After American planes had finished their bomb run, a six-year old girl joined others in escaping the cave in the hills of Xieng Khouang where they’d been hiding. But as she and the other children played, one plane returned and dropped one last bomb.
A piece of shrapnel hit the girl in the right leg. Her grandmother, who’d also been outside, was killed outright. Her father carried the girl on his back for 25 kilometres to the cave where a medical team could be found.
That six-year old girl grew up with one damaged leg. She could not labour in the fields like her parents and siblings, nor could she weave. Instead she opened a small store at the junction of three roads in Phonsavan, the province’s capital, selling beer and cigarettes, school exercise books and biscuits, and soap and toothpaste.
Now, 54 years later, her daughter Sakhone Bounthala runs the store and the small pharmacy she herself opened next door.
‘I grew up working in my mother’s shop. It was the last thing I wanted to do when I grew up, so I studied pharmacy. And yet here I am.’
Xieng Khouang is a province about 200 kilometres north of the Laos capital, Vientiane. For Westerners it is best known for the Plain of Jars, a megalithic archaeological location of great importance which in 2019 was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Plain of Jars is set among rolling hills at the end of the Annamite Range, Indochina’s long mountainous spine. The thousands of stone jars that give the place its name were built during Southeast Asia’s iron age, between 500 BC and 500 CE. No one knows who made the jars, although it seems likely they were related to the Hmong population now living in the province, and no one really knows what happened to their civilisation.
Sakhone doesn’t just run the pharmacy and general store. With her husband David Deweppe she also operates a bed and breakfast in Phonsavan called PuKyo – Lao for Green Mountain. While David, a Belgian who found his true love and true home in Laos, looks after the guest house, Sakhone takes time from the two stores to take guests on guided tours to the Plain of Jars and other nearby sites.
The Covid pandemic hasn’t been kind to any country’s tourism industry, but developing countries like Laos have been hit particularly hard. Recently, however, borders are opening up and the flow of tourists is now a steady trickle.
AJ and I were part of a small group of friends that stayed at PuKyo for a brief three days, the first time the guest house had been filled for over two years. During our short visit there was the definite sense that life in Phonsavan was returning to something like normal: the roads were busy with traffic, shops were open, people were frequenting restaurants and cafes and promenading on the walkway around the town’s reservoir.
For the nine year from 1964 to 1973, Laos suffered on average a bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day. The USA dropped more ordnance on Laos than it did on Germany and Japan during WWII. For the size of its population, Laos is the most bombed country on Earth. Up to 30% of those bombs failed to detonate, and still litter the countryside.
Xieng Khouang was the second most bombed province in Laos. Unexploded ordinance (UXO) contaminates 25% of its villages. Between 1964 and 2008, there have been 50,000 casualties of UXO, and 20,000 of those casualties have occurred since the Second Indochina War ended in 1974. It’s estimated that over 80 million bomblets (from cluster bombs) remain undetonated.
In the 1930s a French archaeologist, Madeleine Colani investigated the Plain of Jars. There are 17 sites in total, scattered over the province, and only the main one, Site 1, is actually located on a plain. The other sites are located on hills or ridges.
Colani thought Site 1 marked the centre of the civilisation that built the jars, and from the bones, ash and beads she found thought the jars were built to hold cremated remains. Burials were also found around the jars, containing tools, pots, knives and jewelry, possibly because family members belonging to whomever was cremated were interred around them.
After Colani, the next major investigation was well after the war, during the 1990s, followed by a Lao-Australian dig that lasted from 2016-2020. The results of these later expeditions seemed to confirm Colani’s original hypothesis about the purpose of the jars.
One of the heroes of Laos is Kommaly Chanthavong, a woman who learned the art of silk weaving from her mother when she was five years old.
In 1976 she used what little money she had to buy looms and employed war-displaced women to operate them. At first known as the Phontong Weavers, they eventually became better known as the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative, a network of Lao artisans that now spans 35 villages and connecting 450 artisans.
Impressed by her success, in the 1990s the Lao government gave the cooperative 42 hectares of land just outside Phonsavan for use as a silk farm. But there was one catch. Like the rest of the province, the land had been heavily bombed and was littered with UXO. The cooperative itself removed the bombs and then set about planting mulberry trees. Those 42 hectares of land now makes up the Mulberries Organic Silk Farm.
As with the PuKyo guest house, we were among the first tourists to visit the farm in more than two years. During that time they had continued their work, growing trees and raising silkworms, then collecting, spinning, dyeing and weaving the silk they got from the animals’ cocoons. With the silk they make extraordinarily beautiful clothing and accessories such as bags and scarves.
Kommaly Chanthavong travelled from village to village throughout the country, encouraging young people to become involved in the industry, and the Mulberries Organic Silk Farm has played an important part in training more than two thousand farmers and weavers from five provinces, helping to create over three thousand jobs.
Because Site 1 at the Plain of Jars offers sweeping views of the surrounding area it became a prime target of bombers during the Second Indochina War. Ancient jars were blown apart or completely obliterated. Even today, when wandering around the site, tourists run the risk of falling into bomb craters and trenches.
It’s a terrible irony that a place used to cremate and bury the deceased became a killing field two thousand years later. The descendants of those who made the jars have paid a heavy toll in dead and wounded for the Second Indochina War, a toll many of them still pay when they till their farms, or when children play in the fields, or when they simply walk along the hills, the ridges and valleys of Xieng Khouang.
The people of the province – and its landscape – have been scarred by war, but while the past is something they cannot forget they’re not allowing it to shape their future.
