okello oculi, Executive Director, AFRICA VISION 525

Hurricane Katrina, which hit a population belt
containing 9.7 million people in the states of
Alabama, Luisiana and Mississippi on the Gulf of
Mexico coast of the United States of America, struck
with a political and social vengence. For one, it hit
a constituency whose votes had probably been rigged in
two successive elections (certainly in the 2000 one);
in which George Bush won against two successive
Democratic Party candidates whose political leanings
may well have favoured the economic welfare of poor
blacks all across America. For another, the depth and
scope of human dislocation, death and denial of timely
assistance, elicited a grand and sincere offer by
President Fidel Castro to send hundreds of Cuban
doctors and food,;a political leader who Republican
Party politicians in Washington (who believe in a
world without morality)wish had been caught, dragged
out from the same rathole and humiliated with Sadam
Hussein. Thirdly, it struck in the neighbourhood of
President Bush's home state of Texas and a political
sector of the country whose economic, social and
political backwardness has remained a national shame
which and taboo to talk about.

An incident which illustrates this taboo happed in
1972 at the conference of the International Political
Science Association held in Montreal Canada. A paper
by Professor Ira Sharkandsky, from the prestigious
Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin, titled
"The United States as an Underdeveloped Country", had
the curious effect of drawing a jam-packed audience
and polarising it; with the Asian,African and Latin
American scholars cheering Sharkansky, while the North
Americans and their European cousins bristled with
resentment over his washing America's dirty linen in
public. For the Asians, Africans and Latin Americans,
it was a moment for a giant gasp of relief from a
load of academic insult and racial arrogance they had
carried for most of the the post-colonial era.

And yet Professor Sharkansky's case was that a
passionate cry. His case was simply that a deliberate
curtain of darkness was being thrown over a tyranical
regime of social, economic and political poverty and
backwardness which had for centuries decimated people
in the part of the United States he came from.

His case was simply this. In all the literature he had
read about what characterises conditions in countries
which were descrived as "underdeveloped", he had
noticed that all of them apllied to conditions in
Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Mississippi, Lousiana,
Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia. These included: the
majority of the population using pit latrines, high
rates of illiteracy, high prevalence of malnutrition,
poverty often based on landless black serf labour on
vast plantations owned by white landlords, brutal
one-party dictatorships, rigged elections (including
the use of police dogs to stop blacks from registering
to vote), roads without tar, etc.

The reaction of white American academics showed that
while it was good for their academic careers for to
come to Africa to discover these terrible conditions,
it was foolish career politics, as well unpatriotic
scholarship, to look for and expose them in the
southern part of their own country.

In a travel narrative titled "A TURN IN THE SOUTH",
the Trinidadian-British writer and Nobel Prize winner,
V.S. Naipaul, described the poverty which drove
illiterate whites in this region into drunkeness,
racial bigotry, and a sense of hopelessness. It was
not a book that brought him acclaim despite the
brilliant insights he penned down as he turned his
searing glares into that turbulent and putrid society.

Naipaul drew attention to a form of social or
historical irresponsibility (what a Sudanese writer,
Yayib Salleh, called a "season of migration to the
north") in which the most sensitive minds among a
people trapped in a historic oppression and poverty,
move out and away from home instead of standing out to
fight for change. President Bill Clinton was part of a
long black and white chain of this tradition. So were
several of the most brilliant journalists from the
American south who worked for The New York Times, Time
magazine, The Washinton Post, The Washington Times,
the rich and vast television networks CBS, NBC, ABC;
and in the most prestigious universities in the
northern states in America. Working in the North in
the developed and "post-industrial" zone, (or escaping
into the racist slums in Chicago or Harlem) created a
form of amnesia and abdication from the burden of
criticising and fighting to change the brutality of
the American south; fighting for a catching up with
the North by the South.

It could be argued that Lyndon Banes Johnson was a
politician from Texas who came to Washington, learnt
the rules of legislative politics and power; and, on
climbing to the Presidency, decided to use the wealth
and social technology of the North to reconstruct and
civilize his native South. His calls on those
Americans in the rich surburbs of the east coast
states (of Maine,Connecticutt,Massachusets, New York);
the ancestrally socialistic middle classes in the
agricultural-cum-industrial states of Illinois, Iowa,
Indiana, Wisconsin; of California, Oregon and
Washington in the west coast, to hear the cries of the
wretched of the South, were lyrical and passionate
with a twang. They helped him to pass federal laws and
means to enforce measures to bring to the South
elementary democratic rites: like freedom to register
to vote, to vote, and to contest to be voted for;
freedom for some black children to attend schools with
white children; freedom for blacks to buy food in the
same restaurants and coffee shops with whites and buy
goods from inside shops instead of through windows(
that was before they fled to far away surburbs). But
they were reluctant to take economic development to
the South.

His dream of creating the "Great Society" which would
have terminated the rampant poverty, illiteracy, and
what Naipaul saw as a collective idiocy and self pity
(which "Hill Billy" or "Country Music" music from the
region expressed so eloquently and pathetically), was
blocked. It was blocked by the simple device or
leading him deeper and deeper into a war he had not
started: to fight the war in Vietnam; a high
technology war which rechanneled federal funds into
buying military weapons and awarding contracts for the
development of new weapons, the beneficiaries of which
would be those in the North who were shareholders in
such industries and banks which gave them loans.

It is a curious coincidence that Huricane Katrina came
in the footsteps of efforts by legislators in the
worst affected states to embrace liberal freedoms and
anti-racism. The American Senate even reversed itself
in 2005 by declaring "lynching" (or hysterical crowds
of whites seizing a black person and hanging him by
the neck till he died because a white woman had
claimed that he looked at her seductively), to be a
crime. As some of the legislators put it, the region
wants to attract investments from non-white countries
like India, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea. The
region now needs foreign investments to help it break
out of poverty and backwardness. The sad turn for the
blacks in the region is, of course, that there are no
African nations to match potential investments by the
Asian Tigers. Moneys stolen from Africa by public
functionaries have ended up in bank vaults in Europe
and not in Alabama or Mississippi.

But that does not lessen the value of the devastating
impact of Katrina on their lives. Pictures of the city
of New Orleans still under stern, soft and silent
occupation by sea water six days after the huricane
first hit; of a black child standing by a dead body in
water and telling a journalist:"that is my mother,
somebody pushed her down"; of terrified blacks
screaming in panic and angry disorientation; of blacks
of all ages and states of health jammed inside a
sports arena with no water and no toilet spaces; of a
policeman pressing guns against the breast of a black
woman in search of warm clothes for her children,
forcing her to drop clothes she had snatched from a
store and to see those clothes carried away by water;
to witness the absence of governance as fires in an
industrial area of New Orleans burned without social
intervention; to see an American president (who is
waging war against children in Iraq) standing with a
black little girl by his side; all may well add up to
a chemistry of political awakening demanding change
for a new South. For President Bush whose tenure has
been seized by waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (
and under dins of prayerful calls by the Christian
rightwing for more wars in Iran and North Korea),
Katrina may the voice who came in from under the
clouds and waves of the Atlantic Ocean calling him
back home to grow human development.

It is worth wondering if as he flew over vast urban
spaces choked by standing sea water; as television
pictures showed him touched by raw jumbles of
displaced fellow citizens, President George Bush made
a more ringing case to all Americans for the real
birth of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. It would be a
historic case of one Texan turning away from the grime
and crime of war to fulfill the dream of perhaps the
most accomplished Texan politician of the 20th
century; a dream which had been thwarted by northern
political engineers who sent him to war in other lands
in order to keep his native South southern.