If there is any silver lining in the coronavirus pandemic, it is that it has helped people around the globe to finally understand that nature is the most powerful force on this fragile earth of ours and that our survival as a species depends on how well we protect it. The virus infection known as Covid-19 has helped us understand one more thing – that in the face of a pandemic, neither wealth nor armies nor “good” genes can protect you from the disease – coronavirus is an equal opportunity predator.
The coronavirus has done for the climate what climate activist Greta Thunberg can only dream of – it has shown the world that nature is the real Almighty and we better listen to it before it is too late. As an Indian woman (who was not named in the video clip that was sent to me) told an audience: “Nature discards the species that is not supporting the whole”. Her message was that the human species is not separate from other species; we are all part of the same system, and our fates are intertwined.
As Yuval Noah Harari points out in his bestselling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the human species as we know it only emerged around 70,000 years ago. Because Homo sapiens’ survival depended on being social (i.e. cooperating with each other and relying on each other to ward off danger), this was the only species that went on to create cultures that we now call history.
According to Harari, the Cognitive Revolution that gave birth to human beings lasted nearly 60,000 years until the advent of the Agricultural Revolution that transformed hunter-gatherers into farmers some 12,000 years ago. The sedentary lifestyle of farmers allowed humans (who had bigger brains than other creatures) to create civilisations. Cities grew around fertile lands and rivers and an urban culture was born. Goods were bartered or bought; this led to the beginning of commerce and trade.
Then, around 500 years ago, another revolution – the Scientific Revolution – took place. This revolution, which gave us the nuclear bomb, aeroplanes, vaccines and computers, says, Harari, “may well end history and start something completely different”. In other words, life as we know it may end because human beings might create conditions for their own demise. In fact, we may be entering a phase that will see the extermination of human beings from the planet known as Earth.
Anti-doomsday proponents may say that this is all hogwash – that the planet and humans will survive, and not become extinct like dinosaurs. Religious leaders may say that this is a sign of the Apocalypse, the end of the world as we know it, as predicted in many religious texts. But what Harari and others are emphasising is that we may be the brainiest species on the planet, but we are certainly not the cleverest. Now look where our arrogance and conceit have taken us.
For once Africans are not being blamed
The coronavirus has also turned the political, social and economic equation upside down. People living in rich countries are becoming most vulnerable to it. And for once Africa and Africans are not being blamed. Let us compare how this pandemic has been treated, as compared to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ‘90s and the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
When HIV was first discovered among the gay artistic community in the United States, it was quickly dismissed as a disease that afflicts homosexuals. Some Christian leaders even claimed that it was God’s way of punishing those who go against nature. When it became apparent that heterosexuals were also becoming infected, new theories and conspiracy theories emerged. Some claimed that the virus had been concocted in a military laboratory and was some kind of chemical warfare that had gone terribly wrong. Others said that it was brought to America by Africans, who do unnatural things to monkeys. Before long, HIV was being viewed as an African disease.
We may be the brainiest species on the planet, but we are certainly not the cleverest
Unfortunately, the numbers seemed to support this racist theory: not only was HIV prevalence the highest in Africa, but heterosexual women were getting infected by their (supposedly) heterosexual partners. Some said that Africans (both men and women) were naturally promiscuous, and so brought the disease upon themselves. However, that epidemic led to the biggest and most generous initiative that significantly reduced the number of AIDS-related fatalities – President George Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) that helped save millions of lives on the continent. But the damage had been done – HIV ended up stigmatising entire groups of people: homosexuals, Africans and commercial sex workers.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa had a similar impact: Africans were blamed for bringing the disease upon themselves by eating bush meat. Countries affected by civil war, like Sierra Leone and Liberia, were further blamed for broken health systems, which could not handle a disease of this nature.
The coronavirus pandemic has completely shifted the blame game. In fact, I would say that if there is another silver lining to this disaster, it is that it has reconfigured the racialisation of epidemics and pandemics, even though when the infection was first detected in China – the ground zero of the disease, where more than 3,000 people have died – there was an initial impulse to blame the Chinese for creating the new virus. China responded by blaming the US for creating the virus and unleashing it on China.
