Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tuition fees to rise in Britain

As expected, the Government won the vote on tuition fees, and those are now set to rise to £9,000 per year, with some universities potentially being allowed to set their own fees in the name of 'competition'. A sad day for higher education in Britain, and for the Liberal Democrats, who are now looking like a wing of the Tory Party.

Tuition fee debate in Britain iii

There are large numbers of student protesters in London, including a group in Parliament Square. The police have elected to use the controversial kettling technique, which here as on other occasions, seems designed to provoke conflict.


I’ve not seen the entire debate, but as far as I can tell, we’ve not heard from either of the two heavy-weight Liberal Democrats who have said that they will not merely abstain, but will vote against the fee increase. Both Sir Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy led the Liberal Democrats in its more progressive days, and were committed to eliminating tuition fees as introduced under Labour. I wonder if they are waiting to make their interventions later in the debate for maximum impact, or whether they pledged to keep their opposition muted in the meeting of the LibDems’ parliamentary party earlier this week. It would be disappointing if two such prominent parliamentarians have sold out in this manner.


The front benches are already being asked to wrap up, and from the sound of it, there is widespread fury at the time limitations placed on the debate. In wrapping up for the opposition, Gareth Thomas condemned the government for presenting the policy as the only choice open to responsible politicians. This, however, gets at the difficulty of Labour’s position. Their proposal of a graduate tax is barely an improvement on the massive tuition fee increases that the Coalition is pushing for, and which look likely to pass. They were the party to introduce tuition fees, and were notorious for cutting off debate in the Commons. That’s why Thomas’ party-political points aren’t doing him much good, though they are invigorating the Labour benches. He should have made a cross-party appeal to pick off as many LibDems and Conservatives as possible.

For the Government, David Willets, wearing an unseemly smirk that George Osbourne and Iain Duncan Smith are sharing, is able to cut the legs from under Labour by quoting the opportunistic Shadow Chancellor, Alan Johnson, back at Labour. Johnson suggested that “students don’t pay [fees], graduates do”. Strictly speaking, this is true of course. But the fact is that going down the road of levying huge fees, and freeing up some universities to set even higher fees, chips away at the welfare state that was created with the support of all three major parties. It undermines the claim of the state to look after its people and to provide access to education. Indeed, it is a part of the right-wing move to put a price on things that many believe should be basic rights.

Tuition fee debate in Britain ii

Sharon Hodgson (L) is pointing out that graduates would have to early upwards of £52,000 not many years out of university in order to stay ahead of the debt and interest that would begin to accumulate.


Paul Uppal (C) just made a nauseating intervention during Rehman Chishti’s (C) speech to say that it’s not about money, but about individual commitment and perseverance (the implication being that anyone who is daunted by the prospect of tens of thousands of pounds of debt is lacking in moral fibre). “We all have different abilities, we all have different talents, and they have to be nurtured”, Chishti declared as he wrapped up his speech, attacking Labour’s ambition to allow students from all backgrounds to attend university should they so desire.


Anne Soubry (C) declared that Labour’s big mistake was the “overexpansion of higher degrees that has devalued degrees and falsely raised expectations” of students of the generation now at university. Hers and her party’s is a very instrumentalist view of education, which in itself lacks ambition and is focussed on what students can contribute to select industries rather than on the social good that higher education can do for individuals and for society.


Julian Lewis, one of the most right-wing Conservatives in the Commons, has declared his opposition to the tuition hikes, movingly recalling his father telling him in his youth in Wales that he didn’t have to know anything about tailoring because he needn’t follow in his footsteps now that there was a system of grants in place to allow people from their background to attend university.


Pat McFadden (L) is right on to say that “the government are replacing the state’s responsibility with the individual’s”. Like other Labour members, he is really laying into the Liberal Democrats. Vince Cable, on the front bench, looks like he’s ready to cry. He was famous for remarking on Gordon Brown’s transformation from Stalin to Mr Bean. His own descent—from being feted as the most able and principled member of his party and indeed of the coalition to being castigated as a flip-flopping fig-leaf for the Conservatives—has been equally dramatic.

