Archive for November, 2007

fun with maps: trade and roads

November 30, 2007

(click on the links to look at the maps in detail)

If you’re interested in african history or economics, you may one day get to see a map like this one:

africa trade

That’s early african trade routes. There are probably better ones out there but this has the basics: swahili costal cities as access points in the east, transaharian trade etc..
Do you notice a hole ?

Well, fast forward (in time) and check this:

africa rail

African railroads. I think only two of them were built post-independence: the transgabonese and one in Tanzania. I think it’s a good map of colonial trade roads. Of course the particularity is that most roads here link to ports. The transaharian trade is dead and intersahelian is not represented as it’s done through roads.
notice a hole ?

what about this:

africa roads

Current. I believe it’s on the positive side. Some roads I see there do not qualify as all weather/improved and some of the motorways are just improved dirt roads but nevertheless it gives an idea of where they are. Alternatively you can use this:

africa roads 2

Mostly because the transharan makes a come back and because the classification is better.
Or you could check the accessibility map..

africa accessibility

Do you still see a hole ?

What about this one ?

africa highway

The map of the future transafrican highway system. Do you see where the links break ? Do you see the potential (smaller) hole ?

Just in case I’m the only one seeing it, here it is: West Africa, East Africa, Southern Africa or even North Africa are all more or less interconnected and appear to have been for a long time. Central Africa is the weak transport/trade link and has been for a while.
And the issue is not that it’s badly connected to other areas, it’s just badly connected within itself. What do we blame for that ?

The deep forest ?

africa biomass

or the Congo River ?

congo river

why debt relief can be a bad idea

November 29, 2007

Once upon a time , the government of the Republic of the Congo got interested in getting the Heavily Indebted Poor Country debt relief. The country is poor and is heavily indebted but there are conditions such as “a current track record of satisfactory performance under an IMF and IDA-supported programs, a Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) or an interim PRS in place, and an agreed plan to clear any arrears to foreign creditors” (source) in order to reach the Decision Point. So a central banker became the new Minister of Finance and he has a full mandate to get the country to the Decision Point. A few years later, after being nicknamed “Red Pen” for his habit of “correcting” his colleagues’ financial demands, and amid rumours of death threats by presidential nephews angry to find out that their personnal expenses weren’t covered by the treasury, he got canned and returned to the BEAC. So yes budget cuts were made, of course mostly in social spending. The general spending (aka AC, cars, and stuff for the ministries or rather ministers) is still something like 40% of the budget and the investment spending is really a big scam in which companies close to the presidency get awarded infrastructure contracts at inflated prices.

Then in 2005, a few months before the World Bank meeting to decide on Congo’s status something happened: an NGO revealed that $300 millions worth of oil money were accounted for, an investment fund owning part of the debt sued in London and New York, miniscandals involving the director of the oil company were aired. LINKS HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.
The $300 millions scandal was the biggest one and threatened to compromise the HIPC status.
Congo at first denied there was any money missing. Then they admitted there was but said they lost it. And finally in a dramatic twist of events not only admitted they knew it was missing and where it was (in personnal account in the some caraibean fiscal paradises), but actually declared they were hidding it from the big evil Vulture Funds that were after Congo’s revenues. Of course, les Depeches de Brazzaville, the pro-government newspaper went at great length, in the next weeks, to explain what a vulture fund is and how evil they are, quoting Nestor Kichner and plenty of anti-western and anti-colonial arguments (even if the editor is a french spin doctor).

Now the World Bank had a strong anti-corruption agenda at that point, partly thanks to Paul Wolfowitz, the recently nominated president of the institution also known as the planner of the Irak war. At first it seemed like they did take notice (scroll down for the english version) of the scandals but after some alledged french pressures (being a friend of Chirac helps), the World Bank decided that Congo reached the Decision Point, with some reservations.

Now so far the logic makes sense in a World bank kind of way, Congo made some efforts, cheated a bit but the limited effort should be rewarded, right ?

but that led to this:

Congo Republic will sign an agreement with the London Club of creditors on Wednesday to forgive 77 percent of the 288 billion CFA owed to the group, the finance ministry said in a statement.(…)The Paris Club of sovereign lenders, which had already agreed to cancel 67 percent of its debt, increased this to between 90 and 100 percent in some cases after HIPC entry. 

