Mao: gone! forgotten?

Mao Zedong (1893-1976) is long gone, but if you subscribe to the main message in Julia Lovell’s recently published assessment of “global Maoism” (Bodley Head, 2019), in some ways he is still with us; through his long term impact on assorted liberation movements and people’s struggles around the planet as well as through power politics in the People’s Republic (PRC). It’s an interesting thesis. As the rest of the world commemorates the massacre of thousands of students on the Square of Heavenly Peace in Beijing on the 4th June 1989, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains firmly in control with a good grip on Mao’s legacy too; apparently the budget for domestic surveillance and censorship in China exceeds the total national defence budget.

Lovell, a professor of Chinese history at Birkbeck University in London, argues that the core concepts of Maoism can be summarised in several slogans which guided the turbulent pathway of the CCP from the 1930s until Mao’s death and then beyond. These include:

  • Power comes out of the barrel of a gun…
  • … in a very short time, several hundred million peasants in China’s central, southern and northern provinces will rise like a fierce wind or tempest, a force so swift and violent that no power however great will be able to suppress it… Revolution is not a dinner party.
  • Practice is the sole criterion of truth.
  • Women can hold up half the sky.
  • Expose errors and criticise shortcomings.
  • Imperialism is a paper tiger.
  • To rebel is justified.
  • On contradiction: the struggle of opposites is ceaseless.

Some or all of these essentials of Maoism can be identified in numerous political struggles, particularly in the second half of the 20th Century. The global story starts with the emergence of the CCP in the 1930s and proceeds through the defeat of the nationalists in 1949, the catastrophic Great Leap Forward at the end of the 1950s during which at least 30 million people died of famine and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) during which the “Great Helmsman” encouraged young communists to revolt against both capitalists and the party. Subsequently many ideas and tactics of Maoism surfaced in conflicts around the world: in Indonesia before the 1965 massacres, in various African independence struggles, in the wars fought in Vietnam and Cambodia, in European and American youth movements of the 1960s and 1970s, in the guerrilla war led by Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) in Peru, in the Indian Naxalite rebellions and finally in the Maoist’s transition to power in Nepal after a long civil war (1996-2006). Various revolutionary comrades who had studied and trained in China as well as leaders who had been under the influence of Mao played major roles in these revolts and uprisings.

As I read the story of global Maoism I began to think about how my life has unfolded under the indirect influence of the Chairman and his thoughts. The winds of disruptive change blowing from the East were very strong in the 1960s and 1970s as I recall. They were the decades of anti-colonial struggles, independence and non-aligned movements, youth rebellions, the rejection of conservative social codes, etc. There was peace and love, but also war and revolution. Searching through my memory files I can identify at least four images.

There’s a photo of my family gathered in the back garden of our house in Cambridge, probably dating from 1966 or 1967. I am in school uniform, waving Mao’s little red book! I guess I was trying to annoy my parents. The Cultural Revolution was in full swing at the time and scary stories reached across the globe, particularly when a journalist called Anthony Grey was held under house arrest for many months and the British embassy in Beijing was attacked and burned by the Red Guards (young Maoists). I didn’t understand much about the goings on, but was impressed… and although I’ve moved many times since the 1960s I still have my original copy of the little red book to put on the bookshelf…

A few years later I was one of a large crowd marching in protest against the war in Viet Nam. I remember that some of the demonstrators had made a model canon, which they carried on their shoulders. Like thousands of other young people in the west, we were disgusted and angered by the relentless violence of the war and by regular TV reports of rural communities watching as the American soldiers and bombs destroyed their country. We chanted: Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh and I’ve no doubt that the Maoists were on the streets with us. The fury of those years culminated in Richard Nixon’s Christmas bombing of Ha Noi in 1972 and – finally – peace negotiations in Paris, which led to the American withdrawal (defeat…) and to the North Vietnamese Army’s tanks arriving in Saigon in April 1975.[1]

In 1976 I slept for a few hours at the railway station in a town called Makambako in south-western Tanzania. Travelling with a small group, we had been unable to get precise information about the schedules, so we had a long wait. When it finally rolled in, the train was Chinese and had only recently begun to operate on the famous TanZam railway. This huge “friendship project” had been donated by the People’s Republic to link the Indian Ocean and the Zambian copper mines. The then president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, was a minor African Maoist and his village collectivisation and self-sufficiency programme (called ujamaa in Swahili) was a major fiasco. We went from the Southern Highlands to Dar es Salaam and then to Nairobi before flying back to Europe. Somewhere in my old paper files I have kept the front page of the Kenyan Daily Nation with the announcement of Mao’s death.

