Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

Our good friend in this blog, Salama, sends her New Year wishes, and reflections:

5...4...3...2...1...1...HAPPY NEW YEAAAAAAAAR!

So, we have like what, two or three days till 2008 slips away. Man, what a Year has been!, I call it the Bang! Year. It surely sealed itself in history books.

Why is it that, in most difficult and unusual circumstances, Time seems to go slowly?

Yep!, 2008, with all that happened it's gonna be a little bit longer. Not much, only a sec but, yeah! We still have time in our hands. According to NY Times, on New year's Eve, the International Authorities charged with keeping precise time will add a single second to our lives, "leap second" The first since 2005. (Considering that every second counts!).

Looking back, there's been some goodies too regardless of the Economy and the whole Planet being in Peril. We have a couple of few more days to go. Fingers crossed, please, NO MORE DRAMA. Just yesterday Pakistan remembered the death of Benazir Bhutto. It was Dec 28 of last year. Tsunami happened on Dec 26, to name a few. And for this year, It's not that I want to predict but, Gaza is already in flames and almost 300 people are not going to see 2009. And that Moron in Zimbabwe doesn't want to give people a chance to start a New Year Peacefully. There's Congo and Darfur and so on and so forth.

Looking back is not a fun thing to do but, 2008 has been quite interesting. In Bongo, those on high level with high levels of cupidity were taken down. 'For the first time in my adult life, am proud of my country' (and I quoted, am not plagiarizing).

The global economy is in bad shape. Some of the developed countries were trying to avoid the R word but, eventually they admitted that their economy was in recession. And, as you know if they sneeze we all catch the cold. There's been bail outs, unemployment, wars.

Of course as we know history has been made too. For the first time we have a black person who's going to be a leader of the free world. November was a month people!, and you know what else happened in November?...guess...This blog started!... yeeeeah!
Seriously, I feel home here, I feel in place, (mchangiaji upo mzee? mbona kimya kingi? as you can see najitahidi kutaja jina maramoja kutwa, lakini, mwezi wenyewe waja!, sheikh, I'll definately need your advise, ntapata kigugumizi cha vidole. Hopefully I'll be able to handle it, am a big girl.

Any New year resolutions folks? Mine is the same one like last year's. You know the usual one, loose weight, eat right and exercise. Which is going to be dropped on jan 5th. (lol! hopefully not) Since we have the extra second this year, I'll be well prepared for next year!


I just don't want to end up in my couch watching the New Year on T.V. But, I might as well. Through past experiences I will trade a spacious, peacefully, warm New Year for any price. Last year I celebrated with a CROWD! and I mean it, like, a couple of million people and it was so fun. But, the aftermath, unspoken. All I was able to say was, next time I decide to do the same thing, I'll go there with 'kopo' (yea, in case I'll have too much to drink)

Well, ladies and gentlemen, If you can excuse me, Am gonna grab myself a martini.




Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What are we about?

We read in Mwalimu Nyerere’s book, Uhuru na Umoja, that during the 28th June 1962 Parliamentary Debate on the Government’s Motion on the Proposal for the Republic of Tanganyika, Mwalimu argued that it was impossible to create a foolproof constitution, and that the only real protection against tyranny is a national ethic. This is what he said:

"Mr. Speaker, Sir, the point must be made that ultimately the safeguard of a people’s right, the people’s freedom and those things which they value, ultimately the safeguard is the ethic of the nation.

When the nation does not have the ethic which will enable the Government to say: “We cannot do this,that is un-Tanganyikan.” Or the people to say: “That we cannot tolerate, that is un-Tanganyikan”. If the people do not have that kind of ethic, it does not matter what kind of constitution you frame. They can always be victims of tyranny…. What we must continue to do all the time, is to build an ethic of this nation, all the time to build an ethic of this nation, which makes the Head of State whoever he is to say, “I have the power to do this under the Constitution, but I cannot do it, it is un-Tanganyikan.” Or for the people of Tanganyika, if they have made a mistake and elected an insane individual as their Head of State, who has the power under the Constitution to do XYZ if he tried to do it, the people of Tanganyika would say, “We won’t have it from anybody, President or President squared, we won’t have it.”

I believe, sir, that is the way we ought to look at this constitution. We have got to have a little amount of faith, although I know that some Members have been questioning the idea of faith. But, sir, democracy is a declaration of faith in human nature, the very thing we are struggling to safeguard here, the very idea of democracy is a declaration of faith in mankind. And every enemy of democracy is some person who somewhere has no faith in human beings. He doubts. He thinks he is all right, but other human beings are not all right".


Now, ladies and gentlemen: what is our national ethic? What are our core principles as a people and as a nation. Can one say that the main reason for some of our problems is not so much the imperfections of the architecture of our laws and institutions but the lack of a national ethic which makes it difficult to organise our society?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Getting them done...

I had an interesting debate with one fella recently at a party: whether, if you have minimal resources and really have to prioritize, you would go for education or for roads. I wouldn't want to say here where I stood.

Anyway, education and roads are all important. We talked about education here earlier in the month. Let us now talks roads. The image you see is a little outdated but give a near accurate picture of the state of our roads.

If you take a look at the 2007/2008 Global Competitiveness Report published by the World Economic Forum, Tanzania ranks 94th out of 131 countries in overall quality of infrastructure. Specifically, in the quality of road infrastructure, we ranked 87th out of 131 countries.

Consider these other facts:

•With an area of 364,900 sq m (945,000 sq km), we have a total road network of 53,655.7 miles (85,849 km), of which only 7.4 per cent (3960 miles) is paved. And only 70 per cent of the paved roads are in good condition.

•11.7 per cent of our road network consists of trunk roads (6299 miles) that are also used by six landlocked countries for their international trade. Only 49 per cent of these trunk roads are paved. How can we be competitive in international trade with such roads? The cost of transporting a container from Kigali in Rwanda to the port in Dar es Salaam is almost $1.9 per mile compared to $0.03 per mile in the more efficient railway line between Durban in South Africa and Maseru in Lesotho.

•22.3 per cent of our road network (11,966 miles) consists of regional roads that would normally link and interconnect the country into a functioning national market. Only 3.26 per cent of such roads (391 miles) are paved. And of those that are paved only 85 per cent are in good condition. How can we create a functioning and efficient national market with such roads?

•66 per cent of our road network (35,391 miles) consists of district, urban and rural roads. These are the ones linking the productive areas of a predominantly agricultural economy to the national, regional and international market. Besides market access, such roads are necessary if farmers are to diversify into higher-value economic activities to augment incomes. But only 1.4 per cent of these roads (494 miles) are paved. Overall, only 14 per cent of this category of roads is considered in good condition and only 41 per cent in fair condition. Only 38 per cent of the rural population lives within 1.25 miles (2km) of an all-season road. How are we going to efficiently and cost-effectively link the producers with the market with these kinds of roads?

Now, like with all major public investments, the question eventually comes to funding. I am told that for US $1 billion, you can build up to 700 kilometers. We probably need $3-4 billion to sort out all of our major roads. There was a point where we wanted to go to the markets, just like Ghana and Gabon did, and do a sovereign bond and rake at least $2bn. But the market, as you all know, went bust. You can't get that kind of money at 6, or 7, or 8 percent. In fact, Ghana got I think a billion for 7 percent, but now they have to pay 13 percent. And Gabon's rate has gone up too. Now, how do you raise $3 billion at the current environment?

Why are they still here?

The World Bank and IMF, that is. Our good friend, Iddi Mwanyoka aka Rash, sent us an original piece he wrote on the irrelevance of the World Bank and IMF, and how they have kept Africa poor. Interesting point given their timid response in the wake of the global financial crisis. I have always thought that the relevance for at the least the IMF's existence is to prevent the kind of mess that took place. Here is Rash's piece. Enjoy!


Call them 400 pounds Gorilla in the room, and they sure know how to suck the air. For many years IMF and World Bank held custody African nations. These two agents control almost every action that we’re trying to take. They force us to maintain old economical development strategy which based on “export led-growth” or “export led-development”. While most of developed nations moved away from such strategy.

