painkillers without further examination, which merely led to complications elsewhere: most notably, the ibuprofen that she was given led to stomach pains, only compounding her discomfort.    The true problem lay deeper, and was only diagnosed after she fainted on one of her weekly visits to her GP.  As a result of the removal of her clitoris as a child, she now had incessant trouble with her back, and found it very difficult to hold her urine, which she found “very embarrassing”, as a result of which “we have isolated ourselves”, she said, looking round at each of her friends in the room.  They nodded in agreement.

Part of the problem, she continued, was that Somalis were a people whose daily lives went mostly unnoticed in the UK.  “The British call us the ‘invisible community’; we are there, but we are nowhere to be seen’”, she said.  Not only were there lingusitic and cultural problems to contend with – the thought of her talking this openly with English people was unthinkable – it was also “very, very rare” for women like her to speak out about these issues, and so I said that I would maintain their anonymity in any article that I wrote.

This, she said, is how it typically happens.  When you’re six years old, girls in the year above at the local school, or madrassa, go and have the procedure done; after that, they return to school and they tell you that you’re dirty for not having gone through it.   “We look up to them like they’re big girls”, she said. At that point, the young girls will go to their mothers and ask when they can have it done too.  Then they go and have and it done; and, she says with a wry laugh, “then you get disabled”.

Having gone through this, their male agemates will look at them with renewed respect, telling each of them that “you’re a good girl, you’re clean now eh?”  By the age of 14, most if not all of the girls will each have been paired off with a man, “and you’re expected to have your first baby at 16”.  One of the women got married at 16 to a 36-year old man, and one of the others recalled that, when she got married, “I was 18, he was 43”.

“Back home, men can have wives in another country”, one of them noted, revealing that “when my father died, we [found that] we had Indian sisters, [and] sisters in Norway”.  Having said that, due to the extreme discomfort that is the legacy of FGM, they took a very pragmatic approach to these affairs.  They would rather that they fulfilled their needs elsewhere.  “Why don’t you just have another wife?  “Go and get yourself a minyire [a second wife, pronounced min-year-ray]”, one of them told her husband.  “Sex for me is like a chore…We were not meant to enjoy sex.  We were supposed to be machines to have babies.”

Another woman described how she felt when her husband returned from work in the mood for sex.  “You are scared when your husband is coming to you,” she said.  “I hate sex…When I come home, I find myself a lot of things to do. I make a lot of jobs for myself.” The terrible pain caused by vaginal intercourse was little surprise, my mother pointed out to me, given that the clitoris was exceptionally sensitive, with eight thousand nerve endings.  Following the removal of the clitoris, the vagina would then be sewn back up so tight that it would be difficult to urinate, let alone have penetrative sex.

Often the women would just pretend to enjoy it, so as to get it over with.  “You don’t want to disappoint him, so you lie”, one of them said.  “You say, yes, yes, yes,” she panted, rolling her eyes theatrically as the others laughed.  It was after sex that the complications always arrived.  “I have been married for 10 years and have only had sex seven times,” said another woman.  “[After sex], I cry for two hours and then have paracetamol.  You can use hot water, to soothe yourself [between the legs] with a shower.  The first time is the worst, because the skin [which has been sewn back up] gets ripped.”

Every now and then, there would be women for whom these sensations came as a particularly unpleasant shock.  “Sometimes women don’t know if they’ve had FGM because they’ve been cut so long ago – [as long ago as] four years old – and they have to ask their parents”, my mother explained.  “‘Have you been circumcised?’ I ask them, and they say, ‘Oh, what’s that?  I don’t know…let me call me call my mum.  And they’re told, ‘oh yes, you were done when you were four years old.’…‘One woman’, my mother continued, ‘saw her daughter’s clitoris, and she was shocked.  She’d never seen one before.’”

The dearth of resources in this area had dangerous consequences, said my mother, who saw one or two cases of FGM in her local surgery each week.  GPs throughout the UK needed training so that they were aware of this problem.  “These women might die from renal failure without anyone knowing that they are suffering”, she said.  Moreover the numbers were sobering.  In the UK, there are 20,000 girls at risk of this procedure every year; in Africa alone, that figure is 3million.  An estimated 66,000 young girls and women in the UK have gone through it; in Africa, the number is thought to be more than 90million.

My mother recommended that several centres, or “pain clinics”, should be set up across the UK, whose staff should include a gynaecologist and urologist who each specialised in FGM. That way, she said, “we can make their lives a little bit better, and see if there is any way they can have a more enjoyable and comfortable sex life.”  She said that local MPs and Mayors should be made aware of this problem; and, noting the Government’s recent announcement of £35million to address FGM in ten countries, she also proposed arranging FGM conferences in Africa, where women who had undergone this procedure could talk openly about their experiences.

