Last November, nearly 63 million Americans, about 27 percent of all eligible voters, turned out to vote for Donald Trump. While not even a majority of those who voted, it’s still a staggering number and a sizable fraction of the population that cannot be ignored. It’s distressing to think that 63 million Americans actively chose this racist, sexist, narcissistic, wannabe dictator. It’s agonizing to accept that so many believed that he was the best, most qualified, most reliable person among the possible choices, the most trustworthy for steering the American Ship of State.
How is this possible? Who could support this con man? Who could condone his lies and obscenities? Who would trust him with the safety and security of the world today and for generations to come? Who are these people and why would they do such a thing?
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
There are many ways we have tried to answer these questions for ourselves. Not all of the answers have been helpful or insightful. Some, in fact, have largely been myths and fantasies. For instance, many have been chanting the refrains, “We’re better than this”, or “This is un-American”, preferring to believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that the essential American ethos is much too civilized and morally centered to produce this outcome; they wish to believe that the kind of xenophobia we’re witnessing today is nothing more than a fluke or aberration. While it’s understandable that we want to tell ourselves this to shield ourselves from the much darker and more complex realities, such stories can get in the way of real understanding and effective resistance.
Where is the equivalent of the ACLU in India? Here is an excellent overview of the scene in India by Alok Prasanna Kumar, a lawyer based in Bengaluru. Support these organizations people; the stronger they are, the better our democracy will be.
The United States is fiercely resisting its regime of deplorables: first came the three-million strong Women’s March, and this past weekend hordes of lawyers joined the battle after the #MuslimBan, obtaining injunctions and emergency stay orders for those affected, promising to fight until Trump’s (sad!) executive order is struck down by the courts.
Here at home, many have been asking where India’s version of the American Civil Liberties Union is. Has our legal machinery ever been called in to defend the public interest with such speed and effectiveness – and is it even possible? Good news: it has happened, and we do have more than one counterpart to the ACLU. The complication: none of these bodies are exactly like it, so there’s no easy answer to the question, "Where is India's ACLU?"
In Delhi these days, pollution-talk fills the air almost as thickly as the pollution itself. By now we all get that it’s bad for our health—especially for our young and elderly—but we might feel helpless against it. After all, the problem seems too big, and as individuals we can do little to modernize car engines, clean up road and construction dust, or decommission coal-fired power plants. So what can we do to help reduce the problem and protect our families?
The problem feels complicated and overwhelming partly because it’s a problem of the commons—of the common air that we all must breathe. And yet, it’s difficult to pin down the responsibility: Who creates the pollution? Whom can we ask to stop it? Why isn’t the government doing enough?
Here’s the thing: We know that most pollution is created by any and all kinds of burning—whether that’s the combustion in our car engines, the flames that bake our tandoori naan or “wood-fired” pizza, the smoldering dead leaves in our gardens, or dozens of other things. What this really means is that a good part of the pollution is ultimately caused by the actions of individuals—that is, by us. But it also means that every one of us can take steps to help reduce it.
Among MK Gandhi’s greatest words of wisdom was his exhortation that we must be the change we wish to see in the world. So here’s your chance to contribute more to the solution than to the problem:
A venal and debauched crew of clowns is about to take the steering wheel of the most powerful government on earth. This is a calamity of epic proportions. Do not minimize it. Do not attempt to normalize it. And for godssake stop spewing platitudes about bridging the divide and working together to move forward. The new regime has no intention of moving forward.
Stop fretting about understanding the people “on the other side.” It’s not about “sides.” There are 3 types of people who voted for Trump: 1) actual racist, misogynist, xenophobic hate-mongers, including white, Christo-fascists; 2) ordinary, garden variety rubes and naifs, who fell for his self-serving lies and demagoguery, who have little understanding of the world and/or are miserable judges of character; and 3) people who studiously practice intellectual and/or emotional dishonesty to protect and rationalize their narrow, immediate interests. Trying to understand their tortured logic will be a waste of your mindshare.
