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The Potential of Indigenous Knowledge in Building Climate Resilience

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The depth of knowledge that the pastoralist communities possess provides an opportunity for its integration with scientific observations for their improved adaptation to climate change.

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The Potential of Indigenous Knowledge in Building Climate Resilience
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“I am convinced that climate change, and what we do about it, will define us, our era, and ultimately the global legacy we leave for future generations. Today, the time for doubt has passed”.  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, 24 September 2007

All earlier geological epochs have resulted from natural processes, but the changes currently being experienced by the planetary ecosystem are anthropogenic—human-induced. Our over-reliance on fossil fuels and unsustainable economic practices have led to irreversible climate changes. The two significant causes of climate change are the excessive use of carbon-based energy sources that emit most greenhouse gases and a consumption model that outstrips the available resources.

While wealthy nations are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, poor developing countries that cause the least emissions are the most affected by climate change. For instance, the African continent contributes the least to greenhouse gas emissions but is disproportionately affected by climatic changes. With 17 per cent of the global population, Africa contributes a paltry 2 to 3 per cent of CO2 while the US, with 4 per cent of the world’s population, generates 14 per cent of global CO2 emissions.

The changes in climate mainly manifest in the increase of the global temperature that has been rising since record keeping began in the 1880s, with 2016 and 2020 being the hottest years on record and 2011-2020 being the warmest decade. The change results in extreme events and increased frequency of natural hazards such as droughts, floods, storms, hurricanes and wildfires, often with catastrophic consequences for human life and livelihoods.

These climatic hazards pose existential threats to societies that directly rely on natural capital for their livelihoods. This is particularly the case for Africa, where the vast majority of the population depends for their livelihoods on activities that are primarily rainfall-dependent, such as rain-fed crop production and livestock rearing. These livelihood activities are highly susceptible to climate-related hazards and shocks, rendering rural households vulnerable to shifts and changes in the climate.

Climate change creates favourable conditions for the spread of diseases and the establishment of invasive alien species. For instance, areas previously not mosquito-prone due to low temperatures are now likely to become malaria zones. Since the populations in such areas lack immunity towards the disease, they are likely to be more susceptible than those who inhabit regions prone to malaria. Extreme weather patterns also cause an increase in resource-based conflicts and population displacement—the number of climate refugees is on the rise.

The response by governments—particularly those of rich nations—to address the underlying causes of climate change remain unsatisfactory. Forecasting and early warning systems remain poor in developing countries due to limited meteorological capacities, making it difficult to ascertain the extent and the impact of climate change. On the other hand, local communities rely on their indigenous knowledge and practice to makes forecasts and adapt to the changing climate.

Indigenous knowledge and climate change 

Indigenous communities are not victims of climate change; they are holders of vast intergenerational indigenous knowledge that is critical to climate change mitigation and adaptation. With advances in science, these local knowledge systems have been disregarded as they are perceived as not based on any scientific principles. In recent decades, however, there has been a realization that local communities have developed intricate knowledge systems that are used to forecast climatic events, plan resource use, and adapt to climatic changes. Climate change and resilience experts are calling for the integration of local knowledge systems with scientific know-how to develop sustainable responses to the challenges of climate change.

Indigenous communities are not victims of climate change; they are holders of vast intergenerational indigenous knowledge that is critical to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Pastoralist communities have borne the brunt of climate change. In contrast, pastoralism has evolved to adapt to the changing climate; an increase in hazardous climatic effects often catches pastoralist communities on the back foot. However, their sustained livestock production systems within marginal environments is testimony that their knowledge systems and practices have somehow enabled them to navigate the vagaries of climatic hazards.

While the pastoralist communities of northern Kenya are of different ethnic backgrounds, the basic tenets of their local knowledge systems are similar and interlinked.

The Borana community is a Cushitic community that inhabits the rangelands of southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. The Borana have a rich indigenous knowledge system that helps them make decisions within the highly variable environment in which they produce.

Holders of knowledge and its application

Knowledge holders and knowledge types are diverse and are used in a triangulating way to reduce the uncertainty associated with forecasting. The sources of the knowledge are also varied. They include observing the behaviour of livestock and wild animals and the observation of constellations, ultimately co-relating these observations over time and space using rich oral traditions.