AJ and I will definitely return to the PuKyo in the near future, not only to treat ourselves to Sakhone and David’s hospitality once more, but to visit the gentle rolling plains and hills with their megalithic stone jars, and to revisit the Mulberries Organic Silk Farm, and to spend more time with Xieng Khouang’s gentle, enterprising and resilient inhabitants.
(All photos: Simon Brown.)
For those interested in visiting Xieng Khouang, PuKyo B&B can be found here on Facebook.
I’m writing this 50 days after moving to my new home in Vientiane, Laos. I’ve spent half that time sequestered from my fellow human beings: 14 days in quarantine on my arrival and a week later a further 11 days in self-isolation after contracting Covid 19 (and yes, from which I’m now recovered, thank you for asking).
In the remaining 25 days I’ve managed to get a handle on my local area – a village called Ban Donepamai in the district of Sisattanak – but other than a couple of walks through the city centre and along the Mekong River, I can’t really claim to have seen much of Vientiane let alone Laos.
For a city in southeast Asia it’s remarkably compact and small, with a population somewhere between 800,000 and a million, depending on which source you ask (compared with the eight to nine million people inhabiting Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok, or even the two million plus living in Phnom Penh).
But then Laos itself seems remarkably compact, with an area about the same as the state of Victoria. It looks like an apostrophe tucked in between Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and China, and is southeast Asia’s only landlocked country. The Mekong runs through it the way the Nile runs through Egypt, providing not just water, silt and a transport route, but character as well. The Mekong also acts as a border between Laos and Thailand, and one of the most pleasant things to do in Vientiane is listen to the sound of bells and gongs drifting across the river from Buddhist wats.
Laos, a socialist country embracing communism, is controlled by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The party’s hand lays very lightly on us foreigners. From our point of view, life in Vientiane runs just as it does in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, if at a much slower pace. People own their own small businesses and mainly serve their local community. At this level at least, entrepreneurship seems to be encouraged. Everybody works, and everybody works hard.
I’m sure censorship exists at some level, but so far I’ve not encountered it personally, and AJ has been told that she can teach any text relevant to her course. The only sign that we’re living in a one-party state is the slightly Orwellian speeches given every morning over loudspeakers. None of the loudspeakers seem to be near us, so what we hear is a metallically-distorted monologue that drifts across our district like a mumbled prayer from heaven. The tone is completely even, without any emotion at all, as if all that was being delivered were aircraft boarding announcements or department store messages.
As AJ told me soon after she arrived six months ago, Vientiane in 2022 is probably what Phuket was like in 1982. In my limited experience, the locals are formidably polite and quite reserved. They are always bustling and busy, either riding their scooters to or from work, or selling vegetables, take-away food or lottery tickets from behind makeshift stalls or shop-houses (with the living accommodation on the second floor or out back). As in Thailand, thick skeins of electric cable are suspended above every main street, and the faint waft of sewage drifts up from drains.
Traffic is only busy at peak times, but even then everyone drives under 50 kph. If there are traffic rules, they’re interpreted differently by every driver, but drivers – and by necessity, pedestrians – are courteous and patient. There are some big SUVs and pickups around, but most cars are small Toyotas, Hyundais and Kias, and all of these are vastly outnumbered by the swarm of motor scooters that cough around the streets like asthmatic beetles. It’s a marvel to watch scooter-drivers spend half their time looking where they’re going and the other half checking their mobile phones while using some internal radar to avoid collisions.
AJ and I will be here for at least two years, possibly three or more, so plenty of time to get to know the city and the country, starting with the Plain of Jars in a couple of weeks and Luan Prabang in April. And, of course, once Covid restrictions ease (fingers crossed), Vientiane will make a good base for visits to Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand. Rainforest, rivers, rapids, monsoons and the world’s best food bar none. I have to say, it’s wonderful being back in the tropics.
The late Australian philosopher and ecofeminist Val Plumwood was attacked and almost killed by a saltwater crocodile in 1985. The fact she survived three ‘deathrolls’ is down to her sheer determination to escape and a good amount of luck. Severely injured, one leg was exposed to the bone, she somehow managed to walk and finally crawl to the nearest ranger station, some three kilometres away.
In her essay ‘Prey to a crocodile’, Plumwood writes that during the attack ‘I glimpsed the world for the first time “from the outside”, as a world no longer my own, an unrecognizable bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, indifferent to my life or death.
‘ … It was a shocking reduction, from a complex human being to a mere piece of meat.’
Human exceptionalism is the belief that we as individuals and as a species are separate and superior to all other life on earth. It is a belief innate in almost each and every human, especially those belonging to so-called developed societies, that stems from our almost complete domination of the planet’s landscapes and ecologies. We are the world’s most numerous large animal, and our technology has enabled us to travel from the deepest abyss to the surface of the moon. Some aspects of our technology are overwhelmingly prolific and invasive: plastic, for example, is now found from the highest point to the lowest point on Earth’s surface and throughout our own food chain.
Human exceptionalism partly stems from the way we historically treat the animals and plants with which we share the planet. They are the resources we need to survive and thrive, and we reshape entire ecosystems to sustain industries that provide those resources in the cheapest, most efficient and in the greatest amount possible. This has been at the expense of vast swathes of rainforest, wetlands and temperate forests, environments essential to the health of life on earth.
But as Val Plumwood discovered, it doesn’t take much to reduce a single human being from a member of the planet’s dominant animal to just another source of food.
In 2020, in the middle of South Africa’s first and strongest COVID-19 lockdown, I wrote a short story called ‘Speaker’ for a competition run by Sapiens Plurum, an organisation created to ‘inspire (humans) to aspire beyond what was humanly possible.‘
The competition’s theme was ‘how can technology increase empathy and connection?’ They wanted authors to imagine ways technology can improve how we relate to each other and bring us closer, even across species.