In the man kind history no nation has ever taken the step from being poor to being wealthy exporting raw material in absence of domestic manufacture sector. Although history suggests no body get rich by exporting low value agricultural commodities, the WB and IMF seems to be encouraging or forcing Africa nations to pursue such a strategy, with disastrous results.

Take the international coffee trade as a case in point. In coffee producing countries, IMF and World Bank has been requiring government to liberalize. These have involved measures such as eradicating price model, disbanding trading board and actively encourage increase in production and exports. For instance in 1993 World Bank advised Ugandan government to increase coffee production to five million bags; however World Bank didn’t focus on the other side of the coin which is oversupply of Robusta coffee in world market which led to price crash.

Ironically, the kind of policies that now help majority of African nations to qualify for debt relief under Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) has contributed to trap these nations in the worse economical standard ever. IMF and World Bank expertise ignore simple Economics 101 knowledge which says an increase in supply, without an increase in demand, will lower price. Those expertises only care about increasing in production and exports and reducing state intervention across the global.

In the 1990s IMF and World Bank took a new approached which focused on privatization. They forced poor nation to step aside when it come to industrial management. Yet the United Nation Conference and Development (UNCTAD) has found that the rapid and extensive trade liberalization undertaken by developing countries during the 1990 failed to benefit the poor. According to UNCTAD trade liberalization has cost sub-Sahara nation more than $272Billion for the past 20 years.

In 2003 Ghanaian Parliament passed the law to increase the import duty on poultry products to protect Ghanaian farmers who were fight uphill battle with subsided European poultry producer. However, after a phone call from IMF, the legislated increased import duty was removed by the Ghanaian government after just few weeks.

Leaders of the West have pressurized IMF and World Bank to recommend agricultural liberalization to the third world nations, while they’re maintaining massive subsidies for their own farmers. The ‘one size fits all’ liberalization policies have failed to lead economic growth in developing nations.

Trade liberalization has also created problems for sustainable government income. Research has show that cutting import tariffs has reduced tax revenue resulting in fiscal squeeze, exacerbating the debt problem and causing cutback in infrastructure investment. Although the theory is that governments can replace tariffs with other taxes, this is easy said than done in a real world.

Majority of the IMF and World Bank economist graduated from North America and European universities, and they care about how the policies will benefit their nations. They’re pushing free trade and less regulations without even conduct any studies. We need golden rule when it comes to trading, if a multi million dollar farmer in Idaho received subsidy from US government, then why can’t we even subsidies fertilization for our little guy?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Clipped wings, shattered pride...

Every country wants to have its airline, even when it does not make sense. It is a matter of pride. And, unfortunately, in most old cases, it is the politicians who gets to decide the [internal] routes of a national airliner.

We have had so many false starts with the Air Tanzania. It looks like we are going to have yet another restart. As you have read, earlier this month, the Tanzanian Civil Aviation Authority (TCAA), withdrew the airworthiness certificates for all Air Tanzania aircraft and grounded the airline for unspecified safety and maintainance violations. In the same month IATA canceled Air Tanzania's membership in the organization, citing the same safety and maintainance violations. But, there are lessons to getting a struggling airline off the ground. My friend Peter Serukamba, MP for Kigoma Urban, shared with us this article. Enjoy!

Turning around a struggling airline: An interview with the CEO of Malaysia Airlines.

Idris Jala led the state-controlled carrier from the brink of bankruptcy to record-breaking profits. Now he wants it to become what he calls a "five-star value carrier."

NOVEMBER 2008 • Alex Dichter, Fredrik Lind, and Seelan Singham

When Idris Jala became CEO at Malaysia Airlines, his goal was to keep the carrier flying. Now he wants to create a new breed of air service. Much has happened in the intervening three years.

Malaysia Airlines, the Southeast Asian country's national carrier, was less than four months away from running out of cash when Jala took charge, in December 2005. The state-controlled airline had been struggling for some time, but inadequate yield management, an inefficient network, and poor cost control finally brought it to its knees that year, when it posted a 1.7 billion ringgit ($500 million) loss.

Yet in 2007, the airline earned record annual profits of 851 million ringgit. Such a swing would be remarkable for any company, much less one facing the hurdles common with state ownership: a large number of stakeholders, intense public scrutiny, competing priorities, insufficient freedom to operate commercially, and a host of legacy personnel challenges. Now Jala aspires to turn Malaysia Airlines into a "five-star value carrier."

Jala came to Malaysia Airlines with no experience in the aviation industry or state-run companies. But he had won a reputation for engineering business turnarounds during his 23 years at the oil giant Shell, whose Sri Lankan and Malaysian units he rescued from years of chronic losses. In Sri Lanka, he says, "The Shell leadership told me if I couldn't fix it in two years, just tell them and they would shut it down. I'd be the last person to switch off the lights."

In this interview at his office, at Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport, near Kuala Lumpur, Jala discussed the lessons he brought from Shell and how he met the urgent need for change when he arrived at Malaysia Airline

The Quarterly: What were your first impressions when you took over Malaysia Airlines, in 2005?

Idris Jala: The company was in a financial crisis—the worst in its entire 50-year history. At the time, we just had enough cash to last three-and-a-half months.

Before I joined, I looked at ten years of financial data. When you're brought into a problem, you should first ask what's wrong with the profit-and-loss statement. It's crucially important to frame the problem in the context of the P&L rather than something nebulous, like the culture, the structure, the processes, and all these other things. You must anchor everything on the profit and loss. I'm boringly consistent on that point.

Here, it was clear that there were three problems with the P&L statement. The first was a very low yield. Average fares were unable to cover the cost of running the airline. The second problem was a very inefficient network. For a long time, we were asked to fly routes that didn't make any commercial sense. The government wanted those routes, and we flew them. The third problem was high costs linked to low productivity—too many people. In the year when I joined, costs went up by more than 50 percent.

But I didn't need to tell anyone that there were these three problems. Every analyst report about Malaysia Airlines talked about the same problems. The question was what would we do about them.

The Quarterly: How did you begin?

Idris Jala: When most CEOs try to turn around a business, they will say let's change the organization or the structure. Or they'll say let's change the culture. Or let's change the systems and processes. They do business-process mapping or make organizational changes that take a few years to finish.

But we had three-and-a-half months to fix the problem, and if we didn't fix it by then we'd be bankrupt—we'd have no money for salaries, no money for fuel. So I told everyone we had no time to reorganize, to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

At a board meeting on my first day, I announced our business-turnaround blueprint. I'd never worked a single day at an airline before, but looking at the P&L it didn't take more than an hour to figure out the solution. If you have to control costs, you just go and cut the costs. If your network's inefficient, get rid of the routes that are bleeding cash. And if you have a problem with low yield, fix the yield. What else are you going to say?

The Quarterly: Were you given free rein to tackle these problems?

Idris Jala: When the government approached me about this job, I said I would need freedom to act. Of course, they promised I would have it, but I discounted 50 percent of what they said. I wouldn't say I have 100 percent freedom to act, but I have more than 50 percent. And, more importantly, the freedom was granted in areas really relevant to fixing the business.

For example, nobody disturbed us as we improved the yield, which often meant increasing fares. We could change flight frequencies, get rid of routes, cut costs. These were things that were virtually impossible for my predecessors to do, because they didn't have such freedom. When I started, our headquarters was in downtown Kuala Lumpur. We sold it for 130 million ringgit, which gave us enough cash to operate for 20 more days. A lot of people, especially a few politicians and long serving Malaysia Airlines employees, said the building's an icon—it's our brand in the city—but we were given the freedom to act.

The Quarterly: Were there other factors that helped you push your plans forward?

Idris Jala: Once the government agreed on what needed to be done, we made our business turnaround plan available publicly. At Shell, I never needed to do that. But Malaysia Airlines is a government-linked company and the national flagship. Publishing helped us build a winning coalition not only with the government but also with other stakeholders, like the unions, the staff, and the public. Being upfront about the P&L and making it all transparent were very important to bringing the coalition together.

The Quarterly: How did this translate into action?