Primary to the forecasting knowledge of the Borana is the detailed 12-month calendar that comprises twelve lunar months (Abraasa, Ammaji, Gurandhalaa, Bittateesa, Caamsa, Buufa, Wacabaji, Obora Gudda, Obara Diqqaa, Birraa, Ciqqaaqaa, Sadaasaa) with each month having 27 days (ayyana). The reckoning of the ayyana is based on a lunar cycle similar to that of the Mayan, Hindu and Chinese calendar. The custodians of this knowledge are called ayyaantu. They use a deep understanding of the constellations to keep track of the calendar days. The ayyaantu help with understanding seasonality and foretell the timing and intensity of rainfall occurrences based on the stars. Ayyaantu’s knowledge is hereditary—a father passes it on to a selected son who passes it on in the same fashion. Under certain circumstances, others from a non-ayyaantu family may also be trained by the ayyaantu. This ensures the passing down of knowledge in cases where a direct heir to the knowledge is lacking. For in-depth learning, a son’s only duty is to study during his father’s lifetime; an ayyaantu cannot disseminate the information.

The observations of occurrences in each ayyana  over the years are kept in memory and used to forecast climatic conditions. A significant observation is, for example, the sighting of the new moon, which is used to determine the performance of the upcoming rainy season. Also, at the start of a rainy season, the ayyana on which it begins is an indication of the general performance of the rains. For example, it is believed that if the onset of the rains is on basaa days (basaa durra and basaa balloo), it is expected to be good. It is also on basaa days that sacrifices and prayers for rain—goromti rooba; she-goat sacrifice—are normally conducted.

Usually, the information gathered from the readings of the constellations and its interpretation is disseminated during public gatherings. Based on this system, the Borana ayyaantus have perceived changes in the climate through a decrease in the length of the rainy season since the 1960s.

The observations of occurrences in each ayyana  over the years are kept in memory and used to forecast climatic conditions.

Each ayyana is associated with either good or bad omens and for this reason, beyond forecasting the weather, an important function of the ayyaantu is to determine the dates on which important ceremonies should take place such that they occur during the days associated with good omens. For instance, on the day a child is born, particularly a boy child, the parents immediately consult the ayyaantu to know the omens associated with that day.

The solar systems and climate forecasting

The interpretation of the constellation of stars is a means of counting the calendar days and a major climate forecasting system. The interpretations are made based on the timings of the rising for some of the stars, their colour, and the alignment of the constellations with the moon. The main stars observed include Lamaii (Beta Triangulum), Buusan (Pleiades), Sorsa (Aldebarran), Algajima (Bellatrix), Arba (Central Orion), Walla (Saiph) and Basaa (Sirius).

The interpretation of the stars is done in relation to the traditional months and the respective days of the month, called ayyana. How a specific star aligns with the moon on successive nights is carefully observed and used to forecast rainfall or the severity of the dry season. For instance, if the lamii (Beta Triangulum) stars are aligned with the moon on the 14th of Biraa, the 11th of Ciqaa, the 9th of Sadaasaa, the 7th of Abraasaa, the 5th of Ammaji, and the 3rd of Gurandhala, then it is interpreted that the dry season that follows will be normal with limited negative impacts on people and livestock. This example illustrates the complexity of the knowledge system and intricate observations that can only be memorised by the individuals trained as ayyaantu. This knowledge is a reserve for a few, which gives the holders a revered status in the community.

The sun and moon are also used in weather forecasting. The degree of tilt of the new moon towards the north or south depending on the month provides an indication of how the rainy season will perform. When a ring forms around the moon and the sun, it is associated with the occurrence of heavy rains.

Livestock and wild animals

The Borana observe the behaviour of cattle closely to determine whether the season ahead will be good or bad. For instance, some of the indications of poor conditions ahead include observations such as when the cattle are reluctant to go out to graze or to return to the kraal; lead cattle refusing to take up the role of leading the livestock to graze; cattle sleeping close to each other in the kraal and at times defecating while lying down; cattle licking each other around the throat; and female cows constantly worried and looking out for their calves even after suckling them.

Following slaughter, livestock is also a source of information particularly through the “reading” of the entrails (uusa) by specialists called uuchu. The reading of entrails is also an art that sons learn from their fathers while others learn by following experienced uuchu. The marks in the entrails are observed and used to foretell rainfall. Often, several uuchu observe the same entrails and each provide their observations. The interpretation can differ which leads to interesting arguments that demonstrate the variations in the interpretation.

The Borana observe the behaviour of cattle closely to determine whether the season ahead will be good or bad.

The specific sounds of certain birds, frogs, hyenas, and foxes are also used as rainfall indicators. When the ground squirrel digs out the soil, and the ant constructs its mound during the late afternoon in the dry season instead of doing so at night, this indicates that the rainy season is about to begin.

