new internationalist
issue 175 - September 1987


Star rating system. Film reviews

Doña Herlinda and her Son
directed by Jaime Humberto Hermosillo

A complex menage: Dona Herlinda, her son and his two lovers. Feature films about the gay experience emanating from the Third World are not exactly a flourishing genre. But this movie by Mexican director Hermosillo surpasses most of its Western competitors. It focuses intently on a very strange threesome, which eventually becomes an even more novel foursome: Rudolfo who is a respected surgeon, his mother, his young male lover and, eventually, his wife.

Dolia Herlinda realizes full well that her son is unlikely to forgo his gay impulses, or his lover Ramon, as a result of her ban. So instead she invites Ramon to live with them and develops her own friendship with him while simultaneously fostering contact with a very promising female prospect. She banks on the idea that marriage is the most comfortable option for Rudolfo - especially if he can still satisfy his own homosexual leanings with impunity. And she is quite right.

The art of the movie lies in its ability to exploit all the oddities of this family group to gentle humorous effect while still leaving you with the impression that this is the most natural and sane of arrangements. Most natural and sane for Rudolfo, at least - the other three do little else but fall over themselves to accommodate him.

The film is charming. But just as striking as its light touch is something that is totally absent - any sense that this is taking place in a poor country. Doria Herlinda is unproblematically rich and their lifestyle is indistinguishable from that of a well-off family in the West. What happens, we may wonder, to the gay caballeros of the shanty-towns?

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Music reviews

by the Bhundu Boys
(Disc Afrique)

[image, unknown] The first sign that Western popular music is in a grimly unimaginative phase may be when ancient re-releases start littering the charts; but the second is probably when Third World music enjoys a vogue. As with Jamaican reggae in the mid-1970s, so with African music now. Perhaps the NI should be campaigning for Western pop to stay drab all the time.

The vogue is limited, of course, but it is still pleasing when a band like the Bhundu Boys can meet with such success on the British club circuit. They are from Zimbabwe, part of a burgeoning music scene there which is beginning to rival the more established pop traditions of Zaire and Nigeria.

Given their lengthy stay in Europe, the record is surprisingly uncompromising - no translations of the Shona lyrics are offered, just gnomic hints at the song themes. The title, for instance, means 'Sticks of fire - guns as used in the Zimbabwean War of Independence'. Other song themes are more prosaic. Pendeke offers advice that 'careful budgeting allows you to enjoy the fruits of a lifetime's work' - somewhat different from example set by Western musicians. While Nhai Mukoma's direct admonition - 'Do not covet thy neighbour's goods: it is foolish to die for riches that are not yours' - suggests that stealing is a more dangerous activity in Zimbabwe even than in the US.

The music, as you might expect, has much in common with the 'township jazz' of black South Africa and has lost little of its rough charm in the transition from concert hall to vinyl. It has all the sparkle and fluidity that marks the best African electric guitar from Dakar to the Cape and makes Western pop seem leaden-footed.

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Sentimental Hygiene
by Warren Zevon

(Virgin US)

Warren Zevon hiding from the NI reviewer's scorn. Talking of leaden-footed Western pop...Warren Zevon is one of those minor US cult figures who seem to have been around as long as electricity and whom you check out in the end hoping for another long-hidden wonder like Tom Waits. Zevon's association with the rock aristocracy - Bob Dylan and Neil Young appear here in cameo roles - offered some hope of quality, as did his most famous song, Werewolves of London. But this is a tired and conventional collection which does nothing to distract your ears from the fact that Zevon has one of the flattest, most workaday voices ever put on record.

Two songs give Sentimental Hygiene the political dimension that carried it into these pages: The Factory is about the grimness of industrial work while the dubiously titled Leave My Monkey Alone evokes the end of colonial Kenya. But the former is jaded sub-Springsteen while the latter's stance is unclear and its music churned out by numbers. One to avoid.

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Book reviews

The Rough Guide to Kenya
by Richard Trillo
(Routledge and Kegan Paul)

Issues of the NI have agonised over the delicate question of tourism; delicate because we like travelling, but we all blush when we bump into hordes of our compatriots abroad and want to set ourselves apart.

But if after the agonising you do decide to go, then the new Rough Guide series is ideal. The one on Kenya is excellent - there are good background sections on history and current politics, samples of contemporary writing and intelligent items on music, food and the people and geography of Kenya. The book blends local 'wrinkles' - what to see, eat, avoid - with a smattering of high-life ('a drink at the Norfolk Hotel, haunt of visiting celebrities, is a must') and sensible advice on low-life. Car hire is covered slightly apologetically, with more emphasis on hitching, bus travel and even biking - no doubt reflecting Richard Trillo's perception of the kind of people who will be using this book.

He knows his audience: they want to see the 'real' Kenya away from the safari park crowds, they have a social conscience, they are probably reasonably familiar with post-independent Kenya, they want to understand the origins of Mau Mau. They would like to climb Mount Kenya (a bit of it), sample Swahili culture, possibly by-pass Karen Blixen memorabilia ... and see some lions. This guide gives you the key to it all.