Idris Jala: In a business turnaround plan, you need to identify the key business activities that impact the P&L. These activities are candidates for transitional vehicles that I call laboratories. Essentially, we'd create groups of 10 to 15 people from various functions and backgrounds—all people who had a direct stake in a given activity—and tell them they had to tell us how to fix the problem or else. The people inside the labs were fully accountable. The motto behind the labs is "big results fast." We had no interest in slow and incremental results. We focused these laboratories on routes and many other parts of the business but never, never on minor activities. If you run a lab on something that has nothing to do with key business activities, don't be surprised when there are no results. And when you put people in labs, you had better put the best and the brightest.

It is also important to think of the laboratories as a nursery for ideas. We grow the seedlings of innovation in the nursery, and once they are big enough they are implemented. But we really keep control over them—and the CEO has to protect them—so that nobody can kill them when they are transplanted into the operating jungle of the organization.

The one item with the biggest P&L impact was yield, so we set up laboratories to examine the profitability of various routes, with a focus on yield. The members of these labs knew that if they didn't fix a route, we'd close it and they'd have no jobs. It was as simple as that. We had a team looking at the Kuala Lumpur–Manchester route. The team couldn't fix it. To be profitable, we needed 40 percent more passengers than we had capacity for. What would we do? Tie the passengers on the wings? After we went through a full analysis, everyone on the team knew that the route couldn't be fixed. They all knew that they were out of a job.

In the first three months, we got rid of a lot of routes that were bleeding cash and not contributing to the P&L. Within another six months or so, we got rid of most of the ones that were unsalvageable. But we rescued a lot of routes, too. The thing that really catalyzed the new way we did these things was that there was real accountability.

Today, we have individual P&Ls for each route—by day, by month, and by flight number. Altogether 160,000 P&Ls. These are grouped into regional P&Ls, and every day at 5 pm sharp I get all these on my Blackberry. So do all the route managers.

The Quarterly: Did transplanting and protecting these innovations require organizational changes?

Idris Jala: I prefer to keep the current setup and change the responsibilities. For instance, our laboratories developed a new job—route profitability manager—that didn't exist in our structure. Instead of adding a new player, we told people to double up on their responsibilities. The person taking on the responsibility might not be a regional manager; it could be a subordinate. But someone was now responsible for profitability on that route. The structure remained the same, but we gave people a new vocabulary, new responsibilities. Once we were sure that the new thinking works, we got rid of the transitional role. With route profitability managers, we did that after one year.

The Quarterly: Looking back, you make your effort sound very straightforward. How confident were you when you started?

Idris Jala: I gave myself a 50/50 chance of success. First, I had never worked in an airline before, and, second, I had never worked in a company that's government linked. So there was a tremendous chance of failure, and it was very important for me to conquer that fear. My wife and I had a lot of discussions about that. If I hadn't conquered the fear of failure, I would never have stepped out of Shell to take this job.

To conquer that kind of fear, it is important to have serious conversations with the people who matter. First of all, I'd share with them targets that are seemingly impossible, such as turning around the company within a year and making huge profits within three. Everyone said it couldn't be done. The conversation must end with the stakeholders saying, "It's OK to fail." That takes out a lot of the fear before the journey begins.

But the key word is seemingly impossible. You must believe deep inside that it can be done. If the leader doesn't believe in the journey, then it cannot begin. The leader is like someone who cuts a clearing in a very dense tropical jungle. Everyone else is under the canopy, where they can't see the sky and it's very depressing. The leader has to bring people over to that clearing, into the space where innovation begins. The single biggest thing a leader brings to a turnaround is hope.

The Quarterly: With the initial turnaround complete, you've begun a transformation program. What does that entail?

Idris Jala: We originally wanted to do the business turnaround in three years, but we completed it in two. We targeted profits of 500 million ringgit in 2008, but in 2007 our profits had already reached a record 851 million ringgit.

We've already talked about some of the principles embedded in any change program: the game of the impossible, anchoring everything on the P&L, and building a winning coalition. Two others that I brought from my time with Shell are discipline of action—which means that when we commit to doing something, we monitor results relentlessly and make sure it's done—and situational leadership. At the start of a turnaround journey, a company is not a democracy. You can't empower people or ask everybody what they think. You have to be directive, brave enough to set the course. How many generals do you need to win a battle? One. But once results begin to appear and new leaders begin to learn, you must be ready to let go and empower them.

The corporate graveyard is full of people who thought they were indispensable. After every turnaround I've done, my successors have gone on to earn even higher profits and greater achievements. These leaders have been developed by putting individuals in the right situations when they're ready to take control.

The final principle is a subject people don't talk about in the corporate world: divine intervention. More than 50 percent of what happens to you in life, and in my case probably more than 60 percent, is outside your control. It is important for everyone in an organization, particularly the top leaders, to understand that. I can't, for example, control oil prices—the single largest thing that impacts our industry—or SARS,1 or other things like that.

If you are a spiritual person, you'd better pray. If you believe in feng shui, go consult a feng shui master. Everyone must come to realize that we only control a small component, so you do the best you can with that and relax about the rest. It gives you peace of mind. You know, when you run a really hard race, like what we did here, you put yourself under tremendous pressure—and others around you, too. You want to go home every single day knowing you've done your best, and if you fail it's OK because we all recognize that you can fail. It has a calming effect on the organization.

The Quarterly: Does talking about divine intervention give people a handy excuse to fail?

Idris Jala: No, because the other five principles provide balance. When you look at our plans, there are reams and reams of detailed activities that must be completed. For example, we have a service campaign called Malaysian Hospitality—MH—which is also our airline code. We have 500 initiatives underpinning it. These are spread throughout the organization, and you can't run away from them, because of the principle of discipline of action. If you follow all six principles, there's no way you can run away.

The Quarterly: Have you set new impossible goals for the current phase of your transformation?

Idris Jala: Our new target is to reach profits of 2 billion to 3 billion ringgit within three years, but the more exciting aspiration is that we want to become the world's five-star value carrier. Such a thing doesn't exist in today's vocabulary; what we mean is an airline that provides top-quality products and services at the most affordable prices. We want to be the Toyota of the airline industry.

Is it impossible? Yes. Can it be done? It can. The key is to find the sweet spots. There will always be trade-offs between the quality of products and services and their costs, but there are many, many sweet spots.

One example: for a time, we were serving lamb biryani on our flights to China. But customers didn't really like it, and it was very expensive. We looked at different meals. When we starting serving fried rice with some satay chicken, which is half the cost, the customers loved it. Why were we giving them something that was expensive and that they didn't like? But customers flying to Delhi would love lamb biryani.

You have to customize to find the sweet spot, and this is painful. The mantra for bringing down costs says you have to standardize, but standardization really requires you to migrate to the highest common cost denominator, and that's expensive. Instead, by finding these sweet spots, we can continue playing the game of the impossible and reach our goal.

The Quarterly: In the initial transformation and this ongoing effort, how have you handled talent?

Idris Jala: I believe that everybody can contribute more than they are currently. In my old job at Shell, we turned around Shell MDS, a gas-to-liquids plant in Malaysia, and not a single person was employed from the outside. The people in the company were the same guys who had been losing money for ten years. Help is abundantly available from within, but you must channel the energy to the right business activities.

How do you do that? You make sure people have the right priorities. You say, "I know you like to do this or that, but that's not what we are going to do now." When you reward people for doing things differently, like linking pay increases and bonuses to their performance and contribution to the P&L, you find that they deliver results that impact the P&L. They get out from the complacency of not delivering. They discover that they can do a lot more than they ever dreamed possible.

The Quarterly: Beyond the financials, what changes have you noticed at Malaysia Airlines since your program began?

Idris Jala: Number one, this organization is now very good at rigorous analysis. When I joined, that was sadly missing. People did cursory analysis, and I mean cursory. Today, people really get into the analysis and bring back fact-based work.

Second, a cultural change has taken place. This is no longer a culture where if you don't agree with someone, you keep quiet about it. We now have a culture where people will speak up and disagree.

Also, people are more prepared to step up. Recently, one of my general managers who is in charge of strategic procurement held a session with the top management team to generate cost-cutting ideas for next year. I didn't even know about it. He asked me at the last minute to speak briefly at the meeting. He gave me five minutes.

The Quarterly: What would you like your legacy to be at Malaysia Airlines?

