Available in bookstores today: The unlikely story of how faith and determination compelled an American to travel to Africa and open a school for children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.
David Nixon knew nothing about the small, landlocked African country of Malawi. An unassuming carpenter from North Carolina, Nixon had had his share of tough breaks, from enduring a traumatic childhood to battling drug addictions. But after having a religious awakening and learning about his church's efforts to aid some of Africa's most impoverished citizens, he found a new purpose for his life. He became determined to help the people of Malawi in some way-he would come up with the details later. Nixon raised money from his church community and set off for Africa, where he befriended a Malawian pastor and decided to do what so many Americans who go to Africa do: build an orphanage.
Nixon slowly comes to realize, however, that what he thinks is good for the Malawians is not necessarily what they need or want. As Donnelly shows, orphanages are not always the best use of resources, and there is much controversy surrounding removing children from their communities. After learning to listen to the villagers, Nixon amends his plan and eventually ends up building a school and a feeding center that supports 350 children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.
A Twist of Faith is the story of one man who, despite personal setbacks, a profound cultural gap, the corruption of local officials, and the heartbreak of losing the orphans he comes to love, is determined to do good in a place nothing like home. It is the story of a man who saves himself by saving others. Nixon's story is representative of a growing trend: the thousands of American Christians who are impassioned donors of time, money, and personal energy, devoted to helping African children orphaned by AIDS.
“Through the story of David Nixon's faith-driven journey to save the destitute in Malawi, John Donnelly explores the tenets of true service to underserved communities and accompaniment of the poor, while focusing a shrewd reporter's gaze on the efforts of various American aid organizations in Africa. He offers a compelling account of the great joy, frustration, and personal sacrifice inherent in addressing the urgent moral claim of the poor on a Christian conscience.” —Paul Farmer, author of Haiti After the Earthquake
About the Author For more than thirty years, John Donnelly has reported in regions far from the United States, starting with the civil wars of Central America, delving into the political violence in Haiti, drawing out tales of conflict and peace in the Middle East and Asia, and then landing in Africa, where he feels most at home. In Africa, where he traveled as a staff reporter for the Boston Globe and later as a Kaiser Family Foundation fellow, he became intrigued by the steady stream of Americans with big hearts and big ambitions whose adventures are told in this book.
One idea promoted at last month's UN Climate Summit in Durban was “climate-smart agriculture," which could make crops less vulnerable to heat and drought and turn depleted soils into carbon sinks. The World Bank and African leaders are backing this new approach, but some critics are skeptical that it will benefit small-scale African farmers. Here, in a post that originally appeared on Yale Environment 360, Fred Pearce looks at what this kind of agriculture could mean for some of the world's poorest farmers.
The glacial pace of international efforts to curb climate change continued at the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa last month. Governments concluded that by 2015 they should agree on legally binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions that involve all major nations — including China, India and the United States. But they also agreed that those targets would probably not come into force until 2020.
The climate isn’t waiting for the diplomats. Most experts agree that by 2020 it will likely be too late to halt dangerous warming above two degrees Celsius. So the race is now on to find new, unconventional initiatives to fill the gap. One possibility that came to the fore in Durban is fixing some of that carbon dioxide in the soils of Africa. And that is why the continent’s political leaders met in Durban to launch an initiative known, somewhat cryptically, as “climate-smart” agriculture.
The new buzz phrase went down well. Host president Jacob Zuma extolled it. Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian former UN secretary-general, praised it as a panacea to Africa’s problems. “Till now agriculture has been sidelined from climate change discussions,” he said. “But Africa has a huge potential to mitigate climate change.” Beside him sat the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the chair of the African Union Commission. They were all on hand as the World Bank announced plans to turn climate-smart agriculture into the next big thing for the world market in carbon offsets.
So what exactly is climate-smart agriculture? It sounds as if it might involve making agriculture resilient to climate change, by making soils and crops less vulnerable to droughts and heat waves. And that is part of the plan. But only part. The real prize — the one that can lure private finance — is the potential for carbon offsetting. If farm soils can be used to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, then they can generate carbon credits that can be sold to industrial polluters who want to offset their emissions.
The offer from the world of carbon finance to poor farmers in Africa and elsewhere is this: Let us use your soils to capture carbon from the atmosphere, and we will, in return, make those soils more productive and less vulnerable to the climate.
This is a big deal. Nurturing the organic matter in soils on the world’s farms has as much potential to absorb carbon dioxide emissions from industrialized countries as the much better-known plans to fund forest conservation, such as REDD. Rattan Lal of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center at Ohio State University suggests soils worldwide could capture as much as a billion tons of carbon a year — more than a tenth of man-made emissions.