In a leftist bookshop in Oxford in 1977 I found a paperback published by Zed Press called the Wealth of Some Nations. A Scottish specialist in the politics and economics of South-East Asia called Malcolm Caldwell was the author and I became very curious to know more about one of his main subjects: Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia). Without going into lengthy explanation, Caldwell essentially gathered arguments to support an agrarian and peasant revolution in true Maoist style, finding that the example of rural collectivisation in Cambodia was a model for the way forward. The countryside had encircled the cities! As it turned out Mao himself felt the same way about the Cambodian “experiment”, when according to Julia Lovell he met Ieng Sary and Pol Pot (the leaders of the Khmer Rouge) during their trip to Beijing in June 1975, only a few months before he died. One of the translators who took part in the meeting reported that Mao congratulated the Khmer Rouge leaders on their successful revolution and observed: “what we wanted to do, you are achieving” (p. 241).[2]

Much later, when the chairman had passed on to the great commune in the sky and I thought I’d completely forgotten about the impact of Mao Zedong thought, his disturbing legacy reappeared as I travelled around the globe. Several of the countries in which I have worked over the years were exposed to the full force of Maoism at different times since the 1960s, including some of those examined by Lovell in her wide-ranging analysis: Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. The brutality of uprisings, collectivisation and suppression of dissent have taken their toll in these and other countries. But since 2010 the rise of President Xi and active Chinese overseas investment strategies have bought the spectre of Mao back onto the world stage…

Lovell’s observations about the persistence of Maoism are not only based on the continued adulation of the Helmsman by leaders of the CCP, but also on the fact that the party is still in power after 70 years (like NATO this year). Training guns on the students in 1989 was a dramatic demonstration of Mao’s fundamental theory of power! What’s more, despite periods of criticism, the CCP has been able to manage the image of Mao to ensure that the downsides of his despotic rule have been largely wiped from the public memory (in true Orwellian style).

Furthermore, the Chinese are in full swing exporting a highly successful economic development model around the world through the new Silk Roads (which they’ve given an ugly title: the Belt and Road Initiative). In short, as many analysts of globalisation have recognised, the centre of political gravity is shifting to the east. According to the Birkbeck professor this means that we’ll have to “get used to the contradictions of Maoism. It looks as they will be with us for some time yet” (p. 465).

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The chairman lives on in Andy Warhol images, here accompanied by my grandson Carl

[1] Gathering my thoughts on these matters, I re-read James Fenton’s classic essay on the ”Fall of Saigon”, published by Granta in 1985. He describes both the exhilaration of the end of the war and the disappointing aftermath of re-education camps and communist repression.

[2] The achievements were horrendous and cost the lives of at least 2 million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979. Pol Pot’s bloody revolution has been extensively documented by inter alia: David Chandler in Brother Number One – a political biography of Pol Pot (Westview Press, Boulder, 1999). Malcolm Caldwell died in mysterious circumstances in Phnom Penh in December 1978 a few hours after a meeting with Pol Pot and a few days before the Vietnamese military swept into Cambodia “to teach the Maoists a lesson.” The Chinese then launched an attack on Viet Nam, to teach the Soviet backed government a lesson… So much for fraternal communist relations…

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Some spring scenes and associated reflections

The storyteller Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75) was an enthusiastic traveller. One of his famous observations was that ”to travel is to live”, which has inspired thousands of Danes to follow his example and zoom around the globe (apparently oblivious to their carbon footprints…). By contrast his philosopher contemporary Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) was content to do serious thinking while wandering the streets of Copenhagen. Sometimes he went to northern Sjælland. On a trip to the coastal region we stopped to take a look at a large stone with an inscription in Kierkegaard’s honour, close to the footpath west of the fishing village called Gilleleje, which was one of his favourite out of town haunts.[1] After admiring the stone on a windless afternoon in early April, we returned to our accommodation and en route I photographed a boat almost becalmed on the Kattegat.