Sinophobia set in, with people avoiding eating at Chinese restaurants and avoiding Chinese people on the streets. Chinese eating habits were vilified; there was talk of wild animal meat, including rats and bats, being sold in Wuhan’s markets alongside steak and chicken. The United States, which has been having a trade war with China, saw it as an economic victory of sorts as flights and exports of goods from China stopped, and as manufacturing in China came to a standstill.
President Donald Trump initially downplayed the pandemic, but when it became obvious that Americans were also getting infected, he made a dramatic about-turn and declared the pandemic a national emergency. And then, before we knew it, Europe was being described as the “epicentre of the virus” and African presidents were making statements that were simply unthinkable before, such as, “We are not allowing passengers from Europe to enter our countries” and “Only Kenyan citizens will be permitted to disembark at Kenya’s international airports”. On the other hand, Kenyans are joking that Kenyan politicians can no longer go to Europe or America for medical treatment, as has previously been the case; for the first time they will get to experience the indignities and inefficiencies of the Kenyan healthcare system.
Overnight the narrative has changed: no one (except some fascist Eastern European countries) is blaming Syrian migrants or Somali refugees for spreading the disease – the carriers of the virus are wealthy Europeans and Americans. (Hollywood star Tom Hanks and his wife were among the first to go public.)
As of last week, Italy had the highest numbers of cases (24,747) in Europe, followed by Spain (7,844), Germany (5,813), and France (5,437). Switzerland, Denmark, UK, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Austria and Greece have also been affected. (Another silver lining: The lockdown in Italy has sparked solidarity among neighbours, who are now entertaining each other by singing for each other on their balconies.) Meanwhile, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has already warned British citizens that things will get a lot worse before they get better and that they will lose loved ones. In fact, he has also suggested that the elderly will likely die in large numbers, a statement that created more, not less, panic. Europe, the dream destination of so many desperate Africans, is now a hot spot.
Of course, there are reasons for this, one being that there are far more people in Europe travelling by air and crossing borders than there are in Africa, so naturally the virus will travel. The virus also seems to thrive in cold wintry climates. Because of globalisation diseases travel faster and with more ferocity. Populations that have little or no immunity are often the first casualties. For example, smallpox and venereal diseases wiped out Native American populations when Europeans first set foot in the Americas.
In Kenya, there have so far been only seven known cases. The government has stepped up measures to prevent the disease from spreading, such as closing down schools, and postponing public gatherings, but there is fear that the numbers infected could be more than those detected, especially because Kenya has strong links with China, and Nairobi is an important international hub. The country’s health systems may not be able to cope if there is a major outbreak.
Europe, the dream destination of so many desperate Africans, is now a hot spot
Sadly, instead of dealing with the virus in a rational, scientific manner, the president declared a national day of prayer to combat the disease – which, ironically, reinforces the message that this disease, like HIV, is all part of God’s plan, and that if we are good Christians/Muslims/whatever, God will not inflict the disease upon us.
It is now becoming increasingly clear that not only is this a global health crisis, but it is also an economic disaster that may lead to a global recession as more people stay at home, as bars and restaurants close, as tourists cancel trips, as manufacturing plants stop producing, as exporters stop exporting essentials such as medicines, and as general panic sets in in the stock markets.
But maybe, just maybe, the madness that has recently been engulfing many parts of the world will stop. Rising racism and fascism, unbridled capitalism and militarisation, xenophobia, wanton destruction of the environment, and all the other things that are making the world more dangerous (and people more afraid and lonely) might be shown for what they are – foolish man-made ideas that nature has no time or respect for.
Nature is sending us a message. It is time to listen.
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Educating the Native and the Ivy League Myth
Elite schools in the US continue to place a premium on institutions, not ideas. Where you went to school is what matters.