Climate-smart agriculture neatly combines the twin goals of today’s climate negotiators, helping to prevent climate change while at the same time adapting farms to inevitable change.
Africa is the big prize. Its farmers are more vulnerable than any others to climate change. Some estimates suggest a hotter, more dire world could cut African farm yields by as much as 20 percent by mid-century. Without an African green revolution, that would spell disaster for a continent with a population that is expected to double to two billion people.
But the continent’s huge land area — greater than the U.S., China, India, Mexico and Japan combined — also holds huge potential as a planetary carbon sink that, many believe, could create the necessary green revolution.
Currently, African soils are leaking carbon as they erode and lose organic matter due to bad farming practices. An estimated 43 percent of Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions come from land clearance, including farming. But the same soils could be turned from a carbon source to a carbon sink, absorbing many tens of millions of tons of carbon a year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
If an agricultural carbon offset program were in place, carbon dollars from Western companies could pay for composting, mulching, recycling crop waste, planting farm trees, and much else on the world’s poorest farms. Those improved soils, richer in organic matter, would grow more crops, help soils withstand droughts and floods, and — vital to earning those carbon dollars — capture carbon from the atmosphere.
The World Bank is keen to mastermind a global effort to fix carbon in African soils. It brought agriculture ministers from across the continent to Johannesburg in September to promote the idea and continued to push it in Durban.
For the past year, the bank’s BioCarbon Fund, which sets up demonstration carbon-capturing projects in both forests and farms, has been running the first pilot African soil project among smallholder farmers near Kisumu in western Kenya. The bank’s climate envoy Andrew Steer said in Durban that the maize and bean farmers “are getting higher yields, improving the resilience of the soils to drought and getting stronger soils that sequester more carbon.”
If all goes according to plan, the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project, which covers 40,000 hectares of farmland in a densely population region of the country, should capture 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year. It could also increase annual farm incomes by $200 to $400 per hectare.
That’s the plan. Will it work? The Stockholm Environment Institute, a think tank that looks at both climate and development issues, is supportive. The institute’s Olivia Taghioff, who has studied the Kenyan scheme, says, “Carbon finance even in modest amounts can make a big difference for smallholders.”
But there are concerns. In Durban, Annan warned: “These efforts must have at their heart smallholder farmers. Without their participation we will fail.” And many critics fear that climate-smart agriculture is in reality a Trojan horse for marginalizing smallholder farmers. They believe the arrival of carbon markets, brokers and traders in the fields of Africa can do nothing but harm.
“Soil carbon offsets will promote a spate of African land grabs and put farmers under the control of fickle carbon markets,” said Teresa Anderson of the UK-based Gaia Foundation, an NGO that promotes indigenous farming, speaking in Durban. “The [World] Bank’s agenda is more money for the bank and for carbon project developers, not development,” said Doreen Stabinsky of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
The high costs of employing scientists, consultants, and field surveyors to assess and monitor the carbon uptake of farm soils will make it impossible for smallholder farmers to pocket any income from the sale of the carbon absorbed by their soils, these critics maintain. Only large landowners will be able to reduce these transactions costs sufficiently to profit from the carbon markets, they say, and the result will be a new phase of land grabbing. “Soil grabbing,” some are calling it.
Across Africa, governments are already leasing wide areas of land traditionally used by smallholder farmers to foreign companies for industrial agriculture or for planting trees as carbon sinks in order to gain carbon credits. The fear is that the process will accelerate if the soil itself becomes a carbon commodity.
There is another reason why peasant farmers may lose out. Early evidence gathered by the World Bank in Kenya suggests that the cultivation of commercial crops of the kind that large agribusinesses specialize in have a much greater potential to soak up carbon than smallholder subsistence crops.
Data presented last year at the FAO in Rome by Rama Reddy of the World Bank’s carbon finance unit show that the carbon-capture potential for a hectare of smallholder maize in Kenya is around half a ton of carbon dioxide per year, whereas the potential for commercial biofuels is between 2.5 and 5 tons, and for a sugar cane plantation up to 8 tons per hectare.
The dream of enthusiasts for climate-smart agriculture is that investors will one day invest billions of dollars in the fields of Africa in order to purchase the resulting credits from capturing carbon, while at the same time improving the continent’s soils. In truth, any credible solution to climate change will probably involve finding ways to get the landscape to absorb more carbon, whether in trees or soils, probably financed from carbon markets. Can it be done in a way that helps smallholder farmers? Or will it drive them off their land? That remains far from clear.
Protesters throughout this Arab Spring have been inspired by the legacy of the American civil rights movement. Nico Slate, author of the forthcoming Colored Cosmopolitanism (Harvard University Press), explains below how this transnational affinity echoes that of an earlier era, a hidden history of bonds of sympathy and solidarity forged between African Americans and Indians during their freedom struggles of the late nineteenth century through the 1960s.