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Later in April we travelled to northern Jutland to stay with some friends near the town of Thisted in Thy. During our visit we went for a walk across sand dunes and beaches with them and their Labrador. It was fun to throw sticks into the waves and watch the fearless animal dive to grab them; even long and heavy ones.

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We also checked out a landing site on the North Sea coast, which is a protected historical monument in the Thy National Park.[2] Nowadays the fishing industry is mostly concentrated in a few larger harbours, but there are still one or two small settlements where boats are dragged onto the beach and the catch is sold directly. Unfortunately we choose the wrong time to inspect the boats at Stenbjerg as there was no commercial activity in the early morning. But they are photogenic anyway!

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Further east near Århus we stayed for a night at a farmhouse bed and breakfast. The main purpose of our stopover was to spend some hours at the nearby Moesgaard ethnographic and historical museum, which turned out to be bursting with things to see, including the building itself.[3] Before leaving the farm I took a picture of the yard in the seasonal sunshine.

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Spring in Denmark is an attractive time to be on the road. The colours explode after the long grey winter. Near Moesgaard are an old water mill and some shady paths. The bright green colour of the new beech leaves lasts for about ten days and then fades into summer hues.

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As we strolled through the woodland near the old mill, I was surprised to see a couple of sculpted wolves in the undergrowth! The reappearance of wolves in Denmark has been a bit controversial. Some people are afraid that their kids are at risk of being savaged. Others welcome the revival of wildlife in the landscape. A debate rages in the public domain![4]

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During the trip to Jutland I reflected a little on the “x factor” in Danish economic and cultural life called the Bundesrepublik Deutschland. In contrast to eastern Denmark where the links to Sweden are readily apparent – the hinterland of Copenhagen airport is as much Swedish as Danish and there’s a massive flow of goods and people across the Öresund – the west of the country is under considerable German influence. So much so that it almost seems like a foreign country, an impression underlined when using the express catamaran service to travel west across the Great Belt.

Relatively large-scale coastal tourism in Jutland is geared to German holidaymakers and the roads are crowded with cars and trucks from south of the border. German newspapers are prominent in supermarket kiosks and some knowledge of the language is clearly required for those whose livelihood depends on commerce, particularly during the summer season. Danish exports to Germany amount to 14-15 per cent of the total goods and services leaving the country, while the Danish crown is tied at a fixed exchange rate with the euro. Thus, although the Danes are proudly Scandinavian and highly patriotic, their economic well-being is deeply entangled in the affairs of the giant EU neighbour.

Looking back to the era of Andersen and Kierkegaard it is remarkable that around a quarter of Copenhagen’s citizens were German speakers in the 1850s. Then the Prussians got out of hand for a hundred years or so, culminating in the 1940-45 occupation. The post-war recovery resulted in many Europeans becoming uneasy about the dominance of an economic powerhouse. Nonetheless, 30 years ago when the Berlin Wall fell most Danes welcomed the end of the cold war and the reunification of Germany a year later; such that in the 21st Century there’s a pragmatic sense of common interests and “cooperation.” In particular as instability caused by the Brexit fiasco in the UK and the rise of fundamentalists in the United States – not to mention Russian aggression – combine to force substantial re-thinking of international relations in a small open economy on the European periphery.

A Dutch late 18th Century map of Denmark

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[1] The text carved on Kierkegaard’s stone reads: “Hvad er sandhed andet end en leven for en idé”, which I guess can be translated as: what is truth other than living for an idea.

