Rejecting the University

Higher education is in a rocky place, you may have heard. More and more, colleges are placing the burden of cost on their students, raising tuition in astronomical amounts. Increasingly, public colleges are recruiting out-of-state students (who pay higher tuition), abandoning their mandate to educate the citizens of their state at low cost. Departments are absorbing each other – or closing completely – and new PhDs are becoming adjuncts rather than tenured, all while new vice presidents are hired and massive buildings are erected. Colleges are increasingly exclusive and costly, and they are continuing to move away from the purpose of educating young minds.

In the 2006 film Accepted, Bartelby Gaines, a high school graduate who failed to get into eight colleges, decides to start his own fake college to fool his parents. An entrepreneur by nature, he takes the ruse all the way: renting out an abandoned psychiatric hospital to serve as a college facade. The plan blows up as other people apply and end up enrolling in the institution that Gaines decides to run. There are two questions worth exploring when watching this movie: what problems does the film have with academia? And what does it really take to run a college?

Reject rejection – and all the exclusivity, cost, and waste that it symbolizes.

When Bartleby tells his parents he didn’t get into any colleges, he spins it by telling them that it is fiscally irresponsible for him to go to college. “We could spend $80,000 over the next four years, or I could make $80,000 over the next four years.” And it’s true – college is expensive and the cost is difficult to bear for many. Regardless, his parents are irate. “Society has rules,” his father argues, “first rule is you go to college. If you want to have a happy, successful life, you go to college. If you want to be somebody, you go to college. If you want to fit in, you go to college.” College is a social need above all else.

When Bartleby hatches the plan to mail himself a fake admissions letter – to the South Harmon Institute of Technology – he is joined by a cast of conspirators who help him renovate the hospital in preparation for his parents’ visit to school. What ensues is a glimpse into what the film accuses academia of doing wrong – and what the film views as education’s purpose.

When the Gaines family meets with the Dean of the college, a former professor recently fired from a job at the mall, he lambastes the entire notion of higher education. “A lot of people say that college is the time when young men and women expand the way that they look at their world, when they open their minds to new ideas and experiences, and when they begin that long journey from the innocence of youth to the responsibilities of adulthood. Now isn’t that a load of horseshit?”  When pushed on the view, he describes the school’s philosophy: “We throw a lot of fancy words in front of these kids, in order to attract them to go to this school, in the belief that they’re going to have a better life. And we all know that all we’re doing is breeding a whole new generation of buyers and sellers,  pimps and whores, and indoctrinating them into a lifelong hell of debt and indecision.” When the family is left speechless, he continues: “Do I have to spoon-feed it to you? There’s only one reason that kids want to go to school: to get a good job. To get a good job with a great starting salary.”

The uncomfortable silence is, naturally, broken by mom’s comment that it is “so refreshing to hear someone approach education so rationally.”

There’s a rejection of college’s enlightening promise, seeing the process of higher education as merely feeding capitalism.  And the parents gobble it up because that’s how more and more people are viewing education now.  The learning isn’t important, it’s the degree that will give you a well-paying job. It echoes all the parents that harp on their English-major sons and Philosophy-major daughters and praise the niece that’s pre-med or the neighbor’s kid that’s getting an MBA. It’s all around us, and it’s not just our families feeding it to us. Our school administrations and our politicians agree. More and more, university administrators are advocating for more “professional” degrees rather than traditional academic ones. When Florida Governor Rick Scott advocated shifting state funds from humanities and social sciences towards science and technology, he referenced anthropology majors when he argued, “we don’t need them here.” This mentality is everywhere. Even South Harmon’s new fake dean spouts it to degree-hungry parents.