Instead, read Autocracy: Rules for Survival, by Masha Gessen in the NYRB. And resist (obviously, non-violently).
“Thank you, my friends. Thank you. Thank you. We have lost. We have lost, and this is the last day of my political career, so I will say what must be said. We are standing at the edge of the abyss. Our political system, our society, our country itself are in greater danger than at any time in the last century and a half. The president-elect has made his intentions clear, and it would be immoral to pretend otherwise. We must band together right now to defend the laws, the institutions, and the ideals on which our country is based.”
That, or something like that, is what Hillary Clinton should have said on Wednesday. Instead, she said, resignedly,
We must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power. We don’t just respect that. We cherish it. It also enshrines the rule of law; the principle [that] we are all equal in rights and dignity; freedom of worship and expression. We respect and cherish these values, too, and we must defend them.
Hours later, President Barack Obama was even more conciliatory:
We are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country. The peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. And over the next few months, we are going to show that to the world….We have to remember that we’re actually all on one team.
The president added, “The point, though, is that we all go forward with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens, because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy.” As if Donald Trump had not conned his way into hours of free press coverage, as though he had released (and paid) his taxes, or not brazenly denigrated our system of government, from the courts and Congress, to the election process itself—as if, in other words, he had not won the election precisely by acting in bad faith.
In this 18-minute travel documentary, I present some of what we saw and learned during our wonderful 12-day trip to Zambia in November 2015. We visited the beautiful South Luangwa National Park, Lusaka, Livingstone, Victoria Falls, and Mukuni village.
For more photos, notes, and other information, check out the Zambia page on shunya.net.
Narration, script, and editing: Usha Alexander
Videography: Namit Arora
My dearest friend, Pran Kurup (3 Oct 1966 — 3 Sep 2016), passed away yesterday from a cardiac arrest. He had been in India for several months. His funeral will take place in Trivandrum at 2 PM on Monday, 5th September.
I met Pran at IIT Kharagpur 31 years ago. After our first year, some of us became close friends and moved into a hostel wing. Pran and I took rooms next to each other. He used to wake me up each morning; I would have missed a lot of classes without his help. Not that I learned much in class; I mostly remember my college years for some of the friendships I made, and my friendship with Pran was among the most precious in my life. He was also, as another friend noted yesterday, the heart and soul of our wing, everybody’s favorite guy. Years later, he is still the glue that holds our wing-mates together, encouraging us to communicate and meet often.
In 1989, after four years at IIT, Pran and I went to the U.S. for grad school. There we shared a journey of personal growth and learning, especially during our two decades in California. We spent much time together. With another friend, we even went on a road trip in 1993 to Death Valley, Vegas, Grand Canyon, and southern Utah. At times we would retreat into the lingo and bawdy humor of our college days, and tease each other about our college crushes and unrequited loves—a ribbing that had a rare and sweet intimacy. We sized up our respective dates and eventual mates. I watched him become a deeply involved dad to a daughter and a son. After a couple of company jobs, he founded and ran his own small business focused on e-learning solutions. We were immersed in each other’s emotional, intellectual, and professional lives.
We often met for lunch, and on some Fridays at Tied House, a brewery in Mountain View, where we always got the same munchies with our beers—grilled catfish strips and black bean nachos. Thanks to him, I laughed a lot when we hung out. We discussed the meaning of life, love, work, films, politics, technology, India. We talked about people we knew, and of our joys and sorrows. Together we celebrated many of our little milestones and events: birthdays, new jobs, visiting friends. He cooked mean Kerala-style curries, and made juicy mojitos for me with fresh mint leaves from a veggie garden he had maintained in recent years, and of which he was very proud.
Here is a fascinating documentary film from China. Among other things, it reveals how democracy works in real life and the sort of political animals we tend to become under it, age notwithstanding. Below is the abridged version (34 mins) of the full-length version (52 mins, 2007).
‘What kind of thing is “Democracy”?’
