New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 155

new internationalist
issue 155 | January 1986

RELIGION[image, unknown] Reviews
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NEW BOOKS

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This month's books outline an alternative economic policy, and describe the contribution women have made to literature.

Editor: Amanda Root

Standing up to the
world's bankers

Global Challenge, from Crisis to Co-operation:
Breaking through the North-South Stalemate
by Michael Manley
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Pan Books £2.95 (UK) $4.95 (Canada) $7.95 (Australia)
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'We think the IMF approach is bringing the world to the point of catastrophe', said Michael Manley, leader of Jamaica's PNP opposition, when this book was launched in London. This point of view has received support from influential quarters. Global Challenge has already been endorsed by Neil Kinnock, the leader of the British Labour Party, and is backed by the Labour Parties in Australia and New Zealand as well as West Germany's Social Democrats.

Global Challenge argues that 'like-minded' nations in both North and South should make a start on recovery, without waiting for the United States to change its policies. A general recovery by all the industrial nations would create up to 30 million jobs in those countries over ten years, says the book. It would also increase the wealth of developing countries by half, over the same period. Even reflation by a group of like-minded countries would promote 'a significant recovery in the North with sizable gains for the exports of Third World countries', argues Manley.

Manley's plan is for 'growth through redistribution'. The debt of the very poorest countries should be cancelled and repayments by other Third World nations limited to 20 per cent of their export earnings. Another proposal is for a 'Third World secretariat' to co-ordinate government policies towards transnational companies operating in the Third World.

With 20 million jobless in the industrial countries, the Third World $1,000 billion in debt and starvation in Africa, Manley, who has had his own brushes with the IMF, sees no better time for a change of course.

John Tanner

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Beyond women's wiles

Unheard Words: Women and Literature in Africa, the
Arab World, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America
Edited by Mineke Schipper
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Allison and Busby, £4.95 (UK only)
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The politics of women's literature have always been controversial. Should women branch off and create a literature of their own, or should they fight for a place in the mainstream literary establishment? Should feminist issues enter into art, or should literature confine itself to supposedly unsexed universal issues? How should women writers combat the stereotypes that have been thrust upon them for centuries? These are some of the questions raised, though by no means answered, by a new anthology of women's literature. Unheard Words is a collection of proverbs, essays and interviews with women in Africa, the Arab world, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America,

The book is intended as an introduction to a vast subject, and as such has both advantages and limitations. The interviews and essays are all conducted by and about different women. They vary widely in tone and quality and this is at times frustrating.

Listening to a storyteller: oral art forms need to be revalued if they are to be saved.
Photo: Claude Sauvageot

On the other hand, there are similarities of situation and theme, which build an impression of a similar set of constraints which face women all over the world. For example, many proverbs, myths and fairy stories confine women to the earth-mother - whore antithesis. The few exceptions to this rule are enormously refreshing. That the Ekoi of Nigeria could believe that in the beginning the earth was inhabited by women stands out as a strikingly original idea. It is also a tribute to women's strength and tenderness rather than an Abbott and Costello style fantasy.

It is also fascinating to read of the traditional roles of women in literature. In Africa, for example, women narrators and poets, known as griotes, have always been involved in oral literature, transmitting stories from generation to generation. In pre-Islamic Arabia, it was women who by custom composed elegies for the dead and whose role as mourners has continued up to this day. Yet women writers have never really been able to develop their creative potential.

As Unheard Words makes clear, women suffer from both a lack of recognition, and a lack of time and space for personal development. Their desire to improve their social or intellectual horizons is often wrongly seen as a rejection of tradition, and hence destructive to their culture. Unheard Words shows that the opposite is true: that the world's literature will remain impoverished until women rediscover their oral and literary artistry.