How strange, then, that South Harmon Institute of Technology seemingly rejects the shit out of this notion. When faced with over a hundred newly accepted students later that day, Bartleby chooses not to own up to his lie. Standing before the new students, he bemoans college exclusivity and decries “isn’t it time you’re said ‘yes’ to?” and proceeds to let everyone into his fake college. In the very next scene the President of nearby Harmon College, the region’s elite academy, explains that selectivity and exclusivity are integral to a school’s stature.  While this is traditionally a reference to the admissions process, the President lays out his plan for a physical manifestation of this exclusion: a massive, gentrifying gateway “to keep knowledge in, and ignorance out.” Meanwhile, in order to craft a plan, Bartleby pays a visit to Harmon College to figure out what higher education is supposed to be. The ensuing montage is one of highly structured, stifling curricula, a lack of individuality in massive classrooms, and really goal-oriented, grade-driven students.

Despite his dean’s argument that college was about job-readiness, Bartleby decides to ask the new students what they want to learn. “All of our lives we’ve been told what to learn, well today the tide’s going to turn because today – we’re asking the customer.” This leads to the creation of a whiteboard covered in course ideas, and each student’s tuition is spent predominantly on those subjects. When the love-interest visits, she quickly asks Bartleby, “there aren’t any tests or required reading or any of that nonsense?”

But are tests and required reading really the problem?  When Bartleby tries to steer away from traditional higher education, it results in a broad curriculum taught by the students that relies on experiences rather than grades. No required Ancient Roman history class when you want to be a photographer, no spillover class in front of a speaker, and no recording of every word in case it’s on the test. But higher education was never supposed to be these things anyways. While a basic curriculum should provide some foundation for learning, the stifling major maps of many of today’s colleges are a way of streamlining students to make everything easier for administration. Massive class sizes save school’s money and grading systems quicken the evaluation process. And on top of all of this, the exclusivity of some universities is a part of why they are so expensive. All of this is a result of the commodification of education. It’s this type of education is the kind that treats students as customers.

So when the people at Harmon out Bartleby as a fraud, the crew decides to fight for accreditation  The state defines a college as “a body of people with a shared common purpose of a higher education,” and at the hearing, the board states that a college must have a facility, a curriculum, and a faculty. The facility comes in the form of a mental hospital with a skating ramp, the curriculum is wheeled out in whiteboard-form, and the students identify themselves as faculty (kinda like, you know, grad students).  Bartleby issues a monologue decrying college traditions of hazing outcasts, driving students crazy with stress, and robbing students of creativity. “You don’t need teachers or a classroom to learn,” he argues, “just people with the desire to better themselves.”

When the board votes to allow the school to operate on an experimental basis, the chairman states that “the true purpose of education is to stimulate the creativity and the passions of the student body.”  But what hope does South Harmon have?

South Harmon eschews everything from a proper gymnasium to tenured faculty in establishing its by-the-student-for-the-student model. It succeeds in placing decision-making with those most concerned with the education at hand – the students and the faculty. With students paying into the system with the hopes of learning something in order to better their lives, they ought to have a say in what they do in school. South Harmon makes good on this promise, using tuition funds primarily on the education of students. Today’s universities spend that same money on construction, marketing, losing $23 billion in investments – anything but teaching. Tuition dollars need to go towards education, and at South Harmon they do. At local rival Harmon College, the money is spent on gentrifying the neighborhood for an arch named after the President, by the President.

South Harmon also lacks grades completely. When visiting Harmon, Bartleby saw sleep-deprived students mumbling mnemonics and frantically scribbling down everything the professor says. Note-taking and memory strategies can help you learn, of course, but test-oriented learning isn’t learning at all. Today, education at all levels is obsessed with grades – be it standardized testing or many schools’ unspoken policy or not failing students (lest they ruin the school’s stats). But in classes of hundreds of students, grading a multiple choice test is the only way your SOC-101 teacher is going to decide that you passed. In small classes, where there is more attention paid to each student and more intensive learning rather than test-taking, grades aren’t needed. If the class is small enough, you can see who’s learning and you don’t need grades. If the class is small enough, learning will be happening, and you don’t need to fail people. South Harmon’s classes are all small – except a few lectures from the dean that seem more like a speaker series than a course. Small classes with committed faculty and engaged students mean you don’t need grades. Get rid of large class sizes, get rid of grades. Just like we need to get rid of endless spending on non-educational excess.

