Jan
31

Human Rights in Africa

Bonny Ibhawoh's (2018) "Human Rights in Africa" is a long overdue contribution to the human rights discourse. This is not only a critical assessment of the dominant narrative about the origins of human rights as known today, but also a call for revival of knowing histories that are not well known, prioritized or taught. The book outlines the "complicated story of progression and regression, inclusion and exclusion" (p. 119) of human rights across the continent and over time. The book is accessible, which makes it recommended reading across audiences.

Relative or universal rights? "The case for an African concept of human rights is essentially an argument for cultural relativism as a counter to the universalist claims of the modern human rights movement. The premise of this position is that culture shapes the articulation and fulfilment of human rights because of its formative influence on human thought and behavior. Human rights principles are therefore culturally relative to different contexts, and culture informs unique conceptions of human rights when grounded in African moral principles and cultural experiences… On the other hand, some proponents of African values in human rights interpretation premise their claim on an affirmation rather than a repudiation of the universalism of human rights. They contend that the core principles that underpin modern human rights are neither exclusive to Western liberal traditions nor alien to African cultural traditions. These are eternal and universal norms. There is nothing essentially Western or bourgeois about the fundamental rights to life, the right to personal and collective dignity or the right to a fair trial. These human rights principles have normative parallels in indigenous African moral principles and political and social practices." (p. 37-38)

On vernacularization: "the African values argument and the cultural legitimacy argument converge in what may be expressed as the vernacularization of universal human rights. The notion of vernacularizing human rights describes the process by which universal human rights norms are grounded in local communities. It requires seeing human rights in specific situation rather than as the application of abstract principles. Vernacularizing human rights is therefore a constructive process that grounds and expands the scope of human rights in different cultural contexts. It is a process whereby global impulses intersect with indigenous ideas to produce new human rights norms and practices that are relevant to local situations. The process of vernacularization connotes critical local engagement with international human rights norms with the goal of investing them with local meaning that can potentially strengthen recognition and enforcement." (p. 52)

Vernacularization (cont.): "The notion of vernacularizing human rights has been used to describe the process by which universal human rights norms become grounded in local communities. It is a constructive process that affirms and delineates the scope of human rights in different cultural contexts. Vernacularizing human rights requires seeing human rights in specific situations rather than as the application of abstract principles. In this sense, vernacularization refers to the interaction between established international human rights principles and local norms to produce hybridized legal and normative frameworks for human rights protection. This should not be confused with the cultural relativist repudiation of universal human rights, which I discuss in the introductory chapter of this book. Rather, vernacularization is a deliberate process of investing universal human rights with local meanings that can potentially strengthen human rights protection and contribute to the normative application of global human rights." (p. 225-226)

Criticism all around: "The same [criticisms of Enlightenment liberalism] can be said of indigenous African notions of human rights. The scope of individual and collective rights was often limited to community members and restricted by ethnicity, caste, gender, power and status. Prioritizing communal solidarity over individual liberties often implied the exclusion of those considered outsiders, minorities and non-conforming members of the community. The emphasis on communal well-being and the contingent relationship between individual rights and duties also meant that rights were ultimately not conferred based on the intrinsic value of each human being but, rather, based on community membership, and social status and obligations." (p. 47)

Questioning rationales: "Antislavery provided an important legitimizing rationale for colonialism and become part of the "inter-imperial repertoire of idiom and imaginaries of colonial rule." Eradicating the slave trade and granting freedom to those enslaved was a declared mission of many early European adventurers, missionaries and colonialists. Atlantic slavery and the movement to abolish it marked the beginning of Europe's conquest and colonization of Africa, provoking what became known as the scramble for Africa and one of the most pernicious land grabs in human history. Here we confront another paradox of rights discourse within antislavery. Nineteenth-century missionary and humanitarian activism that rallied public support against slavery also provided moral justification for colonization, which ultimately denied millions of Africans their right to self-determination." (p. 83-84)

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Oct
27

The Historical Ecology of Malaria in Ethiopia

James C. McCann has produced some excellent works of history, and specifically on Ethiopia. This includes From Poverty to Famine (1987) and People of the Plow (1990), as well as The Historical Ecology of Malaria in Ethiopia (2014). The most recent of these books brings readers into a complex story of malaria over the centuries and decades. The book also brings together McCann's work over these decades in helping to put together some of the puzzle pieces in the bigger malaria story.  

