ZANZIBAR – Certainly, my fortune was smiling upon my tanned face as the sun sank in an ocean only those postcards or wallposters or screensavers can depict. Within minutes, the view went dark and only a strong current wind and the ever-present sounds of the ocean tickled our senses. The salt on my face would creak whenever I smiled or frowned, and sand seemed to be present in every orifice.
It was in such a moment of slightly inebriated bliss I first laid eyes on them. He walked in front. A muscular man, with a bald head and a rough beard. He was one of those types that had a slight Eastern-European or Russian look that made him appear even more intimidating than his muscles would normally make him look. After him came a younger, – definitely younger – woman who had the shapes of her sunglasses burned upon her face.
‘Good evening!’ I said with the enthusiasm that was taught to me here in East-Africa. He smiled back, and after the exchange of pleasantries, I inquired whereabouts.
– ‘Ukraine’ he said.
‘Oh, really? You guys are having interesting times right now, no?’
– ‘Yes, we most certainly are’, the woman said, ‘very interesting, indeed’. She further remarked how most people ask from which part of the UK they hail. Good that we didn’t, really. We sat down on the terrace and looked into the darkness, knowing that somewhere out there was the view of the postcards.
The times were good, though. The Maidan Revolution had created space for change, and there was hope, they both said. There was less corruption now, and the new president got expats to run some ministries. For 27 years, every Ukrainian government had fucked up the country, but now, – there was hope.
What about those separatists, then? Or, terrorists, depending on who you talk to. He shrugged. If they want to be independent, then so be it. He didn’t seem to care too much, although, both of them identified themselves as pro-Ukrainians.
– ‘I tried staying neutral, but there’s no neutral ground’, the woman said. She’s from Odessa, and the recent events seem to have awakened in her an envigourated sense of national pride. Not the aggressive kind, though.
‘Have you been to Ukraine lately?’
No, they had been traveling around Africa for a couple of months now. Was this their first time on the continent? Again, no, he cycled in most of the countries, it seemed. Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Burkina Faso, Togo …
Togo was crazy, he said. There’s music everywhere. Whether Burkina Faso is safe nowadays? There has been a coupe d’etat, after all. He didn’t know, – it had been a couple of years. I vaguely remembered reading about the coup, so I inquired, again. There had been some dictator. Now there wasn’t. There will be again at some point, probably. Actually, did you know that the dictator, – – the dead one – , was Thomas Sankara’s best friend? I felt bad now. The name rang a bell, but I could not place him. The overly expensive Spanish white wine didn’t help either. I decided to set aside my pride (at this point of the conversation, we had been praised for being so informed about the Ukraine crisis) and ask. Thomas Sankara is like the African Che Guavara. They’ve got t-shirts with his face on it, you know, like the ones of Che.
I remembered now. The socialist revolutionary who wanted to make his country autonomous after independence. Although independence was a considered an African right back then, complete autonomy made some ex-colonial powers very itchy, especially because Thomas was flirting with all the wrong people: Sovjets, Cubans … no, disregarding power relations makes people nervous. So, they killed him.
Not really, though. Some Western countries may have backed a coup d’etat, and Thomas Sankara’s best friend murdered him. The new leader of Burkina Faso did all the right things: no more talk about autonomy. Instead I suppose he listened to what the World Bank had to say. No more socialist experiments that could offer people alternatives to a neo-liberalist, capitalist agenda. But, you know what they say, if you got to power through the gun, there’s only one way you’ll leave.
You know what the probem is of those pro-Russian separatists in Eastern-Ukraine? They are ignorant. They don’t know anything about the world. I was brought back to the conversation.
‘(…) and most of them have never traveled outside of the Ukraine’.
My travel companion remarked how the situation is similar to post-war Germany, where the conflict seemed local but was actually used as a proxy-war between greater nations. NATO and Russia are having a power struggle, and those people in Ukraine are suffering because of it. But how do you expect people to realise that when they’ve never seen the world beyond?
That’s a fair point, I guess. This guy’s been places, and he’s making sense, so … What places, though? As it turns out, he was one of the “lucky ones” who got out after the fall of the Sovjet-Union. Went to the US on some sort of scholarship to study there. Worked in Russia for a while, and then went to China, where he’s living now, just outside of Hong Kong. This guy has certainly been places. He likes to travel, he says. See the world.
Africa’s crazy, though, especially if you’re a mzungu (which is the Swahili word for “white person”). It brings a whole new dimension to your travels. What kind of experience, you ask? Well, I suppose that depends on where you are. Really, Africa does not exist. Here, there’s more Westerners walking on the beach than locals. Maybe the Muslims here mind the skimpy bikini’s, or maybe they just don’t care about the beach. Try going to some other places, and it’ll be different, I guess.
