Friday, August 12, 2016

Rio and Beyond: Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi

Four B's from Africa. I can tell you there are many countries in Africa I know next to nothing about, and these are four of them. If I had to guess, I would say that three of them probably have dictators, some of them arrest journalists, and they all have fabulous landscapes and food.


I've read just a few paragraphs about Benin and I'm already fascinated. A few interesting historical things, since I am interested in history:

Benin sits on land that was once part of the African Kingdom of Dahomey, a regional power built on conquest, gold, and the slave trade. Houegbadja was the first king of Dahomey and greatly expanded its territory through battle. The Kingdom fought frequent wars with the neighboring Oyo Empire, and, well, everyone around, really.

Dahomey was known for having an elite female soldier corps referred to as the Dahomean Amazons by Europeans.

Early kings practiced ancestor worship, in which such ceremonies as human sacrifice took place, but later on Vodun, which we know as Voodoo, was also practiced throughout the kingdom. The largest religious group in Benin today is Catholic, but Vodun, Islam, and Protestantism are also practiced. Slaves from Benin brought Voodoo to Louisiana. Voodoo today has been mixed with other religions, including Catholicism. (Read more.)

The region was part of what was known as the Slave Coast. Dahomean kings were making about 250,000 GBP a year selling slaves to Europeans, most being war captives who would have been murdered in Dahomean ceremonies otherwise. King Gezo was getting rich off the slave trade, as did his predecessors, and he thwarted Britain's efforts to end slavery. In the end, the British finally succeeded in convincing Gezo to sign a treaty abolishing the slave trade, and of course, they patted themselves on the backs for ending slavery when they're part of the crowd that made it flourish. Oddly enough, the end of the slave trade spelled the end of the Dahomean Kingdom, as the Dahomean economy collapsed. The French took over in 1892 and called it French Dahomey. It remained French until 1960.(1)

Benin had a dictator, Mathieu Kérékou, who obtained power through a coup and set up a Marxist state, but he ended up helping Benin transition to democracy and was elected president twice (some dispute election outcomes.) This guy was a nut. He changed his mind more than Donald Trump. Once he converted to Islam, then he became a born-again Christian.

Today, governance is pretty good in Benin, and they have a free press and generally treat their citizens pretty well. Their corruption scores could be better, but they're about middle of the pack. The economy is growing at about 5% a year. Infant mortality is bad and literacy is low. Things are getting better, but one-third of the country lives below the international poverty line.

Capital: Porto-Novo
Major cities: Abomey-Calavi, Cotonou, Parakou, Djougou, Tchauourou, Kandi
Population: 10.32 million
Athletes in the Olympics: 6
Medals in history: 0
Languages spoken: French, Fon, Yoruba
Heroes: Colette Senami Agossou Houeto (educator, poet), Djimon Gaston Hounsou (actor, dancer), Romuald Hazoume (artist)
Bad guys: Dahomean kings and Europeans who traded slaves
Persecuted groups: LGBT, Vodun practitioners were once persecuted by Christian missionaries, some tension between Christians and Voduns but they mostly coexist
Current conflicts: like everywhere, the threat of Islamic terrorism exists
Must read: I haven't read it, but put L'esclave by Felix Couchoro on the reading list.

1.  Dahomey and the Ending of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: The Journals and Correspondence of Vice-Consul Louis Fraser, 1851-1852, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Rebecca Shumway, my god I've forgotten how to properly site a source


On the other side of Africa lies Botswana, where 70% of the country is the Kalahari desert. It looks beautiful.

some guy's pic

Botswana has historically been lauded for its democracy, being the oldest democracy in Africa and all, but don't believe the American rightwing think tanks and the folks at National Review who look at Growth(TM) alone and say Botswana is a beacon in a dark sea of despair. Yes, Botswana has had some success in pursuing Western-style economic and political values, but underneath all that "democracy" and "growth" is something other than perfect. Maybe a matchstick in a lighthouse.