The congolese press anounces it either bragging about in editorials or explainning in more detail. (all links in french)

In short, here we have a corrupt government that admited it cheated on its debt repayments (by hiding revenue in private accounts) and whose president, elected with a stalinist 89,7% on the same day as Mugabe’s much publicized 56% cheat, thinks it’s racist to question him on his expenses, that contrary to DRC or Nigeria is still ruled by the people who took the loans to start with, and because of the World Bank political decision gets their non-World Bank debt written off and a badge of seriousness on the local political scene.

So someone, please, explain this to me ?
What’s the point ? What outcome is expected out of this ? More humanitarian support for Christel Sassou-Nguesso ?

weird moments in african pop

November 29, 2007

Leopold Senghor once wrote that “emotion is black as reason is greek”.. Primitiveness, authenticity that’s what we’re supposed to be about.

Well we can do irony, man. And not for western audiences either:

and we can do straight up weird:

another bad sentence..

November 20, 2007

via an approving Robert Neuwrith, I learned that Janice Perlman of Mega Cities says:

“The international funding agencies of investment institutions need to give more to urban development and less to rural development,”


“I’ve argued that the people who come to the city [and live in squatter developments] are the cream of the crop with the highest ambitions and aspirations. If given the chance, they would build middle-class communities. You can’t blame people for polluting the watershed if you don’t provide them with water infrastructure.”

Yes, destroying squatter development is stupid, so is not providing them with water infrastructure. However, not thinking about the lack of infrastructure on the rural side to explain why people came to live in cities to start with is not much better.The differences between rural and urban areas in access to education, health-care, employment opportunities, clean water are huge. For instance:

“In Cameroon, the ratio of health professionals per acre is 1: 400 in urban areas and 1: 4000 in rural locations, requiring people to travel great distances to find health care in rural areas. This kind of imbalance is just as severe in rural areas of Cambodia, where 85% of the population lives, but where only 13% of health workers are based; and in Angola, where 65% of the population live in rural areas but only 15% of health workers, the vast majority of these having opted for better-paid jobs in urban areas.”

What is not said here is that those imbalances are the result of differences in public spending. Hospitals, schools, water purification facilities are built mostly by governments that also pay doctors, engineers, nurses and teachers. Such inequalities would seem natural and fair if the sources of income of those governments were mostly urban but that’s not always the case. Agricultural and mineral exports are still the major source of public revenue in the developing world and urban economies are either dependant on public service employment or a non-taxed personal service sector or an infrastructure dependant emerging manufacturing sector. Furthermore, countries like Ivory Coast or Zambia are experiencing a reversal of internal migration patterns since public spending and public service recruitment have been frozen and markets liberalized by structural adjustment policies (themselves caused by government’s quasi-bankruptcy).In short, governments have been taking money from rural areas to give to cities. Yet, Janice Perlman thinks urban development should be given more. Then again, the MegaCities Project would benefit from that, wouldn’t it ?

Note on The Grand Master Franco Luambo

November 18, 2007

It’s a known fact that Franco recorded various praise songs for Mobutu, openly supported Mobutu’s presidential campaigns and toured to promote the Authenticity policy. 

What may be little known is that those efforts paid off in:

– the 1972 acquisition of the club “Chez Engels” which became the famous “Un, Deux, Trois” via a complicated transaction involving the political downfall of the former owner (or manager), Mobutu’s wife and probably the Presidency itself.
– Franco’s 1972 nomination as president of UMUZA, the national musicians’ union created (or officially encouraged) by the Mobutu regime.
– the acquisition of Mazadis, the largest record pressing plant in the country, as part of the Zaireanisation policy. 

As the president of UMUZA:

– he installed the unions’ headquarters on his own “Un, Deux, Trois” propriety.
– he had, because of a May 1973 decree, the exclusive power to grant travel authorizations to musicians wishing to travel abroad. He did use that power against competition. For instance in 1975 Trio Majesti announced a December gig at Olympia in Paris. In May, they got a 12 months suspension from UMUZA for trading Zaires into foreign currency on the black market to finance their travel (weirdly enough, no judicial prosecution ever occurred even if that action was definitely illegal). The ban got reversed in August but the December date still passed without the band getting its travel authorization.
– in 1973, he banned the creation (or rather the registration) of new bands and recording companies, claiming 300 bands were already too much for a sane and sustainable music industry.
– in an April 1975, at a meeting of UMUZA members, he called for more “revolutionary” recordings (so more praise songs), demanded more self-censorship and announced a new travel restriction: band having gigs abroad will have to show that they had enough currency to support themselves and that currency would have to be acquired through the Central Bank (at disadvantageous rates) and the central bank requested a permit by.. UMUZA. 