[2] See: https://eng.nationalparkthy.dk

[3] Amongst the many interesting exhibits are the 2000 year-old remains of Grauballe man, who was sacrificed and dumped into a bog, which preserved his body intact until it was dug up in 1952. The museum website has all the info: https://www.moesgaardmuseum.dk/en/

[4] There’s also been some controversy about the construction of an ”anti-wild boar fence” along the border between Denmark and Germany. Concern about the catastrophic consequences of an outbreak of swine fever on the Danish pork industry resulted in a proposal to put up a fence to stop wild boar from central Europe getting into the country. However since there have to be gaps in the fence to allow other species (and people) to cross, the project has been considered a colossal waste of money. Of course the nationalists in the Danish People’s Party (DF) are jubilant about building fences.

Wasters: a blues

Lowell George, the lead singer and guitarist with the American band called Little Feat, died aged 34 in 1979. One of his last songs was called ”twenty million things to do.” I thought of these words as well as his mournful voice and short life, when the latest twist in the Brexit divorce resulted in an extension of the deadline for the UK to leave the European Union (EU). As the pathetic performances of British politicians have underlined, there are still twenty million things to do, most of which are of far greater importance than leaving the EU.

What an incredible waste of time and energy!

Many analyses of the 2016 referendum results suggested that the protesting voters – particularly many of the English – said no to David Cameron’s deal, not as a way of objecting to the (imagined excessive) power of the institutions based in Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg, but to the uselessness of the government and parliament in Westminster. In other words, the vote to exit from the EU was mostly about the neglect of many English regions and about the impact of austerity, notably in terms of deteriorating living standards, poverty and unemployment rates, etc. To which a very vocal group of opportunistic populists added immigration and the free movement of labour as phoney explanations for the fall from “greatness.”

In short, given a chance to voice their anger, a large number of English people said no, let’s leave the EU and find a green and pleasant paradise somewhere else, thereby totally ignoring any geographical imperative.[1] Subsequently and amongst the many ironies of the past couple of years, politicians in the House of Commons have been unable to agree on a way forward – either as leavers or remainers – which has confirmed the skepticism of the average voter. The British ruling class has turned out to be catastrophically unable to rule!

But tragically Brexit is really a gigantic red herring.[2] Instead of wasting energies on endless negotiations with other Europeans about a deal or a no deal, the British government could have been reinforcing the peace process in Northern Ireland, devising new measures to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, improving health services, making better provisions for taking care of old people, introducing vocational training schemes, legislating against pollution, finding ways to improve education, reforming world trade arrangements (through the WTO…) for the benefit of the poor in developing countries, etc., etc. Indeed these are matters of high priority for all European governments. There are twenty million things to do!

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, many American politicians (and voters) apparently continue to back a compulsive liar, racist, gangster and tax evader as their ”supreme commander.” It’s hard to understand, but it sure gives me the blues…

PS Then I remembered another Lowell George composition from the album Sailin’ Shoes (1972) called “A apolitical blues”, which includes the following: “my telephone was ringing/ and they told me it was chairman Mao/ you got to tell him anything/ ‘cos I just don’t want to talk to him now!” In conclusion: “the apolitical blues is the meanest blues of all…”

[1] There’s a good assessment of the impossibility of having the Brexit cake and eating it in a recent article explaining why the three options of an open Irish border, the ”territorial integrity” of the UK and the ”freedom” to do trade deals are incompatible. See https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/brexit-impossibility-triangle-by-emily-jones-and-calum-miller-2019-04

[2] The Danish newspaper ”Information” describes the process beyond April 2019 as ”Brexit for zombies”, with 27 other EU member states forced to deploy teams of skilled negotiators in order to seek agreement with an irresponsible bunch of deluded, amateur politicians trapped in a time warp.

The Gulf of Guinea

In the late 1980s and early 1990s I undertook research in the Sahelian ”landlocked” region of West Africa. In connection with my studies and later consultant assignments I also got to know some of the towns and cities along the Atlantic coast known as the Gulf of Guinea. The most dramatic adventure of my West African career happened on the coast in 1996, when I was hospitalised and operated for suspected appendicitis at a small clinic in the Togolese capital, Lomé. I can remember walking painfully through the gardens of the Hotel du Bénin overlooking the sea, wondering what was wrong with my insides and plucking up courage to go to a doctor… As a result, instead of heading westwards from Togo through Ghana on a tour of the coastal castles, I was flown back to Copenhagen for further checks at Rigshospital before recuperating in a cottage close to the Kattegat.