Some wonder if President Ian Khama is inching toward dictatorship. As democracy continues to erode across the globe (including in the US), Khama may decide to ignore the two-term limit for Botswana presidents when his term is up in 2018. He comes from a powerful royal family - his father was the first president of Botswana - and is recognized as chief of the Bamangwato people, though legally he cannot claim the chieftaincy and be involved in politics - and we all know what wealth can do to an ego. Critics point to nepotism in his administration, and they wonder why his friends have all suddenly gotten wealthy while he has been president. Political opponents and journalists are often shut out and harassed by his government, and the state controls the media, a hallmark of a dictatorship.

But these charges may just be opposition mudslinging. Regardless, no one is dying at the hands of a dictator. Botswana has far more problems to deal with.

Climate change is severely hurting the economy, as drought and desertification are devastating agriculture. Drought makes growing crops nearly impossible, so citizens must resort to raising livestock. Overgrazing is playing a big role in desertification. Livestock is the primary source of income for 95% of the country, and communal grazing is making the lifestyle unsustainable. For all Botswana's current problems, it is going to become a lot worse thanks to environmental problems.

Life has been rough but improving in Botswana. Life expectancy for men is 63 and for women it is 68 but around 2002 at the peak of the AIDS crisis, it dropped to under 50! Fortunately, there has been some improvement in this area. Still, nearly a fourth of Batswana have AIDS. Geesh. So much more needs to be done.

(btw - Batswana is the plural form of people who live in Botswana.)

Nearly one-fifth of the population lives in poverty. Much of this poverty is directly related to AIDS. The good news is that GDP has tripled in the last decade, although population growth is negating some of the economic progress. Botswana is committed to wiping out extreme poverty and has done a good job working towards that goal. It's also the least corrupt country in Africa (but one can say that's like being the most alive person in a cemetery.)

Seventy percent of Botswana is Christian. Interestingly enough, 20% of the people have no religion according to a recent US State Department report. I find that interesting, anyway. Perhaps they practice some smaller religion.

The indigenous San people have been forcibly relocated to reservations because their land is located in the world's largest diamond field. The US State Department calls the situation a "principal human rights concern."(1) Like Indian reservations in the US, unemployment and addiction are rampant on San reservations.

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Botswana 2013 Human Rights Report (PDF) (Report). United States Department of State.

Capital: Gaborone
Major cities: Francistown
Population: 2 million
Athletes in the Olympics: 11
Medals in history: 1 silver
Languages spoken: Setswana, English, Kalanga, !Xóõ (yes that is how it's spelled), Sarwan, Ndebele, Afrikaans
Heroes: Unity Dow, (human rights activist), Elizabeth Mataka (AIDS activist, UN rep), Michael Dingake (activist, writer), Mpule Kwelagobe (Miss Universe 1999)
Bad guys: I don't know
Persecuted groups: San
Current conflicts: conflict diamonds, San
Must read: I have never read anything about Botswana, but I am interested in the pre-independence years and the split with South Africa.

So I was wrong on the dictatorships so far...see what learning does to change stereotypes?

Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso has suffered dictatorships, but in 2014 they overthrew one and everything has been up in the air since then. While the Arab Spring was getting all the attention, Burkina Faso got none. Perhaps it was the violent nature of the protests, as citizens burnt down the parliament and other government buildings, but it was the same desire for democratic change that led to the downfall of a dictator. They overthrew Blaise Compaoré, but democracy did not follow, so they overthrew the junta that had come to power after Compaoré. On November 29, 2015, they had successful elections for president.

I love it when the people do that.

I'm super excited for the people of Burkina Faso. I hope they make democracy work. They've suffered enough.

They have the greatest name for a capital city, Ouagadougou.

Mark my words, if a Trump administration installs a dictatorship that requires burning buildings to save American democracy, I will burn buildings.