‘Born into an authoritarian state that professes to value the greater good over individual expression, many Chinese children have little familiarity with Western ideals of democracy. Nevertheless, they prove themselves quick studies in Please Vote For Me, which chronicles China’s first ever modern classroom election, held among third-graders in the city of Wuhan. After the students learn the basic tenets of democracy, a campaign for the position of class monitor swiftly descends into an all too familiar jumble of campaign promises, back-room deals and dirty tricks. Funny, touching and full of small surprises, the Chinese director Weijun Chen’s documentary is a wry look at the democratic process and all its chaotic, imperfect promise.’
Indian-Americans, a group that includes me, are one of the most visible and successful global diasporas. With the highest per capita income of any ethnic group in the US, we’re often called a ‘model minority’ in America. But what can be said about our politics as a group?
Historically, we Indian-Americans—and here I’m speaking primarily of Indians who’re naturalized US citizens or permanent residents—have overwhelmingly supported the Democrats, more so than any other large Asian group in the US. Over 80 percent of us voted for Barack Obama in 2008, second only to black Americans. This year, less than ten percent might vote for the Republican Donald Trump. Curiously, contrary to what one might expect, success and wealth haven’t driven most of us to vote for the Republicans, who’re seen as friendlier to the rich. What can explain this? Is it because we are remarkably liberal as a group?
Consider some more facts. We Indian-Americans overwhelmingly support Narendra Modi too, at a rate much higher than among Indians in India. We host rockstar receptions for him in arenas like Madison Square Garden in NY and SAP Center in Silicon Valley. This despite Trump and Modi being similar in so many ways. They’re both authoritarian and anti-democratic; anti-Muslim; steeped in nationalism (white/Hindu); allied with far-right groups (Christian Right/RSS); high on patriarchy; economically conservative votaries of trickle-down economics; anti-labor union; thuggish (think Amit Shah); big on defense spending; and so on. Both have provided cover to far-right groups who terrorize minorities. Even if we concede that Trump is worse than Modi—though some will disagree—their proximities are undeniable. So why do we Indian-Americans despise Trump yet love Modi? What’s behind this apparent paradox?
Modi and his Regime
Some might object here, especially Modi fans. They might say that I’m exaggerating the proximities between Trump and Modi. So let’s delve into this first. One difference I see between them is that while Trump wears his bigotry and misogyny on his sleeve and is more erratic, Modi is more discreet and austere. But as I’ll try to show, the two differ less in substance, more in style.
Modi’s stage-managed persona can seduce decent people unfamiliar with his past or with the yawning gap today between his words and actions. In his oratory, he paints an optimistic technocratic vision of India led by research and innovation. He speaks of grand ideas like Smart Cities and Make in India, and social causes like beti bachao, beti padhao and swachh bharat (nearly all of which have been very poorly planned and/or funded). He offers homilies about life, family values, and patriotism. ‘Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions,’ he has said. He champions yoga, the uber-cool Indian export. He is disciplined, works hard, and wants the trains to run on time. In the July edition of his address to the nation, Mann Ki Baat, he discussed the menace of antibiotic resistance and his visit to South Africa, where he claimed to have been freshly inspired by the ideals of Gandhi and Mandela.
In this travel documentary (17 mins), I present some of what we saw and learned during our wonderful 8-days in Malawi in October 2015. We visited two areas on Lake Malawi's shores (Cape Maclear, Nkhata Bay), the beautiful Liwonde National Park, and the capital city, Lilongwe.
For more photos, notes, and other information, check out the Malawi page on shunya.net.
Narration, script, and editing: Usha Alexander
Videography: Namit Arora
Check out this brilliant documentary film, The Last Train in Nepal, directed by Tarun Bhartiya (59 mins). It's "the story of an international railway line that runs for twenty miles from the little-known town of Janakpur in Nepal to Jaynagar junction in India." The film, a truly wonderful depiction of life on the Indo-Nepal border, is full of riveting human portraits. The rickety train itself emerges as a lovable character in the film. Not surprisingly, Tarun bagged the Royal Television Society Yorkshire Award for Best Director in June 2016.
