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new internationalist
issue 252 - February 1994

The New Internationalist welcomes your letters. But please keep them short.
They may be edited for purposes of space or clarity.
Include a home telephone number if possible and send your letters
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Vive la différence!
Cover of the NI Issue 249 The article ‘Cephu’s Choice’ by Nancy Scheper-Hughes (NI 249) was a first for NI – an article which was neither condescending nor paternalistic to Third World peoples, but objectively considered their values as if they just might be a viable alternative to those of the NI. It is nice, for once, not to be looked at as ‘potentially’ equal if we successfully adopt your values and the West’s technology.

I salute the trend and hope it doesn’t suffer from infant mortality.

Mtumiki Njira
Limbe, Malawi

Political hi-jack
I agree with Nina Silver (NI 249) that ‘the essence of political correctness is genuine effort for others’. However, I still have difficulty with the term ‘political correctness’ itself which is inherently contradictory and hence meaningless.

If a thing is ‘political’ there are at least two ways of looking at it or thinking about it. If a thing is ‘correct’ it can be only right or wrong with no two ways of looking at it. Therefore to be politically correct is impossible and one can only be politically acceptable or not, which depends on one’s point of view.

Another problem with this phrase is the use of the word ‘correctness’, which has led to it being hijacked by extremists and the futile over-dramatization of incidents without much significance, as Nina Silver mentions in her article.

It is unfortunate that an idea born out of ‘genuine respect for others’ should be saddled with a label which can be such a handicap. What is actually needed is a form of sensitive and aware liberation; ‘political awareness’, perhaps.

Michael Foster
Sheffield, UK

Fantasy world
I feel I must write in response to Tim Young’s letter (NI 249), as he appears to be living in a free-market fantasy world.

It is true that, by shifting investment from higher- to lower-wage countries, transnational corporations (TNCs) exert downward pressure on wages in the wealthier countries. However, this pressure is not exerted on all wages, but only on the lowest, since it is only the unskilled sections of the manufacturing process that are relocated in this way.

The idea that these same corporations, by demanding more ‘Third World’ labour, will place upward pressure on wages in poorer nations is, unfortunately, little more than farce. There is some evidence to suggest that, when the ‘industrial reserve army’ has been used workers may be able to unionize and push for higher wages. But – as the workers of the newly-industrialized economies of South-East Asia are now finding out – capitalists faced with unionized labour and rising wage bills don’t hang around for long. Instead, TNCs are moving away from such countries and into more easily exploitable territories in Africa, Central America and even Eastern Europe.

I suggest that Mr Young looks a little more carefully at the activities and motives of TNCs before he sings their praises again.

Steve Rolfe
Winchester, UK

Surprising gap
I was surprised to find no reference to the contribution of ‘Subaltern School’ in your issue on history (NI 247). Using Gramsci’s concept of Subaltern, this genre of doing ‘history from below’ calls for making ‘people’ the central focus. This kind of history is being used mainly in the context of South Asian history, but I believe it has wider application elsewhere. Your readers might find Ranjit Guha and Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak Selected Subaltern Studies (Oxford University Press, 1988) a useful introductory text.

S M Shamsul Alam
Ashland, Oregon, US

Massive fraud
Your issue on the uses and abuses of history (NI 247) made some very important points. But perhaps the most recent and massive historical fraud is that invented by South Africa’s apartheid regime to give false credibility to its ‘homelands’ policy, and to apartheid itself. A fraud with plenty of life to it still.

Briefly, to ‘justify’ apartheid’s division of land and mineral riches on the basis of 35 times more for whites, per person, than for blacks, enormous lies were created. Although blacks were known to have settled in much of South Africa many centuries before the whites, Pretoria’s huge propaganda effort for 40 years claimed that ‘black and white arrived almost simultaneously’, and that the blacks only ever settled 13.7 per cent of South Africa. In fact, carbon-dating long ago proved that they had settled more than half the country before the whites arrived in 1652.

This fraud is still used to class nine million black South Africans as ‘aliens’ in their own country.

Len Clarke
Middlesex, UK

photo by VIV QUILLIN

Burma’s torment
Richard Ehrlich’s Country Profile on Burma (NI 248) is somewhat misleading.

The ‘consumer society’ consists of but a fortunate few supported by the huge military. The junta ‘renounced’ socialism but never funded social programs to begin with, nor did it relinquish any control over business.

The economy, institutions and infrastructure are all harnessed for army purposes. Hence the role of oil firms, who are even now building a gas pipeline that will destroy Burma’s last intact rainforest and pave the way for more army attacks.

The report scarcely scratches the surface of Burma’s torment and blatant criminality.

A cultured society is reduced to cannon fodder; civilians are subject to systematic robbery, rape, torture, murder, forced relocation or slavery. Burma’s heroin economy dwarfs all other sources worldwide, and spawns rampant addiction and the explosive growth of AIDS.

The Burmese endure ongoing betrayal by Western governments, who show little interest in toppling a pro-business regime. Yet the junta is so economically incompetent that even half-hearted sanctions would force it to its knees.

