Land and ethnic tension

I haven’t flown over the Ituri forest in Congo since I was a child over thirty years ago; Google Earth tells me that it is still there but shrinking.  In my recent travels to the US, I couldn’t help feeling like I was seeing far more trees and forests than I see in fertile Kenya (I have the same recollection of my time in more densly populated Europe—though Africa is supposed to surpass Europe in population density this year.). In my recent flight from Lilongwe and over Tanzania to Nairobi, I looked out over a vast patchwork of farms. Boundaries of a national forests and game parks were clearly demarcated;  they are practically the only uncultivated land anywhere.

In several conversations with my Kenyan friends about the ethnic violence they experience after the last election, I’ve taken out a napkin and sketched out a big square: “This was your grandfather’s plot of land. Let’s say he had eight sons. [“twelve,”—or more—I’m occasionally corrected. I divide the plot up into equal subplots]. Now lets say that each of your uncles had four sons. [I further sub-divide each subplot.] Given the serious Kenyan cultural value of owning your own plot of land (contrasted with West African communal ownership), how do you think you and your cousins are going to feel about each other—not to mention the people from a different ethnic group that arrived generations ago when there was plenty of land to go around?” The imagery is striking.  At independence, Kenya had approximately six million citizens; today (less than 50 years later) it’s pushing forty million! (We are still awaiting the results of last year’s census.)

The following article describes some of the complexities of land, population growth, and ethnicity throughout Africa.

Africa’s continental divide: land disputes

Christian Science Monitor, January 30, 2010

…Land, at the very heart of security and survival, looms behind most of the African conflicts we’ve all heard of and dozens of others we have not. The Rwandan genocide, some argue, was as much about the dwindling land availability in Africa’s most densely populated country as it was about enmity between ethnic groups. The wars recounted in the movie “Blood Diamond” in Sierra Leone and Liberia saw land grabs by warlords eager to exploit commodities like diamonds and timber. The violence following Kenya’s 2007 election reflected generations of dissatisfaction with land policy that favored different ethnic groups over time. Beneath the genocide in Darfur is a broken land tenure system, full of fights over soil that climate change is making increasingly unproductive. Somalia’s infamous pirates gain cover for plundering from political chaos in the country, whose warring clans fight not only for power but primacy on disputed lands, full of resources to fuel ongoing violence. And beneath last week’s Muslim-Christian riots, which killed at least 260 people in Jos, Nigeria, are decades-old grievances about political rights and the land they are tied to.

Africa’s most famous disasters, many argue, could have been prevented with changes in national land laws or better local conflict resolution but for one problem: Prevention doesn’t sell.

What does sell – what gets airtime, aid dollars, and military or other attention – is the violent chaos the world fails to prevent [this last phrase made me uncomfortable; local solutions would probably be better]. By the time land conflict gets an international audience, land is an afterthought; talk turns to tribe and ethnicity or local politics and corruption. News coverage and nonprofits focus on the worst symptoms – refugees, rapes, massacres. Distracted by suffering, they miss the structural problem that can, it turns out, be solved.

Fixing the land problem may lay the foundation for fixing so many others, from poverty to famine to ethnic conflict. If farmers feel their claims to plots are sound, if social groups feel land policies are impartial and just, and if women and men have equal rights to the soil, experts say Africa’s other ills will be easier to treat.

In communities across the continent, that hypothesis is bearing out…

The end of land conflict might just mark the ascent of Africa.

It’s too much to say that land is the cause of all of Africa’s wars. But…

…The stubborn fact, says Brady, is that something must give. Liberia, and the rest of Africa, can acknowledge the importance of custom, or admit that previous power structures have given some groups unfair economic privilege, or argue that everyone with a piece of paper has a right to his plot, even when the papers conflict. But none of that helps solve the problem.

“Some people must make sacrifices. …

Read more.