Idris Jala: I would like to see us achieve our vision of becoming a five-star value carrier. I'm inspired by creating a kind of airline that doesn't exist today. If we can do it, it will be fascinating. This will be one of the most attractive places to work in Malaysia. In fact, we have the chance to make this one of the best places to work not just in Malaysia but in the world. That's the legacy I hope for.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Blame it on Kiswahili!

Can the language you use make you bad (or good) in mathematics? Yes, according to two respected authors: Malcolm Gladwell (the author of Tipping Point and Blink), now with a new book Outliers, and Stanislas Dehaene in his book the Number Sense (actually Dehaene argues that memory span between different [linguistic] groups of people is determined by the structure of the language they use).
Now, I am not so sure where Kiswahili falls in this, but read the excerpt below and make your own call.

Let me quote the excerpts in their books, for you to judge:

From Gladwell's Outlier Chapter 8:

Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4,8,5,3,9,7,6. Read them out loud to yourself. Now look away, and spend twenty seconds memorizing that sequence before saying them out loud again.

If you speak English, you have about a 50 percent chance of remembering that sequence perfectly If you're Chinese, though, you're almost certain to get it right every time. Why is that? Because as human beings we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds. We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within that two second span. And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers—4,8,5,3,9,7,6—right every time because—unlike English speakers—their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.

This example by Gladwell is mostly derived from Dehaene's book which explains:

Chinese number words are remarkably brief. Most of them can be uttered in less than one-quarter of a second (for instance, 4 is 'si' and 7 'qi') Their English equivalents—"four," "seven"—are longer: pronouncing them takes about one-third of a second. The memory gap between English and Chinese apparently is entirely due to this difference in length. In languages as diverse as Welsh, Arabic, Chinese, English and Hebrew, there is a reproducible correlation between the time required to pronounce numbers in a given language and the memory span of its speakers. In this domain, the prize for efficacy goes to the Cantonese dialect of Chinese, whose brevity grants residents of Hong Kong a rocketing memory span of about 10 digits.

Therefore, according to Gladwell:

It turns out that there is also a big difference in how number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages are constructed. In English, we say fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and nineteen, so one would think that we would also say one-teen, two-teen, and three-teen. But we don't. We make up a different form: eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fifteen. Similarly, we have forty, and sixty, which sound like what they are. But we also say fifty and thirty and twenty, which sort of sound what they are but not really. And, for that matter, for numbers above twenty, we put the "decade" first and the unit number second: twenty-one, twenty-two. For the teens, though, we do it the other way around. We put the decade second and the unit number first: fourteen, seventeen, eighteen. The number system in English is highly irregular. Not so in China, Japan and Korea. They have a logical counting system. Eleven is ten one. Twelve is ten two. Twenty-four is two ten four, and so on.

That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster. Four year old Chinese children can count, on average, up to forty. American children, at that age, can only count to fifteen, and don't reach forty until they're five: by the age of five, in other words, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills.

The regularity of their number systems also means that Asian children can perform basic functions—like addition—far more easily. Ask an English seven-year-old to add thirty-seven plus twenty two, in her head, and she has to convert the words to numbers (37 + 22). Only then can she do the math: 2 plus 7 is nine and 30 and 20 is 50, which makes 59. Ask an Asian child to add three-tens-seven and two tens-two, and then the necessary equation is right there, embedded in the sentence. No number translation is necessary: It's five-tens nine.

"The Asian system is transparent," says Karen Fuson, a Northwestern University psychologist, who has done much of the research on Asian-Western differences. "I think that it makes the whole attitude toward math different. Instead of being a rote learning thing, there's a pattern I can figure out. There is an expectation that I can do this. There is an expectation that it's sensible. For fractions, we say three fifths. The Chinese is literally, 'out of five parts, take three.' That's telling you conceptually what a fraction is. It's differentiating the denominator and the numerator."

The much-storied disenchantment with mathematics among western children starts in the third and fourth grade, and Fuson argues that perhaps a part of that disenchantment is due to the fact that math doesn't seem to make sense; its linguistic structure is clumsy; its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated.

Asian children, by contrast, don't face nearly that same sense of bafflement. They can hold more numbers in their head, and do calculations faster, and the way fractions are expressed in their language corresponds exactly to the way a fraction actually is—and maybe that makes them a little more likely to enjoy math, and maybe because they enjoy math a little more they try a little harder and take more math classes and are more willing to do their homework, and on and on, in a kind of virtuous circle.

When it comes to math, in other words, Asians have built-in advantage. . .

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Posting in the blog

I realise that some of the bloggers here are keen discussants. I wouldn't want you guys to just be respondents of what I post. Therefore, I welcome postings from all of you. You know the direction of the blog, and the kind of stuff that this blog is about. Just send me your post via email (, and I will post it (under your preferred name).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Geopolitical Intelligence Report

Falling Fortunes, Rising Hopes and the Price of Oil
December 15, 2008

Oil prices have now dipped — albeit only briefly — below US$40 a barrel, a precipitous plunge from their highs of more than US$147 a barrel in July. Just as high oil prices reworked the international economic order, low oil prices are now doing the same. Such a sudden onset of low prices impacts the international system just as severely as recent record highs.

But before we dive into the short-term (that is, up to 12 months) impact of the new price environment, we must state our position in the oil price debate. We have long been perplexed about the onward and upward movement of the oil markets from 2005 to 2008. Certainly, global demand was strong, but a variety of factors such as production figures and growing inventories of crude oil seemed to argue against ever-increasing prices. Some of our friends pointed to the complex world of derivatives and futures trading, which they said had created artificial demand. That may well have been true, but the bottom line is that, based on the fundamentals, the oil numbers did not make a great deal of sense.

Things have clarified a great deal of late. We are now facing an environment in which the United States, Europe and Japan are in recession, while China is, at the very least, expecting to see its growth slow greatly. Demand for crude the world over is sliding sharply even as the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) member states so far seem unable (or, in the case of Saudi Arabia, perhaps unwilling) to make the necessary deep cuts in output that might halt the price slide. The bottom line is that, while the breathtaking speed at which prices have collapsed has caught us somewhat by surprise, the direction and the depth of the plunge has not.

Prices are likely to remain low for some time. Most of the world’s storage facilities — such as the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve — are full to the brim, so large cuts are needed simply to prevent massive oversupply. Yet any OPEC production cuts — the cartel meets Dec. 17 and deep cuts are expected — will take months to have a demonstrable impact, especially in a recessionary environment. And there is the simple issue of scale. The global oil market is a beast: Total demand at present is about 86 million barrels per day. This is not a market that can turn on a dime. A firm fact that flies in the face of conventional wisdom is that oil actually falls far faster than it rises when the fundamentals are out of whack. This has happened on multiple occasions, and not that long ago.

Falls occurred both in the aftermath of the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War and as a result of the 1997-1998 Asian financial crises that were similar in percentage terms to the present drop. Until the balance between supply and demand is restruck — something not likely until a global economic recovery is well under way — there is no reason to expect a significant price recovery. The journey, of course, is not necessarily a one-way trip. Quirks in everything from weather to shipping to Nigerian riots and Russian military movements can set prices gyrating, but the fundamentals are clearly bearish. It will most likely take several months for the core features of the new reality to change much at all.
Low oil prices create both winners and losers on the international scene.

First, the winners’ list.

Far and away the biggest winner from drastically lower prices is the world’s largest consumer and importer of oil: the United States. The last two years of high prices have spawned a sustained American consumer effort to get by with less oil via a mix of conservation and a shift to better-mileage vehicles. Whether this purchase pattern in automobiles lasts is not at issue. The point is that it has already happened: Many Americans have already shifted to more fuel-efficient vehicles. Just as the 1990s obsession with sport utility vehicles artificially boosted American gasoline demand so long as those automobiles were on the road, so the new fleet of hybrids and smart cars will push demand in the opposite direction for a sustained period.

Overall U.S. oil consumption has plummeted by nearly 9 percent from its peak in August 2007 to November 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Combining this with the drop in prices since July translates into U.S. energy savings of approximately US$1.95 billion at a price of US$50 a barrel and US$2.1 billion at a price of US$40 a barrel. And that is daily cost savings. In recessionary times, that cash will go a long way to building confidence and stanching the recession.

