Review: “A Peace of Africa” by David Zarembku

Review by Sheila Havard

Book: “A Peace of Africa – Life in the Great Lakes Region” by David Zarembku, Mader Press, Washington, D.C.  (2011)

David Zarembka is an old hand in Africa and at peacebuilding, and there is no doubt about his credentials to write this book. Already in the 1960s, this American Quaker was teaching in Tanzania as a Peace Corps worker. In 1998 he was instrumental in founding the African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI), which he has coordinated ever since. The author has been living with his Kenyan wife in the “Quaker” or eastern area of Kenya for many years and issues a steady stream of thought-provoking and controversial emails on his East African peace work and political and social developments in his adopted country and the wider area.

One section of the book elaborates on AGLI’s activities in the Great Lakes Area, which include workcamps at which Westerners work side by side with local people, trauma healing workshops for both genocide victims and perpetrators, election monitoring and emergency relief. These projects accept both short- and long-term volunteers of any age, gender or nationality. To apply for a volunteer position or subscribe to the emails, contact dawn@aglifpt.org.

A Peace of Africa is a collection of essays based on the AGLI emails. This makes the book somewhat disjointed although its cultural insights make for fascinating reading for the general reader and of particular help in countering cultural bias for those intending to visit the Great Lakes region of Africa. David Zarembka ferrets out the belief system behind cultural practices. Not content merely to observe, he asks “Why do you do that?” when intrigued by a particular custom.

The author sets about to explode widely held stereotypes about Africa and Africans. He dismisses easy “either/or” solutions and debunks stereotypes and idées recues. He describes his book as “not a work of certitude but of exploration”. Examples abound. So Wikipedia maintains that the average annual income in Kenya is $938? Don’t believe a word of it! Once you adjust the figure to take into account the informal economy and relative cost of living, annual income is many times that figure. Taken in by those pictures of emaciated African children? Be cheered: they only tell half the story, as evidenced by the photo of these neat little fellows attending Lumakanda Friends Church in their Sunday suits. So you think microfinance may be the key to emancipating women? Beware of this overhasty conclusion. Microfinance tends to set up one woman to compete against another in an already overcrowded seller’s marketplace, thus undermining African communal values.

One form of stereotype is labelling and, being himself of mixed Scottish and Polish origin and having mixed race children, David Zarembka brings out the absurdity of classifying people in ethnic groups. “We live in a murky world of make-believe identities,” he writes, “which are important only because they are used to control who has power and have such negative, even deadly effects on people’s lives!” The author points out how the Hutu and Tutsi “tribes” in Rwanda, renowned because of the 1994 genocide, were entirely artificial creations, imposed by European powers.

At his best, David Zarembka gives readers the chance to form their own opinions, as he does in his excellent analysis of the causes of the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya. He experienced this upheaval first-hand and coordinated AGLI’s relief efforts on behalf of the displaced, working with the Emergency Relief &

Reconciliation Program of the Friends Church Peace Teams. While Western newspapers were harping on about tribalism as the root cause of the violence, David Zarembka presents us with a more nuanced view and offers nine possible explanations (or combinations thereof): “ancient tribal hatreds” – a myth he debunks; the stolen election; class warfare; a youth rebellion; land issues; centralized government; the international community’s role; and spiritual/religious reasons. All these theories have some merits. For us to decide! David concludes that Kenya’s entire society is in need of restructuring as a solely political settlement will not bring about lasting peace.

In the final section, David Zarembka takes a critical look at the West and at international NGOs. He deplores their ostentatious extravagance and waste and contrasts these excesses with adequacy, meaning enough for all. Following in the footsteps of his “favourite Quaker”, John Woolman, the author is an uncompromising advocate of simplicity, but points out the relativity of the term; while viewed as “rich” because of his lifestyle in Kenya, he would be considered of modest means in the United States.

He dismisses any compromise with strict standaKathleen Schmitz-Hertzbergrds of integrity and rejects the double standard of tolerating any form of corruption in Africa simply because it is so common there. For his pains, he has been threatened and called names by some, but praised by Africans who, like him, refuse to stoop to lowering their standards. Moreover, he shifts some of the burden of uprightness to the donor, claiming that donors who do not ensure that their funds are appropriately used are blameworthy, just like the recipients who misappropriate the funds.

This books makes for excellent fireside reading but also whets the appetite. One thing an inquisitive traveller to Africa learns is that the learning there never stops. New cultural surprises are always in store for the mzungu (white person or stranger). However, nothing beats seeing for yourself, “dwelling deep, that thou mayest feel and understand the spirits of people,” to quote John Woolman.
A Peace of Africa can be ordered and the first chapter read at http://www.davidzarembka.com.

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