Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Who Benefits?

Refugee Camp Darfour

Several years ago I travelled to Uganda for a World Women's Congress, during which I taped a session on women and refugees in Africa. Listening to testimony about refugee camps in The Sudan, camps for internally displaced persons in Uganda, refugee camps all over the continent, I was filled with awe and horror. Today I find a news story claiming The Sudan to be the third largest oil producing country in Africa. I visited the source of the Nile River, and found a huge dam and water system described in the first poem below. Powerlines and transformers buldged out of a power grid and ran throughout the countryside where people have no electricity, into the cities where it is common for dozens of families to share one power cord. The springs that are the source of the Nile River are now underwater in a shallow lake that connects Lake Victoria to the Nile. A second dam project was in the works, to benefit whom, one wondered. Who benefits from Sudanese oil? Who benefits from miles of farmland planted with tea and coffee in the Ugandan countryside where people in local villages have no jobs or food?

Below: Rapids at Jinji, on the other side of the dam.

frican Boat

A blue African boat
cuts through soft water just past rapids
on the far side of the source
of the Nile.
One man, deep black skin,
oars a light blue wooden boat
Prussian blue water.
Cormorants circle over head
in something like a mist made from
humid air and brilliant equatorial light

Madiee says there is a swimmer
who rides the rapids, huge swelling
waves that tuck into themselves
and pour out white water.
I say he’d have to know what
he was doing, how the current
runs and dips, where to dive
and where you’d be spit up,
where the boulders are —

I wonder if anyone could do this —
and then if I could do it

I think I could swim alongside
the pale blue boat
and ache to do it
a deep, old longing
that pulls me to
the heart of things.


I am Nogalo, mother of twins.
John is Sangalo, father of twins.
Our sons are Waswa, the older one
who is bossy, and Kato, the second born
who is mellow and compliant.

This circumstance, which I consider my
greatest trial and sometime blessing,
brings me the friendship of
Ugandans, who routinely discuss family
matters at the top of every social encounter,
before business, before whatever people
gather to accomplish, first one speaks
of family —

I say my twins are adopted
and came to us at different times,
Waswa when he was three,
Kato when he was seventeen.

Ugandans understand adoption —
twenty five percent of parents die from AIDS.
Surviving family members struggle to provide
for as many as twenty children.

When I return, Waswa says it’s too bad
I wasn’t eaten by a tiger. Kato
comes quietly behind me as I sit
at the computer and gives me a
soft hug.

Bad Government

"We saw these things," Muhammad told us —
"Living babies strapped to the backs of dead mothers
floating down the rivers into Lake Victoria."

He said there were so many bodies
decomposing in the water they couldn’t eat fish
from the lake for three years.

I asked him to explain the genocide.
He said the British put the Hutus into government jobs
and they made the Tusies do menial work.

When the Tusies came to power
they tortured and killed Hutus leaders and their families.
Later another change of power and the Hutus started killing all the Tusies.

It is difficult to understand.

I got to thinking about what governments are supposed to do — keep people safe, provide infrastructure, some sort
of stability, a peaceful process for the transfer of power.
In Africa, Gabril says, the governments don’t do this.

In Africa, the French gave the good jobs to the Hutus
who gave the bad jobs the Tusis who revolted
killing Hutus who revolted killing Tusis
which a Westerner will say proves tribal conflicts
are the source of African brutality

But it sounds like bad government
to me.

©Susan Bright, 2006,

Susan Bright is the author of nineteen books of poetry. She is the editor of Plain View Press which since 1975 has published one-hundred-and-fifty books. Her work as a poet, publisher, activist and educator has taken her all over the United States and abroad. Her most recent book, The Layers of Our Seeing, is a collection of poetry, photographs and essays about peace done in collaboration with photographer Alan Pogue and Middle Eastern journalist, Muna Hamzeh.


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Blogger Charlie Loving said...

Africa is difficult to understand. It is a grand mix of different tribes,cultures and religions. Aninmists, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims all in one huge pot. Each one suspicious of the other and having deep seeded hate dating to the first person who stole a berry from another before time was recorded.

If you look at the anceint maps you see various groups commanding certian areas. Great civilizations here and there. Benin comes to mind as one. They were next to todays Nigeria and they sold captives to the Arabs in the north desert countries. Slavery was a way to make a buck and a way to not have to work so hard.

Then came the Europeans, first from Portugual and then Spain they met the Arabs coming down the Eastern seaboard. There was conflict. The Indians came accross the sea as well. Everyone was into exploitation of the riches, be it gold, ivory, diamonds, wood or human beings.

The Europeans divided up the Continent into make believe countries, the French had the most of west Africa, then the Brits, and the Spainish and Portuguese and then Italians and Germans got thrown in along with the worst of the worst the Belgiums.

The Africans for the most part were docile after they were out gunned, cannons and muskets against spears. The only thing they had going for them was malaria and some strange fevers that slowed the Europeans down some.

I was amazed at what I saw there. My mother loved Africa, she was a diplomat there for years some sort of undersecretary for development in Gabon, Guniea, Senegal, Dahomey and at the end Zaire (DRC). She knew the continent from 20 years of experience and never once doubted that the Africans could put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

My own experience was different but then I was with the French Army in the Congo and my view was one of terror and strife. If it weren't for us having bigger guns and the option of the air strike we would have been dead meat. Nothing we did ever worked.

We tried to build electric lines, we tried to build roads and so forth, we worked at reforstation but the country and the people were so poor they stole everything out of shear need and poverty that was beyond anything I have ever seen.

The welcome on an individual basis was complete and unhindered by any bias or racism. It was the government that was corrupt beyond immagination.

6:56 AM  
Blogger SB said...

Thanks Charlie for the long, thoughtful note.

Often Americans think that the problem is corrupt African governments, and that is to some extent true -- but sadly.

One Ugandan friend drove me around the outer neighborhoods in Kampala, away from the dense and crowded shanty cities where whole families live in shacks the size of our kitchen, no screens, fabric doors, share amoung 20 families one electric cord, tote water in huge yellow containers from open air pumps, light outdoor fires to cook at night.

In the "middle class" neighborhoods families live in brick houses, no running water, outhouses, no screens on windows, houses in dis-repair. These are the government workers who are on the take. This being on the take reaps what would be comparable to a rural poor standard of housing here.

What is called govt corruption looked to me like people trying to earn a living wage. And lots of the civil servants I met were good people. Of course Uganda is on the rise. Rebuilding was happening everywhere in Kampala.

But in the North -- the rebels were terrorizing people and burning villages. There was a rebel attack while we were at the University 40 miles away, 12 people were killed. In the countryside people had no food unless the World Food Aid Orgranizations brought it in.

From what I could tell the only people benefiting from the resources in Uganda were the owners of the crop cash industrial farms in the countryside and whomever (my guess is the World Bank) gets the money from the electricity they sell.

Bad government -- and a world economic structure that thrives on it.

5:24 PM  

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