What books to read on Rwanda?

rwanda booksRwanda is an exciting country with a tragic history. Before a recent work trip there, I asked the Twitterverse for book recommendations about the land of a thousand hills. Here is what I heard back, along with a few of my own. (Asterisks are on the ones I’ve actually read.)

On Rwanda today

On the genocide

Many thanks to Adolfo Avalos-Lozano, Sarah Baird, Danielle Beswick, Erika Edwards Decaster, Alice EvansAndrew Gerard, Seva Gunitsky, Mike Holmes, Robert MartenJonathan Mazumdar, Gaby Saade, for Elisabeth Turner for suggestions.

[Updated 8/23/2017 at 2:30pm]


A history of Liberia’s women? A review of Helene Cooper’s Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

madame presidentIn 2005, Liberia elected its first woman president. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was also Africa’s first elected woman president. (Guinea-Bissau and Burundi both briefly had women as acting presidents.)

In Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Helene Cooper recounts the story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s life: from precocious child to teen mom to victim of domestic violence to Harvard graduate to international financier and — ultimately — to head of state.

But of course, any such biography also gives a history of the country, and here Cooper does something special. As she tells individual stories to make broader movements more concrete, she chooses stories of women. She tells the stories of
  • “Josephine, who cooked every day for the Taylor soldiers who raped her,” and
  • “a terrified Mary Warner [who] strapped her four-year-old son on her back and ran from place to place, finally pressed up against a gate outside the United Nations compound, desperately seeking shelter,” and
  • Louise Yarsiah, who was leading a group of women in prayers for peace when Charles Taylor’s security chief showed up. Yeaten’s soldiers drew their guns, and Yarsiah’s women kept praying. Ultimately, the soldiers stood down.

Cooper also demonstrates how women organizing women brought about Sirleaf’s election and then re-election. She tells of other powerful women within Sirleaf’s government, like Mary Broh, mayor of Monrovia. This is not just the extraordinary journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but also the story of thousands of other extraordinary Liberian women. Cooper imagines how Liberia’s brutal history grew a generation of women activists: “Little girls do not come out of the womb vowing to become activists for female power. They don’t spend their childhood thinking about how they will repair the indignities, large and small, that bleed women daily. It’s a series of things that multiply and turn ordinary women into movements of female determination.”

As Johnson Sirleaf achieves gains in the country over the course of her presidency, I couldn’t help but feel a growing dread, knowing that the devastating Ebola epidemic of 2014-2015 was on its way. I actually met the author, Helene Cooper, during the Ebola epidemic, when we appeared on the same news program after she had returned from a trip to Liberia and I had worked on estimates of the potential economic impact of the epidemic. She was deeply knowledgeable, and it shows in her reporting here.

This is a sympathetic biography; Jina Moore wrote in the New York Times that it “valorizes Johnson Sirleaf rather than complicates her.” But Cooper also doesn’t whitewash: Johnson Sirleaf’s supporters aren’t above buying voter cards from their opponent’s supporters for booze money in the run-up to an election, and Johnson Sirleaf appoints her own son to a key government position.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully narrated by the author’s sister Marlene Cooper Vasilic. As Audiofile puts it, the narration makes the story “all the more powerful. … Vasilic’s facility with pidgin makes the few direct quotes come alive.”

Is it possible to travel by bus from Washington, DC, to Antarctica? Nearly.

black penguinOn January 1, 2010, Andrew Evans boarded a city bus in Washington, DC. His goal was to travel by bus all the way to Ushuaia, Chile, where he would board a ship to Antarctica — if he made it in time! No tickets were purchased in advance, and the route was laid out only vaguely. In The Black Penguin, Evans tells his story, and what a ride it is! As Publishers Weekly puts it, “Sketchy border guards, close calls with violence and natural disasters, and intriguing characters fill vignettes that range from hair-raising to hilarious.” Evans engages the people around him consistently and introduces us to a steady stream of wonderful friends, along with a few foes. His trip across the Americas is interwoven with memories of growing up gay in a conservative faith (Mormon) and the strain that placed on him in middle America, in his church, and with his family.

Here’s a taste of Evans’s preparation, demonstrating his mastery of the fake wallet technique familiar to travelers:

I dressed carefully, stashing fifty dollars in the bottom of one shoe, then a hundred dollars folded tightly into a removable waistband under my pants, and then another fifty in my shirt pocket. Then I packed an old wallet with cancelled credit cards, old student IDs, and a wad of five-rupee notes from India sandwiched between two twenty-dollar bills. If anyone did steal my wallet, they would truly steal trash. I had been mugged once before — in Kiev — and the thieves walked away with about a million dollars of defunct Zimbabwean currency.