Why a history of malaria and ecology, and not a contemporary public health perspective? McCann starts with that question: "Medical science is a necessary but not sufficient lens from which to understand the disease. The Historical Ecology of Malaria in Ethiopia aims to display the human ecology of the disease with an appreciation of the science of landscape change and the dynamics of a vector-borne infectious disease that has been an enduring element of human history" (p. 2). These short posts are not full reviews, but highlights that I find particularly interesting. For example:

On local knowledge: "Richard Burton, intrepid traveler in the 1850s, reported that Somalis in the southeast of the Horn of Africa actually believed that mosquitoes were the cause of the "fever." He dismissed that local belief as absurd." (p. 14). In this opening chapter, McCann walks us through the theories of the cause of malaria; apparently local Somali knowledge ought to have been taken more seriously, as it was decades later that mosquitoes were identified as the vector. 

On politics and power: "The MES also had a GR (geographic reconnaissance) scheme that offered the broad brushstrokes of a national map divided into zones, which they set in priority as A, B, C, and D (see fig 4.5), a template for planning their pre-eradication strategy. In effect, this map was a set of plans for malaria eradication, but is was also a map of plans for a modern political ecology and economic potential for the modern nation. The MES and its allies chose to concentrate its resources on Area A, an area of the highlands and part of its periphery that was, in effect, historical Abyssinia (i.e. the Christian highlands and areas they dominated in the Haile Sellassie era). But is also included strategic areas for economic development in the Awash Valley (cotton, sugar, citrus); northwest borderlands (sorghum and sesame oil and seeds); and the Rift Valley (red pepper, sugar, haricot beans, soybeans, commercial fruits) that made up much of Ethiopia's potential global agricultural exports." (p. 80-82).

On ecology and agricultural transformation: "Maize does not cause malaria, but it can and does intensify its spatial distribution and the periodic intensity of epidemic human suffering. That study of malarial landscapes at the local level also revealed an astonishing complexity of ecological elements. The historical record demonstrates that periods of malaria quiescence and epidemic outbreaks are persistent patterns, if not predictable, and are affected by rapid agroecological change. New elements of ecological change at work in Ethiopia's dynamic human and economic setting can and will affect malaria's future." (p. 136)

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Jul
22

Ethiopia Engraved

When European travellers and writers came to Ethiopia before the age of photography, the made engravings of what they saw. Richard Pankhurst and Leila Ingrams collected these engravings, from 1540 to 1900, and published them in "Ethiopia Engraved: An Illustrated Catalogue of Engravings by Foreign Travellers from 1681 to 1900" (1988). The period following this time period also has a collection, "Ethiopia Photographed".

This book is divided into sections of location (Aksumite Origins and Christian Churches; Gondar; Adwa, Dabra Tabor and Other Towns of the North and North-West; Shawa and its Towns; Harar; Massawa and the Gulf of Aden Ports; Eritrea) people (Tewodros; Yohannes; Menilek and Taytu) and some categories (Scenery of the North; Wildlife of Ethiopia; the Travellers and the Artists; Ethnography, Geography and History; Birds, Butterflies, Fauna, Fish, Flora and Reptiles). The book provides glimpses into the past. It also highlights how engravings are also artistic renditions, in this case of European views of Ethiopia. Romanticized and idealized or exaggerated. In other cases, the engravings look much like things can see today, such a scenery portraits and buildings.

An excellent collection for those interested in Ethiopian history.

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196 Hits
Jul
10

Ethiopia Photographed (1867-1935)

Richard Pankhurst and Denis Gerard are well known to Ethiopians and those interested in Ethiopia. One of the many publications in their names, is "Ethiopia Photographed: Historic Photographs of the Country and its People Taken between 1967 and 1935" (1996). The book has a brief historical introduction, and it followed by hundreds of photographs spread over 168 pages, each with short descriptions.

The book has six sections: (1) Historic Personalities: From Tewodros to Haile Sellassie, (2) Historic Towns: North, South, East and West, (3) Addis Ababa: the "New Flower", (4) Economic, Social and Cultural Life: Tradition and Diversity, (5) Innovation and Modernization, and (6) Preparing to Resist the Impending Invasion.

For those who have spent time reading about Ethiopian history, this book provides imagery to color the narratives. Photographs have their own biases; who takes them, who gets photographed, which areas are represented and which are not, and so forth. Given these limitation, the book is an excellent and unique collection.

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