Next on the list are the major European importers of crude: Germany, Italy and Spain. As a rule, European economies are less energy-intensive than the United States, but by dint of fuel mix and lack of domestic production these three major states are forced to rely on substantial amounts of imported oil. We exclude the other major European economies from this list as they are either major oil producers themselves (the United Kingdom and the Netherlands) or their economies are extremely oil efficient (France, Belgium and Sweden). Don’t get us wrong — the EU states are all quite pleased that oil prices have dialed back. Nevertheless, in terms of relative gain, Germany, Italy and Spain are the real winners. And with Europe facing a recession much deeper and likely longer than that in the United States, the Europeans need every advant age they can get.

India, far removed from Europe culturally and geographically, sports a somewhat similar economic structure in that it boasts (or suffers from, based on your perspective) an industrializing base that is highly dependent on oil imports. Broadly, the Indians are in the same basket as Spain in that they are voracious energy consumers who have seen their demand skyrocket in recent years. Between the Nov. 26 Mumbai attack, upcoming federal elections and the energy price pain from earlier in the year, the government is desperate to pass on the cost savings to the population to shore up its support.

Then there are the East Asian states of South Korea, China and Japan (listed in descending order of how much each one benefits from the price drop). All import massive amounts of crude oil, but we put them at the end of the list of winners because of their financial systems. In East Asia — and particularly in China and Japan — money is not allocated on the basis of rate of return or profitability as it is in the West. Instead, the concern is maximizing employment. It does not matter much in East Asia if one’s business plan is sound; the government will provide cheap loans so long one employs hordes of people. One side effect of this strategy is that firms can get loans for anything, including raw materials they otherwise could not afford — such as oil at US$147 a barrel.

Therefore, high oil prices just do not affect East Asia as badly as they affect the West. Just as the East Asian financial system mutes the impact of high prices, the converse is true as well. In the West, energy consumers are not shielded from high prices, so lower prices immediately translate into more purchasing power, and thus more economic activity. Not so in East Asia, where the same financial shielding that blunts the impact of high prices lessens the benefits of low prices.

The order in which we listed the three Asian giants relates to how much progress they have made in reforming their financial practices. South Korea’s financial system is much closer to the Western model than the Asian model: South Korea hurts more as prices rise, and so will be more relieved as prices fall. China is in the middle in terms of financial practices, but it is also attempting to unwind its system of energy price-fixing as oil costs drop; due to subsidies being reduced, Chinese consumers actually may not be seeing much of a change in retail prices. Finally, Japan will benefit the least because its system is already highly efficient compared to the other two, so the price impact was less in the first place. One barrel of oil consumed in Japan generates approximately US$2,610 of Japanese gross domestic product (GDP), while the comparative figures for Korea and China are US$1,270 and US$1,130 respectively.

In short, the heavily industrialized Asians still benefit, but the impact isn’t as much as one might think at first glance. In fact, the biggest benefit to these states from cheaper energy is indirect — lower prices spur consumption in the West, and then the West purchases more Asian products.

And now, the losers.

Venezuela and Iran top this list by far. Both are led by politicians who have lavished vast amounts of oil income on their populations to secure their respective political positions. But that public approval has come at its own price in terms of economic dislocation (why diversify the economy if strong oil prices bring in loads of cash?), low employment (the energy sector may be capital-intensive, but it certainly is not labor-intensive), and high inflation (high government spending has led to massive consumption and spurred rampant import of foreign goods to satiate that demand).

Of the two states, Venezuela is certainly in the worse position. By some estimates, Venezuela requires oil prices in the vicinity of US$120 a barrel to maintain the social spending to which its population has become accustomed. Iran’s number may be only somewhat lower, but President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in the process of at least beginning to bow to economic reality. On Dec. 5, he announced massive cuts in subsidy outlays with the intent of reforging the budget based on a price of only US$30 a barrel.

It is an open question whether the Iranian government — and especially the increasingly unpopular Ahmadinejad — can survive such cuts (if they are indeed made), but at least there is a public realization of the depth of the crisis at the top level of government. In Venezuela, by contrast, the mitigation process has barely begun, and for political reasons it cannot truly be implemented until after a referendum in early 2009 on term limits that could allow Chavez to run for president indefinitely.

Next is Nigeria. In terms of seeing an increase in human misery, Nigeria should probably be at the top of the losers’ list. But the harsh reality is that Nigerians are used to corrupt government, inadequate infrastructure, spotty power supply and all-around poor conditions. Some of the perks of high energy prices undoubtedly will disappear, but none of those perks succeeded in changing Nigeria in the first place.

The real impact on Nigeria will be that the government will have drastically less money available to grease the political wheels that allow it to keep competing regional and personal interests in check. Those funds have been particularly crucial for funneling cash to the country’s oil-rich Niger Delta region, giving local bosses reason not to hire and/or arm militant groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta to attack oil and natural gas sites. With Abuja having less cash, the oil regions will see a surge in extortion, kidnapping and oil bunkering (i.e., theft). We already have seen attacks ramp up against the country’s natural gas industry: Within the last few days, attacks against supply points have forced operators to take the Bonny Island liquefied natural gas export facility offline. And since Nigeria’s militants never really differentiate between the country’s various forms of energy export, oil disruptions are probably just around the corner.

Russia is also in the crosshairs, but not nearly to the same degree as Venezuela, Iran and Nigeria. Russia has four things going for it that the others lack. First, it exports massive amounts of natural gas and metals, giving it additional income streams. (Venezuela and Iran actually import natural gas and have no real alternative to oil income.) Second, Russia never spent its money on its population. Thus, Russians have not become used to massive government support, so there will be no sharp cuts in public spending that will be missed by the populace. Third, Russia has saved nearly every nickel it made in the past eight years, giving it cash reserves worth some US$750 billion. The financial crisis is hitting Russia hard, so at least US$200 billion of that buffer already has been spent, but Russia still remains in a far better position than m ost oil exporters. Fourth and last, the Russians can rely on Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin to (somewhat forcefully) keep the books firmly in balance. At his insistence, the government is in the process of refabricating its three-year budget on the basis of oil prices of below US$35 a barrel, down from the original estimate of US$95.

At the end of the losers’ list we have two states that most people would not think of: Mexico and Canada. Both have other sources of economic activity. Canada is a modern service-based economy with a heavy presence of many commodity industries, while Mexico has become a major manufacturing hub. But both are major oil exporters, and have been leading suppliers to the American economy for decades. So both are exposed, but their concerns are more about unforeseen complications rather than the “simple” quantitative impact of lower prices.

Mexico has purchased derivatives contracts that, in essence, insure the price of all its oil exports for 2009. So should prices remain low, Mexico’s actual income will be unchanged. We only include Mexico on the list of losers, therefore, because it’s quite rare in geopolitics that such planning actually works out as planned. Hurricanes and strikes happen. (Mexico also faces the problem of insufficient funds, expertise and technology to counter rapidly declining output, something that will leave it with a lack of oil to sell in the first place — but that is an issue more for 2012 than 2009.)

As for Canada, most of the oil it produces comes from Alberta province, the seat of power of the ruling Conservative Party. Right now, the Canadian government is wobbling like a slowing top. Seeing the Conservatives’ power base take a massive economic hit due to oil prices is not the sort of complication the government needs right now. In the longer term, Alberta recently increased taxes on oil sands projects. Oil sands extraction is among the more capital-intensive and technologically challenging sorts of oil production currently possible. Combine the tax changes with the nature of the subindustry and the recent price drops and there is likely to be precious little investment interest in oil dur ing — at a minimum — 2009.

Most readers will take note of the countries we have chosen not to include on the list of vulnerable states. These include the bulk of the OPEC states — specifically Angola, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Libya. All of these states count oil as their only meaningful export (except the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which also export natural gas), so why do we feel such countries are not in the danger zone?

For its part, Angola only became a major producer recently. Nearly all of Angolan oil output is from offshore projects controlled by foreigners — shutting in such production is a very tricky affair for a country that is utterly reliant on foreign technology to operate its only meaningful industry. But the primary reason Angola is not feeling the heat is that most of its income has not been spent but instead has been stashed away due to a lack of the necessary physical and personnel infrastructure needed to leverage the income.