Tuition fee debate in Britain

I’m just tuning into the debate on tuition hikes in Britain (set to treble the sums students will be paying for tuition). It looks like Labour is playing the class war card. David Blunkett (a former eduction secretary) has just accused Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (the Liberal Democrat leader who is set to break his party’s pledge to seek to eliminate tuition fees) of “not knowing anything about social mobility”. This incensed some Tories, who are trying to bellow over Blunkett that they know as much as he does about waking up in the morning to go to work.

Blunkett is making silly attacks and talking about what Labour did in 1997 rather than focussing as sharply as he should on the matter at hand. This is typical of a lot of New Labourites, who see every speech in the Commons as an opportunity to restate the legacy of the Blair years. But he is right to say that the decision is “A value laden, ideological argument [sic]”.


Just a moment ago, John Denham, who resigned in protest from a Labour Government over the war in Iraq and who is now shadowing Vince Cable, who has responsibility for universities, made a passionate plea to LibDems and Conservatives to vote their consciences rather than party-lines.


Greg Mulholland, a Liberal Democrat, is on his feet saying that he thinks that the argument is a bad one, and that more time needs to be given for debate before such a paradigm-shifting vote should be undertaken. He has also just said that he’s not opposing his party leadership and the government simply because he signed a pledge. He is also opposing it because he doesn’t think that £9,000 of fees is a good idea.


Now Sam Gyimah (Conservative) is playing the blame-game, and is arguing that the Conservatives have been locked in by Labour’s financial policies. Like many Tories, he is raising the spectre of a false alternative—that fewer people attend university. “High-participation, high-quality” university is the catchword. Gyimah also made the absurd point that the high rates are a good thing because they shift the burden away from parents! But the Conservatives are cheering him because he is one of only a few minority Tory MPs.


The problem with today’s debate is that Labour’s alternative is the graduate tax, which like the incredibly high fee hikes, transforms higher education into a product to be sold to those who can afford it.

I'll write more later.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

African history through African literature

Interestingly, a lot of more contemporary literature (which with a few exceptions is what is included below) tackles the earliest moments of colonialism, decolonisation and the post-Independence era in Africa. This presumably reflects, in part, the widespread view of Africa as “a blot on the world’s conscience”, a “problem”, or as a place that is somewhat timeless. But also, perhaps, the greater stakes in literary interpretations of African history, and the attempts of many African writers to address contemporary issues. The work of many of these writers is highly politicised. Chinua Achebe has been working from the east coast for many years, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes from exile in California (Irvine).

The Epic of Sundiata Keita might make a good place to start, for though recounting the history of an old Malian lineage, it has been retold many times across the centuries, and therefore embodies some of the dilemmas faced by historians: how to deal with works that look in many respects like literature rather than history as such, and how to account for alterations that successive generations of griots have made to the real events (if, in fact, those are what we are most interested in). Maryse Conde’s Segu takes us centuries forward in Mali, offering an epic look into the same geographic world inhabited by Sundiata and his sons, but one transformed by new trading networks and wars.

Before there was formal colonialism, Africans were already dealing with the political, social and demographic effects of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Barry Unsworth’s quirky novel, Sacred Hunger, offers an interesting portrayal of the Europe in which such a trade flourished, and charts interactions between different parties in the slave trade.

I have encountered no better novel which captures both pre-colonial African livelihoods and the impact of colonialism on people in different sectors of society (here in what would become Nigeria) than Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart. Equally fascinating, if for different reasons, is Elspeth Huxley’s Red Strangers, an extraordinary attempt by the daughter of early settlers in Kenya to capture the experience of early colonialism by Kikuyu. Red Strangers is all the more interesting because it follows on the heels of Huxley’s two-part biography of Lord Delamere (White Man’s Country), a Kenyan pioneer, which sets out the merits of white African culture. For those of us who think that Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o is always an indispensable read, The River Between offers his own take on the early stages of colonialism in East Africa.

Few works can compete with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as it charts the journey by European traders into the centre of the African continent in search of material wealth and the harrowing depths of human nature in search of solace, though Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate all the brutes does a fine job of recounting the travels of a modern-day writer through the annals of what he characterises as the world’s first genocide. For another European perspective on colonialism, its wars, and the emotions those evoked in the men asked to fight them, A E W Mason’s The Four Feathers (published in 1902, and since the subject of several—mostly quite bad—film versions) makes an excellent read. H R Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, another period piece of literature, gives further insight into the motivations of early explorers and other parties interested in pushing into Africa.