The largest city in Benin is Cotonou, sprawling on often-flooded lowlands between the Gulf coast and several large lagoons. Many people live in wooden houses built on stilts above the water. There are pirogues (canoes) all over. Not far to the east is the town of Porto Novo, which was a major Portuguese trading post. There’s an ethnographic museum in the town with many sculpted figures and masks illustrating the powerful influence of voodoo in this region of West Africa. I visited during an assignment in Benin at the beginning of 1998 and was intrigued by the strength of animist beliefs in the mysterious spirits from beyond, which have a grip on the modern populace too.

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Then ensued a very long absence from the Gulf coast, which I didn’t visit at all from 1998 to 2010. For over ten years I was involved in assignments in Southern Africa, Central America and South-East Asia, where I also admired many coastal landscapes around the world’s great oceans as well as glimpses of the South China Sea, the Andaman Sea in the Bay of Bengal, the Java Sea, etc. In particular, living in Managua for three years provided many opportunities to be beside the seaside, both on the Pacific and the Caribbean coasts which we found time to explore between 2002 and 2005.

The Gulf of Guinea reappeared on my radar when I participated in a review of a forest conservation and management scheme associated with the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation.[1] There are still some relatively pristine rain forests in the region. Having failed to cross the border from Togo in 1996, my first visit to Ghana was at the end of 2010 and included an excursion to the tropical forests in the Western region with a stopover at the beautiful Busua beach resort. However, although we had time to walk around the edge of the Kakum national park, my guides didn’t introduce me to the castles, which have made the Ghanaian coast particularly infamous.

Cape Coast and Elmina are amongst the sheltered landing sites along the Gulf of Guinea through which tens of thousands if not millions of slaves passed between the 1520s and the mid 19th Century. The castles were built by the European slave traders and housed the governors of the British, Danish, Dutch, French and Portuguese enclaves. Slaves were shackled in dungeons beneath the towers and battlements until they were ready for what was known as the “middle passage” across the ocean. The ships that left from these harbours were loaded with miserable, half starved and terrorised men, women and children, many of whom didn’t survive the journey to the New World. The grim stories of the castles and the mistreatment of human cargoes are on display in a little museum at Cape Coast; well worth a visit, despite the horror. Even 150 years after the last shipments the sense of evil is in the air.

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In the early 21st Century the coastal towns are bustling with fishermen and their boats. I visited the region in March 2019 with a team of researchers at the Coastal Management Centre set up by environmentalists at Cape Coast University.[2] It is estimated that around ten per cent of Ghana’s population is involved in fishing in one form or another, catching, loading and transporting, selling and processing. A significant share of protein and nutrients is derived from the consumption of fish. But the harvest of the seas has reached the limits and attempts are being made to stop overfishing. At the same time pollution is an increasingly serious blight, both from offshore oil and gas installations and due to runoff from rivers that have become toxic with waste from illegal small-scale mining of gold and other minerals. It is time for a clean up, as we could see from inspection of the water quality around the harbours.

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Further to the east along the coast lies the port of Tema. The city grew up on the edge of Accra when the giant Akosombo Dam on the Volta River was opened in the early 1960s; the construction of an aluminium plant and hydro-electric turbine generators required major investment in harbour facilities. As the Ghanaian economy has grown, so has the port.

Danish interests associated with global container shipping are evident in Tema; the huge Maersk company is heavily involved in the region. The roads around the port are choked with heavy goods vehicles bringing cocoa for export and trucking all manner of mostly Chinese goods throughout Ghana and northwards to the landlocked countries, Burkina Faso and Niger. There is also considerable expansion going on. Projections of increased incomes in West Africa have underpinned decisions to invest in new berths and terminals in Tema.

