Saturday, December 20, 2008

Uncle Tom Adlam and Thomas Thistlewood

My grandfather’s younger brother was called Tom Adlam. As far as we know, he is by some distance the most famous Adlam, having been awarded the Victoria Cross (Britain’s highest military honour) in the First World War. His citation reads as follows.
“On 27 September 1916 at Thiepval, France, a portion of a village which had defied capture had to be taken at all costs and Second Lieutenant Adlam rushed from shell-hole to shell-hole under very heavy fire collecting men for a sudden rush. At this stage he was wounded in the leg but in spite of his wound he led the rush, captured the position and killed the occupants. Throughout the day he continued to lead his men and on the following day, although wounded again he still led and encouraged them. His magnificent example and behaviour produced far-reaching results.”
In later life, he was content to be headmaster of a small school in Hampshire and led a modest, quiet life until his death in 1975. Despite the fact that we lived less than 20 miles away, we seldom visited. Indeed, I can only remember meeting Uncle Tom on one occasion when I was 10.
A few years ago, my own father was contacted by another Adlam who was trying hard to assemble a genealogy of the Adlam family. My father was amused by this approach, in particular by his correspondent’s statement that the Adlams appeared to have “emerged from a hole in the ground somewhere near Salisbury about 150 years ago.” He was, I think, quite helpful but appeared to have little interest in family history. For two principal reasons, however, I have recently developed much more interest in the subject.
First, earlier this year I was contacted by Sheneika Adlam, a young Jamaican lady, through Facebook. I had previously known of Adlams in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Australia and Canada, but I was unaware of Adlams in Jamaica. Second, I have just finished reading "Bury the Chains" by Adam Hochschild. This brilliant book tells the story of the campaign in Britain to abolish slavery. Much of the book describes slavery in the Caribbean, including Jamaica. Among many interesting themes, Hochschild examines the sexual abuse suffered by slave women at the hands of white overseers. He quotes extensively from the journal of one Thomas Thistlewood, whose catalogue of callous abuse is recorded in hideously banal detail. Hochschild speculates that Thistelwood's mission appears to have been aimed at lightening the colour of the entire plantation, such was the quantum of his sexual appetite.
The sad fact is that many slaves - in particular their children - were given (or took) their owner's name. Does the fact that there are Adlams in Jamaica today mean that there were Adlams who were - in one way or another - involved in slavery in the Caribbean? Do the horrors of this worst of trades form part of my own family history? It wouldn't really be surprising: I daresay most people in Britain have some distant family connection with the slave trade, but we all prefer to think of the Uncle Toms rather than the Thomas Thistlewoods of the past.
They may have little interest until they reach the tipping point in their lives when the past becomes more interesting than the future, but, for the sake of my sons and daughter, I want to find out more.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Hybrid Maize and the legacy of George Shull

White maize is by far the most important crop in East & Southern Africa. The grain is palatable; crop yields are high in comparison to alternative grain crops; labour demand is low. Well over 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa rely on maize as their principal staple crop.

Remarkably, for a crop so critical to food security across half the African continent, maize is a relatively recent introduction. The Portuguese brought it to Africa early in the 16th century, since when it has spread throughout the continent. Its popularity owes much to its productivity : under the right conditions, commercial farmers in Southern Africa have achieved yields in excess of 10 MT/hectare for hybrid maize. Indeed, I remember during one visit to the Mpongwe farms in the Zambian copperbelt, the General Manager, Patrick Tobin, proclaiming his delight that he would soon be eligible to join the “ten tonne” club of Zimbabwean commercial farmers (though I never knew if such a club really existed).