The information from these various sources is triangulated and further references are made to the knowledge of oral historians (jarsa argaa dhageeti) who have the ability reckon the cyclic occurrences of climatic events.

The foregoing is an attempt to show the various age-old sources of information used by pastoralist communities to enable them to make decisions within the highly variable environment in which they produce. Sustaining livestock production in this environment requires a high degree of livestock mobility, which in turn requires reliable forecasting and good information on the availability of resources. It is a knowledge system that has evolved to fulfil these constant needs for information on which to base decisions.

Opportunities for knowledge integration for informed decisions 

The current climate change situation calls for close collaboration between local actors and global decision-makers. The depth of knowledge that the pastoralist communities possess provides an opportunity for its integration with scientific observations for improved adaptation by these vulnerable communities.

There is currently an increased appreciation of the knowledge held by local indigenous communities within scientific circles. The local knowledge system has been developed over time and passed on across generations, and it has better local applicability and acceptability. Integrating the practical aspects of this local knowledge with scientifically generated knowledge will bridge the divide between knowledge systems and increase the acceptability of climate forecasting information.

Poor investment in equipment and lack of adequate human resources leads to lack of reliable information for planning and decision-making. In Kenya currently, the meteorological department is the primary source of climate information. By bringing the two systems of local and scientific knowledge together, there are areas of complementarity that can improve resilience planning in the country.

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Dr Jaro Arero is a Science Policy Expert. Dr Hussein Tadicha is a Natural Resources Management Expert and Executive Director for Center for Research and Development in Drylands.

Ideas

Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa

An interview with former South African president Thabo Mbeki on 19 June 2022 presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid.

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The quest for an independent and prosperous Africa spans several generations, continents, and themes. Notably, from the eighteenth century, people of African descent in Europe, America, the West Indies, and on the continent have been engaged in different variations of the liberation struggle to uphold their humanity, independence, and right to self-determination. After the triumph of the abolitionist movements over the menace of institutionalized slavery, Africa was again saddled with the task of dislodging an imperialist regime that wanted to perpetuate itself on the continent by every means available.

In most of Africa, colonialism produced various forms and levels of exploitation, deprivation, and shame—segregation. This prevalent atmosphere of injustice was to inform the establishment of resistance movements manifested in Pan-African coalitions and nationalist organizations focused on uniting Africans in a movement against the shackles of European imperialism. However, due to the varied nature of the colonial establishment around the continent, the successes of these liberation movements were also not to be attained uniformly. With the collapse of the South African apartheid regime in 1994 representing a close in the chapter of colonial oppression in Africa, the struggle for independence was drawn out in colonies like South Africa, Algeria, and to a lesser degree, Zimbabwe and Namibia, which had substantial settler populations.

After liberation came the task of nation-building. The process of post-independence nation-building has been arduous for most of Africa, a situation emphasized by the frequent occurrence of violent conflicts on the continent. Many of the challenges—such as international sabotage, corruption, marginalization, unemployment, conflict and diseases—identified as impeding growth and development on the continent can be tied to the problem of national cohesion around Africa’s “nation-states”. In the absence of a powerful overriding national sentiment, an array of competing ethnic/sub-national interests within Africa’s national boundaries—a by-product of Africa’s colonial past—has made it difficult for African states to present a united front against threats to their (individual and collective) socio-political and economic wellbeing. Hence, territorialism, ethnicity, racialism, corruption, and nepotism thrive and continue to undermine African efforts at political and economic independence and prosperity.

Former South African president Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki has been an avid campaigner for an independent, united, and prosperous Africa for over half a century. Born in South Africa to activist parents, Thabo Mbeki was inclined to join the struggle against the oppressive white minority government in 1955 at the young age of 13. With a passion uncommon among youths of his era (during colonialism), young Thabo became an active member of the youth wing of the African National Congress (ANC), the leading organization protesting the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. During his activism years in the ANC, Thabo’s diplomatic skills and commitment to the organization’s objectives gained him some recognition and provided an opportunity for him to serve in very important capacities.

In December 1994, after South Africa’s first elections under universal suffrage, Thabo Mbeki was elected unopposed as the ANC’s deputy president, a position that saw him serving under the nation’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. As a long-standing member of the ANC who served with and succeeded Nelson Mandela as the country’s president, Thabo Mbeki’s role in South Africa’s emergence as a continental model transcends the era of nationalist struggle to include the critical years of reconciliation, recovery, and reconstruction. Even after his tenure as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki has maintained his commitment to the unity and development of Africa, for which he has continued to serve in different diplomatic capacities. Hence, an interview with Thambo Mbeki presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to ask questions and raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid (liberation). Leading with the questions was a select panel that included the duo of Prof. Paul Zeleza, the former Vice-Chancellor of the United States International University Africa, Kenya, and Naledi Moleo, a media practitioner.

