Monday, March 26, 2012

20 years too late

Uganda's in the news again, due to the extraordinary reaction to Invisible Children's You Tube video, Kony 2012. Most of the people I know in Uganda are bewildered. Northern Uganda has been more or less peaceful for the last 10 years, since Joseph Kony's rag-tag band of thugs disappeared into across the Ugandan borders into central Africa, so why now?

I thought Kony 2012 was pretty awful. Voyeuristic and mawkish by turns, tasteless in its use of Jason Russell's son as a holy innocent, and, quite frankly, another patronising example of the way in which Europe and America love to portray Africa as Conrad's Heart of Darkness, except with black Kony replacing white Kurtz as "the worst". Let's be honest here. To elevate Kony to the evil stature of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot is absurd. Kony was a failed local political leader who, unwilling to admit defeat, took to the bush with a group of poorly-educated supporters (which, in an insult to armies everywhere, he called the Lord's Resistance Army). He then began a lengthy sequence of violent crimes in Northern Uganda, including murder, rape, and child abduction. His activities destabilized and impoverished the region. A terrorist without any coherent agenda, yes. A thug, yes. A pyschopath, probably. But a systematic mass murderer like Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot, definitely not.

Having said all that, if this video accelerates the capture and trial of criminal Kony, then it will have achieved something that, to their enduring shame, the international community, the African Union and national governments have failed to do for the past 20 years or more. 20 years too late for a lost generation in Northern Uganda.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Protein and the price of virtue

There's nothing quite like the smoky scent of meat, chicken or fish being cooked over a charcoal brazier. Often, on the drive home from work in the evening, I pass through Kabalagala and Kansanga, where my nostrils are assailed by goat or chicken muchomo along the roadside. Deep fried whole tilapia is also widely on sale.

But there's something very unusual about the Ugandan market for animal protein. As a general rule, the price of animal protein ought to correlate closely with the cost of producing (or catching) that same protein. The main driver for the cost of production of animal body weight is, not surprisingly, the cost of feed inputs, and the industry generally measures this through the Feed Conversion Ratio. How many kilogrammes of animal feed is required in order to produce one kilogramme of animal body weight.

The smaller the animal, the lower its feed conversion ratio. This is not exactly surprising. Large adult mammals have to consume large quantities of feed simply to maintain their body weight. Think of elephants, for example. Apparently an adult elephant needs to eat an extraordinary 200 kgs of vegetable matter per day! Blood temperature also affects the amount of energy required by an animal in order to maintain weight. Hardly surprising, therefore, that fish are the most efficient converters, requiring a mere 1.7 kgs of feed per 1 kg of body weight, followed by chickens, at about 2.2 kgs, pigs at 4.1 kgs, with goats and cattle (like these splendid long-horned Ankole cows) coming in at about 10 kgs of feed per 1 kg of body weight.

And yet, in Uganda, beef is the cheapest meat on sale, followed by goat, pork, chicken and fish, in that order. Of course, there's an explanation: beef and goats forage for their food so it is, effectively, free, apart from the costs of herding and paying vet's bills. Pigs and chickens are often fed on household waste or home-blended feeds. And fish has become a premium product due to over-fishing in Lake Victoria. Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the conclusion that there is a considerable business opportunity for efficient livestock and poulty farming and aquaculture, and for a more professional animal feeds industry.

On a more humorous note, I was recently reminded (by a billboard in Muyenga advertising a local Ugandan magazine) of Proverbs 31, 10: "Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies."

The glamorous Kampala socialite and Beyonce-wannabe Zari Hussein (pictured) doesn't seem to subscribe to this ancient wisdom. According to a local magazine, Zari proclaims herself to be worth at least 300 cows, a reference to her lavish kwanjula (traditional wedding) in late 2011 where her bride-price reportedly included 300 head of cattle. Now, using the feed conversion ratio above, and assuming a conservative body weight of 500 kgs per cow, that comes to a total nutrition requirement of a colossal 1,500 MT in feed. The equivalent in chickens would have required a delivery of 75,000 chickens or 330 MT in feed. Yet it would have cost the groom a good deal more to supply 75,000 chickens than the 300 cows. Bizarre.

Either way, Zari's bride-price was still fairly inexpensive in comparison to the rubies of the proverb. Unlike most things in life, it remains impossible to place a price on virtue.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Far from the Madding Crowd

I was very happy to watch the classic 1967 film of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd on TCM last night. The closest I had been to Hardy in recent years was the 2011 film of Posy Simmonds' cartoon strip heroine Tamara Drewe (characters and story inspired by Far from the Madding Crowd), entertaining in its own way, but with none of the raw passion and drama of Hardy's novel.

Besides the grand scale of the story and the excellence of the four principal actors, John Schlesinger's direction and Nicolas Roeg's wonderful cinematography and use of the Dorset countryside make the film a joy to watch. Its slow pace and intensity of emotion, especially in Boldwood's tragic obsession with Bathsheba, made me appreciate the extent to which the breakneck speed and special effect of modern cinema is destroying it as an artform.

I was also very interested in the depiction of late 19th century agriculture in England. Many scenes from the film are very reminiscent of the manual farming techniques used by the vast majority of African smallholder farmers, except that oxen and heavy horses appear to have been used much more for soil tillage. Experts estimate that less than 10% of agricultural land in Africa is tilled using animals. Given the widespread ownership of cattle in East Africa, it used to baffle me why the use of animal traction is not more common. Recently, I found a plausible explanation in John Reader's excellent history, Africa: Biography of a Continent. He attributes this apparent mystery to the harshness of the East and Southern African environment. As temperatures increase during the dry season, both forage and water for cattle become harder to find. Cattle therefore are at their weakest when the planting season begins at the onset of the rains, and simply do not have the strength to provide enough power to till the rock-hard ground. Contrast this with the pre-mechanical era in Northern Europe, where fields could be ploughed at the beginning of winter using well-fed animals, ready to be manually sowed in springtime.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Lady with the Dog

It's time for my annual eulogy to Anton Chekhov. While I was returning from Lilongwe to Nairobi last Thursday, I eschewed Kenya Airways in-flight entertainment in favour of a book of Chekhov's short stories. Is there a better writer of short stories? I haven't found one yet. The Lady with the Dog is a perfect example, available online at Bittersweet, tender, and beautifully-observed.