But yields like this are only possible where farmers are using hybrid maize seed. Exactly 100 years ago, an American plant scientist, George Shull, published research into the phenomenon of hybrid vigour in maize (enhanced yields through hybridization). Within 20 years, hybrid seed maize offering significant yield improvements was on sale in the USA, and the technology quickly spread across the world. Everywhere, that is, except Africa, where hybrid maize still makes up only about 25% of the total area planted to maize – despite its manifest yield benefits. To put this statement in context, smallholder farmers using traditional open-pollinated varieties of maize, probably average yields of about 1 MT per hectare in comparison to Mpongwe’s 10 MT target – a factor of ten. This colossal inefficiency is a major contributor to the continuing food insecurity on the continent and, in light of the ever increasing population, a major risk to the future.

This is a simple example of why it is so important to invest in Africa’s seed industry, from breeder to multiplier through production, distribution and retail. Access to and utilization of improved maize seed has the potential to transform African agriculture. African Agricultural Capital (AAC) has already invested in four seed companies in the region and it is both my hope and my intention that AAC will continue to look actively for opportunities to invest in the seed sector in the future.

For more information on this and other important crops in sub-Saharan Africa, it is well worth reading Securing the Harvest, by Joe de Vries and Gary Toennissen. Both work for the Rockefeller Foundation and both were instrumental in the foundation and initial capitalisation of AAC. I owe them a debt of gratitude.

'Twas ever thus

This wonderful cartoon satirises French society just before the French Revolution – more than 200 years ago. The clergy and the nobility are riding on the back of the peasant. Words alone will never communicate as effectively as this simple picture, though Rousseau’s claim that “Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains” comes close.

I was reminded of this cartoon when I read a very interesting article by Lucy Oriang' in Kenya’s Daily Nation. I quote: “There are only two tribes in this country [Kenya] – the rich and the poor. The difference lies in who pays taxes and who doesn’t, and who gets shot in the back by a policeman and who gets a security detail at public expense. It has nothing to do with your mother tongue.” (Her reference to taxes is, I presume, aimed at Kenyan parliamentarians who have opposed a proposal that MPs’ allowances (which are very substantial) should be taxed).

Of course, this analogy of the two tribes is not unique to Kenya: it persists, to this day, all over the world. In fact, it is now much worse than it was: there are many more people who live in bondage and slavery now than at the height of the Atlantic slave trade. What does seem to be missing, however, are campaigns, movements, politics and leaders who propose alternatives to our way of life. Even the recent financial turmoil, which has provided us all with a graphic demonstration of the impact of unalloyed greed, consumption and inequality at both a household and an institutional level, has not yet thrown up alternatives to the ways in which we are organized and governed as societies. Why is this? Was Francis Fukuyama right when, in his book The End of History, he presented the thesis that Western Liberal Democracy is the final form of societal organization to which all societies will ultimately conform?

In East Africa, the overwhelming majority of the population is poor: smallholders eking out a living on small plots of land given over to subsistence cultivation; the urban poor living in low quality housing with poor sanitation, struggling to make ends meet through petty trade or casual employment, or worse. The contrast between rich and poor is more stark than in wealthier European and North American economies. But there are other forms of injustice, inequality and dispossession which have developed and which contribute towards impoverishment of the majority. I am thinking here of the fragmentation of family life, the burden of personal debt, the de-skilling of populations who purchase ready-prepared dinners, who rely on mass media for their entertainment, who dispose rather than mend and recycle, and who are now coming to a slow but steady realization that their way of life is unsustainable….

This cartoon is just as accurate now as it was then. Sadly, it’s hard to believe that we will ever change.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Robin Hood

Well, here's the evidence. We did make it - and, somehow or other, it has turned out pretty well. Most remarkably, I had to substitute Robin Hood at the last moment. Ashley Willison - a Grade 8 student at ISU - managed to learn the part in two days and has done a fantastic job by any standards, but especially for someone so young. It's great fun and there's a good atmosphere in the cast and the production team. The only slight disappointment has been that the audiences (averaging about 120 per performance) have been much lower than we had hoped. I really hope they pick up in numbers for the final four performances this week. There is nothing quite like a full house!