For anyone interested in parallels between nineteenth century colonialism and the imperial exercises of the United States today, the Sudan seems a tantalising example. Jamal Mahjoub’s story of late-nineteenth century Sudan might not explicitly draw out these parallels, but In the Hour of Signs is nonetheless a thought-provoking and lyrical read. If you’re interested in venturing further into North Africa, Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy is a nice place to start where Egypt is concerned.

Many historians have argued that racial anxieties held by Europeans led them to socially emasculate African men. Ferdinand Oyonyo’s wonderful novel Houseboy captures colonial relations in Cameroon by exploring this theme and providing a compelling illustration of how cultural and racial viewpoints translated into political and social structures which governed the lives of the colonised. Sembene Ousmane takes a look at African resistance to colonialism. His evocative account of the 1947 strike on the Dakar-Niger Railway examines the choices that confronted people when they chose to take on the inequalities that stemmed from colonialism. God’s Bits of Wood presents compelling characters who embody a range of views of colonialism from across French West Africa.

If colonialism wrought chaos on the lives of people across the continent, it took on a peculiarly pernicious form in South Africa, where apartheid structured the lives of all South Africans. The works of Alan Paton, a white, English-speaking Liberal who campaigned against the system of rule, seek to capture apartheid from a range of perspectives. His classic Cry, the Beloved Country recounts the journey of an African pastor between worlds defined by colour, urbanness and politics. Too Late the Phalarope illustrates the heartrending effects of apartheid laws on a Boer family ruled by a titan of Afrikaner respectability, and Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful serves as a description of liberal responses to apartheid.

Alex la Guma is but one of many chroniclers of the experience of apartheid, but Time of the Butcherbird does an exceptionally good job of bringing together many of the protagonists in apartheid­-era South Africa, and demonstrating the extraordinary courage that it required for many to resist attempts to force Africans onto Bantustans. Henning Mankell’s murder mystery, The White Lioness, hints at the internationalisation of both resistance to apartheid and the draconian attempts of the National Government to break the backbone of that resistance. Malla Nunn continues work in that genre in her recent mystery, A Beautiful Place to Die, which takes on the fraught relations in a small rural community in 1950s South Africa. Amongst Nadine Gordimer’s many books dealing with South Africa during and after apartheid, The Conservationist stands out for its treatment of white and Zulu experiences of South Africa’s particular version of colonialism.

The end of apartheid did not herald the end of racial conflict in South Africa. In one of the most harrowing reads I’ve come across, J M Coetzee gives life to the tensions and violence which continue to plague South Africa in his novel Disgrace, which also captures more timeless moral themes. Many of Gordimer’s works, including July’s People and House Gun deal with both the imagined fallouts of apartheid and with the scale of social discontent that remained in its aftermath.

Zimbabwe’s experience of decolonisation was long and messy, for white Rhodesians declared Southern Rhodesia independent in 1965 and it wasn’t until 1981, after a bloody civil war, that Zimbabwe emerged as an independent nation. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is a brilliant recounting of how the material and structural conditions created by colonialism affect the psyche of a young African girl who is torn between different relatives’ sense of the possible, and is caught amidst the divide between rural and urban Zimbabweans as well as amidst the increasingly desperate liberation war (Dangarembga’s sequel, The Book of Not, is less powerful, but still worth reading). Shimmer Chindoya’s Harvest of Thorns moves between fighting in the bush during the liberation war and the troubled experiences of veterans after the conflict has ended. Alexandra Fuller’s two memoirs (Don’t let’s go to the dogs tonight and Scribbling the Cat) give a flavour of life as experienced by members of the White Tribe of Africa across southern Africa in the years around and after independence. While the memoir’s recording of blatantly racist assumptions is often disconcerting, they are all the more compelling for their honesty. What they share with many other literary works on colonialism is the ability to complicate the simplistic narratives that often emerge from an uncritical and or simplistic examination of the centuries-long European interaction with Africa.