For Christian leaders, this might highlight how attention to these root (economic) causes (systemic justice) might be far more effective than focusing on individual attitudes about ethnicity—though these are important too.

Thanks for the heads-up: Texas in Africa. Her regular “this & that” posts are probably my best source of good articles on Africa.

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Our TCK president: Obama and his team of third culture kids

. . . According to a body of sociological literature devoted to children who spend a portion of their developmental years outside their “passport country,” the classic  profile of a “TCK” is someone with a global perspective who is socially adaptable and intellectually flexible. He or she is quick to think outside the box and can appreciate and reconcile different points of view.  Beyond whatever diversity in background or appearance a TCK may bring to the party, there is a diversity of thought as well.

“Third Culture Kids” share certain emotional and psychological traits that may exert great influence in the new administration.

But TCKs can also feel rootless and detached. The great challenge for maturing Third Culture Kids is to forge a sense of personal and cultural identity from the various environments to which they been exposed. Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams of My Father, could serve as a textbook in the TCK syllabus, a classic search for self-definition, described in living color. Obama’s colleagues on the Harvard Law Review were among the first to note both his exceptional skill at mediating among competing arguments and the aloofness that made his own views hard to discern. That cool manner of seeming “above it all” is also a classic feature of the Third Culture Kid.

The TCKs’ identity struggles can be painful and difficult. The literature documents addictive behaviors, troubled marriages and fitful careers. But meeting this challenge can become a TCK’s greatest strength. Learning to take the positive pieces from a variety of experiences and create a strong sense of “This is who I am, no matter where I am” gives a steadiness when the world around is in flux or chaos”—which helps explain “no-drama Obama.”

Among those of us who study Third Culture Kids (almost always because we are TCKs), it has been both gratifying and frustrating to watch “one of us” run for the White House. We began obsessively pointing out to each other the telltale signifiers of the TCK that so often went unremarked in the mainstream press. . .

– Ruth E. Van Reken – Obama’s ‘Third Culture’ Team

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Band-Aids, doll babies, and racial shades of beauty

Since almost all my daughters’ friends are various shades of brown and black, I’m frequently struck by the prominent shades of Band-Aids (or plasters as they are called here) and dolls. I remember walking into a drug store in N.E. Washington, DC and being unable to find a dark shade of Band-Aid for the kids I was working with. I thought about it for a minute and realized that, in this predominantly African-American part of the city, I was probably the only white guy who was going to be in that drugstore that day. Still, all the Band-Aids blended much better with my pink skin than they did with just about every other customer. Since then, I have seen some darker shades, and clear ones help, but check out the Band-Aid selection next time you are in a store. All the Band-Aids for kids in our house are now flashy kid colors – blue, yellow, red, green, purple, etc.

Finding multiple shades of dolls is another problem. Sadly, even when Christi does find black dolls for all the girls to play with, Kiara and Leila’s African friends (from all over the continent) still prefer the white-looking  dolls; white dolls are “more beautiful” they argue (even when they are identical except for color). Do we need any more evidence of the powerful impact of popular imagery (TV)? Christi’s had to do a lot of work building the self image of these young girls as black, brown, and beautiful.

Reconciliation blog brings attention to the culture clash over dolls and quotes a comment under a post by  Noble Mother that talks about her conflicted feelings over Bratz dolls – they like the color, but does not like the materialistic diva image.

Until the Bratz dolls came on the market, my daughter [black dad; white mom] just wasn’t really interested in dolls of any kind. She and I have lots of conversations about ‘what she is’…and she’s decided she’s not white, she’s not black, she’s brown. She’s often asked why there are never any brown babies in the stores? There are white and there are black, but not brown. And I’m sure she’s not been the only little girl asking this question.

The Bratz dolls, while I have major issues with many other factors about them, have given my daughter a sense of validation of her color. Now, there are dolls on the store shelves that look just like her. She no longer has to decide whether she wants a white doll or a black doll…she can get one that looks just like her.