An insightful, though-provoking lecture by Branko Milanovic, a leading expert and historian of global inequality, on his major new work of empirical economics that "presents a bold account of the dynamics that drive inequality on a global scale." It's followed by responses from other experts and Q&A. Among his key contributions is the "elephant curve" which illustrates how the gains of globalization were distributed in recent decades (it benefited much of the world population but not so much the middle/working-classes in the US, UK, and a few other high income countries), and his theory of Kuznets waves, a replacement for the Kuznets curve (a much contested idea in development economics; Thomas Piketty didn't show much fondness for the Kuznets curve in Capital).
Here is an 18-minute travel documentary I made based on some of what we saw and learned during our wonderful 15-day trip to Mozambique in October 2015. For more photos and travel notes, check out the Mozambique page on shunya.net.
On being transgender in India and glimpses from The Truth About Me, a powerful memoir by A. Revathi, which aims to introduce readers ‘to the lives of hijras, their distinct culture, and their dreams and desires.’ (Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily.)
Most Indians encounter hijras at some point in their lives. Hijras are the most visible subset of transgender people in South Asia, usually biological men who identify more closely as being female or feminine. They often appear in groups, and most Indians associate them with singing and dancing, flashy women’s attire and makeup, aggressive begging styles, acts and manners that are like burlesques of femininity, a distinctive hand-clap, and the blessing of newlyweds and newborn males in exchange for gifts.
Most modern societies embrace a binary idea of gender. To the biologically salient binary division of humans into male/female, they attach binary social-behavioral norms. They presume two discrete ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ identities to which all biological males and females are expected to conform. These two gender identities are imbued with ideal, essential, and distinct social roles and traits. In other words, the binary schema assumes a default alignment between sex, gender, and sexuality. In reality, however, gender identities and sexual orientations are not binary and exist on a spectrum, including for people who identify as transgender—an umbrella term for those whose inner sense of their gender conflicts with the presumed norms for their assigned sex (unlike for cisgender people). Transgender people often feel they’re neither ‘men’ nor ‘women’.
According to biologist Robert Sapolsky, ‘Gender in humans is on a continuum, coming in scads of variants, where genes, organs, hormones, external appearance, and psychosexual identification can vary independently, and where many people have categories of gender identification going on in their heads (and brains) that bear no resemblance to yours’. Many cultures have granted a distinct identity to various types of transgender people, including South Asian, Native American, Indonesian, Polynesian, and Omanese cultures. A landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2014 legalized a third gender in India, including hijras and other transgender people.
Hijras in popular culture date back to ancient times. The fact that procreation underpins the social and familial order in all societies may partly explain why in some societies transgender (and homosexual) people have been seen as useless, perhaps even a threat. What likely helped the hijras survive is that since ancient times, they have been endowed with certain spiritual powers, including to confer blessings and curses, as with ascetics. Perhaps it also helped that even Gods and heroes manifest transgender traits in Hindu mythology: Shiva has an androgynous form, half male, half female; Arjuna disguised himself as a eunuch during the Pandava exile; the goddess Yellamma has the power to change one’s sex; Krishna turned into a woman, Mohini, to marry and spend the last night with the warrior Aravan before his final battle; and so on. The hijras even have a patron goddess, Bahuchara Mata, whose temple in Gujarat is a pilgrimage site for both hijras and others.
Knowledge never progresses unencumbered by ordinary human politics. Clubbiness, careerism, prejudice, personality clashes, bigotry, corruption, charm, and other human factors affect the advancement and dissemination of all knowledge, even in the hallowed academies of the West. While the scientific disciplines may have the best inbuilt methodologies for self-correction, still their practice isn’t immune to these impairments of judgment and objectivity.