Another place where Gaines’ model is absolutely right is the complete lack of administration at the school. Administration is – of course – the most absurd part of higher education today. It’s the source of a host of problems we face today, like stringent curricula, tuition hikes, and lack of academic freedom and it’s the embodiment of the bureaucracy of education that we’re dealing with now. Indeed, my undergraduate years were spent at a state university with a team of over a dozen vice presidents, and I’m currently studying at a school with a dozen more. Faculty and students can run schools, and they should. After all, they’re the ones that higher education is meant to serve. Meanwhile, the effects of administrative-heavy colleges is everywhere, be it the monetary cost of administrative bloatthe disasters of appointed governing boards, or the erosion of faculty governance. And South Harmon soundly rejects its very existence.

It’s not a novel concept that institutions of higher education be run efficiently to better use resources for learning and research. Rather than fund administrative bloat, go on urban construction binges, sign deals with board members’ companies, or profit off of research patents, universities should be funding teaching and research for the public good. Universities used to be run predominantly by the faculty – whose primary concern was research and education – not full-time administrators. In the fictional world of Accepted, it took a team of would-be freshmen to build their own fake school in order to have a college not turned into a money-draining all-administrative body that saw teaching as a means to feed capitalism. What will it take for our universities to throw off the yoke of the administration and reclaim the university for those who use it?

Book Recommendations – South African Edition

So, my online presence has been a bit quiet. Weekend readings and occasional tweets are still outgoing, but not much else. My first semester of grad school has come and gone, and the last few weeks have been spent polishing off two term papers, preparing proposals for my thesis, studying for a language final, and moving Henry James books around at the library. Now that all of that’s done, I wanted to recommend some of the many books I still have stacked on my windowsill.

For a South African history course, I wrote a term paper looking at how anti-Apartheid activists used their own trials as platforms to criticize the government. I concentrated on Nelson Mandela’s trials (when caught in hiding and then in the Rivonia Trial) and Steve Biko’s testimony in the Black Consciousness Trial, but found other examples too. I spent some time looking at court records on microfilm – like an old school historian – but these are a few of the more helpful books on the subject of trials during apartheid:

  • Donald Woods’ Biko is a great book for all things Steve Biko. A journalist and friend of Biko’s, Woods includes lengthy excerpts from Biko’s five-days-long testimony in the Black Consciousness trial which I’ve come to rely on. An alternative to this is Millard Arnold’s complete transcript of the trial, although it’s hard to find.
  • Michael Lobban’s White Man’s Justice, while not specifically addressing my topic, is a really good resource on how the apartheid state used trials to legitimate oppression.
  • Joel Joffe’s The State vs. Nelson Mandela: The Trial That Changed South Africa is a good account of the Rivonia Trial, on which Joffe served as an assistant counsel to the defense. His writing style isn’t the best, and he jumps back and forth from trial transcripts to his own narration without much notice, which can be frustrating if you’re doing research.
  • Mary Benson edited a collection of speeches given by activists in The Sun Will Rise: Statements from the Dock by Southern African Political Prisoners, which includes several statements I used in my paper in addition to other really interesting excerpts.

Another term paper I did was on the symbol of land and territory as a founding myth for South Africa. It was for my first ever sociology course, and I chose to look at South African history and the founding myth that Afrikaners had crafted. I used a lot of articles (by du Toit on the role of Calvinism, Templin on the Great Trek, and Marschall on monuments), but these books came in handy as well:

but nonetheless I’ve found these texts to be really helpful:

  • T. Dunbar Moodie’s The Rise of Afrikanerdom utilizes the sociological concept of a civil religion, and in this book he paints a clear picture of the role of the Boers’ Calvinist religion in their nationalism throughout the early twentieth century.
  • Leonard Thompson’s The Political Mythology of Apartheid examines the concept pretty thoroughly, looking at the history of the Great Trek and its place at the center of Afrikaner nationalism. It does a good job of looking at how this came about and when.
  • Another helpful text is Donald Harman Akenson’s God’s Peoples: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster. It compares the prominence of a covenant with God in the narratives of the Afrikaners in South Africa, the Zionists in Israel, and the Protestants in Northern Ireland. It doesn’t say much that Moodie and Thompson don’t already explain, but it’s a great comparative look.
  • The Frightened Land: Land, Landscape and Politics in South Africa in the Twentieth Century by Jennifer Beningfield was a great resource. Required reading for the history course mentioned above, it’s a really innovative look at how apartheid changed the actual landscape of South Africa. For this paper, the chapter on the Voortrekker Monument was essential – the whole book is well-worth a read.

And those are my recommended readings on South Africa. Hopefully someone finds these recommendations helpful. With the end of the semester, you should see more of me over the winter reprieve from school. While I might be done with these papers, I’d love any additions – feel free to comment if you know of other resources on these topics.

Caine Blog: “Hunter Emmanuel” by Constance Myburgh

This is the fifth and final review of stories for the Caine Prize blogging endeavor. We are wrapping up with “Hunter Emmanuel” by Constance Myburgh of South Africa. You can read the story for yourself here and find other reviews at the bottom of this post. The winner of the Caine Prize will be announced next month.

This post is a bit late, as I didn’t know how to write about this last story. I’ve had a lot of trouble figuring out how to write this post, as I came away from the story with no idea what to think of it. Part of me wonders if that’s also why my blogging colleagues have also been late to review Constance Myburgh’s story. When reading, one often looks at the author’s purpose, but in giving “Hunter Emmanuel” two readings, I couldn’t find a purpose. The story just sort of occurred.

Myburgh’s short story comes out of the pulp fiction genre, or something like it, which is something I really didn’t expect in this year’s shortlist. I think all five stories this year have demonstrated the judges’ commitment to showcasing a new taste of African literature rather than the stereotypical war and poverty, which is a welcome sight. The story follows the title character, Hunter Emmanuel, as he investigates a crime after finding a human leg in the woods.

The problem is, that’s all it does. It follows him. The prose is well-done and includes some interesting imagery and dialogue, but the actual plot is weak. Hunter finds the leg, then has some short conversations with the police before going on his independent investigation. He talks to the woman whose leg was found, but doesn’t talk so much as accosts her because he “must” investigate because he is a man. It all comes across as not really making sense, and continues to get stranger as he intimidates a young troublemaker to find out where the leg came from. Finally, he ends up “solving” the mystery, if you want to call it solved, and the story abruptly ends without really explaining what’s going on. All that you really know is that South Africa has some weird shit going on.

As I wrap up this year’s Caine Prize blogathon, I think others will join me in saying that Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s story, “La Salle de Departe,” is my clear pick for the Prize. The story is a wonderful look at how migration affects Africans, it avoids the pitfalls of writing for Western stereotypes of Africa, and above all else it is well-written and interesting. In a distant second, I think I like Rotimi Babatunde’ss “Bombay’s Republic.” In hindsight, Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial” was too preachy and expected and it clearly played towards Western readers. Meanwhile, I didn’t really get “Urban Zoning” by Billy Kahora, and I don’t think there’s much to get from “Hunter Emmanuel” by Constance Myburgh. I don’t really know what order to put those in, but they fell short compared to the other two.

All in all, it’s been a really interesting experience and I enjoyed doing it again. I look forward to the announcement and in the meantime I’ll be hoping for Myambo’s win. All of the stories avoided the poverty-porn issue that many were unhappy with last year, and there was a diverse range of topics and style this year. Plus, it’s been great reading what so many ot.  great bloggers have to say about these stories.

For the final co-blogging experience:

Caine Blog: “La Salle de Départ” by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo

This is the fourth post of five on the shortlist for the Caine Prize. This is a review of “La Salle de Départ” by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo of Zimbabwe. You can find the story here and see more reviews at the bottom of this post.