Katy Jones


CLASSICS

Wonderful Adventures of
Mrs Seacole in Many Lands
... being the book that exposed Victorian racism

The stereotype of the black woman in the British Health Service remains dreadful: a nurse or auxiliary, perhaps on permanent night duty in geriatrics. I have heard colleagues in the 'caring profession' express bigoted distaste, and seen nurse managers practise outright discrimination against black staff. In case you wondered, it was ever so - as the career of Mary Seacole (1805-1881) illustrates.

She was a West Indian creole - not exactly black, and certainly no slave. She refers to herself as an 'old yellow woman' and her family ran a boarding house in Kingston, Jamaica. From her mother, and from British army surgeons, she learnt to treat all manner of ills. When cholera savaged Kingston in 1850 she learnt skills in fighting epidemics which she was to use repeatedly.

She left Jamaica following her brother and a 'disposition to roam' to Panama where she opened a hotel. There, in the squalid and lawless town of Cruces, crammed with migrants chasing Californian gold, the cholera caught up with her. The 'yellow woman' alone had an idea of how to cope and she bustled around the town treating the victims and cajoling the population into some basic hygiene. Not content with curing, she felt a little science was in order - and carried the corpse of a child off into the undergrowth for a furtive autopsy.

In Panama she saw the races in collision, and anatomised them too. Apart from acknowledging their courage, she generally despised Americans, 'dangerous neighbours' who then, as now, regarded Central America as private property and 'would fain whop all creation abroad as they do their own slaves at home.' But here the escaped slaves stood up for themselves and occasionally the local government would stand by its own constitution and defend them. A woman found viciously beating her black slave girl was taken before a judge who, the slave owner snorted, 'must be drunk or a fool to interfere between an American and her property' - only to fall into a rage when the judge freed the girl.

Seacole was the victim of similar bigotry. Having taken passage on a ship back to Jamaica she was confronted by irate Americans: 'Guess a nigger woman don't go along with us in this saloon. I never travelled with a nigger yet, and I expect I shan't begin now. If the Britishers is so took up with coloured people, that's their business, but it won't do here.'

But then the Crimean war broke out. The black Jamaican regiments volunteered to go; the War Office couldn't stomach that.

Their white officers - Seacole's Kingston clients - sailed off to the diseased misery of Balaclava. She decided she would nurse them, and took ship for London and volunteered to Miss Nightingale.

'I made long and unwearied application at the War Office, in blissful ignorance of the labour and time I was throwing away.'

She tried Department after Department. 'Was it possible that American prejudices against colour had some root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs? Tears flowed down my foolish cheeks...'

And so she went under her own steam. Setting up in business as a caterer to the convalescent, she built her British Hotel on the high road from Balaclava to Sebastopol. Not content, however, with merely nourishing the ill-managed army, she went out into the lines whenever there was a battle, a skilled and (at last) widely appreciated 'paramedic' carrying dressings, medicine, water and food to British, French and Russian wounded alike.

And she was showered with accolades and thanks, even a eulogistic poem in Punch entitled 'A Stir for Seacole'. It did her little good; the end of the war found her back in London, bankrupt, with her army admirers making a stir to collect funds for her. And here she wrote down her 'Wonderful Adventures' to rescue her finances.

What are we to make of her career now? It foreshadows uncomfortable trends. While Florence Nightingale was establishing the future pattern of British nursing - concerned above all with domestic management, hierarchy and the crisp execution of medical orders - Seacole was the quintessential independent practitioner, curing and nurturing equally, forming her own judgements. But Seacole was forgotten and the Nightingale style swept the world.

Recently, a certain regional health authority was visited by an enquiry into racism. 'No black ambulance crews at all?' the Commissioners wondered. 'None', came the reply, 'and there won't be while I'm Director.'

I told that story at dinner; my audience were unmoved. 'After all', said a lady, 'at the crunch, in those first moments, one wants to be picked up by one's own people.'

Jonathan Hugh-Jones

Wonderful Adventures of
Mrs Seacole in Many Lands

by Mary Seacole
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Published 1857. Now available from:
Falling Wall Press,
75 West St., Old Market, Bristol,
UK. £4.95 or dollar equivalent.


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