Al Beck’s Blog: Guardian Online

“Twenty years ago, almost to the day, a previously unheard of tribal chief, seized power in the newly independent state of Kinjii. The coup was unremarkable as these things go, and very soon this new leader settled down as a well-behaved member of the Commonwealth. For several years his respectability, if not his methods, were unquestioned and Kinjii, although not flourishing, prospered in the eyes of the world at least. Its two main exports, copper and bauxite, were amply augmented by a thriving tourist industry. Umtata himself, took to entertaining the rich and famous in style and more than a few respected politicians have holidayed at the Losuda Palace.

Not so in recent times though, about ten years ago, nasty rumours began to circulate that Umtata had particularly nasty ways of dealing with his opponents, and he had taken to believing that his own tribe the Tokani were without parallel. All the top jobs were already with members of his tribe (an indication of his tendencies that most preferred to ignore until too late). Now Umtata has purged the public services and censored private appointments, even those of the multi nationals, who saw no reason to argue with him, since mining here is cheap. Bodies began to appear in the rivers, outspoken people began to disappear, a familiar, if tragic, scenario.

So Umtata and his country were ostracised from the “Jet Set” circuit. He had been a naughty President and his friends no longer wanted to play with him. Nevertheless he was allowed to keep his own toy, his country, to play with undisturbed, just so long as he promised, on a regular basis, to institute the mechanisms of democracy.

It is not often that a reporter in such a backwater country has a story that defeats that quiet obscurity, occur right at his front door, but I have been so lucky! By accident or design the Rebels, whose violent protests have grown more and more vociferous on the international network (as witness the bomb in the Umtata Arcade last year, which killed forty-one people), kidnapped a safari van full of adventurous tourists. It was an understandable mistake, as it is believed that the Rebels wanted the van, not the tourists, and were entitled to expect that the van would be empty, due to a singular lack of tourists in this country at the moment. A family of four – Americans, one English bachelor, an elderly missionary and a rather interesting English couple were victims of this attack. The missionary and one Martin Booth escaped, but the van and the rest of its passengers have not been seen or heard of since, no word has been received of their welfare and no one will speculate as to whether they are dead or alive.

However, what has this to do with my doorstep? Only that the hapless Martin Booth and his fiancé, Josephine Campbell were staying in my bungalow, in my absence, before going on their safari. Booth normally lives in Jonja and so when he got back to Losuda, after the usual debriefing, he made his way to my home. He was preceded by the Army, who very much wanted to talk to him about the fact that it appeared that Miss Josephine Campbell knew one of the Rebel kidnappers. That fact raises the question -what is an English rose, a teacher from Wiltshire, doing knowing one Leo Botaleni a leading Rebel, famed for his relentless dedication to the cause? Umtata would be very glad to find a link between the tourists and the Rebels. It would relieve him of the responsibility of trying to get them back alive. Hence, while I entertained the Army, the High Commission in a manner reminiscent of Hitchcock prevented Booth from getting to my home by slewing one of their cars across the road in front of the pursuing hoardes, enabling Booth to beat a retreat to diplomatically immune territory.

Of course our Government also would very much like to know what the nature of one of its citizens is with a known terrorist. Was the whole thing arranged? Is she a courier? Had she intended to join them, like those who sped to the Spanish Civil War in the Thirties? This seems hardly likely, as she would not really want to take with her so much dead wood. The answer seems perfectly innocent and anyone who has been to college or had contact with any foreign students should, perhaps take heed. While we, in the North, are largely apathetic about politics, in most of the Third World, if you’re alive, you’re involved in politics.

Leo Botaleni studied at Leicester University at the same time as did Josephine Campbell. He was even the Student Union President for one year. There were in the Debating Society together. But it seems that their reunion was not a happy affair and certainly not intended according to Booth. So how many of us know such Rebels? We pride ourselves on inviting people to come to our country to be educated. Or, at least we enjoy spending their money! And with increasing numbers of home grown student unable to pay to be educated here at least there is always the foreign student, whatever their politics. Anyone who researches the subject knows that, on the whole, we choose our candidates not by their ability to study, but by their ability to pay. Most doctors who train here do not return to treat their poor countrymen. They remain in Harley Street or build luxurious hospitals in their homelands, where they practice state of the art medicine that has little relevance to the poverty-stricken dwellers on the streets. Botaleni studied Law. He returned with a trained mind and a knowledge of privilege, but there are few employment opportunities in his country for a well paid lawyer. What else was there for him to do, since he was not of the right tribe, but go for power? Perhaps if we had insisted on teaching him engineering he might now be better employed.

Even so, Umtata is a bloody dictator and perhaps we have taught Botaleni right. Perhaps he should bring down the king of the child soldiers, after all our own public servants have to sign a forty-five page youth safeguarding document. They can’t friend their charges on Facebook for fear of being viewed as a predator, but Umtata can conscript them and use them as ammunition.  Botaleni’s moral compass may well be in the right place, but can we take the consequences? We have spoken of justice and fair play, we have sent back an Englishman a St George to fight the Dragon. Whatever the result of the current fighting, which is now civil war in Kinjii, does our education system really meet the needs of countries like this? Or is it all best left alone?”


© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2010



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