In his recent Guardian article, The Sugar Conspiracy, Ian Leslie reminds us of how important individual personalities or even the fashionability of ideas can dominate, pervert, or slow the progress of entire fields of science. He writes,
In a 2015 paper titled Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?, a team of scholars at the National Bureau of Economic Research sought an empirical basis for a remark made by the physicist Max Planck: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
The researchers identified more than 12,000 “elite” scientists from different fields. The criteria for elite status included funding, number of publications, and whether they were members of the National Academies of Science or the Institute of Medicine. Searching obituaries, the team found 452 who had died before retirement. They then looked to see what happened to the fields from which these celebrated scientists had unexpectedly departed, by analysing publishing patterns.
What they found confirmed the truth of Planck’s maxim. Junior researchers who had worked closely with the elite scientists, authoring papers with them, published less. At the same time, there was a marked increase in papers by newcomers to the field, who were less likely to cite the work of the deceased eminence. The articles by these newcomers were substantive and influential, attracting a high number of citations. They moved the whole field along.
In this context, Leslie goes on to narrate the story of how, for decades, American nutritional science chased doggedly down a rabbit hole of false conclusions about the probable causes of heart disease, under the influence of decidedly non-scientific factors. A prevailing theory became fashionable, and contradictory data was shouted down; those presenting it were professionally attacked. The shaming and silencing alternative lines of questioning surely contributed to the ongoing public health crisis we now face, in which at least two generations of people are suffering epidemic frequencies of obesity and diabetes. Leslie lays it out,
A cloying veneration of army men is yet another pathology of nationalism that’s more pervasive than ever in India today. Army men are now widely seen as paragons of nobility and patriotism. Whether their deaths are due to freak accidents or border skirmishes, they’re eulogized for “making the supreme sacrifice for the nation”. Politicians routinely signal their patriotism by chanting Bhārat Mātā ki Jai, victory to mother India, and fall over each other for photo ops where they’re seen honoring soldiers, dead or alive.
Curiously, this adoration for army men seems most intense in urban middle-class families, including those who don’t desire or nudge their own kids to join their nation’s army. Instead, they want their kids to prepare for more lucrative professions, pursue office jobs in multinationals, live in gated high-rise apartments, and own nice cars. Or perhaps leave India for greener pastures abroad. A textbook case of hypocrisy?
These folks may claim that their reverence for army men stems from their appreciation for the sacrifice the jawans (soldiers) make for others by enduring great hardship and risk, even death. And yet these same people certainly don’t glorify other risky jobs that benefit the nation no less, like unclogging the nation’s sewers, mining the nation’s coal, building the nation’s infrastructure, or toiling in the nation’s shipping graveyard—all jobs that apparently have lower pay and benefits combined with higher fatality, injury, and illness rates than Indian army jobs. Clearly, something else animates all that adoration for army men.
And who are the jawans who comprise the majority of the army? Most come from the rural poor and are hired after 10th grade. Some follow in the footsteps of other soldiers in their families, at times going back to British colonial times. As happens in all societies with volunteer armies and a severe lack of equal opportunity, most recruits join to escape poverty, get a stable job and a pension, and pursue a ticket to a higher social class, prestige, and some adventure. Indeed, in recent years, economic distress in parts of rural India has forced army recruiters to lower their physical fitness standards in some centers because the pool of candidates is too undernourished. Though the army does not release demographic data by caste or religion, it is well known that Muslims are severely underrepresented in it—as low as 2-3 percent—raising a host of awkward questions about its commitment to secularism.
I'm happy to announce a major update to Shunya.net! It has a cleaner look, fewer ads, more readable article pages, a slideshow on all photo pages, and attractive banners that change with each refresh. Of course, all this comes with the same great content that made you a regular visitor in the first place! :-)
To explore the photo pages and the slideshow, visit, for instance, the Victoria Falls page from our recent trip to Zambia.
Many thanks to my old buddy Pran Kurup and his talented team of graphics designers and software engineers at Vitalect Inc. for putting up with my demands and idiosyncrasies during this web update.