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But there are dark clouds around the harbour too. Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is another manifestation of the lawlessness plaguing West Africa. Boko Haram terrorists in north-eastern Nigeria and the neighbouring countries have encouraged further militarisation as government forces and their allies attempt to regain control. Beefing up the navies in the Gulf is also on the agenda as pirate attacks and kidnappings are on the increase. Heavily armed criminal enterprises are responsible for creating widespread insecurity at sea.[3] Thus, trading and seafaring in the region are once again associated with violence.

[1] Ghana has been in the forefront of global efforts to design and introduce programmes and policies aiming to reduce GHG emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+). A thorough critical assessment of the REDD+ processes in Ghana and Nigeria by Adeniyi Asiyanbi et al (2017) can be found in the journal called Forests (volume 8-78).

[2] The research is described at: http://www.hotspot-ghana.net

[3] See: https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/imb-gulf-of-guinea-led-the-world-for-piracy-in-2018

Three score years and ten – the North Atlantic way

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is 70 years old. Is there anything to celebrate? Despite the pre-amble to the treaty committing members to seek peace according to the United Nations charter, the defensive character of the organisation has been transformed into a forum for militarism par excellence. What is the problem in country x or region y? NATO and its member states can be sure to solve it by supplying arms, training soldiers, deploying rapid intervention forces, building airbases, flying drones, dropping bombs, etc., etc. You name it, NATO has the answer: send in the gunboats and kill! Sooner or later some governments must be going to wake up to the reality of the arms race and sooner or later citizens must organise effectively to refuse spending vast amounts on these absurd mountains of hardware and software…

Meantime, there’s always plenty of distraction in the form of the world wide web. At the end of a good read about surveillance and the military origins of the internet in the 20th Century, I was moved by the following:

The internet and the networked microprocessor technology on which it runs does not transcend the human world. For good or ill, it is an expression of this world and is used in ways that reflect the political, economic and cultural forces and values that dominate society. Today we live in a troubled world, a world of political disenfranchisement, rampant poverty and inequality, unchecked corporate power, wars that seem to have no end and no purpose, and a runaway privatised military and intelligence complex – and hanging over it all are the prospects of global warming and environmental collapse. We live in bleak times and the internet is a reflection of them: run by spies and powerful corporations just as our society is run by them…

This is an extract from “Surveillance Valley – the secret military history of the internet” (by Yasha Levine, Icon books, 2018).

To wind up, I came across this little gem from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom:

It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.

A few days in the Scottish lowlands, March 2019

The following ‘photos illustrate a trip to Scotland in March: to the west in and around Glasgow and to Edinburgh. With one exception the pictures aren’t classic views of the region, but I have done my best to capture a ”sense of place.” It was a pity that we didn’t have time to go further north to explore the highlands and islands. Maybe we’ll get another chance…

There’s a disused railway track near the village of Kilmacolm where my aunt lives. It’s popular with cyclists and walkers; nothing too strenuous, with some gently sloping landscapes as well as heather, pines and wee lochs to admire. We went for a stroll to get our leg muscles in trim ready for the more intensive urban wanderings we had planned for Glasgow and Edinburgh.

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A small museum has been opened next to a giant supermarket in Johnstone, the cotton mill town where my grandparents lived for most of the 20th Century.[1] Many childhood memories are associated with the town. At the museum I was particularly amused by the inclusion amongst the exhibits of the Scottish bard Robbie Burns (1759-96) musing on drink!

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The highlands are tantalisingly close to the northern banks of the Firth of Clyde. On a cloudy day we drove along the southern banks from Port Glasgow to Largs stopping for coffee and for lunch (at the Bosun’s Table…) and to take a picture of one of the ferries. Often there are good views of the mountains towards Loch Lomond to the north, but we were unlucky.

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A series of statues surround George Square in the centre of Glasgow. James Watt (1736-1819) is one of the great Scots: responsible for getting the industrial revolution seriously underway by inventing an improved steam engine. Coal mining then took off, leaving later generations to clean up the mess before global warming spirals the planet into hothouse conditions.[2]

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The Scottish National Museum in Edinburgh is a wonderful building stuffed with almost everything imaginable, from ancient Egyptians to eagles, from huge whales’ skeletons to Samurai warriors. There’s a lot of scientific and technological stuff including a small 1990s particle accelerator from CERN in Geneva.[3] I liked the colourful cosmic sunburst.