Iraq is in a somewhat similar position as far as finances are concerned. While Iraq has been producing crude for decades, its current government is only a few years old, and its institutions simply cannot allocate the monies involved. Despite massive outlays by both Iraq and Angola, their respective governments simply lack the capacity to spend, and so have stored up cash accounts worth US$26 billion and US$54 billion respectively.

The rest of the Arab oil producers warrant a much simpler explanation: They’ve been fiscally conservative. While all have shared the wealth with their somewhat restive populations, none of them has repeated the mistakes of the 1970s, when they overspent on gaudy buildings and overcommitted themselves to expensive social programs. All have been saving vast amounts of cash, with the Saudis alone probably having more than US$1 trillion socked away. Tiny Kuwait officially has a wealth fund worth more than US$250 billion.

So while none of the Arab oil states are particularly thrilled with the direction — and in particular the speed — oil prices have gone, none of these governments faces a mortal danger at this time. What they are now missing is the ability to make a substantial impact on the world around them. At oil’s height the Gulf Arab oil producers were taking in US$2 billion a day in revenues — far more cash than they could ever hope to metabolize themselves. Bribes are powerful tools of foreign policy, and their income allowed them — particularly Saudi Arabia — to wield outsized influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and even in Beijing, London and Washington. So while none of these states faces a meltdown from falling prices, there are certainly some hangovers in store for them. It is jus t that they are more political than economic in nature, at least for now.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

When they were chickens....

At one point, I thought we have had enough with the East African federation debate. Apparently not. This thing has a very long history that most people tend to forget. One of them is that at one point in the early sixties, we wanted the federation there and then - immediately, but Mzee Kenyatta stalled. In fact, we were accused (particularly by Kenyans) as being irrational in rushing into something that will not work. Now things have changed!  

As you know, even before independence[I think in 1960], the three East African leaders declared that they should have a Federation before the end of 1963, and formed a committee to frame a constitution. But the effort was not followed up and met resistance, particularly from Kenya. 

From Mwalimu book (Uhuru na Umoja),  we read that, tt the end of April 1964, the back-benchers of the Kenya Parliament called a meeting of backbenchers of the Uganda and Tanzania Parliaments to consider the non-action on the federation.  The Uganda members failed to respond, but the M.P.s from the other two countries met and decided to send delegations to all three Heads of Government urging an immediate federation.  On 10 May 1964, President Nyerere received them, in the presence of the Press, and welcomed their initiative. Other Presidents did not.  Lack of a similar welcome from the other two leaders meant that no progress was made. This is what Mwalimu said on the occassion: 

First of all let me congratulate the KANU Parliamentary Group for their initiative in calling the meeting of Parliamentary Party representatives to discuss East African Federation.  Your meeting is an indication that when the governments of our countries do not act fast enough for the people, then the people’s representatives in Parliament will use their powers under the constitutions of our respective countries in order to hasten the carrying out of the people’s wishes.

The resolution passed by your meeting should be a cause of great satisfaction to all those in East Africa who genuinely desire unity.  I appreciate the sense of urgency which emanates from this resolution and the accompanying memorandum.  I entirely agree that unless unity is achieved within a reasonable time after independence it will become increasingly more difficult to attain

 There is no use pretending, however, that Federation will immediately solve all the difficulties now facing our various countries.  In its early days it will almost certainly present new problems as we work our the practical arrangements and decide on priorities of policy and development.  However carefully the inauguration documents are drawn up, and however carefully the institutions of unity are prepared, strains and stresses are inevitable at the beginning of any federation or union.  Neither will there be any shortage of people who will try to make capital out of the early difficulties of any form of unity in East Africa.  It will there be any shortage of people who will try to make capital out of the early difficulties of any form of unity in East Africa.  It will be our children’s children who will really see the great benefits of Federation; we ourselves are quite likely to see as many of its difficulties as its advantages.

We must also be quite clear about one other thing.  Once a Federation has been established, it is established for all time.  It can move for greater unity, but it cannot disintegrate.  There can be no question of dissolution in relation to a Federation of East Africa which is freely established by the will of the people.  The Federation will become the sovereign unit which has to be defended at all costs, just as our separate countries are now the units to which all citizens owe allegiance.

For these reasons, nations should only enter into a Federation when they can do so with a whole-hearted and unqualified commitment to it.

There is nothing wrong in not being ready to make that commitment; but to enter discussions, or a new political unit, without the commitment would be to do enormous damage to the whole future of Africa.

It is, therefore, in the full awareness of the difficulties and implications of Federation that I state quite categorically that the Government of the United Republic and myself are fully committed to entering immediately into a Federation with Kenya and Uganda, or with Kenya, or Uganda, alone.  I am confident that the people of this Union are equally ready to make this commitment. 

In saying this, I fully realize that we may not all be at the same state of readiness to enter a Federation now.  If any of our countries are not able to take this step with full commitment it is infinitely better that they should wait.  Naturally, the United Republic hopes that this is not the case, but if it is then the Government of this country supports your proposal that those countries which are ready should federate, leaving the door open for those which are not ready to enter when they are in a position to do so without reservations.  It is better that two countries should federate now if three cannot.

We can make rapid progress on this if we are clear in our own minds what are the essentials and what are the inessentials of unity.  Having done that we should go ahead immediately we have agreed on the essential matters, leaving the others to be dealt with after Federation.  I believe that there is already a broad measure of agreement on these fundamental questions.  And I am quite certain that if we in Africa wait until all the problems between our countries, or all the internal problems for our separate countries, are solved, then we shall never get any Federation or any form of unity at all.  Let us in East Africa deal with these problems together, as one Federation.  And let us do it now.

If  Mzee Kenyatta decides to call a meeting to discuss the action proposed in your resolution, I shall most certainly attend.

Thank you, gentlemen, for your courtesy in coming to see me today.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Defending the Somali pirates

Some of you have heard of the recent incident in which the Somali pirates fled down close to our waters and when engaged by the Italians. I read somewhere of the interesting argument that the pirates are in fact doing a great service to Somalia. Why? One, that t
here are very few people dying from the piracy. Two, that the areas inside Somalia that are administered by the pirate lords are less violent, in fact thriving, than areas where piracy does not exist. Third, that the pirates are the antidote to the Islamists (which are a much more destructive forces) - the pirates are interested in commerce, the Islamists are interested in jihad.  In essence, the pirates are the secular, liberal capitalists of Somalia, and therefore all those big European forces together with the United States who are marshalling their navies should really look at dealing with them in a more "commercial terms" than putting an anti-terrorist posture. If the pirates eventually gain an upper hand because of the "commerce" (against the Islamists who are struggling with funding), it probably would be one step in getting Somalia to look like each one of us: preferring peace so that we can feed our stomachs and keep up with the Joneses'.

On a more serious note, our waters are constantly breached by the big fishing vessels from Korea, Japan, Portugal, and Spain because we cannot really survey the entire EEZ (200 nautical miles from the shores).  We get more money from fish out of Lake  Victoria than from the Indian Ocean. While we build the capacity of our navy, can we get the pirates to come down and harass these guys?Last year, some vessels even taunted us, coming as close as the Rufiji delta to get those juicy prawns. And the Japanese? Forget their tender manners, when the tuna session begins, they are here. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Explosion of the Sacred

No one doubts that there is an evangelical boom in Tanzania at the moment. Everyday, we see a new evangelical movement/church up – and a new celebrity “bishop” or “prophet” dominating our small screens. The concept of a “mega-church” – think Kakobe, Rwakatare, Mwingira, etc – is emerging in Tanzania. Gospel music is becoming extremely popular and gospel musicians such as Bahati Bukuku and Rose Muhando are big stars. Basically, God is celebrated everywhere these days: from the EATV (Channel 5) to the Biafra grounds in Kinondoni.

All this is great stuff. But then what explains the parallel resurgence of armed robbery, rape incidents, witchcraft, older men taking their kids as girlfriends, corruption, proliferation of brothels, and so on?

Also, why particularly at this time, that we are seeing this explosion? There is an argument that when people are under extreme economic difficulties, with higher levels of uncertainty about the future, they increasingly resort to the belief in the “supernatural” to make sense of and justify their situation. Others are saying that this sudden evangelical boom - with its emphasis on the primacy of prayer - also socializes people into a belief that individual energy is insufficient to achieve one’s goal, it has to be supplemented by a moral stimulant – a religious fervor. Of course these are matters of faith...and one has to be careful.

