Notes from the Now

Posts Tagged ‘south_africa’

My March 2010 In Books

In Africa, History, literature on April 4, 2010 at 9:27 am

Here’s what March 2010 looked like for me reading-wise:

  • Jackie McMullen w/ Larry Bird & Magic JohnsonWhen the Game was Ours” : I’m a sucker for 80s hoops stories. The sports media reported on all the big “reveals” before the book was released, but the stories were still engaging. It turns out I didn’t know as much about Larry Bird as I thought I did!
  • David CohenNelson Mandela A Life in Pictures” : Nice general history of South Africa & Mandela, with excellent photographs and excerpts of speeches.
  • Fried & Hannsson (of “REWORK” : I don’t read many of these web2.0-style business books, but the hype around REWORK (and the interestingness of 37Signals) made me give this one a try.  It’s a little too slogan-y (but that might just be the genre), but they give anyone who’s trying to run a small organization some ideas and ways to think about priorities.
  • Vaclav HavelDisturbing the Peace” : Probably read this out of order, should have read a solid “standard” biography first.  Havel fascinates me.
  • Chinua AchebeThe Education of a British-Protected Child” : The essays/speeches are a little uneven, until Achebe starts talking about Joseph Conrad’s “the Heart of Darkness” and it’s legacy.  Worth reading those if you are interested in the post-colonial interplay between the West & Africa (you’ll probably learn something about Biafra along the way).
  • Cormac McCarthyThe Road” : An artful modern classic worthy of acclaim.  I started reading this in the Winter, but had to put it down until the Spring.  It’s too bleak a story to read when your own personal environment feels bleak, but when the sun comes out, you can appreciate McCarthy’s triumph.

My 2009 in Reading

In literature on January 1, 2010 at 12:13 am
Here’s my reading list for 2009.  Looking back it’s been a good mix of topics and ideas, I put stars by particularly good reads.
Here’s looking forward to 2010!
  • American Scripture: Making the Declaration of independence Pauline Maier
  • ***That the world may know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity James Dawes


  • The Book of Saladin Tariq Ali
  • ***Running to Maputo (1990) Albie Sachs
  • Off The Books: The Under ground economy of the Urban Poor Sudhir Venkatesh
  • Harold! Photographs from the Harold Washington Years Muwakkil, et al


  • The Rise of Barack Obama Pete Souza
  • ***The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid & International Charity Michael Maren
  • ***Waiting for the Barbarians J.M. Coetzee


  • You Shall Know Our Velocity! Dave Eggers
  • ***Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America Paul Tough
  • On Chesil Beach Ian McEwan
  • Genghis: Bones of the Hills Iggulden Conn
  • Weep Not, Child Wa Thiong’o Ngugi
  • ***A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki & the Future of the South African Dream Mark Gevisser


  • The Book of Ralph John McNally
  • Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence Geoffrey Canada


  • ***Outliers Malcolm Gladwell


  • Shakespeare Wrote for Money Nick Hornby
  • The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey Salman Rushdie
  • Hiroshima Notes Kenzaburo Oe
  • The Waiting Country: A South African Witness Mike Nicol
  • ***FAB: The coming revolution on your desktop Neil Gershenfeld


  • Billions & billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium Carl Saganl
  • The Dream: Martin Luther King JR and the Speech that Inspired a Nation Drew Hansen
  • Unlucky Lucky Days Daniel Grandbois
  • The Other Ryszard Kapuscinski
  • Armageddon in Retrospect (2008) Kurt Vonnegut


  • ***Zeitoun Dave Eggers
  • Sound Unbound (Edited by DJ Spooky)


  • ***How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood Renaissance Jacqueline Edelberg
  • Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak
  • Star Trek (2009) Alan Dean Foster
  • Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon


  • ***Invictus: Nelson Mandela & The Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin

Plight of The Poors (South Africa)

In Africa, Events, University of Chicago on November 12, 2009 at 12:34 am

Earlier this week, I went Ashraf Cassiem’s talk (notes) at the University of Chicago about the Western Cape’s Anti-Eviction Campaign (South Africa), and the plight of the poor in the developing world… where the term “privatization” now has all the airs of a modernized variant of “colonization”.

I can recommend (at least) two very different books about the plight of the poor in South Africa.

In 2007, I read “We Are the Poors” by Ashwin Desai which details efforts by community groups that work in a similar space as Cassiem’s, advocating for the poor in circumstances of evictions, water shortages, medicine shortages, and crime.  Desai’s book does a great job of conveying the extra-ordinariness of the way these groups band together, and to highlight the adversarial tone taken by the governments towards the poor.

A very different book is David Cohen’s “People Who Have Stolen from Me: Rough Justice in South Africa” which I read in 2005.  While really about the complex nature of crime as seen through the happenings in a furniture store in Johannesburg, Cohen touches upon all of the massive change, upheaval, and social injustices that factor in.  It’s clearly a much more nuanced picture of causes of crime than the caricatures you’ll find on the nightly news.


Booklog: May 2009

In Africa, History, literature, sociology on June 13, 2009 at 11:29 pm

May 2009 was a remarkably busy month for me reading-wise!