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Our choice of a deli for lunchtime sandwiches in Edinburgh was just opposite the St. James Centre. An ugly 20th Century concrete monstrosity – apparently one of the city’s most unloved buildings – was torn down a couple of years ago and the construction of a new urban complex is underway. I thought the cranes were cool, standing like cranes in the landscape!

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It seems that the Barony is one of Edinburgh’s oldest bars. We ate the “specials” – pie and chips and fish and chips – on our last evening. The décor was stylish and the food was good too! According to information on a little sign outside, the site in the Broughton district was known for black magic, witches’ covens and suchlike goings on in the 18th Century.

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Finally, in honour of Edinburgh’s distinctive grey stonework as well as the extraordinary rooftops with chimneys, I took a ‘photo of the building where we stayed. There are hundreds of similar street scenes in the so-called New Town. But I don’t know any other cities where the chimneys are arranged in long rows in this manner.

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PS … and not a word about the Scots Nat Party or Brexit… as the UK heads for the showdown…

[1] Check out: http://johnstonehistory.org

[2] Possible hothouse scenarios for the earth system in the future can be found in a recent article on trajectories in the anthropocene by Will Steffan et al: https://www.pnas.org/content/115/33/8252

[3] https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/science-and-technology/cern-accelerating-cavity/

De l’eau à Bamako (février 2019)

In February 2019 I spent several days in Bamako, the capital of Mali in West Africa. It was my sixth or seventh visit to the city, first encountered at the end of very long, slow journey by rail from Dakar in Senegal in the autumn of 1986. Since then much water has flowed under many bridges…

I arrived the easy way, by plane from Copenhagen via Paris. Leaving the northern winter behind for a few days turned out to be fine! On a bright, cloudless Sunday I flew across the Pyrenees and the Sierra Nevada in southern Spain, across the Mediterranean near the strait of Gibraltar and across the Atlas mountains in Morocco, before descending to land at Modibo Keita International Airport just south of the Niger River.[1] En route I tried to take some ‘photos of the landscapes from the air, but was not very satisfied with the results. The GPS on the video screen gave better impressions!

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The air-conditioned comfort of the Boeing was abruptly abandoned for the sweat and noise of a busy arrivals hall in mid-afternoon. Outside I noticed several white painted United Nations aircraft. The temperature was around 36-38 degrees Celsius in the shade. I walked to the car without putting on my hat and realised after ten metres that I had to be careful in the sun.

Temperatures increase for another couple of months before the rains begin, ushering in the cooler season. In February Bamako is dry and dusty. Despite being familiar with the urban environment in West Africa it was a minor shock to find myself in the chaotic traffic, cruising past all manner of small enterprises along the roadsides and past piles of rubbish.

I stayed at a “residence” called the Casa Blanca in a wealthy district close to the river. A group of watchmen sat around a stove brewing tea on the street outside the high gates. The residence was overflowing with artworks, both classical West African sculpted figures in wood and bronze and modern designer items such as a shoal of coloured wooden fish in a courtyard. Under the dangling branches of some fruit trees the gardens were full of chairs and tables in retro style laid out for relaxing around a small swimming pool.

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A very realistic wooden crocodile sat in the sunshine by the pool. Later I discovered that some of the new roundabouts in Bamako have been decorated with large sculptures of animals including a huge hippo and an enormous elephant. There is some wildlife in the parks in the Mali, but they are not very easy to access and recently tourism has more or less collapsed.

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I was in Bamako to work not just to relax by the swimming pool and enjoy the excellent meals served at the residence! I joined a “real time” evaluation team, with consultants from Burkina Faso, France, Mali and Senegal. We zoomed around the city meeting representatives of a series of organisations which are funded by Danish development assistance through so-called thematic programmes designed to contribute to “peaceful co-existence” and strengthened local government (“decentralisation”).