Well, in the end, all this is harmless. If the rituals propagated by these latter-day churches are eventually packed with meanings designed to ease tensions of everyday life, to reduce anxiety about an uncertain future, to exorcise fears, and to chase away pain, I suppose society is better off irrespective of what one may think of these new players.

Thus far, the role played by these new religious and spiritual organizations in Africa’s socio-political transformation, has been marginal in many countries because the traditional churches have co-existed very well with the state and the political elite. With these new players (who are fast poaching members from the old churches), things are set to change. We saw how the evangelicals dominated politics (and influenced public policy) in the United States from mid 1990s.

Faith and Doubt

Few years ago, I read a very interesting anecdote about a prayer made by a Rwandan priest who visited his old parish two weeks after the genocide. When he went back to the church after the genocide, he found the inside and the backyard of the church piled up with decaying bodies, mostly of women and children, who had sought refuge in the church believing that, in a country with such devout Catholics, no one would enter and kill in the church. He was apparently wrong.
After going around the church premises, attempting to recognize his old parishioners among the dead, he stopped to say a prayer. It was simple but telling: “Dear Lord, please provide me with an understanding as to how this could have been your wish, so that when I go home I know that it indeed has been so”. The quote may not be precise but it is something like that. For me, the prayer meant that a deeply faithful man, a priest, was on the verge of questioning God…and questioning the teachings of the Holy Scripture (which says that everything that happens is what God has wished….how can mass murder be God’s wish?)

Anyway…moral of the story: how do you deal with doubt in matters of faith? Some religions discourage even doubts and contemplation over the validity of their dogma. But I think questioning is human nature. Of course I do not expect that we have theologians here to help us. I do not believe I am the only one who have had to face doubts about faith. I think everyone who reflects about life, rationale for existence, the purpose in this life, and one's own role in the society, these doubts necessarily come up. But, is faith and doubt incompatible?

There were interesting stories in the international media last year when private letter of Mother Teresa were released in public. The letters revealed that, for quite some time, Mother Teresa had doubt about her faith. In of the letters, she wrote "Where is my faith?" she wrote. "Even deep down… there is nothing but emptiness and darkness... If there be God — please forgive me." She even stopped praying, and in fact died with doubt.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Open Thread

Still dizzy with Eid and Uhuru Day? Please post anything and everything. More stuff to come later tonight. 

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Losing the future...

Whenever I speak to or meet my friend Rakesh Rajani the discussion necessarily leads to the state of education in Tanzania (I hope this post will get him out of the woods -:)).

There are strong arguments that our “education system” needs a major revamp – starting with changing the content of curricular, a rethink of the philosophy behind the current incentive systems (for teachers and for the learners), reconstitution of the education bureaucracy, emphasis on the accountability over output, refocus on the value for money for education funding, and many other matters.

At the end of the day, education matters only in what it achieves (in consideration of the time and cost associated with acquiring that “education”). In Bongo, if you finish Form Six (High School), you will have spent 13 years in school. But then, you will not have acquired any “life skill”. These 13 years are only “preparatory” – for another level of education. I think this would have been fine if opportunities for higher level of education were plentiful. So, you get a lot of young people who have spent 11 or 13 years in school but the condition of their lot has not improved or opportunities for a better livelihood have not been greatly enhanced as a result of that education.

I think that back in the days, when we were building a different kind of a society, it was probably alright to have “some education for many” as opposed to “more education for some” – because we had to make a tough decision on the basis of lack of resources. The philosophy was probably that reading and writing was enough of an empowerment to the masses.

Of course, there were vocational training initiatives, and we had these other colleges called Folk Development Colleges, to impart vocational skills but I think the volume of these institutes, and timidity in boldness, frustrated their impact.

I believe there is tremendous thirst among Tanzanians to have their kids get a better education. But I think the way we measure success in learning has to be reassessed, particularly in this new brave world. The focus on an all-important “final” exam I think creates a dangerous obsession with passing by all means –encouraging cheating and exam buying.

I also think that there is a creeping dangerous culture of “credentials” that ought to be substituted with the predominance of the culture of learning. Everyone wants to be seen as “learned” (with drive-by PhDs) without worrying whether or not they have gone through the rigours of learning. Once our kids learn from us of this obsession, the future of the nation is in peril.

Then, there is a whole different question of funding for education. Back in Nyerere times, we made a choice about the focus of our education. Now, where a major part of our education budget is funded by the “development partners”, foreign nationals get to make a decision about the content of our curricular and the whole posture of our education system. You all remember the fiasco of few years ago on the curriculum.

Let me not make this post too long…but I wanted to share some of my thoughts on this matter. I think the future of “Taifa Letu” depends on what and how our kids learn. There is nothing more important.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Some of you may know of this young lady. She has written two delightful novels – Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun. Only at 26, some are calling her the Tolstoy of West Africa and others are saying Chinua Achebe has found his heir apparent. She has already won big prizes in the literary world for these two books are her short stories. In short, she is a hot new star in the international literary circles. I tremendously enjoyed her two books.

Anyway, those who following the world of books and authors will notice that young African writers are entering the scene, when giants (Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ben Okri, and others) are retiring. But look at the list of the old, and look at the list of the new. No Tanzanian. Why?

Some may see this is an unimportant concern. But, for me, the life of the nation is defined by a body of the works of art that its people produce. Many countries have a “national novel” (if you wish), a major book or books that embodies the lives of the people or at least define a particular era in the life of that nation.

I read what, for us, are classics: Shaaban Robert, Mzee Kezirahabi (“Roza Mistika”), and a few others. Good stuff, but did not really define our society. Shaaban Robert was a great fantasist, and therefore could not have accomplished a literary masterpiece to define the soul of our nation. What Musiba and others wrote in latter days are like Robert Ludlum – riveting but that is all.

I don’t believe we lack imagination or a "soul" to translate into a literary work. I just don’t know why in the good old African Writers Series we did not feature, and in this new wave we are not present. I have heard of the argument that things are tough in Bongo therefore we are too preoccupied with making a living as to focus on producing great books. I think this is ridiculous. Most great works came out of (comprehending and making sense) hardship.

Anyway, perhaps our generation will rise to the challenge. But not if all we want to write and read is not literary enriching, and not if we are fearful of narrating our existence.

This will get better

I want to thank you all who have kept this blog alive - Salama (don't I know you? lol), Mchangiaji, Msolopa and others. I am grateful for your contributions, and please continue to come back.

It is as always a challenge to post stuff that will satisfy each one's thirst or tickle the interest of everyone, so we will try to be as generalist as possible and eventually will arrive at a "community".

I want us to strive for originality...of thought and content. The danger with blogs and forums is that one may find reading duplicates of all other blogs, as we tend to cross-post and inclined to think that some stuff are universally interesting.

I encourage others to post, as we have come to know what this blog seeks to achieve.

This is our world today realistically!!! No common sense

An Obituary in the London Times

Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, Common Sense, who has been with us for many years. No one knows for sure how old he was, since his birth records were long ago lost in bureaucratic red tape. He will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as: knowing when to come in out of the rain; why the early bird gets the worm; life isn't always fair; and maybe it was my fault.

Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies (don't spend more than you can earn) and reliable strategies (adults, not children, are in charge). His health began to deteriorate rapidly when well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place.

Reports of a 6-year-old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch; and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student, only worsened his condition.

Common Sense lost ground when parents attacked teachers for doing the job that they themselves had failed to do in disciplining their unruly children. It declined even further when schools were required to get parental consent to administer sun lotion or an Aspirin to a student; but could not inform parents when a student became pregnant and wanted to have an abortion.
Common Sense lost the will to live as the churches became businesses; and criminals received better treatment than their victims. Common Sense took a beating when you couldn't defend yourself from a burglar in your own home and the burglar could sue you for assault.

Common Sense finally gave up the will to live, after a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled little in her lap, and was promptly awarded a huge settlement.
Common Sense was preceded in death by his parents Truth and Trust, by his wife Discretion his daughter, Responsibility, and his son Reason.

He is survived by his 4 stepbrothers: I Know My Rights; I Want It Now; Someone Else Is To Blame; I'm A Victim.

