Archive for the 'Culture' Category

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Africa Unjustly Trapped: Why?

Recently I’ve heard from some interesting figures which resonated with me as I sit in a disturbed corner of Africa. I have read the first book and I am keen to get my hands on the second after hearing its thesis. Their theoretical grounding is good and they offer suggestions to solve significant cultural issues but they are, as far as I can tell, still small voices. I’m going to try and sum their theses up grossly in order to put their arguments out and perhaps pique your interest.

I’ve mentioned before on the blog how it makes little sense to me how a country with such rich prospects as Tanzania can be so poor. Another wonder of mine is why do the AIDS prevention techniques presented to me by the US government feel hollow. For me, these books ring as partial answers.

I hope to have more later about each, for now, bullets:

Invisible Cure by Helen Epstein: Why has Africa been trapped with HIV and AIDS? (Amazon)

VIA New York Review of Books review

  1. Africans are no more promiscuous than most other people, as measured by numbers of sexual partners in a lifetime, casual sexual encounters, and visits to prostitutes.
  2. Common transactional relationships (significantly: more than one at the same time) arise from the gulf between an rich and impoverished men and women and the vacuum left by the breakdown of traditional familial, land & tribal ties.
  3. Multiple partners have somewhat more traditional precedent in Africa than in most any part of the world. Both male & female partners are fairly free in this regard (unlike in strict Muslim cultures)
  4. HIV is most contagious in the first few months of the disease. Concurrent partners have contact in that period essentially “networking” the disease, spreading it far beyond the promiscuous members of society.
  5. The bulk of high profile eradication campaigns have ignored this, instead favoring pet ideological goals.
    1. Conservative and religious groups prefer to condemn sex before marriage rather than emphasize faithfulness.
    2. Liberal and Population Control groups have encouraged fairly impractical condom use, especialy for “risky” individuals.
    3. Talking about partner reduction is hard for outsiders. When key reports in 1990 showed this was likely to be successful, the reports were set aside by the UN in favor of easier condom programs.
  6. Uganda was the only success story with a focus on “Zero Grazing” partner reduction, existing community ties, and making the disease the enemy instead of the people with it.
  7. Even today, Uganda is losing its grip on the fundamental solution, preferring to pander to Abstinence-linked funds from Washington and is losing its edge in prevention.


Bottom Billion by Paul Collier: “Why are nations trapped in poverty?” (Amazon)

VIA My Heart’s in Accra review and EconTalks podcast

  1. Internal Conflicts: highly persistent and high risk of going back into them once you come out of them. They are extremely common! Africa in the 1970s large scale violence was low. 1990s so much. Less recently but still an ugly reality
  2. Having a lot of natural resources: should be an opportunity but it too often used to corrode and corrupt the politics (Int’l Aid contributes too). Even if it doesn’t make violence it makes political leaders dysfunctional. Instead they have a contest with each other to control the public purse. Tragedy of the commons “Resource which no one regards as their own”. Causes “Dutch Disease” where in the 1960s, newly discovered vast Natural gas resources deemphasized stable manufacturing markets that help average citizens raise their standard of living.
    1. I suspect this one is the most relevant in TZ. In the past two months the sapphire market has exploded in my town. Agricultural land here is particularly lush compared to other East African countries like Kenya.
  3. Landlocked without natural resources. Options for development are limited to services. (W/ resources Botswana). Around the world, this is 1/3 of the population. Only in Africa these actually became countries, most other places they became parts of more prosperous countries.
  4. Start with poor economic policies, bad governance. Need to fix but pace of reform was much faster if country was big and if population was educated. Reform requires a critical mass of educated people! Educated mass often departs (though it *does* send back money!! How does this count, as aid?)
    1. The great leader Nyerere managed to keep civil war and tribalism at bay here but also conceded defeat in securing anything resembling fiscal prosperity in TZ, as he resigned.

Quick: Someone set up a Print-On-Demand service in TZ, duplication rights, and give me some paper so I can disseminate. Getting tired of dealing with customs.

Swahili and Briefly Contrasting Cultures in EA


Swahili is a pretty interesting language. There are no genders really, instead there are classes which act a bit like genders. The construction of person, tense and tone is all very compact. If you can keep words compartmentalized well enough into their classes it can be easy to use (note if).