Population genetics is an emerging field that’s shedding new light on ancient human migrations. It complements linguistics and archaeology, which have until now been the primary avenues for understanding prehistory. David Reich, a leading geneticist and a Harvard professor, has taken special interest in the much contested issue of the original homeland of Indo-European (IE) languages and the mixing of populations in India. Watch a video conversation with him on the edge.org page below (also transcribed).
Nothing Reich says will comfort the “out-of-India” theorists, largely a Hindutva brigade of “scholars” who claim that there was no Aryan migration into India; that instead a migration happened from India to Europe; that IE languages originated in the Indian Subcontinent from a proto-Sanskrit; that the people of the Indus Valley Civilization spoke this proto-Sanskrit (never mind that their script remains undeciphered; there’s no consensus on whether it is even a linguistic script); that the Vedas are wholly indigenous in inspiration, etc. It’s amazing how many people on the Internet confidently assert that the Aryan migration theory has been “discredited”.
Of course much of this was/is nationalistic windbaggery, based on wishful thinking and gaps in rival theories, not on any solid evidence from linguistics or archaeology. Population genetics is now producing a clearer picture once and for all. But we’re not there yet, even though Reich’s work has bolstered the Kurgan hypothesis, which puts the IE homeland in the Pontic-Caspian steppe. Watch this field for more definitive revelations in the years ahead.
I have a piece in The Wire today: The Road to Fixing Air Pollution in Delhi, Beyond Odd-even. Among other things, this attempts to distill the research and learning from my recent months at the Delhi Dialogue Commission, an advisory body to the Government of NCT of Delhi. Also an announcement on the right for my talk this weekend that's open to all.
An unprecedented public health crisis has been unfolding in Delhi: 40% of our kids now fail lung capacity tests. Respiratory emergencies have tripled in the last seven years, with no relief in sight. Just breathing our air, full of toxic gases and particulates, has raised the incidence of strokes, heart disease, cancers, birth defects, pneumonia, and more. In Delhi alone, an estimated 80 people are dying daily from conditions provoked by air pollution. Much like smoking cigarettes, it’s shaving years off our lives.
Though some fare worse than others, none are immune: rich or poor, young or old. A high burden of disease erodes quality of life, family finances, and the economy. What will be the cost of this health crisis, in human lives, in healthcare, in lost productivity?
It’s a good thing the AAP government plans to build a thousand Mohalla clinics, because what’s unfolding is far bigger than last year’s dengue scare in Delhi. Though experts have long known these health effects of air pollution, years of apathy, ignorance, and denial—among both citizens and politicians—have led us here. So how serious are the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments about fixing this menace? How well do they understand the gravity of the situation?
(Click on thumbnails below for pictures, slideshows, and notes from Usha and Namit on their journey to Zambia, Oct 2015.)
We entered Zambia by bus from Malawi and first saw the amazing South Luangwa National Park. From there we took a bus to Lusaka, the urbane metropolis of the bipedal Zambians. We had the nicest bus yet on our African trip, with video screens that however played gospel musical videos—evidently inspired by American Evangelical musical videos—for the full nine hours of the journey! This would've been a lot less bearable without the famed musical talents of Africans, at once rich and resonant (perfect weather, short naps, and the beautiful landscape helped too). Nearly everyone in Zambia is now Christian. Local preachers sometimes board long-distance buses from one stop to the next and sermonize; passengers even sing along. The president of Zambia recently held a national prayer day to beseech the Lord to arrest the decline of the Zambian currency in international markets. It astonished me yet again: Here too an entire population so quickly and so totally embraced a religious tradition so alien to their own. Old layers of magical thinking made room for new layers, such as the strange story of a son of a male God coming to earth and dying for other people's sins. Christianization in Zambia has also meant that, over a few generations, society has become more patrilineal from its mostly matrilineal roots, aspects of which nevertheless survive. A Zambian man we met couldn’t comprehend the Indian practice of dowry, the polar opposite of their own custom of men paying bride price.
