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30 October 2010

A Woman's Voice That Rose

This month International Women Associates (IWA) in Chicago honored Retired Ambassador Prudence Bushnell as the fourth recipient of the Rising Voice of Woman Award. Before the presentation of the award and her acceptance speech, I had the honor of meeting and speaking with her briefly.   We spoke of only commonplace topics, like had she ever been to Chicago before.

During her acceptance speech, however, she told her story with the theme of urging and praising women who continue to speak out.  She declined to become Ambassador to Rwanda for personal reasons only to become Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under President Clinton, in time to witness the aftermath of the horrific American deaths in battle in Mogadishu, Somalia: the USA hands-off approach to approaching Rwanda violence between the Tutsis and the Hutus, despite her official memoranda back to Washington, her unofficial discussions with persons both in Washington and in Kigali, her pleadings with anyone who might care or benefit from a peace-- all who would not listen.  Sadly, according to Bushnell, the situation in Rwanda was very different from the one in Somalia.  The violence in Somalia involved well-heeled warlords supplying paid soldiers with deadly weaponry and most of those representing the United Nations were unarmed.  In contrast, Bushnell described the perpetrators in Rwanda as highly impressionable youth with time, alcohol and machetes in their hands incited by ambitious fellow countrymen -- both which could have used some adult supervision. 

She became Ambassador to Kenya and was there in Nairobi when the USA Embassy was bombed.  She discovered later that the intelligence community had information that could have at least warned if not prevented the carnage, information that should have but had not been shared with Herself, the Ambassador.  All the while, she knocked her head against a brick wall, but felt supported enough by family, friends, colleagues and mentors, to continue speaking out.   (I cannot recount it as vividly as she did, obviously, but the entry for her in wikipedia does it quite well).  The question was, would the powers that be have listened or done more had she been a man?  The conclusion is, who knows, who cares, what's the difference?  Her point is, always do the right thing and always speak out when you believe the right thing is not being done.

To continue on this excellent point is Gaile Parkin's Baking Cakes in Kigali.

Alexander McCall Smith definitely started an interest in reading about strong African women and the characteristics of speech, thought, custom and viewpoint found in the area/country in which they thrived. I loved the cadence of the speech, mirrored in the cadence of his narratives about Precious Ramotswe as she went about her day, observing, helping those in trouble and drinking red bush tea.  What strikes me enough to mention is that all of these kinds of books are written by white European authors, outsiders who manage an interested but dispassionate eye and ear for what makes this side of the world unique to the rest of us English-language-reading public.

Parkin carries on this new genre of slice-of-life-in-Africa, set in post-1994 "100 Days' Terror."  Angel Tungaraza is Tanzanian, who moved with husband and grandchildren to Kigali, where there was money to be made.  Post-war Rwanda means reconstruction dollars are pouring in from various governments and non-governmental agencies as well as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and goodness knows who else. They live in a complex with many of the foreigners who came to teach, analyse, review, engineer, construct, preside over "unity and reconciliation" hearings, and more.  While Angel's husband teaches at the University, Angel decides she wants to be a "professional somebody," becoming a baker of cakes for all occasions.  With her innate good sense, she plies her trade while being a good neighbor, in the personal as well as the wider sense of pan-Africa, a place in which borders determined by European colonists do not prevent the spread of Ebola or AIDS, nor should they create nationalistic prejudices.  She does this in the backdrop of Rwandans trying to unite, Somalians laying low lest they be harassed as the reason for UN Peacekeepers not intervening in Rwanda, and Egyptians trying to prove that no, Tutsis are not originally from Egypt and yes, Egyptians are pretty decent people.  And, she's going through the Change.  This as yet another of Life's natural yet irritating complications, I must conclude, is symbolic of Woman, Rwanda, Africa and The World, yet the author's more precise meaning eludes me.  That same sense that Ambassador Bushnell conveyed pervades, that many of the Africans are simply childlike and need only some worldwise guidance.  This disturbed me and is only alleviated by the fact that in the book, the "worldwise person" herself is African.  Nevertheless, this is a satisfying read, even more enlightening than McCall Smith's The Ladies' No. 1 Detective Agency, perhaps because the viewpoints are more varied.  And, I did enjoy learning more points of culture and language, of Tanzania, Rwanda, Africa and the World at large.

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