As the owner of Mazadis:

– he granted himself, his band and his production company preferential treatment by having different prices and by slowly or badly processing orders from competitors.
– he didn’t do much to keep the operation running (and eventually saw the former owners get 60% of their shares back in 1975) which led to a nationwide shortage of records. “Kiosks everywhere display shelves either empty or filled only with old creations” said a (government) newspaper in 1974.
– he failed to use his political clout to get permits and authorizations necessary to buy foreign currency to purchase equipment, spare parts and raw materials. Of course, one could say that foreign currency was hard to obtain for anyone but as the manager of the other recording plant said: “of course, there was no shortage of foreign exchange. All kinds of luxury goods were available in the stores, but no one penny for raw materials and spare parts.” I believe Franco did obtain permits but for different purposes.

The shortages, lack of investment, travel bans, mismanagement of author rights payments, corruption, favoritism all contributed to the demise of the zairean music industry and Franco, arguably the greatest congolese musician of all-time, played a big role in those events. Let us not forget that.

That said, I still believe this great song has a great political subtext:

All the information was taken from Gary Steward’s excellent book: rumba on the river.rumba on the river

Your habitus

November 14, 2007

Yes you can live, laugh and love in Nigeria, be an educated professional, have read Bourdieu and Weber and yet your cultural predispositions will make you write this: understand in any depth the layers of social dysfunction in Nigeria, perhaps we need to analyse its own specific forms of habitus. We need to understand the expectations that create the need for the Big Man in any organisation beyond simple ethnography; the historical patterns that have generated an all-encompassing master-slave power relationship, such that any marginal economic advantage generates the production of master and slave identities, and such that paying a house-help 4000 naira per month is deemed perfectly acceptable by many; and to use habitus to shed light on the enduring agrarian episteme that mitigates against driving in a straight line in Abuja, or to understand the social positioning of say the police.

First, this is a complete misreading of Bourdieu. Habitus, a concept redefined (and not created) by Bourdieu to reconcile free will and determinism, socialization and the individual is about the individual.
Basically, me, you, everyone develop through socialization over our lifetime certain dispositions, a structure through which we perceive, think and act in the world. That’s habitus. Though it is constantly affected by our experiences and major events (like reading Bourdieu or being the victim of ethnic cleansing) can deeply change it at any point, it tends to be durable: the construct, especially early ones, last much much longer than the experience itself. It also tends to be transposable (i think that’s a french word). Experience in one social setting can influence one’s perception (and therefore behavior) behavior in another. As an example, one can get the habit of thinking in terms of country’s “national soul” through years of watching soccer with his friends and family and apply that same thinking scheme later when discussing Nigeria’s problems. The world view can remain unchanged despite contradictory evidence. One can keep think in terms of nation’s soul when discussing Nigeria even if Bastian Schweinsteiger dribbles, Cris is a solid defender and France won a World Cup.
Groups can actually have a common habitus (or rather individuals can share part of their habitus) because and only because they have common or similar experiences. Basically sets of individuals who socialized the same way, experienced similar things will tend to have their view of the world and of themselves affected in the same way. And social classes, because they tend to define one’s socialization in a lot of ways are the most relevant form of group when discussing habitus. The example here would be two upper class africans who went to french schools in two different countries and who have a deeper common understanding with each other than with their countrymen.

Now it would be interesting to know how Nigeria, a 50 years old country of 150 millions inhabitants and almost a million square kilometers with deep religious, ethnic, historical, social, intellectual and class divisions would have ONE COMMON HABITUS. How did it develop ? Which are the events that influenced every Nigerian in the same way ? The 1996 Gold Medal ? Independance ? The fall of the Naira ? It would also be interesting to know how it would explain things as different as driving patterns, the salary of a house help and the mythical need for a Big Man.