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s story is centrally about two characters and the how much difference distance can create. One, Fatima, is a divorcee with a son living in Senegal; the other is her brother, Ibou, who has gone to America to study. A bulk of the story takes place during a car ride to the airport, during which Fatima works up the courage to ask Ibou to take her son to America, and the dialogue between the two goes very far to show how much distance – both physical and beyond – has grown between the two. Throughout their conversation the two face a sort of disconnect. Ibou constantly struggles to find the right words – literally as he translates from English and figuratively as he navigates how to explain his reasoning – to explain why he cannot take her son to America.

The conversation takes on a number of themes, but they all revolve around the growing divide. Ibou is a man, after all, and he can fly, while Fatima can only nest, an idea Fatima returns to several times when thinking about her life and her son’s. This understanding of gender is just one way that Myambo addresses the division in the family. Class also plays a huge role, especially when Ibou reflects on how his partner, Ghada, interacts with her own family. Ibou is one of the few members of his family to achieve the dream of gaining success in America. By doing this, he becomes separate and different from the rest of his family. Meanwhile, Ghada has a health relationship with her wealthy Egyptian family. This fact stresses that class, and not blood, is what makes strong family ties possible. I think the decision to take a story about a family member removed from home and center it specifically on the resulting division was a good one. In doing this, how Ibou changes is only part of the story, and how Fatima doesn’t change, or how she changes in different ways, is another piece. How the two characters interact with each other is significant, and the dialogue in the back of an uncle’s taxi demonstrates this expertly well.

The great thing about this story is how much responsibility the reader has, which was my big problem with Stanley Kenani’s story last week.  Myambo gives you a dialogue filled with tension and emotion, and the reader has to decide what’s really going on underneath. Where Kenani stated everything outright, this story keeps a lot of things hidden – things you have to dig for. Ibou’s firm decision to refuse to take Babacar home could stem from a cultural divide, selfishness, or his honest belief of what was best for his nephew. Fatima’s frustration could have roots in her love for her son, her anger at not being able to do the same thing her brother did, or out of seeming necessity. There are a number of ways to understand the conversation, all while watching two siblings struggle to talk. That’s what I found really powerful in the story.

To read the co-bloggers:

Caine Blog: “Love on Trial” by Stanley Kenani

This is the third week of reviews for stories in the running for the Caine Prize for African Writing. This week’s short story is “Love on Trial” by Stanley Kenani of Malawi. You can find the story as a .pdf here and you can scroll down to see reviews by other bloggers.

Homosexuality in Africa (especially southern and eastern Africa)  has been in the news more and more, with countries recently cracking down even more while Western countries simultaneously decry human rights abuses. Most recently, and most encouragingly, Malawi’s new President Joyce Banda announced that she wanted Parliament to repeal the national ban on homosexuality. While far from actually repealing the law (as that headline would suggest), the speech could pave the way for a path separate from Uganda’s recent efforts to make homosexuality punishable by death. Enter Stanley Kenani, whose story is about a man arrested for “unnatural offenses” and “indecent practices between males.”

What I really like about the story is its ability to weave separate stories into one. While the story is about Charles, the “offending” male, it is also very much about the local bar denizen who outs him, and, most importantly, about the intersection of religion and rights.

When Charles is interviewed by the presenter of a well-known television program, he comes with Bible in hand. When the interviewer asks Charles a private question, and he responds with a similarly private question, the interviewer chides him, saying that Malawi is a God-fearing nation and that they could not broadcast such obscene words. Later, the presenter cites the Bible to show that homosexuality is unnatural, and Charles responds:

We’re a secular state, by the way, not a theocracy. Only an individual can be regarded as God-fearing, but the collection of fourteen million individuals that make up Malawi cannot be termed God-fearing. Among the fourteen million there are rapists and murderers, corrupt government officials, thieves and those who sleep with goats.

Later, after Charles’ trial ends with a conviction, Western nations express their disappointment by threatening to withdraw aid funding. The Malawian Information Minister goes on the news saying that “donors are threatening to cut aid but we don’t care. We are a God-fearing nation.” The idea that Malawi’s 80% Christian majority could convert the whole of Malawi into a God-fearing nation, and by doing that require that homosexuality be a criminal offense, is something that we’ve all seen before, and not just abroad.