What was it, I wondered, that had emboldened these women to speak out about this now, of all times?  “Mostly people are [now] on our side,” said one of them.  “And there are a lot of women who are now coming from Africa, who are talking about it because they don’t want it to happen to their children.”  How public, I asked, did she want to go with her story?  “I’m not going on Somali TV!” she laughed.  “‘Why, they will ask, ‘is she on there talking about her vagina?’”

The women noted the social stigma that was now emerging around FGM.  “Men in this generation don’t want to marry women who are cut,” said one of them.  “The men are angry, they don’t want their daughters to be done.”  As the conversation drew to a close, one of their husbands arrived to pick them up, and I took that opportunity to ask him what influence Somali men could have in this area.  With regards to FGM on a day-to-day basis, he said, “men are on the sideline.  This is not their thing.  They wouldn’t interfere – they wouldn’t even talk about it.”  Instead, he said, it was something presided over by the female elders in the village.  However, he said that “male politicians – Parliament, and the Minister of Health – can change the law,” and that this was vital.  “[FGM] affects the whole family”, he said.  “If the mother is not happy, then the whole family is not happy.”

For their part, each of these women saw no basis in Islam for FGM, which originated in Egypt from the times of the Pharaohs.  “It’s haram – it is prohibited – in our religion to do anything to your daughter”, one of them said.  “It’s completely unnecessary.  There’s no medical evidence that it helps.  [After FGM] you’re physically disabled, in a way, but you’re also mentally traumatised, hating yourself.  Every time you go to the toilet and you look down there, you know that there is another woman out there who is normal.”

However, though they had endured this, the women were clear that this was not an exercise in recrimination.  “I would not blame my parents for this”, said one of them. “They didn’t do this because they wanted to torture us.  It’s time to educate our people.   [And] what we want is not sympathy.  What we want is to be heard.  As we are sitting here talking, this minute there is a child who is being taken to the mountains to be done…It is a crime against humanity.  We have daughters: are we going to do exactly the same to our daughters?”

 

My poem on the African Cup of Nations 2013

Here’s a new poem I wrote for the BBC World Service to mark the opening of the African Cup of Nations, hosted this year by South Africa and defended by Zambia, last year’s unlikely winners. Hope you enjoy it.

———

The African Cup of Nations
Is boxing disguised as football
Every year there’s a rematch.
Last time, after jabbing their way through the early rounds,
Humble Zambia uppercut everyone;
Now, they are the punch each country sees coming.
Ding, ding:
A whole ring of sixteen continental contenders in South Africa
Who all want their belt back.
The World Cup was only a warm-up;
Yes, that tournament was global
But these rivalries are personal,
More bitter than Tottenham
Versus Arsenal.
So let’s go, Togo;
Let’s go Ghana, Cape Verde, Niger,
Nigeria, Algeria,
Ethiopia, Tunisia,
Let’s swing our limbs till the referee tells us it’s time to give it up;
Let’s go Burkina Faso,
Mali and Morocco,
DR Congo, Angola, Ivory Coast –
Let’s go up against the hosts
And the reigning champions
For this is the African Cup of Nations
And only one will get to stand in the sun,
Arms raised,
To a standing ovation.

Uganda’s proposed anti-gay law: not so much a Bill as a troll

A few weeks ago, on behalf of one of the publications that I write for, I was invited to a conference promoting investment in Uganda.  It was an occasion whose leisurely pace belied the very serious intentions of those who attended: there is a great deal of money to be made in Uganda, and a large proportion of which – given the country’s recent find of an abundance of oil – will be made very quickly indeed.

Happy times for capitalist types, then.  But a fellow attendee of the conference was somewhat disgruntled. Actually, no: worse than that: this European executive, who now lived in the nation of my heritage and had taken it to his heart, was exasperated.  Uganda had so much going for it, he opined.  Wonderful place.  It was a shame, then, that all so many if not most of the headlines about the place were dominated by one “weird” issue.  He referred to it as “the gay thing”.

Ah, yes, the gay thing.  He was talking about that pesky Anti-Homosexuality Bill that David Bahati, an MP, had touted back in 2009. This Bill, at one point, had called for the death of certain people who engaged in same-sex intercourse.  It attracted the furore of many people the world over, and was shelved for a time.  It has now re-emerged.  One wonders what purpose is served by its return.  It is tempting to regard this piece of prospective legislation not as a Bill, but as a troll.  The content of this Bill has been carefully drafted with as much cruelty as possible.  It is certainly thorough in its unpleasantness.  Here are some sample clauses.  One reads that “any person alleged to be homosexual would be at risk of life imprisonment or in some cases the death penalty”.  Another states that “any parent who does not denounce their lesbian daughter or gay son to the authorities would face fines of $2,650 or three years in prison”.

This is the type of decree that you might have expected from the Gauleiter in Thirties Germany, but there’s more.  “Any teacher who does not report a lesbian or gay pupil to the authorities within 24 hours would face the same penalties”, it drones on.  “Any landlord or landlady who happens to give housing to a suspected homosexual would risk 7 years of imprisonment”.  What’s more, it could well pass before Christmas.