While discussing the lessons the ANC learned from the liberation struggle and the challenges encountered in building a post-apartheid nation, Mbeki conceded that creating a new nation, especially after coming out of colonial oppression, was indeed an important challenge. According to him, the first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy. This decision was particularly critical owing to a substantial settler population in South Africa and the high expectations held by an erstwhile oppressed majority. On its part, the government approached the task with two notable convictions. One, that there were no set ways to build a democracy. Two, that there were not going to be any quick fixes. Hence, in attending to the business of nation-building, the leadership made the informed decision to engage the people by communicating its policy decisions with them regularly and honestly so that they do not become disillusioned by the pace of development and withdraw their support.

The first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy.

On the question of his proudest achievement at the age of 80, Mbeki spoke about the sense of fulfilment that came with being part of a successful liberation struggle against colonial oppression. He also explained that the South African struggle provided Africans, home and abroad, with a reason to unite under the belief that a free South Africa would further stimulate development processes on the continent. Mbeki added that South Africa has, within its capacity, made some contributions to Africa’s development challenge. However, he lamented that Africa had lost the respect it had from the rest of the world, which resulted from the agreement between Africa and the G8 countries in which the latter agreed to meet Africa’s development needs at its recommendation.

Reacting to the popular question of youth participation in leadership, and specifically whether there was any plan within the ANC to hand over the reins to a younger generation, Mbeki recalled his progressive rise within the party from a place of relative insignificance to subsequent positions of responsibility and authority. According to Mbeki, his emergence within the party was not the result of a “handing over” but a natural progression in rank. As young party members, their continued commitment to the struggle ensured they became the ideal candidates to fill vacancies when they arose. Thus, he advised that young people should develop strong youth organizations to address the challenges of poverty and unemployment in their communities. This way, they gain the necessary leadership experience and from their role as youth leaders gradually rise to become national leaders.

Mbeki spoke of the pressure of meeting the high expectations of people within and outside the country concerning the key challenges encountered while in office. Another source of anxiety for the new post-apartheid government, he said, was the fear of possible counter-revolutionary action by disgruntled elements within South Africa’s large settler population who did not believe in a new South Africa. The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies that could manifest either in the assassination of key ANC leaders or as attacks on critical infrastructure. Therefore, for political and economic expedience, they decided on a measured approach in implementing political and economic reconstruction programmes as symbolized by the party’s famed reconciliatory post-apartheid political stance, the systematic introduction of a wealth tax, and the gradual extension of social welfare packages like the child grants to otherwise excluded Black populations.

Speaking on the impact of the reform programmes implemented by the Mandela administration during which he served as vice-president, Mbeki drew attention to the challenges the government inherited from the old apartheid government, particularly the huge debts incurred in a final attempt to buy dissenting voices. Given this financial deficit, the government decided to implement policies to bring the population to a level of development sufficient to generate wealth for the country. Towards that end, the budget structure was changed to cut down on foreign debt while directing the bulk of the generated revenues towards human development programmes instead of debt servicing. Mbeki alluded that these changes induced some economic expansion based on an expanded workforce that generated the wealth required to maintain a certain level of spending on social benefits. The resulting economic growth recorded was maintained for some period until the disruption brought about by the 2007/2008 financial crisis which was caused by the collapse of US banks and from which the economy never fully recovered.

The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies.

Addressing the matter of the constitutional issues faced while in office, particularly what Naledi Moleo described as a sharp decrease in the popularity of the constitution, Mbeki pointed out that this was mostly a result of the disappointment that followed the government’s decision to follow the path of reconciliation instead of the expected retaliation for centuries of alien oppression. He went further to explain that the ANC government’s decision to adopt a constitution that provided for the rights of everyone living in South Africa (Black or white) was more than an immediate reaction to political exigencies—a peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence had always been part of the party’s ideology. Moreover, this decision was thought to be best for the state’s progress and to prove wrong those detractors who doubted the (Black) government’s capacity to operate a non-racial and non-sexist system while addressing the imbalances of the past; Mbeki said these people believed South Africans were incapable of that level of sophistication. He also discussed ideas of pride in an African identity and African self-esteem, which had come under severe attack from colonial oppression, and of the systematic alterations made to the African person (identity), beginning with his name and progressing to other aspects of his being (culture), all in an attempt to create a subservient subject/population. Mbeki said these were factored into the liberation agenda, informing important elements within the drafted constitution aimed at rejecting the colonial legacy and recovering the people’s self-esteem.