The idea for ‘Speaker’ came from one of those moments of serendipity – or perhaps synchronicity is a better term – when two ideas fuse to create a third idea. The first idea was based on the development of protein microchips, a scientific endeavour that had its research heyday in the 80s; one objective of the research was finding a way to help people suffering from brain injury to regain full health. The second idea is a personal fantasy, really to one day communicate with one of our hominin cousins, such as Homo neanderthalensis or H. ergaster. The fusion of these two ideas created the third idea: using linked protein microchips for communication between two modern species, Home sapiens and, in this case, Crocuta crocuta – the spotted hyena[i].
The story won the competition, and subsequently Sapiens Plurum asked Slate Magazine to consider publishing it. Slate agreed, and in January published it in Future Tense, a partnership between Slate, New America (a Washington-based think tank), and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and Imagination.[ii] Specifically, my story was part of series sponsored by the Learning Futures initiative out of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU.
Stories appearing in Future Tense have a ‘response essay’ written by someone who is an expert in the field or issue covered by the story. In my case, I was fortunate to have Iveta Silova, an expert in global futures and learning, write the response in a piece called ‘If Nonhumans Can Speak, Will Humans Learn to Listen?’
As an extra bonus, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College then arranged for an online discussion between Iveta, Punya Mishra, a professor and Associate Dean of Scholarship and Innovation at the college, and myself, on the creation of ‘Speaker’ and the issues covered by it and Iveta’s response. That discussion was recorded and subsequently uploaded to YouTube.
The discussion’s central issue turned out to be about human exceptionalism. As Iveta explains in her essay:
‘Today … we are forced to acknowledge that we are not so special after all. On the one hand, we wonder and worry whether artificial intelligence will become conscious, leading us down a dystopian spiral of human irrelevance. On the other hand, we see a major shift in scientific thinking about plant intelligence and animal consciousness, suggesting that the difference between human and nonhuman species is just a matter of degree, not of kind. Meanwhile, our hyperseparation from the natural world is threatening every species on Earth—including humans.’
Iveta goes on to write that ‘Overcoming the modernist assumption of human exceptionalism and reconfiguring our relationship with a more-than-human world is a complex and long-term project.’
In ‘Speaker’, linking humans with different species is an attempt to overcome human exceptionalism, but the exercise itself is fraught with difficulties, especially the hurdles imposed by our own innate prejudices and assumptions about what it means to be human in a world that seems to be so completely dominated by humans.
And this is where our hubris kicks in. For the most part life on Earth is dominated by viruses, archaea and bacteria, but we are so coddled by civilisation that even if we understand this intellectually, it is usually impossible to acknowledge it instinctively. The current Covid-19 pandemic, for example, has demonstrated that for all our technological and cultural achievements, our entire civilisation can be put on hold by a virus so small that all the world’s Covid-19 particles can be contained a single soft drink can. It is well to remember that in ancient Greek tragedies, hubris comes before a great fall.
Linked to that hubris is the assumption in the story that given the capacity to link our own minds with those of other animals, we will go ahead and do it. The story doesn’t engage with the ethical issues of communicating in such a way with another species. For example, what repercussions would there be for the recipient species? How do we stop the link resulting in one species overly influencing or even dominating the other? In fact, how would we even begin to estimate what impact there might be? And if the decision was made to go ahead and make the link, how do we deal with the issue of privacy? How do the two linked intelligences stop invading each other’s most private thoughts? Can thoughts be turned on and off like a tap, or would the link open a floodgate that would drown both parties in a wave of facts, emotions and random thoughts?
Perhaps most importantly of all, and in the context of ‘Speaker’ the most relevant, is how do we interpret those thoughts? How do we know for sure that our brains won’t ‘mistranslate’ the thoughts it receives, and vice versa? In the story this is handled with the ‘joking’ subtext, the way Akata and Samora try to find a way around their very different life experiences to reach a common understanding for the concept of humour, something humans but not hyenas possess (at least in the story).
And yet, despite all of these issues, I see linking with another species as a wonderful opportunity and a positive action at so many levels. In her responding essay, Iveta actually quotes Val Plumwood:
‘According to … Val Plumwood, we must reimagine “the world in richer terms that will allow us to find ourselves in dialogue with and limited by other species’ needs, other kinds of minds.” This is, she argues, “a basic survival project in our present context.”’
It’s time for humans to put aside their exceptionalism and hubris. Apart from the damage to the planet such an attitude encourages, it damages us, keeping us artificially apart from the rest of life on earth. We cannot flourish as a species by ignoring the fact that we, like spotted hyenas and saltwater crocodiles and for that matter centipedes and flies, are animals. We aren’t the endpoint of evolution, just one of its offshoots.
[i] An animal seriously misrepresented in human culture. The spotted hyena is an intelligent and extraordinarily social predator that lives in large troops dominated by females. And I do mean ‘predator’; despite its historic image as a scavenger, almost all its food comes from actively hunted prey and not from stealing some other animal’s kills.
‘We need to codesign programs that move away from disempowering communities and indigenous people to giving them the power to be strong stewards of the natural resources and the lands,’ says Dr Patricia Mupeta-Muyamwa, Strategy Director for the African Indigenous Landscape program at The Nature Conservancy, a charitable environmental organisation with its base in the US.
Her job involves working with local communities to protect and nurture the natural environment. Patricia says she fell into the work more by accident than design.