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The Great Tin Crash
by Latin America Bureau

The Great Tin Crash Bolivia has been brutally treated by the international trade system. The poorest nation in South America, Bolivia produced tin when the world wanted it - with campesinos leaving their villages for the desolate mining camps. In the last 30 years some 25,000 of them are believed to have contracted silicosis as a result of their underground labours.

Now, thanks to incompetence in the organization of the international tin agreement, the price of tin has fallen through the floor and the mines are closing. What does this prove? That Bolivians should produce something other than tin? That commodity agreements cannot sustain unrealistic prices? Yes, it probably does.

But The Great Tin Crash also argues that if adjustments have to be made they can be steady and planned. It asks that commodity agreements, properly administered, should permit change at a pace which takes human beings into account. Instead today there is no agreement at all and Bolivia's miners are destitute - responding to the latest changes in international demand by streaming out of the mining camps and heading for the coca fields.

This is a complex story, but lightened by interleaved press articles that add colour to the drier economic argument - a technique which the Latin America Bureau series always uses to good effect. It's an important contribution to the understanding of international commodity markets.

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The Tech and Tools Book
by Ruby Sandhu and Joanne Sandler
(International Women's Tribune Centre)

'If it's not appropriate for women, it's not appropriate,' proclaims a banner held aloft by a woman on this book's cover, establishing its no-nonsense tone. One of the fruits of the UN end-of-Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi, the book records the ideas of women who joined in the Tech and Tools event there.

The aim is to explode the myth that women are afraid of technology and incapable of understanding its processes. As active participants, women can use technology to make their work easier, to increase their income and self-reliance. One example is the chorkor fish smoker from Ghana, which is more efficient than other smoking ovens, making the fish more marketable and increasing income.

Each of the examples has clear notes on its cost, its strengths and weaknesses and how it has been used. This is a manual par excellence, one that should be thumbed through, spine bent back propped up in the workplace.

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How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
...being the book that exposed the real legacy of colonialism

What is so refreshing about Walter Rodney's history of Africa is that it turns everything on its head. Unlike most accounts, it is written by a black person, in Africa and from a Third World point of view.

Rodney, who was murdered in his home country Guyana in 1980, was a noted acacdemic - Professor of African History at the University of Dar es Salaam - but his style is popular and direct. He unites in himself Latin American radicalism, European scholarship and African Pride. Not everyone will approve of his Marxist analysis or his polemic. But Rodney succeeds in exploring myth after myth about the so-called 'development' of Africa from the 15th century through to the decolonization of the 1960s.

To understand today's hunger in Africa, says Rodney, we need to turn the clock back 400 years to when Africa and Europe were at similar states of development. By then civilizations such as Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Benin were well established. But the havoc wrought by the slave trade and the savage exploitation of the colonial period were to follow.

The slave trade proved very lucrative for the Europeans from the first. Rodney quotes the example of the English hero John Hawkins who, financed by Queen Elizabeth I, stole African to sell to the Spanish in America. When Elizabeth knighted Hawkins, he chose for his coat or arms the representation of an African in chains. As many as one hundred million Africans may have been enslaved by the end of the 19th century.

'The massive loss to the African labour force was made more critical because it was composed of able-bodied young men and young women,' writes Rodney, whose own origins must have lain in the notorious Atlantic crossing.

As if slavery was not enough the disrupt and hold back African society the process of underdevelopment was compounded by colonialism. Rodney insists that the idea of colonialism as some kind of civilizing mission is nonsense. The profits of slavery had helped to finance the Industrial Revolution and give the Europeans much better technology and fire-power. The colonization of Africa in the 19th century was an indispensable link in the transformation of capitalism in Europe - it guaranteed the continued extraction of its wealth.

His catalogue of colonial exploitation, if at times almost anecdotal, makes the point. The colonies were there to make a profit for the imperialist powers. The Africans even had to pay taxes to finance their own exploitation. 'In effect, therefore, the colonial governments never put a penny into the colonies,' writes Rodney. 'All the expenses were met by exploiting the labour and natural resources of the continent.

He is particularly damning about education in the colonies. 'As late as 1959, Uganda spent about £11 per African pupil, £38 per Indian and £186 on each European child', Rodney writes. Nor was the education appropriate. 'On a hot afternoon in some tropical African school, a class of black shining aces would listen to their lesson on the seasons of the year - spring, summer, autumn and winter.' In French territories African students would learn that Napoleon was their greatest general, when Napoleon was the one who restores slavery in the Caribbean.

According to Rodney, 'The only positive development in colonialism was when it ended'. His own conclusion was that capitalism is by nature incapable of dealing with unemployment, racism and poverty because they are its children. Only socialism, which he defines as 'planned development', is capable of solving those problems.

Rodney's insistence that the roots of Africa's present poverty lie outside the continent make this a development classic. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa destroys any lingering notions that Africans were backward, warring tribals waiting to be civilized by superior white. It demonstrates that politically committed history can illuminate.

Walter Rodney has earned his place alongside Frantz Fanon, Eduardo Galeano and Samir Amin. And he should be read especially by those who think Europeans can solve Africa's problems.

John Tanner
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney

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New Internationalist issue 175 magazine cover This article is from the September 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
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