With this in mind, several Burmese, American and Canadian organizations have just formed the Coalition for Corporate Withdrawal from Burma. Only a people-driven, South-Africa-style campaign can free Burma’s imprisoned leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her long-suffering followers.

Terry Cotham
Ottawa, Canada

Only child
I am writing a book about only children, to be published by Virago in 1995. I want to gather the experiences and thoughts of a wide range of people who have only one child.

If you would be prepared to answer a short questionnaire, please send your name and address to me at 15 Matcham Road, London E11 3LE.

Ros Kane
London, UK

Big brother’s work
Members of the Co-op should stop and meditate before putting pen to paper. Are they committing their own thoughts, or have they been planted there by the media? Constant references to democracy and the free market require that the meanings be re-examined. We don’t live in either.

There seems to be a general tendency on the part of vociferous feminists to lump all men together as having only one ambition – to do everything to disadvantage women.

Surely we have enough problems overcoming the injustices that the plutocracy, male and female, are imposing on us? We should be combining to unseat them, instead of doing their dirty work by squabbling over words.

So next time you feel like taking it out on other human beings, remember that you might be doing big brother and sister’s work for them.

Patrick Crawley
Basingstoke, UK

The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist

Letter from Lagos

No hair for Josie
Elizabeth Obadina reports on the raw deal that widows get in Nigeria.

Illustration by MIRIAM McCURDY My friend Josie had the most beautiful waist-long black hair imaginable. But that was a year ago, before armed robbers cut short the life of her young husband. Josie, a part-Yoruba from the west of Nigeria, had married an Igbo, from the east. According to Igbo custom the widow must shave her head after her husband’s burial. Josie and her husband were thoroughly Westernized Nigerians. Out of pity her husband’s people let her off lightly.

She told me that she believed the old village women were just going to take a symbolic snip of hair which wouldn’t show. But just as she thought they were untying her pony-tail she heard a tremendous ‘scrunch’ and her hair, still tied up, was chopped off. They stopped short of shaving her bald. She left her appalled mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who had no more anticipated the savage cut than she had, and high-tailed it out of the village and back to Lagos.

Her first call was to the hairdresser to have her ragged bob recut into a style her husband would never have recognized.

But Josie ranks among the luckier of Nigerian widows. She wasn’t forced to wear black for a year, not wash for a month, drink the water used to bathe her husband’s corpse, maintain a dusk-to-dawn curfew or submit to any other distressing practices often inflicted upon widows in the name of tradition. She was not inherited by her husband’s brother or nephews. Nor did her husband’s family storm the family home to make away with the couple’s property. Her worst experience was to arrive home after the harrowing three-day funeral to discover that the electricity had been cut for three days leaving her freezer in a stinking mess.

Well provided-for and with supportive in-laws, she now has ‘only’ to cope with raising her two baby daughters by herself – and with her grief. Most Nigerian widows have very much more to bear.

Just over a year ago a military transport plane carrying around 200 officers and schoolchildren dropped from the skies into an inner-city swamp. Everyone on board died a horrible death as the plane became entombed in the ooze.

Nigeria’s military rulers promised the victims’ families heaven on earth.

A year later the widows of the officers publicly challenged the military to make good their promises. They said they had been forgotten; that only well-connected relatives of the victims had managed to receive any compensation. Compensation hadn’t reached the immediate families of the deceased. They said their children were yet to receive the promised bursaries for their education. The army waded into the controversy.

With some truth, the army maintained that compensation had been paid to the officers’ next-of-kin. It was just that very few of the men had named their wives as next-of-kin.

In Nigeria it is an unusual man who declares his wife to be next-of-kin. Those who do, and let it become known, endure serious pestering from relatives who attempt to convince him that he is courting death through poisoning at the hands of a wife intent on realizing her inheritance.

Under most customary laws the wife cannot inherit land or property. Under Islamic law the wife is entitled to only a quarter of her husband’s estate. Under common law, inherited from the British, everything depends on whether the man has made a will or not. Most don’t. If they die intestate many widows will opt for the crumbs they can grab from the customary carve-up of the man’s estate, knowing that the legal fees and bribes necessary to secure their just inheritance would probably swallow it entirely.

There was one widow I knew who left her wealthy husband’s body to lie for months on ice. There had been no love lost between them as he had taken younger wives in later years leaving her unhappy and hard-up, but with the family house as a roof over her head. ‘Let him rot there,’ had been her response when charged with the responsibility of burying him. ‘He chose to die without leaving a will. This is his house and his people are trying every day to throw me out. His bastard children are claiming what should belong to my children. And you tell me, my sister – what money do I have to bribe the judge to rule that we get our fair share? No, let his brothers and sisters bury him. I’m keeping my money for living.’

Elizabeth Obadina is a freelance writer and journalist living in Lagos.

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New Internationalist issue 252 magazine cover This article is from the February 1994 issue of New Internationalist.
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