Well, our compassionate observer suggests an “enduring agrarian episteme” for driving patterns. Let’s ignore details like an urban history that started a century after Rome, or the fact that at least a quarter of the population probably never spent more than a few days outside cities and ask how did Calabar excaped its fate at least more than Lagos. And somebody better tell urban planners, traffic managers, transportation analysts, crossing lights designers that they’re loosing their time. It’s all because once upon a time, everybody lived in the bush.
And someone must tell economists that they too have been loosing their time discussing price-setting, supply and demand or incentives. A slave-master power relationship explains why people, in a country with plenty of cheap unemployed labour, pay their house help 4000 naira a month. A slave-master relationship probably explained why the colonists used forced labour or why europeans felt the need to bring millions of slaves to the America or why bosses don’t pay more than the minimum wage in call centers in the civilized world. And nevermind the wage, why doesnt the slave-master relationship explains why there is house help to start with ? I guess that’s ok, no historical ethos when your domestic employees are well paid (by your standards).
And expectations that create a need for a Big Man ? Well, the most fundamental flaw of the Big Man theory is that nobody ever choose them. Or at least, in Africa, nobody ever selected a Big Man in a free and open election. Or no majority ever decided to grant someone more power hoping that he would make things better. Nigeria had had since its independant one free election and it was cancelled. Military dictators, riggers and elected leaders who are quick to behave like dictators weren’t there because of anybody’s expectations. They got there because they could and did use force. And when people bend to their power, it’s simply because they don’t have the choice or think they don’t have the choice. May be I should suggest Weber’s work on the sociology of politics and government which is far more enlightenning and relevant than the protestant ethics.

And may be one would realize that serious people wouldn’t propose:

a study of the Nigerian habitus would enable us to formulate explicit responses to the informal patterns of understanding and ways of being and doing that lead to the incessant reproduction of dysfunctional realities across the country, leading to much more powerful self-correcting/authochthonic measures, one might hope. It would definitely lead us away from the over-simplistic idea that if only we could find decent leaders to put in positions of power, everything would change..

So that’s the real use of studying the nigerian habitus. It’s better than the eternal quest for the decent leader who will make everything better. Political scientists, sociologists, economists, philosophers, even health specialists, historians or agronomists have just spend decades discussing institutions, designing policies, forming divergent theories and debating choices, analyzing, fine-tuning their data, experiencing, failling, succeeding, discovering side-effects, finding out what went wrong and yet we need to study Nigeria’s “national soul” to get away from idea that a messiah will come and make things better ?

When asked by a commenter how does one dissect what is the ‘Nigerian habitus’ from what is the ‘Yoruba habitus’ from what is the ‘Hausa habitus’:

I suspect on one level, ethnic/cultural differences do not impinge upon a prevailing pre-modern, pre-industrialised world view. On another level, of course ethnic/cultural differences would condition everything – the Yoruba concept of the Oba differing immensely from anything like an Igbo or Hausa ‘equivalent’ for instance.

Ethnic/Cultural differences, that means different religions, different languages, different philosophy, different environement, different social organizations (in the family, the household, the community, the village, the city, trade), different judicial systems, different histories do not have a bigger influence than a common pre-modern, pre-industrial (that means savage) “worldview”. An Ibo engineer, the Sardauna of Sokoto, a Yoruba market woman, a Tiv farmer, an Ijaw tout in Lagos, an Oron prostitue, an Edo poet, a Fulani nomad mother all have the same pre-modern and pre-industrial worldview that trumps whatever effect their different socialization.

And no, acknowledging that concepts may differ across cultures doesn’t make it better. Do Obafemi Martins, Tunde Adebimpe, Seun Kuti, Wole Soyinka, Olesegun Obasandjo and your random village chief really view authority in the same way ? In the same way as the other 30 millions Yorubas ?

To conclude, what is the process of getting attached to a worldview in which people’s thoughts and actions are deeply and perharps definetly defined by their nationality (or race or ethnicity) ? Well that’s acquiring habitus. And that worldview has a name
and a deep and long history among certain groups. Why don’t we study that habitus ?

Food again

November 13, 2007

I guess the current food situation in Africa will become a recurring topic on this blog. It would be wise from me to tell you right away that my knowledge of agronomy, agriculture and economics is limited (even if it’s improving) and I’m more than willing to be corrected if I’m wrong.