As a young student, I was always fascinated by the “top” universities and the erudite people that emerged from those august institutions. My first contact with Ivy League people was when I arrived at Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia in 1999 to start my MSc research. I met students and faculty from Princeton University (which is a trustee of the research centre) and was reassured that they looked “normal”, given all the academic challenges and foibles that a Kenyatta University student like me had. After I finished my MSc, the administration was impressed enough with my work to offer me a job as resident scientist, which I took up with the alacrity of someone catching a big break through hard work (I got a rude awakening later, but that’s a story for another day). As part of my job, I was to supervise a group of Princeton undergraduates undertaking a senior field project and, wanting impress, I sharpened my ecologist brain, especially because I thought I would be instructing some of the world’s sharpest young minds. Now I laugh at my consternation when, after mapping out clear and easy ecological transects for them, they strayed off into a neighbouring ranch and I got a call from the security personnel there that they were sunbathing topless on the research vehicle (they were ladies) and that the boss might be offended.
Later on, I asked a postgraduate student from the same institution how these ladies could be so casual about their studies and she couldn’t hide her amusement at my ignorance. “Grad school is competitive. Undergrads get in because of money and name recognition.” I was stunned, but I remembered this when I saw the poor work they submitted at the end of their study. Being an aspiring lecturer (and a student of the late brilliant Prof R.O. Okelo) I marked them without fear or favour, assuming that they would be used to such standards at Princeton. I was told that I couldn’t give them such low marks because they were supposed to qualify for med school after their biology degrees.
They strayed off into a neighbouring ranch and I got a call from the security personnel there that they were sunbathing topless on the research vehicle.
The next cohort included one serious student who I actually enjoyed instructing and who finished her course successfully. By that time though, I was getting restless and had started writing an academic and financial proposal for my PhD, and I finished it about six months after my student had returned to the US to graduate. The then Director of Mpala, Dr Georgiadis, refused to let me do my PhD on the job, so I submitted my proposal to several conservation organizations, including the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. I received a positive response from them (offering me a grant) which hit me with a strange mixture of feelings. First of all, I was elated at the prospect of starting my PhD, but I was completely baffled by the signature on the award letter. It was signed by the undergraduate student that I had supervised about eight months earlier. An American undergraduate who had spent two months in Africa was somehow qualified to assess a PhD proposal on the ecology of African wildlife written by an African MSc holder. It was my rude awakening to the racial prejudice that is de rigueur in African conservation practice. But I had to get my academic career moving, and indulge my first taste of the ultimate luxury that my competence and my work could afford me, which was the ability to say “NO”. It was with extreme pleasure that I wrote and signed my letter of resignation from my job at Mpala, leaving it on the Director’s desk.
Years later, after I finished my PhD and had a useful amount of conservation practice under my belt, I attended the Society for Conservation Biology conference in Sacramento, California, where there was a side event featuring publishers from several Ivy League universities. I excitedly engaged them because at the time Gatu Mbaria and I were in the middle of writing “The Big Conservation Lie”. I pointed out to all of them that there were no books about conservation in Africa written by indigenous Africans, but they were uniform in their refusal to even read the synopsis of what we had written. I later understood why when I learned that in US academia, African names — as authors or references — are generally viewed as devaluing to any literature.
An American undergraduate who had spent two months in Africa was somehow qualified to assess a PhD proposal on the ecology of African wildlife written by an African MSc holder.
From Sacramento, I made the short trip to Stanford University in Palo Alto, to give a seminar to an African Studies group. I felt honoured to be making an academic contribution at an Ivy League university and I prepared well. My assertions about the inherent prejudices in African conservation practice were met with stunned silence by the faculty, many of whom are involved with conservation research in Africa. One bright spot in that dour experience was the brilliant PhD student who echoed my views and pointed out that these prejudices existed within academia as well. I later found out that he was Kenyan — his name is Ken Opalo and he now teaches at Georgetown University.
Fast forward to today. The Big Conservation Lie was published, and after the initial wailing, breaking of wind, gnashing of teeth and accusations of racism, Mbaria and I are actually being acknowledged as significant thinkers in the conservation policy field and our literary input is being solicited by various publications around the world. Now, the cultural differences between how European and American institutions treat African knowledge are becoming clear (certainly in my experience). I have been approached by several European institutions to give talks (lectures), and have contributed articles and op-eds (to journals and magazines) and one book foreword. Generally, the approach is like this:
“Dear Dr Ogada, I am_______ and I am writing to you on behalf of________. We are impressed with what you wrote in _____ and would appreciate it if you would consider writing for us an article of (length) on (topic) in our publication. We will offer you an honorarium of (X Euros) for this work, and we would need to receive a draft from you by (date). . .” Looking forward to your positive response. . .”
