Thursday, April 8, 2010

Kristof Annoys Me All the Way From Zimbabwe

Nicholas Kristof often dances around that line between liberal human rights- aware global citizen, and annoying self righteous hack. On one hand, he draws attention to what are indeed horrifying situations that truly demand the world's attention. On the other hand, sometimes he is just annoying. His recent article about Zimbabwe dances on the wrong side of this line, and leaves me inexplicably miffed. The basic background he gives is correct, and I can't speak to the accuracy of his assertion that there is widespread nostalgia for Smith's Rhodesia*, but certainly his reporting does reflect the real and widespread discontentment with the current regime. Why am I annoyed by this article?

One possible answer is that Kristof neither gives enough information for someone unfamiliar with the situation in Zimbabwe, nor tells anything at all new or informative to someone with more background knowledge.  This kind of one off reporting from foreign locations is especially susceptible to this problem as there may be no other articles today, or even this week, in the entire New York Times about Zimbabwe, and the article doesn't refer to any recent events in the region or cover any news really, besides 'Nick Kristof went to Zimbabwe and talked to some poeple.' Anyways, while I think the article is a little too bare-bones when it comes to giving context, it at least makes an attempt to give a sense of what is going on.

Another thing that irks me, and this is a small part of the article, is his implying that the current poverty in Zimbabwe is especially heartbreaking because the people there are just so nice. Zimbabwe's 'friendly people' have indeed done nothing to deserve the famine, complete devaluation of the currency, and repressive autocratic regime, but neither did the less friendly people of New York City deserve 9/11, not the more reticent people of China deserve censorship. I am not even sure what it means to call the Zimbabwean people friendly. Surely Kristof's experiences have something to do with the rarity of tourists in Zimbabwe (I have been to Hwange, from where he writes the article, and there was barely anybody there 15 years ago, I can't imagine there are many visitors to this game reserve today), and surely it has something to do with his own inability to read social cues that indicate hostility? This is not to say that Zimbabweans aren't actually friendly, but it just sits wrong with me to paint a whole nation of people as friendly and probably long suffering hosts who smile in the face of deprivation and political oppression.

The last thing that sits wrong with me is Kristof's, and basically most people who write about Mugabe and the current situation, driving home how Zimbabwe used to be so great, a role model for the rest of Africa, and Mugabe has driven it to it's current state of despair. Totally denying any truth to this narrative of Zimbabwe's decline would be a really ideologically fanatic reading of Zimbabwean history, but I think the truth is much more complicated than 'Zimbabwe was doing great under colonial rule and now it is a mess.' Don't get me wrong, the now it is a mess part I totally agree with. What are the great things about Zimbabwe that Mugabe ruined? The most obvious one is Zimbabwe's status as the bread bowl of Africa. Rhodesia, and Zimbabwe in the early days, did in fact produce a whole lot of food crops, much of it exported, which left food prices low, employment relatively high, and the economy pretty much stable. However, I am not certain to what the existence of profitable commercial farms, often white owned, actually protected Zimbabweans again hunger and poverty. GDP and average wages may have been comparatively high, but for many Zimbabweans, including those engaged in subsistence farming as well as those employed in the mines, on farms, and in the cities, survival would still have been tough, and living at a standard anywhere near the level of the affluent, white super-minority would be a dream.

Rhodesia is also often praised for its incredible education system, and enviable literacy rates among citizens of all races. While high literacy rates, and a very literate and educated population may have been the one positive legacy of Zimbabwe's colonial history, the education system created was unmistakably and undeniably a socializing tool of the white minority and was not intended to allow educational opportunity or social mobility to the Black majority. Under British rule and independence, White students studied in the British education system, learned British history, geography and botany, and had their exams graded in England. Black students were taught in missionary schools, were only entitled to as many years of education as their local primary school provided, and were taught English enough to make students literate (and able to read the bible) but often educated in local languages - leaving most unable to pass the primary school exit exams which would allow a student to continue to secondary school. This system may have resulted in a high literacy rate, but you hardly have to be a revolutionary to question its desirability as a model for the education of Zimbabweans today.

This article makes me realize how much easier it is to be a blogger than a journalist, and to complain about others' work than produce something substantive on my own. Oh well! I hope there are a lot more NYT articles written from and about Zimbabwe, so I can continue complaining about them and the world can keep turning.

*The country now called Zimbabwe was called Southern Rhodesia from soon after Britain's colonization of the area at the end of the 19th century, until 1965, when white Rhodesians led by Ian Smith declared UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence), and created the white led Rhodesia - which Britain never recognized as such and continued to call Southern Rhodesia. With independence in 1980 Rhodesia became the Republic of Zimbabwe.