Concerning the socio-political challenges encountered while in office, Mbeki explained that, with regards to HIV/AIDS, the government opted to come at the challenge from the angle of correcting the South African population’s immune deficiency to boost resistance to the virus. As for COVID-19, the biggest challenge was overcrowding, which made respecting safety guidelines difficult, and the inability of Africa to produce its own vaccines. Hence, while acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa to counter such crises in the future.

Coming around to the subject of xenophobic attacks, Mbeki explained that South Africa’s Black population was very accommodating and that these attacks were orchestrated by the enemies of the state who wanted to see it fail. He insisted that the organizers of these attacks played on the economic insecurities of the average South African to achieve particular political goals, including attempts to destabilize the country and to influence election outcomes in Zimbabwe by terrorizing its migrant population in South Africa. He emphasized that these saboteurs must be identified and stopped as a matter of political urgency because they continue to threaten stability in South Africa. According to Mbeki, these people want South Africa to fail because it communicates a particular political message.

While acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa.

Lastly, on the question of conflicts and the challenge of political instability on the continent, which also formed a bulk of the questions from the audience, Mbeki related this to a sharp decline in the sense of Pan-Africanism among Africans. In his view, this dwindling commitment to a pan-African ideal has also negatively impacted the capacity of the African Union (AU) to carry out the duties for which it was established. As it is, the AU boasts of mechanisms for early detection of conflicts, but how effective have these been in conflict prevention? How well has the continental body fared in its conflict resolution attempts? For these reasons, Mbeki called for a greater commitment to the pan-African ideal, hence the need for an African renaissance. For this renaissance movement to achieve the goals of development (modernization) and prosperity in Africa, it must have the backing of a committed and well-organized youth with the passion to see such a vision come to fruition.

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Book Review: Lords of Impunity by Rasna Warah

Deeply researched and convincingly told, Warah’s book is a damning indictment of the UN that shatters any notions that the organization is the moral conscience of the world, instead revealing an internal culture of fraud, corruption, mismanagement, racism and sexism, driven by an instinct of craven institutional self-preservation.

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Living in Nairobi, one of my guilty pleasures is looking through expat guides and tour books on Kenya. I am definitely not the target audience, but I pick up Xpat Magazine whenever I’m in the Karen area, where it seems to be plentiful and free, its outdated font and clunky layout notwithstanding. There’s the famous Nairobi Expat Marketplace on Facebook, which has somehow lost its lustre in recent years since being infiltrated (this is conjecture) by commercial sellers, but which in its heyday was the place to get all kinds of high-quality second-hand household items from expatriates disposing of their possessions in readiness for moving back to their home countries. Most of the posts would read “QUICK SALE”—taken by most Kenyans not as an indication to actually buy the item quickly, but rather to be a signal that it was “game on” to bargain as hard as possible.

Then there are the many expat guides online, which offer advice on everything from finding schools to hiring domestic help. Here’s one: “Employing domestic staff is the norm here, and they can be a great asset to an expat household. This may not be something that new arrivals are used to, but likely something they will soon embrace.” (!) There is a part of me that is triggered when I read the casual racism and superiority in some of these posts, but to be honest, my main motivation in deliberately falling into these strange rabbit holes is the same as watching trashy reality TV—to roll my eyes and scoff with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity.

Of course, in the Nairobi context, the main hub serving as the attraction and engine for this fairly large expatriate community (relative to many other African cities), is the United Nations office in Nairobi that serves as the UN headquarters in Africa and one of the four UN main duty stations, the only one in the global south, as many an article breathlessly, and needlessly, emphasizes. The Nairobi office is the global headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) as well as 23 country offices and several regional hubs.

Working for the UN is an ambition for many, not just because of its perceived high pay and job security—a friend of mine was recently hired by the UN office in Nairobi and upon hearing the news, another friend told him, “Ah, wewe umeomoka!” (Sheng for dude, you’ve made it!). On a broader level, the public image of the UN is that of an institution where people are driven by a strong sense of purpose, working together in the pursuit of world peace and a better future for us all, a place of “high protocol and elegant diplomatic manners.”