As it turns out, there’s a Ukrainian sociologist sitting across the table from me. I mention power relations, and some postcolonial thinkers, and she agrees. She moves in closer, and her gaze gets intense. By now, there were more beverages. There was Konyagi, a Tanzanian liquor that tasted like good gin. After a few weeks of drinking only beer, I was beginning to feel slightly light-headed.
‘I don’t like the white people here. They all come to interrupt’.
‘You’, she points at me, ‘are interrupting in their culture, with your Western influences and doctrine’.
Am I? ‘I’d like to think I am participating rather than interrupting’, I retorded. ‘Your dichotomy of interruption or observation seems a bit extreme to me’.
How did we get here, again? I mentioned the Ugandans, with whom we were attending a conference in the sandy cottage next to our tents. They were concerned about Kenyan-style riots during the coming elections in 2016. ‘Peace’ they had said, ‘we need peace!’
The Ukrainian sociologist had put forward the statement that riots should never be prevented. Had they been prevented in the Ukraine, nothing would have changed.
-‘Every culture has its own challenges, and you should let people solve their own problems’, she argued. Even when confrontation is violent and results in fatal casualties? Even then, because blood must flow for peace to come. Only when a country is on the verge of a bloody revolution, there will be people listening.
-‘Consider, for a moment, all major societal changes in human history. How many of them happened without bloodshed?’ She mentioned the French Revolution as an example.
Michel Foucault argued that history does not progress linearly, but rather consists of periods of continuity and discontinuity. ‘Breaking with the old state of affairs, is it necessarily violent?’, I wondered out loud. Although there must be some exception, I could not recall one.
‘I still think there is such a thing a peaceful change’, I argue, ‘although I do get where you’re coming from’. She assured me she’s simply asking questions to learn and not propagating her own views.
Before I make my next point, I considered for a moment I might be confirming to the African version of Godwin’s Law. Screw it, we’re doing hypothethicals anyway. What about the Rwandan genocide? We let that happen, and 1 million people got systematically murdered in 100 days. Impressive and terrifying as those numbers are, can you really argue against intervention now?
No, of course not. I feel like I derailed the discussion a bit. Of course we should have intervened in Rwanda. We might have interrupted in their tribal conflict, but maybe we could’ve … done what, exactly? After all, the tribal identification was abused by the Belgians, who put it in everyone’s passport. Divide and conquer, it was not an uncommon strategy in colonial times. There is the argument that because we caused this mess, we should be the ones to clean it up. White guilt, I believe they call that. Others just claim that universal human rights exist and that they should be upheld, even with violence. The fact that these interventions happen on the same lines as the colonial power relations once drew the world, is simply a coincidence, or something.
-‘No, of course we should have intervened’, she said. But look at all these NGO’s, they come here, and although they try to help, they just interrupt’.
Granted, quite some NGO’s have screwed up this continent. It reminded me of a conversation I had in London, where a Swiss documentary came up. We came to help, it was ironically called. And then we ruined Africa.
-‘But’, she repeated her point, ‘riots should just happen. They happened in Ukraine, and we’re finally seeing change…’
Yes, but is that really a fair comparison? The riots just happened in the Arab Spring as well, with no one to prevent them, but are they better off? Egypt got into so much trouble I am sure some people have been wondering whether all the rioting and the demonstrations have been worth it.
‘There is no political infrastructure here that can survive a revolution’, I pointed out. ‘In Ukraine, there is. They could demand a new, democratic government because the governance structure was already in place, although its purpose was corrupted’.
In the Republic of Uganda, there is no alternative. Riots merely arise from dissatisfaction and are often not politically driven in the sense that many people show up for ideological reasons. No, people show up because they’re poor, unemployed, and pissed off. On the other hand, the 2007 Nairobi riots led to a new constitution and a complete overhaul of the reforms agenda in Kenya.
Then again, the current Kenyan government, led by President Kenyatta, recently signed into law a series of Acts that directly contradict the constitutional rights of the Kenyan people. Although the Kenyan High Court suspended some parts just last week,- the Acts that for instance would restrict press freedom and would cap the number of refugees allowed in the country at 150,000 (FYI; in 2013, there were 650,000 refugees living in Kenya, most of them from Somalia), the democratically elected government of Kenya thought it could get away with infringing upon constitutional rights. So what use were those riots, then?
Ultimately, there is a glass ceiling when it comes to political participation, freedom of expression, and rights to information in many African countries. It is allowed so far as to cease activism, but any actual attempt by the opposition, civil society, or the media to demand from the authorities civic space is utterly crushed and swiftly dealt with.
I wonder, then, whether the pessimism of the Ukranians is pragmatic realism or the view of a revolutionist, whose conviction has been fueled by what has happened on the Maidan.
We said our goodbyes and joined the camp fire out on the beach, where I attempted to explain to a particularly devout Christian what biblical interpretation means.