A 50-year-old comic book about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s approach to nonviolent resistance has been translated into Arabic and has been circulating amongst protesters in Egypt and throughout the Middle East for months. According to a recent article by CNN, the cartoon is only one manifestation of a broad interest in the civil rights movement amongst today’s nonviolent activists. The comic book in question, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, itself documents an older link between the civil rights movement and freedom struggles throughout the world. The comic book, which can be found here, traces King’s leadership back to the nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns led by Mahatma Gandhi in India.
As I detail in my forthcoming book, Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India, connections between Indian and African American freedom struggles go well beyond the relationship between Gandhi and King. The comic book was published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a pacifist organization that by the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott had been working for decades to translate Gandhian methods for use in the struggle for racial equality in the United States. FOR helped organize the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an interracial organization that launched sit-ins modeled on Gandhian protest in the early 1940s and later pioneered the freedom rides. Many civil rights activists—some now famous and others largely forgotten—turned to Gandhi for inspiration and ideas.
Fifteen years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus in Montgomery, two young Black women were arrested on a bus near Petersburg, Virginia. Like Parks, both women were already actively engaged in the struggle for racial equality. By the time they boarded an old bus bound for Durham, North Carolina in late March 1940, Pauli Murray and Adelene McBean had long discussed how they could most effectively challenge racial segregation. The poor condition of their bus gave them the opportunity to translate their thoughts into action. Seated near the back of the bus, directly over a wheel, the two young women suffered with every bump. When McBean began to feel a sharp pain in her side, she and Murray occupied seats in the middle of the bus. The driver told them to move back. They refused and, after a lengthy debate with the driver and local police officers, were arrested. Murray wrote friends soon after her arrest, “We did not plan our arrest intentionally. The situation developed and, having developed, we applied what we knew of Satyagraha on the spot.”
Gandhi used the word satyagraha, combining the Sanskrit for “truth” and “holding firm,” to refer to his particular approach to nonviolent civil disobedience. In her memoirs, Murray remembered that when she and McBean were arrested their knowledge of satyagraha was “sketchy” and they had “no experience in the Gandhian method.” Like Murray, many Americans would learn the “Gandhian method” in the process of applying it against racial injustice. Less a rigid system than a series of guiding principles and a source of inspiration, Gandhian satyagraha would be reinvented in restaurants, department stores, buses and jails throughout the United States.
Connections between South Asians and African Americans extended beyond nonviolence, as Manning Marable’s new book on Malcolm X makes clear. Marable’s work demonstrates the breadth of linkages between African American Muslims and global Islam. Colored Cosmopolitanism reveals that such linkages were part of a larger constellation of connections in which nonviolent activists, Black and South Asian Muslims, Hindu reformers, Christian missionaries, followers of Marcus Garvey, African American soldiers, Indian immigrants, labor organizers, and many others forged links across freedom struggles. What provided coherence to these multifaceted linkages? I argue that a transnational conception of color came to serve as a bridge between people struggling against racism throughout the world. African Americans and South Asians together imagined a colored cosmopolitanism, a “dark” or “colored” world united in the struggle against racism, imperialism, and other forms of oppression. Advocates of colored cosmopolitanism fought for the freedom of the “colored world” even while calling into question the meanings of both color and freedom.
Today's blog post is from Sara Hatch. Sara is the sales assistant and resident soccer enthusiast here at Beacon Press. She has been watching the World Cup since 2002 and will be supporting the U.S., England, the Netherlands, and Côte d'Ivoire.
Tomorrow the world will explode. Don't worry; it's not the onset of nuclear war. It's the World Cup, the glorious tourney that occurs every four years and pits nation against nation, creating stories that will last for decades in each nation's history. Games will be won and games will be lost. We will see both spectacular dives and goals that make your heart sing.
Here at Beacon, we have taken a personal interest in the sport, with Steve Wilson's book, The Boys from Little Mexico. Published this month, Wilson tells the story of an all-Hispanic boys' high school soccer team in Woodburn, Oregon, documenting their lives on and off the field. It is an inspiring story of a small-town team transcending racial boundaries and proving the transformative power of sports. For further evidence of the unifying power of sports, one needs to look no further than Côte d'Ivoire, the small West African country and former colony of France.
Fred Pearce is the author of The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet's Surprising Future. He is environment consultant at New Scientist and a weekly columnist and investigative journalist for the Guardian. He has also written for Audubon, Popular Science, Time, the Boston Globe, and Natural History. His other books include Confessions of an Eco-Sinner, With Speed and Violence, When the Rivers Run Dry, Keepers of the Spring, Turning Up the Heat, and Deep Jungle.