When inviting me to speak, the letters are similarly respectful and appreciative of my time. The key thing is the focus on and respect for one’s intellectual contribution. Publications from American Ivy league schools typically say:
“Dear Dr Ogada, I am __________, the editor of __________. We find your thoughts on _______ very interesting and we are pleased to invite you to write an essay of________ (length) in our publication. Previous authors we have invited include (dropping about 6-8 names of prominent American scholars).
The entire tone of the letter implies that you are being offered a singular privilege to “appear” in the particular journal. It is even worse when being asked to give a lecture. No official communication, just a casual message from a young student saying that they would like you to come and talk to their class on__________ (time and date on the timetable). No official communication from faculty or the institution. After doing that a couple of times, I realized that the reason these kids are so keen to have an African scholar speak to them and answer all their questions is because they need his knowledge, but do not want to read his publications, or (God forbid) have an African name in the “references” section of their work.
The reason these kids are so keen to have an African scholar speak to them and answer all their questions is because they need his knowledge, but do not want to read his publications.
European intellectuals seem to be catching on to the fact that knowledge and intellect reside in people, not institutions. That is why they solicit intellectual contributions based on the source of an idea they find applicable in that space and time. Name recognition doesn’t matter to them, which is why they seek people like Ogada, who doesn’t even have that recognition in Kenya. The elite schools in US still place this premium on institutions, which is why whenever an African displays intellectual aptitude, those who are impressed don’t ask about him and his ideas, but where he went to school. They want to know which institution bestowed this gift upon him.
For the record, I usually wait about a week before saying “no” to the Ivy League schools. Hopefully, they read my blog and will improve the manner in which they approach me, or stop it altogether.
Cuba Can Help Vaccinate the World
On 25 January, the Progressive International will host a special briefing live from Havana with Cuba’s leading scientists, government ministers and public health officials as part of its Union for Vaccine Internationalism.
2022 began with a “tsunami” of new Covid-19 cases crashing over the world, according to the World Health Organization. Over 18 million cases have been recorded in the past week alone, a record number since the pandemic began two years ago. In the first 10 days of January, nearly 60,000 Covid-19 deaths have been recorded worldwide — though the total death count is far higher than the official statistics describe.
The Omicron variant is reported to have less “severe” implications among vaccinated patients. But the world remains perilously under-vaccinated: 92 of the WHO’s member countries missed the 2021 target of 40 percent vaccination; at the current pace of rollout, 109 of them will miss their 2022 targets by July.
These statistics tell a story of a persistent vaccine apartheid. Across the EU, 80 percent of all adults have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Meanwhile, only 9.5 percent of people in low-income countries have received a single dose. Omicron is a death sentence for thousands in these countries — and as the virus travels across the Global South, new variants will emerge that may be less “mild” for the vaccinated populations of the North.
But the governments of these Northern countries refuse to plan for global vaccination — or even meet their own pledges. By late last year, they had delivered only 14% of the vaccine doses that they had promised to poorer countries through COVAX, the UN vaccine-sharing initiative. Big pharmaceutical corporations are focused almost exclusively on production of boosters for the world’s rich countries, creating a shortfall of three billion doses in the first quarter of this year.
President Joe Biden could easily help fill this shortfall by compelling US pharmaceutical corporations to share their vaccine technology with poorer nations. But he has so far refused to do so. A new production hub in Africa — where only 3 percent of people are vaccinated — is now trying to replicate the Moderna vaccine. But without Moderna’s help, or Joe Biden’s executive action, production could take more than a year to begin.