Gilbreath asks:

Does Barbie represent an increasingly outdated notion of what “normal” mainstream culture looks like, while the Bratz signify a more multiethnic (or urban) aesthetic that is underrepresented among children’s dolls today? Even millionaire celeb Angelina Jolie, who adopted an African daughter, spoke up on this recently saying,

“and I look for a Barbie that’s African, and the African Barbie has straight hair! And you know, why has Disney never made a film with an African-American princess?”

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The importance of positive images (race & society)

Images in popular culture are powerful. When Christi and I first saw David Palmer on 24, long before Obama ever burst onto the scene, I remember saying to her, “This is great for America! It will help get a lot of people more comfortable with images of a very good president who is also very black.”   Earlier this week, Edward Gilbreath, pointed out a short article on UrbanFaith.com about the “Huxtable Effect.” “This is the notion that the middle-class African American family portrayed in Bill Cosby’s famous ’80s sitcom, The Cosby Show, had an impact on the way Americans voted in last month’s presidential election.”

I don’t want to take anything away from Obama’s brilliant campaign, but I suspect these positive images did help him pick up a few votes – especially from some of those who might otherwise harbor fearful emotions of one kind or another (and I certainly heard plenty of those).

Regarding the Huxtable effect, UrbanFaith article adds a qualification that makes an important point.

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, the columnist who coined the term “Huxtable Effect,” has since claimed the media misinterpreted what she was saying. “What I actually posited was much more complex than that,” she clarified. “I said that the social norms of a population are generally formed through its popular culture.” [emphasis mine]. In other words, our entertainment actually sets the standard for the public perception of what is socially and politically acceptable over time.

Gilbreath notes that Tiger Woods may have helped, and one of the comments on his Reconciliation blog post says: “I think Colin Powell and Condelezza Rice should be given some credit, too. We saw Bryant Gumbel on the morning news every day for several years. It all works together. Shirley Chisholm. Barbara Jordan. Andrew Young.”

Who would you add to this list? What popular images have shaped some of your perceptions? What does this about the importance images on TV, in popular fiction? What can we do about this?

Next: Who do I see when I hear “African-American” – the personal images.

Coming next week: Thinking about images of Africa: On one of my “most favoritest” blogs, What an African Woman Thinks, Rombo reflects on the implications of popular imagery for our dreams of Africa. (I have a few posts on that subject in the pipeline.)

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4 Responses to Culture Shock

[By a friend – see previous post]

Four kinds of responses that people tend to make when they are caught up in cross-cultural situations:

1 passing – the individual, particularly in contact situations in which the second culture has a higher status, may reject the (old) culture of origin and totally fall for the new culture.

2 chauvinist – the individual, after coming into contact with a second culture, rejects those influences as alien, and retreats back into their culture of origin and becomes a militant nationalist and chauvinist.”

3 marginal – the individual vacillates between the two cultures, feeling at home in neither, an effect that has been referred to as the ‘marginal syndrome’.

4 mediating – some people seem to be able to synthesize their various cultural identities, the equivalent of integration at the personal level, and acquire genuine bicultural or multicultural personalities. Such individuals are relatively rare, and Bochner has referred to them as ‘mediating persons’.

Bochner, Stephen and Adrian Furnham. Culture Shock: Psychological Reactions Unfamiliar Environments. London: Methuen Publishing, 1986.

Ultimately Furnham & Bochner suggest that one’s viewpoint must be different. The situation will not be different, but how we approach it will be. All new situations are traumatic, even in one’s own culture. But the hope is that in learning, not merely adjusting, we who are sojourning in another culture will learn to accommodate to the new situation, and recognize that we are in a growing period.

Kenyan commentary on Americans and race

I keep a running list of articles and posts I think are worth reading on the right – “Links of the Day.” (If you click on header, it takes you to a page with summaries – for longer articles – and an occasional note.) I’m not sure if anyone is actually looking at it, so I thought I’d pull this particular article for those of you like me, who like to keep an eye on race discussions around the world. Kenyan papers are as full of Obama.