‘I did my undergraduate degree in wildlife ecology at the University of Zambia in Lusaka, and in my last six months did an internship monitoring wildlife and vegetation in a national park. The job involved interacting with the park scouts, and after listening to their experiences I realised that it was people and not wildlife that was the problem, and I asked myself how do we empower people to make them better stewards of nature?
‘I did my Masters in conservation and tourism in the UK, and learned about different models of conservation. Because of the chequered history between national park administration and local communities, which left a great deal of animosity towards the state, my work promotes the importance of getting the rights to land and natural resources to the people that live closest to them.
‘Historically, African national parks and nature reserves were created for aesthetic reasons using an American model first developed for Yellowstone National Park.
‘Up until the 1990s, the state and not the local people ran national parks and conservation areas; it was a relic of Africa’s colonial past, and part of my work is to help address this injustice by reconciling local people so they’re a part of the conservation solution.
‘Local communities were forced out. People were seen as part of the conservation problem and not as part of the solution. For example, in South Africa national parks are still state run in a very centralised way; there are many communities around Kruger but few are getting any real benefit from it except a few people that find employment.’
Patricia says her long job title came from her work as it evolved.
‘A large part of the job is focused on protecting wildlife corridors spanning across parks, private and community-owned lands.
‘The work itself has three main objectives. First, giving land and resource rights back to the local community. Second, developing community skills to manage natural resources for example protecting and monitoring wildlife . Third, helping develop community opportunities for making a living from conservation, for example with tourism and programs that empower women.’
Patricia stresses this is a bottom-up approach. ‘A big part of my job is to consult with communities and their leaders to find the best conversation solution. I listen to their stories about living and interacting with the land.’
Patricia leads teams that are managing four big landscape projects, one in Kenya involving 39 separate communities, two in Tanzania and one in Zambia.
‘We’ll soon be starting a fifth one in Angola, based around the headwaters of the Okavango River.’
As an example of what these projects can achieve, Patricia cites the work done with a local partner Northern Rangelands Trust with 39 separate communities.
‘Establishing wildlife corridors between these communities has been successful in increasing numbers of previously threatened animals such as elephants.
Patricia was born and raised in Kitwe, a mining town in Zambia’s Copper Belt on the Kafue River, Zambia’s third largest river. This is also where she first met her husband Andrew, now a Maths Studies high school teacher. The two of them have fond memories of growing up in this small, quaint mining town.
‘My parents worked for a mining conglomerate. My father worked for 27 years as a human resources manager for a copper mining company. He was a real people person, and connected with people from all walks of life.
‘My mother was a teacher, training first in Zambia to teach home economics, but later she studied in Liverpool in the UK to become a Montessori teacher; and was the first Zambian to achieve this.’
Patricia grew up in a one-party state created by independent Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda. Following a period of instability, the 1973 signing of the Choma Declaration banned all parties except Kaunda’s own, the United National Independence Party (UNIP). He remained in power until he was ousted after being forced to hold multi-party elections in 1991.
‘Kitwe’s British-South African owned mining company was nationalised by the Zambian government, so I grew up thinking it was normal to grow up in a black-run black society. It was a source of pride for us that Zambians were in charge of the company.’
Patricia says that even though she grew up in a one-party state, she only became aware of that as she finished high school.
‘But living in it as a child you don’t necessarily feel authoritarian measures, for example restricted access to the world outside Zambia. We were cocooned, but that didn’t feel bad. In some ways I would rather live in that state than what exists now. Things worked: there was infrastructure that worked, equity for all seventy-two tribes and a sense of security. I believe Kenneth Kaunda was motivated for the greater good of society. He created an environment that allowed everyone to have access to healthcare, education and employment regardless of background.
‘Kaunda created a system where we didn’t feel black, but Zambian. My father’s generation, which grew up under colonial rule in what was then Northern Rhodesia, was taught British, European and American history at school; my generation was taught pre- and post-colonial African history.
‘Kaunda led the way in institutionalising a Zambian identity. As a kid I didn’t really appreciate the gravity of this, but looking back now I see that it helped me navigate through life as a Zambian. Kaunda called this philosophy “humanism” – in the sense that the core values were about recognising our common humanity, and that we should always be aware that history was judging us and so be peaceful, respectful and good to each other.’
But things started to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
‘The economy was stalling and there were food shortages. Up to then the majority of Zambians had been politically passive; there wasn’t a lot of collective activism. The system that existed helped make it that way. But at that point the multi-party democracy movement challenging Kaunda was slowly taken up by the people.
‘When I was sixteen I was apolitical, but then my dad took me and my older brother to my first political rally just before Kaunda left. It wasn’t simply an anti-Kaunda rally, but more about a wind of change. It was huge and exciting – there was a great desire for change – and when it came I was hopeful. Everything felt new and that at last we were going places and fighting for a better Zambia. There was a sense of entrepreneurship in the early 90s, and new markets were opening up. The mines were privatised, for example, and different assets were being sold, like the mining homes, and many Zambians became home owners for the first time.
‘But in the euphoria we forgot what Kaunda had done for Zambia. The current political system in Zambia is not as effective as the old political system. There is less equity and less access to health, work and education. The Zambian economy is on life support.’
The one great source of stability for Patricia is her family.
‘I come from a very strong nuclear family, which is not the norm for families in Africa. It is a central part of who I am. My husband, parents, siblings and my maternal grandmother have all influenced my life in different aspects.’
Patricia says her grandmother, Dorika, was independent, strong-minded, political and entrepreneurial. Born in the early 1920’s, she witnessed her country move from a colonial to a post-colonial era.
‘She was a Kaunda supporter and freedom fighter from the colonial era. She later became a strong organizer in the women’s league of the United National Independent Party (UNIP).