Fun Mnemonics for sentence structure.

You jumped on me.
U (you, singular) and ni- (me, singular) are both based on the people/animal class which allows for first, second, and third person referencing in both singular and plural whereas most of the classes only have singular and plural. -li- indicates past tense. “Ruka” means to jump.

kitu uliyokiruka
The thing that you jumped on.
kitu uliyokiruka
kitu U-li-yo-ki-ruk-a (?)

-ki- and -yo- bits depend on the class, the -a at the end simply indicates a normal statement.

uruke mto
(You, please,) jump the pillow.
Uruke mto
U-ruk-e mto
-e ending indicates a request.


Much simpler than english. Pronunciation is vowel-based (you need a vowel sound to pronounce anything) and is always consistent.


Huffman Coding is an interesting concept in the creation of coded languages which formulates a way to express things it encodes compactly. Coming to Swahili from the somewhat more consonant-vowel-spelling centric language of English I immediately was struck by the brevity of most Swahili words that you use on a daily basis.
Nouns, verbs which are relevant here are short:

  • kuja: to come
  • kupa: to give
  • kuita: to name
  • kuruka: to jump
  • kulete: to bring
  • Kuota: to dream
  • Ndo: bucket (these are everywhere)
  • Mto: pillow

Some are similiar
Kuona: to see
Moto: fire.
Joto : heat

Sometimes it doesn’t hold of course:
Zaidi : More

Might be fun to run some statistics on languages and their variable lengths of words. I’m sure thinking has been done on this. The language is significantly smaller than romance languages you have to fudge an amazing amount of words and concepts with a combination of english and existing words. I’d like to see some studies capturing language general language specificity too. note to self.

Kenya and Tanzania

Gross differences of Kenyan and Tanzanians that I had noticed given three-four weeks in their respective cultures:

  • Tanzanians don’t discourage weight gain, significant weight loss is culturally sickly, Kenyans run a lot.
  • Tanzanians collectively have a drinking problem in older people, Kenyans might too.
  • Tanzanians think running is funny.
  • Kenyans speak more English and less culturally rich Kiswahili (according to TZians). Calling someone’s Swahili “Kenyan Kisw.” is an insult and it means they are thinking in English and translating to Kiswahili reversing the adjectives and things.
  • Tanzania is quite a bit poorer. Tanzania has no Trash Collection (not sure about Kenya) and so has MAJOR air pollution issues. (P.S. Air was at least partially a result of dry season)
  • Tanzanians are more ethnically diverse with a deep mix of Seventh Adventist (Saturday sabath), Islam (Friday celebration) and Catholicism & Pentecostal (Sunday), among others. When I was in Kenya I only really saw one family and they were devout Catholics. Tzians have a very peaceful history and coexist amazingly well with unperturbed democratically rotating religions of Presidents (Rais). The first president was Christian and encouraged schooling but the Muslim population discounted his efforts until the next term when a Islamic Rais was elected.
  • Both countries have Sisal (rope plant).
  • Both countries drive on the left.
  • Both have beautiful national parks and share wildlife though I haven’t seen much of that yet. Kenya seems to have more trouble managing the wildlife due to significant crossing of private land during migration. Tanzania actually owned all of its land not too long ago, now they give out land on 90 year deeds. Tanzania seems to have a preservationist instead of conservationionist approach to wildlife reserves. Tanzanians seem less concerned about poaching though I only have a few people concerned with this in either culture.
  • Tanzania is perhaps more libertarian. I suspect it has to do with the many religions and the success with peaceful coexistence and painless (compared to Kenya) departure from colonialism.
  • Dar Es Salaam doesn’t have a shantytown like Nairobi (according to our first volunteers who met us there).

I hadn’t reflected about this in quite a while (note that the above was written a few weeks after I arrived here). I will consider some more national and cultural differences and post them as I come up with them. I can’t wait to go back to Kenya. I also look forward to chatting with Willis at length over Skype, so far that hasn’t been possible (hint).

Up next on the blog is a delicious list of fruits that I have enjoyed so far as the fertile season has progressed throughout the country

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