Longing for rain
IN vast areas of West Africa millions of people are waiting for the rains with longing and fear. Two seasons with little rain have brought famine. A third is too awful to contemplate.
In southern African the rainy season is passing. There, too, the story is bad. The rain has been nothing like enough. Some parts of Mozambique have had none since 1979. The failure is so severe that 60,000-100,000 people have crossed into Zimbabwe for succour, although Zimbabwe itself is severely hit. So are Swaziland, Botswana, Lesotho and Zambia.
In East Africa, northern Ethiopia is devastated. The worst areas are the provinces of Eritrea and Tigray, both engaged in a bitter and drawn-out conflict with the Addis government. Refugees are flooding into the Sudan at the rate of about 2,600 a month. Drought in the Sudan is also a major problem.
The overall picture in Africa has never been grimmer in modern times; 24 countries are in urgent need of help - almost half the states of Africa.
Most chronic area of all in historic terms is West Africa. For more than ten years drought has regularly hit large areas of the grassland in the great belt of land stretching from Senegal to Chad known as the Sahel. Now, after two bad rainy seasons running, the Sahel is facing its worst famine yet - worst even than in 1972-74. And today large areas of West Africa well outside the Sahel are facing famine too.
Food supplies are always at their lowest in these months, before any new harvests are gathered. The Sahel is an area mostly unsuited for farming and used for the grazing of millions of cattle, sheep and other livestock by nomadic herders. Drought and hunger have regularly hit the agricultural areas further south in the main countries affected - Senegal. Mauritania, The Gambia, Cape Verde, Mali, Upper Volta, Niger, Chad and northern parts of Ghana and Nigeria.
The rains are vital for all cultivation except in the small part of the region which uses irrigation, and for pastures for livestock all over West Africa, including the small forest area near the coast. The poor rains of 1982 cost many farmers large
portions of their crops. The 1982-83 dry season was unusually long and dry and marked by unprecedented and alarming bush fires over large southerly areas which had been largely spared recent natural disasters - in Ivory Coast and Ghana, for example.
Then came the poor 1983 rainfall over most of West Africa. Often the rain was not only inadequate but also too sporadic, with long dry spells, in which crops often died in the ground between heavy downpours. In The Gambia food production in 1983 was only half the normal level. In Ghana drought affected many parts and not only the north, where it had struck in the Seventies. The rains came late, Maize, millet and other crops were lost.
In Benin the entire country was officially declared a ‘disaster area’ as the results of drought became evident in the 1983-4 dry season. In Upper Volta crops in the north and north-east were disastrous. In many areas of Mali the rains were only 25 to 40 per cent of the normal level.
Human factors have aggravated the situation: the war in Chad, for example, and the mass deportations last year from Nigeria to Ghana. The long-term effects of economic changes started under colonial rule are believed to have put more farmers and nomads at risk in the northern savannas.
The majority of West Africans are small-scale farmers and herdsmen who always live near the margin of survival and even in normal years have low living standards. Only one rain failure can bring ruin. Herds-men suffered immediately and terribly in the 1983 rains, when the grass was quickly exhausted for lack of rain to replenish it, and the livestock died in great numbers. Some were driven south in haste; many others were sold off at low prices in a dying state. Millions of cattle, sheep and goats have probably died in the Sahel, including, it is reported, a considerable proportion of the large herds in Mauritania. Herdsmen there were once a majority but are now no longer so because of ruinous droughts.
In such a situation ordinary smallholders have nothing to fall back on. If they leave for cities, to join destitute herdsmen looking for jobs or help there, can they return to plant in the new rains? If so, how many have any seed to plant? They may have stayed alive only by eating what was really needed for planting.
Famine is not a threat in West Africa. It has arrived. World Bank experts are giving Chad and Upper Volta just two months to total collapse barring increased aid, and Senegal, Mauritania, Mali and Ghana not much longer.
Friends not experts
WESTERN COUNTRIES are very slow to recognise that they have a lot to learn from their ethnic minorities: that adapting to a multi-racial society is not a one-way process. The most recent arrivals in many Western countries are the Vietnamese refugees. yet a new report suggests that we could already be gaining valuable insights from them.
Suzanne Bang gave 20 Vietnamese and Chinese interpreters a six-month course to prepare them to act as social workers at British refugee reception centres. She then returned a year later to assess them in their new role.
Problems are confronted differently from culture to culture. For the Vietnamese it is alien to have an outsider look at your domestic problems. Their compatriots understood that they had to take time to counsel them and approach the subject much more obliquely than would the Western professional. Feelings are expressed and understood much more subtly and indirectly between Vietnamese. On the other hand, in marital conflicts social workers were expected to act as moralistic judges, a role the British would avoid.