Not many attended his funeral because so few realized he was gone.

Friday, December 5, 2008

John Mashaka on the EAC treaty debate


GITAU WARIGI, of the Nation Media Group, brought into light the need for Tanzania leaders, to look beyond 20 years from now, before committing the country into the EA treaty. To describe the Dar es Salaam government as an impediment to the creation of the East African Community reveals that, Mr. Warigi, was not rational on his thinking towards the complication. He failed to employ logic on the reluctance, the ardent nature, and the need for the Tanzanians to study the pros and cons before making a decision.

Describing Tanzania as dirt poor country, whose economy is dwarfed by that of Kenya, a country whose leaders spends time strutting the world than they do in their own country, a country that lacks dynamism and skills to drive its economy forward at the pace of its neighbors, amounts to nothing than a direct insult to the Tanzanians whom he is frustrated with, and angrily courting to join the community. Insulting Tanzanian leaders (Including our Head of State) translates to insulting the wisdom of Tanzanians who elected them.

As a Tanzanian, and a patriot, I am OFFENDED. And depicting Gitau Warigi’s, commentary as personal opinion would be naivety and self deceit on the part of Tanzanians, since he is exploiting national (Kenyan) media to let his views of hatred, prejudice, myopic, and stereotype mentality be known. Mr. Warigi, is exposing some of the underlying problems Tanzanians will have to deal with incase the treaty goes through without scrutiny.

Arrogance, superiority complex, recklessness, illogical reasoning, out of scope assumptions and erratic behaviors must be thoroughly weighed before committing our country, into the community. I highly believe he (Warigi) is speaking for the corrupt Kenyan regime, and not the infringed ordinary citizens, whose voices are not represented by the self imposed rulers. Maybe he was forced serve as a mouth piece (conduit) for some forces beyond his control since he has been more or less of rhetorical than logical in his offensive towards Dar es Salaam.

While economic consequences seem to be of greater concern, our security, social, culture and political setting trepidation were neglected by our brother, a Kenyan, and an editor, who failed to address our concerns. Yes, there are benefits of forming treaties or other blocs, within different regions, and these benefits can be realized without compromising a country’s political establishment, culture, and security. Reforming tariff’s system is one of the ways; free movement of people and goods across boarders can be another one.

Mr. Warigi, needs to get his facts straight, and learn more about NAFTA before dictating to Tanzanian’s the course of action. He is failing to understand that NAFTA has been a one sided Treaty, that has simply failed!

In the United States, as economist and a friend, Gary Bollinger details, NAFTA has eliminated some 1,266,000 job opportunities-primarily for non-college-educated workers in manufacturing. Contrary to what the American promoters of NAFTA promised U.S. workers, the agreement did not result in an increased trade surplus with Mexico, but the reverse.

As manufacturing jobs disappeared, workers were downscaled to lower-paying, less-secure services jobs. Within manufacturing, the threat of employers to move production to Mexico proved a powerful weapon for undercutting workers' bargaining power.

This continent-wide pattern of stagnant worker incomes, increased insecurity, and rising inequality has emerged at a time when economic conditions have been most favorable for the success of greater continental integration. The negative effect of increasing trade and investment flows has been obscured by the extraordinary consumer boom in the United States, especially during the period from 1996 through the summer of 2000.

The boom, driven by the expansion of domestic consumer credit and a speculative bubble in the stock market, spilled over to Canada and Mexico. Their economies have now become extremely dependent on the capacity of U.S. consumers to continue to spend in excess of their incomes. As the air seeps out of that bubble, the cost of those nations' reliance on the U.S. consumer market is becoming apparent.
The wave of unskilled workers crossing the boarder into the US, from Mexico, is creating a social time bomb for the hardworking educated American population who are being taxed heavily to provide social benefits for the less educated, and unskilled migrants from Latin America. Neither France nor Germany has gained anything substantial from Slovakia, in their EU integration, AND LAND has never been an issue.
While Kenyan’s were adapting their master’s language, English to be precise, Tanzanians were working towards their national Identity. And this is evident by the national language that has shunned tribalism and brought about pride not only to Tanzania, but for Kenya as well. Kiswahili, that is, is the source our tolerance, and open-mindedness. It is the source of Tanzania brotherhood.

Many of the so-called Kenyan, semi-literate experts have nothing more than broken English in Tanzania offices, and if GITAU Warigi, feels that Kenya is more developed than Tanzania, then there is no need to cry for the Integration, because it is going to be a one sided game. Simple mastery of a foreign language does not constitute a viable skill to be proud of.
Mind you, It is shameful to celebrate one’s cultural identity, and a form of slavery of some sort, to abandon your own for that matter. It will be prudent for Gitau, to give exact count of Tanzanians in Kenya offices to that of Kenyans in Tanzania trotting with crude and broken English.

Germans, have their own language, so are the Russians and the British. The Spanish and Italians speak their respective languages. Rwandese, Ugandans, and the Burundis both speak, Rwandese, Kiganda and Kirundi, and so are the Tanzanians. We are proud of Kiswahili; it gives us a unique Identity as Africans and a nation.

A country known globally for her landless and landowners culture, if you will, cannot be allowed to export the pandemic to her neighbors. Tanzania will be committing a crime of a century to her people by following blindly the perilous path of privatizing her land. We cannot comprehend a situation in which the famous Kikuyu’s tycoons, owning millions of hectors of land in Tanzania, yet the “poor” Tanzanians by their definition, stacked in the replica of Mathare, Kibera, and Kariobangi slums as squatters. Land privatization is a social injustice and pandemic a country whose foundation lies on brotherhood cannot adopt.

In 2007, Kenya, exported to Tanzania, twenty hardcore robbers whom were all armed to their teeth with battle field weaponry, and ready for action. Fortunately, 14, of them were gunned down before they could wreck-havoc to the peace loving Tanzanians. If these men had same passports or Identity cards as Tanzania’s, no one would have known their country of origin.
I am sure there are many more cross boarder cases of banditry that do not make it to the national spotlight, but meant to frustrate the peaceful Tanzanians. I assume, these are some of the benefits GITAU is rushing us to enjoy, as the fruits of his “cross-pollination.”

Peace and harmony within Tanzania, are not products of coincidence, they are fruits of tolerance; they are social and political forbearance that have evolved through so many years of hard work. Our national pride “Kiswahili” has made the country a model for peace and harmony, as it is next to impossible to identify a Tanzanian by his ethnicity. Yet in Kenya, tribal identity dictates where to do business and where not to, when you belong to a certain tribe. Pathetically it also dictates who to hire for key positions.

Kalenjins and Luos are Kikuyu’s arch enemies, and so are the Kikuyus and Luyas. We don’t want this type of culture within our borders, and I do hope leaders in Dar es Salaam, are reading the signs on the wall, while working for the best interest of the 40 million hardworking, peace loving Tanzanians. There can be integration without losing our national Identity, pride, integrity, or compromising our security. We can also maintain our political tolerance within the unity without adopting the scary land reform proposal from Kenya.

Ages when people jumped into bandwagons without critically thinking or questioning WHY, are long gone. If our Kenyan neighbors are frustrated with us, I guess that will be their business. Tanzania is NOT a banana republic, it is a free country ruled by logic, reason, and the will of the people and our leaders cannot jump the ship without knowing where it is headed. We are for the integration, but under a conducive environment where we are going to be treated as equals.
At stake is not the mere signing of the treaty, it is the future of the 40 million Tanzanians who can not be let down out of utter ignorance.
If Kenyans are unwilling to compromise, they are at liberty to replace Tanzania, her southern neighbor, with Somalia, which is poorer than Tanzania, and both of them will benefit.

Mr. Warigi, it is time to wake up from your long snooze, instead of thinking in the terms of 1961. It may have taken a long time, but we are getting there. Tanzania has changed; her youth are well exposed, new vibrant leaders with mastery of your so called language of pride (generation X) are emerging. Times to dictate to sovereign nations on how to think are long gone, and the main Impediments, and obstacles to the EAC ratification is not Dar es Salaam authorities, it is the hasty, arrogance and your erratic attitude of either you are with us, or against us!

Mungu Ibariki Tanzania!