It has taken me two days to absorb the information that President Trump has decided the United States will drop out of the Paris Climate Accord, which was signed with such cheering only last year. I have to wonder how much the President looks around the world that both he and I live in.
The first time I really noticed how a changing climate can affect people’s lives is when I visited Mali in 2003. We flew to the small airport in Timbuktu passing over miles of empty sandscapes. Timbuktu looked like no place else I had ever seen–the buildings are
made of mud or stucco, and the roads and open spaces are covered with sand. It’s impossible to tell whether the roads are paved or not. They curve around the city and our drivers zoomed around buildings, donkeys, children, men in long robes and women in subdued colors walking along the streets. Everything tastes slightly of sand; even the bread had a grittiness from the fine sand that blew into the dough as it was being prepared. Our guide told us that people who live in the city often lost their teeth early because the sand in their food slowly grinds down the enamel.
The following year, I went to Argentina and saw the glaciers of Patagonia. Many of them are now sliding inexorably into the sea. The loud crack of huge chunks of ice breaking off and being swallowed up by the ocean punctuated our trip. Now, more than ten years
later, the ice is breaking off even faster. Huge cracks are appearing in the glaciers of Antarctica. How can anyone believe that climate is not changing?
It’s not as though the idea of climate change hasn’t been discussed for many years. The medieval idea that the world is unchanging and that human beings have no influence on it was challenged more than 200 years ago by Alexander von Humboldt, one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known.
Humboldt traveled to South America in 1800 to explore nature and culture in the Spanish colonies there. When he saw the changes that Europeans has brought to the country by cutting down forests and cultivating lands, he developed his theories of how men affect climate. “When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, …the springs are dried up or become less abundant.” He noted how this allowed the soil to be washed away during heavy rains, causing erosion and a loss of fertile soil. He did not know that in the years that followed his visit, mankind would change the landscape and the climate even more by all the carbon emissions from the cars, airplanes, and factories that people have introduced all over the world.
Knowledge is a slow-growing plant, but Humboldt planted new ideas that have blossomed during the centuries since he started his explorations. In a recent book, Andrea Wulf, has explored Humboldt’s life and ideas in The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in seeing how scientific ideas have developed over the years and how long it takes to persuade people to accept new knowledge and to change their ideas.
The recent five-year drought in California has brought home to me the conviction that we should all think about what we can do to prevent climate change from destroying our fragile planet. Droughts cause deserts to be formed and to expand. A warming ocean creeps up our shores and makes larger and larger areas unlivable. Violent storms eat away at cliffs destroying homes and exposing communities to danger. The cliffs in the picture below are in Pacifica, California.
No matter what our leaders may tell us, all of us as citizens must look for ourselves and decide what we can do as individuals and communities to keep our planet safe for the future.
How difficult it seems to be for Europeans and Americans to visit Africa without being unwanted outsiders. And how easy it is to see why that Africans would feel that way. During the nineteenth century, Europeans visited Africa as explorers and were astonished by what they saw. Mary Kingsley, an intrepid Englishwoman, was one of the first women who traveled extensively in Africa. She started out in the 1890s and wrote popular books about what she observed in a
continent that few Europeans had ever visited. Most of the people she had known in England assumed it was strange, uncivilized and riddled with irrational traditions and superstition. Kingsley recognized better than many explorers and missionaries that African culture, which seemed so strange to Europeans, had developed because it worked for the local people. She understood, for example, why many Africans clung to polygamy. She pointed out that polygamy made sense because “it is totally impossible for one woman to do the whole work of a house — look after the children, prepare and cook the food, prepare the rubber, carry the same to the markets, fetch the daily supply of water from the stream, cultivate the plantation, &c, &c.” (Travels in West Africa, 211).
Kingsley was sympathetic, but she always viewed Africans from the outside, more as a curiosity to be observed than as people to be known. We can excuse her for being so provincial in her point of view, but surely in the more than a century since her books were published, we have learned better. Unfortunately many modern travellers act very much as Kingsley did. A modern tourist descending from a cruise ship or a tour bus will often stare at African women pounding grain while carrying a baby tied to their body with a cloth sling. Most tourists snap picture after picture to post on their Facebook page. But watching tourists snap pictures of people working and going about their ordinary lives is a chilling experience. Should people ever be reduced to objects of curiosity? Haven’t we moved beyond that in the many years we have been traveling around the globe and intermingling with other cultures?
European colonists moved to Africa in large numbers during the 19th century, especially the more temperate areas of Southern Africa such as Rhodesia and South Africa. There grew acclimated to the climate and learned to love the continent. Surely the barriers between the races should have broken down over all that time. Yet recently reading a book written more than 100 years after Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa, I was struck by how little some things had changed in relations between the races. Alexandra Fuller’s memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, is a fascinating account of growing up in a white family in Rhodesia as it achieved freedom and became Zimbabwe during the turbulent years of the late 20th century. I was surprised when I came upon this passage:
And this is how I am almost fourteen years old before I am formally invited into the home of a black African to share food. This is not the same as coming uninvited into Africans’ homes, which I have done many times. As a much younger child, I would often eat with my exasperated nannies at the compound (permanently hungry and always demanding), and I had sometimes gone into the labourers’ huts with my mother if she was attending someone too sick to come to the house for treatment. (pp. 235-236)
Surely after having spent almost all of her life among black Africans, it is surprising to realize the distance between this girl
and the people who lived around her. Naturally a child takes on the attitudes and habits of her parents and mirrors the ways in which they interact with others, but it is sad to see how vast the gulf between black and white Africans even those who have lived as neighbors for years and sometimes generations. Western colonists in all countries seem to have lived in their own small, narrow world side-by-side with, but never truly integrated into the lives around them. And the saddest part of all is that we are still doing it.