I bring good news from Machakos, a rural district of Kenya, a couple of hours drive from Nairobi. Seventy years ago, British colonial scientists dismissed the treeless eroding hillsides of Machakos as "an appalling example" of environmental degradation that they blamed on the "multiplication" of the "natives." The Akamba had exceeded the carrying capacity of their land and were "rapidly drifting to a state of hopeless and miserable poverty and their land to a parched desert of rocks, stones and sand."
As former Liberian President Charles Taylor defends himself against charges of war crimes in Sierra Leone, you should read Philip C. Winslow's post about that's country's brutal civil war here. Winslow wrote the piece after three commanders in that war were found guilty on multiple counts of war crimes.
Angola's decades-long terror often was called “the worst war in the world.” The civil war left as many as 1.5 million people dead and millions more maimed, orphaned and homeless. The description never seemed overstated.
Following a bloody struggle that ended with independence from Portugal in 1975, Angola plunged into a Cold War-fueled regional conflict that eclipsed all that had gone before. The Marxist government of the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) was backed by the Soviet Union, with Cuban fighters and others on the ground. Jonas Savimbi's UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) rebels were armed and supported by the United States and an aggressive, interventionist South Africa. Hopes for peace flickered for an instant before ill-timed elections in 1992; UNITA lost, and Savimbi re-started the war with intensified brutality. This chapter of the tragedy lasted for the next ten years.
Ten years ago this spring an historic international treaty came into force banning antipersonnel land mines. Although the U.S. has not joined the 156 nations who ratified the treaty, American forces have not used antipersonnel mines since 1992, and have destroyed three million stockpiled mines; call it a reluctant phasing out of an indiscriminate weapon that U.S. forces have used since the Civil War.
Now a world movement to ban cluster weapons is gathering pace. It’s possible that this time around the U.S., which has not used cluster munitions since 2003 in Iraq, will join, helping make the weapons and their explosive sub-munitions a military artifact. So far 96 nations have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) and seven have ratified it. The treaty will enter into force on the thirtieth ratification.
Civilian deaths and disabilities from antipersonnel mines have been well documented. The unnecessary suffering and a persistent international campaign brought about the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Treaty. Cluster munitions casualties are less well known, in part because the weapons have been used in fewer countries, about 30. But where they have been used, the terrible wounds and denial of land access have led arms control experts, doctors and civil society groups, under the umbrella of the Cluster Munition Coalition, to demand that this weapon be added to the list of prohibited weapons along with antipersonnel mines, dum-dum bullets, poison gas and blinding lasers.
Although antipersonnel mines and cluster munitions are in different military categories, they have one thing in common: catastrophic results for the civilians who come across them. America’s massive bombing of Laos from 1964 to 1973 still claims casualties today. One is Ta Douangchom. “I was living in a village called Ka Oy . . . in southern Laos. I was a farmer. One day, I was 28 years old at the time, I went out with my two sons to look for food and found a strange object. It looked green.” You can read the rest of Ta’s story here.
The last time I talked with Sierra Leone's war criminals in the terrorized West African country some years ago, they were swaggering, threatening, drunk or confused, and sometimes a mixture of those.
This week in a sterile, glass-enclosed courtroom in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, the swagger had gone out of three of them as they were sentenced to long prison terms for multiple war crimes and crimes against humanity. The sentences were welcomed by veteran human rights activists. "The deadly cycle of impunity is slowly being broken in Sierra Leone and West Africa," Corinne Dufka, the senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in West Africa, told me from Dakar, Senegal.
During Sierra Leone's civil war from 1991 until 2002, armed groups such as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) perpetrated a countrywide reign of brutal terror. The commanders of the RUF and various factions -- Foday Sankoh, Johnny Paul Koroma, Sam Hinga Norman, Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie -- planned and instigated serial atrocities in a nation already flat on its back. Their tools of terror included the mass rape of girls and women, forced marriage, child slavery, and mass amputations, all against a non-hostile people, their own people. The leaders fancied themselves rebels and revolutionaries, but in reality they were criminal mercenaries linked by diamond wealth to Liberia's president Charles Taylor across the eastern border.
Sankoh and his rivals in the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), the Civil Defense Forces (CDF), and the West Side Boys had no recognizable political ideology, and no moral restraints. Lesser figures down the terror chain became victims themselves, such as the child soldiers who were forced to kill their families and were bound to their captors with cocaine, amphetamines and more violence. At the hands of these gangs, tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans were killed, more than two million were displaced, and many thousands more survived with appalling physical and mental wounds.