Kenani’s story itself is made up of a few parts. The parts centering on Lapani Kachingwe, the Chipiri resident that discovers Charles, touch on how Mr. Kachingwe gained his popularity by holding his story ransom for drinks, and how his health deteriorates after aid funding is stripped away from Malawi. The sections about Charles vary from his interview to his trial to a glimpse at his past through a woman’s attempts to woo him. What most of these sections share is a strong reliance on dialog, which I enjoyed reading. I like reading stories that have a good dialog, and this story has whole pages of conversation.

The only drawback to “Love on Trial,” and I’m not sure it’s a drawback or not, is that the message seems rather contrived, or at least forced. The story follows an almost predictable pattern, and the unexpected bits (like the end) come across as a fable teaching a child between right and wrong. While I agree that’s it’s probably bad to gossip about private matters that are also illegal, the ending of the story reads as Kenani telling me what happens, and not as me experiencing it as some literature can do. Despite this criticism, the story itself is good and deserves credit. More than anything, it was a good read, which is very welcome.

Note: The group-blogging experience has really made me do an about-face concerning Kenani’s story. I still think there are good aspects to the story, but my fellow bloggers have pointed out a host of problems with the narrative, the characters, and the writing. You should definitely take a look at what they have to say:

Caine Blog: “Urban Zoning” by Billy Kahora

This is the second of five reviews for short stories on the shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing. This week’s story is “Urban Zoning” by Billy Kahora (Kenya), and you can read the story here (.pdf). At the bottom of the post, I’ll be adding reviews from other bloggers.

It took me quite a while to get into reading Billy Kahora’s shortlisted piece, the writing seemed jumbled and disoriented, but that is what it’s supposed to be. The first portion follows the central character, Kandle, as he navigates the Zone – a state of mind described as “the calm, breathless place he found himself in after drinking for a minimum of three days straight.” It’s a place that really unhinges you, and it’s a place that has taken a number of his friends; one had nearly bled to death, one died in a car accident, another became suicidal.

The Zone is like a symbol of the damage that Kandle has endured and doled out, and is a precarious place to be. To me, the writing reflects this. The writing about the Zone changes speed quickly, alters between topics, and goes between the present, out on Tom Mboya Street and Harambee Avenue, and the past, in boarding school and back home. In one flashback, the reader learns of an incident of sexual abuse that exacerbated Kandle’s disdain for physical contact. His hatred for contact led to him giving up rugby and moving on to a different stage of life. But, “same with life and the street, in the city – you needed to be natural with those close to you.” Kandle gave up on rugby since his hatred for contact wouldn’t allow him to do well, but he couldn’t give up on life, where he faced the same problem.

From this revelation, the story moves forwards to Kandle’s arrival at Eagle Bank, where he works, or worked. After a recent spell of absenteeism and being indebted to the accountant for a loan, Kandle is met by unamused employees as they lead him to a meeting with executives and department representatives to assess his performance. Presumably still in the Zone, Kandle sits down and listens to manger after manager explain the reasons for his behavior and express sympathy or judgement for him. In the end, Kandle expertly manipulates his superiors with tears and stories that convince them to allow him to keep his job. Beyond this, he is able to take a longer leave of absence and even keep the loan. On top of it all, the branch accountant asks Kandle for a loan, and even offers a blank check as repayment. Kandle navigates the meeting as well as he navigates the Zone.

The story is, at its heart, about how much Kandle changed. In the meeting, all of the bank’s employees reference how Kandle was a smart and determined worker who never missed a day. In the story, however, the only Kandle we really know is one who is a manipulative, womanizing, uncaring, alcoholic thief. He has crashed down into a different world than he was intended, he has come of age in an unconventional way, epitomizing the failure to achieve. And yet, in the final scene, he and the accountant exchange a special kind of laughter, recognizing Kandle’s success in spite of his detractors. Kandle, continuing his downward spiral in society, navigates the bank like he navigated the Zone, and like he navigates Nairobi.