As mentionned before, there are worries about food prices in Africa. The prices are going up because of a combinasion of bad harvests and higher international demand.

Now, IRIN reports suspicions about speculative activities in Northern Nigeria.

Kano’s agriculture commissioner, Musa Suleiman Shanono, has accused traders of manipulating a lack of precise information about the harvests to increase their profits.

“It is still too early to conclude that there is going to be food shortages despite the twin problems of short rainy season and the locusts,” he said. “Some grains merchants have turned into speculators, spreading fears of possible food shortages as a ploy to control pricing of commodities. This is why they hoard grains which makes them scarce. It is just a demand and supply strategy.”

What strikes me is that he acknowledges that a short rainy season and locusts did happen and are a problem but says it’s too early to conclude that there will be shortages. It’s true to an extend that the harvest could still be good and the demand could still be satisfied. But how likely is a good harvest despite not one but two calamities ?
The second part in which he accuses grain traders of price gouging is even more problematic. While I don’t believe those traders would shy away from such a practise, the accusation is unrealistic from a couple of reasons. First , there is a price increase at the global level and that alone makes local prices go up. Then the risk of a bad harvest does make prices go up. And if a short rain season and grasshoppers invasions are not good reasons to think there could be a bad harvest, I don’t know what is.

Now why would a government official resolve to accusations of price-gouging when there are at least two logical explanations behind the price hike ?
It could be because he has proof, real proof that he could use in court, of speculative activities but then why not take legal actions or simply publish said proof ? It could be that the agricultural commissioner does know the harvest will in fact be good but then why not just declare (and prove) that ? Or it could be that he hopes (but doesnt know yet) the harvest could still be good but the fact that he doesn’t know would justify the price hike, even if it eventually corrects itself. My prefered explanation is that he’s already looking for a scapegoat to protect himself from the coming anger.
While some are (understandably) appealing to the nigerian government to use the strategic food reserves (and it’s good that Nigeria has such reserves) it has created for such cases, the discussion should be about how to provide information in the future. Nigeria has a satelite in space partially for that purpose and it has federal, state, local administrations supposed to do that too. Yet, with the harvest almost over, neither the traders association, nor the state and federal governments and nor the FAO can say for sure what’s going on.
Now I understand bad news are hard to give. And I also know that saying more analysis is needed is way better than pure deception since it buys time without undermining one’s credibility.

It’s very clear to me that early, widespread and reliable information would reduce the risk of speculation and may even allow the supply and demand to adjust more smoothly. The real responsibility in this mess should go to the people and agencies who are paid to that. But they’re busy trying to assign it to other people.

if you show it often enough..

November 12, 2007

Have you ever seen this ?

may be here ? or here or here or even here (where they say: “Think about the fact that the wealth presented in this image rested almost completely on the slave trade. “)

Well the picture is a fake.

It’s taken from the famous “Descriptions of Africa”, written by a dutchman called Olfert Dapper who according to the museum named after him never left Holland. Even more interesting is this page that says:

“There is virtually no evidence,” Jones writes, that Dapper “took much interest in what sort of visual material was to accompany his text,” and that it was the publisher, Van Meurs, “who probably did all the engraving himself”

Honestly, one doesn’t even need to know anything about Dapper or his publisher to know it’s a fake. Horses in the middle of the tsetse fly infested area ? A surrounding wall ? Large streets ?
A lot of things actually go against most descriptions from that period. Loango wasn’t much more dense than the rural areas and farmland wasn’t outside the walls. The lack of horses (and carriages) made large streets unnecessary and the vegetation was abundant. There was neither need nor material to build multi-story buildings.

Somehow the image keeps appearing and reappearing and people keep being impressed by the greatness of the imaginary and oh so european looking city of Loango. And you can even find serious academic papers using it as “proof” of the advanced development of precolonial central african cities. example (jstor), other example (PDF).
Don’t get me wrong though, it’s not that I believe Loango as a city wasn’t interesting. It’s rather the obvious eurocentricity displayed and the willingness of some to use it as proof of civilization.