Here’s the list:

Quick Notes:

  • I’ve now read three books by Dave Eggers (AHWOSG, What is the What, Velocity!), and I intensely liked the last two.  It makes me want to reread AHWOSG just in case I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it.
  • I already wrote about the first 50 pages of “Whatever it Takes”, but the rest of the book deserves a deeper reflection as well.  I’ve got an early book by Geoffrey Canada on my list, he’s clearly more than just a cause celebre.
  • Chesil Beach wasn’t my favorite Ian McEwan book (Saturday) but was clearly artful
  • I’ve given up on being bothered by the historical inaccuracies in Iggulden’s Genghis Khan books, and just try to enjoyed them for what they are
  • Weep Not Child is a beautiful tale of how colonialism (and its remnants) took advantage of the worst aspects of human nature
  • Legacy of Liberation — Wow!  What a wonderful book that really reveals the complexities of the characters and relationships in the ANC.  Thabo Mbeki is (rightfully) portrayed as a tragic hero.  More on this soon.

Running to Maputo by Albie Sachs (March 2009)

In Africa, History on March 22, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Shortly after hearing Albie Sachs speak at the University of Chicago in January 2009, I sought out copies of his books on Swaptree.   The first to reach me, was Running to Maputo” (1990), which chronicles Sachs’s physical and emotional recovery & rehabilitation after the Apartheid car-bomb crippled & almost killed him.

I’ve had the privilege to see Mr. Sachs speak at the University of Chicago several times over the past few years, and I’ve always been struck by the nobility of his humanity.  That nobility, that humanity, comes through loud and clear on the printed page.

Sachs writes a very personal, very intimate, account of coming to terms with his attack, his injuries, and the process of putting himself back together in it’s wake.

Sach’s story is worthwhile and compelling.  The larger political story about the nature of the ANC’s struggle against apartheid & the implied impending rebuilding of South Africa can almost perfectly be subsumed allegorically into Sach’s personal triumph.

Human Rights Lit Classics

In Africa, History, literature on February 24, 2009 at 12:01 am

Reading Dawes’ “That We May Know” made me want to point out a very short list of “Human Rights Classics” that I’ve read in the past 10 years and can recommend whole-heartedly.

I know there many other great “human rights” books out there!
So, feel free to list your favorites in the comments…

That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity by John Dawes (Feb 2009)

In Africa, History on February 23, 2009 at 12:01 am

I’m very impressed by the John Dawes “That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity” which offers a meaningful look at the moral and psychological challenges of being a human rights worker or activist.

Dawes does not shrink from addressing the moral quandaries that one faces when documenting atrocity, revisiting torture, or offering aid that you know will be redirected away from those in need.  He does not slam the entire human rights industry as being just another industry, but does not forgive the rampant tourism or the straying of focus to the “issue” rather than the people.

From the get-go Dawes approaches the major themes in Human Rights and forces us to ask serious questions.   For example, much of the modern human rights tradition focuses on storytelling.  Making the stories known, by shining the light of public scrutiny on them, is arguably the most powerful weapon in the human rights canon.  Once known, these stories can be used to motivate action, by inspiration, or increasingly, by shame.    Ethically-speaking though, who has the right to speak these stories?  To what extent can that right be transferred?  How often are these stories appropriated for gain?  Even “well-meaning” gain from literature or film (think “Hotel Rwanda”) still takes the stories of suffering and commodifies them for someone else’s gain.  How does that really support the victims who have either been forced to relive the trauma in the process of sharing, or have to suffer the injury or seeing their pain be trivialized and become lucrative for some industry (publishing, film, news).

The two human rights “stories” that I’m most deeply familiar with — the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and the genocide in Rwanda — are featured strongly in Dawes meditations on the ethics and aesthetics of modern human rights work.

Dawes handled the case of Romeo Dallaire, and the public’s uncertainty of whether Dallaire was a hero or an incompetant, incredibly well.   Dallaire’s Rwanda story, in my estimation, embodies the entirety of the contradictions of the modern human rights regime.  That Rwanda became his trauma in the way it did is also representative of the human cost of doing humanitarian work.

In the case of the TRC, the process of story-telling sometimes recreated the power dynamic of the torturer and the tortured in spite of the context.   The tortured had to revisit their trauma again for the sake of the general goals of the TRC.

Continuing down this road, forensic anthropologists in the employ of the UN literally dug up their stories, sometimes with a zeal that was completely out of phase with the somberness of the situation.   Photographers in conflict zones sometimes find that actions are done to be photographed, or become so numb to atrocity that the focus is entirely on the results with little or no attention paid to the individuals.

Dawes talks to human rights workers to find out what their motivations were, how those motivations have changed, and what keeps them going forward as they confront the worst of humanity (and struggle to find the best of humanity within it all).

For me, it’s the willingness to ask tough questions from a supportive vantage point that makes the book remarkable.  There have been no shortage of books that have trashed the human rights industry in the past few years, but few that take such a balanced and nuanced (almost caring) tact in asking philosophical and ethical questions of all the parties involved.  As a side benefit, Dawes recommends a number of most-read parts of the human rights literary canon.

I’d recommend this wholeheartedly to anyone interested in this range of issues / work.

(Thanks to JF for the book!)