Colonialism did not end easily in Africa. But nor were nationalist struggles as clear cut as some of their chroniclers (literary and historical alike) would like us to believe. While Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A grain of wheat carefully parses the loyalties of and pressures faced by Kenyans at the heart of the Mau Mau war, his The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (co-authored with Micere Githae Mugo) makes no bones about his view that the real heroes of Kenya’s liberation struggle have been forgotten. More recently, Ngugi has written on his own experiences growing up in the dying days of Britain’s East African empire in Dreams in a Time of War.

Political strife did not end in Africa with Uhuru. Nigeria saw the eruption of a bloody civil war in the late 1960s, which witnessed the country break down along lines defined simultaneously by ethnicity and access to resources. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an up-and-coming Nigeria author, has penned an extremely compelling account of this war through the lens of several families in her novel Half of a Yellow Sun, and Nina Newington’s Where Bones Dance is another story of the war from the perspective of the daughter of American spies.

Achebe is one of many authors who meditates on the effects of westernisation and neo-colonialism when he recounts the internal struggle of Obi Okonkwo to navigate between ‘traditional’ ways and the world that is ‘modern’ Nigeria, as well as between his shifting points of moral navigation (No Longer at Ease). Just as colonialism was experienced differently by people from various sectors of society, so too Independence came differently to different people. Amma Ata Aidoo’s novel Changes: A Love Story captures dilemmas of women that are both particular to the post-colonial Nigeria of which she writes, and universal. As the urban and rural, ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ come into conflict, her characters seek to make their way in a post-independence world, the sands of which seem to be shifting beneath their feet.

Some of the most incisive and brilliant writing on neo-colonialism in Africa comes from a personal favourite, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The angriest and most direct of Ngugi’s works is Devil on the Cross, an incredible excoriation of Western powers, African political and economic leaders who do their bidding, and the system in which they flourish. Equally indispensable is Petals of Blood. More brooding is Nadine Gordimer’s A Guest of Honour, which recounts the travails of a liberal, nationalist-sympathising former colonial administrator who witnesses the nationalist project crumble in an imagined central African nation.

For a return from high politics to daily life, pick up Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, which does an amazing job of interweaving complex beliefs about spirituality, economic fortune, and ‘tradition’ in Nigeria. Equally compelling is Ahmadou Kourouma’s final work, Allah is Not Obliged, which tells the heart-rending story of child soldiers in West Africa from the point of view of one such youth.

One harrowing account of contemporary Sudan, the culture and politics of and crushing moral dilemmas faced by aid agencies comes from Philip Caputo’s Acts of Faith, a novel which some might argue does for Sudan’s wars what Caputo’s A Rumour of War did for Vietnam.

For those feeling depressed by the weight of history measured in these literary scales, Alexander McCall Smith’s light-hearted series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency offers a look into one of Africa’s supposed ‘success stories’—Botswana, and gives readers a passing impression of gender relations, politics, and the ‘dailyness of life’.

An enduring theme of African literature is the ambiguous legacies of post-independence governments. Robert Mugabe may be vilified in the West, but many Africans, the protagonist of Brian Chikwava’s Harare North amongst them, continue to see Mugabe as a hero of liberation, and a victim of Western smears. Harare North’s other contribution is to portrayals of the lives of the growing African diaspora. Chikwava deals with the Zimbabwean community in London, but an equally compelling story comes from Ike Oguine’s A Squatter’s Tale (which might be a particularly interesting version of the immigrant experience given that it’s protagonist makes his home-away-from-Nigeria in Oakland). Nigerian Biyi Bandele’s The Street uses a magical realist style to capture an immigrant culture that is all its own in its tragic-comic unfolding in the by-ways of Brixton.

Africa’s leadership has repeatedly come in for a drubbing from some of the continent’s most prominent and powerful writers. Ahmadou Kourouma weighed in with his complicated novel Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, which chronicles the slow descent of an African liberation hero who won his spurs fighting for the colonial government in one of its imperial wars, returned to lead his country after Independence, and became a master in the dark arts of nepotism, brutality and corruption. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s full-throated assault on kleptocracy in the enormous Wizard of the Crow (perhaps his finest novel) might take place in an imagined East African nation, but you don’t have to stretch your imagination far—whilst enjoying brilliant satire and many a comic turn—to conjure up images of Nairobi and the Kenyan elite who have perfected the art of speaking out several sides of their mouths.