But sadly, it can get worse:

Samba Pango; Roi de Loango. Digital ID: 1248472. New York Public Library


Roi D’Angola. Digital ID: 1248473. New York Public Library

full series here

Now, what were they thinking ?
A white Loango King ? With clothing looking half french half inca ?
I’m glad that one is not been used as an example of the different shades of black on afrocentrist websites.

questions, answers and more questions in Kongo history Part 1

November 12, 2007

After years of confusion, between elementary school teachings, popular folklore, online essays and articles, brief mentions, I’ve picked up Anne Hilton’s “The kingdom of Kongo”, a heavily cited and from my understanding important book on Kongo history. I’m quite glad I did since I was able to connect a few dots but as always, answers lead to more questions.

If you don’t know anything about the Kingdom of Kongo or if you don’t know what is the “common knowledge” I’m refering to, this and this are a good examples of rather complete, not far off but somehow flawed short descriptions.

One of the interesting questions is the relationship to christianity. Kongo, or at least its rulers, converted to christianity virtually as soon as they heard about it and without any resistance. In fact, they converted so early that, syncretism in Kimbisa or Palo Cristiano, one of the four branches of the mysterious afro-cuban Palo is believed to have originated in Africa, not Cuba.
There are as far as I know a few different theories which explain the phenomenon. One is cultural and fairly simple: The Kongo pre-christian religion had messianic elements, mainly they were awaiting for the return of the semi-mythical founder of the Kingdom and therefore Jesus being the messiah wasn’t too hard to swallow. Apart from making you wonder about John Brunner’s sources, this theory also helps to explain why exactly the BaKongo have that interesting but slightly annoying and desctructive tendency to produce those messianic religious and political movements that mix Kongo Power dreams with biblical craziness. (Kimpa Vita, André Matsoua, Simon Kimbangui, Fulbert Youlou, Bernard Kolelas (in french), Bundu Dia Kongo and the “good” reverend Ntoumi).
More cynically, the belgian anthropologist Luc De Heusch seems to propose that the ManiKongo was eager to stop sharing his power with the traditionnal “clergy”. That too would actually make sense. By most accounts, the religion predated the kingdom and while the king’s power and prestige was definetly linked to his spiritual powers, his spiritual legitimacy emanated from very demanding clergy. You’re free to make analogies with another african king.
The third, less popular at least among historians, suggests that Joao I, impressed by the portugese, decide to modernize and westernize his country, his culture, his people and conversion to christianity is to him, what the roman alphabet is to Attaturk.

Anne Hilton’s more detailed account seems to be a mix of first two. On one hand, white people land from the ocean somewhere near Kongo. Whiteness being an attribute of the dead in Kongo as in many other places in Africa, the ocean being the ultimate body of water in a place where crossing the river means “passing away”, one can only imagine how those protugese sailors were perceived. But it’s actually not all. The dead, the otherworld were actually the very precise part of the spitirual realm not under the King’s control. Joao seems to have been sharp enough to quickly realize that associating himself with the new spirits could benefit him, no matter if he really believed they were spirits. There’s also the possibility of bypassing or dominating what Hilton calls the Mwissikongo elite, that’s the elders/leaders of core ethnic kongo group that served as a powerful aristocracy in the kingdom. Although the tensions with the Mwissikongo seem unclear at the moment of the conversion, they become a major narative thread in the later series of events.

Another often debated, misunderstood, controversial and interesting aspect of Kongo history is Joao I’s succession and the impact that event had on Kongo’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
While Nigeria, Ghana or even Senegambia are often thought as the main sources for slaves exported to the new world, West Central Africa, the area around the mouth of the Congo River, actually exported a little less than half of the slaves and the Kingdom of Kongo, which dominated the area, played a huge role in that odious trade.
The popular narative sees Alfonso as the great judas of Kongo, presents Mpanza, his half-brother and strongest opposition in the succession, as a hardline nationalist who opposed the slave trade, christianity or any cooperation with the portugese either on humanist/moral grounds or because he’s a traditionnalist. Alfonso is then described as a puppet, put on the throne by a portugese coup to serve their interests against the will of the Kongo people who elected his brother.
This appears to be somewhere between false and inexact.