Amidst this crisis of global solidarity, Cuba has emerged as a powerful engine of vaccine internationalism. Not only has the island nation successfully developed two Covid-19 vaccines with 90 percent effectiveness, and vaccinated more than 90 percent of its population with at least one dose of its homegrown vaccine, Cuba has also offered its vaccine technology to the world. “We are not a multinational where returns are the number one reason for existing,” said Vicente Vérez Bencomo of the Finlay Vaccines Institute in Cuba. “For us, it’s about achieving health.”
But the US and its allies continue to oppress and exclude Cuba from the global health system. The US blockade forced a shortage of syringes on the island that endangered its vaccine development and hindered mass production. US medical journals “marginalize scientific results that come from poor countries,” according to Vérez Bencomo. Meanwhile, the WHO refuses to accredit the Cuban vaccines, despite approval from regulators in countries like Argentina and Mexico.
That is why the Progressive International is sending a delegation to Havana: to combat misinformation, to defend Cuban sovereignty, and to help vaccinate the world.
Bringing delegates from the Union for Vaccine Internationalism, founded in June 2021 to fight the emerging apartheid, the Progressive International will convene Cuban scientists and government representatives to address international press and members of the scientific community in a showcase of the Cuban vaccine on 25 January.
The goals of the showcase are both local and global. Drawing attention to the promise of the Cuban vaccine and the perils of the US embargo against it, the showcase aims to forge connections between Cuba’s public biotech sector and manufacturers who might produce the vaccine and help the Cuban government recuperate the costs of its development.
In the process, the showcase aims to set an example of international solidarity in the face of the present global health crisis, advancing the cause of vaccine internationalism around the world.
This article was first published by Progressive International.
DRC: Bring Patrice Lumumba Home
The return of Patrice Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and coverup.
For much of the past year, there have been plans for the sacred human remains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first post-independence prime minister, Patrice Émery Lumumba, to finally be returned to his children in Belgium, and then repatriated to the Congo. Originally scheduled for a ceremony on June 30, 2021, the 61st anniversary of the country’s independence passed with Lumumba’s remains still in the custody of Belgian authorities. The ceremony with Belgian King Philippe, current Prime Minister Alexander de Croo of Belgium, and Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, was then planned for January 17, 2022, the anniversary of the assassination. Last week, Tshisekedi announced another delay—this time until June 2022. The official reason for the delay was the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the Congo, but the pandemic crisis is deeply entangled with a series of other political maneuvers and other crises that are undoubtedly factors in the decision.
At the center of this story, Lumumba’s family continues to be victimized. As Nadeen Shaker recently reported, his children were forced to escape to Cairo during their father’s house arrest, never to see him again. The disturbing fact that the remains of Lumumba spent another Independence Day in Belgium may provide opportunities for metaphor and analogy, but, amid the widespread complicity in this ongoing desecration, the most important outcome must be to respect the ethical and legal claims of his children, which daughter Juliana Lumumba described in an open letter to the Belgian king last year.
The story of the execution and its aftermath is well told by Ludo de Witte in The Assassination of Patrice Lumumba. On January 17, 1961, Lumumba was killed along with comrades Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito by Belgian authorities, with the support of neocolonial Kantangan separatists and the US. Two days later, Gerard Soete, Belgian police commissioner of Katanga, and his brother exhumed the body to chemically eradicate all physical evidence of their crime in order to prevent the kind of mobilization which its identification would inspire. Though the execution was kept secret for nearly a month, its announcement inspired exactly what his executioners feared, as African people throughout the world engaged in protest and other revolutionary acts of remembrance—from the well-known demonstration at the United Nations, and other cities throughout the world to a legacy in a visual, musical, and literary culture that continues to this day.
In February 1961, while the Cultural Association of Women of African Heritage organized a major protest at UN headquarters in New York, Lumumba’s widow Pauline Opango Lumumba led a march of family and supporters to the UN offices of Rajeshawar Dayal in Kinshasa. There, she requested that the UN help her receive the remains of her husband for a proper burial. After Ralph Bunche offered “apologies” for the New York protest, Lorraine Hansberry “hasten[ed] publicly to apologize to Mme. Pauline Lumumba and the Congolese people for our Dr. Bunche.” Meanwhile, James M. Lawson of the United African Nationalist Movement and other Black activists organized a wake for Lumumba at Lewis Michaux’s Harlem bookstore. When Pauline died in Kinshasa in 2014, she was still waiting to bury her husband. She, and her iconic demonstration, are memorialized in Brenda Marie Osbey’s poem “On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba,” which is part of a long line of African American efforts to uplift the Lumumba family. The immediacy of Pauline’s demands remains after 6 years.