‘Towards the end of the colonial period she accompanied her husband, a community development officer, to different postings all over the country. In one posting he was sent to a district in the northwest at the same time as the colonial authorities imprisoned Kaunda there; when Dorika saw Kaunda being taken for his daily walk she would go up and talk with him, much to the distress of the local British officials. During one encounter she was reprimanded by the District Governor for this action. She held her ground, and continued with her actions. This upset the Governor and he later transferred my grandfather away from the district because of his “troublesome wife”.
‘During the time when there was a call for change from Kaunda’s rule, she said “No! No change!”’
After her husband died, Dorika supported her family of eight children by selling bread and other baked goods from home and at the market.
‘With two other women she set up one of the first female trading markets in Kabwe, a small mining town in central Zambia; it’s still operating to this day.’
Patricia says she drew a great deal from her grandmother.
‘I admired the way she navigated through life and survived as a woman and as a leader. She did so much in her life and in her own way. The older she got the stronger she got, and she was a great female model. She really lived life in her own terms.’
Patricia’s father, David, was the biggest male influence on her life. ‘My love of reading came from him. I loved going into his library. I read his 12-volume encyclopedias over and over.’
Patricia says growing up she never gave her mother the same attention she gave her father.
‘I was a “daddy’s girl”, and she wasn’t in my “cool space” back then. Now I realise just how similar we were. She was a trail-blazer. She was the first Zambian to study and teach Montessori; that took a lot of initiative and courage.’
Perhaps the biggest influence her mother had on her life was her decision to send Patricia and her sister, Edith, to an all-female boarding school run by German nuns; one of the oldest and best schools from its establishment in the early 1900s. She remembers the school was run under a very strict regime.
‘I did not like it at all. The nuns worked us very hard. When I tell people I went there they ask me if my parents hated me! But in hindsight, the education I gained from that time was invaluable.’
Patricia says she wasn’t really conscious of her skin colour until she travelled to the UK and, especially, the US, for study.
‘I’m not sure whether or not that was a peculiarly Zambian experience. I’ve heard very different stories about encounters with racism from other black people, many of them heartbreaking.
‘Up to then I never thought of myself as a “black” person. My first racist encounter was in the UK when I was in my early 30s, when a hobo at a train station yelled at me to go “home”. I was shocked more than hurt by it because for the first time I became truly aware that this society was different from the one I grew up in.’
She says that while studying for her masters at the University of Kent she felt she was living in a bit of a bubble because she was very familiar with the British tradition and culture that had been such a part of Zambia before independence.
‘Growing up in Kitwe I had many encounters with non-racist and progressive Brits. It wasn’t until I was studying in the US that racism really hit me.
‘Soon after I arrived at the town where I was going to study I started looking for accommodation and came across a poor black neighbourhood. I began to understand how a community placed like this, separated from better-off communities, institutionalised racism.
‘US culture was strange and interesting. I was living in a diverse and liberal university town in northern Florida, but you didn’t have to drive far from the town to find Confederate flags flying in front yards. It was a totally different society.
‘For the first time I felt and identified as “black”. I found myself gravitating towards black student unions and organisations helping black communities.’
Patricia was saddened to see great poverty in some black communities in the US. ‘I had seen poverty in Africa, of course, but here it was like the lights had gone out. There was a lot of hurt and anger in that tribe – a tribe I can relate to – but the hurt and anger also existed in the academic environment which was so different from my previous experience it threw me off guard somewhat.
‘What I also found interesting was the way the black community was divided among African Americans, Caribbeans and Africans. It could be hard to cross the divide, but I’m not sure how much that was due to my own naivety. The black student union had a good ethos, for example, but it’s leadership was African American, and they defined the union’s agenda and this is where a lot of the union’s energy was spent. I had to think about what it meant to be an African in this situation. My initial enthusiasm at being part of the union started to wane because I couldn’t see what my role might be.’
Patricia says she identifies as Zambian but feels African.
‘I especially feel broadly connected to sub-Saharan Africa. African countries like Zambia, Kenya, Botswana and South Africa have more in common than not.
‘There is a connection around tradition, culture and how we think about family. There is a very strong “oneness” around family events that goes with a sense of community. This means there is still an especially strong tie in many countries between urban and rural communities; people working in the big cities still go back to their families living in rural areas for important occasions.’
Patricia hopes those values will see sub-Saharan Africa through to a better future. ‘Right now, for example, that rural link for urban dwellers means many of them have a comparatively safe refuge during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
‘Strangely, this isn’t what’s happening in Zambia, where the rush to urbanise seems to have cut many of those ties to the country. I don’t know the village where dad came from, for example.
‘Africa needs to reconnect to its core identity. I believe we lost this connection as we urbanised. My hope is that we will see those links repaired in Zambia and other parts of Africa.’
I live in a compound in the Johannesburg district of Fourways, a favourite location for expats, the white middle class and the growing black and coloured middle class. Our compound is surrounded by a 2.5-metre wall topped with a ring of metal spikes and electric fencing. Our townhouse abuts the north wall. East of our house, and still in the compound, is a children’s playground and a tennis court; before the current lockdown, most weekdays I heard small children laughing and shouting in the playground, supervised by parents and nannies. I like that about where I live: it’s a community, with all age groups.
When I call it a compound, I’m sometimes corrected by locals. ‘It’s a complex, not a compound,’ someone will say. Or, ‘It’s a gated community.’