Co-Bloggers:

Caine Blog: “Bombay’s Republic” by Rotimi Babatunde

This is the first of five posts in a series reviewing the shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing. This week’s short story is “Bombay’s Republic” by Rotimi Babatunde of Nigeria. You can download the story as a .pdf here. Like last year, you can find links to a growing number of fellow bloggers’ posts at the bottom of this one.

This story starts off about an African soldier’s experience fighting in the Burma Campaign during the Second World War and after he returns. But the story’s motif is the expansion (and disruption) of his perception of reality. Bombay, the soldier, encounters numerous realizations that confound and expand his understanding of what is feasible. Some of the villagers in Ceylon visit the African soldiers in their showers to see if they really have tails, which Bombay finds to be absurd. The Japanese soldiers flee his platoon because they do not want to be eaten. Others dismember the bodies of dead African soldiers so they don’t come back to life. Time and again Bombay hears things about his people that he can’t even fathom. He seems to take it all in without comment, simply digesting the new ideas.

But another thing that he couldn’t fathom before war is the vulnerability of the Europeans. The story opens with a reference to the black Native Police constable saluting the white District Officer. “This was how the world was and there was no reason to think it could be otherwise,” Babatunde writes. But after Bombay’s captain goes mad when their search party comes across the tortured remains of his lieutenant, Bombay’s reality expands again. Bombay realizes that the captain had been transformed into nothing but an animal, and that perhaps the white District Officer back home could also be reduced to such a beast. War is constantly reshaping his understanding of reality. Driving this point home is Bombay’s killing of a rogue white soldier. Bombay imagines a scenario straight out of Things Fall Apart, but instead he is applauded for his quick action – flipping the traditional colonial reality on its head. The war ends, and Bombay goes home with new perspective.

But Bombay’s perceptions reach beyond reality, and he follows a different path than you might expect. While we expect his new take on life to disrupt the status quo of society, Bombay turns in on himself. Instead of joining activists after the war, he eventually calls the old jailhouse home and unilaterally declares his home a sovereign nation. The adults in the community mock him and ostracize him as he crafts busts of idols for his new country. He spends the rest of his years considering himself as the head of state of one of the first independent African nations, winning dozens of elections.

It’s no coincidence that his “independent” residence was an old jailhouse. Before leaving Asia at the war’s end, his platoon leader lamented that they were on the Forgotten Front of the war. Indeed, much of the fighting in South Asia is marginalized when compared to the rest of the Pacific. Bombay says that he doesn’t need memory, but his return to his home country is marked by his self-isolation from the changes around him. His reality becomes distorted upon his return, as he acts less and less like a decorated veteran and more and more severed from society.

I was expecting his encounters at war to shape his life back home – perhaps as a dissident or at least a sympathizer to the revolution. Instead, they changed him into a man who spends his time telling stories (to children about leeches instead of to adults about the Europeans’ war), until he finally sequestered himself in his jail. There’s a direct clash with what his experiences should have taught him, and what he did with the new knowledge. After freeing himself in Asia from the constricting realities of colonial life, he became constrained to his own jail in his own country.

And after seeing that a white man could be reduced to a creature and hearing that some people believe Africans have tails, Bombay transforms at home. He sees himself as turning from a veteran into a head of state, but those around him see him turn into a beast. His skin is dotted with burn scars from leeches. When tax collectors bother him at his house, he urinates on them. People even begin referring to him as a leopard. Ultimately, Bombay does change the status quo back home, but only for himself and his republic, not for the society around him. As the final sentences point out, he considers those of his birth country to be foreign, because he has separated himself from them (and they have kept their distance from him). To them, he’s just a memory, something which he never really cared for anyways.