Of course, thinking about African history through literature is complex and potentially problematic. When reading we should ask ourselves in what way these works of literature allow us insight into African history. Unlike an exhaustively-researched and –cited historical monograph, it can be difficult to discern the sources of information upon which authors draw. More often than not, there is little way of telling to what degree personal or familial experience, archival research, perusal of newspapers or other forms of more easily accessible records informed the construction of historically-informed narratives and characters.

Nonetheless, I have heard many people maintain that there is something particularly compelling about the impressions conveyed by novels, plays and short stories echoed by many others. This should make historians think hard about what attributes of fiction can be successfully and productively imitated in their own writing in order to get through to a public (if this is part of what academics see as their role) which might have a big appetite for history, yet is put off by turgid prose or a style which makes no effort to address diverse audiences.

A few other books that might be of interest (in no particular order):

Half a life—V.S. Naipaul

Anthills of the savannah—Chinua Achebe

A bend in the river—V.S. Naipaul

Age of Iron—J. M. Coetzee

House gun—Nadine Gordimer

A sport of nature—Nadine Gordimer

The dogs of war—Frederick Forsyth

The constant gardener—John Le Carre

The mission song—John Le Carre

A good man in Africa—William Boyd

The power of one—Bryce Courtenay

She—H. Rider Haggard

The other side of silence—Andre Brink

The eye of the leopard—Henning Mankell

Memory of a departure—Abdulrazak Gurnah

Everything good will come—Sefi Atta

The ice-cream war—William Boyd

Waiting for the barbarians—J M Coetzee

I will marry when I want—Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Mirii

Flame Trees of Thika—Elspeth Huxley

Coming to birth--Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye

Weep Not, Child--Ngugi wa Thiong'o

The Radiance of the King--Camara Laye

Kicking Tongues--Karen King-Aribisala

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Roger Cohen takes Wikileaks out of perspective

Someone recently sent me Roger Cohen’s piece on Wikileaks. His take is that yes, American Diplomacy has been revealed—as a thoroughly good set of practices. Cohen is right about there not being any big revelations coming out of this latest round of Wikileaked documents. But what bothers me about the documents that are have been released is their illustration of the insouciance with which American diplomats view our screwed-up world.

Sure, we’ve probably all suspected that the Saudis bankrolled terrorists (to lethal effect), that the ISI is playing double-game (with deadly consequences), that government servants—royalty no less—have little time for trivial little things like accountability and those irritating anti-corruption agencies, and so on.

But you get the impression that they’re inured to all of this, and that we’re supposed to be too. That it’s just how the ‘real world’ works, and that those of us who spend any time carping about government hypocrisy (that gets people—lots of people—killed), worrying about dodgy arms deals (that fuel wars in parts of the world where most of us will never set foot), criticising a lack of accountability (which leads to ramped up secrecy), wondering why Israel gets carte blanche (which ties our hands as per the Middle East peace process), should get a grip and let people whose moral fibre seems to have been surgically removed run the show without an iota of oversight.

Julian Assange, Wikileaks’ front man, is a red-herring. Sure, he’s a blowhard, might seem a bit shady, and is more than a little full of himself. But if he makes Cohen “queasy”, the poor little journalist must have an awfully strong stomach to be able to sit down to write a column praising the people who go through the motions of defending American interests every day by doing deals with mass murderers, thugs, corrupt politicians at home and abroad, the “freedom fighters” of today who will be the “terrorists” of tomorrow at whom we’ll be lobbing $70,000 missiles out of $4.5 million drones. And if they’re not actively complicit, their silence condemns them many times over.

Every piece of psychoanalysis that some credulous git like Cohen pens about Assange is a victory for the people driving our frankly rather shockingly immoral foreign policy. It’s a victory for those who are contemptuous of democracy and the openness that it should bring. My sense is that the likes of Cohen are really just worried that their ‘anonymous sources’ might begin drying up. If that were to happen, they’d actually have to do some serious investigative journalism (i.e. their jobs). It’s much easier for them to take people in the State Department, the White House, and the DoD at their words.