Friday, 24 April 2015

Human Migrations

Humans have been migrating, I suspect, since the dawn of time. There have been many reasons for it I suspect, starting with the need to move when a familiar area can no longer support the tribe, clan, family and going all the way up to conflict and the need to escape. Individually the reasons can range from the desire to find a sexual/breeding partner to the desire for wealth and power. Then there are those who can see no hope of leading a life of hope or fulfilment in the place of their birth, and need to move to find employment even of the most basic once they reach adulthood. And when even that is denied them through war, discrimination, crime and corruption or lack of any viable opportunity, they are forced to take desperate measures.

This is where we see the sort of tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean at present. As the latest death toll rises, we hear all the usual politicians wringing their hands and saying all the usual things about ‘addressing the problem at its roots’ but doing nothing.

Reading all the usual twaddle from politicians, ‘aid agencies’, UN officials (many from the countries that ARE the problem) and commentators on various news shows, one is struck, very forcibly, by the lack of any workable solution being proposed by any of them. The UN and various ‘humanitarian’ groups all want Europe to throw open its borders and let the hordes in. No checks, no restrictions - just take them in and presumably house, feed and clothe them. Our political leaders want to give more ‘aid’ or send ‘advisers’ and, of course, the Aid Agencies and NGOs all want more money so they can do more to ‘lift people out of poverty’. All very laudable, but none of it actually addresses the root of the problem - incompetent and utterly corrupt governments.

In our haste to ‘de-colonise’ Africa in particular, we overlooked something rather important. Very few of the new ‘nations’ we left south of the Sahara had any ‘tradition’ of settled civilisation prior to colonisation, and even fewer were actually homogenous peoples. Most included more than one tribal group, and most of those tribes were traditional enemies who preyed on each other until forced to stop by the colonial power. The Mashona were happily enslaving all their neighbours and selling them to Arab slave traders at Mombasa and Dar Es Salaam right up until the British - at the behest of none other than Cecil John Rhodes (whose statue has just been attacked and now removed from the campus at University of Cape Town) sent in the Army to put a stop to it in 1898. That’s right, 1898! Robert Mugabe, take note.

Southern Africa is the classic example of historic migrations, since ALL the current ‘Bantu’ tribes now claiming it as their ‘homeland’ actually only arrived there after 1700 - around 40 years after the Dutch established their trading post at the Cape. They displaced the indigenous peoples, the Khoi folk, who formed three groups, a coastal people known to the Dutch as Strandlopers, the ‘Bushmen’ who inhabited the drier inland regions, and the Hottentot peoples of the western Cape. Another group who inhabited the central plateau - now the Free State and Northern Cape - have vanished entirely, their only traces being dry stone constructions of cattle pens and strange ‘beehive’ houses entered on hands and knees through an angled tunnel entrance. Like the Khoi peoples, they were driven out, driven into the deserts, and eventually killed on sight by the invading Bantu. Though to hear it now, it was the Europeans ‘wot done it’. Sadly, for the builders of the stone huts, the White explorers that found their remains were about fifty years too late.

So what is driving today’s mass migrations? 

To a very large extent it appears to be the failure of the post-colonial governments of almost all the African states to provide any sort of stable government. Plus the total lack of any prospects for employment, education, or to house, feed, and clothe oneself decently. Almost certainly one of the most powerful drivers is overpopulation. There simply aren’t the natural resources to support the populations now trying to subsist on them. Water is an obvious one, but so is arable land. I suspect that one reason sub-saharan Africa has not produced any settled cities or permanent agriculture is that the soil and the water available cannot sustain them. 

Thus, until fairly recent ‘colonial’ history, the agriculture tended to be slash and burn, farm it until the soil and the water was exhausted - then move on. Most of Africa is not covered by dense jungle or forest - by far the largest portion of it is desert or semi-desert, and most tribal systems prior to the colonial rush, were hunter gatherer and nomadic. Neither of these systems is suited to the massive expansion of the populations all over Africa, and the lack of industries, and lack of commercial traditions (in the western sense) means that most now have to find ways to make a living independently of the sort of system the developed countries enjoy. Nor is it likely that these will develop in the short term, given that corruption is rampant, nepotism, tribalism and sometimes xenophobia reach into every aspect of daily life.

Only those folk who have seen the shanty towns, the lack of infrastructures, the sewerage running in the streets and the lack of even the most basic services in these countries can begin to understand the desperation many feel. Only when our political classes, who burble on about ‘poverty’ and ‘economic development’ as if throwing money at it will change it, even begin to understand how their approach is simply enriching the most corrupt, and grinding the poorest even further into the mire will we begin to find a solution. Tanzania’s President has recently sold almost the entire Masai Mara off to the Sultan of one of the Gulf States. One point 6 MILLION square kilometres of land, as a ‘private’ safari park. Pity about the Masai who are now being driven from the land their forefathers first settled around the time the ‘Prophet’ the Sultan follows was hiding out in the mountains. 

Mozambique is selling huge tracts of land to the Chinese and to Western entrepreneurs for ‘development’ - and turning to small subsistence farmers off, forcing them into squatter camps, or into the hands of people traffickers so they end up on overloaded boats drowning in the Med or elsewhere in their efforts to find a decent life somewhere. The same thing is happening all over Africa, and while the IMF, the UN and other applaud these deals and approve the funding on the grounds it will help ‘develop’ the country, the reality is that most of it finds its way straight back into Swiss and other bank accounts held by - you guessed it - the ‘governing’ families and Parties who sold land they don’t ‘own’ in the first place.

Is it any wonder then that everywhere you look in Africa there are conflicts, armed and otherwise? Everywhere you look there is grinding poverty that can never be addressed? Is it any wonder the people resort to such desperate measures as to board unsuitable vessels and take the risk of catastrophe to reach what our prosperity projects as the land in which the streets are paved with gold, and everyone is a millionaire?

Easy for idle protesters, many on State handouts, to ‘demand’ we simply open the borders and take them in. Easy to scream, rant and shout that ‘more must be done’ to save the boat people, but what do we do with them once they are here? We have unemployment, we have people in poverty, we have people in need of assistance, and much as we’d like to, we simply can’t take in all those we’d like to. The solution lays in Africa itself, and though it may be painful, that is where it has to be addressed. Not on the open sea between Europe and North Africa, and not in Italy, Southern France, Britain, Greece or anywhere else in Europe.

I would suggest it has to start with stripping the ill-gotten gains from those in power there, and, perhaps under international supervision, the construction of proper infrastructures, proper services and the founding of proper industries, commerce, and, of course, education. That would be the sensible way to go — but since we’re dealing with politicians (with their own peccadilloes to protect) I will not be holding my breath to see it happen.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015


I was recently interviewed by Kura Carpenter, a cover designer based in New Zealand. Some readers will know that she has designed other covers for my books, so it was a pleasure to discuss my latest book with her. The interview can be read on her blog Kura Carpenter Design.

Discussions are underway on the design of the cover for my next book, set around 1836 and life in and around London and the Tahmes estuary.