It’s hard to be calm about stuff like this.  Life imprisonment, the death penalty, witch-hunts and eviction.  A proposed law which, even before it has been passed – which may well happen this month – has so poisoned the atmosphere that many LGBT people in Uganda are taking their own lives or having those same lives beaten out of them.  And for what?  So that the Ugandan Government can display its proud African sovereignty by – quite literally – hammering gay Ugandans as the symbol of Western decadence?  Who, including President Museveni himself, truly knows?

All that’s really clear is that, when standing in a lobby on your best behaviour and making small talk about Uganda, it’s hard to maintain much decorum when someone’s upset about all the bad press their adopted country is getting.  I felt some sympathy for this man, in truth.  The Uganda in the media was not that which he understood – a land, in his experience, of kind, warm people.  But, as a happily married heterosexual man, he wasn’t L, G, B, or T, or knowingly close to anyone who was, and so it wasn’t really his problem.

Except it was his problem, and mine, and that of Frank Mugisha, the courageous leader of Sexual Minorities Uganda.  We would all rather hear talk of a better Uganda.  The Uganda, as noted by the Financial Times’ Barbara Njau in her excellent presentation that day, which had “achieved one of the most impressive rates of growth in sub-Saharan Africa in the 2000s”.    A Uganda which saw its foreign direct investment rise from less than $5million in 1985 to $180million in 2000.  A land with potential for economic growth, job creation and an improved standard of living for millions of people.  It would be fantastic if that was the story that more of us could hear about Uganda.  But, sadly, it is a tale of which too many of those in power would obscure the telling.

 

Dr. Denis Mukwege: Not a Great African Martyr

Dr. Denis Mukwege, of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a truly great human being.  From all accounts that I have so far read and heard of him, he is tireless, inspirational and selfless.  And that is what is so worryingly familiar about his narrative.  The very real danger, unless entirely clear steps are taken, is that he will end up as yet another Great African Martyr.

Two days ago, Dr. Mukwege survived an attempt on his life.  A group of armed men burst into his home, held his two young daughters and their friend at gunpoint, and killed a man who worked for him.  It is fair to conclude that he was targeted because of his extraordinary work.

For the last decade and a half Dr. Mukwege and his colleagues have treated around 30,000 women for violent sexual injuries sustained during his country’s brutal internal conflict. The founder of the world-renowned but poorly-funded Panzi hospital has also travelled the globe as an advocate for women’s rights, and it is due to his outspoken nature that someone now seeks his life.  To take but one example, please read his short and powerful address to the United Nations on September 25 this year, where he eschewed easy platitudes and instead spoke of the unacceptable state of affairs in the modern DRC:

“This has been going on for 16 years!  16 years of errancy; 16 years of torture; 16 years or mutilation; 16 years of the destruction of women, the only vital Congolese resources; 16 years of destruction of an entire society.” (My italics.)

The rest of the piece can be seen at this link. Yet, as can be seen above, whilst many salivate over the material wealth deep within the DRC’s soil, Dr. Mukwege correctly recognises that a country’s true wealth will always be its people.  Such a vision is compelling and rare, and must be nurtured as far as possible.

The fact that Dr. Mukwege narrowly escaped with life should throw all of his exceptional efforts into into the sharpest focus.  Few people are renowned for their medical skills, their campaigning and their compassion.  Dr. Mukwege is renowned for all three.  There are two simple steps that the international community, whom he criticised elsewhere in his UN speech for their “fear and lack of courage”, must now take to protect him and his unique gifts.  First, they can provide him and his family with appropriate security for as many years as he needs it.  Secondly, they can provide him and colleagues with unrestricted funding, or “core support”, for their hospital in Bukavu for the next few years.  It is only with this certainty of both safety and financial resources that his essential work can continue unabated.

The Great African Martyr is a shadow that hangs over much of the continent’s recent history.  So many of its most-loved sons and daughters were brutally murdered before they had a chance to complete their humanitarian deeds, for which Africa today is undoubtedly far poorer.  The most resonant memory to my mind is that of Archbishop Janani Luwum, who was bludgeoned to death by Idi Amin and his henchmen in the Seventies.  But there are so many others.  People who struggled on against the odds whilst the world looked on anxiously, but ultimately from a comfortable distance: and whom, when they each met a demise of unutterable cruelty, the world then mourned and for the most part gently forgot.

This cannot happen to Dr. Mukwege.  He cannot be someone whom we wistfully remember at dinner parties and conferences for years to come.  His rightful place is not as some premature photo on a dusty mantelpiece.  No.  We have had too many Great African Martyrs, and he will not be another.  The women who he has helped and will carry on helping need him far too much for that: Africa needs him far too much for that.  So I propose that the legacy of this attempted assassination should be that he lives until old age, happy and healthy, with the money and the safety that he needs to fulfil his mission.  All in favour, please say “Aye”.