I get that. ‘Compound’ sounds like a kind of prison, except in this case it’s built to keep people out, not keep people in. Having said that, there are times when it feels like we are being kept in, especially early in the morning when I look out north and east and see glimpses of what appears a less restrained city draped across the Gauteng landscape.[i]
But whether you call them compounds, complexes or gated communities, they are small villages separated from the rest of Johannesburg by walls and wires and gates and guards. These compounds have, as Lynsey Chutel wrote in Quartz Africa, ‘created pockets of development – ranging from middle class suburbia to opulence – walled off from South Africa’s socio-economic reality.’
Compounds are not as old as apartheid, and nor is it true to say they are the spatial descendants of apartheid geography[ii], but as Chutel points out there is a direct link in the mentality behind the construction of compounds and their popularity as places to live in cities such as Johannesburg: ‘The prevalence of gated communities may also reveal what South Africans think constitutes middle class life. As it did under apartheid, it often means avoiding the poor unless they are servants, nannies or gardeners.’
As more and more black and coloured South Africans join the country’s middle class, compounds like the one I live in can be seen as the expression of economic rather than racial division, where the better off are made to feel more secure by being separated from the poor, the unemployed and the underemployed. The fact that a large number of well-off South Africans are white can blur the distinction[iii], but compounds are ultimately the concrete expression of an economic divide, and an expression of what I think is the single biggest stumbling block to a more united, more progressive and ultimately wealthier society: the unwillingness to tear down the walls. I don’t see this simply a physical problem, but more importantly, a deeply psychological one.
When I lived in Phuket, one of the things that struck me about Thai society was how the rich and poor lived cheek by jowl. A drive along Thepkrasatree Road would have us passing a palatial estate sandwiched between a two-bedroom concrete box and a refugee camp filled with tin shacks, all of them spouting television aerials and satellite dishes. It wasn’t that the family living in the palatial estate liked living next to a refugee camp, or for that matter that the refugees in the camp liked being constantly reminded of how little they owned, but that there were no 2.5 metre walls and electric fences reinforcing the division. The rich, the aspiring middle class and the desperately poor tolerated each other.
Thai society isn’t without its problems, including crime and violence, but the different classes seem more willing to share common ground, and more than willing to accept the poor becoming middle class and the middle class becoming rich. In Phuket, unlike Johannesburg, divisions aren’t fanned by a history of oppression on one side and fearful insecurity on the other.
Compounds are most common in Gauteng Province, especially its two main cities: Johannesburg and Pretoria. Divisions certainly exist in cities like Cape Town, but I didn’t see many examples of whole communities being fenced off from the world outside.
What strikes me most about South Africa and its people is its sheer potential. South Africans I have met are hardworking, smart, confident and optimistic at heart. The country has natural resources aplenty and for its size a large but not excessive population for Africa (around 60 million people in a state somewhat larger than New South Wales). The people genuinely value democracy, freedom, education, initiative and creativity. It seems to me that all the important elements of a successful society are in place; the fact that it is not yet a successful society speaks to its recent history and the scars it’s left behind.
I have to stress that these are impressions on my part, and I’m an interloper. I come from a wealthy, predominantly white middle-class background from a land far, far away. I am a member of the most privileged class of human beings that has ever lived. I have no right to give advice to anyone who lives here, to all those who have struggled through decades of repression and fear, let alone to the new generations that came after the end of apartheid – the ‘Born Frees’. I also know how hard it is to talk about a society as rich and complex as South Africa’s without making generalisations, some of which are unfair to all those who struggle every day against any division, racial or economic.
But I cannot help feeling that greater progress in South Africa cannot be made until there is genuine social and economic freedom for everyone, and I cannot help feeling that will not occur until the walls come down.
[i] The thing you notice most of all about Johannesburg is all the trees. For a city that has grown in South Africa’s Highveld, dry rolling plains that resemble the dry rolling plains around Canberra and Yass, there’s an awful lot of perpendicular vegetation. It’s sometimes claimed that Johannesburg is home to the world’s largest artificially created forest, and I can believe it. A lot of the trees are introduced – eucalypts, lillipillies, jacarandas – but the city still manages to look very African, as if at any moment the traffic weaving along the streets inside the forest could be replaced by herds of wildebeest.
I am a white male living in a society largely designed by white males for the benefit of white males. As such, I am a member of history’s most privileged group, a group that numbers no more than a few hundred million in a world inhabited by over seven billion human beings.
What got me here, together with every other member of that group, was a toxic mixture of imperialism and colonialism. Not toxic for me, I hasten to point out, but toxic for billions of other human beings.
It’s not necessary to point out how many first peoples suffered because of European expansion from the 15th through to the 20th centuries. Nor should we defend that expansion by referring to the benefits brought by the introduction of ‘Western’ inventions such as double-entry bookkeeping and modern farming methods, as if they were handed out by the Conquistadors and Australia’s first settlers at the same time as the distribution of smallpox and musket balls.
Imperialism and colonialism also transformed slavery into a global business. The fact that Europeans didn’t invent slavery shouldn’t stop us acknowledging that developments such as double-entry bookkeeping helped Europeans perfect it, in the same way the musket ball helped perfect total war.
In a very roundabout way that brings me to the topic of walking statues. Specifically, Rapa Nui’s moai – the monumental statues of Easter Island.
Rapa Nui has been used as the example par excellence of ‘ecocide’, what happens to a society that selfishly exploits its own environment beyond recovery and thereby destroys itself. I swallowed without questioning this explanation for the island’s depopulation and deforestation, promoted in books like Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.
But it may not be true.
University of Bristol researcher Catrine Jarman explains in her article in The Conversation, that many decades of archaeological research on Rapa Nui ‘paints a very different picture’.
As Jarman writes:
‘The ecocide hypothesis centres on two major claims. First, that the island’s population was reduced from several tens of thousands in its heyday, to a diminutive 1,500-3,000 when Europeans first arrived in the early 18th century.