And here’s a bit of drama in Bolivia:

It happened in slow motion — the stove-size chunk of granite dropping right down in front of us, crushing the truck in the opposite lane and toppling it over, followed by a rush of rocks and debris. The hard brake jerked us forward, stopping at the pile of rocks. Our bus driver leapt down from the bus and began kicking at the windshield of the wrecked truck, turning the glass opaque with stars. Gripping the rubber lining with his bare hands, the driver peeled away the entire windshield, then reach inside and yanked the keys out of the ignition.

I’ve ridden a number of buses in my time (from Provo to Boston, from Nairobi to Dar es

Andrew Evans's journey to Antarctica
Andrew Evans’s journey

Salaam, from Busia to Kampala, from Maceió to Recife), and Andrew’s vivid descriptions took me back to my own bus rides. I remember riding a matatu in rural western Kenya: When the bus got a flat tire, there was no jack, so the conductor asked all the male passengers to lift the minibus while he and the driver changed the tire. Evans writes: “To travel is to know the unfairness of the world, time and time again.” It’s true, and yet traveling by bus also — for a brief period — brings people from a wide range of social groups into contact. Evans spins that into a compelling, moving narrative. I wouldn’t miss this travel memoir.

Full disclosure: Andrew Evans is my cousin and dear friend. I even show up briefly in the book: After Andrew hitches a ride on a milk truck in Costa Rica, the driver offers him a beverage: “Though I had broken the rule about accepting rides from strangers, I was still not accepting drinks from strangers. That’s exactly how my cousin got drugged and robbed on a bus in Uganda.” That’s me!

Nothing new under the sun — Education edition

Some years ago, I was evaluating an education program in The Gambia (read the evaluation here), soon after the government had outlawed corporal punishment in schools. We included a question about it in the evaluation and learned that there was a gap between legislation and practice, which the government then sought to resolve. 

Of course, controversy over corporal punishment in schools isn’t new, but I was surprised to see it debated in Noli me tangere, the 1887 novel by Filipino writer José Rizal. A frustrated schoolteacher recounts that after reading several books, his views changed: 

Lashings, for example, which since time immemorial had been the province of schools and which before I had seen as the only effective way to make children learn (that is how they have accustomed us to believe), began to seem far removed from contributing to a child’s progress, completely useless. I became convinced that when one keeps the switch or the rod in view reasoning is impossible… I began to think that the best thing I could do for these children was to develop confidence, security, and self-esteem.

So he eliminates corporal punishment. 

Little by little I held back the switch. I took the whips home and replaced them with emulation and belief in oneself.

Like any good experimenter, he evaluated short and medium run impacts.

In the beginning it seemed as though my method was impractical: a lot of them stopped studying altogether. But I pressed on, and I noticed that little by little their spirits rose. More students attended class, and more often. And when one day one was praised in front of everyone, the following day he learned twice as much.

But the local priest and the parents didn’t buy it and demanded he return to the traditional system.

I had to renounce a system that after a great deal of effort had begun to bear fruit.

Poor guy, but I imagine there are a number of reformers today who can feel his pain. 

The quotes are from Harold Augenbraum’s translation of the book.

Sure we should all be feminists, but how to raise one? A review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions 

On a recent road trip, my wife and I read aloud Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new book Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, a collection of advice to Adichie’s childhood friend on how to raise her young daughter as a feminist. 

This is a small book — just 63 pages — but don’t confuse it with Adichie’s OTHER small book on feminism, the 2014 We Should All Be Feminists, which was based on a public talk of the same name. The first book is the what (be feminist!) and the second book is the how (15 suggestions!).

This is a readable, thought- and discussion-provoking collection. Each suggestion is followed by a few pages of discussion, which is where the richness lies. Suggestion #6, for example, is “Teach her to question language. Language is the repository of our prejudices, our beliefs, our assumptions.” But here’s how that plays out concretely in the discussion: “Teach her that if you criticize X in women but do not criticize X in men, then you do not have a problem with X, you have a problem with women. For X please insert words like ‘anger,’ ‘ambition,’ ‘loudness,'” etc. 

Here’s another: Suggestion #4 is “Beware the danger of what I call Feminism Lite,” which is the idea of “conditional female equality,” which gives rise to ideas like “men are naturally superior but should be expected to ‘treat women well.’ No. No. No. There must be more than male benevolence as the basis for a woman’s well-being.” Yes! Yes! Yes!

I didn’t agree with every idea, but each was well argued such that I couldn’t dismiss it without careful consideration. 

Obviously I could just quote the whole book. But I won’t. Go read it yourself. It won’t take you long, but you’ll be thinking about it long after, and — if you’re like me — encouraging others to do the same.

Fun fact: The book describes some sexist attitudes in order to combat them. Our 12-year-old son — listening to snatches from the backseat — commented that the book sounded pretty sexist to him. Correct on the passage but not on the book as a whole, son: Context!