But Rasna Warah’s new book, Lords of Impunity, shatters any notions that the UN is a pristine place oriented towards lofty ideals, the moral conscience of the world. Warah, a writer, journalist and author of five books, worked for the organization for twelve years, having joined with the same wide-eyed innocence and determination to Make A Difference. What she found instead is a rigidly hierarchical, self-protecting system that tolerates fraud, abets corruption, excuses mismanagement, encourages abuse of authority, persecutes whistle-blowers, actively and tacitly devalues black lives, and puts women and children in the way of sexual predators. 

Warah’s book touches on her own experiences of being harassed and forced out of the organization when she accidentally discovered US$300,000 in donor funds being possibly misused, and the emotional and verbal bullying that ensued. She had also been compelled by her supervisor to use unscientific and inaccurate data in The State of the World’s Cities report, of which she was editor. Instead of addressing this gross irregularity, Warah writes, she was “humiliated in office meetings and called a liar”. All her efforts to get internal redress were ignored, “buried in a heap of bureaucratic indifference” including by the UN Ethics Office, and by several subsequent directors of UN-Habitat, only going public by writing this book as a last resort.

Rasna Warah’s new book, Lords of Impunity, shatters any notions that the UN is a pristine place oriented towards lofty ideals, the moral conscience of the world.

The bulk of the book however, unearths harrowing stories from UN failures worldwide, opening in the first chapter with a striking quote from a 1994 New York Times op-ed that describes the UN headquarters in New York as “one of the most dangerous territories for women”, where female UN staff faced a hostile work environment of rampant sexual harassment, but had nowhere to turn because no national laws, not even those of the United States, can govern how it operates. This article predates the #MeToo movement by a quarter century, and even now, it seems that “many male UN employees believe they are entitled to sexual favours at their workplace”.

The book goes on to chronicle serious offences covered up by a UN that, in her telling, is a place concerned, above all, with its own reputation and continued existence. Some of these offences are well known, such as the UN’s failure to intervene in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, even though it had the intel to do so. (Remarkably, Kofi Annan, who at the time was head of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, escaped blame for the genocide, going on to head the UN as Secretary-General and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.) In addition, the UN failed to take responsibility for a 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti that killed 10,000 people; the outbreak originated in the sewage of the UN peacekeeping mission there. Others feature less in the public consciousness but are no less appalling, such as the organization’s cover-up of sexual abuse of children by UN Peacekeepers in Mozambique, Liberia, Cambodia, East Timor and the Democratic Republic of Congo—the perpetrators were simply sent home.

This article predates the #MeToo movement by a quarter century, and even now, it seems that “many male UN employees believe they are entitled to sexual favours at their workplace”.

There is also the internal work culture at the organization that abets irregularities and outright fraud, such as fiddling with statistics to show a higher slum population or more people facing food emergencies, so that more funds can be raised for a particular cause. Or, in an even broader sense, the outright colonial idea that white people are invariably better than non-white people at the organization, with white supremacy animating much of the hierarchy at the UN. Lack of career advancement is a sore point for African staff at the organization, and in one episode in the book that I found particularly striking, denial of a promotion is ostensibly carried out “to ‘protect’ the employee from racism—a very convoluted way of thinking that victimizes African employees twice”. Instead of white colleagues being reprimanded for being unwilling to be supervised by an African, the African’s career advancement was blocked. Any typical Nairobian can attest to the fact that white expatriates enjoy privileges—such as domestic staff, which expat publications are always quick to laud—that they might not get in Europe and North America, and so, white people typically throw their weight around and commit infarctions that they would not dare attempt back home.

Deeply researched and convincingly told, Warah’s book is a damning indictment of an organization that, all said, she still believes can do much good in the world, but only with real and systematic restructuring—such as redefining the immunity clauses of the UN charter so that staff implicated in crime or unethical behaviour are not exempted from being indicted in their home country as is the case currently, and replacing the UN Ethics Office with an independent external arbitration tribunal.

The book’s major weakness is that in some places, its scope becomes too sprawling and one can become lost in the intricacies of the internal workings of the UN; it could have been edited more tightly for a general audience. I am also not sure how different this book is from Warah’s 2016 book UNSilenced, which uncovers similar webs of lies, cover-ups, corruption and impunity within a UN that has allowed wrongdoing to continue unabated, but this may be because have not yet had the opportunity to read that earlier book.

You can find Lords of Impunity at Nuria Bookshop in Nairobi and on Amazon.

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Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.

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In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.

Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.

Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.

But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.

When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.

Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.

For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”

The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.

Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.

In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.

Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.

The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.

Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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