Traveling westward in Zambia, I noticed rising prosperity, greater urbanization, and evidence of Zambian per capita income being 4X that of Malawi and Mozambique. Zambia's linguistic/ethnic landscape is fragmented across 72 languages (!), most mutually incomprehensible. In Lusaka, which hosts Zambians from all regions, English is commonly heard. English, as in India, is the first language of a minuscule number but the medium of instruction in all Zambian schools is now English, alongside courses in one or more of the 72 regional languages. Most people speak several languages. Modernity and Christianity have loosened old bonds of tribe and ethnicity, making intermarriages frequent in Zambia. A severe shortfall in rains last year was causing power outages—nearly all of Zambia's power is hydroelectric—but the outages were well-managed, and the outage schedule for each locality was announced ahead of time. How I wished India would learn from this. [—Namit Arora, October 2015.]
(Click on thumbnails below for pictures, slideshows, and notes from Usha and Namit on their journey to Malawi, Oct 2015.)
We crossed into Malawi from Mozambique and immediately found traveling easier: its distances shorter, tourist facilities and transportation better, and English a lingua franca. The gigantic Lake Malawi has long shaped patterns of life in this most densely populated of sub-Saharan countries, encompassing nine major ethnic groups, many of which are matrilineal and Christian. All of its native languages belong to the Bantu family, and while English is the official language, more widely spoken is the national language, Chichewa (similar to Hindi in north India; ATM machines operate in both English and Chichewa). At least nominally, a third of the population is Catholic, a third Protestant, and a fifth Muslim; people variously combine monotheistic lore with native beliefs that include animism, ancestor worship, and witchcraft.
Compared to Mozambique, I saw a more hopeful economic dynamism in Malawi's rural and semi-urban areas, reflected in its many micro enterprises, provision stores, roadside bars and eateries, and emerging consumer economy. Aspirations for upward mobility seem common enough. Its young democracy is taking root and its religious and ethnic groups coexist rather well, with differences among the latter (and their historical endogamy) yielding to a more inclusive "Malawian identity". These aspects however coexist with some grim realities: half the population is under 15; a quarter of them don't attend school; public corruption is rife; life expectancy is only 54 (due largely to malaria and AIDS); its lakes and rivers are very overfished; and its fast growing population is coming in greater conflict with wildlife. In this part of Africa, too, China looms large, evoking both admiration and disquiet. Many locals appreciate the Chinese investing in Malawi—for creating jobs and building its infrastructure, including its shiny new parliament building, its first five-star hotel, and a science university—but they worry about back-room dealings and unfair mining, timber, and trade concessions that the Chinese seem to be extracting from Malawi's politicians.
We visited two areas on Lake Malawi's shores (Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay), the beautiful Liwonde National Park, and the capital city, Lilongwe, with its planned spaces, a nature reserve, and pockets of cosmopolitan affluence (some of its shopping centers seemed built in the image of suburban California). Yet again, we met and conversed with far more nice and interesting people than I have any right to expect on a short visit, and I'm grateful for the kindness of strangers that came our way in ample measure. [—Namit Arora, October 2015.]
(Click on thumbnails below for pictures, slideshows, and notes from Usha and Namit on their journey to Mozambique, Sep/Oct 2015.)
We began our journey in Mozambique on the southeastern coast of Africa. It’s a huge, sparsely populated country of 25 million people, with the greatest density being spread out along its 1,500 miles of stunning, tropical coastline. The south, which includes the capital of Maputo, is the region of greatest development, economic activity, and settlement. With large populations of both Christians and Muslims, Mozambique is famous for the long amity between these communities. Portuguese is the lingua franca among a host of native languages.
Mozambique holds the distinction of having had the longest experience of European colonialism on the African continent, beginning hardly a decade after the first European ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497. Here the Portuguese stumbled upon the bustling world of Indian Ocean trade, which had already been plying for centuries. Determined to dominate it, they conquered one of its robust island trading ports and built a permanent settlement by 1507. The island, called Mozambique after its reigning sultan, Ali Musa Mbiki, would become the first capital of colonial Portuguese East Africa, which grew from there. For over 450 years, Portugal administered its colony with overtly racist policies and little concern for its development.
