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new internationalist
issue 174 - August 1987


Star rating system. Film reviews

The Hour of the Star
directed by Suzana Amaral

Shy in the city: Macabea and her lover in The Hour of the Star. 'I'm nineteen, I'm a virgin and I like Coca-Cola' muses the heroine of this film. She's also an orphan, searching for somewhere to live and a job, alone in a merciless Brazilian city. She's on the edge of survival - like the hapless Jewish rebels who share with her the name Macabea.

As the film unwinds its fatalistic insights into the way poverty distorts and corrupts human relationships, we see Macabea grow in stature: yet her development is relentlessly thwarted like that of a plant in a dark room. She lives in squalid rented accommodation with six other women who think her weird because she avoids washing, has grubby clothes and listens to the radio all the time.

Macabea cannot take her place in the world as a woman. In Brazil as elsewhere, her femininity rests on her sexuality, but her grimy and mean surroundings smother her uncomplicated sexual feelings, causing her to deny them. She is neither asexual child nor feminine guileful woman, and cannot fit the patterns she must adopt if she is to survive the thrashings that the city gives her. Macabea hopes to find love in a gawky and awkward love affair with a man who dreams of becoming a famous and powerful politician, but instead her boyfriend is threatened by her thirst for knowledge and responds with viciousness and cruelty.

Each of her dreams crumbles as appearance and reality split apart: shattering any hope of her fulfillment. Macabea's boyfriend is seduced by a friend from her work and then a fortune teller tells her she will meet a fair-haired gringo who will offer her love. She meets him, but the encounter is the final hope-annihilating twist to this bitterly honest and compelling film. The Hour of the Star gives an incisive portrayal of the ways in which a Third World woman's identity is formed - and casually destroyed.

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Book reviews

Prolonging the Agony
by John Maclean
(El Salvador Committee for Human Rights)

[image, unknown] One of the problems with El Salvador, commentators cynically say, is that it isn't 'sexy' any more. News of mass atrocities and headless corpses no longer flash across our television screens. Stories from the tiny trouble-torn country are, unless there happens to be an earthquake, relegated to a few paragraphs at the bottom of an inside page. This is not, as one might hope, because things are radically better since the election of Napoleon Duarte in 1984. They are just different.

Gross human rights abuses, as one Salvadorean army spokesperson said, were proving to be 'vitamins for guerillas'. So the forces of order have set in motion a new form of oppression hatched in the Pentagon: low-intensity warfare to 'conquer the mind and will of the people'. It may sound softer than previous counter-insurgency options, but it is not This is 'total war, as this booklet illustrates, fought at every level, politically, economically, psychologically and ideologically, with the poor serving both as its cannon fodder and its targets.

We are led step by step through a deadly jungle of misleadingly named programmes - like 'Operation Phoenix, with its aerial bombing of chosen villages, followed by 'civic action' to 'help' and 'reeducate' survivors by feeding, clothing and putting them into refugee camps. Counter-insurgency masquerading as 'development' is the order of the day.

Clearly set out and armed with factual detail this booklet picks the bloodstained wool from our eyes strand by strand it would have been interesting, however, to know more about what guerilla movements are doing in the face of this new, sinister form of warfare.

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The Greening of Africa
by Paul Harrison

[image, unknown] Africa's slide toward disaster is not inevitable, claims Paul Harrison in this study funded by Earthscan. He sketches the enormous problems the continent faces - debt, the unpredictable climate, food shortages, land degradation and population growth - then looks at the success stories that give ground for hope.

In Burkina Faso, for example, simple lines of stones along contours have stopped erosion, conserved water and increased crops. Thousands of women are building themselves clay stoves that use less wood and so cut down the work of gathering and the rate of deforestation.

There are other breakthroughs; what they all have in common, says Harrison is that they cost little, carry few risks, involve few or no imports, offer quick returns and depend on participation by individual farmers and by communities. Approaches like these, starting with the peasant farmer, offer a way out of Africa's plight. Government and international aid should be limited to essential inputs and training for self-reliance. Harrison believes Africa's farmers can, as he puts it, pull themselves up by their own bootstraps; a belief that sits oddly with his assertion that Africa is 'a continent where inaction is the norm'!

Harrison barely acknowledges the political obstacles, or considers whether his African Green Revolution would eliminate poverty, but the message is a hopeful and necessary one.

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Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential
by Union of International Associations
(KG.Saur/ Hans Zell)

Incompetence, excessive public debt, instability of commodity trade, acid rain, loneliness, sacrilege, radioactive fallout, forced labour, shortage of fuelwood, depression.just a few of the world problems covered in this massive and costly tome. There are also 7,148 'collective strategies' in response to such problems, not to mention 528 'specific communications techniques'.

'Let thy speech be short; comprehending much in few words' is a useful Biblical quote which the encyclopaedia offers. But it's not advice which the book follows itself; much of the prose slides quickly into the dense and abstract. The section on 'Integrative knowledge' explains that: 'The inherent complexity of the global problematique demands a response that goes beyond the confines of any traditional conceptual approach.'

An impressive amount of work has gone into all this and it does give a valuable breadth of information, often from inaccessible UN documents. The weakness is in the language and the structure. It's a pity more time wasn't spent on making it 'user friendly'. But if there were a 'usefulness' rating it would perhaps be worth three stars.