To a large extent this simply confirms that it is easier to counsel someone if you come from the same background. But even leaving aside the point that Western workers most often counsel people from a different ethnic or class background, the report claims that a lot can be learned from the kind of social work that the Vietnamese developed. It maintains that they benefitted from not being burdened with traditional ideas about social work. Instead of keeping a professional distance they came first as friends, showing respect and deference.
Suzanne Bang concludes: -It is not without reason that Western social and health services are so relatively unpopular within the populations they serve. I think that we Western social workers can learn from these Vietnamese field workers a careful and respectful way of approaching our clients.
Suzanne Bang’s report is available from Refugee Action, 307 Chapeltown Road, Leeds, UK.
POLlTIClANS in Europe and North America profess to he shocked by the import of narcotics from the Third World. But they would do well to remember that it was western governments who often promoted such trade in the first place.
A new report from Canada’s North-South Institute offers one of the most comprehensive studies of the social and economic aspects of narcotics production. It traces the origins of the illicit drugs trade back to Britain’s nineteenth century policy of having its Asian colonies produce (and consume) enormous quantities of opium to generate revenue for the colonial government.
Much of the contraband in opium and heroin still originates in Asia, particularly in the Golden Triangle of Thailand, Burma and Laos. In more recent times the CIA encouraged the drug trade in northern Laos as part of its programme to win the peasants to the US side during the Vietnam war.
But the flow of illicit drugs is not just from the poor countries to the industrialized North. According to the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board, the major drug problem emerging is the diversion to developing countries of surplus supplies of amphetamines and methaqualone (a barbiturate-type substance) produced in industrialized countries. Across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, authorities have been seizing large illicit supplies of psychotropics, reflecting ever more serious abuse of mood-modifying drugs in the Third World.
Andre McNicoll, IDRC
British engineer has designed a car made of plywood specially for use in Africa. Tony Howarth developed his Africar after long experience of working on the continent and becoming concerned at the amount of money developing countries were spending on imports of motor cars.
Howarth estimates the foreign currency cost (including spares) of 5,000 robust European or Japanese vehicles at about 70 million dollars a year. But by incorporating appropriate technology and production methods from a variety of sources and using indigenous materials, mainly wood, he says developing countries could build their own cars. These would be better adapted to their own environments than Renaults and Toyotas (designed for tarmac roads) and, at seven million dollars, would cost just one tenth of that annual figure.
Large motor manufacturers are not geared to producing an appropriate vehicle for developing countries. Retooling of basic production processes would cost them too much and the only move away from steel and plastics has been to fibreglass, which would be just as inappropriate to Africa. But by saturating plywood with epoxyresin, a technique learned from the aircraft and boat-building industries, it is possible to build a cheap and sturdy car.
At the end of last year the Africar was entered in the thousand-mile Himalayan rally and was lying seventh when it had to pull out with an overheating fuel pump. Now the prototypes have been driven to Nairobi, where they will he examined by the nine countries interested in producing the vehicle.
Andrew Lycett, Gemini
Murdering the poor
MILITARY regimes in the Third World are apt to use ruthless methods to counter problems arising from the poverty and desperation of their populations. This is so rapidly accepted as a fact of life now that the international press hardly bother to report examples of it any longer.
Indonesia is a case in point. It has the world’s fifth largest population, and parts of Java are some of the most densely inhabited areas on earth. So it is no surprise that the main cities are seriously overcrowded, and that poverty and crime have reached critical levels.
Indonesia’s military regime has not much concerned itself in the past with this increasingly desperate picture of destitution - the generals have been preoccupied with spending oil revenue on themselves and on wars in East Timor and West Irian. But the social and economic crisis in the towns and cities can no longer be ignored.
The solution, in the eyes of the regime, has not been to tackle the root causes of poverty but rather to unleash a wave of killings by army death-squads and thus terrorise the people into silence.
Last year the Jogjakarta army garrison launched an ‘operation to combat criminality. Bullet-ridden bodies began to appear in the rivers and wells around the town. General Yogie Memet, territorial commander of all Java, pronounced the operation a success and said it would be spread to other cities.
In the capital, Jakarta, the military refused to accept responsibility for the killings and military personnel put on masks and civilian clothes for their missions. Every night people would be dragged from bars or doorways by armed men in jeeps and every day the Indonesian press reported the discovery of yet more victims of the ‘mystery killers.’
A letter to the International Herald Tribune captured the atmosphere: ‘Everyone I know in Jogjakarta, whether Indonesian or foreign, has either seen one of these killings or heard a first-hand account. For weeks this has been the hottest topic of conversation in town. There is no secret. People are being murdered by the hundred, yet for some reason no one seems to have written an accurate account in the international press.
Holland is the only country where the extra-judicial killings in Indonesia have been given coverage, and the Dutch Foreign Minister was instructed to raise the issue when he visited Jakarta.
But General Murdani, the most powerful man in Indonesia after President Suharto, would give no assurance that the killings would end. He said this would mean admitting that the military were responsible.