While Lumumba’s body was dissolved in sulphuric acid, Soete, like the US lynchers of Sam Hose and so many others, kept trophies of his victims as he traveled from the Congo to Belgium, often displaying them for friends and journalists. After Soete died, his daughter Godelieve continued her father’s tradition, culminating in a bizarre 2016 interview, during which a reporter found the remains in her possession. (In her efforts to defend her father, Godelieve further revealed that his brutality was visited upon his children.) The Belgian police intervened and, for the past five years, Lumumba’s remains have been held by the Belgian government responsible for his death. In September 2020, a court finally ruled they should be returned to the family.
These most recent delays are occurring at a time when the ongoing mistreatment of human remains is receiving public attention. The case of the Morton Collection at the University of Pennsylvania led activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad to uncover the ongoing desecration of the remains of Tree and Delisha Africa, who were killed when the city of Philadelphia bombed their family’s home on May 13, 1985, leading to the discovery that the city held additional remains of the victims of its violence against the MOVE organization.
Since 2005, in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) created the Missing Persons Task Team to identify the remains of the Black victims of the country’s apartheid era. Drawing on the expertise of researchers with experience in similar initiatives in Argentina and elsewhere, this government project has been deliberate in its efforts to include the families of the missing at all stages, while seeing their work as integral to the larger mission of the TRC, and further representative of a larger model of repatriation of human remains and possessions. As different as these cases of violence may be, government sanction—at multiple levels and taking different forms—remains constant.
In an October 2021 program hosted by Friends of the Congo, Juliana Lumumba explained that for her, as the daughter of a martyr, repatriation and memorialization of her father’s remains were not finite events to be completed like items checked off of a to-do list. Rather, the return must be part of a wider and ongoing process: “I told Belgium, that if we want a reconciliation we need reconciliation of memories because we can not make a reconciliation when our memories [are] so different and so contradictory.” Juliana’s words carry a particular weight at a time when the Special Parliamentary Commission on Belgian Colonial History has received a sharply critical historical report that may or may not lead to meaningful action of the sort that the family has demanded.
Lumumba’s son Guy-Patrice Lumumba opposes Tshisekedi’s efforts to exploit the repatriation for political gain. Tshisekedi himself is familiar with some of the political challenges of memorialization after the remains of his own father, longtime popular opposition leader Etienne Tshisekdi, spent more than two years in Europe before their return in 2019 after Felix’s election. Felix is quickly losing whatever claim he had on his own father’s mantle (see Bob Elvis’s song “Lettre à Ya Tshitshi” for a recent indictment of the president’s abandonment of his father’s mantle). He may find value in an association with a revered nationalist icon amid political protests from opponents concerned about his overreaching efforts to control the country’s powerful electoral commission as the 2023 election cycle approaches.
Meanwhile, the younger Tshisekedi’s international standing has been consolidated through his position as head of the African Union, where his responsibilities include negotiating for the provision of COVID-19 vaccines for member states. He recently met with President Biden and made an official visit to Israel, the latter of particular concern given its historical involvement in mercenary efforts against pro-Lumumba rebels and its ongoing role in the plunder of the Congo’s resources (to say nothing of Tshisekedi’s support for Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem and its status as an observer at the African Union). Such actions highlight the extraordinary distance between Lumumba’s legacy and Tshisekedi’s leadership.
For decades, the Lumumba family has made a series of unanswered demands through formal inquiries and legal appeals. A group of scholars and activists have also asserted the return of Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but rather an opportunity for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and its subsequent coverup.
Hopefully soon, Lumumba’s family can mourn on their own terms and have all of their demands for justice met immediately and without equivocation.
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