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Music reviews

Shaka Zulu
by Ladysmith Black Mambazo

[image, unknown] The NI review of Paul Simon's Graceland prompted a lively discussion in our letters pages - and also, more surprisingly, among South African readers we have spoken to. We argued that however seductive and culturally interesting the music was, Simon's breach of the cultural boycott would only have been justifiable had he made a statement of support for the black liberation movement.

His defence is that Grace/and has called the attention of the world to a neglected and rich musical tradition - and to the black musicians making it. This is quite true and Ladysmith Black Mambazo are one of the principal beneficiaries - this album is produced by Simon for one of the biggest US record companies and is quite likely to reap undreamed-of riches for the group. Shaka Zulu is quite beautifully crafted. There can be few more lovely sounds on this earth than South African acapella singing and this is as good an introduction as any for those who have not encountered it. Nine male voices weave in and out, creating a rich harmonic backdrop for the lead vocal of songwriter Joseph Shabalala. But it almost seems too perfect, as if in packaging the music for Western consumption Simon has left a little of the life and heart behind.

The songs - half in Zulu, half in English - are studiously non-political, either boy-meets-girl or boy-meets-God. And there is no reason why Black Mambazo should feel obliged to make any political statement. But you can't help feeling that Paul Simon's choice of a group that does not take a political stand - in a culture rich and brimming with the hymnals of resistance - is a significant one.

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Petals of Blood
...being the book that describes how Kenya's past plagues its present

Until recently I knew next to nothing about Kenya. Having read Ngugi's Petals of Blood I feel as though I've completed a crash course in its history and politics. Petals of Blood is a novel with a precise political agenda, but - rare among its kind - it delivers its message, conveys an enormous amount of information, and still remains extremely moving and a great pleasure to read.

The setting is a small village, Ilmorog. Life follows the rhythm of the seasons; the long hot dry months and the threat that rain won't come, then, eventually, when the rain does come, the crops grow and ripen, the grain is harvested and another year has passed. Against this, circumcision rituals are celebrated with singing and dancing, the village elders sit in the bar discussing life, and Mwathi wa Mugo, the priest and diviner, helps to resolve people's problems.

In the course of time, four outsiders move to the village: Munira, Abdulla, Karega and Wanja. As they get to know one another the stories of their lives are pieced together. We learn of their respective childhoods and family backgrounds, the reasons for their coming to Ilmorog, their hopes and fears for the future. All of them are in one way or another, casualties of Kenya's history.

Munira's father was an early convert to Christianity; thereafter he was paid for every convert he procured. With this money he bought the land that other Africans were selling in order to pay their taxes. He became an extremely wealthy landowner and Munira fled rather than conform to a lifestyle he found hypocritical and immoral.

Abdulla had been a freedom fighter with the Mau Mau. When he was released from prison on the eve of Independence his heart was soaring - they'd won. But he soon realised that Independence was a sham; oppression and exploitation operate independently of the skin colour of those in power.

Karega had recently been expelled from a prestigious high school. The students had gone on strike demanding an African headmaster and an Africa-orientated curriculum. Against all expectations they won and the British headmaster resigned. But his African successor, corrupted by power and status, was immediately more British than the British.

Wanja, realising she was pregnant, had run away from home and school to join her lover who said he'd marry her. When she found him he laughed in her face. So she bore the child, and unable to support it, murdered it. Afterwards - partly out of choice, but mainly necessity - she drifted into prostitution.

For a while the four find peace of mind in the quiet village. Then, when drought strikes, they organise a delegation to Nairobi to petition the Ilmorog MP for help. The MP, Nderi wa Riera, had once been 'a man of the people', championing populist causes such as the nationalization of industry. But later, when the only way for foreign companies to keep a finger in the pie was by employing African directors, he changed his tune and made himself a fortune.

His solution to the Ilmorog drought is through Kenyan unity - all Kenyans working together towards a better country - and enforced subscription to the political party which he leads.

The Trans-Africa highway is built to pass right through Ilmorog, and, as the MP promised, with this comes development. Small-holders and herders are shunted aside to make way for a tourist village with a game park and huge ranches with absentee owners. The village is divided into two: the residential area where the profiteers live in luxury and the slums and shantytowns of the dispossessed.

Wanja and Abdulla are forced to sell a bar they had bought and relinquish their brewing rights to a new monopoly brewery - an Anglo American company with African directors and shareholders. Wanja puts on a red wig and mini-skirt and reverts to prostitution. Abdulla lives in a rented slum and sells oranges to tourists. Munira joins a charismatic religious movement.

When I finished Petals of Blood my overriding feeling was one of immense sadness. Ngugi writes about his country with such passion and sensitivity, but throughout there is a terrible pessimism, an inescapable awareness that this is a doomed country. True, at the end, there is some hope with Karega as the Secretary-General of the brewers' union and the possibility of revolution. But how long does it take a country to outlive the legacy of colonization? How, I wonder, would I be left feeling if I lived in Kenya and read the book - white and British as I am.

Monica Connell
Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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New Internationalist issue 174 magazine cover This article is from the August 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
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