In Kongo, as in every elective monarchies, the vote was done by a small group of electors so the idea of the will of the people is misplaced in this context and it appears that the vote would have been very close, had it happened.
The line of events described by Hilton is far more complicated.
The portugese did support Alfonso and helped him win the crucial Mbanza Kongo battle. In fact, the portugese, mostly the missionaries, had been urging Joao to adopt monogamy and primogeniture ever since he converted to christianity. Joao was hesitant and in fact never formally took such a decision for a bunch of reasons. Polygamy, apart from being enjoyable, allowed every ManiKongo to build alliances and become related to all the different constutiencies of his kingdom. But more precisely, the portugese asked him to repudiate all his wives except for the first. And traditionally, the first wive was Nsaku Lau, part of the clan/family that was ruling the vassal kingdom/province of Mbata and had a good deal of the spiritual counter-power. And of course, Joao’s first son was a Nsaku Lau. In this matrilinear society, the Mwissikongo always made sure the ManiKongo was the son of one of his father’s Mwissikongo wives. And the prospect of a Nsaku Lau king wasn’t something they were looking up to.
With Mpanza being the Mwissikongo’s candidate. Alfonso’s support came from his maternal uncle (the Mbata ruler and one of the electors), the christians and portugese traders who became close to him during his 10 year governorship of the copper producing and slave trading (via the Tio/Teké) northern province of Nsundi. Alfonso seems to have been the origin of the rumour of his brother’s renouncement of christianity as he did use it to justify his coup in letters to the portugese.
This account makes Alfonso’s and Mpanza’s differences either inexistant or unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
With Alfonso not being a puppett, his letters complaining about the damage of the slave trade make more sense while his later demonization as the cruel “first christian king” in the local folkore is perfectly understandable, coming from an aristicracy that lost power.

Another way to understand the context in which Alfonso wrote those letters is to rethink the Kongo-Portugal relations. Calling for the help of a foreign king when his subjects commit abuses may seem naive and pathetic, however there seem to have been divergent portugese interests and views. The missionaries, especially the ones who lived in Mbanza Kongo appear to have suggested the letters and transported them while the portugese governors of the colonies of Sao-Tome and later Luanda seem to have done everything they could to make sure the flow of slaves didn’t stop.
São Tome, a sugar-producing portugese colony and an unavoidable stop for boats going to Portugal, actually forbid the export of any product from Kongo but slaves and actively intercepted letters and potentially interesting gifts (ivory, copper, cloth). They also frustrated Kongo attempts to get their own boats.
Later Luanda and independant portugese traders never stopped seeking ways to avoid the control (and the taxes) of ManiKongos, be it by looking for different roads, building alliances with rival kingdoms, groups or local chiefs, influencing the terms of trade, starting wars and getting involved in succession battles.
Luanda also endlessly tried to invade, subdue, isolate Kongo or some of his profitable vassals and provinces.
Priests and missionaries did more than relaying the messages, they actually diffused literacy and suggested administrative archive keeping and argued on the Kongo side when Luanda attempted to breach treaties.

One question at this point of course is: what happened to the litterate Kongo elites ?

worst sentence ever ?

November 8, 2007

“Not only has it been imported for many years, it has also been given out free in general food distributions, and subsidised. If the price continues as it is, people will need to switch to local cereals, or they simply won’t have access to food.”

says Salif Sow in an IRIN article.

To be fair, the situation is made worse by the fact that there have been bad harvests in local crops in a few countries. That doesn’t make the sentence less unfortunate. I mean, we’re talking about countries where most people make their livelihood by growing food and somehow people manage to make it sound as if more consumption of what they produce is a bad thing.

The same article also has a weird explanation about the economics of the Niger famine:

Good production in Niger coupled with a deficit in Nigeria would means a large part of the grain grown in Niger will pass over the border, and Niger could be left with a shortage as happened in the major crisis in 2005.

In that instance, much of the grain grown in Niger was found to have been used to feed chickens in some of Nigeria’s vast chicken farms, even as people starved in Niger.

Niger, from my knowledge, is not a country of intensive commercial farming. 85% of the population lives off agriculture. So when Nigeria has a bad grain harvest and import grain from Niger, farmers in Niger have more income. And if they have more income, they have more to spend to buy food. So how come a famine still happened ?

The fact that Guinea-Bissau is that dependant on rice imports is even more saddening. In Colonial America slaves from the Senegambia area were actually worth more in the Carolinas because of their knowledge of rice farming. But nowadays, cashew nuts is its main export.