Talking with Norm Rush (page 2)
Talking with Norm Rush
page 1, page 2
What about actual development projects in Africa? What are the biggest obstacles? Corruption, obviously, and nature. But . . .
  There are viable traditional structures in modern Africa through which to address the problems of development and governance, to overcome inequality. These should be fostered. Botswana has done some things very well, including (modern) social welfare programs, fairly effective drought relief, less corruption than you might think. Twenty years ago, a would-be entrepreneur approached a US embassy official in Gaborone: “Who should I bribe?”
     “No, not here.”
     He tried, anyway, and twenty-four hours later he was out of the country. As to development, the [Botswana] Village District Councils, by the ’80s, were performing feebly. A National Service Scheme was set up, in part to re-energize the VDCs by providing trenches of free labor, but that has been mostly ineffective, although I haven’t seen a recent evaluation. Getting the balance right between bottom-up top-down is one of the stress lines in these projects. Donors, their contacts and representatives among the local leaderships, locals, the government, and the basic memberships of the projects often have different and conflicting interests and agendas. Donors need to impress their funders by demonstrating measurable progress according to listed criteria . . . the liaison group among the local leadership has an interest in contriving an appearance of meeting donor criteria, with which they are intimately familiar . . . the government wants to see benefits flowing particularly to its supporters in and around the projects . . . the base membership in the project is at work individualizing benefits rather than collectivizing the fruits of their efforts in the way the donors expect.
  What do you think of recent events in South Africa? Where is Africa on the Western radar screen since “the bust of Socialism”?
  I went back twice to Botswana and South Africa, 1992 was the last trip. I wrote a piece for Grand Street after the first trip back that caught what I felt about RSA. I expected the transition to be far more violent than it ended up being. But South Africa has not so far distinguished itself in terms of enlightened foreign policy initiatives in the region.
     This [“radar screen”] is a profound question. It asks what self-interest-based arguments for an expanded response to the miserable African situation can be made. I didn’t have a satisfactory answer for this when I began writing about Africa, and I still don’t. I knew that Cold War-driven attentions to Africa were destined to wane when the Zweikampf ended, but I was astonished both at the suddenness of the collapse of the Russian empire and the rapidity of the decline in interest in Africa that accompanied it. Africa is a tough sell these days. Pan Africanism as a movement has become a bitter joke.
     A reformulation of your question would be, in what ways might we show the first world that its own ox will be gored by the worsening plight of the third world? The unoriginal thoughts I have on this revolve around African poverty as an incubator for dread diseases that pass across oceans, as a generator of massive flows of illegal immigrants, and so on. First-world self-interest might also perceive the intensification of the identification in many parts of Africa with Islam as a threatening development.
What can you tell me about the new book? You mentioned in the 1993 Herskovits interview that it’s about a suppressed insurrection in Botswana partly modeled after actual third-world insurgencies, that the book is set in 1988–91, the background is the end of the Soviet empire, and that one of the main characters is a displaced Xhosa living in Botswana, and others are a CIA operative and his disaffected wife. Are all those things still true? Have recent events in Africa affected the genesis of the book?
  Most of those are still true.
     I’ve just finished the book. (I’m typing the final draft now.) The original working title was “Kerekang the Incendiary,” new working title “Mortals.” (It, too, will change, I think.) This book is all I’ve been working on for the last couple of years. One of the protagonists is a proselytizing atheist, a Black American doctor living in Gaborone, furious at what he understands to be the foundational dysfunctions introduced into Africa by Christian belief. The principal model for the insurrection in the novel is the Kwilu Rebellion of 1963 to ’65, in Zaire. I was also thinking of the Alice Lakwena insurgency in Uganda, in a later period. The book is based on a love triangle (as Mating was a spin on “boy meets girl”): the doctor, the CIA man and his wife. Set in 1991–92, the story is not affected by recent African events, but it is mightily affected by the failed socialist experiment in the East — the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In your RPCV Writers & Readers 1992 interview, you told John Coyne that the prizes and fine reviews after Mating had done little to change your life. Is that still true or, like Denoon, have you since been guru-ified?
  Not that I noticed. It sounds like fun, though.
  Like many of your readers, I eagerly anticipate the new book and wish you the very best with it.
  NOTE: A second article based on this present interview will appear in the Spring 2001 issue of Friends of Nigeria Newsletter.
  After the Peace Corps, Ron Singer went to the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.d. in English. He has taught at the University of Hawaii, Pace University, and, since 1976, at Friends Seminary, a K-12 school in New York City. Singer has published fiction, poetry, prose satire, and several articles on Africa, in the Friends of Nigeria Newsletter and African Link magazine. He is the author of two librettos and an Introduction to the Bantam Books edition of Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Married, he has one daughter.
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