World view - Michela Wrong breaks our African tribal taboo

Writing about Africa without mentioning the role of tribalism and witchcraft is like writing about B

As I read the Kenyan newspapers in Nairobi the other day, two items grabbed my attention. The first was a story about the losing candidate in a recent coastal by-election. The candidate was challenging his rival's victory in court, accusing him - among other things - of staging a macabre ceremony in which three cows had had their eyelids sewn together before being drowned in the sea.

The other story was about the contest for the chairmanship of the country's Kanu party. It pondered whether it was desirable for both the president and the leader of the opposition to come from Central Province - a coy way of asking whether both positions should be filled by people from Kenya's large Kikuyu tribe.

Both items triggered a familiar thought: what a terrible disservice we foreign correspondents do those trying to understand Africa. Our reports may vary in subtlety and seriousness, but one thing remains pretty constant: the continent we describe bears very little relation to the continent as it is viewed by Africans themselves.

Those two Kenyan stories, while full of meaning for African readers, will never reach a foreign audience. They contain the two tacit no-nos of western reporting on the continent, the two ingredients white reporters avoid whenever possible, for fear of being accused of racism. Unfortunately, they are two elements that hold the key to how Africans - even modern, urban, churchgoing Africans - see the world around them: witchcraft and tribalism.

For Kenyans, the notion that a candidate should stage a ritual sacrifice to secure an electoral win seems no more bizarre than the notion that he should bribe constituents. The supernatural is part of the fabric of daily life, particularly in the rural areas. An MP once lost his seat because he was spotted taking part in an oathing ceremony; a minister is accused of using witchcraft to stop voters choosing his rival. Magic has played a quiet role in every African election I have covered, with the victory generally regarded as going to the man with the most potent witch doctors on his team.

Similarly, political debate in Kenya, as in every other African country I have lived in, loses 95 per cent of its content if you remove the issue of which tribe, or coalition of tribes, gets a chance to "eat" at the state table. While western reporters know this, and most will talk over a beer about how the Luo have been boxed out of power in Kenya or how the Luba will never make the presidency in Congo, they barely breathe a word of it professionally.

I nearly fell off my chair at a talk that I once attended in Edinburgh, where a Portuguese writer who had traversed Angola told the audience that tribe had never come up in his encounters with amputees and ex-soldiers. God knows what they talked about. In my experience, the two issues guaranteed to trigger a knowledgeable and lively debate with a total stranger in Africa are the merits of Manchester United and the

tribal make-up of the current government.

This wincing delicacy is rooted in the colonial past, when our forebears shaped their policies on crude tribal lines and sneered at Africans for their primitive beliefs. The generation of university-educated Africans that came to power at independence rightly castigated the western media for stereotyping.

That correction has now gone too far in the opposite direction. It seems bizarre that a western culture which talks about feng shui and karma, embraces homoeopathy and hypnotism, revels in the cultural distinctions between Liverpudlian and Brummie and knows the difference between Serb and Croat should prove so squeamish about recognising such factors in Africa.

The result of this western hypersensitivity is bland, strangely unilluminating coverage, the equivalent of a reporter setting out to explain the furore over fox-hunting in Britain to his readers without allowing himself to whisper the word "class"; or writing about Afghanistan under the Taliban without once referring to Islam.

Edit out the supernatural and you are limited to describing the dull, flat surface of human behaviour, while leaving its motives and driving passions unexplored. Remove the tribal content, and events come stripped of their context and meaning. I remember hearing, when there was a bloody settling of scores in Nairobi's biggest slum three years ago, a

despatch by a BBC reporter so determined not to mention the hatred between Luo tenants and Nubian landlords at its root that he was reduced to explaining the violence in the childishly simple - and misleading - terms of "rich elites" versus "poor masses".

Given this self-censorship, which amounts to a form of inverted racism, no wonder most western readers can't understand the continent and soon decide they couldn't care less. With the very best of intentions, the professionals entrusted with communication have removed the pointers to understanding.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Coronation, Texas-style

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.