Looking for a depressing book? I’ve got a good one for you

Meredith bookIf you’re looking for a 675-page, depressing book, I have just the thing for you: “The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor” by Martin Meredith. As a survey history, it’s informative and well written, and I’m glad I read it after visiting Kenya and Tanzania.

But when you consider what has happened to the people there, enslaved by the Pharaohs 5,000 years ago and then ruled by the likes of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Robert Mugabe and other pillagers, that’s what makes this depressing.

Meredith reports that Africa has the highest levels of poverty and the lowest levels of life expectancy. When the book was published in 2014, only a quarter of the continent’s workers had stable, wage-paying jobs; two-thirds made their living through subsistence activities or low-wage self-employment. Between 1960 and 2010, African food production fell by 10 percent while the rest of the world’s went up 150 percent. The number of undernourished Africans is 250 million in its population of 1 billion. The entire African continent’s economic output is 2.7 percent of the world’s economy, equal to $1.7 trillion, about the same as a single nation such as Russia.

There’s gold, diamonds, minerals, metals, arable lands and oil, oil, oil, but where has the money from those resources gone? Some to foreign corporations, but most of it into the pockets of that long list of corrupt ruling pillagers. The last chapter in Meredith’s book is a country-by-country, billion-dollar-by-billion-dollar ledger of corruption in Nigeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. In recent years, corruption has cost Africa $148 billion annually, “more than a quarter of the continent’s entire gross domestic product.”

The overall population of Africa is increasing faster than any other part of the world. Forty percent of Africans live in cities with miles of slums and shantytowns that lack sanitation, clean water, paved roads and electricity.

Meredith head 1Meredith concludes with this from a United Nations report: “ ‘The unfolding pattern (in Africa) is one of disjointed, dysfunctional and unsustainable urban geographies of inequality and human suffering, with oceans of poverty containing islands of wealth.’ The urban crisis, it concluded, posed a threat not only to the stability of Africa’s cities but to entire nations.”

Which leads us to some questions that were raised in an earlier post here: Should the United States government, either through its military or through diplomacy, be involved in sorting out this mess? Could we mount a humanitarian effort that would be effective? Should the U.S. stay to get our hands on the resources before Russia, Islamic terrorists or China do?

And the Chinese influence is growing in Africa. As Meredith points out: “While Western powers continued to lecture African governments about corruption, transparency, human rights and democracy, China made no such demands. In pursuit of Africa’s riches, it was prepared to set up deals with dictators, despots and unsavory regimes of every hue, with no strings attached.”

Those questions about should we stay or should we go are now being addressed by the U.S. military commanders in Africa, according to a New York Times article published Dec. 24, 2019. Defense Secretary Mark Esper expects an initial decision in January.

Pulling out could mean abandoning a $110 million airbase in Niger being used to launch drone attacks. It could mean running out on French forces fighting extremists in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. (Hey, you colonized them so here’s the bill.)

In re-shifting the 200,000 service men and women the United States has overseas, it could mean confronting China and Russia more directly (Does the Commander-in-chief know about that Russian part?). It could mean endorsing Esper’s priority to get away from years of counter-terrorism deployments that try to “maintain minimum stability but without much prospect of definitive solutions.” He wants to quit going after “extremists who lack the demonstrated ability and intent to attack the U.S. on its own soil,” according to officials quoted in the NYT story.

So we might leave behind some intelligence forces, and if we learn some country is sponsoring, say, a training camp for Saudi Arabia pilots or some such, we might bomb it to smithereens, hoping we miss wedding parties, which we did not in Afghanistan.

The U.S., military or otherwise, could mount a humanitarian effort that could feed, water and save the African population, which is expected to reach 1.2 billion by 2050. That may be a naïve notion. Or, walk away, keeping American lives and treasures here at home. That may be heartless, placing Africa in the hopeless category. And that’s very depressing.

 

Alex Tizon: “Great journalism from a great journalist”

Alex T. bookjpgBack in the 1990s, I was working as a news editor at The Seattle Times, putting commas in the right places, writing headlines and helping decide where to put things in each day’s edition. That last part was never a problem for stories by Alex Tizon.

“A Tizon story? Put it on Page 1. Photos by Alan Berner? Make it the centerpiece.”

I was reminded of that in a sad way on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, at the Elliott Bay Bookstore when people who knew Alex or admired him gathered to hear readings from “Invisible People,” his book of stories he had written for books, magazines and newspapers where he had worked. His work was there, but Alex was not. He died in 2017 at age 57.

His work was read by a student from Seattle University and by his younger daughter, who is a student at the University of Washington.

People who brought this book together explained their roles and why they wanted to see these stories published in a collection.

Melissa, Alex’s widow, remembered Sam Howe Verhovek, who worked with Tizon at the Los Angeles Times, coming up to her at Alex’s funeral and saying, “Don’t throw anything away. Let’s preserve his voice.”

Sam wanted future journalists to learn from the way Alex used literary techniques to tell news stories. So Sam went through what Melissa had saved, won cooperation from Atlantic magazine, the Los Angeles Times and The Seattle Times and got David Boardman, former Seattle Times executive editor, to “go to bat” for this book at Temple University Press. Boardman probably had the inside track there as he is now dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple in Philadelphia. He referred to the book as “great journalism by a great journalist.”

Several of Tizon’s co-workers and editors wrote introductions to his stories reprinted in the book. As a former news editor, I see this book is a gift to me and my memory. The problem a news editor has is trying to remember a story – no matter how good – as it flies by in the whirl of four editions a day (back then). The story is there one day, then we’re reading copy for the next day’s paper. And now, with the news running on a full 24-hour news cycle, I wonder how anyone will remember anything that happens.

But Tizon’s book reminded me of how well he could, as one of the commentators said Thursday night, take an assignment that might be a throwaway to another reporter and “find a story with anyone.”Alex T 3

I also remember that Alex still told the news. In a story he wrote about a young bride from the Philippines murdered with two others in the hallway of Seattle’s King County courthouse, he talks about the mail-order bride business, the village in the Philippines where Susana came from, her life there, her time with Timothy Blackwell, who brought her to the United States and then, outside an ugly trial to annul their marriage, shot her three times, also killing a baby she was carrying.

When terrorists attacked New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, killing more than 3,000 and injuring 6,000, Tizon teamed up with photographer Berner on a cross-America trip. The story I remember from that series was the interview with Birdella and Ollie May Wells, a daughter, 49, and mother, 74, sitting on their front porch and “talking to neighbors passing by.”

They were “raised on grits and church hymns.” Ollie May’s “face was as stretchy as a rubber band, her voice, happy as a banjo.” She referred to the terrorists as “Kamikazmi-nauts” and noticed that “much of America seemed to be thinking of God right now.”

“An airplane goin’ into a building will do that,” said Ollie May. “Praise be to Jesus,” said Birdella.

It’s an added delight to read the stories that didn’t pass over my desk at The Seattle Times and to reread those that did in a voice that needs to be preserved.