Co-Bloggers:

The Caine Blog Returns

I’m not known for my informed understanding of literature. I was in AP English classes, but in my college career I took English 102 and that was it. I’ve always liked literature, but I’ve never really digested it the way some people do. Over the years, my reading list has been increasingly covered in history and politics – mostly of the African conflict variety (seriously, just check my reading page). But knowing the facts of an event or series of events is only one part of understanding it, and that’s where I’ve turned to African literature. Last year, I joined a team of bloggers in reviewing the five short stories that were shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. Those reviews are here:

A couple of months ago, I finally read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which has been the model for African literature (for better or worse), and I’m continuing my quest for more reading. Specifically, in a couple of weeks the Caine bloggers will be reconvening, and I’ll be reviewing the five short stories over a five-week period. The stories are all from Anglophone Africa, which I guess is expected and – to some extent – accepted. However, based on the judge’s statement, it seems promising that there will be a diverse quintet of stories this year.

Starting next week, I’ll be reviewing these stories. I hope you enjoy the stories and – if you’re interested – I hope you join us in this endeavor. These are the finalists for the Caine Prize (links to pdfs):

Seat Belts and Human Rights Prosecutions: A Digressive Review

Having taken several classes centered on accountability for mass atrocity crimes, I’ve run across a lot of common questions. One question is the notion that we all know that killing is bad – mass killing exponentially so – so what effect does making it illegal or prosecuting it really have?

A couple of years ago I ran across, of all things, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood speaking on CSPAN (I know, right?). I have no idea what the circumstances were, but he detailed that in the past people rarely used seat belts despite knowing that they protected them. After states began to make it illegal to drive without wearing seat belts, more and more people wear them now. According to some surveys, many wear them not to be in line with the law but because they are safe and that is what you do when you are in a car. In a very weird connection and long stretch, you could say the same about atrocities – after a while the fact that one faces prosecution could change the mindset about actions one is willing to take. It’s weird, but it’s a connection. When society speaks up about what is wrong, fewer people are willing to commit that act.

Enter Kathryn Sikkink, professor at the University of Minnesota and author of The Justice Cascade. I’m currently halfway through the book and it makes a strong case for human rights prosecutions. The book gives an intricate history of human rights prosecutions in Greece, Portugal, and Argentina. Sikkink also works to debunk the notion that the specter of prosecutions is dangerous for transitional democracies, another concern I’ve heard in academia and in advocacy.

But the heart of the book is that Sikkink looks at the diffusion of justice and accountability between countries. The first change in the international justice system was to make individuals accountable instead of just states – and this has definitely grown as more perpetrators are indicted and prosecuted for their actions. She also notes the increase in international, foreign, and domestic human rights prosecutions across the board by using a database.  The database counts all “processes of prosecution” regardless of verdict and uses the State Department’s human rights reports as its source.

According to her research, Sikkink found that Latin America, which has had the most human rights prosecutions of any region, is also the leader in successful democratic transitions. Most of the allegations that trials could lead to a renewal of conflict seem rooted in an attempted coup in Argentina when prosecutions expanded to include more suspects. The coup failed and the trials continued and even spread across the region, fostering democracy. Somehow, the threat has lived on in policy circles.

She also found that more prosecutions foster better human rights practices, and that if four or more countries in one region have prosecutions, the countries nearby could benefit even without having prosecutions – accountability and deterrence cross borders. The question is if that deterrence only works in a regional context or if it can lead to a global deterrence through international prosecutions. I’m only partway through the book so far, but Sikkink makes a pretty good case for how prosecutions can impact societies for the better.

Going Down to the Barn: Characters of the Walking Dead

It’s been a very long time since I’ve talked about anything remotely close to a television series, but I had a random thought this morning to write a bit about The Walking Dead on AMC.  I’ve been watching the show since it first began last year; while I haven’t read any of the comics, I have wiki’d myself some insight into the plot.  The current season has primarily centered around two things that haven’t really changed: Hershel’s farm and Sophia’s well being, neither of which has really moved forwards.  But for tonight, I wanted to write about something specific: not just Sunday’s “mid-season finale” episode, but a particular scene.  If you’re a fan and you haven’t seen the episode, you probably shouldn’t read any more of this.

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