Capital: Ouagadougou
Major cities: Bobo-Dioulasso
Population: 17 million
Athletes in the Olympics: 5
Medals in history: 0
Languages spoken: French, Moore, Mandinka, Bambara
Heroes: Norbert Zongo (journalist, newspaper editor assassinated by Compaoré for pursuing truth), Monique Ilboudo (writer, human rights activist), Idrissa Ouédraogo (film director), Gaston Kaboré (film director), Fanta Régina Nacro (film director) (Seems like they have a vibrant film industry.)
Bad guys: Blaise Compaoré (dictator), Mamadou Bamba (wannabe dictator), General Gilbert Diendéré (wannabe dictator), terrorist assholes
Persecuted groups: Mennonites, Christians (targeted by jihadists)
Current conflicts: internal - will Burkina Faso democracy succeed?
Must read: I have never read any books about Burkina Faso. Please recommend some!


While we have seen three hopeful countries in Africa in this post, Burundi cannot be added to the list.

The government is using torture and rape against citizens. Torture and rape and murder. More than 450 people have been killed since the "president" took office for a third term in violation of the constitution. Senior officials are using genocidal rhetoric towards the ethnic minority they are slaughtering. A quarter of a million people have fled the country's violence over the last year. This comes 11 years after a civil war between the Hutu and the Tutis ended their 13 year civil war.

The Hutus and the Tutsis, the same ethnic people who live in Rwanda where the 1994 genocide occurred, are at it in Burundi. For some reason, Rwanda got so much more coverage, but Hutus massacred the Tutsis in Burundi in 1993, 21 years after the Tutsis massacred the Hutus. The Hutus and the Tutsis, a made up ethnic distinction by Belgian colonialists, are fighting over a distinction that isn't even real. The Hutus and the Tutsis share a close genetic relationship, not to mention the fact that throughout history they've intermarried so often that lines have been blurred. Tutsis were generally slightly taller, so the Belgians made them the "superior" category. Eugenics was all the rage at the time in Europe, which of course, culminated with Nazi Germany.

Still, the Belgians aren't the ones doing the fighting now, so the blame is not all on them. Hutus and Tutsis have the choice to stop, but they choose to fight and torture and rape and murder in the name of some distinction that doesn't exist. And the child soldiers!

To the Hutus and the Tutsis, I say this: you're all idiots.

Every time I see the Olympic team of a country in chaos, I root for them. I think about what they have to go back to and what it took them to get there. Americans mostly ignore the athletes of other countries unless there is something extraordinary about them. This is a shame and something I can't understand. You proclaim to be "the greatest nation on earth," but you're not. Great people don't take life for granted. Great people don't look down upon others. Great people count their blessings instead of proclaiming superiority. You think you're better than others because you were born here? How is that any different than a Tutsi thinking he is superior to a Hutu? It isn't. You didn't choose your nationality.

You do choose ignorance, however. We have access to all the knowledge in the world, but you're watching four hours of television a night instead of reading a book, and you're making your vacations at Disneyland instead of traveling to learn about the world. Well, I guess if you're reading this, you're at least a little curious about what's out there. The world is a fascinating and wondrous place, even if it is full of suffering.

To the nine athletes from Burundi, I wish you well during the Olympics, and more importantly in life when you get home.

Capital: Bujumbura
Major cities: Gitega
Population: 11 million
Athletes in the Olympics: 9
Medals in history: 1 gold
Languages spoken: French, Kirundi
Heroes: Prince Louis Rwagasor (independence hero), Khadja Nin (singer), Vénuste Niyongabo (Olympic gold medalist, 5000m 1996)
Bad guys: Pierre Nkurunziza (dictator), Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza (former president who persecuted Catholics), Michel Micombero (president for first massacre)...oh, there are too many. It was one coup and assassination after another...
Persecuted groups: all of them at various times
Current conflicts: Hutu v Tutsi
Must read: I've never read any books on Burundi, but if I did, it would probably be about Hutus and Tutsis

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