Book Reviews

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This month we review a provocative new atlas that indicates political processes as well as geography; and a study of solutions to the poor world's housing crisis.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

How the land lies

The State of the World Atlas
by by Michael Kidron and Ronald Segal
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UK: Pan (pbk) £5.95/Heinemann Educ (hbk) £9.50
US: Simon & Schuster (pbk) $9.95 (hbk) $17.50
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Political atlases were born out of imperialism. They demonstrate the extent of the empire, the relationship of the colonies to the mother state and her standing in the world. As the pool of knowledge of our world has expanded so has the tradition of the political atlas to include socio-economic and cultural factors.

Michael Kidron and Ronald Segal's exciting new State of the World Atlas adds yet another dimension. The book demonstrates that the more our world fragments into smaller states-each seeking to emulate the self-aggrandisement of the imperial 'Super Powers', past and present - the deeper our crises become.

The maps show the proliferation of new states over the last few decades. They show how these states are reaching out to claim the seas and the sky; how they are militarily preoccupied with their borders, traditional, newly-established and coveted. They show the threats of war - real and imagined - and the preparations to counter the threats; how resources are employed or squandered and the consequent impact on labour, society and the environment; the symptoms of crisis and the mounting challenges to governing systems. The final illustration, simply entitled 'Worldrise' shows the earth as a beautiful planet floating in the blackness of space. It says the world is one - the borders are all man-made.

As a designer, I was impressed by the inventiveness of the graphics. For example the map of world pollution (aptly entitled 'Fouling the Nest') illustrates the befouling of our seas with a smear reminiscent of cell walls in a Belfast H-block 'dirty protest'. In the map of world trouble spots the areas of conflict are seeping blood-stains.

Presenting statistics in this novel way, graphically and in brilliant colour, helps the reader - serious student or browser - to see patterns and inter-relationships vividly and immediately.

Time and again I found myself saying 'I knew that, but never realised it before. Facts spring off the page; notably - and this is a very personal selection - the fact that, in fire-power terms, Israel is one of the larger countries in the world; that the USSR supplies Cuba with all her oil; that not one African State has a GNP more than the income of Exxon - the top US industrial company; that life expectancy is longer in the US than the UK- another myth busted - and this book is a great myth-buster.

The only thing that mars the book is the lack of statistics for the USSR and China (24% and 34% of the maps respectively - in itself a fascinating fact). All credit to the authors that they never fudged incomplete or dubious data but rather left blanks.

The State of the World Atlas is an essential book for personal and reference libraries. It has been such a success already that, say copyright owners Pluto Press, by the end of this year editions will be available in German, Dutch, French, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Japanese, Italian and Spanish.

Marcus Bolt

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Expensive roofs:
Over the heads of the poor

Urbanisation, Housing and the Development Process
by David Drakakis-Smith
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Croom Helm UK: £15.95 (hbk)
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As I write, a state in India is preparing to spend over £120 million on a bridge across the mouth of Bombay harbour, a project that will create new problems for Bombay's already tangled traffic. £120 million could build over 120,000 houses for Bombay's poor. In contrast the State's principal public housing authority has built less than 80,000 houses in Bombay during all the years since Independence!

Professor Drakakis-Smith agrees that Third World governments pay lip-service to the provision of low-cost housing as 'a purely social consideration' while actually making their investment allocations 'on political and economic grounds'. I believe that really understates the case. Some spectacular schemes like the Bombay harbour bridge make neither social nor economic sense.

But the book also points up another and, to my mind, the real reason for the Third World's housing crisis: a slavish obeisance to Western solutions. So you have those who fervently preach the panacea of pre-fabrication, forgetting that in developing countries prefabrication invariably comes out costlier than conventional construction, since materials are scarce and expensive while labour is cheap. And you have the votaries of high-rise housing, blind to its failure to meet the social needs of the target population, and to its diseconomies.

There is, again, that mindless adherence to Western norms and standards for land lay-outs, for civic services, for house sizes, and room sizes within houses, for building materials. Cheap local building materials are barred; local authorities insist on the use of scarce cement and steel. Their use of land, perhaps the scarcest resource of all, has to be prodigal.

Recent writers have tended to regard 'Sites-and-Services' projects as a solution: cities must lay out well-arranged plots provided modestly with water, sanitation and street lighting. On these plots the poor will improvise homes, which they will improve piecemeal into decent houses. Professor Drakakis-Smith assails this solution. To be useful the sites chosen must be near employment centres. By reason of their very location such sites rise disproportionately in land value, and the poor are quite easily bought out by land speculators or middle-income house builders. The poor then revert to their illegal shanty towns.

This is a real difficulty. Efforts to sub-sidise poor people's housing often have a way of defeating themselves. The author rather inconsistently suggests that governments should harness private enterprise to build for the poor by making serviced land available to private builders at subsidised rates. Won't the settlers in such projects be similarly bought out?