This long engagement with Europe has left its mark most obviously for today’s visitor in Mozambican cuisine, both in the unique fusion that today makes up Mozambican food, as well in introducing the many European and New World foods that entered the common diet. Most significant of these is corn (maize), which revolutionized African agriculture and quickly became the primary staple food across Southern Africa. The Portuguese also introduced the cashew nut, which is today a major export crop and readily available as a street food, along with the chili pepper, which was nativized to become the peri-peri pepper, used to make the hot sauces that are a table-top staple across the region, to name but a few examples.
Mozambique won its war of independence from Portugal in 1975 and set about building a communist government, but was soon engulfed in another horrendous, 16 year war—in part a civil war, in part a proxy war fueled by South Africa, Rhodesia, the Soviet Union, and the USA as another front of the Cold War—that handicapped its development and helped to keep it one of the absolutely poorest nations on earth.
The country has come a great distance since the days of the war and today it bears an undeniably optimistic outlook toward the future. Especially in Maputo, where its rapidly growing economy is anchored, there’s a sense of hope and possibility, a belief that the country can be drawn upwards from its past. In and around Maputo, a thoroughly modern city, infrastructure development appears to be going strong, aided enormously by China, which has won for itself rights to newly discovered oil fields in the north. But it must be said that not all Mozambicans are on board with the trade-offs being made, and fear their country is being sold off at a pittance. Public education and healthcare suffer miserably; any Mozambican with any means plans on a trip at least to South Africa, India, or further afield to receive medical care or opportunities for higher education.
Mozambique is a physically demanding place to travel, as distances are long, buses unwaveringly unreliable and unfailingly overstuffed. Though the roads are all newly built, and along the coast the major routes are paved, though there is as yet little motorized traffic along them, it’s clear that the infrastructure is not keeping pace with the country’s own demands for intra-country transit. Chinese assistance has provided modern airports, roads, and buses, but I was astounded to learn that there is only one passenger train operating in so vast a country—and that too a creaky old thing that clatters slowly, when at all, back-and-forth along a single 360 km track between Nampula and Cuamba in the north. While making one’s way across immense, empty stretches of countryside, packed 25 people and cargo to a 14-seat minivan, the thought that a passenger railway would revolutionize Mozambique’s development is inescapable. Nevertheless, with patience (and strategically self-imposed dehydration, to avoid the need for a bathroom), one can discover a country of astonishing beauty and friendly, welcoming communities of people who are finding a new way in their rapidly changing world. At every stop, the discomforts of getting there immediately evaporate into the wonder of the present. [—Usha Alexander, October 2015.]
The seventh of January is the birthday in 1800 of Millard Fillmore, who in 1850 became the thirteenth President of the United States of America. Fillmore ascended to the Presidency upon the untimely death1 of President Zachary Taylor, the erstwhile Major General "Old Rough and Ready."
A Whig and an anti-slavery moderate, Fillmore nonetheless signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act2 which lost him the party's nomination when he pursued a second term3 and led to the disintegration of the Whig Party altogether4. Fillmore is often ranked among the ten worst American Presidents, batting at roughly the Mendoza Line5, just above George W Bush.
In 1969 and also on this day, Barbara Castle, the second longest-serving Member of Parliament in British history, wrote in her diary
It was nice to see Indira Gandhi again: I warm to her. She is a pleasant, rather shy and unassuming woman and we exchanged notes about the fun of being at the top in politics. When I asked her whether it was hell being Prime Minister she smiled and said, 'It is a challenge.' Oddly enough, I always feel protective towards her.
Every group I spoke to greeted me as the first woman Prime Minister to be. I hate this talk. First I'm never going to be PM and, secondly, I don't think I'm clever enough. Only I know the depth of my limitations: it takes all I've got to survive my present job6.
One wonders what Fillmore thought his place in history would be. And, equally, one wonders whether Castle knew she might have secured a more prominent world historical legacy without necessarily needing to have been particularly competent.