Why Obama is black, not white (by Philip Ochieng) – The East African

WHY IS THE WHITE MEDIA SO preoccupied with Barack Obama’s race? Is it because the young Illinois senator could become the first black person to be elected president of a predominantly white country? If so, then it is a sad commentary on white psychology. . .

. . .Indeed, Richard Dawkins, the outspoken Oxford evolutionary biologist, is germane here because he shares something vital with Barack Obama Senior and myself: All three of us were born in Kenya many decades ago. . .

. . . Writes Dawkins: “People who are universally agreed by all Americans to be ‘black’ may draw less than one-eighth of their ancestry from Africa, and often have a light skin colour well within the normal range for people universally agreed to be ‘white’.”. . .

. . .But if Naisbitt is right to say that there is no such thing as a blend or a melting pot as far as the ethnic spirit goes, surely Allan Bloom, the respected Chicago educator, is also right. Fundamentally, all these European ethnic groups and other immigrants have, over a protracted period of time, become homogenised.

Yet this is correct only up to a point. Only in the liberal ideology of individualism — only in greed, in the go-getting spirit, only in the ferocity with which that quest is pursued — is it possible to become an American overnight — not in terms of essence, not in terms of ethnicity and race.

Bloom states that any immigrant can become an American the minute he or she lands on the Atlantic shores of that country. In other words, there is nothing easier than to become an American. But there is a racial element even in this. Bloom’s assertion is correct only to the extent that it refers to white individuals. . .

. . .No race, nation or tribe is ever tyrannical or chauvinistic “by inclination,” that is to say, genetically. The British Empire was tyrannical in whatever way you look at it. But “inclination” had nothing to do with it. It is not the British people who are to blame — although all classes of British society were seduced into racism by the propaganda of the upper classes.

It was the economic interests of these classes that come into play. Such interests are what propel all empire-builders. Tyranny and empire-building are attributes of civilisation, culture and opportunity.

Moreover, it is a class question: Lower-class members of the same race, nation or tribe will equally suffer from it under the illusion that they are actually beneficiaries — as Kenya’s own elite Gema grouping seduced the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru masses into believing that their interests are identical even as their Kamatusa counterparts were doing the same to the Kalenjin, Maasai and Turkana masses.

Tyranny over other nations can assume national proportions only to the extent that the ruling class of one race can turn a whole nation of a different race into a class targeted for exploitation. Racism becomes a national thought-habit only to the extent that the lower classes are deeply swayed by the prejudices, trappings, ideas and practices of the ruling classes within the same nation and race. . .

To those who are familiar with America’s racial history, none of this will be new. It’s a long article with plenty to mull over and likely a few things to disagree with. Click here for the whole article.

African Americans can teach the global church about reconciliation

Christianity Today has a post on Rick Warren’s PEACE Plan, “a global strategy to fight poverty, disease, and corruption” and his addition of “reconciliation” to the plan – Rebooting PEACE. Regardless of what you think of Rick Warren’s Africa mission, Bryan Crute, senior pastor of Destiny Metro Worship Church, a black megachurch in Atlanta makes an important suggestion.

Crute told Christianity Today that African Americans have much to teach the global church about reconciliation. “When you look at the potential for African Americans to redemptively use their history to promote the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is an opportunity that is largely ignored and overlooked. When will we use our history of slavery to export the gospel? I have forgiven whites for how they have treated my ancestors.”

Crute said church leaders should view racism as just one aspect of reconciliation. He said reconciliation is about bridging the gap between God and man, resolving economic injustice and poverty, and healing broken families. . .

Read the whole CT post here.

Almost all of whatever helpful insights I’ve been able to pass on to my Kenyan friends comes directly from my African American mentors. Many of the things my Kenyan friends are teaching me about reconciliation jive with what those mentors had been trying to teach me before.