‘Second, that the palm trees that once covered the island were callously cut down by the Rapa Nui population to move statues. With no trees to anchor the soil, fertile land eroded away resulting in poor crop yields, while a lack of wood meant islanders couldn’t build canoes to access fish or move statues. This led to internecine warfare and, ultimately, cannibalism.’
Essentially, there is no convincing evidence that Rapa Nui’s population declined before first European contact in 1722. Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that the island’s population successfully sustained itself for centuries despite deforestation occurring soon after the island’s initial settlement by humans, deforestation caused by the accidental introduction of the Polynesian rat which ate palm nuts and saplings.
So what did happen to the people of Rapa Nui?
Again, in Jarman’s own words:
‘Throughout the 19th century, South American slave raids took away as much as half of the native population. By 1877, the Rapanui numbered just 111. Introduced disease, destruction of property and enforced migration by European traders further decimated the natives and lead to increased conflict among those remaining.’
The disaster that befell the people of Rapa Nui came about because of the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries, itself a result of European imperialism and colonialism. Effectively, the victims of that depopulation subsequently were found guilty of the crime.
If the forests weren’t cut down to move the moai, how did the islanders transport the statues from where they were made to where they were eventually sited?
Rapa Nui moai
It turns out they probably moved them in the same way you or I would move a heavy washing machine or refrigerator … they walked them. Admittedly, this involved a great deal more human muscle power and coordination than two people clumsily angling white goods through a narrow corridor. Recent experiments show that this was perfectly possible.
(For a full explanation of how this was done, and the true story of how Rapa Nui became depopulated, check outThe Statues that Walked, by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo.)
I can’t argue that imperialism and colonialism had no benefits. It benefitted me, for example. Without them I wouldn’t be here now, a middle-aged male living in middle-class splendour in Australia, a collection of ex-colonies. Nor can I argue against the proposal that the modern world is a direct result of those movements. Nor can I argue against the proposal that industrialisation and modernisation, two direct products of those movements, hasn’t improved the lot of billions of human beings over the last two centuries.
What I can’t argue, however, is what Portland State University’s Bruce Gilley suggests in an article recently published in Third World Quarterly. An associate professor of political science, Gilley proposes that ex-colonies that develop their Western colonial legacy do better that those that reject that legacy. One of the examples he uses is the modern nation of Singapore.
I suspect Gilley is wrong, especially in the case of Singapore where its success is almost entirely due to the self-created ‘Singapore model’, a mixture of democracy, authoritarianism and meritocracy that has delivered remarkable growth and one of the world’s highest standards of living. But I strongly believe Gilley has every right to express his academic opinion in an academic journal.
As reported by Andy Ngo in Quillette, both Gilley and the journal’s editor-in-chief Shahid Qadir received threats of violence after the appearance of the article on 8 September, and the publishers of Third World Quarterly have withdrawn it. I recommend reading Ngo’s piece to get the full story.
I do not think hate speech or speech inciting violence should ever be published, whether it is an article written for a journal, an opinion piece in a newspaper, or an enraged Tweet by an American president. But I do not think it is right to censure someone’s research because you disagree with its conclusion. In fact, that kind of thinking encourages hate speech and incites violence. Worse, ultimately, it shuts off debate, dialogue and intellectual curiosity.
The problem for those who think that the evils of colonialism are so great that any defence of it is anathema and should be closed down is simply this: it allows history to be written by those who shout the loudest. It establishes a precedent, a precedent that may one day lead to the censorship of articles that explain why colonialism was wrong, and how the moai of Rapa Nui came to walk.
(NB Jared Diamond has responded to some of the claims made in Hunt and Lipo’s book, The Statues that Walked. You can check that out here. Thanks to friend, physicist and fellow-writer Rob Porteous for the heads-up.)
Treasurer Scott Morrison’s mantra on budget night was “Jobs and growth”.
Much of the political narrative surrounding the 2016 Budget was about creating jobs, creating pathways to jobs, filling jobs, training people for jobs. It was about jobs for the future, jobs for Australia.
It was about getting Australians back to work.
But what about getting Australia itself to work?
What about getting Australia working as one nation, one people, united by fairness and equity rather than divided by injustice and poverty?
Listening to the speeches of many of our country’s politicians, and the commentary that follows in the media, I can’t avoid the feeling they’re talking about an imaginary Australia, an Australia that exists only in an ideologically-created fantasy.
It’s an alluring fantasy, too, for many conservative Australians. It involves a world where the better angels of our nature materialise in the board rooms of the largest companies, and where paternalism – here called the “trickle-down effect” or “supply-side economics” or, more damningly, “voodoo economics” – is genuinely concerned not with self-aggrandizement but the betterment of all humanity.
But this is a world constructed from the thin and rapidly unravelling fibres of neoconservative economics, a febrile dream of a world with resources that would never run out feeding a market that would never stop growing.
This is a dream that Australia is only now slowly rousing from. We are opening our eyes and seeing what we have wrought: a broken connection between what makes a society wealthy and what makes a society liveable.
Families, particularly women and children, are increasingly worse off and dramatically vulnerable to domestic violence. Affordable housing is in short supply. For many, a world-class education is now unaffordable and world-class health care increasingly unobtainable. The majority of Australians now look forward to a retirement hindered by the threat of poverty and shortfalls in aged care. Unemployment in many parts of the country is entrenched and multi-generational.
That any of this is happening in Australia, for the size of its population one of the wealthiest countries in all history, is unbelievable.
No. Sorry. It is believable because it is happening. It is a tragedy, and a tragedy that at present has no prospect of catharsis because it does not seem the political will exists to turn things around, to realise that Australia is made of 24 million human beings rather than the companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.
