Saturday, July 16, 2011

Colonial Legacies in East Africa

East Africa has been getting some attention in the news the past week. First, there was the establishment of South Sudanese independence. Then there has also been the severe regional drought. If there is a pattern to my blog posts about global current events, it is the my constant irritation by the way in which colonialism is bracketed in the reporting of these issues. The East African stories are no exception! In fact, two seemingly unrelated stories like drought and ethnic/religious conflict are actually connected by colonialism - the tie that binds everything.

I have already mentioned, briefly, that the global poverty that exists today is a result of colonialism (when Europeans forcefully rearranged the relations of production in such a way that the colonized oriented all productivity toward the satisfaction of European demand, rather than to meet local needs.... a situation which persists today). Many people in the U.S. (and I would venture to guess in western Europe as well?) believe that poverty is caused primarily by environmental factors, and a situation like the current East African drought only serves to strengthen those convictions.

Yet, when Europeans reorganized production in the colonies, not only did they prevent the colonized from directing production toward their own local needs, it also hindered their ability to adapt to climactic fluctuations and respond to environmental hardships. East Africa, at the time of colonization, was a primarily pastoral region, whose economy focused on the very mobile practice of cattle herding. This has been very common among people who live in dry zones, as pastoralism is particularly well suited to such a climate. The communities in East Africa were nomadic and, in the case of drought, were easily able to move to new locales. They could adapt!

Colonization and the subsequent erection of nation-states with very static boundaries has been ruinous to the lives of many East Africans. For instance, in the current drought, those who try to move to better areas (and generally these are people who are more advantaged than the rest of the population) find that they have to cross national borders and, in the world of nation-states, are now considered "refugees":   the only people in the world whose human rights cannot be protected.

Drought is only a problem because people no longer have the ability to move at will. Drought is not just an environmental issue. It is a social and political issue.

In some of my posts on MENA and colonalism, I wrote about how religious, ethnic, and sectarian differences were created and/or exaggerated by the colonial powers in order to disunite the population and diffuse the strength of forces of resistance. Such is the case in Egypt and Sudan as well. In this region, England's tactic was to create religious segregation, and hence tension, between Christians and Muslims to prevent them from acting as a single force. In Sudan, a distinct barrier was created between the predominantly non-Muslim (Christian and other religions) south and the Muslim north in order to isolate the two different groups (as well as allow Christians more exclusive access to the indigenous religious groups for ease of conversion).

That worked out nicely, didn't it?

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