This criticism apart, Professor Drakakis-Smith has written a useful textbook, managing to condense into a few pages a comprehensive and analytical survey of LDC housing policies, illustrated by a large number of penetrating case-studies. I am sorry he has chosen to be so brief.

J. B. D'Souza

Also received...

SHELTER: Need and Response

SHELTER: Need and Response by Jorge E Hardoy and David Satterthwaite (Wiley UK: (hbk) £16.95) summarises housing, land and settlement policies in 17 Third World nations. Draws data from a project assessing how far governments have implemented the recommendations officially endorsed at the UN Habitat Conference in 1976. Succinct and fact filled - a very useful resource book for researchers.


The African Child
... being the book that was an insider's elegy to a lost culture.

CAMARA LAYE was hailed by the BBC as 'the first writer of genius to come out of Africa'. You may feel this says more about the BBC's self-assurance than it does about the quality of African writers. But in Africa itself, 27 years on, L'Enfant Noir (translated first as The Dark Child and later discreetly altered to The African Child) still sells well.

But more remarkable than its style was its content. The book is an elegy to a vanishing society, told from the inside. It was one of a flurry of autobiographical novels written mid-century by Third World writers who could see their traditional culture slipping away before their eyes, to be replaced by a new culture of industrial modernity that alienated people from the land Camara Laye, like Cheikh Hamidou Kane and George Lamming, tried to capture not only the external detail but the authentic quality of an ancient way of life before it was lost forever.

The results are, by definition, nostalgic. And nostalgia is, almost as inevitably, romantic. Laye wrote his book when he was studying in Paris. Lonely and homesick for Kouroussa, a small town in his native Guinea, he immersed himself in memories of childhood. So the strength of Laye's book is also its weakness: it glows with childlike wonder and delight, uncritical and unanalytical. As the larger political context is invisible to a child, so it finds no clear place in the book.

But to be aware of the book's one-sidedness is not to deny the worth of what it does offer: a sensitive unfolding of human relationships that express the values of another age and place.

Perhaps most striking to a hurried modern reader was their relaxed attitude to time. Neither the human nor the natural world was blotted out by haste. When Laye visited his grandmother, his young uncle 'would take me by the hand, and I would walk beside him; he, out of consideration for my extreme youth, would take much smaller steps, so that instead of taking two hours to reach Tindican, we would often take at least four. But I scarcely used to notice how long we were on the road, for there were all kinds of wonderful things to entertain us . . . we would startle out of their hiding places here a hare, there a wild boar, and birds would suddenly rise up with a great rattle of wings; sometimes too, we would encounter a band of monkeys. . .'

Time is divided not by the racing minutes of a wristwatch but by the slow motion of the seasons. Laye, waiting eagerly for a harvest festival, writes: 'Of course, the festival has no set date, since it depended on the ripening of the rice.' 'Of course'? In the West, even Easter is fixed in time for printing next year's calendars.

Other aspects of pre-industrialised society described by Laye include initiation rituals, emotional demonstrativeness, circumcision, hospitality, the role of women, the communal sharing of communally gathered food.

Throughout, it is the humanising quality rather than the economics of sharing that he emphasises; the emotional stability and sense of oneness - the quality of life more than the quantity of goods.

The trickiest aspect of Kouroussan society to convey is their accessibility to the mysterious and pervasive dimension of the spiritual. Laye expresses it without apology or pretence of total understanding. Sometimes it has a practical aspect: Laye's father has a 'guiding spirit' in the form of a little black snake who tells him what he needs to know. Sometimes it is woven inseparably into normal life ('My father never entered the workshop except in a state of ritual purity') and ensures that proper respect is given to both work and worker. Sometimes it appears less tangibly, simply as a willingness to be attentive to the pulse of life around one, without needing to explain it away. Laye writes of 'the mute mystery of things' that 'leaves behind it a certain light in the eyes.'

But the grass is greener... The village boys, free to roam the fields in their near-nakedness, envy Laye his constricting school uniform and the 'white man's wisdom' that it represents. Rural life is despised: the adolescent's greatest ambition is to become a clerk. Mysteries are bubbles to be punctured in the search for technological progress: Laye goes to France to study engineering.

Laye's mother dismisses the West's values succinctly: 'Those people are never satisfied... As soon as they set eyes on a thing, they want it for themselves.'

But by the time Laye returned home to write his sequel, A Dream of Africa, the continent was in the midst of violent change. The way of life he had celebrated in The African Child had already become a dream.

Anuradha Vittachi

The African Child
by Camara Laye (in French: 1954)

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Fontana (pbk) UK:£1.25 Can: $2.95 Aus: $3.95 NZ: $4.95
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New Internationalist issue 102 magazine cover This article is from the August 1981 issue of New Internationalist.
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