Bamako is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. There are few formal sector employment opportunities and under-employment is the name of the game. But people find all sorts of things to do in construction, transport, handicrafts, furniture making, small scale trading, etc., etc. From the balconies outside the offices where two of our meetings were held I observed urban gardening in full swing. There are veggies being grown on the plots of land between hundreds of half-built houses all over the city. Tiny wells provide the essential ingredient for successful cultivation: water.

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At the end of my trip I tried to summarise the state of affairs in Mali, anno 2019. The people I had met, the stories I heard and the commentaries I read didn’t leave much room for optimism. Bamako seemed relatively peaceful, but the nearly 20 million Malians struggling to make a living on the southern fringes of the Sahara desert are facing difficult times.

Sadly, the security situation in Mali and in neighbouring countries – particularly Burkina Faso – has deteriorated considerably over the past couple of years. While conflict resolution efforts in the north culminated in the signing of a peace agreement (the “Accord de Algiers”) in 2015 and continued peacekeeping efforts through the United Nations MINUSMA operation, there are now numerous violent incidents and general insecurity in the central regions of Mali, from Ségou northwards in a belt stretching from the Mauritanian border to northern Burkina Faso. A mixture of conflicts associated with age-old land and natural resource access problems (with inter-ethnic dimensions), with a violent religious inspired insurrection, with attempts to undermine state authority (both military and civil) and with criminal operations (trafficking, theft of cattle, etc.) have become increasingly widespread.[2]

Corruption is another serious problem. Many observers have pointed out that poor public financial management and administration have resulted in dis-functional institutions both at central and local (regional) government levels. A combination of attacks on government officials, loss of confidence in the institutions of the state as well as low levels of tax revenue are leading to the widespread failure to deliver public services for the population.[3] There is much talk of the collapse of “state legitimacy.”

In some ways the biggest tragedy of the crisis is the jihadi assault on education. Across the Sahel hundreds of schools have been closed after attacks, intimidation and threats to teachers. It is generally argued that the future prosperity of the region depends on a successful demographic transition – reduced birth rates – which in turn depends on educating girls. But in Mali at present around 250,000 children are unable to attend classes.[4] The upshot is an impending disaster: too many mouths to feed, low productivity agriculture and a continued exodus to hungry and thirsty towns and cities. Many dream of leaving altogether…

Not far from the Casa Blanca was another hotel with a terrace overlooking the Niger River. I went there a couple of times to enjoy a beer and eat some peanuts while watching the fishermen sailing homewards and the sun going down. There are small irrigation schemes along the riverbanks and some people spread their freshly washed linen on the scrubby bushes to dry. The pictures I took weren’t very good, but do give an idea of the size of the mighty river. Would that it flowed through a more peaceful and prosperous region!

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[1] Modibo Keita was the first president of independent Mali from 1960. He was an African socialist, overthrown by General Moussa Traoré in 1968. Traoré’s dictatorship lasted until 1991. After a people’s uprising another military man overthrew him: Amadou Toumani Traoré, known as ATT. One way or another military matters have dominated Mali since French colonial rule.

[2] MINUSMA is the United Nations “multidimensional integrated stabilization mission.” An organisation called the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (CHD) has published an interesting analysis of the origins and scope of conflicts in central Mali (Adam Thiam, 2017). Increased hostility towards the Peuhl (Fulani) communities is particularly noteworthy. For a relatively recent overview of the conflict and security issues in Mali there’s a succinct political economy analysis for the Norwegian government by Boubacar Ba and Morten Bøås (2017): https://www.nupi.no/en/Publications/CRIStin-Pub/Mali-A-Political-Economy-Analysis

[3] In December 2018 the government agreed with the IMF on payment of a final tranche of an extended credit facility (dating from 2013) after the Fund accepted “non-observance of a performance criterion”, which was the shortfall in tax revenue. Economic growth rates in Mali have been around 4-5 percent in 2017 and 2018.

[4] https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/school-closures-sahel-double-last-two-years-due-growing-insecurity-unicef