Let me say that I’m not against business. I’m not against the accumulation of wealth and capital. I’m not against free enterprise.
What I am against is inequality and injustice. What I am against is a free enterprise system untrammelled by regulation that is both efficient and enforced, and without a system to redistribute equitably a portion of wealth so that the whole of society benefits.
Free enterprise cannot properly operate in a society that itself is not free but imprisoned by poverty and division.
The good news is that there is a solution.
First, we need to look over our shoulder.
We need to look back to the past and see how previous generations of Australians made huge sacrifices so that those who followed did not suffer from hunger, from despair or from fear, but instead inherited a nation with great promise, great ambition and great hope.
We are no longer making those sacrifices for those who come after us. We have forgotten what it is like to struggle for the generations to come instead of just for ourselves.
Second, we need to look out to the far horizon and not down at our feet. As a nation we are failing to future-proof because we have forgotten there is a future. We cannot afford political decisions made today simply to be about today, or the next news cycle, or even the next election. Every time the government chooses the short-term over the long-term, the future is diminished.
Third, investing in Australians instead of in huge companies whose management and majority shareholding live far from these shores, will make a dramatic difference, bringing benefits not just to society but to the national economy.
Fourth, politicians must not only comprehend that social justice and a healthy economy go hand-in-hand, but understand why the link exists. An IMF report from 2015 on the causes and consequences of income inequality will provide some of that understanding. In part, the report reveals there is an inverse relationship between income accruing to the richest and economic growth. A rise of 1% point in the income share of the top 20% leads to lower GDP growth. A similar increase in the bottom 20% is associated with a higher GDP growth. A similar increase in disposable income for the middle class also leads to higher GDP growth.
As Per Capita’s Stephen Koukoulas pointed out in The Guardian, “ … the government could have aimed to reduce inequality in the economy by skewing the income tax cuts linked to low-income earners [where the] marginal propensity to spend is higher … The cost to the budget of skewing tax cuts to lower-income earners could have had the same impact on [the] bottom line but with the benefit of faster GDP growth and jobs than what is currently projected.”
In other words, Scott Morrison’s budget is a slow motion crawl to growth and jobs. The problem is, the longer we delay taking action, the more the country’s options are whittled away. The longer we delay taking action, the greater the cost and the repercussions we let fall on the shoulders of our children and their children after that. By not acting now, we are implicitly shrugging off our responsibilities as good citizens.
By not acting now, we are failing to make Australia work for all Australians.
Sir Thomas More. Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1527.
Tragically, when it comes to human behaviour there is little new under the sun. Despite all the evidence that immigration and the settling of refugees is good for a country’s soul, not to mention its economy, many people give in to bigotry and fear and make victims of those who are already desperate and vulnerable.
In 1517, young male apprentices rioted against foreigners living in London. Ultimately, large numbers of the rioters were arrested, and though most were pardoned a handful were executed.
The riot started on the evening of 30 April and carried over to the early hours of the next day. The event has since been known as Evil May Day or Ill May Day.
One of those who attempted to forestall any violence was Thomas More, who confronted the rioters and urged them to return to their homes.
Two playwrights, Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, celebrated this act of courage in their play Sir Thomas More, written sometime in the early 1590s.
The play was revised by several writers, and it is now generally accepted that one of those was William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare rewrote Moore’s speech to the rioters when he implores them to take ‘the strangers case’, to imagine what it must be like to be a refugee facing at best a lack of compassion and at worst outright hostility.
“What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.”
In 2015 there are many people – and some countries – who do indeed take on ‘the strangers case’, and open their hearts and homes to those fleeing terror and persecution.
But not all of us, and almost none of us all of the time.
The campaign to ‘Stop the Boats’ by successive governments has stopped the boats reaching Australia, but at the cost of human dignity, national integrity and political accountability.
It is no longer possible to maintain the charade that the program is beneficial either for this country or for the refugees.
Recent accusations that officers working as part of Operation Sovereign Borders bribed people smugglers to return their vessels with their human cargo to Indonesian waters, demonstrates how political opportunism corrupts and distorts governments.
Considering the tide of human refugees faced by nations in Southeast Asia and Europe, Australia’s refugee problem is almost insignificant, and our response has been repressive, inhumane and ultimately self-destructive, leading to Indonesia’s vice-president to accuse the Abbot government of bribery and questioning Australia’s ethics.
Australia, together with the US and the UK, has a policy of not giving in to terrorist demands because we know it only encourages further acts of terrorism. Why would people smugglers, paid to return refugees to Indonesia, not continue to bring them in the hope of more money?
My wife, a teacher with over 25 years of experience, is struck by the way Operation Sovereign Borders punishes the victims of conflict and poverty who turn to people smugglers, and draws a comparison to the way the victims of bullying were once treated in Australian schools.
In times past, the victims were often blamed for being victims, and sometimes were ‘moved on’ to other schools whilst the bullies remained in control and often in favour. Schools are changing. Schools are expected to do all in their power to provide support for the victims of bullying, to assist students at risk to be resilient, and to combat the behaviour of the bullies. Instead we see our government blaming the asylum seekers, ‘moving them on’ to other countries, and paying the people smugglers. If the charges of bribery prove to be true it is akin to paying a bully to keep bullying.
Furthermore, we should not be deceived for one moment that ‘Stop the Boats’ was anything but an act of supreme political opportunism by both political parties resulting in children being incarcerated behind barbed wire because their parents committed the sin of fleeing repression and poverty.
Australia is, for the size of its population, one of the wealthiest nations in history. We can, and should, do better.