Western diplomats, tourists, aid workers and troops travel around the world living sometimes for years in the midst of societies they seldom understand or value. Life in a gated and fortified community can seem much like life in an American suburb, completely remote from the “locals” who we are trying to influence. Americans are famous for not bothering to learn the language of the countries in which they spend time, even long periods of time. Sarah Chayes in her recent book Thieves of State tells us how a lack of knowledge and an unwillingness to listen to local citizens in Afghanistan has led to mistakes and problems that might have been avoided.
How long will it take for us to learn that a global world requires listening and interacting, not just traveling and imposing our ideas wherever we go?
Women from history give us tantalizing glimpses of what life was like for women in the centuries before we were born, but sometimes it’s worth looking at women’s lives through the eyes of men. One of the unlikely observers of women’s lives was the African explorer Mungo Park. Born in Scotland in 1771, Park was hungry for adventure and travel, and he certainly got his fill of those.
In 1795, he got funding from the African Association in London to explore Africa and if possible locate the sources of the rivers that enabled trade to the interior. The Association wanted someone who could provide an accurate map of Africa. Too impatient to wait for the Association to hire the fifty men originally planned to go with him, he left on May 22, 1795, on the brig Endeavor. After sailing for thirty days, the ship arrived at Jillifree, a town at the mouth of the Gambia River in West Africa.
During all of his travels Mungo Park distinguished himself by paying a lot of attention to African life and to learning how tribal societies worked. He admired the strength and courage of many Africans, but disapproved of the way they treated their women. In one village, Mungo saw a ceremony that shocked him. It started when darkness fell and he heard screams from the forest. Soon a masked man appeared and all of the villagers assembled in the central square. The ceremony began with singing and dancing, but even as they danced, the women were afraid. They knew the ceremony had been started by a husband who was angry with one of his wives, but no one knew whose husband it was. At last the masked man pointed to one woman, and men hurried to tie her to a tree. She was beaten as a punishment for not obeying her husband. The women who watched were expected to learn their lesson and be obedient to their husbands after seeing the harsh punishment.
Mungo Park was captured several times during his travels and held as a captive by tribal chiefs who were suspicious of his motives. He escaped successfully from one captivity by sneaking out of his tent in the middle of the night, but found that the harsh landscape was a greater threat than the chief. He walked for miles trying to find a water hole. As the sun rose, the hot sand reflected heat until the sand began to shimmer. Mungo grew dizzy watching it. He had to find a water hole. Climbing a tree gave him a wider view, but there was no sign of a water hole. The land was sandy and desolate as far as he could see. His horse was thirsty, and too tired to carry him. Hoping the horse would survive even if he himself died of thirst, Mungo removed his bridle. As he did that, his dizziness overwhelmed him and he fainted on the sand.
When he recovered consciousness, Mungo realized the horse had not run off but was munching dry grass nearby. The sun was sinking and the sand was a little cooler. Mungo resolved to make another effort to reach water. He led the horse onward in the direction of Bambara. It was now dark, but Mungo could read his compass by the lightning which continued to flash. Finally the rain came—a downpour. Hastily Mungo spread all of his clothes on the ground so the rain could soak them. He quenched his thirst by wringing and sucking the wet cloth. At last his parched throat had some relief. The horse opened his mouth to let the rain fall on his tongue, and Mungo helped by squeezing water into his mouth too. The water gave them strength to move on.
At last he found a Fulani village, but the people refused to give him food. He turned to leave, and noticed a few huts outside the main village. Hoping to find more sympathy there than from more prosperous citizens, he approached them. At the door of one hut, an elderly woman was spinning cotton. He gestured to indicate that he was hungry, and she immediately invited him inside. There she brought him a bowl of couscous left from the night before. In return for her generosity, he gave her a pocket handkerchief. The kindly woman even provided corn for his horse, so Mungo left her hut feeling more comfortable than he had for days.
When at last Park reached the city of Segu and located the Niger River, he felt triumphant, but he found no welcome among local people. The king of the area refused to see him and once again he had to rely on the kindness of women. A woman passing by from her work in the fields she saw how tired and hungry Mungo looked. She invited him into her hut, spread out a mat and told him he could remain for the night. She also prepared food for him and gave him grain for the horse. Then she called the rest of the women of the family together and they continued their work of spinning cotton while Mungo rested on the mat.
As the women spun the cotton they sang, and Mungo soon heard one woman singing a song about him:
“The winds roared, and the rains fell.
The poor white man, faint and weary,
Came and sat under our tree
He has no mother to bring him milk;
No wife to grind his corn.
And all of the women joined in the chorus: “Let us pity the white man; no mother has he”
When Mungo Park finally returned to England, he wrote a bestselling book about his travels in Africa. It remained in print for generations and many people learned from it something about the lives of Africans. The history of the nineteenth century shows that Europeans did not learn enough, but Mungo Park made at least a first attempt in that direction.